Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Noughties, by Ben Masters. Hogarth, 2012

‘Noughties’ takes place over the course of one night- and over the course of four years. The narrator, Eliot, is spending his last night at Oxford with his fellow grads, going from pub to bar to club. As the night goes on (and Eliot and his friends drink aggressively), Eliot reminisces over his last year of school, his entrance to Oxford, his three years there, his ex-girlfriend Lucy, the people he is drinking with. He is faced with becoming an adult, and is woefully unprepared. His time at Oxford has taught him a tremendous amount about English literature, an equally tremendous amount about drinking, and not much else. Up until this night, his course of action was always laid out for him; his lower middle class parents expected him to do better than they did and to them it was a given that he would attend university; once at Oxford, his course was set for three years. Now he has to make his own decisions.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The mixing of past and present work well. I thought the sections about the tutorials were brilliant- the way the students were set into competition against each other, the professor who cultivates a persona of shocking hipster. The characters, however, all seemed somewhat stereotyped, and Eliot is a total prat. He’s horrible to women and not the greatest friend. He’s so eager to hide his origins from his Oxford mates that he decides his girlfriend from home is embarrassing- and is upset that they like her. While most of us aren’t at our best at his age, Eliot is hard to take. It’s difficult to empathize with someone who has no redeeming characteristics. All in all I liked the story, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. I do think Masters has a great future as a novelist, but he needs more years of writing under his belt.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, by Pam Johnson-Bennett. Penguin, 2004

This cat behavior book focuses on the special problems that can arise when you have a multi cat household. Cats adapt to living together despite not being pack animals, but they do have a hierarchical social structure that is invisible to many humans. Awareness of this structure, and the various cats’ places in the structure, helps immensely in keeping things peaceful. While knowing general cat behavior modification techniques is necessary when you have multiple cats, knowing the signs of dominance and stress, and how to recognize the cats’ territories within your house, is not something addressed in most cat behavior books. This book emphasizes making sure that each cat is secure in their territory, whether they are the top cat or the bottom, and how to keep common areas peaceful. I’m looking at our house differently now!

Is Your Cat Crazy? Solutions from the Casebook of a Cat Therapist, by John Wright, Ph.D., and Judi Wright Lashnits. Castle Books 1994

This book explains a lot about why cats do what they do, and how to work with that so that the cats behave in ways acceptable to humans. Written in an easy to read style, the author takes us on a tour of the world as seen by the cat. Cats are hardwired in some ways, and to ignore this fact is to face failure in dealing with them. Thankfully, what a cat needs is usually not unreasonable and is fairly easy to provide. The authors give concrete advice in anecdotal style. Good reading for anyone with companion cats; I learned a lot, and I’ve had cats all my life. The basic message is to not demand things of cats but to work with their instincts, whether the problem is with scratching, biting, or inappropriate elimination (the most common problem).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik & Monica Murphy. Viking, 2012

Rabies has been with- and horrified- people throughout history. The virus can infect any warm blooded creature and is nearly 100% fatal once symptoms show. It travels directly through the nervous system rather than the more usual route of the bloodstream, allowing it easy access to the brain. Once there, it takes over the victim’s actions, creating an aggressive, raving, biting disease vector in the place of the familiar creature or person.

The authors follow rabies through history, both medical and cultural, positing that rabies may be behind the legends of zombies, werewolves, and vampires. They write about how so many truly horrible diseases are zoonotic- originating in animals and passed to humans: influenzas, plague, ebola, hanta, anthrax. A lot of space is devoted to Louis Pasteur’s development of a rabies vaccine- the only really effective method of stopping the virus. And they write about the status of rabies today.

In America, we tend to think of rabies as pretty much under control. There are cases of it, but they are fairly rare and most often in wild animal populations. In other parts of the, though, that isn’t the case. In India, someone dies from rabies about once every 30 minutes. And events in Bali show how easy it is for rabies to be reintroduced; they had eradicated the virus on the island until someone broke the law forbidding the importation of dogs and brought one in with rabies, which spread rapidly because not only had they stopped vaccinating for it, but there was no decent rabies vaccine available for either pre- or post- exposure use.

Given the horrific subject matter, the book could have easily taken a tabloid tone. The authors steered away from that, though, and have presented an even, thoughtful book, albeit one that will have the reader giving the side eye to the raccoon at the trash can. 


Guest post- Mary Sharratt!

Today we have a guest post by Mary Sharratt, author of the wonderful new book 'Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen' that I reviewed recently. Thank you, Mary, for sharing this with us!

"Viriditas: Visions of the Green Saint by Mary Sharratt

Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, composed an entire corpus of highly original sacred music, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. 

In May 2012, 873 years after her death, she was finally canonized. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Previously there were only thirty-three Doctors of the Church, and only three were women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

But Hildegard’s life and work transcends faith boundaries. Her visions of the Feminine Divine and of Viriditas, the sacred manifest in nature, have made her a pivotal figure in feminist spirituality.

Hildegard’s concept of Viriditas, or greening power, is her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.

I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.
Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)

Hildegard’s philosophy of Viriditas went hand in hand with her celebration of the Feminine Divine. Although the established Church of her day could not have been more male-dominated, Hildegard’s visions revealed the Feminine Divine. She called God Mother, and said that she could only bear to look upon divinity in her visions if God appeared to her in feminine form. Her visions revealed God as a cosmic egg, nurturing all of life like a womb. Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrated immanence, of God being present in all things, in every aspect of this greening, burgeoning, blessed world.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.   

O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

This might be read as an ecstatic hymn to Sophia, the great Cosmic Mother.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Book of the Month and One Spirit Book Club pick. Visit Mary’s website: "


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Magnificent Mistakes, by Eric Bosse. Ravenna Press, 2012

This collection of short- some very, very short- stories roams all over the map, but they are all disturbing. Some depict monstrous people. ‘Plantlife’, wherein a lonely widow’s plants all pull up roots and take over her property, is funny and touching. ‘Eight Years Later’, at only two pages, is redemptive. ‘The Invisible World’ leaves you wondering where a trio of people will end up now that truth has come out. There tales of bondage, abuse, ghosts, suicide attempts, choking- it’s a wild collection. I enjoyed some, found some unpleasant and creepy, but they all held my attention

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Laura Lamon'ts Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. Riverhead Books, 2012

Elsa Emerson grows up in small town Wisconsin, in a household that is also the local little theater. Every summer, young actors come and stay with the family and put on shows in the converted barn, inspiring a love of show business in the two younger sisters. She makes her escape from Door County by marrying an aspiring actor who is heading for Hollywood, a move that becomes a misery to her but also the vehicle to the life she wants. When she meets studio manager Irving Green, he turns out to be the answer to her dreams, both personal and professional. He changes her from blonde Elsa to brunette Laura Lamont. For awhile, her life is perfect. But life doesn’t offer nicely packaged happy endings like movies do. Laura’s life takes a lot of twists and turns before it’s done.

The book is interesting; the second section is set during the days of the Hollywood studio system, where the studio took over every aspect of the actor’s life. Thinly disguised celebrities fill the book; Irving Green is obviously Irving Thalberg (although Laura is not Norma Shearer); Laura’s best friend is Lucille Ball; Jack Warner, Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland also appear, all with fictitious names. A parallel thread to Laura’s life is the changes that take place in Hollywood through the decades.

“Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” isn’t Emma Straub’s first book, but it is her first novel. As such, it shows some deficits. Laura- all the characters, in fact- come off rather two dimensional, although perhaps that is intentional- pictures are, after all, two dimensional. But I never felt any real attachment to Laura. She’s not unpleasant in any way, but neither is she magnetic. I wanted to love this novel- old Hollywood is an interest of mine- but while I liked it, I did not love it. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012

When Hildegard was eight, her mother gave her to a church to be bricked into a chamber in a monastery wall as involuntary handmaiden and student to an ascetic teenaged girl of noble birth, Jutta von Sponheim. Hildegard had visions, and was thus unmarriageable. Giving her daughter over to this purpose not only disposed of her honorably, but bought the favor of Jutta’s rich mother, enabling Hildegard’s sisters to meet wealthy mates. As Jutta slowly killed herself with anorexia and self punishment, Hildegard and the two other girls that joined them in their dark hell longed for sunlight and freedom for over thirty years before Jutta finally died and Hildegard demanded their freedom. Her time in that dark prison wasn’t wasted, though; a kindly monk brought her books from the monastery library and plants for her to grow in the tiny courtyard. By the time Jutta died, Hildegard was very educated, an able healer and a brilliant composer. She went on to found her own abbey and criticize the corruption of the church. She was an incredibly accomplished woman in a time when women were thought of as little more than breeding machines or servants.

‘Illuminations’ is the prefect title for this novel; illumination fills the story. The great illuminated texts that Hildegard learns from, the great visions of light that fill her, her illumination of the corruption in the church; light fills Hildegard’s life even at its darkest points. This is a triumphant story told in lyrical prose that brings the era and monastery life into brilliant, colorful focus. But it’s not a one sided glorification of Hildegard; she’s a living, breathing woman with the faults all humans share. It’s not a religious book at all; it’s a story of people and spirit. Whether you’re Catholic or not, or even Christian or not, Hildegard von Bingen was a fascinating woman. Sharratt’s writing held me suspended in Hildegard’s life throughout the novel, and it left me wishing the book was twice as long.