Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bachelors Anonymous

Bachelors Anonymous
© 1973 P.G. Wodehouse
191 pages

"It is never agreeable for a man who is engaged to one girl and has just proposed to another to find himself in the company of both of them."

Ivor Llewellyn and his lawyer Mr. Trout have been through five divorces together, but it's time to say goodbye. Llewellyn is headed for England, but he leaves with parting advice from his good friend Trout:  for heaven's sake, man, steer clear of marriage!  Trout's own secret at avoiding matrimony is simple: he belongs to a discrete club of gentlemen who, when one of their members is headed down the slippery slope of copulation, rescues him.  At the first batted eyelash, the first romantic date, the members of Bachelors Anonymous step in fight off the lady-types and redeem their pal.  While there is no such club in England, Trout suggests that his friend look into employing some reasonably level-headed fellow in London who can help safeguard him from unwanted female affection.  They find such a man in young Joe Pickering, whose heartfelt first play has just been ruined by a diva stealing all of the lines.  In the comedy of errors that follows, however, and a string of coincidences so preposterous that even the characters are boggled at them,   the book ends with at least two marriages.  Wodehouse is a delightful absurdist; there is some pleasure just in the silly situations he comes up with, but the style of the story works to great effective. The characters are often pompous, and Wodehouse sneaks in little barbs that are completely nonsensical, but in a novel of this sort not altogether rout of place. He informs the reader, for instance, that one particular character’s  flight to England arrived on time, thanks to the complete lack of a hijacking.  It’s so apropos of nothing, and yet if the flight was hjacked, it’s the sort of  random happenstances that would fit into a crazy, silly story like this. This is nothing but entertainment, of course, but it’s lively and stylish.

In a Dark Wood

In a Dark Wood
© 1998 Michael Cadnum
256 pages

In a Dark Wood tells the story of Robin Hood, the merry thief of Sherwood Forrest, from the perspective of the sheriff whose peace he breaks. Sir Geoffrey of Nottinghamshire may be the High Sheriff, but he’s no villain given to dressing in black, kicking children, and shaking down widows for the king’s tribute.  He is a dutiful functionary of the Realm, obliged to administer the king’s business. Before him lives are weighed in the balance, arguments are settled, taxes taken in. It’s  soul-smothering work, really, and his wife is no relief, taken up as she is with a handsome falconer.  When a prankster takes up residence in the forest flanking the king’s High Way, demanding tolls, Geoffrey is at first annoyed,  and then – interested.  This Robin is no simple thief. He doesn’t seem to be interested in taking great hauls, sabotaging the king’s interest, or persecuting innocent travelers; he’s out to have fun. He must be stopped, of course; the king’s law is perfect and none who thumb their noses at it can get away scot-free.  But Geoffrey shies from becoming the man’s ruin, just as an overtaxed man might feel a pang of regret after suddenly roaring at a giddy child to stop singing. There is something wrong in the silence that erupts.  There are no heroes here, no villains, only men crushed by the burden of responsibility and those free of it finding ways to rescue one another from meaninglessness. It’s an interesting take on Robin Hood that restores the sheriff to his full humanity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Boudica: The Life and Legend of Britain's Warrior Queen
© 2006 Vanessa Collingridge
390 pages

To the Roman mind, the isles of Britain lay in the shadows between the light of civilized Empire and the dark depths of the unknown Oceanus which encircled the world. Naturally the ambition of the Caesars would be to attempt its capture. Repeated invasions led by both Julius Caesar himself and successors like Claudius created an effective Roman presence in wild Britannia, complete with a few cowed client states. Those who resisted were crushed or humiliated. When one tribe strayed from the straight and narrow leading to Rome, their queen was beaten and her daughters raped.  The name Boudica may ring but a distant bell for Americans, but the avenging queen is a figure of legend in English history. Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica examines not only the life of this long-dead heroine, but how her legacy of opposing conquest and humiliation has been remembered throughout English history.

Boudica  is storied, personable, and sometimes speculative on occasion, but is as thorough as a history about a life so scantily recorded can be. Collingridge offers an expansive background (delivering an entire history of the Roman people that focuses on their frequent altercations with the Gauls), and uses archaeological evidence like coins to supplement the official Roman accounts of the revolt.  The background is useful for casual readers of history in understanding “Celtic” Britain;  as Collingridge points out,  Celtic is a relatively modern label that assumes more unity than actually existed.   The native British and the continental Gauls did share certain a general culture, with similar art and gods, but not only did the Britons view their European relations as a people apart, but even on the island they were divided into a multitude of warring tribes. Contemporary research unearths more questions than answers;  the amount of Roman artifacts lying around Britain decades before Caesar braved the Channel indicates that there was more traffic across the channel than previously thought.  Some attempts to settle questions remain purely in the realm of the imagination;  Collingridge hints that there may have been a famine in areas of the island around the time of the invasion, given the burned remnant of imported French grain.  There is little that is really known about Boudica; even drawing from two Roman histories, we only know her tribe, the assault against her, and her subsequent part played in a rebellion that burned to the ground three Roman settlements, including London.  The importance of Boudica lies not in what she accomplished during her life (the rebellion failed), but how she is remembered.  Female rulers brought nothing but woe to the Romans, but for the English she would regarded as a source of inspiration. This was especially true during the reigns of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, where her ideal as a roaring, wounded mother helped generate devotion to the Queen as a feminine ideal, and support for her benevolent empire.

Collingridge makes the most out of limited material and tells a good story. This is terra incognita for me, but she does a solid job establishing how sketchy our appreciation of pre-Roman Britain is.

The British History Podcast,  Episode 10: Boudica's Rebellion

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Other Queen

The Other Queen
© 2008 Philippa Gregory
448 pages

 Bess of Hardwick has survived three husbands, but her fourth may be too much. Sure, he’s the Lord High Steward, whose family came over on the Norman Mayflower,  but the man’s sentimentality will be his undoing. Sixteenth century England is wracked by reformation and political conspiracy; it's a time that warrants discretion and pragmatism, not romantic heroics. Look at Scotland, where the lords have just deposed their queen, accusing her of conspiring to blow up her late husband!   Of course, the Earl of Shrewsberry didn't mean to drive his family, the Talbots, to ruin.  He was asked by the Queen to provide shelter her ousted cousin the Queen of Scots. Is it his fault that she attracts conspiracies  like a flame attracts moths?  And is it his fault that this damsel in distress is so utterly, utterly, lovely? So obviously in need of protection? Such is the story of The Other Queen, of a woman who tears a man's life apart by undermining his loyalty to both Queen Elizabeth and his own wife. 

At first, keeping a ward of Queen Elizabeth seemed like an honor and a boon. If she had only been a confined guest for a short time, she might have very well been.  Alas for the Talbots  the young queen initially being sheltered from those rampaging Scots quickly becomes an object of suspicion and intrigue. As the English court dithers about what to do with her, she hangs as a millstone around the neck of the Talbots. She's a very royal creature, Mary;   Queen Consort of France, Queen Regnant of Scotland, and -- shall England be added to the list? It could, for Mary has Tudor roots, and that posits a problem for  Good Queen Bess and an opportunity for her enemies. How easy would it be to justify overthrowing a spinster queen reigning over a schismatic church , replacing her with a merry young princess who Europe loves and who is perfectly capable of producing a few proper heirs?  She's a lightening rod for trouble, this Mary, and maybe it's just as well that she's in England, under watchful eyes. Mary's royal appetites, however -- the size of her staff, her curious insistence on bathing her face in white wine --   are going to drive her guardians into bankruptcy if she doesn't get them killed first. Although the model of saintliness to her hosts, Mary is constantly writing letters and scheming ways to escape to Scotland and regain her throne, or even to claim Elizabeth's.  England's leaders aren't blind to this, and they have a spy within the house that casts suspicion on Shrewsberry himself.  For his part, he is slowly smitten by Mary, and doubly so when people keep asking him pointed questions. What has she done to make them so angry, poor innocent lamb?  Eventually things go south, of course, and this being Tudor England it ends in executions.

 There's a lot going on this novel. It's historical fiction, and Tudor drama gives an immediate kind of soap opera drama. Personal and political are mixed;   Elizabeth's advisers want to keep a close eye on Mary, but her presence in England heightens her threat. Throughout the book the Earl of Shrewsberry is gradually seduced by Mary;  not sexually but in a style reminiscent of courtly love. He wants to be her knight in shining armor, even though her whims are destroying the fortune his wife has painstakingly built up and his defensiveness regarding Mary erodes  his reputation at court.  Mary is playing him like a lyre, though,  as her own chapters reveal to the reader.   I'd expected this to be sympathetic, and the book does make her out to seem a utterly lovely creature much of the time, but...jellyfish are also pretty. They are no less deadly for it, and when Mary is finally tossed into the tower and dispatched the only person I felt sorry for was Bess.  I may give Gregory another try or two;  soap operas aren't much my style, but she has a great variety of works out there from the looks of it. She certainly succeeds in bringing to life again a long-dead queen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Joe Steele

Joe Steele 
© 2015 Harry Turtledove
448 pages

            What if Joseph Stalin was a Democrat? Imagine that the Man of Steel’s parents had emigrated to the United States before he was born, and that instead of rising to power through a Bolshevik revolution, he was voted into high office. In Joe Steele, Stalin wins the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination after his rival FDR perishes in a mysterious fire; after trouncing Hoover in the general elections, he immediately adds the United States to the 1930s’ diverse list of totalitarian hellholes, complete with labor camps and knocks at midnight from men in black.  The sheer magic of being Joseph Stalin is irresistible…and inexplicable.

Joe Steele is a strange creature; for most of the book, history unfolds as it did in our own time,  despite the fact that Leon Trotsky reigns in Russia instead of good ol’ uncle Joe.  In the United States, Stalin uses the desperation of the Depression to justify four-year programs that are a staggering departure from American governance. He opens his hundred days by nationalizing the banks,  and from the public is uttered not a peep. When the Supreme Court stirs itself to point out that there are no Constitutional grounds whatsoever for the president to take over the banks,  Stalin has his new buddy J. Edgar Hoover arrest  those justices deemed obstructive. Who exactly has the authority to issue an arrest warrant for the Supreme Court?   The staggering implausibility of this is matched only by the fact that all four immediately confess to conspiring with Hitler to undermine the president’s glorious revival of the American enterprise. Stalin’s ability to force people to do exactly what he wants continues throughout the book, and it is never once believable. He is as charismatic as a potato, and while one man can be blackmailed, how can an entire Congress?  And there are precious few consequences for these actions;  aside from the people being thrown into labor camps to cut down trees or dig ditches, the Depression and the War go on as history ordained. This, despite the people like Douglas MacArthur who are lost in military purges.  Men of consequence are being introduced and felled, but history's course is largely unchanged. Stalin even runs against the same exact people that FDR did.  Only in the last hundred pages does history take an interesting turn when Stalin is forced to invade the Home Islands of Japan. Otherwise, it’s WW2 as usual with the President being really mean.

Turtledove's books are character driven, allowing readers to soak in an alternative history as the viewpoints live it.  Unfortunately for Joe Steele, there are all of three characters of importance here: a reporter turned political prisoner, the reporter's presidential speechwriter brother, who seems to drink bourbon every time he is introduced, and Joe himself.  The problem with Joe is that he doesn't make sense. He has a personal vendetta against Leon Trotsky reason at all.  Joe was born in California; he has as much reason to loathe Trotsky as I do the mayor of Tokyo. His politics are limited to "let me do stuff":  he despises Communists despite running to help the downtrodden working masses against the evil rich, but makes no reference to any other worldview. Turtledove never even mentions political movements that Joe could have had connections to -- no wobblies, no Grange, no nothin'. The only explanation for his being here, the only explanation for him getting away with anything at all, is that Turtledove really wants an American Stalin. But...Joe Steele isn't.  He has no discernible ties to the American culture he is introduced as a member of. He's Stalin with a different name, albeit with slightly moderated sociopathy. Quoting founding fathers and hating Soviets doesn't make a man American, and suspension of disbelief never gets off the ground here. . 

This may have made for a diverting short story, but it hasn't scaled up well. Harry can coax out an authentically American tyranny; he did it somewhat in the Timeline-191 series.  Size shouldn't a problem: Joe Steele is larger than The Plot Against America and It Can't Happen Here, both of which introduced a fascist USA concept. Unless the reader is supremely interested in Stalin,  this book falls flat:   there is no agonizing but sophisticated remolding of the American politics to fit a tyrannical vision, and what significant departures there are don't arrive until late. Even then, there's no weight to them, because our characters are after-the-fact observers only.  It doesn't help matters that there are entire scenes in which nothing at all happens: in one, Charlie walks into Joe's office, congratulates him on  reelection, and then wanders away. Turtledove is as he is, though, a reliable producer of diverting premises and partially-assembled stories. So what if Joe Stalin were president? He might not kill twenty million people. He might just settle for executing the few thousand who annoyed him.   And that, dear readers, is about as far as it goes. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ruled Britannia

Ruled Britannia
© 2002 Harry Turtledove
458 pages

1597. The 16th century is drawing to a close, and with it -- seemingly -- England's fortunes. Nine years ago the vast Spanish armada triumphed in delivering its army to English shores, where grim veterans easily cast aside the hastily-drawn levies that met them on the beaches. Spain's daughter reigns as queen, while England's own languishes in Bell Tower.  The Catholic church has been restored to power over Protestantism, and with such severity that the mention of the English Inquisition can cause a man's blood to chill.  One of the most popular of English playwrights, enjoyed by even the overseeing Spanish, is one William Shakespeare, who has been asked to write a play celebrating the life of Spain's aging monarch, Phillip. But what if instead of memorializing the crown occupant, he celebrates the tragedy of Queen Boudica, a Celtic chieftess of yore  who lead her proud Britons in battle against a Roman invader? So begins what must for me be Harry Turtledove's most fascinating piece to date, a tribute to a master wordsmith via alternate history.

Ruled Britannia stands apart from Turtledove's other work, being largely dominated by  the one figure of William Shakespeare instead of drawing from an ensemble cast. There is another viewpoint character, the likewise famous Lope de Vega, but Shakespeare is the star.  Even when he is not telling the story, he is present: lines from his work absolutely riddle the dialogue. The language, too, is unusual: Turtledove switches between present-day English for narration, and Elizabethan English for his characters' conversations.  This requires adjustment on the part of the reader, but like tugging on a boot, it seems natural enough after a little effort. For once, Turtledove's annoying habit of being repetitive works to the readers' advantage, helping the arcane vocabulary and spellings ("murther most foul!") gain familiarity.  Most of the characters are historic personalities, another unusual move for Turtledove, and one of the few exceptions exists in a netherworld of fiction and fact, being one of the real Shakespeare's characters re-purposed for this set.  Shakespeare doesn't get up to much within the book, instead, while he  writes and prepares two plays at once, consorting with Spanish nobles and rebellious Englishers in such a fashion as to court death from other side, readers experience life in occupied England.  Tension comes in the form of a string of deaths of men connected with Shakespeare and the scheme to release Boudica's rebellion onto the unsuspecting dons. The poet is watched both by suspicious Spainards and calculating revolutionaries, neither of whom are afraid of a little villainy in the name of a worthy cause. Faced with death from either side,  Shakespeare ultimately performs for himself, for his own conscience; for he is an Englishman, called to show the mettle of his pasture. His decision whether or not to be the rebellion's propagandist is never in doubt, and the parts of the play shared with readers are certainly blood-rousing enough. The novel's last fifth is on rebellion itself, with lots of sword-fighting and enthusiastic yelling.

For the fan of Shakespeare and historical fiction, this is gold -- and a most unusual treat for readers of alt-historical fiction. While I could have done without some of the luridness and at least twenty uses of the same phrase ("made a leg"), this is one to remember with fondness.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


© 2012 John Stack
400 pages

It is the 16th century, and a crisis looms for England.  Spain, who thanks to the plunder of the New World and its Hapsburg connections, is Europe's heavyweight and the declared enemy of England, threatens war. Spanish armies stand just across the Channel, occupying Holland, and a massive fleet has sailed from Iberia to help cover and transport that invading army to a land which has not known a conqueror's boots in five hundred years.  The force from without may have assistance from within, as persecuted Catholics look to Madrid for salvation. In the center of this drama is Robert Varian, a secret Catholic whose father was said to have died in exile following defeat in a rebellion decades ago.  Robert's father Nathaniel is quite alive, however, and from Spain he has helped organize the forthcoming invasion.  If Robert could be convinced to aide his father and provide intelligence on the gathering English fleet,  he could very well pave the way to Spanish victory and the restoration of the Faith in England.  But matters are far from simple.  A recusant Robert may be, but he is an Englishman who loves his Queen -- but does he love her more than his father?  As the hours draw the two massive forces closer to conflict, desperate attempts in England to root out a potential spy dot the landscape with death, and two missions converge in the same running battle as the English fleet and a fickle wind fight fiercely against the armed might and brazen ambition of the Dons.

Robert Varian dominates the lead here in a way  John Stack's other hero, Atticus, never did. Although there is an ensemble of other viewpoint characters, one of whom is his principle Spanish rival, this is Robert's story.  Happily, then, he's a likable fellow; conflicted, but devoted to his faith, his country, and the memory of  his father. He thrives as a warrior in an age of changing seamanship; sailors might pack primitive muskets and fire cannons instead of cutlasses and arrows, but cannons have begun their conquest of the naval scene. While the Spanish still rely heavily on boarding and hacking away,  the English have begun to experiment with using cannon alone to wear down the enemy. It is a tactic that will serve them in good stead during the battle itself, and give the Spanish captain Morales no end of grief. He wants desperately to take down Varian, a man who took his ship but spared his life in a raid, but how can he if the English do not consent to letting their graceful gunships be bludgeoned down by massive galleons? So Varian wrestles with both his conscience and the Spanish, working out the question of how he can be true to his faith, his father, and his country.  His love for both England and the church contrasts with the fanaticism of those on either side working against him, both Puritans in England and holy warriors in Spain.

The story of the Armada's protracted fight against the English fleet, unfolding over the course of several days, is told largely through the repeated brawls between Varian and his Spanish counterpart's ships, climaxing with a frantic duel aboard a burning ship.  It's a strange story, both because of the in-flux state of naval war, transitioning from ancient to modern methods, and because of the way it ends. The Spanish Armada is not destroyed, and neither is the English fleet;  they fight and go home. Stack's historical note comments that it was fortunate for England that the Spanish regarded themselves as spent, for the English fleet was driven to exhaustion as well, and this attitude reflects itself in the story, in that the Spanish lead is driven to despair over his loss even as the English captains are worrying about what the morrow will bring.  Varian, at least, gets most of his ends tidied up, though parts of the ending seem to be begging for a sequel.  It's a slight blemish, however, and if Stacks does more work in this period, so much the better off are we readers!

Come Rack! Come Rope!

Come Rack! Come Rope!
© 1912 Robert Hugh Benson
424 pages

Dear Miss Manners:
      My father, having long been both a leader of resistance against religious tyranny and an inspiration to his countrymen, has surrendered most abjectly and is pestering me into joining him. Whatever shall I do?
Doubtful in Derbyshire

Dear Doubtful:
          Flee to Rheims and become a priest, or marry me.  Your pick!
Miss Manners

Young Robin Audrey becomes an enemy of the State when his father forces him to choose between Caesar and Christ. The Audreys are, or were, recusant Catholics; that is, Catholics who refuse to convert to the increasingly Protestantized Church of England.  For years a gentle truce held in Derbyshire:  its squire,  Robin's father, absented himself from church but paid fees for doing so. Thirty years into Elizabeth's reign, however, times are changing. her reign imperiled by rumors of palace revolt and am impending invasion from Spain,  the Virgin Queen wages war against her own people  to maintain distance from Rome, going so far as to hunt down and execute any priest of the Catholic church.   Fees and fears piling up,  Old Audrey finally surrenders: but his son cannot. Raised in the ancestral faith of Europe, he cannot abandon it for mere convenience' sake. Seeking moral support and advice from his secret fiance, Marjorie Manners,  he realizes a call to the priesthood. Retreating to France to take on holy orders, he thus becomes a hunted foe of the crown - and so begins a tragic romance and a stirring tale of resistance against religious persecution.

Our heroes here are of course Robin and Majorie, who sacrifice their own happiness out of devotion to higher deals. A Catholic priest, of course, cannot marry, and even if they could  there would be little domestic bliss to be found when one party is constantly in hiding and the other constantly doing the hiding. Both resist the Crown's intrusion into matters of conscience in their own way; Robin, by  traveling and ministering to the hidden faithful, and Marjorie by helping hide other priests who are engaged in the same business. In an ideal world, perhaps the Queen would have let her  Catholic subjects be, but the English Reformation was far from ideal. Not only has the Pope issued a bull absolving Catholics from fealty to Elizabeth, thus casting a treasonous light upon them in her eyes, but there are serious threats of assassination to contend with. Who but Catholics would want to drive the Protestant prince of England out, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots? And who but Catholics would welcome an invasion of England by Catholic Spain?  Robin and Mary are not violent insurrectionists, and certainly no sympathizers to any Spanish invasion --  indeed, they urge their countrymen against rash actions. But war would not be the horror that it is if it did not  consume the lives of innocents, and so it is that virtually every character introduced after the opening chapter will be executed at the hands of the State.

But where sin abounds, there grace does much more abound -- and there is grace to be found here. Robin lives a life of grace,  risking torture and death so that he might offer comfort to the hounded - - even listening to the confession of Mary, the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Some of the tragic beauty here comes from the relationship between Marjorie and Robin; even though they cannot marry,  love still unites them. It is not an erotic love, but they are very much partners in the same great enterprise. Another of the tale's wrenching aspects is the relationship between Robin and his father, who have become enemies: in the last hour, it is the father's unwitting signature on the warrant which damns him -- and yet  there is absolution. The finish is heartrending, but fitting.

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves
© 1923 P.G. Wodehouse
225 pages

Bertie Wooster is something of an imbecile, but his preference for the quiet life would keep him out of trouble were it not for the fact that his relations and idiot friends are constantly getting him into scraps. If his domineering Aunt Agatha isn’t constantly trying to get him married, or worse, employed, his friend Bingo Little is plotting some elaborate scheme to win the heart of the girl-of-the-week. (Even if she is a socialist revolutionary, and Bingo a contented member of the Idle Rich.) Fortunately for Bertie, he has Jeeves, the epitome of an efficient and clever valet. Jeeves hasn’t yet encountered a predicament too difficult, no Gordian knot too tangled, to  finesse.  The Inimitable Jeeves  collects a series of escapades, colorfully and hilarious rendered, in which Jeeves pulls Bertie’s chestnuts out of the fire. This particular set of stories is more or less pulled together by the many love affairs of Bingo, who doesn’t think twice about introducing  Bertie to his uncle as an acclaimed author, so that Bertie might better influence the uncle into giving Bingo more of an allowance. The scenarios are  absurd in themselves, but what truly sells  Wodehouse’s storytelling is the narrative voice.  Bertie tells these stories personally, and his delivery is a riot -- so earnest, so energetic, so full of quaintly charming slang. Bertie never walks anywhere, no, -- he legs it.  And while Bertie is catastrophically throwing himself into whatever obstacles come his away, Jeeves is hovering in the background and working his magic. He is unflappable, and I have rarely been so delighted by any set of stories.

At any rate, now I know why Isaac Asimov constantly referred to Wodehouse writing his Black Widower series!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Chosen

The Chosen
© 1967 Chaim Potok
288 pages

Danny and Reuven are two Orthodox Jewish boys who take one thing very seriously: baseball.  When their rival schools meet on the baseball diamond, religious passion turns play to war, and an accident hospitalizes Reuven. Thus is born an unexpected friendship, one that matures throughout their adolescence.  The two come of age in a difficult era; the book begins in World War 2, and takes them through the discovery of the Holocaust, and the turmoil that surrounded Israel's creation. Making matters still more interesting is the boys' religious identities and their respective desires:  Danny is a Hasidic Jew being groomed to succeed his father, while Reuven's dad is a somewhat more secular professor.  Both boys are intellectually-oriented themselves, serious students of both their tradition and respective interests:  one is fascinated by logic, the other by Freud.  Their passion frequently causes them to bump heads with one another, and not necessarily over religious matters. Reuven's rationalism threatens not Danny's religion, but his passion of Freudian psychology.  Their most serious break has nothing to do with either of them, but with their fathers' respective politics: the professor is a passionate supporter of the nascent Israeli state, while the rabbi believes an Israel led by secular Jews is an obscenity, utter anathema to any devout follower of Torah.  This is mid-20th century America, a place utterly recognizable...but many of the characters live within a culture that is utterly exotic to the American mainstream, and The Chosen is simultaneously the story of boys becoming men and an education in Hasidic Judaism. There are five principle characters in this novel: the boys, their fathers, and the Talmud. Thousands of years of Jewish practice and biblical commentary are contained in its various volumes, and its demands and wisdom both guide our characters and fill their lives with reverent dread.  The Chosen is utterly fascinating with a strong redemptive finish.

Little Women

Little Women
© 1868 Louisa May Alcott
528 pages

"But you see, Jo wasn't a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested. It's highly virtuous to say we'll be good, but we can't do it all at once, and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way."
Last year I began a course of American literature, purposely reading classics I'd heard of my entire life but never read. Little Women resumes that effort, and like A Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom's Cabin, I found it a genuine surprise.  Originally written as a story for girls, it features the four girls of the March family -- Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy -- as they grow up in America's 19th century. Aside from the odd jaunt to New York or Europe, this is domestic fiction, set in or around the March home, and filled with the quiet little episode of childhood. The sisters chatter endlessly as they see to their responsibilities, they run about outside having wild adventures in their minds, they piece together bold plans and see them fly apart -- they fight, they love.  The home life is punctuated with minor drama throughout -- a little scarlet fever here, a near-drowning there -- but there's no great quest, no calamitous struggle to overcome. There is merely the challenge of living life day to day, of growing as a result of its challenges and not giving into them.  Is it exciting? Well, no, but it's cozy, and even entertaining.  I read this to strike it off a list, but Alcott's sense of humor won me over. The book's gushing wholesomeness can be gathered from the fact that the girls interpret their lives according to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but there's too much snark here for it to be saccharine. Jo and her neighbor-friend Laurie are especially fun: the word 'mischief' appears twenty times in the text, and every time they are getting up to it.  It's not that they're scheming, but Jo in particularly doesn't respond well to having to stuff her into a box of propriety, as she does when she and her sister go to make social calls at an overly pompous house. She doesn't desire an ordinary life, but yearns to write, and so she does -- but eventually becoming an aunt, she finds all the pleasures of ordinary family life besides. The relationships between the characters have especial appeal because they are developed through the years; the full book covers over a decade, and in it the characters mature from children to adults with children of their own. Though the voices of the characters alter as they increase in maturity, still there are the spots where childlike abandon erupts through. This is a tale full of warmth, good humor and more than a few one-liners.

Read of England 2015

In previous years I have done a bit of reading devoted expressly to England around St. George's Day on April 23rd. This time around, however,  I'm going whole hog -- April belongs to England!  The majority of what I read in the next four weeks will be English literature, English history, fiction set in England, books about English culture, biographies of famous English-types, books written in English -- okay, maybe not that broad, but you get the idea. I'm essentially carving out some space to read more Dickens or Austen.  There may be one or two non-English things sneaking in, but on the whole it will be a very English month.What to expect? Well,  The Armada by John Stack is sailing my way, so that's one at the very least,  and there are a couple of classics I want to poke my nose into.

And awaaaaaaaaaaaay we go!