July 11, 2020

The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford

A friend was moving to California and gifted me with three door-stopper sized books before his departure. All three tomes are by historical fiction author Edward Rutherford and depict centuries worth of Irish history. The shelter-at-home time has been the perfect opportunity to tackle the first 800-plus page volume, The Princes of Ireland.

Rutherford has the amazing talent of making history come alive by creating fictional story lines which are woven into mention of real people, places and recorded events.

From the early time of druids and human sacrifice, to the arrival of the Vikings, St. Patrick and the English to the Emerald Isle, we become invested in the personal stories of warriors, farmers, priests, wives and children. Romance runs through the chapters as characters find and then lose love or miss it altogether due to historical fate.

The other two large volumes Rutherford has written about Irish history are Dublin Foundation and The Rebels of Ireland. Even those with no Irish blood might find these historical fiction books edifying as well as entertaining.

I previously wrote a blog post on Edward Rutherford’s excellent book entitled Paris.
Here is the 2015 blog post link:

http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/category/books-2/page/14/

Genius & Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht

This has certainly been a time for book-lovers to get immersed in history and large novels. While some book reviewers have suggested picking up War and Peace or One Hundred Years of Solitude, I chose books to learn more about Jewish and Irish history.

Norman Lebrecht has written a jam-packed history book entitled Genius & Anxiety – How Jews Changed the World, 1847 – 1947. Freud influenced how we view sex and psychology. Einstein pioneered concepts of time and physics. Marx mapped out the elements of communism versus capitalism. Kafka and Proust changed how we view literature. Sarah Bernhardt revolutionized acting and celebrity.

Less well-known people also contributed to our modern world. Karl Landsteiner helped make blood transfusions and major surgery a reality. Paul Ehrlich helped formulate chemotherapy. Rosalind Franklin paved the way for genetic science. Siegfried Marcus may have created the first motor car.

Lebrecht frequently writes about music so there is ample mention of seminal composers like Mendelssohn in the 19th century and Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein in the 20th. He highlights Korngold and Eisler on the West coast and Leonard Bernstein in the east. In truth, what would Hollywood or Broadway look and sound like without Jewish creativity? Name three famous American composers and one reels off George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein.

The book’s brilliance is particularly in Lebrecht’s description of what was happening in the world as he profiles these creative people. Industrialization, the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis, the McCarthy era, the creation of the state of Israel, all figure into this expansive canvas. Lebrecht does not argue that Jews are genetically smarter and more talented than others but that they have a strong tradition of culture and education. Historically being outsiders may have also caused them to think “out of the box” and push new ideas in everything from science, politics, business and the arts.

Genius & Anxiety is the type of book you could either absorbingly read cover to cover, or skip around in, according to your tastes.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

In the novel, The Dutch House, author Ann Patchett finds the perfect balance between beautiful literary writing and a plot-driven story line with well-delineated characters.

Cyril Conroy, a real estate entrepreneur, buys the Dutch House, an elegant home in suburban Philadelphia with all of the belongings of deceased Dutch couple, the Vanhoebeeks, including dour oil portraits of them. The narrator is Danny Conroy who introduces us to his father, Cyril, his older sister, Maeve, his absent mother Elna and his new chilly step-mother, Andrea Smith.

Sections of the book skillfully alternate between present day and the past. As adults, the two Conroy siblings sift through their memories of the old homestead as they try to build new lives after their father dies.

There is a fairy tale quality to the story replete with guardian angels Sandy, Jocelyn and Fluffy as household staff who are not always benign. Step-siblings, Bright and Norma suffer from their own demons. The mystery of what happened to the first Mrs. Conroy and why she left her husband and children is woven throughout this work of fiction.

Depictions of the house make it a major character in the novel and its own story is brought to a satisfying conclusion by book’s end.

Ann Patchett’s previous books include Bel Canto, Commonwealth and State of Wonder which have garnered acclaim with readers and critics alike. The Dutch House is an admirable addition to her body of work and a fine choice for readers who like family sagas with well-turned prose.

Library apps: Overdrive, Hoopla and Libby

Libraries have two strikes against them during this Covid-19 outbreak. They are not considered essential services and they risk attracting numbers of people who may catch or spread the disease. I understand the rationale, but if ever we needed the comfort of books, it is now.

Library apps to the rescue. If you have a library card number, you have access to a wealth of downloadable material on at least three different apps. Overdrive lets you download e-books, audiobooks and magazines like Oprah, Newsweek, Prevention, House Beautiful and Forbes, among others.

https://www.overdrive.com/explore

Hoopla not only carries ebooks and audiobooks, but movies, comics, an impressive catalogue of recorded music and a treasure trove of television shows both old and new. The library card holder is limited to six selections per month however.

https://www.hoopladigital.com/my/hoopla

Libby, an off-shoot of Overdrive, specializes in audiobooks and ebooks. The user is able to set preferences like genre, language and availability. One can explore new releases with the ability to put holds on the most popular titles. Libby estimates how many weeks one will have to wait for a title. I always have one or two books downloaded from this easy-to-use app.

https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/

If you have the money, please order a book from your local bookstore. If, however, you are pinching pennies, you can be grateful Overdrive, Hoopla and Libby apps are free. We have our public library system to thank for this. Books, to my mind, are essential.

Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows – A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America

Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows traversed the United States from 2013 to 2016 to observe how some communities are re-inventing themselves for the 21st century in their travel memoir, Our Towns.

With James piloting a single engine plane, they visited such places as my home town of Sioux Falls, SD, Greenville, SC, Pittsburgh, PA, Fresno, CA, Bend, OR and countless other towns from coast to coast.

They observed thriving places and made a list of 11 signs of civic success. Divisive national politics do not impair local projects. Each locale has its movers and shakers. Things get done when there are partnerships between the private sector and government. People know their town’s story. Their downtown is still viable. Their city is near a research university. Community college classes are available. K-12 schools are doing a good job. Successful towns welcome newcomers, including immigrants. Civic plans like bike trails and parks indicate an effective mayor or town council. Small businesses like craft breweries are encouraged.

This is an uplifting story of innovation and cooperation that the mainstream media seldom highlights. Anyone interested in the true state of our country should read Our Towns. To Lori Lightfoot and all of the presidential candidates: this little book should be on your reading lists!

Where the Crawdads Sing by author Delia Owens

My book club-loving neighbor passed me another fiction gem recently, the New York Times #1 best-seller, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.

Set in the marshlands of North Carolina, the principal character is Kya Clark, a girl who lives alone in a coastal shack and is nick-named “the Marsh Girl” by the suspicious locals.

Part murder mystery and romance, Kya gets caught up in the unexplained death of rich and handsome Chase Andrews. With a nod to the famed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Kya ends up in a murder trial.

What adds another literary layer to this engaging book is the writing of Delia Owens. A former wildlife scientist in Africa, she is an expert on animal behavior and an ardent observer of nature. Her prose beautifully captures the outdoors with poetic descriptions of weather, birds, plants and all Kya sees in her rustic life.

A selection for Reese’s Book Club, Where the Crawdads Sing has all of the earmarks of a dramatic movie plot for Ms. Witherspoon’s production company.

Here’s hoping Owens’ debut novel is the first of many to come.