John Carter

A Princess of MarsImage

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

In the early months of 2012, my husband and I waited in a movie theater for our film to begin. Trailer after trailer played announcing the upcoming movies, and I turned to him after one and said, “That does not look promising.” The trailer to which I referred was for a movie named John Carter, to be released by Disney. In a tragic display of deplorable marketing, this gem of a movie did not perform well at the box office, though it gained an almost cult following through word-of-mouth reviews. Based on such a recommendation, my husband and I went to see it, and were captivated by the stunning effects and the bewitching story. I noted that the screenplay was based on the John Carter of Mars series of books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, of Tarzan fame. Intrigued, I found that I could download the first five novels at no cost on my Kindle. Thus I set out to see how well this movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, aligned with the novel.

The book began in a similar fashion – a diary directed toward and left for a young nephew of John Carter upon his untimely and strange death. Overall, the plot tracked in a moderately similar fashion, following John’s transportation from Earth to Mars, his initiation into Martian life via the “green men” or Tharks, followed by his introduction to, and subsequent saving of the Helium princess, Dejah Thoris. His out-of-body experience that grants him interstellar travel is rather comical – almost a drug-induced hypnosis and sleep that is very poorly explained. He awakes to find himself in a desert, so he believes, until he encounters the Tharks, green-skinned, exceptionally tall creatures with four arms. They are amazed, as is John Carter, at his ability to leap to great heights and distances, due to the reduced gravity of Mars, and his adaptation to the gravity of Earth. He travels with them, learning their language, and learns that he is actually on Barsoom (Mars)! He handles the shocking news surprising well, and spends little time pining for Earth, probably because he is embroiled in one battle after another.

Eventually, he encounters the “red men” of Mars, divided into two major warring factions – based in the two cities of Helium and Zodanga, respectively. Through a series of adventures, John finds himself saving the princess of Helium and subsequently saving the planet as well, which depends of an intricate system of canals, pumps, and additional machinery to supply water to its inhabitants and to maintain an atmosphere that can sustain life. As in the movie, at the end of the book, John Carter finds himself transported back to Earth via a near-death experience on Barsoom (Mars).

In both the book and the movie, John Carter is a retired cavalryman from Virginia who served bravely in the Civil War. He is a renowned, accomplished fighter, which allows him to pursue his mission of becoming the warlord of Mars (book). In the movie, he is tormented by the tragic death of his wife and family at the hands of Union soldiers during the war, which is a nonexistent back-story in the novels. The movie incorporates additional elements of the Barsoom mythology, introducing the strange race of the Therns, who are not involved in the stories until the second novel in the series. Overall, the movie and the book are both excellent adventure stories in their own rights, with only a few overlapping plot sequences, utilizing the same characters and settings.

The John Carter series has influenced sagas as varied as Star Wars and Avatar, setting a benchmark for high adventure which is difficult to surpass. The series contains at least 10 novels, with additional novellas and short stories adding more adventures. First published in 1917, these novels have influenced generations of novelists, artists, comic book writers, and filmmakers. Pick up the first in the series A Princess of Mars for a rollicking story set on the Mars as it was envisioned in 1917 – a beautiful, romantic, dying world full of life and adventure.

Rating: For those who love high adventure (like me), this book is a must-read, as it influenced much of the cannon that followed (Zorro, westerns, etc.). Easy read and a glimpse into a world where men were brave and true and women were smart and still valued as a treasure worth protecting.

Unjustly Accused?

bonhoeffer waiting to be heard

Waiting to Be Heard

by Amanda Knox

AND Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy

by Eric Metaxas

This blog post may be the first to feature these two accounts side by side, yet I found them both compelling stories – stark in their differences, intriguing in their similarities. To begin, while visiting mutual friends, my husband was presented with Bonhoeffer by my friend’s husband and instructed that he simply must read it. It proceeded to grace his bedside table for numerous months as he skimmed his way through various sections. Somehow, my husband manages to glean and retain amazing amounts of information from perusing a book non-linearly. By contrast, I believe (perhaps erroneously) that the author has structured the book in an organized way to tell an overarching story. Thus, my attacking a book from the front cover all the way to the back, Preface, Introduction, and all. Once he was finished, I picked it up one day as I was dusting. Was it worth it? As a student of German culture and mesmerized, convicted, and challenged by Bonhoeffer’s seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, I determined to read it. Additionally, I had partially completed another of Eric Metaxas’ biographies – the one relating the story of William Wilberforce.

Immediately, I was impressed with the fact that Metaxas’ maternal grandfather was German, and perhaps from him, Metaxas himself speaks, reads, and writes fluently in German. It is implied in the book that he is responsible for multiple translations of Bonhoeffer’s letters and other writings not previously translated. Having studied German myself for years, I admired this additional work on Metaxas’ part to ensure the accuracy of his account of a fascinating life. Beginning at the end, Metaxas begins his account with the confirmation of Bonhoeffer’s death as the news reaches his friends and relations – in Germany, in England, in America. From the outset, his writing is engaging, compelling, with an accuracy of words that is enviable. By far, this is one of the most readable biographies I have picked up. Metaxas paints a broad-brush picture of the Bonhoeffer family, including all of their extended family and numerous, prestigious connections in Imperial Germany, before filling in the characters of Dietrich and his immediate family with finely detailed brushstrokes – direct quotations from their diaries and letters and accounts by friends who visited. Of the 550 approximate pages, 125 are spent detailing his childhood, education, decision to enter seminary, initial position as a pastor to expatriate Germans in Barcelona, and his trip to America in 1930-31. The remaining chapters recount the rise of Hitler, Bonhoeffer’s role in the birth of the Confessing Church, his time spent in England, his return to Germany, his eventual arrest, imprisonment, and finally, his execution at Flossenbuerg.

Metaxas meticulously crafts the reader’s understanding of the dynamics of the Bonhoeffer family, how his childhood, his intellectual training by his parents, and their imperative to form one’s own conclusions first led to his following the call he felt from God to study God’s word, to lead others to Jesus, and to stand for an uncorrupted view of scripture and the church. The extensive use of Bonhoeffer’s own letters, sermons, and diary entries allows an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of a man who deeply loved Jesus and wrestled with some monumentally difficult issues – Is it right to split the church over the persecution of the Jews? What is the church itself? What is the relationship between church and government? Where is a Christian a citizen – here or in heaven or both? Is it morally ‘right’ to break a law which is against God’s law? Is it ever acceptable to murder?

Some vignettes from the book are wrenchingly beautiful. Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancee from prison – he never had the opportunity to marry her, nor to see her outside of the prison after he had proposed. And a lovely little story from his days as assistant pastor in Barcelona – a little German boy comes, crying, into his office. “Herr Wolf ist tod,” he sobs. Bonhoeffer realizes the boy is referring to his precious dog, named “Herr Wolf”, and that he has died. The boy wants to know if he will see the dog in heaven again. Bonhoeffer’s account – “So there I stood and was supposed to answer him yes or no. If I said, ‘no, we don’t know’ that would have meant ‘no’… So I quickly made up my mind and said to him: ‘Look, God created human beings and also animals, and I’m sure he also loves animals. And I believe that with God it is such that all who loved each other on earth – genuinely loved each other – will remain together with God, for to love is part of God. Just how that happens, though, we don’t know.’ You should have seen the happy face on the boy…” This book is brilliantly constructed and fascinating – a must read.

Now, what does Dietrich Bonhoeffer have to do with Amanda Knox, the American college student who was accused of murdering her British roommate while both were studying abroad in Perugia, Italy? When glancing at the books on my bedside table, I was struck by some odd similarities and some distinct differences. Similarities – 1) Both are accounts of lives, 2) Both are compelling, engaging stories, and 3) One could argue that both Knox and Bonhoeffer were unjustly accused and spent time in prison as innocent people. Now, Amanda Knox’s innocence has once more been questioned by the recent Italian Supreme Court ruling upholding her initial conviction on murder charges. Is she innocent? Bonhoeffer was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler, thus his arrest and prison sentence was “just” according to Nazi Party law. Should that apply? What if the assassination plot had succeeded?

Waiting to Be Heard is a book I was not looking for. I noticed it sitting on a neighbor’s kitchen counter while stopping by her house to chat. I immediately asked her about it. “Do you like it? Is it worth reading?” Having studied abroad myself at the age of 20, I felt an affinity for Knox when the news of her arrest and the media frenzy surrounding the case began. However, unable to cut through the quagmire of coverage related to her trial, I contented myself with occasionally reading a report from the most reliable source I could find. I could scarcely wait to read what had been Waiting to Be Heard!

Rarely has a book gripped me similarly. Knowing that the events were real, not fiction, and that they had happened in my lifetime made it that much more gripping. Wanting to study creative writing at the University of Washington, I was proud of Knox for writing a well-crafted, succinct, factual, yet emotional account of her time in Perugia, her initial meeting and relationship with all of her Italian friends and acquaintances, the day of the murder, the investigation, her incarceration, her trial, and her appeal and acquittal. I tried to read it as I would a scientific journal article – asking critical questions, trying not to make judgments where there was a lack of evidence. It would appear that the case against she and her Italian boyfriend of one week (prior to her roommate’s murder) does lack material evidence and a motive (though multiple motives have been devised). I found myself crying out with Amanda for justice.

And that was when a stark difference between the two books hit me – Amanda’s account is completely about maintaining her innocence. I cannot recall an instance in Bonhoeffer’s letters or writings while in prison that he ever discusses his innocence or guilt. Is it because he finds himself in the ethical impossibility of acting with the assassination attempt or not acting and condemning other innocent people to die in concentration camps and war? His writings are about Jesus, while Amanda is committed to her unbelief in God and an unflagging belief in ultimate justice…from where? Bonhoeffer is content to leave his innocence and guilt behind, having had a full view of his sinful nature in the loving light of his Lord Jesus, and to rest in God’s ultimate justice. For Amanda, the only justice worth having is that rendered by an earthly court full of fallible beings, versus the ultimate court we must all one day face, presided over by the Ultimate, Infallible, Just, Loving, True, Omniscient God.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 670 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 11 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

See you in 2014 as I resume writing about literature! I have quite a backlog of books to discuss.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

I realize that a new post has been a very long time in coming! My sincere apologies… I have most certainly not stopped reading, and thus have acquired quite a back-log of summaries and thoughts to be written about a wide variety of books. Here is the first – a book that I read at the end of June, beginning of August:

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

by Kate Summerscale

Immediately after I was married five years ago, I happened upon a book called The Ghost Map, a thoughtful, compelling look at the first true epidemiological study performed in London tracing an outbreak of cholera to the handle of one pump in an impoverished area of the city. While discussing this fascinating book with an acquaintance, she recommended that I read a book by Kate Summerscale detailing the work of one private detective to solve a heinous crime occurring in a middle-class country residence at the height of the Victorian era. I was captivated by Ms. Summerscale’s writing – her depictions of the characters, of the suspects, the peripheral figures, the setting, her detailed analysis of the crime, and the intriguing way in which she allowed the reader to draw their own conclusion as to who was guilty. I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher over two years ago and have eagerly been awaiting a companion book from this gifted author and journalist.

At the beginning of 2012, I hunted online for another book by Ms. Summerscale, and I found that she was to release a new historical mystery in the spring/early summer. I pre-ordered the Kindle edition, and upon arrival, delved into the fascinating world of the Victorian female mind and the outward Victorian morality. The fascinating novel explores the arrival of the affordable divorce in British society in 1857, introduced by the Matrimonial Clauses Act. For the first time, divorce, hitherto an expensive prospect, was now rather affordable for the middle classes. After the court was established in 1858, it was literally flooded with petitions for dissolution of marriage by unhappy couples. One of the first cases that the divorce court heard was the case between Henry Robinson, a civil engineer of some means, and his wife Isabella. His grounds for divorce were charges of adultery against his wife, and as evidence, he and his lawyers submitted her private diary as evidence.

As described by Ms. Summerscale, “her journal was detailed, sensual, alternately anguished and euphoric, more godless and abandoned than anything in contemporary English fiction.” Excerpts from her diary were published in the newspapers, which extensively covered the Robinson divorce case. Astonished and incensed, those who read these excerpts marveled that it appeared that she had invited, documented, and almost welcomed her inevitable disgrace.

Beginning with her first meetings and encounters with her supposed lover, Edward Lane, in Edinburgh in 1850, the book chronicles, with glowing descriptions of settings and detailed insight into their complicated motivations (mostly supposed by reading letters, essays, poems, and diaries written by the key players), Isabella’s infatuation with Edward, her hatred of her husband, and her obsessive documentation of her feelings and events surrounding both men, both real and imagined. Edward Lane was married to Mary Drysdale, daughter of Lady Drysdale, a most inviting, amiable hostess renowned in Edinburgh circles. He was a member of a rather revolutionary circle of medical practicioners devoted to more natural and homeopathic remedies and treatments for their patients. All of their closest friends and acquaintances agreed that Dr. and Mrs. Lane were genuinely happy, treating each other with the utmost respect and love. Even when the scandal with Mrs. Robinson broke due to Mr. Robinson’s accusations against his wife and her lover (and this lover must be named in the court), Mrs. Lane and her mother stood stalwartly beside Dr. Lane.

This book includes fascinating, detailed glimpses of Victorian middle class life – the rise of the diary as a means of recording the utmost secret thoughts, the shunning of and morbid fascination with sex and sexuality, predominant and emerging medical theories of the day, the importance of literature, essays, “readings,” and poetry in society, and the many ways in which women were not afforded a very equal treatment with men. Mrs. Robinson was a highly educated, wealthy woman in her own right, but modern laws at the time settled all of her dowry and inheritances onto her husband. If a divorce was granted, all child custody was almost invariably given to the father. In fact, this knowledge had prevented Isabella from pursuing a divorce from her husband before – she knew that she would likely never see her children again. These fears as well as many other hopes and dreams were recorded faithfully in her diary…alongside erotica the like of which had never been seen in Victorian society before – rivaling the scandalous Madame Bovary. At the present time, these musings would not be at all scandalous, but to society at the time, well-bred people, particularly women, did not even THINK such thoughts.

Just as she did before with The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher, Ms. Summerscale has delivered a thoughtful perspective on Victorian society, unearthing a fascinating, yet very sorrowful, tale that explores love, decorum, constraints imposed by society, and false vs. true morality. Well worth the read!
Rating: A very easy to read exploration of the era right before Downton Abbey. Well worth diving into to look at the effects of sin, real consequences of amorality, and the complexities of discontentment.

Glaciers

Glaciers

Imageby Alexis M. Smith

As confessed before, I enjoy browsing in book stores. Barnes and Noble is a favorite haunt. I have been known to disappear in their fiction section for hours at a time, prior to becoming a responsible, parental adult. Frequently, I pass right over the recommendations provided by the staff, since I commonly find that my taste and theirs in no way aligns. One night, while browsing, one novel caught my eye. A simple cover, a simple title, a small novel. The size appealed to the short story lover in me – the corner of my literary soul obsessed with O. Henry, Poe, and Doyle. Grabbing a copy, I settled myself into a nearby chair to peruse. Would I be gripped?

May I begin by congratulating Tin House on recognizing grace, poise, and literary style in a “new voice”. Ms. Smith’s prose was engaging, succinct, varied, and almost poetic in its cadence. Following a day in the life of a twenty-something library archivist may sound imminently dull, yet the author uses ordinary circumstances and commonplace sights to evoke powerful emotional images. Her characters are deeply drawn and in the course of 18-20 hours wrestle with attraction, longing, loss, death, joy, and spiritual fate. Her characters are idiosyncratic enough to be neighborly, rather than hackneyed caricatures.

In keeping with the life most of us know, Ms. Smith’s main character, the librarian, Isabel, interacts with three or four immediate secondary characters, with a larger circle comprising the remainder. The reader is afforded myriad glimpses into Isabel’s dreams, her imaginings, her day-dreams, her thoughts. Such author-omniscient writing rounds Isabel into an absorbing young woman who enjoys her job, has a fascination with old things – everything from books to dresses to aprons – and who thinks and feels deeply about others. The day begins with birds and tea and ends with a party, and a whole life unfolds within those intervening hours. And how real – for how many hours of our day are spent remembering, imagining, wondering? More than perhaps we know…

The novel begins with a vignette which establishes the theme for the remainder of the book.

“Isabel finds a postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne. It is a photograph of tall houses on a canal, each painted a different color, pressed together and tilted slightly, like a line of people, arm in arm, peering tentatively into the water. The picture has a Technicolor glow, the colors hovering over the scene rather than inhabiting it.

She turns the postcard over, expecting nothing – an antique white space never utilized – like others on the rack, bought decades ago on long-forgotten vacations, and never mailed. But Amsterdam had been stamped; Amsterdam had been posted. The postmark is dated 14 Sept 1965 and there is a message, carefully inscribed:

Dear L –

Fell asleep in a park. Started to rain. Woke up with my hat full of leaves.You are all I see when I open or close a book.

Yours, M

Isabel stands before the rotating metal rack for a long time, holding the postcard, re-reading the message…She imagines the young woman…how much she must have longed for him to say more.”

The simplicity and sweetness of the imagery of the foreign meeting the domestic, the separation of lovers who cannot truly be separated by physical miles, the yearning and longing – these comprise the theme of the whole novel. Ms. Smith deftly weaves Isabel’s past remembrances with her events in one day to culminate in her evening at a party where those remaining revelers retire to tell tales, and she is tasked with telling a story of longing. Her day has been underscored with it – her longing to visit Amsterdam, her longing for her soldier/co-worker Spoke, the longing between “M” and “L” in her cherished postcard. This longing is not the oft seen malcontent so apparent in modern fiction – it is a deeper soul-yearning for something better – for love, truth, companionship, peace. And it does not end in a candy-wrapped finale – none of these longings are fulfilled. The reader only finds that they are an intrinsic part of Isabel, just as each of our dreams are a hidden part of us. So comforting to know that we can trust the One Who gave us those dreams!

Rating: Excellent new fiction, and a swift read. Only 174 pages – small pages, wide margins. Yet this little book is packed with enjoyable reflections. It’s like eating green beans with a wonderful sauce – you won’t even realize you’re eating something healthy.

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding

by Chad Harbach

Perhaps I should begin with a confession: I am not a big fan of baseball. I know that it is THE American pastime, and I did enjoy watching my little brother play Little League. Still, baseball always incorporated too much lag time for me to appreciate the thrill until my husband recently introduced me to Phillies baseball. (Much to the chagrin of my Braves-loving family.) As he and his family began to explain some of the strategy with coaching, signing, drafting, trading, batting orders, and even the statistics of the game, I realized the complexity and understood how people could become engrossed. Therefore, when a friend (who will soon be a guest contributor – Yay!) recommended that I pick up Chad Harbach’s award-winning novel, I decided to give it a try.

The author adeptly handles the viewpoints of at least four primary protagonists throughout the novel, shifting viewpoints of events with ease. Henry Skrimshander catches the eye of veteran baseball player, Mike Schwartz, as their teams play each other in one of the final games of the season. Henry fields the ball from the shortstop position with an effortlessness and ease that astounds Mike, prompting him to recruit Henry to play with him at Westish College in Wisconsin. From there, the novel traces the meteoric rise and just as devastating fall of Henry’s college career, coupled with Mike’s angst at being a senior and graduating. The president of Westish College, Guert Affenlight, discovers a new and dangerous love, and his estranged daughter, Pella, comes to the college to reconcile with her father.

Harbach deftly weaves a gripping tale through the laces of a baseball glove. The Westish baseball team is at the core of the novel. Henry’s record as an error-free shortstop garners the attention of recruiters and the press from across the nation. That is, until Henry throws one erratic ball to first base, and ends up hitting his best friend and roommate, Owen, injuring him badly. The game is called immediately, meaning that Henry’s error-free status remains intact, but he is not the same player. The remainder of the novel follows his futile, odd, and frankly stupid attempts to regain his focus and purpose in life. Mike Schwartz, as Henry’s recruiter and self-appointed coach, leaves him stranded and alone in this moment, for Mike is dealing with his own disappointment. He applied to five different Ivy League law schools, only to be rejected by all of them. What is he to do next year? Wallowing in self-pity and a sea of prescription drugs that he abuses, Mike is not the friend Henry needs.

And in the middle stands Pella, the president’s estranged daughter, who ran away with and married one of her guest lecturers at her private prep school. His squelching, quenching personality almost literally drove the life out of his young wife, so three years later, she flies home to her father to mend bridges. Except, when she arrives, she discovers that her father is preoccupied with a new, awful, dastardly love interest. Still seeking, she ends up dating, sleeping with, and really enjoying the company of Mike Schwartz. After Henry’s final mental breakdown, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, she sleeps with him too. Was she trying to help him? Thought it would make him “feel” better? Perhaps someone can help me out here… Of course, Mike finds out, Henry quits the team, and the deteriorating climax of the novel begins.

Guert Affenlight’s love interest is none other than Owen, Henry’s roommate, or “Buddha” as his teammates call him. Brilliant when it comes to all things academic or coercive, Owen exudes grace on the field and off. He is openly homosexual, though Guert has never recalled such feelings before. I’m not even going to deign to list all the issues apparent in this “relationship”. Guert is found out to be having a liaison with a student, and is going to be quietly forced to resign, then succumbs to a latent heart condition.

What saddened me most as I read this novel was the complete lack of trust or betrayal of trust evident in all of the relationships. Henry did trust Mike, then reneged on that trust when Mike became more distant. Pella and Mike didn’t even appear to bother with trust until they both became deeply injured by the others’ actions and words towards them. Guert and Owen danced around trust gracefully, but at the end Guert wasn’t really sure if Owen sacrificially loved him. Pella could never trust her father for anything, even something as simple as being on time for a dinner together. Are these broken trusts a commentary on our society and its “take what you can get, live for the moment” mentality?

The writing was concise and evocative, aptly depicting our rapidly shifting thoughts. Much of the development of the novel takes place inside one of the protagonists’ heads, showing the progression of thoughts and the utter damage of believing lies. Pella has to medicate herself to prevent lies from gripping her completely. I heartily applaud Mr. Harbach for spinning an engaging tale with winning characters using only baseball and a university campus as a background. The paucity of the setting actually lent itself to the author’s objective, which to me seemed to be delving into the minds and hearts of people. They all suffer trials, large and small, how do they handle them? What do they think? How do they treat others as a result?

I’ll admit, I was disappointed at the ending. And I was horrified (yes, that is the appropriate word) at the homosexual sex scenes, which I presume are graphic because I skipped over them. Because of the latter alone, I cannot endorse this novel, which saddens me, because it is a well-written piece depicting the lack of trust that leads to lack of hope. Therefore, a cutting depiction of our society today. The whole time, I kept thinking, “It is true, isn’t it – that true rest, peace, hope, and trust can only be found in You, Lord Jesus?”

Rating: Long novel – would take about a month of slow-paced reading. Well-written but containing a lot of homosexual romance. Prolific swearing. For someone so deft with words, I wish that Mr. Harbach had left those out, even if he felt like it was advancing his characters. He only seems to have demonstrated that college has not helped their vocabularies or anger-management skills.

To Marry An English Lord

To Marry An English Lord

by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace

While still a young girl, yet perfectly positioned upon the precipice of adolescence to revel in the romantic, my generous grandparents took me to Savannah, Georgia and the outlying barrier islands. Jekyll Island was once a playground for the American aristocracy of the Gilded Age, covered in the shells of mansions, clubs, gardens, and bathing resorts. The story-teller in me was captivated by the wealth and grandeur that had once been on display there, but my secret desire to know more of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans was not quite satiated until this year…until a series of events led me to read this captivating account of the many American heiresses that accomplished the ultimate American dream – to marry a prince (or a lord). This sequence of events began in February when my younger sister was appalled to learn that I had never seen, nay, was completely oblivious to the show Downton Abbey. Downloading the complete first season on Netflix, my husband and I were both hooked. A period drama beginning in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, the show continues to track the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants through the tumultuous years of World War I and beyond. Being completely obsessed, I began to watch interviews with the show’s writer, Julian Fellowes, who referenced a book that he had been reading when asked to write Downton Abbey. The book, To Marry An English Lord, inspired his character, Countess Cora, and influenced some of the story elements.

I was elated to find that this book contained detail upon detail of the daily lives and choices of some of America’s wealthiest citizens in one of its wealthiest eras. While taking American history, I waited anxiously to find snippets of detail about America’s elite from 1870-1910, but was left disheartened by random facts, the anti-trust laws, and profiles of presidents and political figures who had little to do with the society about which I longed to read. This book actually hints at why that might be. Money and politics were quite divided in that era (is that still the case? Ha!), a fact which shocked many of the British nobles who came to the New World seeking money…and a bride.

Beginning in 1860, with Albert Edward, Crown Prince of Wales’, tour of the United States and Canada, the book describes Albert’s (later Edward VII) fascination with American women, which the authors argue began during this tour while he stayed in New York. The balls and festivities were lavish, the women stunning and charming, and Albert was a most impressionable nineteen years old. The premise of this book hinges on the argument that Albert’s preference and predilection for American beauties led to their acceptance and welcome into the upper echelons of British society, which precipitated their ability to marry dukes, earls, and barons. One wonders if so many of the British aristocracy would have gone money-hunting in New York society had they not felt sure of their monarch’s endorsement of the potential match.

Following the description of Albert Edward’s tour of New York, the book launches into a detailed description of the societies of both New York and London in 1870. The contrasts are remarkable. New York was very solemn, very sober, very staid. Rows upon rows of stately brownstone homes lined the streets. One did not flaunt one’s abundant riches – everyone who was anyone simply knew how wealthy you were. Mrs. Astor reigned supreme and she devised (with the assistance of a Mr. Ward McAllister) an elaborate scheme to prevent upstart “new money” from tainting the established pool of “acceptable” society. Twenty-five families, called the Patriarchs, were chosen to be the core group, who could then invite four to five ladies or gentlemen to balls with them, vouching for their character. In short, New York society was exclusive, limited, and boring for those not included in the set. By contrast, London society under the patronage of Albert Edward was lavish, extravagant, and welcoming to all those with obscene amounts of money, no matter how “new” or from where it came. Because society in Britain is based on the Peerage, no one could be threatened by the addition of “new money”. You either were or you were not a Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, or Baron. The book does a remarkable job of detailing the British Peerage, the differences between a Duke and an Earl (Duke is highest, only 27 of them, followed by Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron), the precedence assigned to each, the London “season”, and the impetus that drove the initial exodus of women from New York first to Paris and on to London.

The Jerome family, with three daughters, were prime candidates for leaving New York for calmer, more welcoming seas. Clara Jerome was rightfully concerned that her three daughters would never make advantageous marriages in New York society since her husband, Leonard Jerome, was known as a philanderer, garnering the stigma of Mrs. Astor “not knowing” the family. Ellen Yznaga also had three daughters, and fearing for their futures, took them abroad. Her daughter, Consuelo, married the Duke of Manchester; while Jennie Jerome, the middle of the three Jerome sisters, married Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. You may know their second son – his name is Winston. These early American “invaders” found an effusive welcome in London society, with most of them marrying into the ranks of the British nobility. Shock waves hit both British and American shores. In America, Great Britain was still viewed with wariness and disdain, as a grasping empire waiting to enfold the United States. In England, America was viewed as a backwater full of savages, reprobates, and forests. Within decades, America and Britain were intimate allies, Anglomania had struck American upper-class society, and impoverished British nobles were wife-trolling in the ample waters of American dollars.

Following the “pushy mammas” who dragged their daughters into more accepting society came the “self-made girls,” beautiful women with large fortunes but no family background. Hearing of their predecessors’ successes, they high-tailed it to the Continent, often dragging Mama and Papa in tow, as chaperones and money to pay the bills. Their hey-day was the 1880’s, and both the “buccaneers” above and the “Self-Made Girls” became characitures in many works of fiction, including works by Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad), Henry James (Portrait of a Lady and others), and Oscar Wilde. Their achievements culminated in the marriage of Mary Leiter to the Honorable George Curzon, the eldest son of the 4th Baron Scarsdale. His political aspirations took the couple to India, where his political prowess and intelligence secured him the position of viceroy of India, making Mary the second most powerful woman in the British Empire, after Princess Alexandra herself! Mary was the daughter of a very wealthy man, who contributed many millions of dollars (times 33 for inflation = ~66 million) in real estate and cash to the marriage, but the family had no established name, even in America. She was the quintessential “self-made girl”. Her love and devotion to George, coupled with her intelligence and loyalty, won over her rather mercenary husband, and they were one of the few indubitably happily married couples.

Such a move by the handsome, socially prominent George Curzon precipitated a landslide of impoverished British nobility sweeping across the Atlantic to New York. The year 1895 was the culmination of the American heiress, with nine being married to British peers. The most famous of these was the wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, a position for which she had been groomed from infancy by her grasping mother, Alva Vanderbilt. Much is known of her upbringing, wedding, and marriage because she documented these events in her memoirs following her divorce from her husband “Sunny” and subsequent re-marriage. The splendor, pomp, and grandeur of these weddings makes the mind reel, even today.

Allow me to list many wonderful elements of this book: 1) it does not remain content with documenting the hundreds of ladies who moved abroad – it delves into the fashions of the time, detailing the work and craft of Mr. Worth, who outfitted almost all of these ladies in 80 dresses per woman per season. Again, the mind reels. This book discusses the work and influence of John Singer Sargent and Henry James, bosom friends and Americans who were also accepted into the inner circle of King Edward’s Marlborough House Set. 2) The layout is fascinating, with side-bars and intervening boxes filled with titles and information on such random things as “The Newport Schedule” (Newport Beach was the ultimate retreat of the ultra-wealthy), “Calling Card Protocol”, “The Louis Fixation”, profiles on various “Wall Street Fathers”, and much, much more. Indeed, all of these side-notes made it difficult to read with the Kindle version. I was quite confused about all of the jumping around until I purchased the print edition, and then I understood. 3) This book does not stop with the weddings, but continues on to the marriages, the children, the divorces, the re-marriages, the deaths. How the authors managed to pack so much interesting and diverse information into 320 pages is remarkable. 4) This book is brimming with photographs and maps, which make the stories come to life. It is fascinating to read about Mary Leiter Curzon and Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough while looking at their pictures, their husbands, and their homes.

While reading this, I was amazed time and again at the money spent by these people on parties, on clothes, on weddings, on marriages. It was not uncommon to drop $60 million (in today’s money) on a ball or $1-3 million twice a year on a winter and summer wardrobe. The judgmental nature within me struggled – “How could they throw so much money into such trivialities when labor wages were so awful, working conditions were atrocious, child labor was the norm? How could they care so little for others?” Then I checked mid-thought. How are they any different than we are today? Are we really child-labor and slave free? (To follow up on this, check out http://www.free2work.com and http://www.thea21campaign.org) Are we really more giving, more generous, less lavish, less selfish? No, when I know that human nature does not change – that we are messed up in our core, and only Jesus and His Holy Spirit can change that. No, when I know that corporations may spend millions to billions of dollars on P.R. campaigns or internal parties. No, when there are how many billionaires in the world?

Parting thrust – faced with the ultimate romance of all – marrying an English lord – I could not help but almost weep at the emptiness of these women’s (and men’s) lives. Their historical actions attest to this more loudly than ever their words could. More money, more lavishness, more grandeur, more novelty, greater titles, striving ever onward and “upward.” No contentment to be found anywhere within these covers. Very little love is displayed, no sacrifice, no honor or courage. Thus, the most valuable jewels in the world cannot be bought with worldly riches – love, contentment, wisdom, patience, selflessness. They only come from the bleeding hands of the Greatest Prince, Who gives them freely to His bride.

Rating: Fascinating read. Not fiction, but the true stories are almost stranger than fiction (cliche, I know). Excellent for those who only have snippets of time, as the book is divided into myriad little sections of information that you can read one page or 50 pages at a time.

White Dove

For those of my readers interested in something I’ve written…albeit not very recently. Those more recent vignettes I’m saving for a rainy day…

Rustling breezes dipped and swirled through the dense foliage of the ancient oaks towering over the downtown park. Glimmers of light danced upon the objects below, glints of flickering luminescence twirled along grass, paths, benches, people…her. She sat clutching a rumpled, crushed brown-paper bag in both hands, grasping it as if no other possession, no other material, mattered. Her frayed gray hair protruded in wisps from the edges of a dilapidated, Goodwill hat. Her eyes quivered excitedly as she scanned the nearly deserted park, searching for signs of doves, signs of hope.

Other men and women sat, reclined, relaxed upon the park benches, some casually tossing scraps of leftover meals to eager, anticipating birds. Others broke pieces of their sandwich bread to gently place in front of the fluttering fowls. Still others angrily drove the birds away with naught excepting curses, and perhaps a few well-thrown stones. Everywhere, pidgeons and doves flocked around benches, everywhere save where she sat. No bird came near, no birdsong whistled in the trees overhead.

She surveyed the contents of her cherished brown-paper bag. Filled to the brim. Dainty delicacies, which any bird would crave – soft bread, collected seeds, a bit of love. For she had always loved birds, the way their wings beat them aloft to soar far above her troubled world. As a girl, she had longed to be beautiful, windswept, tameless, as the birds she saw. She had shoved her food around and around on her plate, saving the choicest morsels for school the next day – for recess, when her birds would come. But none had come. Ever.

Everyday, she had clasped her bag, filled with what was supposed to be her lunch, and hurried to the playground. Everyday, she had seated herself on the one bench under a spreading sycamore, and waited…and waited. For birds that never appeared. Oh, they had skimmed in and out of her small world. Sometimes, they had even alighted near another small child and twitted happily. But on her bench, she was always alone. As the birds had avoided her, so too had her classmates.

She had never been pretty. Mousy, kinky, brown hair shoved hastily behind one ear, falling  over one eye sans barette. Small, squinty eyes hidden behind glasses thicker than marbles. No, she had never been pretty, and she had never been smart. She had only loved her birds. Not that she knew anything about love. Ashamed of her, her parents had mostly ignored her, leaving her with only dreams of birds and of the love, the peace, she believed they could bring her. Her mother had often berated her for her endless obsession, and had punished her cruelly for her daily kindness towards them – her unrequited kindness.

Time had flown on the wings of her birds. Everyday had been spent searching desperately for a glimpse of a bird – any bird. High school – depressing, work – thankless, life – hopeless. Finally, as she had rushed to her oppressive work, a shadow flitted across her face. A dove. Of all birds, this was her favorite – especially the white. She held a rather pagan reverence for them, believing them to be the omens of good things to come. That day, her bag of crumbs tucked into a lonely, forgotten corner of her purse, she had felt the feathery lightness of a white dove’s wings on her cheek. A fragment of heaven, she had breathed. ‘Twas on that day she had met him.

With his glistening yellow eyes – like a hawk’s, she had thought – and his handsome, demure manner. Him, the only creature save her birds that she had ever loved – truly, unguardedly loved. Others had scoffed, unbelieving when she announced their engagement. Her parents had flatly refused to attend a “charade” as they called it. She was deluding herself, her colleagues warned, what could possibly tempt him? Me, she had always whispered to herself, he’s found out about my birds, the window to my soul. She had seen more birds in those few blissful weeks, than ever before. They had floated like visions before her, weaving the first threads of peace and contentment her life had known. Her dress had been white – like a dove’s wing.

Then, he was gone. Gone like the shade he was, flitting in and out of her life, leaving behind the torture and pain – cutting, wrenching, agonizing pain.  Even her birds were no comfort. Now she saw neither white doves, nor any birds at all. They all left with him. She had lain on her bed and sobbed, until her tears had forever run dry. Never again did she see a white dove, never again did she love or hope, she was a husk – one of the soulless.

Now as she scanned the various people around her with hollow eyes, she identified the birds each was feeding. The old, homeless man who slept on the chair next to the statue of Jefferson humbly knelt before a red-breasted robin. This robin was his untiring companion, ceaselessly singing the old tramp to sleep, hospitably sharing his corner of the park, offering his unswerving loyalty. She breathed an enormous sigh. Here came that lady jogger who most certainly was CEO of whatever company she worked for. Her professional, hard demeanor spilled into the way she jogged, each leg pounding, punishing, and in the way she swept the park creatures casually aside. As her piston-legs pumped past, the old woman glared at the jogger – for she held no one in more contempt than this arrogant lady with her cool disregard. She does not deserve a bird. An elderly couple seated amongst the shady elms further down the sidewalk threw myriad crumbs to a host of gathered birds. Yet their smiles rested more upon each other than the flocking park sparrows. Perhaps they often see doves.

Again, she surveyed the contents of her rumpled bag. Years had weathered, faded the original brown to a dull, tanned, dun shade. As she stared at her meager offering for her idols, her thin lips began to quiver and her eyes filled with blank hopelessness. Rustling, the bag came close to ripping as she roughly forced it open. She dumped the collected seeds, bits of bread, shreds of love through her spread fingers, feeling the brushing softness of ungathered blessings. The bits and crumbs collected in a pitiful pile between her worn shoes and stuck to the moist warmth of her hand. She moved to wipe away the last trace of crumb, the last love of birds.

A flash, a flicker of white, settling, feeding, cooing. She gazed in profound wonder at the miracle before her. There, upon her ugly, wrinkled hand perched a perfect, flawless white dove. It surveyed her with deep, brown eyes – soulful eyes that penetrated and rejuvenated. She sat transfixed by its beauty, its sheer wonder, feeling a presence breathe into her, one long gone. She laughed.

© 2012 Heather C. Morris

No portion of this writing may be reproduced except with the express written consent of the author.

Up All Night

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

My family and friends will tell you that one of my favorite pastimes is leisurely browsing through a bookstore. While studying abroad in London, I made a habit of walking wherever I could, poking into side streets, marveling at abrupt changes in architecture, and stumbling across marvelous used bookstores. In one, I will never forget pulling a copy of Peter Pan off of a shelf, only to look at the fly-leaf, realize it was a first edition, and priced at 300 pounds! Breathing heavily and attempting to not drip sweat on the cover or leave finger oil on the pages, I hastily replaced that book. Not long ago, I was more safely ensconced in Barnes and Noble, strolling through the aisles, and I came across a novel with a fantastic cover. I know, I know, “never judge a book by its cover.” But, as with the adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” some words of wisdom are mere lies. Such with the cover of books. I have found, in my years of perusing, that novels with clean covers, simple lines, well planned graphics are often worth the read. Then I scanned the synopsis in the inner flap of The Night Circus, and I was beyond intrigued. I was gripped.

As an initial commendation, the novel is set in the time period my husband and I refer to as “the golden age” – 1880-1910. (For those Downton Abbey fans out there – this should pique your interest as it did mine). Secondly, the premise sounded like a unique hybrid of what I know of The Hunger Games and a movie that I enjoyed, The Prestige. The plot revolves around two young magicians trained in magical illusion by competing masters. Once both players are deemed ready, the masters contrive an elaborate stage for the ultimate duel between their students – a dual of endurance, sustaining more and more illusions, weaving ever greater enchantments until one or the other dies of the strain. Sinister, eh? In drops the first twist – the two students are Marco and Celia, and they do not actively compete, rather, they fall in love.

Their stage of performance is an “actual” (real in the sense of real in the time period world of the novel) circus, funded, backed, produced, and decorated by the greatest entertaining minds in Britain at the time. This cast of fictional engineers, decorators, and theatrical producers is an integral part of the plot, finding themselves caught in this web of illusion and the snare of the game which must be played out until the desperate end. The circus is comprised of the greatest feats and entertainments to be had at that time. Ms. Morgenstern stays very true to the plausible of what might have been possible during the late 1800’s, which is gratifying. Celia is the illusionist hired to entertain in the circus proper. She travels with the other circus members, interacting with the woman who adores Marco and met him first, Isabel, the fortune teller. Marco, meanwhile, is trapped at the home of the circus manager, Cristophe Lefevre, as his right-hand man, the coordinator and mastermind of the circus concept.

This novel haunts and engages a reader though so many diverse elements. First, the magical descriptions. Ms. Morgenstern is a master manipulator of the senses. She depicts scents, tastes, and textures as well as sights and sounds. All combine for some of the most complete descriptions I have read in modern literature. Second, the circus is only held at night after the sun has set. All the way until dawn. What a unique, novel idea and the ideal setting for a magical duel. Third, the duel involves no magical flashes of lightning or direct contest between the two opponents. For the majority of the book, Marco and Celia have no idea who their opponent is. They proceed to fall in love, and are devastated to discover that one or the other will perish at the conclusion. Their dual is rather adding tents and delights to the circus-goers. One is a Labyrinth, where both Marco and Celia add rooms. Celia adds a Wishing Tree, Marco adds an Ice Garden. Many are designed to delight and entrance the other, as declarations of their love.

The finale is compelling and worthy of the story crafted by Ms. Morgenstern. I repeatedly told friends that it was intoxicating to find a book so well told with a plot so engaging as to not be able to guess where it was tracking. Each character was well defined, each plot twist plausible and necessary. How rare, how savory! And some of the quotes from this novel – they are Truth and therefore, praise-worthy. Ultimately, this book is about self-sacrificial love, about dying to dreams and selfish hopes in order to preserve the best interests of others. Well done, Erin Morgenstern – I will devour your next book as well.

Rating: I am about ready to begin reading it right over again! In fact, I bought the Kindle edition, but now I think I’m going to buy a hard copy, since this is one I will return to over again. Note: Marco and Celia never officially marry – you’ll see why – and there is one sex scene (not descriptive). But for full disclosure, I should mention that. Looking for a book to keep you up all night and make you feel like you’re reading literature – The Night Circus is it!

P.S. – Erin Morgenstern has a website (see sidebar) where you can read eleven sentence vignettes which she writes to accompany pictures taken by an artist friend. She does these every Friday. Some are true gems.