Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

History – straight history . . . not my typical reading material, but this tome came highly recommended, by an equally avid reader whose opinion I respect.  she noted Barry’s gift for narrative, how he could take an otherwise dry timeline and tell the story – of nations, government, movements, and individuals.  I’m widely read in the area of evangelical Christianity, and thanks to my current position, I’m immersed in the worlds of politics and law.  John M. Barry’s most recent book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, plays to all three wheelhouses.  But it is a MUST read for anyone who wants to better understand the rise of the ultra-conservative, Tea Party movement, where it comes from and what it eventually leads to.

 

Narrative is definitely Barry’s strong suit.  He has an especial gift for conveying the nuances of character in just a couple of sentences, and his ability to distill complicated events into clear prose allows the reader to grasp more details than they normally would.  He is the perfect author to take on a subject most Americans think they understand, revealing patterns and truths that have been missed by most.

 

So why should Americans take the time to read about a period of long-past history thy haven’t thought about since their schooldays?  Because this look back at the earliest beginnings of our nation will bring current day issues and headlines into sharp focus.  What happened at the dawn of our democracy has EVERYTHING to do with today’s Godless Liberal vs Tea Party Patriot dichotomy.

 

Pick up Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul for a clear look at both where we have come from and where we are headed.

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The Book of Lost Fragrances – M.J. Rose

I enjoyed this book a great deal. I have a more than passing – okay, voracious – interest in all things mythological and specifically archetypal, this spoke directly to one of my passions. However, that is not by any means the subject of this work. Rose manages to incorporate mythology, psychology, reincarnation, Chinese politics, Tibetan history, the Chinese Mafia in places as far-flung as Paris, along with the science of perfumery, archaeology and metaphysical exploration into one surprisingly coherent whole.

For those of you who cannot stand a story without a love story – it’s there. If you want a thriller – it’s there. If you want history, ancient and more contemporary – it’s there. So is science and a host of other issues that all wind around each other to create one of those intricate Chinese decorative knots, each strand necessary and holding together the whole.

Towards the end, I began to wonder about why not as background had been given for one character in particular, and why two other past-life memory aids kept being mentioned. It finally occurred to me that the author had a previous book entitled The Reincarnationist, and that is the term used to describe the troubling character. I need to do a bit of digging, but I bet he showed up in some of her earlier work. Rest assured, however, this book can and does stand on its own quite well.  You might even want to go back to some of those earlier works!

Gypsy Boy

Mikey, call me!

Okay, sorry about that but I had to.  I finished the ARC of Gypsy Boy before Christmas, but I had to let this bubble for a bit.  And now, for the requisite cliche:  I laughed, I cried, he had me at the first paragraph.  Anyone who can, wiht tangible warmth and affection, describe his grandmother as an oger is a guy I want to spend time listening to . . . so I did, much to my delight.

Mikey Walsh is a pseudonym for this remarkable young man, who grew up a soft-hearted, kind young boy in a culture that demanded he be a cold, tough fighter, the Romany gypsy community in Britain.  Surrounded by the perfect set of “characters” for a memoirist, but a nightmare family come to horrifying life for a sensitive boy.  Mikey’s story will resonate with anyone who has ever felt they  just don’t quite “fit” in their family, their culture, or the world in general.

As anyone who has felt that “otherness” knows, life is far from a sitcom script, and Mikey’s was likely worse than most.  There are portions of his story that are literally gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to read.  I can’t even imagine what they were to live.

Is there a happy ending to Mikey’s story?  As in all real life stories – kinda.  I think he would say yes.  A fairy-tale happy ending?  Nope.  He is making his way through life, day by day, working as a teaching assistant in a school for special needs children, a post I bet he is fabulous at.  It also allows him ot fill in the yawning gaps in his widely intermittent formal schooling.

Perhaps what I find most remarkable is two-fold.  First, that with so very little education, Mikey Walsh’s voice is clear and compelling, more engaging than any I’ve read in a long, long time.  It is that voice that left me feeling both like I know him intimately, and wishing that I knew him better.  Second, he has to be one of the most genuinely loving and forgiving souls ever to walk this planet.  With all the truly horrific abuse heaped on him from as young as two or three years old at the hands of those who should have been protecting him, even after being what it is me inexcusably neglected by those who didn’t physically harm him but blatantly turned their backs, refusing to intervene, and the betrayal by those he trusted most deeply who turned their backs on him when he needed them most, Mikey still looks on them with a deep and abiding love, seeking to find the reasons for their pain and choosing to forgive and engage with them, even after being hunted as s fugitive for years at their order.  There is much to learn from a heart this magnanimous.

The highest compliment I can think of for a memoirist is this: I want to meet this  man, to spend time talking, laughing and learning together, not about his past, but just to share lives as friends.  And Mikey, should this ever make its way to your attention:  Please, please, please, do not stop writing.  Have at non-fiction, fiction, plays or screenplays, whatever.  The world needs your voice, your humor, and your wisdom.  I, for one, will be waiting.

Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies, by Mikey Walsh, is due to be released by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press this coming February, 2012.

Master Your Sleep by Tracey Marks, M.D.

A good night’s sleep – modern man’s Holy Grail.  The way we all talk, its the one full-proof panacea we turn to to fix nearly anything and pretty much everything.  And the lack of it . . . well, that’s responsible for almost every ache, pain and muddled thought we have.

When this ARC came across on NetGalley, I was ALL in.  My problematic sleep history began years ago, finally diagnosed as sleep apnea.  I used a C-Pap machine at night till I lost all my weight and several consequent sleep studies confirmed that I don’t need it any longer.  However, the  hormone disturbances of peri-menopause combined with the side effects from certain maintenance medications to introduce me to the Wide World of Insomnia!  If Dr. Marks could teach me anything to help me get even a slightly improved night’s sleep, I would be so grateful.

The first half of Master Your Sleep focuses on the mechanics: how our wake and sleep cycles work, the biology of sleep, and then how even a single night’s sleep is a repetition of cycles.  We are very delicate clockwork creatures, and our modern life has surprising ways of encroaching on that mechanism.  Marks goes on to look at the different consequences of sleep disturbance – physical, mental, emotional.  I was struck by h0ow convinced we are that good restful sleep matters, but how uneducated we remain about the serious health repercussions, focusing instead on the more passing annoyances of feeling tired or sluggish thinking.  A startling number of diseases and serious medical complications are rooted in a lack of consistent, restful sleep, from diabetes, cardiovascular problems and even general susceptibility to opportunistic infections.

The most common sleep problems are laid out in clear, easily accessible terms, allowing readers to grasp the process and the importance of halting it without resorting to off-putting technical jargon or fear-mongering.  It’s readable, clearly understandable and still interesting to the normal, non-medical reader.

While the first half was interesting, the second half is downright useful.  Marks reviews the different treatment options, from medications (prescription, over-the-counter, and homeopathic), to cognitive, behavioral and even the purely physical, such as light box therapy.  She reviews how each treatment works, and why certain approaches are better for specific difficulties, effectively tying her first section with the second.

It was this second half that was gold for me personally, and I firmly believe it will be helpful for most, if not all readers.  If there is  medical imbalance of some sort, medication is the way to go, and a logical first step.  But if, like myself, that has not been effective, the cognitive tools – how we “think” about sleep – can make a HUGE difference.  Even more so, the behavioral tools can improve your sleep and your life almost immediately,

The most impressive part is the practicality.  Marks hits her strong stride in the behavioral measure that can bring significant improvement.  First up is the sleep diary, allowing the sleeper to narrow in on what the specific issues are, beyond the typical “didn’t get any rest”.  Then she moves on to helping readers analyze the assumptions we all have about sleep in general and our own in specific, and how those assumptions can lead to disturbances, or make relatively minor ones into more severe problems.  This allows readers to move from simple identification into actions they can begin taking that very day.  What impressed me further were the documents she provides in the appendix: a structured two-page Sleep Diary, an Assumption Log and a Problem-Solving Worksheet.  These bring the therapist into the reader’s room and allow the reader to start right in on the nitty-gritty work immediately.  And who wants to wait any longer to sleep better?

There is an added bonus, for those of you with little ones running about your home.  Marks has a separate chapter addressing the special causes and issues that arise with sleep disturbances in children, and the problems that their parents face.  It’s an even more delicate situation, but one that affects not only the sleepless child but every individual in the family, and Marks gives it the acknowledgement and treatment that it deserves.

So . . . how ya been sleepin?  With 1 in 3 people experiencing some instance of sleep disturbance, I’ll bet you or someone you care about will benefit from Master Your Sleep.

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

In Laura Lippman’s latest, a self-absorbed memoirist-turned-novelist once again delves into her past, searching for material.  thinking she has exhausted her own life, Cassandra Fallows decides to focus on a so-called friend from her childhood, a virtual cipher named Caliope (Callie) Jenkins, who had been convicted of killing her second child years after they lost contact.  The hook was that Caliope had pled the fifth, refusing to speak, even in her own defense.

Though the first chapter struck me as slow, mostly just Cassandra’s self-pitying thoughts about her less than stellar reception as a novelist, the premise and the mystery sounded promising.  The rest of the novel is the story of Cassandra’s attempts to uncover the truth about what had really happened, not only to Callie’s son, but to the woman herself in the intervening years.  Unfortunately, all that is uncovered is Cassandra’s all-consuming narcicism and capacity for self-delusion.  Her futile probing of childhood friends only reveals that no one seems to share the childhood memories she had published for the world’s consumption.  In fact, most of them don’t even want to see her again, let alone talk about Callie or their pasts together.  We also meet a damaged former cop, and I got the feeling we were supposed to believe she was obsessed with the unsolved case, but frankly, I didn’t.  The parody of a well-known, publicity seeking female attorney did nothing to help this tale limp along.

Ultimately, I was bored, and after a couple weeks puzzling, I think I’ve pinpointed why – there is not one single likable character in the entire novel.  The ones who aren’t deeply, even offensively flawed, are so harh that you can’t bring yourself to care about them.  And Lippman’s portrayal of Callie Jenkins as a mysterious cipher is so complete that I couldn’t even maintain a curiosity about what she had gone through or why she had remained silent.  There was just nothing compelling about her.

What I did enjoy about Life Sentences was the undercurrent of personal remembrance and revelation.  How much of our “personal” history is really ours?  Don’t we share it with the people who lived alongside us?  While using our experiences to inspire fiction is common to the point of expectation, straight memoir is a completely different proposition.  What is the truth?  Facts and figures, verifiable information?  Or is it what we recall?  The sum total of what everyone recalls?  As writers, what are our responsibilities to the people we write about?  What are the responsibilities to our readers?

Life Sentences fell short as a mystery for me, but it has its merits as a musing on how we remember what whe have lived through, and how we should handle those memories and the people involved.

Later-Day Cipher by Latayne C. Scott

Twenty years ago, a college professor of mine told my mother, “Stacey never has an opinion, and if she did, she sure wouldn’t ever share it.”  Keeping the grin off his face was an epic battle, one he lost when Mama burst out laughing.  Now, while opinionated, I do try to temper my responses to avoid the clearly offensive, but my sense of the absurd will often color my responses.  You have been warned.

I am a serious and thoughtful Christian, and a lifelong consumer of literature.  Studying for my Master’s in English, I am exposed to some of the finest lit ever written on a daily basis, and I have a limited time for discretionary reading, so I don’t care to waste my time on trite, formulaic, expected writing.  In fact – I simply won’t.  And when I do give my opinion, it will be straight out.  If I wouldn’t read it or didn’t enjoy it, I won’t pass it off on you.  That’s just mean.

Not a big fan of murder mysteries, it is a bit odd how I came to read Latayne C. Scott’s new work of fiction, Later-Day Cipher.  On my morning web-review, I came across her entry on the Novel Matters website, where she is one of the regular contributors.  She was asking for people’s opinions on the trailer for her book, which was a bit out of the ordinary for a piece of Christian fiction.  Since the lack of really excellent Christian fiction is a personal soapbox, and she DID ASK for opinions, I took a few minutes, watched the trailer, and dropped a comment on the blog.

Much to my surprise, and pleasure, the trailer did not scream Christian fiction.  It didn’t scream anything but mystery, and an interesting one at that.  It was something I could recommend to any of my reader friends, Believers or not, something to begin a conversation, not end it, and that is a rare and glorious thing.  To my added pleasure, I received an email from Latayne and she sent me a copy of the book.  I dove in the very night it arrived.

Now, my sis-in-law is a big murder mystery buff, but I am decidedly not.  It’s that aversion to the formulaic that I can’t seem to shake.  And yes, Later-Day Cipher does indeed start out with a murder, but that is just the first layer of the mystery, one that will continue to build long after that initial murder has been solved.  It is with that first murder that Scott introduces us into a world very few of us are familiar with – Mormonism.  The murderer intentionally leaves clues leading directly to the Mormon Church and some of its lesser known facets, clues that will take us deeper into the heart of a mystery hundreds of years old and more complicated than we realize.

Cipher has one thing so often missing in murder mystery/thrillers: an entire cast of complex, interesting characters, not simply an intrepid detective and a calculating killer.  Selonnah Zee, reporter with forensic training, is our pivot point, but she is not the only investigator, and not the only person we can identify with or care about.  She is also not the devout, Scripture spouting sleuth or the jaded, world-weary atheist you might expect.  She’s a woman I could sit down and have coffee with, trying to do her job, care for an aging parent, and actually take a real vacation for once, all while occassionally pondering the big quetions life raises when we don’t have the time or energy to answer them.

During her so-called vacation to visit her cousin Roger, his wife Eliza and their daughter, she meets several interesting people, all while becoming involved in a murder investigation.  In the years since leaving their home, Roger has converted to Mormonism, finding the forgiveness, purpose and belonging there that he so desperately needed.  Also Mormon is the young detective Luke Taylor who was raised in a polygamous family, but doesn’t feel the need to defend his church that so many others do. There is also Petersen, a no-nonsence police chief with a wife and child, who quotes poetry and misses his parents, who both succumbed to Alzheimer’s before the novel opens.  Other, more minor, but certainly not neglected, characters fill out the cast, all nicely rounded – no cardboard here – and all with varying associations to the Mormon Church.  Perhaps the most surprising character of all is the Mormon Church itself.

Scott is a former Mormon, now a Christian, but she is not an angry convert.  This novel is not an attack on Mormonism, or on anyone who chooses that lifestyle, as she reveals that it is more an entire lifestyle, life system, than it is simply a religious affiliation.  Her depiction of the church and it’s followers is not only fair and balanced, but respectful.  Its adherents are not mindless cult zombies, nor are they malicious predators; they are people who have found what we all want, purpose and comfort and belonging to something bigger than ourselves.  Scott doesn’t hesitate topoint out the questions and inconsistancies in Mormonism’s beliefs and history, but there is no Bible-thumping Christian preaching eternity in hell either.  She simply lets us learn about the religion along with Selonnah.

What I think I appreciated the most was that we find out the identity of the murderer long before the end of the novel, but the mystery, instead of being resolved, actually deepens.  Serial killers typically grow more and more extreme in their atrocities, but Scott turns that on its ear as the incidents grow less gruesome, but more baffling as the pages turn.  And the end – I didn’t see it coming.  Bravo.

I believe this is Scott’s first major work of fiction, and there are some rough bits.  Some of the exposition is clearly exposition, largely because it runs on so long – there is an enormous amount of background needed to fully grasp the significance of what is being done, and that can slow the story down, leaving it feeling a bit jerky in places.  Is this her masterpiece?  No, at least, I hope not.  I want to read more, about these people, and from her in general.  Isn’t that really what we’re looking for in a great read?

Latayne C. Scott’s Later Day Cipher is a mystery beyond murder and a glimpse into the world of Mormonism, but perhaps more importantly, it gives us insight into the human heart, in all its different varieties, as it struggles with the big questions:  What do I believe?  Why do I believe it?  Is there something beyond this life?  Is there something more?  I enjoyed this book greatly, and I eagerly await more.  I will be picking up her next, sequel or not.

Oh, and this is, after all, a mystery, so keep your eye out for the requisite red herring – best I’ve ever seen!