Books

Book Review: The Tenth Parallel

My review of Eliza Griswold’s book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, is live at The Internet Review of Books.

“Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years investigating and reporting on religious conflict around the globe. That she lived to tell about it is remarkable. Her travels took her to some of the most troubled, and often violent, countries in the Eastern Hemisphere: Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.” To read more….

While I found the majority of the book to be a fairly bleak forecast due to politics, global climate change, not to mention religious intolerance, I was heartened this past week when thousands of Egyptian Muslims stood watch as human shields so Coptic Christians could celebrate their Christmas worship without fear of violence. To see a modicum of tolerance and unity among differing faiths was uplifting.

Perhaps the United States could take a cue from that event.

Crack! and Thump~

Crack! and Thump; With a Combat Infantry Officer in World War II

This book is a tour de force. Barry Basden captures Charlie Scheffel’s life in battle so vividly you will think you are there. It is funny, frank, and sometimes horrific. I was unable to put the book down…

To read the rest of my review please follow this link.

Good Junk Books~

These days I read nonfiction almost exclusively. If I read fiction at all it is seldom a murder mystery that I choose, but at one point in my life I devoured them like candy bars. My mother calls them Junk Books, a bit like watching TV but more active for the brain, and we both agree that there are good Junk Books and bad Junk Books. Of the good variety, I think I have read all of Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, the MacDonalds- both Ross and John D––, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and many, many others. These days I find the real world at least as twisted and gripping as any mystery.

So it was with great pleasure that I encountered a writer of mysteries that I enjoyed again. The author’s name is Arturo Perez-Revete. He is Spanish, and one of the most widely translated of that country’s contemporary authors. He was a journalist (how many times have we heard this as a valuable background for a writer), as well as a war correspondent before he took up writing fiction. His favorite subject is finding mysteries surrounding ancient documents.

I recently finished his mystery, The Flanders Panel. Published in 2004 it is the story of a young art restorer, Julia, who has been commissioned to document and restore a 500-year-old painting going to auction. Working on it in her studio she becomes engrossed with the subjects of the painting, the Duke of Flanders and his knight locked in a game of chess while a lady in a dark dress sits in the background, reading. Julia also discovers a message hidden under all the paint, left by the painter himself. She is determined to solve the puzzle and it takes her on a mysterious and dangerous journey.

All this is par for the mystery writer. What I enjoyed about Reverte’s writing is his use of language. Granted the book has been translated from its native tongue, Spanish, but the imagery is really lovely. He is also a complex thinker, delving into art, chess, and human nature as the story progresses. He also describes in detail scenes not particularly central to the story. I liked this one where Julia is wandering through a flea market:

After a while she went back down the steps and stopped at a shop full of dolls. Some were clothed, others were naked; some were dressed in picturesque peasant costumes or complicatedly romantic outfits complete with gloves, hats, and parasols. Some represented girls and others grown women. The features of some were crude, others were ingenuous, perverse. Their arms and hands were frozen in diverse positions, as if surprised by the cold wind of all the time that had passed since their owners abandoned or sold them, or died. Girls who became women, thought Julia––some beautiful, some plain, who had loved or perhaps been loved––had once caressed those bodies made of rags, cardboard, and porcelain. Those dolls had survived their owners. They were dumb, motionless witnesses whose imaginary retinas still retained images of scenes long erased from the memories of the living: faded pictures sketched among mists of nostalgia, intimate moments of family life, children’s songs, loving embraces, as well as tears and disappointments, dreams turned to ashes, decay and sadness, perhaps even evil. There was something unbearably touching about that multitude of glass and porcelain eyes that stared at her unblinking, full of the Olympian knowledge that only time possesses, lifeless eyes embedded in pale wax or paper-mache faces, above dresses so darkened by time that the lace edgings looked dull and grubby.

I could go on with this passage, but I will stop. It does relate to the story in the end, the philosophy behind that passage. Reverte weaves these throughout the book slowly building the tension and the underlying theme so subtlety. Gorgeous writing, I have to say.

On the down side, I was a bit disappointed that it was one of those mysteries so complex that the writer finds it necessary in the end for the villain to confess and then explain his motive in the crime. I really didn’t mind, in this case, because the writing is so good. My only other minor complaint is that our heroine, Julia, happily smokes like the proverbial chimney whilst stripping varnish off a 500-year-old painting. But Spaniards do smoke like campfires, God love them, so it is probably in character for her to do this.

I will try another of his books; fortunately he has many.

LBJ’s


This picture was taken on August 18th. Three weeks later the nest is empty, the chicks gone. We first noticed the nest because the bush is right off our front porch, at the bottom of the stairs leading out into the yard. Alan saw a small seedeater fly into the bush and went to investigate.

Seedeaters are what Kenn Kaufman in his wonderful book, Kingbird Highway*, refers to as LBJ’s, or Little Black Jobs. Non-descript small black birds with a white tip on their wings, they spend a good amount of time in front of our house foraging for, yes, seeds.

The nest was hunkered down about thigh high in an ornamental shrub well camouflaged in the branches. We made daily visits to the bush waiting expectantly for the eggs to hatch. Finally, about two weeks ago, one of the chicks appeared. It was so young it looked like someone had peeled the shell off an embryo. It lay on the floor of the nest without moving; I thought it was dead. All the blood vessels were visible through its translucent skin. It appeared so fragile I couldn’t imagine it surviving. The other egg remained intact, but a day later we had two. They were both totally inanimate for a few days afterward.

As they grew, doubling in size every day it seemed, the two LBJ’s began to look like someone had chewed up some fruit leather and spat a wad in the bottom of the nest.

Then entered the eating stage. Mom and dad flew back and forth hauling untold amounts of seeds for these insatiable babes. If we approached the bush and barely touched the branches two enormous mouths flew open as though hardwired to the movement of the shrub. We couldn’t tell where they were anymore because they were black at the bottom of a very dark nest, but their beaks were bright yellow, providing a target for mom and dad.

We journeyed to the capital last week to send Alan north to visit family, and when I returned home the nest was empty. There are lots of seedeaters out and about this morning, but I can’t tell if any of them are new to the group.

* Kingbird Highway is one of my all time favorite books. At 16, Kenn Kaufmann dropped out of high school and went on a yearlong birding adventure hitch hiking across America from Alaska to Maine and back again.

Reading this book I learned a good deal about birders, who are very different from bird watchers, and loved his lyrical writing about nature and his adventures. It is a great book.

Kenn kaufmann has also written several other books for birders but this one is memoir about freedom, coming of age (in a most unconventional way), and a passion in life. He must have had extraordinary parents. Check it out twice, as Joe Bob used to say.