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Mary Whipple (New England)

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Bright Starry Banner
Bright Starry Banner
by Alden R. Carter
Edition: Hardcover
21 used & new from CDN$ 2.75

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A frightful equilibrium in the trading of death.", April 17 2004
This review is from: Bright Starry Banner (Hardcover)
The end of 1862 ushered in a bleak New Year in which over eighty thousand men from the Union and Confederacy faced each other across battle lines outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sang "Home Sweet Home" in unison, and then loosed their guns and cannons at each other. Pitting Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans of the Army of the Cumberland against the infamous Gen. Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee, this devastating battle, in which both sides eventually claimed victory, cost the lives of 25,000 men in just three days.
Author Carter uses primary sources to recreate the minutiae of this horrendous battle, and he is precise in his discussion of troop movements, the order of events, and the real actions of real people. Classified as a "novel" because the author recreates conversations which were not recorded and provides insights into what the participants may have been thinking and feeling, the book feels more like a comprehensive re-enactment than fiction. There are no imagined subplots, no love story, and no great or fully developed hero (though Gen. Rosecrans comes closest). Real events become the plot, and real battle movements and counter-movements become the "rising action," with "suspense" depending on the reader's unfamiliarity with these events and the characters' destinies.
By including as much personal background and information as is known about each real character, Carter humanizes the many generals on both sides who had often been classmates and friends from West Point, showing their soul-searching and personal relationships. Lower ranking officers and soldiers reveal the extent to which this was a "generals' war," with one soldier suggesting that all the soldiers on both sides "just go on home...leaving you officers to settle things among yourselves." The inclusion of Ambrose Bierce, a Union map-maker who later used his war-time experience in his writing, serves as a fascinating motif throughout, as Carter shows the particular events which appear in Bierce's work.
By the time the novel is finished, the reader is emotionally spent. Friendly fire accidents, the carnage of death by cannon, the misfires of ordnance, and the need to fire shells over the heads of their own men reflect the bloody reality of this war, while the moments of kindness which soldiers often extended to each other put a human face upon it. The descriptions are so precise, the devastation so total, the accidents so disastrous, and the role of chance so all-encompassing that the horrors of this war linger. Carter's novel is a huge achievement which should provide Civil War buffs with hours of serious study. Mary Whipple

The Shadow of the Wind: A Novel
The Shadow of the Wind: A Novel
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.51
51 used & new from CDN$ 1.20

4.0 out of 5 stars "It was a dark and stormy night...", April 14 2004
When eleven-year-old Daniel Sempere awakens early one morning, screaming, because he has suddenly forgotten the face of his deceased mother, his devoted father comforts him. As dawn breaks, Daniel's father, a bookseller, takes him on his first visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret, maze-like library which preserves books "no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time." Each person who visits must adopt a book, guaranteeing that it will never disappear, and when Daniel sees The Shadow of the Wind, he knows it "had been waiting for me there for years, probably since before I was born." Captivated by this book by Julian Carax, Daniel tries to find out more about its mysterious author and locate additional novels, but he discovers that some other unknown seeker is also searching for Carax's books--in order to burn them.
Lovers of the Gothic romance will be handsomely rewarded by the action-filled plot, as a sensitive and loving young boy comes of age while trying to unravel the mysteries associated with the elusive Julian Carax. A ghostly apparition in the misty lamplight, a faceless man who seems to have an inordinate interest in Daniel, a sadistic police inspector, and an incarnation of the devil himself all materialize as Daniel begins his search for information about Carax. Heavy, sensual imagery creates a sense of foreboding, while night-time mists, storms, and winter cold add atmosphere to sensational scenes and coincidences. A mysterious photograph, letters which go astray, false identities, an abandoned mansion with a sobbing ghost, a matricide, an evil stepfather, thwarted love, mysterious disappearances, revenge which never dies, and murder most foul all complicate the action. The evil characters are truly villainous, Daniel and his father are truly virtuous, and the women whom Daniel and Julian Carax love are pure and true of heart.
Though the novel offers a good escape, it is almost six hundred pages long. Extensive background information for virtually all the characters (and even a house) gives more information than the reader really needs, and many scenes could be compressed. Occasionally, the mood is broken by mild profanity and bathroom humor. This romance does achieve more relevance than some others, however, by being directly connected to the world of books, with a setting that reflects the political climate of Spain after the Civil War and World War II. The characters are memorable, if relatively uncomplicated, and the parallels between Daniel's coming-of-age and the story of Julian Carax offer some sense of universality to this otherwise sensational melodrama. Mary Whipple

The 27th Kingdom
The 27th Kingdom
by Alice Thomas Ellis
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars "I wonder what the hangman's having for tea.", April 3 2004
This review is from: The 27th Kingdom (Hardcover)
In this wickedly dark comedy, Alice Thomas Ellis once again examines the lives of oddball outsiders, people who live in seemingly normal neighborhoods but who never quite belong to mainstream life there. Irene Wojtyla, the owner of Dancing Master House in Chelsea, is descended from Catholics who fled Russia and wandered across 27 lands and 30 countries before finally coming to rest in London, while her sister Berthe has landed Wales, where she is the Mother Superior of a convent. Aunt Irene, the adoptive mother of a tubercular and malicious nephew Kyril, has also been adopted by Focus, a white cat, who vainly attempts to vanquish the rat which constantly taunts and torments him.
When the sometimes psychic Aunt Irene agrees to take in a postulant from Sister Berthe's convent, the beautiful, black Valentine, who seems to have mystical powers, Irene casually reclaims the room she has illegally rented to "little Mr. Sirocco," leaving him homeless in order to provide a room for Valentine. Mrs. Mason, whose derelict husband is constantly drunk, serves as cleaning woman in the household, while the nearby O'Connor brothers keep the house supplied with horsemeat and antiquities obtained through thievery.
As these eccentric characters move almost randomly around London, the author shows the transcience of life and the strange acts of fate which change lives. Aunt Irene spends much of her time trying to avoid the tax man, Focus keeps trying unsuccessfully to catch the rat, Sister Berthe keeps waiting for an eternally fresh apple picked by Valentine to shrivel, Kyril keeps trying to figure out how to seduce Valentine, and death suddenly intrudes into people's lives. Ellis's study of good and evil incorporates the supernatural as much as traditional religion, giving a fresh view of man's place in the cosmos.
As always, Ellis's dialogue sparkles, her characters amuse, and her plot startles with its ironic twists and unexpected turns. Full of word play, literary jokes, and surprising imagery (the "clutching clamminess of seaweed" and the "cash-like clink of pebbles handled roughly by the dying waves"), the novel is full of humorous, sometimes satiric, observations: When a woman is hanged for killing her lover, Aunt Irene wonders what she is doing in a country, "where they wouldn't eat horses but they hanged their women." In describing the Book of Genesis, she comments that Genesis is "the only view that explained, for instance, mayonnaise." More wide-ranging and less tightly focused, thematically, than some other Ellis novels, 27th Kingdom is still vintage Ellis, a pure delight to read. Mary Whipple

Links
Links
by Nuruddin Farah
Edition: Hardcover
33 used & new from CDN$ 0.12

5.0 out of 5 stars "We should have the vulture as our national symbol.", April 2 2004
This review is from: Links (Hardcover)
Returning to Somalia twenty years after he was imprisoned and then sent into exile, Jeebleh arrives at a remote Mogadiscio airport now under the control of a major warlord. He has arrived from his adopted home in America to help his cousin Bile, affiliated with a warlord in the south of the city, find and rescue his kidnapped daughter and a friend. Because he belongs to the same clan as the warlord in the north, Jeebleh may be in a particularly good position to help if the child has been taken by a rival. The political situation is so tangled, however, that at times no one really knows who is allied with whom. "Here," someone says, "we don't think of 'friends' anymore. We rely on our clansmen...sharing ancestral blood."
It is not accidental that Jeebleh has received his doctorate for his book on Dante's Inferno, the symbolic parallel for the existentialist nightmare we see in Somalia. "We are at best good badmen or bad badmen," a Somali tells him as he tries to navigate the minefield of loyalties in Mogadiscio and stay alive. As Jeebleh tries to figure out whether his cousin Bile is one of the "good badmen" or "bad badmen" and whether Bile's half-brother in the north is involved in the kidnapping, we learn about his family background, Somali culture and history, and the mysterious associates of various warlords who want to "help" Jeebleh. The novel is filled with high tension as various characters, including Jeebleh, are pulled in different directions by circumstances over which they have no control. His enigmatic dreams and nightmares are much like the reality of life in Mogadiscio, where the crows and vultures are now tame because they are so well fed by the violence.
Author Farah's own background as an exiled Somali makes this novel particularly vivid, and the cultural conflicts and the pressures placed on Jeebleh's family loyalties ring with truth. As he represses his American values and makes some major decisions as a Somali, Jeebleh becomes part of the story of Somalia, "I've taken sides and made choices that may put my life in danger." Stressing that it is "only when there is harmony within the smaller unit," i.e., the family, that "the larger community finds comfort in the idea of the nation," Farah creates a taut novel in which the tensions within the family are a microcosm of the tensions within the country. Realistic in its descriptions and allegorical in its implications, Farah's novel is a breathtaking and sophisticated study of violence and betrayal certain to receive international recognition. Mary Whipple

The Priestly Sins: A Novel
The Priestly Sins: A Novel
by Andrew M. Greeley
Edition: Hardcover
42 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars "Priests stand together, just like cops and doctors.", April 2 2004
Setting this powerful novel in the imaginary Archdiocese of Plains City, Fr. Andrew Greeley uses the Midwest as the setting for a chilling examination of the Church's long-time cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests. Though the book is fiction and the main character imaginary, all the details, according to the author, have actually happened somewhere in the United States. The novel opens with an eight-page "partial transcript" of the case of Todd Sweeney against the Church, a stunning testimony in which Fr. Herman "Hugh" Hoffman reveals that when he was a newly ordained "farm boy, six weeks into his first assignment," he responded to a child's screams and witnessed Father Leonard "Lucifer" Lyon assaulting Todd Sweeney. In surprisingly graphic detail Fr. Hoffman describes what he saw and the cover-up that evolved when he reported this crime to the Monsignor and Archbishop.
Having established all the above in the opening chapter, the author then examines the life of Hugh Hoffman from his childhood in a closely knit farm family through his school years, his genuine (and passionate) love for Kathleen Quinlan, with whom he had a two-year affair, and his college years. His self-examination, his fears, hopes, and recognition of his own failings, show realistically the evolution of this "farm boy" into a committed priest. A dramatic contrast with the pedophile priest, the author uses him to show how good priests, over the years, have had to reconcile the teachings of the Church with the imperfect reality of the Church's structure.
The author does not mince words, vividly describing the systematic psychological warfare waged against those who challenge the status quo, and he is uncompromising in his depiction of a seminary system which, in need of priests, accepts and often ordains people who have clearly shown their unsuitability to work with children. The novel is absorbing, with plenty of action, and the author's decision to tell the story from Fr. Hoffman's point of view adds a new dimension to a problem which has been seen until now almost exclusively from the point of view of the immediate victim and family. The author's comparative statistics regarding abuse by priests vs. abuse by married clergy of other denominations, in the conclusion, support his heartfelt belief in a celibate priesthood, but these statistics are not footnoted, and they change the tone of the novel and make the ending feel a bit didactic. This is an honest and searching examination of a terrible problem, however, highlighting the difficulties faced by caring priests who have found themselves trapped within an unresponsive system. Mary Whipple

The Madonna of Excelsior
The Madonna of Excelsior
by Zakes Mda
Edition: Hardcover
22 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars "The sky was bereft of stars.", March 26 2004
In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda depicts the life of Niki, a black South African, showing her day-to-day struggles to survive under apartheid and raise her children, but he also depicts Fr. Frans Claerhout's idealized vision of her in his paintings--as a colorful Madonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change the world. Niki has posed for many of Fr. Claerhout's paintings, a job which has helped her to feed her black son and her half-white daughter, even though she has often had to walk thirty-five kilometers to his studio in order to pose. Niki's story, from her teen years to old age, becomes the story of South Africa itself during the last half of the 20th century, a novel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike the novels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though they cover the same time period.
Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, is almost entirely black, yet all power in government and business rests in white hands. Without resorting to melodrama or clichés, the author shows in incident after incident, how black women are regarded as chattel, regularly harassed and even raped by their white bosses, town officials, judges, and even clergymen. Yet Niki never yields to self-pity, even when she and eighteen other women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violating the Immorality Act, a violation which has produced Niki's daughter Popi. Imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating, Niki comes alive as a woman determined to hang on to her pride, using the only power she has, her sexual power, to control those who would control her.
Vivid scenes of South African life from the 1970s to the present bring Niki and her children to life. As the children grow and become deeply involved in political movements, Mda gives us a clear-eyed picture of South Africa's transition from a restrictive, white-ruled government to a democratically elected government with room for both races. The black people here are real, not idealized, people with hopes, dreams, and strategies for survival, and they evoke enormous sympathy from the reader, especially as their personal limitations and faults become clear. Concentrating less on the national violence and battles for survival, and more on the individual conflicts of people in Excelsior, many of whom the reader has come to like and respect, he presents complex issues in a clear, uncomplicated narrative which throbs with life and offers both hope and caution for the future. Mary Whipple

Floodmakers
Floodmakers
by Mylene Dressler
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars "They've outlived every interesting thing they've ever done., March 25 2004
This review is from: Floodmakers (Hardcover)
Summoned back to the beach house on the Texas Gulf Coast where his family lived and vacationed many years ago, Harry Buelle, a struggling, experimental playwright, is forced to confront his parents' aging, their declining health, and the barely hidden resentments he and his sister have borne against their demanding father for most of their lives. Dee Buelle, the father, a highly successful playwright with an unbroken string of hits, was both physically and emotionally absent when the children were small, and is now a querulous and impatient man with major health problems, for which he is refusing his medication. Sarah Buelle, Harry's sister, is a cinematographer filming an interview with her father, its purpose and agenda unclear at the start of the reunion.
In the tradition of the theater which dominates the lives of father and son, the author reveals most of the information about family dynamics through dialogue. Instead of setting and describing scenes, Dressler brings the characters together and then lets them goad each other and bicker, creating clear, sharp moments of high tension as the children confront their parents and the reality of their family life. Each person's reminiscences develop the family's collective history for the reader and reveal relationships, past and present. The children's love and admiration for Jean, their stepmother, sets their problems with their father into sharp relief, while some ironically humorous scenes allow the author to control the pace and mood. Despite the burdens placed upon it, the dialogue moves along smartly and sets a natural, conversational tone.

Dressler incorporates a sometimes overwhelming amount of symbolism in this short novel as she subordinates description and plot to the themes: The stormy winter setting at the beach parallels the cold, often stormy family dynamics. Though the beach house has been built on stilts, Harry pointedly notes that the house shakes in storms. A booby bird, being cared for in the house, remains oblivious to the two resident hunting dogs. Firmly rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition, the novel is filled with dark surprises, the most devastating of which come at the conclusion and are used in an effort to resolve the action. Since this grand finale contributes little to the understanding of the characters, some readers may feel a bit betrayed by the last-minute introduction of two dramatic new elements which further complicate, rather than simplify the lives of Harry and his sister Sarah. Mary Whipple

Soldiers of Salamis
Soldiers of Salamis
by Javier Cercas
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from CDN$ 15.41

4.0 out of 5 stars "There are no heroes in peacetime...no living heroes.", March 20 2004
This review is from: Soldiers of Salamis (Hardcover)
In this unusual story of the Spanish Civil War, author Cercas experiments with the voice of his main character and with the form of this novel, which he describes as "a compressed tale except with real characters and situations, like a true tale." The unnamed speaker, a contemporary journalist in his forties, is investigating the story of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a "good, not great" writer of the 1930s, who, in the final days of the Civil War (1936 - 1939) escaped a firing squad and lived to play a role in Franco's Nationalist government. The speaker believes that "forest friends" may have helped Sanchez Mazas survive the end-of-the-war turmoil, and he becomes obsessed with locating them, identifying the Popular front soldier who chose not to reveal Sanchez Mazas's whereabouts, and learning why they behaved as they did. As he investigates the story of Sanchez Mazas and the complex political alliances of the Civil War, the speaker realizes that he actually knows very little about this war, "not much more than I know about the battle of Salamis."

The speaker, who is obviously Javier Cercas himself, soon begins to expand the scope of his tale, investigating more than the verifiable facts about Sanchez Mazas and musing philosophically about the passage of time, the transcience of youth, the dubious legacy of war, and the nature of heroes. Wartime heroes live only as long as their friends remember them, and lives and memories are short: one must seize the moment and dance a paso doble in the time available.
The complex history of the Spanish Civil War in the first part of the novel is slow, full of unfamiliar names, places, and political alliances, but as the story of Sanchez Mazas unfolds, the reader gradually warms to the speaker's quest to learn everything he can about the incident in the forest. The scenes near the end of the book, set in a nursing home, are full of touching and emotional realizations, conveying powerful, universal messages about war and heroes from one generation to another (and to the reader) without being didactic. Cercas's style is honest and full of self-mockery, though some readers may be put off by his syntactically complex sentences, which are sometimes a page long. Focusing on what it means to be a hero, the novel is a tour de force in which the reader learns as much about the creative process of author Cercas as he does about the almost forgotten author Sanchez Mazas. Mary Whipple

The Birds of the Air
The Birds of the Air
by Alice Thomas Ellis
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from CDN$ 2.89

5.0 out of 5 stars "I feel like a great white vegetable.", March 18 2004
This review is from: The Birds of the Air (Hardcover)
It is Christmas-time, and Mary Marsh is spending all her time sitting in a windowseat, staring out at the quarreling birds while those around her prepare for the holidays. Shattered by the death of her young son Robin, she is living in her mother's house after suffering a complete breakdown. Surrounded by well-meaning but dense people who want to "snap her out of it," Mary sees herself as Iphigenia, a woman willing to be a sacrifice if she can only escape the world and rejoin Robin. Mrs. Marsh sees her, by contrast, as something resembling "a toad's tummy."
Despite the mordant tone and the genuine sadness one feels for Mary, Ellis has managed to write a tragicomedy that contains at least as much comedy, much of it satiric, as it does tragedy. Mary's mother, the doughty Mrs. Marsh, regards herself as "the keeper of the cage," seeing her daughter as "the bird [that] had come back, if only to die," but she believes her own grief compares to that of Mary, since "she permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow." Other family members also arrive with their baggage of problems. Barbara, Mary's sister, is the hard-working wife of Sebastian, an academic, and in a hilariously described party which Barbara holds for her husband's colleagues, Ellis skewers the pretensions and one-upsmanship of academia while revealing Seb's infidelity with a woman nicknamed (in keeping with the bird imagery) "The Thrush." Various neighbors and friends arrive at the Marsh household for the holiday dinner, and the predictable chaos and thwarted expectations result.
As is always the case with Ellis, every page contains some marvel of observation, pithy remark, or unique description about people and their attitudes. Sebastian, the academic, has dedicated his life to the proposition that words should be used "with tremendous care..that anyone who couldn't say exactly what he meant should keep his trap shut." Mrs. Marsh, however, "liked the human comfort of the cliché." Barbara suffers from "grasping, tentacular nervousness." One of the grandchildren "had an ego like the liver of a Strasbourg goose," and another character has a head that "looked as if it had been lightly buttered." Dialogue is sparkling and crafted to reveal character, as Ellis's droll, ascerbic wit turns an essentially sad story into a black comedy of misread cues, with elements of Welsh myth and fantasy serving as counterpoint to the symbolism of Christmas and the realities of life. Polished, provocative, and deliciously dark, this novel is one of Ellis's best. Mary Whipple

Fanny: A Fiction
Fanny: A Fiction
by Edmund White
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 2.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Fanny Wright, "a blazing, ten log fire sans firescreen.", March 15 2004
This review is from: Fanny: A Fiction (Hardcover)
In this ambiguously entitled novel, Fanny Trollope, writer and mother of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, looks back almost thirty years to the late 1820s and her friendship with the notorious Fanny Wright, a utopian visionary who was the first woman to speak publicly as an abolitionist, the first leader of the first labor party, and a radical journalist. In this unfinished (imaginary) biography of the now almost-forgotten Fanny Wright, Fanny Trollope uses flashbacks to explain Wright's development as a firebrand, her association with the intellectual leaders of the day, and the friendship between the two women.
Wright spent much time traveling the "paradise" of the United States, while the financially struggling Fanny Trollope remained in London and Paris, where she met Stendahl, Prosper Merimee, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, and eventually the revered Marquis de Lafayette. Fanny Wright and Lafayette had toured the United States together, and biographer Trollope records for posterity their travels and their meetings--with Thomas Jefferson about slavery, with Charles Bonaparte about the "atheistic, utopian, communistic society [of] Robert Owen," and with representatives of the Haitian government about a possible homeland for freed slaves.
When Wright recruits Fanny Trollope to help her promote a 2000-acre colony called Nashoba, near Memphis, the relationship between Wright and Trollope (who brings three of her children with her) comes to life. Wright intends "to liberate the Negro" and to show that "white men and women can live together without God, money, marriage, or even occupation" in an idyllic community, but Fanny Trollope is shocked by the reality of the Nashoba "utopia" on her arrival. She notes "the general slovenliness of the people" and the poverty all along the Mississippi, and comments that she has to lift her skirts to avoid tobacco juice in public places throughout the US. She is horrified that in Robert Owen's New Harmony, small children see their parents only once or twice a year and that many newcomers are freeloaders with no motivation to work.
As the two women and children travel throughout the country, the reader observes their increasingly fragile relationship. Trollope sees life whole, while Wright sees life in ideal terms, failing to recognize people as individuals while setting goals for humanity in general. Trollope is vividly drawn--resourceful, practical, and instinctively warm--while Wright, the subject of the biography, remains, unfortunately, aloof. Filled with the intellectual, social, and philosophical debates of mid-nineteenth century Europe and the United States, this novel is a fascinating study of two thoughtful, intelligent women who tried to make a difference. Mary Whipple

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