Month: September 2009

The Turn of the Screw — My Review

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I have not read Henry James since college.  He is a master story-teller, but let’s be honest.  He can say in 800 words what I would prefer to be said in two.

Some say that this is the best ghost story of all time.  To put that claim on the book does it a disservice as it is impossible to truly measure up.  I expected great suspence, bone-chilling chapters, and instead all I got was. . .confused.  Really, truly confused.

There are too many loose ends.  Who wrote this manuscript?  The governess or perhaps Mrs. Grose?  Were there ghosts or was the governess insane.  If she was insane, was it from the beginning or did it develop from the isolation?  What happened at the end?  Did she kill him?  When his heart was dispossessed was that from Quint or because she held it in her hands after going crazy?  And reviews discuss the sexual tension in this book.  Where was THAT?

These are the questions that I have, and I welcome any clarity readers can provide.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for a truly good ghost story because this one fell short of my high expectations.

Innocent Traitor — My Review

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Everyone is familiar with the story of Henry VIII.  He had six wives, always looking for a Queen who would deliver to him a son.  In this pursuit, he had to get a divorce from his first wife, and that required eliminating the hold that the Catholic Church had on England.  He did have a son with his third wife, but this son, Edward, died when he was still a teenager.  Upon his death, England was still heavily divided into two camps: Protestants and Catholics.  Edward was a staunch Protestant.  His sister, Mary, the daughter of the first wife of Henry VIII, was a devout Catholic.  In order to ensure that the Catholic Church did not regain power in England, Edward named a cousin as his successor: Lady Jane Grey Dudley.  This book is her fictionalized story.

I sought out a book about Lady Jane Grey Dudley because her story was fascinating to me.  A girl!  Made Queen!  But only for a few days.  What happened? 

Innocent Traitor tells her story, but I think that the author, Alison Weir, had the priority of telling the story wrong.  We meet Jane the minute that she is born, and we follow her story year by year until she is sixteen.  I would have preferred to know less about what happened to her when she was four years old and more about those nine days when she was Queen. 

Those days were fascinating at the tide turned against her, but they are covered so quickly by Weir.  It is almost as if Weir was overwhelmed by the characters involved and so she skimmed heavily over those crucial days.  In one chapter she is the Queen.  In the next chapter she is a prisoner.  A book only about those nine days is probably more of what I was looking for — not a discussion on her education when she was twelve.

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

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After several years of waiting, the latest Dan Brown book was released today: The Lost Symbol.

Here is an article on the book and its treatment of Masons from The Associated Press:

The lodge room of the Naval Masonic Hall is a colorful and somewhat inscrutable sight for the nonmember, with its blue walls, Egyptian symbols, checkered floor in the center and high ceiling painted with gold stars.

Countless secrets supposedly have been shared in this and thousands of similar rooms around the world. Facts of life have been debated, honors bestowed, rituals enacted. You would need to belong to a lodge to learn what really goes on.

Or you could simply ask.

“The emphasis on secrecy is something that disturbs people,” says Joseph Crociata, a burly, deep-voiced man who is a trial attorney by profession but otherwise a Junior Grand Warden at the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia.

“But it’s not a problem getting Masons to talk about Masonry. Sometimes, it’s a problem getting them to stop.”

Countless books and Web sites are dedicated to Freemasons, yet the Masonic Order has been defined by mystery, alluring enough to claim Mozart and George Washington as members, dark enough to be feared by the Vatican, Islamic officials, Nazis and Communists. In the United States, candidates in the 19th-century ran for office on anti-Mason platforms and John Quincy Adams declared that “Masonry ought forever to be abolished.”

And now arrives Dan Brown.

Six years after Brown intrigued millions of readers, and infuriated scholars and religious officials, with “The Da Vinci Code,” he has set his new novel, “The Lost Symbol,” in Washington and probed the fraternal order that well suits his passion for secrets, signs and puzzles.

In “The Lost Symbol,” symbolist Robert Langdon is on a mission to find a Masonic pyramid containing a code that unlocks an ancient secret to “unfathomable power.” It’s a story of hidden history in the nation’s capitol, with Masons the greatest puzzle of all.

Brown’s research for “The Da Vinci Code” was highly criticized by some Catholics for suggesting that Jesus and Mary Magdalene conceived a child and for portraying Opus Dei — the conservative religious order — as a murderous, power-hungry sect.

The Mason response could well be milder. Brown goes out of his way in “The Lost Symbol” to present the lodge as essentially benign and misunderstood. Masons are praised for their religious tolerance and their elaborate rituals are seen as no more unusual than those of formal religions. The plot centers in part on an “unfair” anti-Masonic video that “conspiracy theorists would feed on … like sharks,” Langdon says.

“I have enormous respect for the Masons,” Brown told The Associated Press during a recent interview. “In the most fundamental terms, with different cultures killing each other over whose version of God is correct, here is a worldwide organization that essentially says, `We don’t care what you call God, or what you think about God, only that you believe in a god and let’s all stand together as brothers and look in the same direction.’

“I think there will be an enormous number of people who will be interested in the Masons after this book (comes out),” Brown said.

Crociata and other Washington Masons expressed amusement, concern, resignation and excitement about Brown’s novel. Crociata anticipates a “page-turner,” like “The Da Vinci Code,” and assumes, for the sake of a “good read,” that Brown will make the Masons seem more interesting than they actually are.

Fellow Mason Kirk McNulty can’t wait to read the novel: “Dan Brown is a writer of fiction; he’s not writing an article for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whatever he says is OK. But it would be better if he says something nice about Freemasonry.”

Mason Michael Seay says some members are “not pleased about all the hoopla,” but sees the attention as a chance to “get our story across.” Lodge member Darryl Carter says he expects some “artistic license” and senses from conversations with other Masons that they expect to benefit from the attention.

“We welcome Dan Brown doing his work because Masonry has not had the kind of popularity that it once did and that a work by somebody of Dan Brown’s caliber could really attract people to Masonry,” Carter says.

The Freemasons date back to the Middle Ages, to associations of workmen who built cathedrals in Britain, though some also believe in a connection to ancient times with the mines where King Solomon took material for his Temple. Freemasonry has endured, and transformed. The British began to accept members who were not stonemasons and by the 1700s, lodges were being called “speculative,” philosophical societies rather than worker guilds.

The Masons, Crociata and others emphasize, are not a political or religious organization. No theology beyond the belief in a divine being is required and no causes are advocated beyond millions of dollars in annual contributions to children’s hospitals, cancer wards and other charities.

“This is the world’s oldest fraternity and it has an old and distinguished history,” Crociata says. “There’s much beauty to be found in its ritual. On the other hand, it’s a fraternity, not a religion. It’s a place to get together with guys that you know, that you trust, that you are willing to trust. A place where you can speak from the heart, if you want.”

No official gathering is taking place at the hall on this recent afternoon, so it’s all right for a reporter to have a look around. The Naval Masonic room has features common to other lodges, such as the Mason emblem, a set square and compass and letter “G” (for both God and Geometry), and some decorative images, such as the Egyptian-styled eyes and snakes painted throughout.

Brown’s book moves quickly among such Washington landmarks as the Library of Congress and the Washington Monument and draws upon the Masons’ very public presence in Washington, dating back more than 200 years

George Washington used a Masonic gavel and trowel in 1793 as he lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. The same trowel would be included 55 years later when President James K. Polk, a Mason, presided over the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, and again in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt, also a Mason, laid a cornerstone for a Masonic temple.

According to “Freemasons for Dummies” author Christopher Hodapp (his book is so well regarded at the Naval lodge in Washington that it’s kept in a glass cabinet outside the meeting room), membership peaked in the United States just after World War II, when there were close to 5 million Masons.

The number dropped in the 1960s, when the Masons seemed hopelessly antiquated to a rebellious generation, and dropped again in the late 1980s as older members died. Hodapp, himself a Mason based in Indianapolis, says there are now around 1.5 million in the U.S. and 3 million worldwide.

“But it’s picking up again, in part because of people like Brown and (novelist) Brad Meltzer (‘Book of Lies,’ ‘Book of Fate’). Younger men are seeing popular references to it. We’re also seeing people from single-parent households who don’t have that kind of brotherhood feeling you get in the lodge,” Hodapp says.

Meetings at the Naval Masonic room are presided over by a Master who sits in a high-backed chair on the East side of the room, in honor of where the sun rises. On the South and West are chairs for the top aides, the senior warden and the junior warden. Only the North, “a place of Masonic darkness” (a belief related to the lighting of Solomon’s Temple) is not represented.

Every lodge has an altar on which is placed a holy book, or books. A Bible is usually there, but because only a belief in a higher being is required, a Quran or other religious text might be found, depending on the religious faith of the members present. The black and white squares of the checkered floor below the altar represent “good” and “evil,” terms the Masons resist defining too closely.

“As far as what is good and bad for any individual … the idea is to inspire thought on some of the important questions of life on the minds of our members so that they can go home and think about them and draw their own conclusions,” Crociata says.

Would-be members pass through three degrees of acceptance: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. In “The Lost Symbol,” Brown describes an initiation ceremony that Hodapp says is essentially accurate. A man is blindfolded, has a dagger pressed against his chest and is instructed to vow that, “uninfluenced by mercenary or any other unworthy motive,” he will offer himself as “a candidate for the mysteries and privileges of this brotherhood.”

Brown is not a Mason, but said that working on the novel helped him imagine a time when religious prejudice would disappear and added that he found the Masonic philosophy a “beautiful blueprint for human spirituality.”

He was tempted to join, but, “If you join the Masons you take a vow of secrecy. I could not have written this book if I were a Mason,” he says.

And now?

“They’ve let me know the door is always open.”

Audrey Niffenegger

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Audrey Niffenegger wrote “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and has a new book coming out soon: Her Fearful Symmetry.

Here are three books that she lists as the Best. Books. Ever.

Austerlitz by Sebold
Geek Love by Dunn
The Turn of the Screw by James

The Best Self-Help Books (According to Pinsky)

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Dr. Drew Pinsky has offered self-help advice on TV and the radio. He recommended some favorite Self-Help books to Newsweek. Here’s his list:

The Search for the Real Self by Masterson
Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters by Person
Codependent No More by Beattie
The Intimacy Facotr by Mellod and Freundlich

Books Recommended By Newsweek

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The following are from an article entitled: What To Read Now

50) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by Thomson
49) Cotton Comes to Harlem by Himes
48) American Journeys by Watson
47) Things Fall Apart by Achebe
46) Gone Tomorrow by Child
45) The Elegace of the Hedgehog by Barbery
44) Year of Wonders by Brooks
43) Senator Joe McCarthy by Rovere
42) The Regeneration Trilogy by Barker
41) The Botany of Desire by Pollan
40) American Pastoral by Roth
39) Why Evolution is True by Coyne
38) Underworld by DeLillo
37) Persepolis by Satrapi
36) The Dark Is Rising by Cooper
35) The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst
34) Walking with the Wind by Lewis
33) Kim by Kipling
32) Pictures at a Revolution by Harris
31) Gilead by Robinson
30) The Lost by Mendelsohn
29) American Prometheus by Bird and Sherwin
28) Midnight’s Children by Rushdie
27) Whittaker Chambers by Tanenhaus
26) Guests of the Ayatollah by Bowden
25) Bad Mother by Waldman
24) Frankenstein by Shelley
23) Brooklyn by Toibin
22) Among the Thugs by Buford
21) The Mississippi Books by Twain
20) Benjamin Franklin by Morgan
19) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Dick
18) City: Rediscovering the Center by Whyte
17) The Trouble with Physics by Smolin
16) Leaves of Grass by Whitman
15) Air Guitar by Hickey
14) Disrupting Class by Christensen
13) Underground by Murakami
12) A Good Man is Hard to Find by O’Connor
11) The Unsettling of America by Berry
10) God: A Biogrpahy by Miles
9) Predictably Irrational by Ariely
8) Night Draws Near by Shadid
7) Random Family by LeBlanc
6) Winchell by Gabler
5) The Bear by Faulkner
4) The Big Switch by Carr
3) Prisoner of the State by Ziyang
2) The Looming Tower by Wright
1) The Way We Live Now by Trollope

The Elegance of the Hedgehog — My Review

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For October our bookclub is reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy. Let me write that again. Muriel Barbery is a professor of PHILOSOPHY. If you are like me and your eyes glazed over in all of your required philosophy classes in college, this might not be your favorite book as Barbery discusses philosophical thought and concept throughout the beginning of the book but in a way that assumes you know who and what she is talking about.

This book was a lot of work for me. The vocabulary was a lot to take in. The general references of philosophy were a lot to take in. For the first 200 pages I really did not care about the two main characters because these were not characters I could ever sit down and talk to.

The first 200 pages really goes into the deep, deep thoughts of the main two characters. Finally a new character comes into play and the book becomes less about thought and more about relationships and FINALLY I had something I could relate to and care about.

I found the ending really interesting, and I am excited for our book club conversation. I was challenged by the book, and I am glad that I read it. But, I could never recommend it to anyone and, I have to admit, I am glad that it is done.

Hope & Despair

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It only took 200 pages, but I finally got to a point in The Elegance of the Hedgehog that I actually cared and was interested in what was going to happen to the characters.

But then the author wrote two chapters (albeit short ones) on one still life painting. And she lost me again.