Thursday, December 29, 2011

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

After reading the rave reviews for this book and deciding that I needed to make some forays into contemporary fantasy, I checked it out of the Speed Reads—one week to finish and then a fine of twenty-five cents a day.

I've always liked the circus and find the stories of people who join the circus fascinating. Morgenstern weaves a tale that utilizes the magic of the circus as a backdrop for a wager between two magicians—Hector and Alexander. Each conjurer thinks that he is the superior prestidigitator. Hector bets that his daughter, Celia, can compete and win against any student Alexander sets up against her.

They don't know the boundaries of the contest—where it will take place or even how the winners will be determined. Even the two children will not know of the contest.

Each conjurer prepares their charge, often in frightening ways. Hector breaks Celia's bones and cuts her fingers so that she can learn to mend things. Marco, Alexander's charge is taken from an orphanage and spends years reading. Neither child has a normal upbringing—they lack friends, family and love.

In order to tie everything together and move the plot along Morgenstern conjures up a theatre producer who wants to create an entertainment that envelopes the viewer and is unlike any previous circus. And the circus that emerges in 1886 is unlike any other circus. It is easy to become so infatuated that you never want to return to ordinary time.

It is in this circus that Marco and Celia, as adults, work. Celia transforms things while Marco tends the white bonfire that is the engine of the entire production.

Setting this up allows Morgenstern to involve herself in utter play—things shift and are transformed. But even with these wonderful enchanting delights there's an ominous sense about the entire circus.

Obviously, if you've been brought up on fairy tales, you know that Marco and Celia will fall in love and that will complicate the test.

Despite the engaging characters and the magical sequences and the ominous signs, something is missing. The lead characters in the pageant need to be better developed especially as the story moves ahead and everyone involved with the circus realizes that it all may implode at any moment.

Dark Tide by Stephen Puelo

What happened on January 15, 1919 wasn't a surprise to many of the people who were in close proximity to the huge tank that held two million gallons of molasses. To others the spilling of that molasses through the streets of Boston's North End came as a shock, The force of the molasses took twenty-one lives, leveled buildings and tore apart part of the overhead rail trestles.

In time a trial involved hundreds of witnesses and years and years of hearing testimonies.

Puelo describes the history of molasses in this country from the Triangle trade —rum, slaves and molasses to the use of molasses for munitions. Molasses was an essential component of the munitions industry and significant money could be made by being the supplier of distilled molasses. When the "industrial grade molasses" was distilled into alcohol it was widely used in the manufacture of explosives. With the world embroiled in WWI the need for explosives was high.

The huge tank was built by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company in 1915— the company was intent on providing the necessary molasses quickly and garnering huge profits. Because there were shipments of molasses arriving the final construction of the tank was hurried and normal, for that time, safety precautions were eliminated. Instead of filing the tank up with water to check for leaks and weak areas, the tank was only minimally filled. The amount of water used would not be sufficient to uncover structural weaknesses.

From the beginning it was obvious that there were issues with the tank. Molasses seeped out of of seams and ran down the sides of the tank. Neighborhood children often took pails to the tank and filled them up with the dripping molasses.

Puelo traces the stories of some of the immigrant families living in the area. They were poor, without power, and unable to stand up to the mega company. One man, Gonzales, who worked for the company heard groaning inside the tank and was so concerned about the danger of a rupture that nightmares kept him awake. He often ran through the North End streets to the tanks's location to check up on the tank and assure himself that it wasn't going to erupt—that night.

The company, attempting to disguise the leaks, had the tank painted the color of molasses —thus making the leaks less obvious. Several times they had the seams strengthened, but to no avail.

This time period is one of increased visibility for the anarchist movement. Luigi Galleani was deported, Sacco and Vanzetti's trial and subsequent execution claimed the headlines of newspapers across the country as did the bombing of the New York stock Exchange in 1920.

The judge for the ensuring civil suit was Hugh W.Ogden. He listened to hundreds of hours of testimony. The defense attempted to lay the spill at the feet of the anarchists who they said placed a bomb within the tank. The plaintiff's attorneys decreed that maladroitness and greed were the causes of the spill.

By the end of the trial 25,000 pages of transcripts were generated detailing the arguments. Hugh Ogden ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and held the company liable.

While the book sometimes meanders, the subject itself is riveting.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wrap-Up for Mystery and Suspence Reading Challenge 2011

January--The Chinese Lake Murders by Robert Van Gulik

February--City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

March--Gone by Mo Hayder

April--March Violet by Philip Kerr

May--Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

June--Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis

July--Down River by John Hart

August--Reservation Roadby John Burnham Schwartz

September-- Iron House by John Hart

October--Murphy'sLaw by Rhys Bowen

November--Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

December--The Body In the Sleigh by Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Sleigh by Katherine Hall Page

I often read one particular mystery blog and occasionally pick up one of the suggested mysteries. For several weeks prior to Christmas lists of books appeared--the commonality--a connection to Christmas. And that's how I picked up The Body in the Sleigh by Katherine Hall Page.

The first book in this series dates back to the early '90s; however, it was easy to pick up on the relationships in this her fifteenth or sixteenth book. Faith, a minister's wife, and her husband and two children are on an island , probably Deer Isle, in Maine. Tom, a minister, is recovering from an illness, and instead of being in a pulpit over Christmas he along with his family are staying at their summer vacation home in Maine.

Faith discovers a dead woman in a sleigh. The body isn't of a stranger, but of someone well known to the community of 3000 all year dwellers. I gather that Faith makes a habit of coming across bodies.

A parallel story , which by the end of the book dovetails with the dead woman's story, concerns Miriam and Mary. Miriam is Christopher's mother. Mary , a rather reclusive woman in her early forties tends goats and makes homemade goat cheese and has never married. During the summer she runs a B & B where you not only get a room, but you can also partake of farm-like activities which include taking care of the goats.

Mary discovers that someone has left a newborn wrapped in an afghan in her home. The child's name -- Christopher. The mother also left $50,000 in one hundred dollar bills and a note asking Mary to bring up the child because she's sure that under Mary's charge he'll be a good man.

Faith is able to discover the mother's name and goes to her house, thus becoming embroiled in a rather frightening run in with drug dealers.

All the incidents are rather preposterous, despite this I found myself enjoying the details about Maine. I had visited a numberof the towns mentioned and even eaten at Lily's , the restaurant where Faith met up with the local law enforcement agent.

I expect that most of the other books also have events that strain credibility, but Faith is likable and it is Christmas and I want Miriam to get her life in order, and for Christopher to grow up on the goat farm under Mary's tutelage.

Now if it was possible for the young woman who was found in the sleigh to recover---

I'm pleased that Tom is feeling more like himself and I will try and get to Lily's for breakfast next summer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Praying for Strangers by River Jordan

Before leaving the library I usually look through the new non-fiction books and often pick up a book that catches my eye. I simply liked the title of this book and wondered about the "inards". Of course the back of the book contained accolades, but that's to be expected.

The book sat on a table for a week while I finished other books—in the same place all week until I picked it up and added it to a rather heavy book bag.

River Jordan, a fiction writer, a radio host, and a workshop leader, describes herself as introverted and someone who makes New Year's resolutions , but has difficulty adhering to them for any duration of time.

At the end of 2008 her two sons were going off to war. One deployed to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan.The Christmas holidays gained more importance. That year she didn't spend time prior to New Years thinking about resolutions, but quite suddenly she said one "drops down" into "her spirit."

She would pray for a stranger every day.

That's exactly what she did. Most often she simply knew who needed someone praying for them. She approached the person and explained that she had made a New Year's resolution to pray for a stranger each day.She asked for a name—but often they responded by sharing with her a need for a prayer. Perhaps someone had a need for a job, someone was sick, they needed a home or a person felt down and was delighted that someone had singled them out for a prayer.

She didn't look for someone who appeared down and out, homeless, depressed. Many of the people looked like everyone else save that she began to intuit that a particular person was her stranger for the day.

River didn't stand there and pray—she did so later. Many of the people she felt drawn to shared stories with her, some were fleeting moments. Occasionally she didn't tell the person, but then felt something was missing.

Over the year she began to write down her encounters—encouraged by her husband to keep track and share her experience with others. She began to realize that the blessings fell both ways—she was gaining from these encounters.

Occasionally paths would cross again and people told her how things were better, how much they appreciated being selected.

You can't read this book without thinking that you too want to follow her lead. Imagine, she asks, what the world might be like if millions of people prayed for strangers.

She does acknowledge that living in the south makes people a bit more amenable to listening to a stranger tell them about her resolution and how they were selected that day. Somehow I expect that people in the Northeast might react a bit differently.

She writes: " I ask you to try. I know that's personal but I mean it. t doesn't have to be your resolution, or your everyday discipline. I simply ask you to be aware of the multitudes—one person at a time."

"I don't know why people pray. I only know I do...Sometimes I can feel my heart in my prayers, sometimes my mind, and other times actually a shifting kind of power. As if my prayers hold weight and water. When that happens I feel as if I've made a difference in the natural world somehow."

The book moved me and felt like a gift.

I'll start with the elderly woman who occasionally comes into the coffee house where I write. She buys a coffee and a sweet, takes out a book—usually a mystery, and reads. After fifteen or twenty minutes she cleans her table, pushes in her chair and leaves.

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

Several years ago I read Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's book, God was in this Place & I, i Did Not know it. That line is a translation of Genesis 28:16. KJV And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." Rabbi Kushner grapples with the meaning just as Barbara Taylor grapples with the text. For both writers the scripture acts as a springboard.

Taylor is interested in ways that the spiritual and physical worlds act towards one another—how they illuminate each other. She sets out her reasons for leaving the church, but not her faith. Belief, she believes, is rooted in specific beliefs and nature. Genesis 28:16 provides a framework for this belief.

In an interview about the book she said, "As Christians, we have allowed our faith to go to our head." What is left out, she believes, is a melding of Spirit- and- Flesh, Heaven- and divine."

She continues, "What I'm talking about is paying attention." Paying attention reminds us that the wall between these seemingly opposites is quite thin and we may see the sacred in the ordinary.

God's ladder may appear anywhere. Spiritually alive moments can occur in ordinary moments. She suggests that we can practice mindfulness—pay attention to what is around you, feel your feet on the earth. She tells the story of how Moses goes to investigate the burning bush. Taylor tunes into her surroundings and displays a gratefulness for the ordinary which, in fact, is extraordinary. Who can ever think that a blade of grass or a rock or pebble is ordinary?

She also reminds us to marvel at our bodies—to watch where we walk. To consider the "lilies of the valley". To do so with reverence. Squeezing oranges for juice is more than a routine event. Taylor quotes from a wide variety of religious sources to make her point—to create a level of thankfulness and a drawing closer to God. While she speaks of her Christian faith this is a book that can be read by people of any faith.

Taylor is most interested in her readers exploring how the physical world aids us in our worship of the the spiritual world.

"And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not."

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

 This is the story of Barbara Taylor's desire to wear the clerical garb, to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, of desiring to preach and pastor in a church and her eventual leave taking of pastoring for a position teaching religion. This is not the story of someone who loses their faith nor their belief in the church.As a child she felt God's presence most intensely when she was out in a natural setting—whether it was in a field, walking in the woods, or on a hill or mountain.

She wasn't raised in a church and therefore didn't know how to describe what it was that she experienced when in a natural setting. Later on she attributes those transcendent moments to an encounter with God's creation and thus with God.

She majors in religion while in college and then goes onto the seminary where she is not yet attached to a particular Christian sect. Eventually she chooses the Episcopalian faith. Her first church is in urban Atlanta, Georgia.

In time she feels the need to leave the urban environment and find a rural church. A church in Clarkesville, Georgia is in need of a pastor and she applies for that position. She and her husband move to that area and in time buy a plot of land and build a house.

Her ministry is quite successful—despite initial qualms some congregants had regarding a female pastor. The church grows in size—in part due to Barbara Taylor's preaching. As her ministry grows she is confronted with increasing demands on her time which gives her less time for the spiritual health and growth she needs and receives from quiet time and time in nature.

When her congregation discusses homosexuality she takes a neutral position intent on listening, but she finds herself disturbed by the narrow definition of God's circle of inclusion. She finds that some Christians have made an idol of the Written Word. She perceives that one great issue facing her and the church is how to hold together disparate groups—which she refers to as the center and the edge. At one point she says that , "dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common." Synonyms for dumbfounded include—awed, awestruck, wonderstruck.After five years she receives a call from a local college offering her a position teaching religion.

That call is not out of the blue—she has gained a national reputation for both her preaching and her writing. The offer is accepted and she sets out on a different path. That path energizes her Christian faith and her closeness to God.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I'm Signing up for The 2012 TBR Pile Challenge

The Goal: To finally read 12 books from your “to be read” pile (within 12 months).


1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2011 or later (any book published in the year 2010 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile –

Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.

My List

1. The Messenger by Daniel Silva

2. The Secret Servant by Daniel Silva

3. Close Range by Annie Proulx

4. To the End of the Land by David Grossman

5. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

6. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

7. Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

8. The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris

9. The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein

10. The Ha-Ha by Dave King

11. Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen

12. Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Two Alternatives

13. Uneasy Relations Aaron Elkins

14. Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

I'm Participating in the 2012 E-Book Challenge

Challenge Guidelines:
This challenge will run from Jan 1, 2012 - Dec 31, 2012.
Anyone can join, you don't need to be a blogger. If you don't have a blog, feel free to sign-up in the comments. You can post reviews to any book site (i.e. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Goodreads, etc).
Any genre or length of book counts, as long as it is in ebook format.
You can list your books in advance or just put them in a wrap-up post. If you list them, feel free to change them as the mood takes you.
When you sign up in the linky, put the direct link to your post about joining the E-Book Reading Challenge.
You can move up levels, but no moving down.
Sign-ups will be open until Dec 15, 2012, so feel free to join at any time throughout the year.

Floppy disk - 5 ebooks
CD - 10 ebooks
DVD - 25 ebooks
Memory stick - 50 ebooks
Hard drive - 75 ebooks
Server - 100 ebooks
Human brain - 150 ebooks

Since I usually read "physical books" I'll sign up for the lowest number and see if I increase that level.

I'm Participating in the 2012 Support Your Local Library Challenge


Anyone can join.
You don't need a blog to participate. If you are a Non-blogger please leave a comment with a link (if you review elsewhere) to your review or with the book(s) you read.
Audio, ebooks (some libraries allow ebooks to be checked out), bound books are ok.
No re-reads
Create a sign up post and post the link in the linky below.
Challenge goes from January 1, 2012 - December 31, 2012

Level 1 - Read 12 library books
Level 2 - Read 24 library books
Level 3 - Read 36 library books
Level 4 - Read 37+ library books