Other Books Read in October and an Election

I blogged last week about two books I read in October. Today’s blog post is about other books I read last month. Overall, it was a strange collection of books. I enjoy a wide range of books, but I’m especially drawn to historical fiction.

I started reading but didn’t finish And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane and Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. I didn’t finish reading Vicki Lane’s book in October because it arrived at the end of the month. I didn’t finish the Ursula Hegi book because I had too many books to read, other distractions, and it had to go back to the library. You’ll have to wait for future blogs to learn what I thought of those and the other books I read in November, but I’ll go ahead and recommend And the Crows Took Their Eyes to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or American Civil War stories.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

After hearing Fiona Davis interviewed, I was eager to get on the public library’s waitlist for The Lions of Fifth Avenue. It took me a little while to “get into” this book but, once I did, I wanted to read on to see what happened next.

#libraries #NYCPublicLibrary
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

As seems to be the trend in historical fiction today, the plot alternates between one era and another. I don’t like that format. I prefer to read a story in chronological order. I’m not sure what that says about me. The Lions of Fifth Avenue falls into that category. It switches back and forth between 1913-1914 and 1993.

The 1913-1914 story line interested me more than the other one so, after reading the first four chapters, I skipped all the 1993 chapters and read the remaining 1913-1914 chapters until I got to the end of the book; then, I went back to the fifth chapter and read bits and pieces of the 1993 parts of the book. I’m sure this isn’t the way in which the author expected me to read her book, but it worked for me.

In the “Author Note” at the end of the book, I learned that it was completely a fictional story with fictional characters. Ms. Davis explained that the New York City Public Library actually did have a seven-room apartment where the library superintendent’s family lived for several decades. Besides that, the book is fiction. It is a compelling story and I really wanted to get to the end to see who was stealing rare books from the library. Fortunately, that was revealed in the 1913-1914 thread of the book.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

I read about this book in an e-mail from Goodreads.com. The e-mail said, “If you loved A Gentleman in Moscow, you’ll loved Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Equal parts moving and charming, heartbreaking and funny, it will make you feel closer to humanity. Simply put, it’s a book that stays with you.” With that comparison and endorsement, I couldn’t wait to read the book.

#pigeons #CherAmi #WWI
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

The story it was based on was new to me. It sounded interesting, so I checked out the e-book from the public library.

The story itself is impressive. Cher Ami was a homing pigeon that was much-celebrated in the 1920s and 1930s for its heroics during World War I. In fact, the bird was taxidermized after death and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Cher Ami was shot in the eye and lost a leg on her last mission. Even so, she completed that mission and lived for a couple of weeks afterward.

By finishing her last mission, Cher Ami saved the lives of almost 200 Americans.

Charles Whittlesey was from New York. Not attracted to guns, he nevertheless found himself shipping off for Europe when the United States entered World War I. Being the era that it was, he had to keep his homosexuality a secret. Whittlesey came home a war hero, but he struggled to adjust to life back in New York City. He purchased a one-way ticket on a ship and planned his own “burial at sea.”

The story itself is interesting, and I learned more about homing pigeons from the early chapters of this historical novel than I had before.

The book itself was quite disappointing. Some chapters are written from the pigeon’s point-of-view, while the other chapters are written from Charles Whittlesey’s viewpoint. I read one-third of the book before I started skipping over Cher Ami’s chapters.

Perhaps my mind isn’t creative enough to suspend belief and accept talking pigeons. To me, Cher Ami’s chapters read like a children’s book. I even stopped reading midway through the first chapter to see if I had checked out a Juvenile book by mistake. I hadn’t, so I tried to plow on. I soon concluded that I’d be better served by doing a little research about the story instead of continuing to read the conversations of talking pigeons.

One fact that the author conveyed via Cher Ami was probably more poignantly expressed by the taxidermized pigeon than could have been told by an objective narrator was the way in which the taxidermist chose to display the detail of the pigeon’s missing eye. Oddly enough, the taxidermist selected a glass eye of the wrong color for the bird’s missing eye. The taxidermized Cher Ami cleverly voices her disgust over the sloppy disrespect for detail and points out that it would have made a more accurate and impressive museum display to have presented the pigeon with its empty eye socket. After all, it was preserved with only the one leg that survived the war.

Cher Ami was one of more than 600 homing pigeons used by the US Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. An American battalion was surrounded in the Battle of Argonne Forest. They were under Allied fire and had no way but pigeons to get word out about their situation. On October 4, 1918, after other pigeons had been shot down in the effort, Cher Ami successfully delivered a message that saved almost 200 American lives. As noted above, she was shot twice in the process, but she kept flying to deliver her urgent message.

In that respect, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey did what I expect historical novels to do: educate me. I appreciate that. I just didn’t enjoy the manner in which that education was delivered. The story enticed me to look for more information, which is something else I expect historical fiction to do.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

I can’t honestly say I read this novel. I tried listening to it. The beginning held promise of an interesting tale about a bank robbery and a hostage situation. Perhaps it would have been more palatable in printed form. The irritatingly shrill voice of the female hostage real estate salesperson got on my last nerve early on. I tried to persevere but had to raise the white flag on this one. Sorry, Mr. Backman. I loved A Man Called Ove, but I just haven’t been able to stick with any of your other novels I’ve tried.

Since my last blog post

Photo credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash.com

We’ve had a much-anticipated national, state, and local election since my last blog post. As I write this late on Saturday morning, it has just been announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected US President-elect and US Vice President-elect. What a relief! We have elected a person of empathy as President, and we have finally elected our first woman and first person of color to be Vice President. The proverbial glass ceiling has been broken.

My country is divided. The division demonstrated by the 2016 election continues, but I pray the pendulum has begun to swing toward decency and respect. For more than 200 years, gracious concession speeches have been expected from the candidates not elected in the United States. True to his form and lack of character, our current President vows not to take the results of this election quietly or gracefully. He will, no doubt, continue to sow seeds of discord in our country and world. He has vowed to fight the outcome of this election in the courts. He continues to claim it was a rigged election. He threatened to proclaim that falsehood well in advance of Election Day.

I look forward to having a new US President on January 20, 2021 – a President and a Vice President who will try to heal our nation and lead us back into a position of respect and reliability on the world stage. We can once again be a beacon of hope. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. It will take a while for the world to trust us again.

My faith in the American people has been somewhat renewed by the outcome of this election; however, it wasn’t won by a landslide. Nearly half the population voted to continue down the road we were on. It won’t be easy to convince them that those of us who voted for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are not the evil people our current President proclaims us to be. They have believed many lies about us and we are exhausted from the rhetoric of hate that has been directed at us from the White House for the last four years.

We are exhausted from four years of vitriol, but we are energized today by the hope of a new era in which we once again have a President who truly believes in God and doesn’t just give faith lip service; who believes in freedom of the press and doesn’t see journalists as enemies of the people; who believes in science and medicine; who is antiracist; who will not put immigrant children who cross the border from Central America in cages and deport their parents; who will strive to enact policies that will preserve our physical environment for ourselves and future generations; who will work for social justice in our country and the world; and who will work to repair our relationships with our long-term friends and allies around the world.

For the hurt and disappointment being felt today by some of my friends and relatives who disagree with me on everything I’ve written in this blog post, now you know how I felt after the 2016 election. You’re still my friends, and you’re still my relatives. I still love you. Please give President-elect Biden a chance to prove he’s not an agent of evil. He’s not going to defund the police. He’s not going to take away your guns. He’s not a socialist. He will be the President of all Americans. He does not see you as his enemy or an enemy of the people. He will not call you ugly names. He will not get on Twitter and go on hate-filled rants. He will not make fun of physically-disabled people. He will not freely make misogynistic statements about women.

It feels good to be able to breathe again.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Vicki Lane’s new historical novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes. I’m listening to John Grisham’s latest novel, A Time for Mercy.

I hope you have productive creative time.

Please continue to wear a mask out of respect for others until this Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Janet

Books about The 1665-66 Plague and The 1918 Flu Pandemic

It was coincidental that I read a book about the Bubonic Plague of 1665-66 and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic during the same month. Since the two books are about similar topics, I decided to blog just about them today.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry

The title of this book is a misnomer. I tried listening to the MP3 version, which was almost 20 hours long. There was a brief introduction about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, but the book soon started giving the history of medicine. I kept thinking we’d get back to the flu pandemic, but I gave up four and one-half hours into the book.

If you’re interested in the history of medicine, it’s an interesting book. I learned a lot about the state of the medical profession in the United States in the 1800s. It made me glad I was born midway through the 20th century.

Perhaps if I could have stuck with it, I would have learned more about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. I stumbled upon an interview Jake Tapper of CNN did with the author, John M. Barry, a few months ago. Mr. Tapper raved over the book. The interview is quite interesting and makes me want to check out the book again and read on from where I left off. Here a link to the interview: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/27/politics/interview-john-barry-great-influenza/index.html.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

#BubonicPlague #1665Plague #1666Plague
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a novel set during the Plague of 1666. Geraldine Brooks was inspired to write it after a visit to England in 1991. She saw a sign about Eyam (pronounced “eem”) in Derbyshire, northwest of London. The sign indicated that Eyam was “the Plague Village.” Intrigued, this historical novelist delved deeper and began her research into the Plague.

I listened to the downloadable audio book, which was read by the author. The main character is a maiden named Anna who does her best to survive the pandemic and help others in the community. In reality, two-thirds of the people in Eyam died of the Plague. That’s a percentage that’s impossible for me to get my head around. The Covid-19 pandemic has been frightening enough.

The book gets into some of the superstitions of the era. Some people thought the Plague was punishment from God. They resorted to self-flagellation and burning all their clothes and possessions as a sacrifice.

Death via the Bubonic Plague is an excruciating way to die: Fever as high as 106 degrees F.; lymph nodes turned into dying, hemorrhaging tissue; and thrombosis. The World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases per year. Although rare, it still occurs even in the United States. It can be treated today with antibiotics, but there is no cure for Bubonic Plague.

After listening to the book, I borrowed the e-book from the public library so I could more easily reread portions of the book. In particular, I wanted to read the Afterword. I was happy to also find a Readers Guide after the Afterword in the Kindle edition. In fact, I’m temped to read such features as “Author Notes, “Afterwords,” and “Readers Guides” before reading historical novels in the future.

In Year of Wonders, the Penquin Readers Guide at the back of the book on Kindle is titled, “An Introduction to Year of Wonders.” It might have been more useful at the beginning of the book.

The “Introduction” tells how the Age of Enlightenment in Europe started in the 1600s. The human circulatory system was charted, bacteria were identified, and the compound microscope was invented. It was the dawn of modern medicine in many ways.

In the novel, a minister in Eyam in 1665, Michael Mompellion, decided that God had sent the Bubonic Plague to punish the village. He called for the residents to voluntarily quarantine themselves in their valley and suffer the consequences of their sins.

The most puritanical among them took to self-flagellation. As the situation worsened, the people turned on each other.

The heroine of the novel, Anna Frith, raises the existential questions circling around the origins of the plague. Anna surmised that if the villagers spent less time wondering why God was punishing them and more time trying to figure out how the Plague was spread, there might be a better outcome.

Anna said, “We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid this field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method, and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.”

The word “resolve” jumped out at me. If we just resolve to do what we need to do to minimize the spread of Covid-19 until a vaccine or cure can be found, maybe we’d have a better outcome. Maybe we would stop turning on each other and stop making mask wearing a political statement.

In the “Introduction,” author Geraldine Brooks is asked about her research for the book. She answered, “The written record of what happened in Eyam during the plague year is scant. Apart from three letters by the rector, no narrative account from the year itself actually exists. The “histories” that purport to record the facts were actually written many years later, and historians have found inconsistencies that cast doubt on their accuracy. Therefore, there was no way to write a satisfying nonfiction narrative.”

The minister/rector in the novel, Michael Mompellion is based on William Mompresson, the minister in Eyam at the time of the plague. Ms. Brooks said, “There is nothing in the factual record to suggest that he behaved other than honorably throughout the village’s terrible ordeal.”

William Mompresson had a maid who survived the Plague, so Ms. Brooks chose her to be the narrator of Year of Wonders. Her inspiration for Anna Frith’s transformation from a probably quiet maid to becoming a leading force against the Plague were the Kurdish and Eritrean women she had reported on while a journalist.

In answering another question about her research for the novel, Ms. Brooks responded, “The unique thing about Eyam’s quarantine was that it was voluntary. I was able to find no other examples of such communal self-sacrifice. In London… the houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with no one to bring food, water, or comfort of any kind.”

The ending of the novel wasn’t believable to me. I decided to read some reviews of the book to see if others agreed with me. I discovered that the book has received many five-star reviews, but more than a handful of two-star reviews due to its implausible ending. Some reviews even suggest that you stop reading while you still think its an excellent book. Just skip the ending which transports Anna Frith from England into another country. The ending seemed contrived.

Since my last blog post

The transition from summer to fall temperatures, along with a day of tropical warmth and humidity thrown in thanks to the remains of Hurricane Zeta, has wreaked havoc with my fibromyalgia. (And people wonder why I have Seasonal Affective Disorder in the fall and winter!)

The limb that fell out of the oak tree in the front yard was so large and loud that a neighbor called to check on us. She said it sounded like a gun shot. We thought maybe it was another earthquake until the light from my flashlight revealed the source of the noise. That was the night before what was left of Hurricane Zeta ripped the top off one of our maple trees. It landed on top of the oak limb. That happened while we had gone to our basement out of an abundance of caution and waited out part of the five-hour power outage. Covid-19 pandemic or not, there’s never a dull moment.

As health, electricity, and motivation allows, my sister and I continue to proofread my Harrisburg, Did You Know? book manuscript. Recent computer corruption has caused us to proofread some 80 pages a second time. I haven’t figured out yet how five days of backing up to the external hard drive saved everything except the corrections made on those 80 pages. Two steps forward, and three steps back seems to be the way of things in 2020.

Until my next blog post

I will anxiously await the outcome of the elections here in the United States. Uncertain days lie ahead as baseless threats of voter fraud have been hurled from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue long before tomorrow’s election day. It remains to be seen how ugly things will get post-election. I’ve never had uneasiness like this on the day before a presidential election in America. We’ve never had a sitting president stir up unfounded doubts about our electoral process leading up to an election before in our nation’s history.  

I hope you have one or more good books to read and peace and quiet that’s conducive to reading.

I hope your creativity will find a voice or other outlet this week. Find your passion.

Wear a mask! It’s a small thing we’re being asked to do for the overall public good.

Have you read either of the books I wrote about today? If so, what were your impressions of them? I’d like to know.

Janet