Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book Review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
by Jennifer Ryan

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it the most.”

So says Primrose Trent, the spirted music professor in the village of Chilbury (Kent, England, 1940). She emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir in the absence of men and instead “carry on singing”.  Resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift themselves up as the war tears through the lives of this sleepy community.

With the village sons, brothers, husbands and lovers heading off to join the war effort, Chilbury is virtually absent of men. The novel is told in a series of letters and journal entries of the women left behind, an eclectic cast of character, all members of the choir. It includes a lonely and shy widow as she fears for the safety of her only son and is tapped to take a colonel into her home; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist, her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past when she is bribed to exchange a girl baby for a boy baby.  Yes, there is much drama as author Jennifer Ryan captures the experience of the war from a woman’s perspective.  So much so that the television rights to this splendid novel have already been optioned by Carnival TV—the production company behind Downton Abbey.

Ryan, a native of England and former book editor, now lives in the Washington D.C. area. When asked about the women who inspired her story, she says she drew inspiration from her grandmother, who was a pretty, plump and jolly 20-year old at the beginning of World War II in England. Her life changed irrevocably as a result of the war as it did for many young women of the time, creating far more excitement than there had ever been before the war. “There was a general feeling that every day could be their last, making people drop their morals and enjoy life to the very fullest.” 

Her grandmother too belonged to a choir that was women only (by default) as the men had left for war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, it was a notoriously bad choir and they sang off-key for the entire war.  Ryan said the best part of her research was interviewing old ladies about their memories of the war.  In spite of horrific and sad stories of people losing loved ones, shockingly,
“most of them told me that the war was the best time of their lives because of the camaraderie developed amongst women as they took on many challenges and developed confidence and new skills in the workplace.”  Ryan says, “I wanted to write a novel in the women’s own voices, both in journals and letters, so that the reader could really get into their minds…to be fully immersed in the era and characters.”

I believe she succeeded as I was fully engaged throughout the book.  If you are an audio book fan, you will have the added pleasure of hearing the beautiful harmonic voices of this choir. Very uplifting.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In this day of receiving world news the instant it happens, often as it is happening, it’s hard to imagine how and when news was received in small isolated towns in the post-Civil War days.  
Author Paulette Jiles takes us to a time and place in our country’s history, 1870, as we meet Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who earns his living reading the world’s news to rapt audiences in the territories of north Texas.  The novel is about a precious long-gone time when the news was a rare commodity and an expert reader like Captain Kidd could both inform and entertain his eager crowds.

The captain is an honorable man and veteran of two wars who printing business has gone bust, whose wife has died and whose daughters are grown and married. After a Wichita Falls reading, an acquaintance offers a $50.00 reward for the return of a 10-year old white girl who was captured by the Kiowa to her only relatives some 400 miles away, near San Antonio. Despite grave reservations, Kidd agrees to make the journey, not so much for the reward but because it seems the honorable thing to do.

The girl, Johanna, is sullen, prone to running away and remembers nothing before her time with the Kiowa tribe.  She mourns her Kiowa mother, her family, her nomadic life. The Captain, while at times exasperated by his charge, is a tender-hearted man who does his best to protect her and ease her painful transition back into the “civilized” world.

Johanna is a hellion from the start. To prepare for their journey, a group of Wichita Falls whores try to bathe and dress her. At the end of the bath, the tub is on its side and dripping water onto the red-flocked wallpaper in their receiving parlor.  So begins the journey for the Captain and Johanna, pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas and the reconciling of vastly different cultures, as Kidd has to explain to her when she is all set to collect a white man’s scalp, that “this is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done. Johanna doesn’t speak English, eats with her hands and knows how to use a revolver. Her skills serve them well as they encounter violent weather, bandits and Comanche raids.  At a crucial moment, she proves to be a fearless warrior.

As well as the adventure of their journey, there is persistent suspense throughout as to what will happen to Johanna when she and Kidd reach their destination. It goes without saying that the young girl and the older man develop a close bond and become trusting friends.

If you are a fan of the movies True Grit (a girl on a long journey with an older man) and The Searchers (a man’s journey to rescue a white girl who has been captured by Indians), you will probably enjoy News of the World.  Author Jiles, herself a rancher near San Antonio, has been praised for her ability to build absorbing dramatic scenes as well as giving her readers authentic descriptions. One reviewer says, “Food, smells, characters encountered along the road, the uneasy towns….all have the feel of truth, of a time and place brought vividly to life.”

For me, as well as the absorbing adventure, the beauty of this book was that it gave evidence of the best and worst in human nature with the good prevailing. As I write this review, there is a steady stream of rain falling in Munds Park.  This is the perfect book to be your rainy-day companion.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

There are so many significant and interesting themes throughout this book, I hardly know where to begin.  This story encompasses  Los Alamos from the 40’s to the 70’s Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, Women’s Lib, Vietnam, and perhaps one of the most surprising and delightful aspects—orthonology. 

Yet, the narrator tells us, as early as page two, that this is not Oppenheimer’s story nor  the story of the creation of the bomb; it is not her physicist husband’s story. This, she says, is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb’s birth and tried to fly in its aftermath.

Meredith Wallace is seventeen years old in the fall of 1941 when she begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago.  As a student she becomes captivated by an older and brilliant professor, Alden Whetstone.  When he goes to Los Alamos to work on a secret wartime project, she follows.  She has every intention to return to her own graduate studies but when she becomes adrift in a traditional marriage with severe limitations, she loses her own sense of passion and purpose.

She eventually channels her scientific ambition into the study of a family of crows, birds whose free life and companionship are the very things beyond her reach.  But when she meets a young geologist, a Vietnam vet, she is awakened to changes she never thought possible.

One reviewer says, “A beautiful and sad book that explores the kinds of difficult choices women make for their families.” In the tradition of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK, Church’s absorbing novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man.

Perhaps one of the reasons the writing rings so true is that the author, Ms. Church, grew up in Los Alamos in the 50’s, to a scientist father and a biologist mother. Although Meredith’s story is not the author’s story, nor her mother’s, the question that prompted her to tell this story was ,”What could these intelligent women have been and done had they been given the opportunity? I wanted to highlight the sacrifices these women made in the 50’s and how they came to redefine themselves during the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s.”  The notes from the author at the end of the book are as interesting as the novel itself. 

It is also obvious that the author loves the Los Alamos terrain she grew up in.  Perched atop the spread fingers of several mesas in the mountains of New Mexico, “nature permeates the town with plentiful hiking trails through aspen and ponderosa forests. Anasazi ruins sit atop sheer flesh-colored canyon walls dotted with ancient hand and footholds dug into the tufa rock. Mountain lions, bears, and smaller animals populate the canyons and crows abound.”

I must admit I never knew crows could be so interesting.   One example, crows can recognize individual faces and pass that knowledge on to their young!  It is an interesting parallel that as Meredith’s crow journals, where she keeps meticulous notes of their behaviors, change so does she.   And a little bonus: each chapter has a few facts about different species of birds—owls, sparrows, jays, and many more. Not only their characteristics but the interesting names for their groupings, such as “ a party of jays, tidings of magpies, exaltation of larks.”  Perhaps good to know should you be a Jeopardy contestant someday.

Church, a lawyer by profession, turned writer late in life (this is her debut novel, at age sixty) has created a story about the moral choices we make and their cost and consequences.  It is also a slice of life of a pivotal time in our country’s history at  a unique site in America.

I highly recommend it, perhaps best read on a porch swing or hammock while watching a“charm of hummingbirds”.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Star for Mrs. Blake  by April Smith

A Star for Mrs. Blake is the fictional account of five mothers who lost their sons in World War I.   It is, however, based on historical events and two actual people in history.

Although the Americans fought for little more than a year in World War I, there were 116,516 soldiers killed and more than 30,000 Americans were buried in the U.S.  cemeteries in Europe.  In 1929, Congress passed legislation to fund travel for widows and mothers of fallen soldiers to visit their loved ones’ graves in France.
During a three-year period, 6,693 women made the trip.

Cora Blake, in this work of fiction, was one of those women.  The opening lines caught my attention immediately.  “Cora Blake was certainly not planning on going to Paris that spring. Or ever in her lifetime. She was the librarian in a small town on the tip of an island off the coast of Maine.”

“The moment Cora read the letter inviting her to make the pilgrimage, she felt deep kinship with thousands of women she’d never met.  They were from different parts of the country and all walks of life, but what they all had in common was this:  They had all gone to the window and taken down the banner that showed a blue star, symbolizing hope and pride for their son’s service and accepted the lonely task of replacing the blue star with one of gold. Gold meant sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom.”

Cora was designated to be the leader of her group of American mothers, in “Party A”, consisting of Katie, an Irish maid, Minnie, the wife of an immigrant Jewish chicken farmer, Bobbie, a wealthy socialite, and Wilhelmina, a former tennis star whose mental health is precarious, and Mrs. Selma Russell, the only black lady among three busloads of pilgrims, as the Gold Star mothers were called on their journey overseas.

In spite of the somber task they were undertaking, the author injects a lot of humor as they begin their adventure. They are treated royally both in Boston and New York City before their departure.  There is, however, much confusion as one of the mothers in Party A gets lost in New York and there is a mix-up of the two Mrs. Russells.   ( one from Party B). They are rushed from one dizzying site to another—the Empire State Building, Broadway, Central Park Zoo, Fifth Avenue, Grant’s Tomb, accompanied by their liaison Lieutenant Hammond, a handsome twenty-three year- old recent West Point graduate and Nurse Lily.   As they are crossing the ocean in their first-class accommodations, we get a good glimpse into each of their personalities and how they interact, which lays the groundwork for future events. They finally debark in Paris where they are treated as celebrities.

We now meet two American journalists in the story, Clancy Hayes and Griffin Reed, who will play significant roles in Cora’s life and hence the story.  They also serve to illuminate issues of ethics, propaganda and the role of the press in determining how war is presented. 

Griffin, having a severe face disfigurement, wears a mask, created by Florence Dean Powell, a character based on the real-life Anna Coleman Ladd.  Ladd was a socialite and sculptor living in Boston in 1917 when she read about the work of another sculptor who ran what was called the “Tin Noses Shop”.  This was a mask-making studio for disfigured British soldiers.  Inspired, Ladd set up her own studio in Paris and set to work sculpting new faces for those who had lost a piece of their own in trench warfare.  Her studio also created a safe haven for the men who couldn’t be seen on the street in their hideous condition. 

As you can see, there is much historical data intertwined in this story which goes on to tell of the mothers finally achieving their goal of seeing their son’s graves.  There is a lot of drama associated with this event and a few surprises along the way. 

This story is also very much about friendships and relationships—among the mothers, between liaison Hammond and nurse Lily, between Cora and journalist Reed and for Cora and one other mother, the men they are involved with in America who want to marry them.

In the author’s postscript, April Smith says the story was inspired by the diary of the real Colonel Thomas Hammond, also a West Point grad, who accompanied actual mothers to Paris, as does the Hammond character in the book.  She is grateful to the Hammond family for access to the story of the father and grandfather who are now both buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Author Smith makes it a point to travel to every location she writes about in her books.  She takes pictures and talks to people and just wanders.  Back home, she outlines her story on a white board and begins writing. The process can take from two to twenty-five years, as was the case in a Star For Mrs. Blake.  Her vivid and detailed descriptions are proof of her first-hand knowledge.

This is an excellent book for a book discussion group. Many facets to discuss, but aside from that I agree with author Nelson DeMille, (Word of Honor) who says, “Everyone who has served or is serving in the military and their friends and families should read this book.”  I would add to that…every American… to gain a greater appreciation of our history and the sacrifices made for the precious freedoms we enjoy today.

Monday, January 2, 2017

 Take Center Stage

I am a charter member of the Clean Your Plate, Children in Europe are Starving Club.

As a first generation American, I heard that phrase constantly from my mother who emigrated from Bulgaria. I was led to believe that if I ate all my food, my distant cousins might somehow miraculously benefit.  I needed little encouragement with the delicious cuisine served in my mother’s kitchen.   Looking back to those days in the fifties, our daily fare was what restaurants now claim to be gourmet selections: succulent Bulgarian entrees such as roasted lamb, stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, Phyllo pastry filled with cheeses baklava dripping with honey and walnuts.  My taste buds were awakened and refined at an early age.

In grade school my brown paper sack lunch was easy to find when they opened the lunch cupboard doors. It was the one with a large grease stain on it with leftovers from last night’s dinner.  No American peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me.  More like a juicy kielbasa. 

In addition to developing a sophisticated taste palate, I also inherited Bulgarian genes, which meant I was short with a tendency to be a little stocky. (Sumo wrestler came to mind as I looked in the mirror.) As a teen, I often carried ten to twelve pounds more than I should have. Spread over a mere five feet, there was not a lot of longitude to disperse the extra poundage.  My thighs and hips attracted the extra calories and were a constant source of frustration to me as I saw a pear shape reflection in the mirror.

I probably first became conscious of my weight and the direct correlation it had to my self-esteem at age fourteen, my freshmen year of high school.  I don’t think anyone would have suspected that there was a lot of negative self-talk going on in my head, as I participated fully in every activity, had many friends and even made the cheerleading squad.  Only I knew how much more enjoyable those activities were when my weight was less.    Shopping for a prom dress was much more fun when the zipper went up smoothly rather than sucking in my breath and thinking I should probably not eat the day before to insure I could zip it again.

I soon discovered I had a summer weight and a winter weight. As spring arrived in  our Midwestern climate, I could shed five to ten pounds easily by browsing through the Sears catalog and visualizing those cute pedal pushers in a bright madras print on myself.  Living near Lake Michigan and going to the beach often, the thought of my thunder thighs in a bathing suit helped me say “no” to French fries, or an extra helping of a delicious moussaka. 

However, as the autumn days grew short and dark, I inevitably gained back the ten pounds. Luckily bulky sweaters and long poodle skirts of the fifties were a chubby girl’s  friend.  But clearly the cycle of yo-yo dieting was firmly established.

After pregnancies, I had more than the ten pounds to lose. My mother spoke words of comfort, “Don’t you worry. That’s just baby fat.” I reminded her my last baby was six years old. 

But America was now offering ladies countless opportunities to achieve the perfect body. I was probably one of the first members of Weight Watchers in the sixties, inspired by Jean Nidetch’s story on the Johnny Carson show.  I became a faithful weight watcher and lost thirty pounds.  My self-image was soaring.  But keeping it off was another issue. Through the years I tried every weight loss program:  Nutri -System, Jenny Craig, Diet Center, Atkins, Scarsdale.  I was successful with each one.   But it was off–again, on-again and as the scale went up, my self-esteem inevitably went down.

Then a few years ago, a revelation—an “aha” moment occurred.

We were attending a Celebration of Life for a deceased family member and many of our old home movies from the sixties were running continuously. I saw my son’s first birthday party (1965)and smiled again at the sight of a tow-headed little boy putting his entire hand in the icing.  Then when I came into view on the screen, I experienced the other feelings I was having that day. In spite of trying to emulate fashion icon Jackie Kennedy with my knock-off two-piece Cassini suit, I recalled how heavy and unattractive I felt. I was shocked at how just seeing that suit some fifty years later, all the feelings of insecurity I felt at the time cursed through me again. But to my surprise, on the now grainy screen, I did not see the fat woman I thought I was. I saw a somewhat attractive young mother.  Granted, probably fifteen pounds more than she weighed in high school, but by no means fat.

And in that “aha” moment, I grieved for all the occasions where I wasted negative energy because of ten pounds.  A mere ten pounds often kept me from fully enjoying an experience because I thought I should have been thinner.

Today, at age 75, I am still weight conscious but more for health reasons than appearance. I am now the one preparing the delicious Bulgarian cuisine which I still love to eat and share with friends and family.  I am twenty-five pounds more than my high school weight but active with tennis, pickle ball and golf.  I often think of that home movie and vow to not let any negative self-judgment creep in as I participate fully in these activities. 

The lesson I learned from that movie was that no one is judging me more harshly than I do.  In fact, they are probably not even noticing my weight.  Wasn’t it Dr. Phil who said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how little they do think of you. Most people are thinking of themselves.”

I’m starting a new club.  Not a “clean your plate” club, but a “clean your mind of negative self-image” club.  I want to embrace myself as I am so my daughters and granddaughters will follow my example, learning to love their bodies and not be misguided by the unrealistic expectations society has cast upon women. 

When my family looks back at the movies we are making today, I want them to see a woman enjoying life to the fullest, not one hiding in the background for fear the camera might capture that extra ounce of flab my arms now carry. 

What do you want your loved ones to see in the movies and memories they will watch in years to come?   I hope it is you center stage participating in life with a beautiful smile, laughter and joie de vivre.