King Arthur – A Literary Barometer

Writers have been fascinated with the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table for centuries. Each new “biographer” has imbued the King with new life, embellishing and enhancing his legend with experiences wrought from their own lives and their own times. In this way Arthur, through the eyes of a writer, becomes a man of the present rather than a stale hero from the distant past.

Historical Value on a Legendary Scale

King Arthur Pendragon is a unique character in terms of history and literature. His existence is debated, yet his legend has survived for over 1500 years. All major literary works (and there are hundreds) dealing with Arthur are classified as fictional, yet from each tale readers may glean a significant understanding about history: not necessarily the historical time in which Arthur was supposed to have lived, but the time in which his chroniclers lived. The character of Arthur and the tenor of his tales have changed over the years because authors carry Arthur’s legend into the present. Authors ensure his endurance.

Legend - Pixabay

The Legend Laid Bare

King Arthur was alleged to have lived around 500 A.D. when he united the ancient warring tribes of Britain to form a single country.

Despite a lack of proof to back such assertion, the story persists and the details of the tale are surprisingly resilient. All of the stories depict Arthur as coming from humble (albeit royal) beginnings, ascending the fractured and contentious throne of Britain at a young age.  Arthur’s dream is to unite Britain – and he does so by bringing England’s disparate tribes together to form the Knights of the Round Table. Each iteration has Arthur embroiled in battles: sometimes with minor British kings, sometimes with Saxon invaders, and sometimes with enemies of The Crusaders.

Most enduring is that each novel contains the fabled love triangle of Arthur, his Queen Guinevere, and his trusted knight Lancelot. With sadness and trepidation, most of the tales introduce Arthur’s illegitimate and destructive son, Mordred.

The details of this legendary life are surprisingly consistent among the many books published over hundreds of years. The perspectives, however, are anything but.

The great books about Arthur reflect the world in which the author lived far more than the times in which Arthur himself was supposed to have lived.

Sword in Stone - Dreamstime

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Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte D’Arthur (as translated by Keith Baines and John Steinbeck)

In my quest to learn more about Arthur, I read two different translations of Sir Thomas Malory. I did not attempt to struggle with the original, which is written in an archaic style replete with Old English spellings and out-dated word usages; however, I am grateful that Steinbeck and Baines were willing to wade through the morass.

I found Malory’s Arthur (as retold by both Baines and Steinbeck) to be shallow and cruel, far different from the fair and gentle child I had come to expect from T.H. White. Malory’s Arthur never struggled with the ethics of war, the value of life. Malory’s Arthur has no long-term goals for his kingdom nor remorse for slayings. I was unable to comprehend a character so devoid of humanity. However, I could not deny the work’s impact: Le Morte D’Arthur was created in the late 1400’s and Malory’s story has been the foundation for most of the literature written about King Arthur since then.

It was not until I learned Malory’s personal history that I began to understand better the Arthur that he had created. Malory (c. 1400 to 1472 A.D.) was reputed to have been an aimless playboy who wrote his book from a prison cell (much as Miguel Cervantes – another Arthurian admirer – later wrote Don Quixote).

In 1453, when The Hundred Year Wars in Europe had finally ended, soldiers returned to Britain after a lifetime of fighting. Given such a long conflict, these men had no profession other than war: they did not know how to farm, they did not know how to craft tools or build the houses necessary for a domestic life. Their lack of these skills set them adrift in the British landscape. Malory was one such disenfranchised soldier.

Malory’s Arthurian Legend emphasizes the quests, encouraging “noble” pursuits – a thinly veiled justification for the continued existence of a soldier’s lifestyle. Malory’s knights glorified righteous killing and welcomed honorable death – those traits soldiers coveted in battle. They knew nothing else. Malory knew nothing else.

T.H. White – The Once and Future King

As mentioned above, my first introduction to Arthur was in the Disney cartoon that took its inspiration from this book. It remains my favorite of the lot.

T.H.White published the first volume of The Once and Future King in 1938. At the time, Britain was rapidly approaching the conflict that was to become known as World War II.

White himself was a pacifist and created an Arthur torn between the dream of a united Britain and an evil invading force which threatened the peace he had built. White saw war as an unnatural state, one which does not exist in species other than Man, and one which brings more destruction than worth. His Arthur is a strong leader who abhors and tries to avoid war, who has been instructed by the wizard Merlyn in the ways of nature which, according to White, opposes war.

Just as Britain was poised on the brink of a conflict with Germany, White depicts the noble Knights of the Round Table positioned against the evil forces of Mordred. Arthur wrestles with the horrors of the battles to come just as Churchill and Roosevelt may have struggled with the specter of Hilter. White saw the problems of the 20th century world little changed from the 6th century Britain of Arthur.

Rosemary Sutcliffe – The Sword at Sunset

In her 1963 novel The Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliffe introduced “Artos” – a pragmatic personification of Arthur. Sutcliffe threw out the magic of Merlyn (such character does not appear anywhere in the pages of Sutcliffe’s book) and creates an Arthur who is an economist, a strategist, and a politician. Gone is the flash of magic and the righteousness of The Crusaders. Artos is obsessed with uniting his small isle against the Saxons to ensure its survival. He mourns the losses among his fighting men and the losses of his scarce war horses alike, both of which give strategic superiority to the Brits. He watches the budget and rations the food. Instead of being the devout Christian of Malory’s and White’s tales, Artos is opportunistically religious: he worships Christ when his allies are Christians, Mithras (an ancient god of strength and bravery) among his men, and the Old Religion of the Druids when the need arises. His sense of right and wrong are weighed against how best to accomplish his goal. He does not question war, merely recognizes its existence and necessity. He grieves for his Companions (Sutcliffe’s embodiment of The Knights of the Round Table) and suffers their miseries in battle at their sides.

In the time of Sutcliffe, the Korean War was behind us and Viet Nam was brewing. Wars began to look less like rescue missions and more like political maneuvers. No longer was our mission to save millions from certain death – we were saving millions from the elusive oppression of communism. Hardly the same thing. Our “crusades” took on a decidedly practical bent: we no longer captured and held territory, we racked up body counts. Our “victories” no longer had the pull of righteousness – expediency and practicality won the battles. Sutcliffe captures the philosophical wasteland of a 1960s war in her Arthurian tale.

Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day

In 1970, Stewart brings the magic back to the Arthurian legend. Told through the eyes of the wizard Merlyn, Arthur’s existence is seen to mark a renaissance — the dying of old ideals and the birth of new principles. Stewart’s Arthur lives at a time when Christianity comes of age and the old religions are dying in its wake. Arthur, as king, leaves the bawdy, selfish ways of his father King Uther and embraces the concept of country first. Justice and peace are the answers to a continued existence for his kingdom.

A comparison of the 1960s to the 1970s shows some remarkable regressions. Where the 60s ushered in an age of protest and rage against the status quo, the 70s saw those same protesters become part of the establishment. The bubble-gum tunes of disco replaced edgy rock music in popularity. Where once TV praised All In The Family for its political acuity, The Brady Bunch became the new barometer of urban life. Sutcliffe’s Arthur reflects that retrogression.

Thomas Berger – Arthur Rex

Berger’s Arthur is a man of paradoxes, reflecting the good and evil that exists simultaneously in the world, in the kingdom, and in people. The Arthur of Berger’s Arthur Rex is both strong and weak, mature and youthful, wise and foolish; Arthur is capable of monumental good as in the unification of his country, and equal evil as in the incestuous relationship with his sister. His strengths immortalize him; his weaknesses destroy him.

Even the minor characters of Berger’s book are complex: clergymen adamantly teach the laws of God and just as adamantly break them; Sir Kay (Arthur’s foster brother) is a pompous bore as well as a vital necessity to Arthur’s kingdom. Queen Guinevere is both wise and impetuous. Sir Lancelot is brave and true at time – and weak and disloyal as well.

Arthur Rex was published in 1978: a time when complexities were becoming evident to all. The late American president John F. Kennedy, much beloved and idolized during his life and for years after his death, was exposed as a womanizer; countries which had once been friendly to the US were now enemies and vice versa. The corruption of elected leaders throughout the globe was daily exposed.


A Reflection of the Times

Reflection of times - Dreamstime.

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There are other books about King Arthur, although I have not read them all. I plan to, some day.

Whether Arthur is a historical figure or a creature of myth, his story has attracted much literary attention for hundreds of years. His worth as a historical barometer is evident in the changes which have taken place in the nature of the character and the themes that the tales convey when viewed against the backdrop of each author’s decade, experiences, and beliefs.

What is next for the aging legend? Where will his story lead us?

Or rather, where will our future lead him?

Featured Image and all other images (unless otherwise expressly noted) courtesy of

Ten Books That Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

Get to know the real California

Eleven Books that Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

We have Hollywood. We have Disneyland. We have The Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Building, Yosemite and Malibu. We have Giant Redwoods and grizzly bears, sourdough bread and Fisherman’s Wharf. California can boast a plethora of modern “wonders” and ancient beauty.

However, did you know that she is rich in Native American history? That her past includes violent and disruptive conquest by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic missionaries? That she experienced the most massive human migration in world history – and survived? That, in the mid-1800s, she was on the vanguard of economic globalization? That her population represented the most diverse in the world – where representatives from every continent on earth came together during the California Gold Rush?

The books cited below represent only ten examples of works that expose the depth and richness of California’s early history. Give them a try…discover what you may not know about America’s 31st state (before she was a state). If available, click on the title of the book to buy it through IndieBound – in support of independent bookstores throughout the U.S.

El Dorado

1 – El Dorado – The original travel book about California

“Go West, young man!” Such was the directive of well-known newspaper editor Horace Greeley. It is an oft-cited phrase – and may actually have been said in another way, at another time – but it is a fact that Greeley sponsored young Bayard Taylor on a journey to the new territory of California at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849.

Taylor made that journey and wrote about his experiences in El Dorado. The raw beauty of California is revealed. Exposed are the hardships of those living through the troubles wrought by the rapid influx of people into a land that had no infrastructure to support them.

The Victorian flourish of the writing may be cumbersome at first, but Taylor’s wonder and enthusiasm for California shine through.

Three Years in California

2 – Three Years in California (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This is the personal journal of adventurer/miner/merchant/town official William Perkins, a man of little significance to history except as a keen observer. Perkins journeyed to California in the early days of the Gold Rush and left us a full description of the beauty and brutality he found here.

Unlike many diarists, Perkins is an able writer who has captured the wonder of a time in history that shaped California.

San Francisco Memoris

3 – San Francisco Memoirs (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This delightful collection of the writings of various residents of San Francisco (or Yerba Buena, as it was called in the days before the Gold Rush) provide the personal touch to history. Nothing imparts the flavor of a particular time and place like the memories of those who lived it.

At times humorous and always replete with details that make the city come alive, San Francisco Memories was a pleasure to read and a joy to experience.

The Saw the Elephant

4 – They Saw the Elephant

So much of the history of the California Gold Rush is written by and about the men who journeyed to find their fortunes. This wonderful book is a collection of the writings of women who left diverse lands and came to call California their home. Contrary to the myth that Gold Rush women were primarily prostitutes, these women were miners, hoteliers, laundresses and seamstresses, restaurant owners, and entrepreneurs who often fared better than their male counterparts when it came to surviving and thriving in the untamed land of California.

To “See the Elephant” had come to represent the battle-cry of the Gold Rush pioneers – they were going to find their fortune, experience something new, take a once-in-a-lifetime risk. The women of California did all that. They saw the elephant.

The Age of Gold

5 – The Age of Gold

Unlike all of the previous books, H.W. Brands’ epic history of California, The Age of Gold, is not written from the perspective of personal experience. It is a history book – and a fine one at that.

Brands has thoroughly researched and masterfully presented the story of California. He presents rich, detailed accounts of the hardships endured by the travelers, both by land and sea, weaving their stories into the larger historical picture.

This is a well-written and exciting history – a must-read for anyone interested in the Birth of California.

The Rivals (book)

6 – The Rivals

I was so impressed by this book that I wrote a separate review of it (The Rivals: A Book Review).

While not a sweeping saga of California, The Rivals is the (true) story of two of California’s earliest political representatives: William Gwin and David Broderick.

Although both from the same political party, these two could not have been more different: Gwin was born of wealth and power in the southern United States, while Broderick was the New York son of an Irish stonemason who cut his political teeth at Tammany Hall. They had different hopes and aspirations for the new State of California and approached them in diverse styles: Gwin with his political aplomb and Broderick with his fists.

Having never heard of either men before (I am a native Californian, so that is nearly inexcusable), I was riveted by the story of their lives as presented in this book.

Miwok Means People

7 – Miwok Means People (search the web for this out-of-print book)

In 1848 there were still more than 150,000 indigenous people living throughout this westernmost strip of the new American territory. They lived peacefully with each other, for the most part, because California was a land of plenty: game was abundant, seafood easily available, acorns (the diet staple for most of the population, given the widespread growth of oak tree throughout much of the land) and berries and grains were ample.

Isolated from the Native Americans in the rest of the continent that was to become the United States, and isolated from each other by the diverse geography of California, the California tribes spoke 100 different dialects stemming from 21 distinct language groups found nowhere else. The life of a true California native could not have been more different from that of the Plains Indians who have come to represent America’s standard image of an “Indian.”

One such California tribe were the Miwok – whose territory stretched from the Sierra in the East to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. Miwok means People is a rich look at a way of life like no other.

The Other Californians

8 – The Other Californians

California is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, even today. The roots of that diversity began with the California Gold Rush – when people from every continent traveled to “See the Elephant” and make their fortunes in the goldfields of the new territory. But humans will be human and, therefore, with such diversity also came prejudice.

The Other Californians highlights the issues California faced when so many cultures collided.

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9 – Embracing the Elephant – Experience the California Gold Rush!

Unlike all of the other books above, the next two (Embracing the Elephant and A Veil of Fog and Flames) are works of fiction. However, if you want to experience the feel of California at its inception, this adventure is the answer.

Publishers Weekly calls it “historically evocative.” ForeWord Reviews says it is a “journey worth taking.” The Historical Novel Society highly recommends it, saying: “Beninger’s skillful use of language pulls you into the story, and makes the scenes come alive.”

A historical fiction adventure set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Embracing the Elephant follows young Guinevere Walker from her home in Boston, to Rio de Janeiro, around the treacherous Cape Horn, to the new city of San Francisco and, ultimately, the California mountain range called the Sierra Nevada, known for both its beauty and brutality.

A Veil of Fog and Flames eBook 400 px

10 – A Veil of Fog and Flames

Heroes and scoundrels are not born – they are forged in the crucible of experience. Nothing anneals like living. So claims the next novel, A Veil of Fog and Flames.

At fifteen, Guinevere Walker and Jack Moylan are not yet galvanized for the future. In the roiling cauldron that is San Francisco of 1851 – a city devastated by suspicious fires, a dangerous brand of justice imposed by vigilantes from its formidable business community, and the cloud of slavery – the two face issues and questions that thrust them into adulthood and mold their very nature. Do they conform or rebel? Do they succumb to social conventions and restrictions? Or do they pursue their dreams in defiance of the pressures?

A Veil of Fog and Flames is a tale of young lives poised on a tightrope of right and wrong, their stories woven into the fabric of a city that forges rules as it pleases – and breaks them as easily.

Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy: A Book Review

A review of an exceptional children’s book.

Ladybug Girl

Ask “The Expert”

Who do you ask when you want to find the best children’s book? The expert, of course — a child!

In my case, that child happened to be my youngest granddaughter, Avalon. By the time she was four, I didn’t have to ask what her favorite book was. I already knew: Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by Jacky Davis, with colorful illustrations by David Soman.

For two years, the only story Avalon wanted to hear was one about Lulu, otherwise known as Ladybug Girl. I could read The Cat In The Hat or Disney’s Best Friends or anything “Olivia,” but the evening was not complete (and sleep would not come) without a Ladybug Girl story (there are several, see below). Avalon wanted only Lulu and, as you can see from the photos below, she wanted to be Ladybug Girl.

The Real Ladybug Girl

The Premise

Lulu is an active, imaginative child of 4 or 5 (not yet reading) who loves to dress up and explore her world: counting the number of “L’s” on the books in her family’s library, imagining sharks in the neighborhood pond, dancing in the leaves that litter a nearby pasture, conceiving of the neighborhood playground as a place of dragons and monsters that need taming by the invincible Ladybug Girl (and her friends). She is big in her little world, despite what her older brother says. In her favorite costume, she is Ladybug Girl and she can do anything.

The Ladybug Girl series is a celebration of the everyday things in a pre-school child’s life – watching ants, making new friends, inventing games, and overcoming the indifference of an older sibling or the rushed life of a parent. The books (there are ten actual books, not including the activity books and other merchandise) are colorful and simple, with a common thread: a child can do anything with a little imagination.

Avalon and I first came upon this series with Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy (which remained Avalon’s favorite of the series) in which Lulu meets Sam. With the help of their vivid imagination, the dynamic duo become the eponymous super heroes who save their playground from sure destruction.

There is a strong message of cooperation that threads through each book; however, it is the power of the creative mind that captures the hearts of children. When Avalon got to know Lulu, she knew she could do anything too.

Buy this book on IndieBound.

The author receives NO remuneration from any sales of this book.

John Adams: A Book Review

A review of David McCullough’s warm and engaging portrait of one of America’s most under-sung Founding Fathers

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A Recalcitrant Patriot

John Adams, the second president of the United States, described himself as a farmer, sometimes a lawyer. Perhaps he would have been happier had he spent his life on his Massachusetts farm or practicing law in the countryside around Boston, but America would not have been the same.

Intelligent, irascible, and egalitarian, John Adams was among a handful of brave individuals who shepherded a fledgling country along its path to liberty, guiding her through her first steps as a nation.

In his outstanding novel John Adams, David McCullough brings this stalwart patriot to life.

John Adams

A Winning Biography

Representative from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress, eloquent debater for the cause of freedom, staunch supporter of social equality, and steadfast man of integrity, John Adams was one of the most important politicians in the history of the United States. He worked with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to pen the Declaration of Independence, and stood firm as it was endlessly debated and ultimately ratified. He was America’s ambassador to France during the crucial years when the fledgling United States needed France’s support (and money). John Adams was one of the most influential and steady patriots of the American Revolution, risking his life in the pursuit of his country’s freedom.

Simultaneously, John Adams was a lawyer (famously — and successfully — defending the British soldiers involved in what came to be known as The Boston Massacre), a farmer, and a devoted husband and father. Gauging from his writings, this was the life he preferred over politics.

In John Adams, the large and small of this man are presented by Mr. McCullough as a three-dimensional portrait of a great patriot.

Taking much of his material from the letters Adams wrote during his lifetime — to his beloved wife Abigail, to his fellow statesmen, to his friends and relatives — Mr. McCullough’s vast talents as a writer work to resurrect an important historical figure from the archives. What emerges from the pages of John Adams is the story of the flesh-and-blood man who would be America’s second President.

The Appeal

There is much to recommend this book: The narrative is fluid, the details informative and inspiring without weighing upon the reader. Although well researched and reliant on actual documents produced at the time (or shortly thereafter) for its educational richness, there is nothing dry or lifeless in its pages.

Mr. McCullough easily guides his readers through Adams’ philosophy on the role and importance of government: his adamant insistence upon the separation of church and state (a certainty wholeheartedly shared by his fellow patriot and sometimes rival Thomas Jefferson), his belief in a bicameral Congress and a clear and distinct separation of the three branches of the new government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary.

Through Mr. McCullough’s smooth narrative style, we learn of the complex relationships and political struggles Adams maintained (most notably with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton) and, using the intimate letters the couple exchanged during their many years of politically induced separation, we catch a glimpse of the vast love and trusting partnership Adams maintained with his wife Abigail — an intelligent, gracious, and opinionated woman who lived during a time when only graciousness was valued in females. Two hundred years before there was “open marriage” (defined as an independent relationship) there was the partnership of John and Abigail.

This is an inspirational book, well researched and well written. Mr. McCullough does not try to hide the warts, but the picture that emerges from his pages of this argumentative and logical man of integrity does more to highlight the strengths than dwell on the weaknesses. The author even intimates that Adams is fully aware of his own shortcomings and uses this knowledge together with the coaching of his wife to find ways to overcome.

Mr. McCullough has been criticized by some historians for being too light with his subjects (see the list of other biographical works by David McCullough below). However, as a more casual historian, I found the book to be one of the best biographies I have ever read.

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The author receives NO remuneration from any sales of this book.

A Climate for Change: A Book Review

See the Light and Lead the Fight

A Climate for Change

This is the year I hope to learn a new language. Oh, I will be speaking English (my native tongue), but my goal is to communicate with people who speak a different language of beliefs. They do not believe as I do and, therefore, we have not always communicated effectively.

Two people who have mastered this type of “bi-lingual” communication are the authors of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions: Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley. This husband-and-wife team have tackled the task of convincing conservative Christians that the realities of climate change are not in conflict with their faith or their values.

Evangelical Christians themselves, Ms. Hayhoe and Mr. Farley present the subject of earth’s climate imperatives gently cradled in supportive words from The Bible.

A Climate for Change brings a much-needed perspective to the subject of global climate change.

“Each new insight reveals more about the delicate and complex mechanisms God has put in place to support life on our planet.”

Ms. Hayhoe is a climate scientist; Mr. Farley is a pastor; both are evangelical Christians. At the time of their marriage, Mr. Farley was a climate-change denier.

Using her faith and the patient practice of communicating with someone who did not believe as she did, Ms. Haydoe was persuasive. As a result, Mr. Farley became a convert – and now staunch supporter. In addition to having penned this book, they both lecture on the impact of global climate change and the possibilities for response by the Christian community.

The power of their shared convictions are evident in the language they speak:

“As Christians, we already have all of the values we need to care about climate change.”

– Katharine Haydoe and Andrew Farley

Caution: The authors included nearly 30 photos, charts, and graphs illustrating important points in this work. The Kindle version of the book, however, does not show those – which is frustrating, to say the least.

“The natural greenhouse effect is a beautiful example of the care God has taken in creating a planet so perfectly suited for life…By adding to that amount, we are tipping the natural balance that God created for us.”

– Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change

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The author receives NO remuneration for any sale of this book.

The Fault in Our Stars: A Book Review

A review of John Green’s young adult novel – for the benefit of an 11-year-old.

The Fault in our Stars

A Love Story for Today

My eleven-year-old granddaughter Isabella wants to read this book. Her mom has asked me to screen it: is it appropriate for an 11-year-old?

The Fault in Our Stars is a beautiful, thoughtful, and tender book. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody over 15. The fault is in my granddaughter’s age.

Over the last year, Isabella’s parents have been lamenting that she will leave the shelter of grammar school and enter middle school in the Fall. Such a transition represents for them (and most parents) that their daughter is growing up.

The impending adulthood of a child is a scary thing for parents. We spend most of their childhood providing for them, sheltering them from harm and harshness, encouraging them to grow and explore. We work to keep their innocence intact for as long as possible because we know what it means to be an adult – and adulthood isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always easy. So as to accord them innocence for as long as we can, we tell our children they are awesome and can do anything and, if they wish upon a star, their dreams will come true.

The Fault in Our Stars tells a different story. The story’s protagonist, Hazel, has cancer. She is awesome, but doing anything is difficult and, because her cancer is incurable, only short-term dreams have any chance to become reality.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is smart and kind and, at a mere 16 years of age, acutely aware that she is not the only one suffering as a result of her disease: her parents and her friends hurt – and will continue to hurt when she is gone. Hazel is facing something no parent wishes for their child: the starkness of her own mortality and that of those in her support group, including the boy she will come to love: Augustus Waters.

Despite its subject the book is loving in its harshness, tender in its brutality. The blossoming love story between Hazel and cancer-survivor Augustus is the stuff that dreams are made of – but the reality of their respective illnesses is never far from their thoughts.

So, because my Isabella still has the dreams and innocence of a child, what is my answer to be? If she reads and understands The Fault in Our Stars, certainly some of that innocence will be lost, must be lost. That will happen eventually, of course. But isn’t it better to be introduced to harsh realities by tender means rather than wait for something less thoughtful and kind than The Fault in Our Stars? My inclination is to say “yes Isabella, you may read this story,” but I want to be near – to answer questions, to comfort, to ease the transition – when she does.

Other concerns for an 11-year-old:

Were Isabella a little older, NONE of this would be of concern. As it is:

  • Language: Fortunately use of any offensive language is kept to a minimum (a half-dozen instances of s#*t and bulls#*t is about as bad as it gets). Some of the other words will be difficult for her age – but she has a dictionary and isn’t afraid to use it. She’ll learn what a metaphor is, that’s for certain.
  • Situations: Hazel (16) and her 17-year-old boyfriend Augustus sleep together once, but it is a scene that is not in the least graphic, is respectful of their youth and innocence, and is filled with love and tenderness (plus a responsible reference to a condom). There are a couple of other references to groping, in an awkward way.
  • Literary References:  They are for an older child (some even I didn’t know). But they are worth knowing.

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The author receives NO remuneration from any sale of this book.

The Halloween Tree: A Book Review

Ray Bradbury’s harrowing ride through the history of Halloween.

The Halloween Tree

The True Meaning of Halloween

Did you ever wonder where it all started? Why we dress in costume and threaten to scare others for that little bit of candy on this night, of all nights? Why are we fascinated with the terror that Halloween can evoke?

Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is no dry historical treatise on the origins of Halloween, but a terrifying journey where the golden glow of a pumpkin’s gnarled smile sheds light on what Halloween is all about. At his best and darkest, Bradbury leads us and his band of would-be Trick-or-Treaters on a timeless expedition of fear.

The Halloween Tree Cover

The Premise

It is Halloween Night – the best night of the year as far as Tom and his friends are concerned. Except that tonight one of the boys, Pipkin (the best and the brightest of the group) is ill — gravely ill — and seems destined to spend his favorite holiday at home. Doubled over with pain, Pipkin urges his friends to go on without him and promises to try his best to meet them when they finally reach the house across the ravine, outside of town.

The multi-storied, multi-gabled house across the ravine is no ordinary house. Shaking with terror as they approach the darkened porch, the boys are greeted by the skeletal resident, Mr. Moundshroud, who promptly informs them they will get no treats: only tricks await them tonight.

Fearful of the strange Mr. Moundshroud, the boys depart the porch, but remain near the house in the hope of meeting up with Pipkin. As they round the frightening building, they find a giant tree festooned with thousands of carved pumpkins, glowing with the eerie light of thousands of candles. Here they are joined by Mr. Moundshroud who promises (or is that threatens?) to show them what Halloween is really all about…and he does!

The Pull

Bradbury gives us no history lesson, and yet on the terrifying whirlwind journey of eight boys through the cold darkness of one of the coldest and darkest of nights, the reader gets a horrifying glimpse of the beliefs and traditions that have surrounded this holiday for tens of thousands of years – before it was a holiday.

Early man needed an explanation of the enduring memories of their departed loved ones, giving us ghosts. Plentiful autumns that gave way to winters of deprivation and want were fearful times for the first humans, opening the way to rituals these early people hoped would appease the gods and bring the sunlight and the warmth and the good times again.

From ancient Egyptians who worshiped the dead, to the Druids of the British Isles who anticipated a day of reckoning each anniversary of those who had departed, to Medieval Europeans shrouded with fear of horrible plagues they could not explain, to the hundreds-of-years-old traditions surrounding El Dia de Muerta — The Day of the Dead — in Mexico, Bradbury weaves a fascinating tale of the beginnings of our Halloween, pulling those terrified boys along for the ride.

The Précis

It is Bradbury — one of the most influential writers of science-fiction and fantasy of the 20th century. How could it not be good? The Halloween Tree is part history lesson, part coming-of-age story, part fantasy horror ride, and all accessible to old and young (although not too young, mind you).

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Little Pictures of Japan: A Book Review

A classic children’s anthology of Hai-ku-like poetry


Escape into another world

Books are my friends. They have always been my friends, to be enjoyed time and time again. As a child, I cherished their familiar feel and voice. They were old friends, yet new with each reading. Entertaining and enlightening.

Not much has changed in the ensuing years. My printed friends are still loved and cherished, never losing their allure even when new ones are introduced. I no longer memorize my favorite passages and linger over preferred pictures, but I still treasure certain of my childhood books because of their message and their impact on a sensitive and introspective child.

The best of these books was Little Pictures of Japan. One of a series of three (the others being Tales Told in Holland and Nursery Friends from France), Little Pictures of Japan became my favorite – a book that helped to shape me as a child, introducing me early in life to a culture that was different from my own and moving in its beauty.

All images in this lens were taken by the author; however, images from the book remain the copyrighted material of The Book House for Children Chicago or its successors.

Little Pictures of Japan page

The Premise

The author of Little Pictures of Japan (Olive Beaupre Miller) compiled writings from Japanese poets and writers spanning hundreds of years, translated into English, pairing these with illustrations by Katharine Sturges which were styled to reflect the bold colors and simple lines of traditional Japanese works. The result was a book unlike any other children’s book of the time (the book was first published in 1925).

The poems often do not rhyme – instead, they sing with a universal simplicity and beauty reminiscent of popular Japanese haiku without the strict parameters of the genre. On the surface the sentiments appear simple, but they are not: “Eternity rolled in love/Bids the visible world to sing.”

The Pull

With bold colors and clean lines, the pictures of Little Pictures of Japan mesmerized the child that was me. The books about Holland and France were filled with pastel drawings of children dressed as I might have in an earlier time with houses and countrysides that reflected those familiar to my home country (USA) and that of my ancestors (European). Not so my Japanese picture book, where houses and boats were constructed unlike any I had seen before. People, dressed in kimonos and obis, wore unusual sandals and traveled through exotic towns and scenery populated with striking and unfamiliar plants and trees.

The writings were simple, yet seemed to stretch beyond their few lines to evoke an emotional response that the European stories could not. “The mirrored image of the moon shall be/A pillow for the bird that floats/Asleep upon the sea.” I found an unspoken tranquility in this and other poems, even as a child.

The Precis

I traveled to Japan without leaving my home. I came to appreciate a time and a culture not available to me in the real world — through the world of books, I fell in love with a country I have yet to visit.

As a direct result of Little Pictures of Japan I found myself drawn to other Japanese-themed works as I grew older: Shogun by James Clavell, Geisha and The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby, and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I have a room in my house decorated with a full-sized wedding kimono of white embroidered with white cranes, framed kimonos crafted from paper, and a kokeshi doll. Art Deco designs, heavily influenced by the bold and simple lines of Japanese drawings, are among my favorite.

Of the hundreds of books I have had the privilege to know and love over the years, I find that Little Pictures of Japan remains my favorite – even still, it has the subtle power to influence me in beautiful ways.

Learn more about the creators of this beautiful book

Search the web for copies of this out-of-print beauty.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Book Review

Their world may be limited and their spirits bound as tightly as were once their dainty feet, but Chinese women remain a powerful force.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

A Most Worthy Woman

In the Chinese culture it is reputed females are not as valued as they are in the West. I cannot personally vouch for this, but have long heard that this is true, and has been for centuries.

Despite this assertion stories of strong and influential Chinese women abound. From peasants to empresses, Chinese women keep their houses in order, ensure the safekeeping of ancient traditions, lobby for a more prosperous future for their children (both male and female), and support their cultural heritage even more stridently than do their husbands, fathers, or sons. Their world may be limited and their spirits bound as tightly as were once their dainty feet, but Chinese women remain a powerful force.

Lisa See’s fantastic Snow Flower and the Secret Fan offers us a magnificent glimpse into the society of mid-19th century Chinese women with all of its joys and pains.

The Story

The narrator Lily is the second daughter of a farmer. She is believed to be a worthless mouth to feed, a child tolerated only for her value as a future mother of sons. This view is not unique to Lily’s family: a female child is viewed only in terms of the cost to feed, clothe, and house her until she may be “married out” to the best match. Thereafter, her value grows only if she bears male heirs.

As the daughter of a farmer, Lily’s prospects for a life better than her parents’ are dim. Her family is poor and barely able to sustain their children through the best of times.

However, Lily’s fate is forever altered with the appearance of a matchmaker from a nearby village who, seeing something special in the pretty face and perfect feet of the 6-year-old Lily, proposes a bold match: not yet with a potential husband (which will come in time), but with a laotong – another female child. The match with a laotongis believed to be more important than a marriage and something to last throughout the girls’ lives. This laotong is Snow Flower, a child of Lily’s age (both born in the Year of the Horse, on the same day of the same month, and allegedly at the same hour: all great omens for a successful match), whose life circumstances are far above those of Lily. This formal tie with Snow Flower will bring great prestige and opportunity to Lily and her family. What the match brings for Snow Flower is a mystery that Lily does not wish to explore: she is thrilled and willingly cultivates a friendship with her lovely and cultured laotong Snow Flower.

Told in retrospect, as an 80-year-old woman of means, Lily reveals two intimately interwoven lives. Her memories are vivid as she weaves the tale of the timid yet fervent beginnings of friendship between the girls, of the brutal custom of foot-binding, of learning the many cultural norms and duties these two children and all other Chinese females must endure and adopt to achieve their greatest value in life. Through it all, Lily speaks of the secret writing, the nu shu, which has enabled Chinese women for centuries to express their true feelings and needs to one another despite the cultural taboo against doing so.

The friendship of Snow Flower and Lily is wondrous and flawed, bringing both of the girls-turned-women great joy and sorrow throughout their lives.

The Appeal

The beauty of this story is not only the richness of Ms. See’s writing, but the seamless introduction of Chinese culture and history into its very fabric. Just as Lily and Snow Flower learn the art of embroidery with which they embellish their clothes and gifts, Ms. See stitches together facts about Chinese beliefs and taboos into a loving story of these two little girls as they become women.

The inter-sanctum of the upstairs room where the women spend most of their waking hours is enlivened with love and discipline, joy and heartache, hopes and dreams just as the warp and weft of a tapestry adds to its depth. There is great beauty alongside tragedy in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Bird on Blossoming Branch

Seen through the prism of age, Lily has a realistic view of herself: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is not presented as a self-serving memoir of the farmer’s daughter who would become a grand lady. Although not proud of her flaws, the ancient Lily reveals her inner self without flinching. Her love of Snow Flower is expertly and intimately presented like the opening of a lotus blossom; her anger at what she believes to be Snow Flower’s betrayal burns from the pages.

Ms. See offers a complex portrait of two lives forever joined in love and tragedy, in hope and despair. Her touch is light, but true as the reader is led through the years, echoing the steps of the girls on their bound “golden lilies.”

Learn more about the ancient tradition of foot-binding, as featured in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, in this fascinating hub by bakerwoman.

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Broken for You: A Book Review

Pieces of the Heart

When Wanda Schultz comes to live and work in Seattle, she is as brittle and sharp-edged as shards of old porcelain. When Margaret Hughes invites Wanda into her mansion as a boarder, the guarded older woman is as fragile as the fine china settings that line the rooms of her home — strangely, the same porcelain pieces that have been her intimate confidantes for years.

Broken for You

Such is the premise of Stephanie Kallos’ debut novel Broken for You, a story that showcases how the human condition is strongest at the points where breaks have healed.

Broken for YouThe Premise

Margaret Hughes has lived alone in her family’s Seattle mansion for many years, surrounded by the fruits of her father’s trade: an antique business that flourished after World War II in large part due to the acquisition of treasures confiscated by the Nazis from Jews that were sent to the death camps. Despite their horrific origins, Margaret’s fondness for the beautiful artifacts has blossomed into a kind of friendship — she speaks to them, especially the china, as she herself lovingly dusts them each day.

Diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, Margaret concludes that she should no longer live alone in the cavernous house for her few remaining years and, after careful consideration and a moving discussion with her porcelain friends, decides to take on a boarder.

Enter recently jilted Wanda Schultz, a stage manager who has come to Seattle for a job and in search of the man who deserted her. Surly and thin-skinned, Wanda seems an unlikely companion for the reserved and independent Margaret.

The Appeal

Although the premise appears dour on the surface, in the capable hands of Ms. Kallos, it is instead a story of healing – at times touching, at times humorous, and always well written. Connected through their individual pain, the two women learn to trust one another (and the other characters who people the piece), to help one another, and to guide each other to a place where the shattered moments of their lives are cast aside like so much broken china, then lovingly pieced together into something new and whole and breathtaking.

Ms. Kallos is an extraordinary craftsperson, assembling story fragments with intensity and care to present complex portraits of unique individuals about whom we come to care. The metaphor of shattered china works flawlessly throughout the book because of Ms. Kallos’ talent.

Given Margaret’s fatal diagnosis, one could hardly expect satisfactory resolutions by the end of Broken for You. However, with grace and humor, Ms. Kallos does manage to keep the book true to life yet ultimately gratifying. The book is quirky, deep, and hopeful. I highly recommend this book.

Poignant, humorous, well-written — my favorite book of the last several years.

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