Favorite Finds: A Sampling

Ever cleaned out a walk-in closet, maybe part of that activity entailing sorting through a massive amount of papers very carefully, shredding some, recycling others, properly filing away every single one you needed to keep? Then afterward you re-organize your belongings in an efficient manner, perhaps adding a few pretty touches along the way? When you’re all done you leave to make yourself some tea, thinking you’d go on the computer a bit or watch a little TV? As you pass the closet again on the way to the sofa you eye the door. No, just leave it. Oh what the heck. You open it up and stand in the jam, just looking at the beautiful, orderly, spacious new closet. Just looking. Then you leave, and maybe an hour later go open the door just to look at it.

Ever done that? Heh heh, yeah, me too.

Sometimes I have a similar experience with décor, or items I’d found with a little luck. I thrift shop quite a lot, you see – that is to say a lot meaning a significant percentage of the shopping I do, as opposed to I do it all the time. For example, the curtains I purchased last year were brand new, but some frames I needed to replace ones destroyed in an earthquake, well, those came from a local Goodwill, which I’d noticed in the past tends usually to carry a very large stock of frames in all sizes and designs – plus they’re way less expensive than buying them new, and in very nice shape. There I also found a fantastic basket to hold my book-quality magazines and a lamp I intended for the office, but loved it so much decided it was too pretty for a mere office.

Anyway, so sometimes I find an item and can use it as is, or may need to transform it a bit. In either case, it’s not uncommon for me to stop as I walk by just to admire it. It might be because I worked it into a more lovely state of lovely, or it may have memories attached to its acquisition. With one item I am glancing at periodically as I type, it’s because an idea came to me for how to use something I’d gotten that didn’t really work for why I purchased it. I suppose there are other explanations; those are just a few. Whatever the reason, I stop to admire and it usually makes me feel happy.

I do have material interests and preferences, but this isn’t really about the material, even though that’s the kind of items we are discussing here. On occasion I have shared these thoughts with my teenage son (he has sometimes helped me with the items’ transformation), who made really nice conversation or asked thoughtful questions. A couple of times it gave him ideas about doing something himself. I was pretty impressed, considering he isn’t all that interested in this stuff, plus he is a teenager!

In a way, though, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised because some of these ideas, at least one I can think of off the top, I’m certain were influenced by a beautiful book I’ve borrowed from the library several times: Susan Ure’s 10-Minute Decorating: 176 Fabulous Shortcuts with Style. In it Ure shows many small but significant ways in which to revitalize areas or pieces, do small makeovers, liven up, make an area or room all yours. And isn’t that what it’s all about? When we come home from the big world out there, the place we come to is our retreat from the world, a space just for us: it holds and comforts us—at least it should—and the surroundings put us at ease because they are us. They reflect back to our eyes and minds who we are as they wrap us in their warm and welcoming embrace. To me that also speaks of relationships because so many of the material items I own came to me via connections to someone else. I suspect this is not really unusual.

And so I thought I’d briefly share a few items I’ve been eyeing lately, hoping it might make you feel a little happy too. And if I’m very lucky, something in here might pass on to you a bit of what Susan Ure’s ideas and eye for the lovely gifted to me. Some of them may relate to literature and history—perhaps more—which really begins to comb a bit deeper in our thought processes. And who knows where that might lead?

Photo credit: Lisl P.

Last summer, my goal to do a wipe down of my windows and generally freshen up led to a wider expanse of cleaning and, in turn, decision to do a greater overhaul than I’d intended. I’d recently been reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life and, though I didn’t angle to start papering my walls and installing patterns on everything in sight, there was something influenced by the era stirring within me. I was slightly baffled by it because I’d never been that interested in this time as one to study or read about. Perhaps I only wanted something softer than the medieval I’d been targeting for quite some time and had been unable to really achieve (“go online” and “do second hand” not having yielded real results, given that shipping to Alaska is typically astronomical and the medieval thrift finds Lower 48 people so often gush over don’t really exist here).

I know I did want to set up a work table with a few pretty items on it as pictured in some other décor books I’d picked up along with Ure’s. Having examined them numerous times, I dragged my boy along for a few rounds of thrifting, looking “for something Victorian.” For a kid not into this project at all, he was fairly impressive (also managing to wheedle a few new glasses he liked out of the trips). He found the serving tray pictured above, which left me breathless at the scope of his eye. The pattern of it struck me as very Victorian, with its cherubic children, nature themes and poetic sentiments: “Far from thee be every care” read a message being delivered by a dove in one section. I imagined serving biscuits on it. Alas, we’d amassed a small hill of booty and I started to put a few items back. “Let’s not go overboard with our excitement,” I cautioned, once more bringing him into something he never volunteered for. His glasses I kept, the tray I put back. He insisted I get the tray while I feared I was diving into a novelty that would wear off all too quickly. He showed me how carefully constructed it was: “It’s duct tape? Still, it’s surely manufactured and not just a tray taped over by enthusiastic but unskilled hands.” I marveled at the diction he surely utilized to woo my decision and heeded his advice.

Today I’m super glad I did. When I purchase things, I try to do it with intent: that I will love the item as much a year or two or five years from then as I did the day I found it. I can accept not being in love with something anymore, so long as it isn’t a regret and that this sentiment or falling out of love doesn’t set in soon after I bring it home. As I look at it today I still feel the unselfish desire of a young boy to find something nice for his mom, and the joy I felt at having such a person in my life—that he is my own flesh and blood. I still occasionally wonder, as I did last year, who had it before, what motivated them to buy it and how did they use it? Did they love it? Was that love linked to the love they felt for another human being? How did it end up at the shop? These are the sort of questions I also often ask myself of items connecting me to other, unknown individuals.

Photo credit: Lisl P.

I saw it sitting on a cluttered shelf, its empty vertebral shell beckoning to me for a ray of light. Straight away I thought of little tea candles I had at home, not knowing for sure if they would fit. Looking closer, I thought, “Do I really want this?” My mind went to Turtle, my precious boy with the nick name of his favorite animal, though that’s not why I call him that. He is sweet, kind, gentle, even mild. Certainly, he was definitely all boy: another pet name was El Gato because he so frequently fell from trees, tumbled down stairs, leapt haphazardly from tall playground equipment—you know how little boys are. Each time he landed on his feet. Yet from a very young age he took such great care of me.

I can remember once coming home from work with a raging headache: a student had thrown a pencil directly at me and in my recall I saw a slow-motion stick turning as it traveled through the air, eventually bouncing off my forehead, resulting in a sitcom-y sort of duh expression on my face. It hadn’t actually hurt, but the shock of a child acting in this manner and the stress of the day had taken its toll. My little one was too small to leave unsupervised while I took a greatly needed rest, so I asked him to lay at the end of my bed and maybe watch a DVD as I napped. Closing my eyes, I felt gorgeous little fingers caressing my face and hairline as I fell quickly into a delicious sleep.

Strangely enough, it struck me as akin to some of the weird pieces I’ve seen in pictures of Victorian mantlepieces—though their animals were usually much bigger than this mini masterpiece. And masterpiece it was! At home I marveled at the little critter, at his long, cunning front legs as compared to the back; at the precise lines drawn so perfectly-imperfectly into his marginal and costal shells. How his neck curves so gracefully! It was as if he was in the process of turning to look up at me. Dropping the tea candle into its place, I ran my fingers over his smooth surface. Metal clay, perhaps? I had to look it up; I didn’t actually know if there was such a thing. As it happens, there is, and I was delighted to find the creation process described here for a sea turtle not unlike my little guy.

Still he rests on a shelf not far from a green cousin brought back from Hawaii by one of Turtle’s friends, and another, smaller one, created by Turtle himself. Pictured here near some books, my critter and the others have since migrated to the top shelf of a taller case, where I pass by them many times each day. Each one has a splendid view of their environment and I of them, as I contemplate the biggest Turtle until he too will return home to claim his spot.

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Great Land History: 55 Years After Good Friday

Just a few months ago, in November 2018, Anchorage, Alaska experienced back-to-back earthquakes, one a magnitude 7.0 that jumbled nerves and recalled images or stories of Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake in 1964. In very short order, however, while the city learned there was a great deal of infrastructure damage and schools would be shut for a week, citizens were thankful and overjoyed that no deaths resulted. “Our spirits are broken” they joked, referring to numerous social media images of collapsed liquor shelves, “but #WeAreOK.” And: “Shaken, not stirred.”

Still, there was an unspoken current, one that recalled 1964, whether via people’s own memories or those passed down from others, and a silence would move over conversations as people quietly remembered those lost that Good Friday, and others left to carry the legacy of a day no one who lived through could ever forget.

In March 2014 my Great Land History series at The Review paused to recall the 50th anniversary of this day. It seems like not too long ago I posted that blog, yet here we are today at the 55th anniversary. In between we have experienced hundreds, perhaps thousands of shakers, most unnoticed and only a few we really remember. I wrote about one myself a few years back, thankful our big living room armoire, which always made me nervous about letting my son “camp out” overnight  there, didn’t fall. As it happened, I was awake when the 2016 earthquake came and leaped to get in between that armoire and my sleeping boy, realizing that had that thing fallen down there was no way I could have even ungracefully kept it from landing on top of him.

Last November I was on the 11th floor of a Midtown tower when the shaking came, and I leaped to my feet to be closer to others. As the building rattled and rolled (literally) I repeatedly stated, “It’s designed to sway and roll like this, it’s OK.” I was surely calming myself as much as anybody else, hey? In the days to come I reflected a lot about 1964 and the people alive then, but also the interdisciplinary research carried out over the last 55 years, the brains, the brawn, the dedication, perseverance and care for others that drove and continues to drive those who consider the safety of strangers a top priority. I also recalled seeing up close the eyes of other drivers who, like me, were on their way home with loved ones they’d collected, but were then stuck in a parking lot city street. These weren’t haunted eyes, but they were ones that knew too much, and they said, “Yeah, it stinks, all right. But we’re alive, we’re in one piece and we’re together.” And we looked after each other.

Today I re-blog the entry from five years ago so we can remember with gratitude those who came before and after and what their lives have meant to us.

*****

Note: The Good Friday audio/video link below
is no longer available; I am working on replacing it. 

When earthquakes in the United States come into conversation, people tend to think of California, memories being so vivid of the terrible destruction that has so often visited that state. However, what many outside the state of Alaska—Outside, as Alaskans say—are unaware of is that the northern state is much more seismically active than the sun-drenched, western one, with movement occurring nearly every day, often many times within 24 hours.

Of course, Alaskans tend to be used to their earthquakes; the great majority of them are quick and small. There is a minor amount of shaking and people may pause and look at one another (or not), waiting out the few seconds it usually takes to be done. Occasionally buildings will sway, as they are designed to do; sometimes a plate may fall off the wall or glassware rattle on the shelves. Typically this is all.

Before the shaker, the Fourth Avenue sidewalk on the left was at level with the street section on the right.

When the shaking started on March 27, 1964, people generally responded in the same way. It was a Friday, Good Friday in fact; schools were closed and businesses wrapped up early for the holiday. The weather had warmed up to 28 degrees (-2 C) and the afternoon and early evening proceeded like any other.

Unbeknownst to Alaskans, however, the Pacific plate pushing under the North American, 100 miles east of the largest city, Anchorage, had been grinding away and was about to subduct. They were to know soon enough, however, as the rattling continued and the ground began to move beneath them. Surface waves motioned and gaping fissures in the ground split downtown Anchorage apart.

Linda, a woman I worked with some years back, would occasionally remember that day for me, her most significant memory being of a man “running buck naked right through downtown.” He had been dressing following a sports activity when the quake struck. She said she was so traumatized by the sight and how devastated and humiliated the poor man might have felt, that she vowed she would never find herself in such a situation. “To this day,” I recall her declaring, “even showering at home involves having clothes at the ready, right there for me to grab if needed.”

Simultaneously in various areas, trees were torn from their roots, houses and buildings collapsed and people held onto anything they could grab to keep from falling over, or into the split streets themselves. Fourth Avenue, Anchorage’s main street, fell by 12 feet and an elementary school on Government Hill was torn into pieces. In a residential area 30 blocks of land slid into the water and the international airport’s control tower fell like a house of cards.

In Port Valdez, a massive underwater landslide killed 32 people. The city was destroyed and later rebuilt at another site.

Valdez (Val-DEEZ), a small city close to the epicenter near Prince William Sound, was in utter ruins. The ground rose and fell, cracked wide open and snapped shut, and buildings collapsed. A cargo freighter, the SS Chena, was hurled onto dry land and the dock shredded; later it was carried back out to sea.

The effects were similar in other cities: Resurrection Bay hungrily swallowed nearly one mile of Seward’s seafront, the train yard destroyed and the oil tank farm erupted into flames. Kodiak lost half its fishing fleet. After four minutes of the earth violently churning beneath and around them, surviving Alaskans around Southcentral surveyed the devastation, and were horrified. The destruction related here was just a small portion of the aftermath: the cost of damage was $311 million (seen elsewhere: in today’s currency, $2.8 billion).

That wasn’t all. Next to come was the tsunami, occurring when the Alaskan seafloor lunged upwards, causing the water above it to be hurled into the air and toward land. Some survivors managed to outrun it (likely having had a head start) or escaped to higher ground. Valdez was beaten by tsunami waves late into the night and eventually fell to the torrent, rendered uninhabitable. The tsunami caused such destruction to trees that now, 50 years later, their corpses are still seen along the highway near Portage and Girdwood, where 20 miles of the Seward Highway had to be rebuilt as it had sunk to below the high water mark.

Ghost Forest: Spruce trees killed, their remains preserved by tsunami salt water.

Dennis Giradot remembers the earthquake even though he was only five at the time. KCAW transcribes an audio in which Giradot recalls a flying pot of chili, his Beatles-fan brother’s guitar-shaped birthday cake (decorated with chili) and the sway of buildings outside their window.

[T]he next two nights we actual [sic] slept in our car[;] my dad had this big Mercury something… it was a blue thing with big fins in the back. The aftershocks were so constant and so strong we didn’t know if the building would hold up.

 Others’ memories aren’t necessarily so lighthearted: Kim Kowalski-Rodgers recalls for KTUU the sounds she heard first as an eight-year-old child playing outside her family’s home on Third Avenue. “I knew it was a monster.” Indeed, the horrible noises the earth made did sound like those emitted from the brawling lungs of a dark imagining. When I first saw video of the earthquake, at Good Friday Earthquake Rocks Alaska, as it had occurred in Anchorage, the audio impacted me at least as much as the destruction in action before my eyes: the awful noises sounded like those Grendl might have made as he was mortally wounded, and I thought people surely must have been terrified by them.

In terms of death toll, numbers don’t come close to the 700 lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: 128. However, when measuring magnitude activity, this 9.2 quake went on record as the largest US quake in recorded history and in the world second only to Chile’s, occurring in 1960.

The disaster is still remembered by people around the world because although the damage was worst in Alaska, effects were felt around the world. The initial seismic waves shook buildings in Seattle and lifted Houston, Texas ground by six centimeters, 10 in Florida. Like a wave that ripples from one end of a body of water to another, so too did the shock waves across the globe, as they circled the world for the next two weeks. The tsunami that destroyed Valdez also reached the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, and killed 10 people in Crescent City, California.

Alaskans are frequently reminded their land is “overdue” for another sizeable earthquake, but next time the damage is likely to be worse, especially if it occurs on a day open for business and academics.With a now-larger population and infrastructure, there is more to be lost. Shipping remains as weather dependent as ever, however, and it were to occur in winter months, the death toll could rise in the aftermath if lodging and food supplies are inadequate.

In this week of remembrance we reflect on those who lost their lives in 1964, and prepare as best we can to help those in need following any future disaster.

Sources (not listed above) and further information:

Earthquake preparedness at AEIC
Tom Irvine 
USGS: Historic Earthquakes [being replaced]
Great Land of Alaska: 1964 Good Friday Earthquake [being replaced]

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
Click images for further information

Focus on Food: The Lost Art of Real Cooking (Kitchen Re-Entry)

I actually thought I’d stop buying cookbooks, since everything is online these days, but a new sort of cooking genre has sprung to life in recent years, one of memoir or history, sometimes both blended together with a generous dollop of commentary on top. I’d managed to end up with a collection of these tasties, most of which, owing to a critical, chronic lack of time and energy, I never read past the beginning or a skim through. This was a reality that contributed to my slowdown last October, when I decided to take some time off from penning book reviews and, hopefully, start pursuing other interests and projects as well. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would to get my mojo back, and my reading has seriously slowed down. Little by little, however, I’m feeling something, and last night I got serious about a few recipes I wanted to try out.

I know I’m not ready to jump back into things in quite the same way as before, particularly relating to food, given the “field work” involved in these examinations. There’s also the reality that I’m not what one might call a “foodie” – I don’t have a culinary degree or a bank of nutritional information stored in my brain and my expertise is limited to what I’ve taught myself to do from previous reading and experimentation. There were also a few setback years in which my now-teenaged son, who as a toddler and young child ate all the spicy Indian and Middle Eastern food I cooked, switched to a puzzling array of home-cooked “fast food.” (At least he has always disliked the commercial stuff.) He’s still stuck on pizza, but his repertoire at least has once more begun to expand. He’s a loyal child, but will in fact tell me if something was too bland, a criticism that actually fills me with joy.

So it works well for me that The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time is set up the way it is: with a table of contents dividing dishes into categories, sure, but the book itself takes a narrative approach. This is a delightful concoction that allows one to begin at the beginning and stop when one reaches the end, skip around or do both. Moreover, it slowly and patiently brings a reader like me back into the fold: I’m exhausted but expectant, longing to know the etymology of food (so to speak) and have an aversion to measurements in cooking. It also (negatively) references the long line of products and foods developed for those wanting fast results, a condition I have over past years grown to deeply dislike. One of my very first blog entries spoke of it and I still retain a deep abhorrence for the condition because I believe it has damaged our society and how we interact with each other.

Food and literature pair exceedingly well: the sharing of labor, love and stories to nourish our bodies and souls. (Click image for more about the book.)

I’ve said it before: A delicious meal prepared with care for those who will eat it is an act of love and actually tastes better, and I want to gift that, especially to my son. Universally food is a uniter, and some of the best discussions are over a good meal, especially when one is eating slowly, savoring the textures and flavors of food and conversation alike. It takes us places, even when one reads about it, which is probably why these new food books are so successful. Even “ordinary” novels and other works can magically bring that feeling alive, such as in Rodriguez and Vigorito’s Forty Years in a Day, when the children sneak into the kitchen on Sundays to dip bread into the simmering sauce. I remember doing it myself as a kid – smearing the soft and chewy bread with real butter, especially delicious on the ends, which we fought over, and using them to wipe clean our plates and pop the last bit of chewy heaven into our mouths. This is the moment you ease back in your seat and enjoy those in your midst, saying, as my son and I still do, “You wanna know the best part of that meal?”

“The company.”

*****

I’ve got a lovely task ahead of me today, straight from the pages of The Art of Real Cooking, but within my kitchen, exactly the reason the authors put the book together. “Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining,” they write. I agree, but would add that it’s also meditative. It calms me. It helps me to slow down by forcing the deceleration, enabling me also to focus more on actual mindfulness (and not the cash cow it’s being turned into) as I learn to let go of not having finished everything today I would have liked. When fatigued, it doesn’t necessarily pep me up, but does engage me in a slow stir of calm movement redirecting my mind’s insistence that I sit down and close my eyes. The entertainment referenced above sets in as my ingredients meld, dance, reduce, bring me into its midst as the world and its concerns take a bow for the time being. This is our show. We loosen up and anticipate, engage in the movements uniting my hands and what the ingredients become as, together, we provide something while we prepare to share with those we love the most.

Check out the websites for Ken Albala and Rosanna N. Henderson

Banner: Azerbaijani tendir oven made of clay in a hole in the earth, courtesy MrArifnajafov. Click image for more details. 

Recharging and Taking Stock

A recent alternative bookshelf experiment bathed by the winter sun (see closeup image at bottom)

Well, some of you have noticed I’ve not posted a review—or  anything else—for quite a while (I got a few emails, bless your hearts), and the truth is I was burned out. I know, very starkly stated, but there you have it. Though I never posted as often as some others, or blogged for as many years as them, what I have been doing was quite enough. If I do say so myself, I strive to make my reviews of a higher caliber because I like to look at details, compare/contrast, analyze and delve a little more deeply. Plus, I’ve been writing reviews since about 2012, maybe 2013, and I’m ready for a turning point.

I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in doing this, and I want to take this moment to thank all the authors who have submitted books for review: your wonderful tales have reached into my reader’s heart, taken me to new worlds, brought me into contact with people from the past or those roaming amongst your imaginations (sometimes a bit of both), and provided me with massive amounts of information about our own history. For me this is absolutely priceless.

Some of the books I’ve reviewed atop the uppermost shelf of one of two identical – we call them the twins.

That sounds a bit like a departure, doesn’t it?

Well, in a way it is. As I say, I’m a bit frazzled, and I don’t want to end anything on a negative note, so I’m going to chill out for a bit, take a much-needed slowdown so nothing ever comes to that. I’m looking forward to browsing the library stacks and actually reading most of what I bring home.

And in a way it isn’t: I’ll still do some reviews, but for the time being, just playing things by ear as to what I’ll be checking out and when. I also will be focusing on some other ideas I’ve been wanting to pursue, such as writing about food. I’m by no means a foodie, but I do love to cook (baking is another story) and learn about ingredients’ relationships to each other. In fact, I just learned a baking secret (to me at least) that I’ll tell you about next time in an entry I’ve already started to write.

The climbing pink roses and shape of this vase, together with its green framing the floral, really caught my attention. It didn’t exactly match the color scheme I had fallen into, but I liked the idea of an “imperfection” in the room, something that stood alone.

And you know what? I so can’t keep away from books, so you know I’ll be exploring some written works about that universal love we partake in at least once a day. Unfortunately, not everyone can say “once a day,” so I’ll be looking at that angle as well, as I’d like it too, to take me somewhere.

I’ve got some décor news, a few new photos to show, a couple more hobbies I’m trying to develop and have been immersing myself again in my very first love of the written word: poetry. In fact, I’ve finally reached out to a few people who agreed to act as beta readers to my own collection of poems, many of which were written when I was still in school. I’ve gotten some fantastic feedback, which has really psyched me up even more. A very dear social media friend persuaded me to try my hand at making a few sketches for the collection, and it’s not been so easy, but I’m trying to get on with those. One of the above-mentioned developing hobbies is something that has helped me figure out how to proceed—more to come!

I adore looking at décor and the many ideas people have for creating their spaces. The moment I saw this image in Alison Wormleighton’s Victoria: Decorating with a Personal Touch, I knew I wanted to re-create this wonderful corner (Hearst Books, 2004, click image).

I’ve also got a collection of short stories to finish writing; lots of historical nonfiction to read on various topics of fascination; my fifteen-year-old son has re-discovered the Beatles in a yuuuuuge way; full-on winter is coming and I’ve been cooking up a storm and freezing lots of it. And, of course, I’m still plugging on with the editing (more details here). My only wish for change there is that I could do it as my sole source of income. As with any pursuit worth its salt, it is rewarding: I meet (or “meet”) great people and, perhaps most important, learn from them. Sometimes they think they’re the only ones gaining new info, but that’s never true, thankfully. I have an auntie who always says, “The day I know everything I might as well just stay home.”

So who knows what the next five years may bring? I really enjoy blogging, so whatever is yet to come, I hope I’ll be still be sharing it with you wonderful people as well as reading yours, finding out more about what’s going on in your universe.

See you soon!

 

Closeup of top image. The plant, I was told, is impossible to kill, and that has proven to be very correct. My kind of plant! The books with the gold on their spines, by the way, are fairy tales, the truer versions of which I have taken to reading lately. The slim, green volume beneath the wartime cookery guide is a collection of poems by Christina Rossetti. Willa Cather is my all-time favorite author since elementary school, and O. Henry, master of the short story, initially wowed me way back then with “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.”

What? Another Favorite Flicks List? (Part I of II)

I know it’s somewhat trendy lately to downgrade Monty Python and the Holy Grail, an inclination I frown upon, given its groundbreaking nature and manner in which many of its scenes and lines have become part of a collective consciousness. Nowadays, even kids who have never watched the film shout out such classic lines as “And I shall taunt you a second time!” or “What’s your favorite color!?”

So I agree with cultural observer Adam Blampied when he talks about a film with imaginative conceits as a large part of what shapes one’s sense of humor. We may continue to grow and love other movies, or have seen Holy Grail so many times we need a break, but to suddenly begin talking about it as a less than worthy flick is simply not honest. Plus, Medieval Literature in university would just not have been the same without our professor spouting such iconic quotes as, “I’m not dead yet!”

With that said I’ll add that Blampied inspired me this morning. I’ve seen his Top Ten Films video before and got excited over his comments about how mood as a factor dictates favorites. For ages this emotion has also been what kept me from creating my own favorites list, for it is constantly shifting (apart from the reality that I typically write the most about books). Except for number one, my top ten (or twenty, in this case) is almost always dictated by mood at the time of contemplation, and could be in a very different order on any other day. When completed at various times, the list does tend to consist of the same films, although I have noticed some slipping to the honorable mentions side for a movie here and there. Still, they are shows that consistently, as movie reviewer John Flickinger also says, mean something to me. They have a story behind why I like them and contribute to my growth as a human being.

So without further ado, may I present Part I of my top twenty films of all time—at least as of September 2, 2018. I hope you enjoy them.

(Note: Header links of movie titles go to each one’s IMDb page and all blurbs come from there. All movie posters from wiki; click image for more information on each. Movie titles linked within the text lead to my own reviews from my Movies by the Minute series.)

20. Molly’s Game (2017)

The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.

A movie I saw somewhat by accident, Molly’s Game quickly thrilled and had me talking for weeks. Turtle, whose birthday we celebrated at the cinema, also aimed for the book and we both were eager to own the Blu Ray. With stellar performances, wit and poignant moments that shine, this is a winner flick. (And the callback to The Crucible doesn’t hurt, either.)

19. I, Tonya (2017)

Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband [Jeff Gilloly] intervenes.

Personally, I’m mostly done with the Oscars, politicized as they have become (or perhaps always were?). However, that Margot Robbie didn’t win for her magnificent leading role is a disgrace. Presenting events from Harding and Gillooly’s opposing and unreliable points of view was a fantastic choice that seamlessly incorporates drama, comedy and heartbreak.

18. Steve Jobs (2015)

Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution, to paint a portrait of the man at its epicenter. The story unfolds backstage at three iconic product launches, ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac.

With Michael Fassbender, where can you go wrong? The movie gets even better with an exceptional performance from Seth Rogan, who usually appears in raunchy comedies. The cherry on top is the passionate performance of the English Winslet, who does a killer Polish accent and whose character skillfully manages Jobs and soothes our own ruffled feathers at the way he behaves as the film showcases his genius and achievements with a revolutionary product.

17. The Apartment (1960)

A man tries to rise in his company by letting its executives use his apartment for trysts, but complications and a romance of his own ensue.

Billy Wilder directed, Jack Lemmon starring, this romantic comedy-drama showed me a bit of a different side to 1960s staff of a fancy high-rise office building. Though this sort of space-borrowing may or may not occur nowadays, plot-wise, The Apartment remains relatable as the hijinks and tangles of life create hilarity and drama in the lives of the everyday.

16. Carnage (2011)

Two pairs of parents hold a cordial meeting after their sons are involved in a fight, though as their time together progresses, increasingly childish behavior throws the discussion into chaos.

I’ll be honest with you here: I’m not in love with promoting a Polanski film, so I confess my weakness in naming what otherwise is a story of such delightful extreme: the absurdities recognized by some and given credence by others, ongoing role reversals in terms of sympathetic characters, and the expected scene stealing by Christoph Waltz. The movie opens with what one might think is a miscast; by the end you realize it couldn’t have been anyone else to play that role.

15. Léon: The Professional (1994)

Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl, is reluctantly taken in by Léon, a professional assassin, after her family is murdered. Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the assassin’s trade.

I completely fell for Léon as well as the actor, Jean Reno, who plays him. His facial “language” is wide ranged and articulate, and he handles Mathilda in a manner bearing a bit of innocence as well as adult rigidity. As the little girl learns her trade and the pair move often by necessity, we see links to a previous Reno film, La Femme Nikita, which features a character similar to Léon, shadow government agents and the development of  loyalty, betrayal, fear and love. The amazing Gary Oldman also stars in a story in which you know you shouldn’t like the protagonist, but you do.

14. Stalag 17 (1953)

When two escaping American World War II prisoners are killed, the German P.O.W. camp barracks black marketeer, J.J. Sefton, is suspected of being an informer.

Sure, The Great Escape has the “What do you call a mole in Scotland?” exchange and fabulous performances, but I think the reason I prefer Stalag 17 is the film’s treatment of imprisonment with more humor, which surely must  have existed amongst guards and POWs alike—for the sake of both parties. Here it serves the Americans well as they try to root out the informer, keep their sanity and stay true to who they are. Self-effacement exists alongside sexual, personal and other frustration as we watch characters try to distract themselves and the guards to achieve relief and escape. But first they have to get the rat, and the clues provided present from multiple points of view, fabulously woven together by the talented Billy Wilder.

13. Jaws (1975)

A local sheriff, a marine biologist and an old seafarer team up to hunt down a great white shark wreaking havoc in a beach resort.

If you can believe it, this blockbuster film—which coined the term—nearly didn’t get made. The animatronic shark kept breaking down, necessitating changes in the script, they went 100+ days over schedule and director Spielberg, whom we know today as an accomplished and multi-talented movie mogul, feared he might never work again after this, his first substantial job. But production eked through and the movie hit audiences like, well, a shark in a pond. Now, more than 40 years on, Jaws retains its thrill and ability to draw viewers in to the anxiety and chase as the main trio seek out the shark ravaging the small-town beach. With amazing character depictions, including the quirky Quint, who defies the political establishment and mainstream attitudes of the townspeople, this action-packed thriller manages to make us fear a creature who actually rarely ever appears. The status of Jaws in popular culture is cemented and its impact—note the recognizable theme music even those who never saw the film know—inescapable. Especially with lesser-known scenes that expand character dimension, and use of the ideal that less is much more, this is a top-notch tale not to be missed.

12. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

A bounty hunting scam joins two men in an uneasy alliance against a third in a race to find a fortune in gold buried in a remote cemetery.

In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those who have seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and loved it, and those who haven’t yet watched. Like the above entry, the theme song for this Sergio Leone-directed masterpiece is so embedded in our collective consciousness, we recognize it the moment we hear it, even if we don’t know the movie it comes from. This was the case for myself for many years, until recently when I began to watch and be seriously drawn in by the story, set during the American Civil War—indeed, Turtle once dubbed it “your favorite movie that you’ve never finished watching.” I finally did wrap it up, and by that time had long been imitating scenes and quoting lines. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name—nicknamed “Blondie” by Eli Wallach’s Tuco, a Mexican bandit also evading the mercenary Angel Eyes—seeks a bounty whose location is revealed in two clues, only one of which he knows. As Tuco, who knows the other, and Blondie compete for access to the site, amidst mutual trickery and cruel setbacks, they encounter various obstacles that serve to tentatively unite the pair along the way. With stark and forbidding scenery host to directorial nightmares that Leone manages with aplomb, the film has earned a righteous place in cinematic history, despite the critical backlash it initially received. With a jaw-dropping finale that holds the fate of all in question, Leone and his actors keep our eyes riveted to the screen from start to finish in utter anticipation, a feat even more admirable given that the Italian-speaking filmmaker had to direct the English-speaking Eastwood via translator. You see, in this world there’s two kinds of of great directors, my friend: those who do it well, and those who do it well even when they don’t speak their star’s language. You dig?

11. The Social Network (2010)

Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg creates the social networking site that would become known as Facebook, but is later sued by two brothers who claimed he stole their idea, and the co-founder who was later squeezed out of the business.

This Aaron Sorkin-written film accomplishes the impossible: engages viewers in the story about a real-life protagonist that millions of modern people loathe. If they see him as anything more negative, it won’t be because he’s an anti-hero, or any kind of hero. To lift the words from Erica Albricht’s lips: “It’ll be because [he’s] an asshole.” He created—or stole, depending who you believe—an overwhelmingly useful product that even now continues to be questioned over new angles. However, back in the day, as the movie portrays, Zuckerberg faces litigation via an alternating timeline, referencing events that are then drawn out in scenes detailing those just discussed. Jesse Eiesenberg’s Zuckerberg is a man easy to hate; his portrayal of the social network tycoon is solid and complete. Andrew Garfield, in the role as co-fouunder Eduardo Saverin, is equally intense and he owns several scenes, particularly a smashing one in which he confronts Zuckerberg with a deadly serious promise. (You see what I did there?)

Sorkin’s writing is so superb that any given scene contains multiple themes, and through the movie we see those examining the meaning of friendship, betrayal, of success and failure, popularity, acceptance and greed. Zuckerberg’s product has changed the landscape of society, and we see in the film what it cost him, but a wider examination also implicates ourselves and what friending someone really means. The Social Network‘s closing scene encapsulates so many of the above-mentioned themes into one moment, a turn in tone that rivals The Godfather‘s haunting ending as we recognize distance, regret and loss, though it remains to be seen if Zuckerberg himself does. As psychological study or sheer entertainment, this is an exquisite film about Facebook that really isn’t about Facebook at all.

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Don’t miss Part II! Top Ten coming up along with some honorable mentions. 

For some great top movie videos, click Turtle’s link here.

 

I’m also on Letterboxd!

Follow me there and check out movies I’ve seen as well as want to watch

 

One of my favorite favorite movie compilations. I loved it so much I may want to do one myself. Thanks, BHL Hudson!

 

 

Book Review: Brewer’s Revenge

Brewer’s Revenge: A Sea Novel by James Keffer

It starts straight away: the fog surrounding the Mary Elizabeth speaks of pirates known to litter the Caribbean and gives shape to passenger fears, further rattled by the ship’s clanging bell as terrors come to life and their captain is amongst the casualties. Some months later, Commander William Brewer takes charge of the HMS Revenge, formerly the El Dorado, a pirate sloop hard won in battle and refitted for use in His Majesty’s Navy. Brewer regrets not being given permanent command of the Defiant, owing to his junior officer status, and chooses to set his sights on payback against the pirates who attacked his ship. Very early on, then, does author James Keffer bring us to meet the dual representation of his novel’s title.

But Brewer’s Revenge brings us much more than this: apart from the new captain’s mission in ferreting out the pirates ravaging Caribbean trade routes, he must help his best friend—and ship’s doctor—conquer his drinking habit and the demons that incite it; sort a purser who engages in creative mathematics; and deal with a spoiled midshipman unused to working or taking orders, and who is there only to distance him from a scandal at home.

Fast moving and addictive, Brewer’s Revenge introduces us to the other side of rank—that is to say, we see Admiral Lord Horatio Hornblower as Brewer reports to him, having served under him on St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile there. Keffer also addresses the coming steam power, providing a curious perspective with plenty of food for thought to our modern experience:

“I am not at all convinced that in this case progress is a good thing. It frightens me to think that soon captains will be at the mercy of an exhaustible fuel supply.”

 Much of the narrative consists of Brewer learning his job, and events erupt one as a direct result of another or as apparently isolated incidents that Keffer weaves together skillfully, moving the focus away as appropriate and making it difficult to accurately predict what may come to be. The author also has a few surprises up his sleeve as he mixes them in with episodes of the daily variety, as well as the more thrilling for the crew. Skilled at communicating characters’ sense of pressure, he lays out the decisions they must make without spoon feeding, and we feel the tension in races against time or circumstance—sometimes both—as we are privileged to see the individual and not just the character. For Brewer this means being witness to his growth as he struggles to prove his worth in an organization dependent upon responsibility but often run by money.

Most sailors yearn for action, and Brewer’s subordinates are no different. However, Keffer chooses to draw them into the story in preparation, as they get things going and we watch them, oftentimes ourselves learning how it all works. The author plaits these together with such dramas as rivalries or threatening situations to spice it up a bit, and it works marvelously, largely owing to its realistic presentation, but with the touch of human interest. We don’t just see a bar brawl, for example, part of so many seafaring adventures. Keffer takes us beyond them and we get to know the characters in a deeper, richer manner.

The author brings historical figures onto the stage, even if only in reference, such as when Marshal Ney, a French military commander, enters the conversation. And a meeting with Simon Bolivar ups the ante as we come face to face with the real possibilities of our—and the crew’s—imagination. Sharply written naval battle scenes, murder, treachery and fear of being the next one up keeps us all on our toes.

Fluidly written to carry us along on a wave of story absorption, the novel points us toward more tale to come as we set our sights on the fate of the Mary Elizabeth passengers, significance of at least a couple of Keffer’s surprises and the romance developing between Brewer and Elizabeth Danforth, daughter of a governor. Intriguing, daring, human, Brewer’s Revenge will hit the re-read lists many times as we reach out for the next installment.

 

Book Review: Triumph of a Tsar

Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic

While alternative historical fiction is not an entirely new genre for me, it is true I don’t have a ton of experience with it. Elements such as pacing or character development can be tricky, but going into Tamar Anolic’s Triumph of a Tsar lent an anticipatory rather than nervous sensation as to how her treatment might affect history, so to speak. This is largely thanks to the cover, the title itself and Anolic’s chosen historical figures. The last Russian tsar and his family, after all, have been the object of great curiosity and scrutiny in the century since the Russian Revolution that ended the monarchy and murdered the entire Romanov family, and asking the great what ifs likely shall continue for as long as humans are alive to present them.

Parsing out details of the Romanovs’ lives offers prospects, chances that nevertheless peter out when we are forced to accept that none of history happened the way we wanted it to have: if Alexandra had been more popular, if the Bolsheviks hadn’t gained the upper hand, if Nicholas II was a stronger leader—and much more. Anolic’s title, however, offers great possibility, as does the inset image of Nicholas and the tsarevich surrounded by palatial majesty, particularly the rising columns above them. While royal opulence can easily alienate people, here there is a soaring sort of potential that beckons us in.

Triumph and mass slaughter do not match, at least not in this context, so we know going in there is to be no Ekaterinburg. The question of which tsar bears the title’s triumph is answered early with the (more natural) death of Nicholas, and it makes utter sense for Anolic to choose the sixteen-year-old heir, Alexei: an unknown quantity to us, he also represents the future, a better match to the new post-Great War world history is passing into. The author tends to utilize expository speech fairly often, which in this story works quite well as it functions simultaneously to provide alternate details and accustom us to characters we know to have been frozen in history, never making it to the ages at which they are now being portrayed. She also remains faithful to major personality traits family members were each reported as possessing, embedding these characteristics in their older selves.

It is entirely in character, for example, for Alexandra to insist upon acting as regent for her son, and fitting for him to refuse. Said to have been intelligent and compassionate, the real Alexei might very well have enacted many of the changes Anolic’s Alexei does. The passage in which mother and son debate the heir’s ascendancy reveals a great deal about individuals—historical and alternate—and concludes with the new tsar’s victory without him having to demean his mother, whose habit of indulging her youngest child leads to her submission in the face of his pushback.

While this is not an historical moment, Anolic is nevertheless on target: Alexei, largely as a result of the hemophilia he inherited from his mother (which could be traced back to his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria), was quite spoiled, though also aware he might not live to adulthood. Anolic reflects his doubts, and the great care with which he conducts his physical movements, with an authentic sensitivity while avoiding any sort of outward show.

For an individual whose mobility is fraught with peril, Alexei gets around quite well, having developed his own technique for doing, and we see him move through the years holding his own physically, emotionally and politically. There are a few spots in which relationships—between Alexei and a foreign leader, Alexandra and Marie Feodorovna are two—come off as a bit too bright, and even an awareness of required diplomacy doesn’t entirely explain the feel of the passages. Also, I questioned whether a nation of people equipped with a train that could carry its monarch across a continent to England yet is underfunded in its railroads is entirely reflective of the adoration Alexei is granted in the book.

Still, these are small portions within a story of strong and developed dialogue, and it has to be stated that in these same passages and others, Alexei also displays solid intuition—“It’s much easier to be isolationist when you have two oceans separating you from everyone else”—and ability to turn lesser positions into strength, such as his view to his nation’s status as underdeveloped. He is also unafraid to state his case as he aims to bring his homeland into the new world that arose following the Industrial Revolution and Great War.

Once the review was over, Alexei took a microphone from his new police chief, Feodor Mikhailovich Ivanov. “Gentlemen,” he began, and his voice soared. “I am proud of you and each of the Russian soldiers who will be marching out to defend our country. But I did not make the decision to declare war lightly. It was only because of the threat to Russia, and to each of us personally, that Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler represent. We mean to live our lives as free Russians, worshipping God in the Orthodox tradition. They mean to dominate us and incorporate us into a German empire where God does not exist.”

The only true beef I have with the book is its listing of characters. Personally speaking, it would have been better positioned at the start rather than end, and Anolic’s presentation of the family might have been organized more efficiently, with added notes for patronymics and nicknames. While I know Alix of Hesse (Alexandra) and her family fairly confidently, I have to focus a bit harder for the Russian side. An early conversation including Pavel and Elizabeth proved confusing until I finally figured out the pair were brother and sister, and not husband and wife.

At 267 pages, Triumph of a Tsar doesn’t overburden its audience with mass. Yet the experience of reading it leaves one with the rich sensation of having traveled a great distance through the lives of many other people whose stories themselves are filled with much captivating detail, amazing as well as ordinary (the latter of which can be just as gratifying to read about in the lives of historical figures). Indeed, it really is Alexei’s story, so the focus remains with him, yet still we are privy to paths that weave through the histories of other European relatives and houses, often with the joy of recognizing the real-life counterparts of people or events.

There is a bit of sadness there as well, for we know what happened to many of these people in real life. But Anolic has a great ability to steer us away from that without having to rely on unrealistic cheer. Happiness does exist in the novel, of course, along with fear, anxiety, excitement, anticipation—in short, her narrative reflects the many varied paths Alexei, his mother, sisters, relatives and others take, focusing on who they were and possibly might have been, and not centering their entire identities on their victim status. It is the first book on the Romanovs I recall ever  reading without having to brace myself for heartbreak at the end.

In this way the novel might be said to have a revenge fantasy element, though I’m not inclined to label it as such. While certain historical figures make their appearances, vengeance isn’t exactly how interaction plays out, and that might be what Anolic gifts us: a scenario in which the Romanovs move forward to a greater day without having to mimic the barbarism of their enemies. We see them closer to who they wanted to be, a gift to them, and to us.

Signature of Alexei Nikolaevich from Wikimedia Commons

About the author…

Tamar Anolic is a writer and lawyer who practices in the Washington, D.C. area. Her other passion is traveling. She has been to such far-flung places as Antarctica, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, and some of these places have been the settings for her writing. She has a long history of being published in various magazines and newspapers, and now has several books to her credit. Follow her website or see her at September’s end at the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Independent Book Festival.

Triumph of a Tsar may be purchased at Amazon.

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The author provided a free copy of Triumph of a Tsar

in order to facilitate an honest review.

Book Spotlight: The Secret Life of Mrs. London

The Secret Life of Mrs. London
by Rebecca Rosenberg

Rebecca Rosenberg is author of the new historical novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, revealing the love triangle between Houdini, Charmian and Jack London.

Only one woman could beguile two legends!

Join Rebecca in a visual romp back to San Francisco, 1915, when famed author Jack London and his wife, Charmian London, attend the Great Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Escape in San Francisco. What happened next was almost lost to history!

About the Book: 

San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.

As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.

Excerpt:

Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California November 1915

Love cannot in its very nature be peaceful or content. It is a restlessness, an unsatisfaction. I can grant a lasting love just as I can grant a lasting satisfaction; but the lasting love cannot be coupled with possession, for love is pain and desire, and possession is easement and fulfilment.

—Jack London, The Kempton-Wace Letters

I know how magic works—all smoke and mirrors, suffocating doves, and defecating rabbits. Of course, Jack knows these things, too. He rails against the cruelty of using trained animals in vaudeville. But his adoring Crowd from Carmel (that whole arty, hashish-smoking Bohemian clan) insists Jack join them for the Great Houdini show. Front-row seats, they say. The most famous magician in the world, they say.

“We need a little magic in our lives,” Jack says, and I can’t argue with that.

The Orpheum is morbidly gaudy with flocked velvet walls, tooled woodwork, and gilt, lots of gilt. Jack sports his rumpled khakis du jour, while he asked me to dress like a heroine from Martin Eden: chartreuse taffeta suit shimmering with purple undertones in the theater lights.

But this confounded waistline cuts into my expanding middle like a butcher pinching off sausage casing. I don’t know why I haven’t told Jack my good news when I’ve known for a while. That’s a lie. I hold back because he’ll count the months and wonder, like I do.

The Crowd blow kisses to each other in a cloud of pheromones and cigar smoke. They pass the silver flask of gin under my nose, and the odor stretches my brain like the taffy puller in the lobby.

George Sterling slides his lanky frame into the seat next to mine, reeking of patchouli and cannabis. “Looks like this is just what Jack needed to forget about Wolf House burning down.”

“Nothing will make him forget that night.” My head reels around to see Jack deep in conversation with Anna Strunsky. They only talk deep. That young actress Blanche hangs on his arm, pretending she understands. She doesn’t.

“Wolf says Lawrence burned it down and ran off.”

“You’re such a liar,” I say, but maybe it’s true. I haven’t seen or heard from Lawrence since I left him by Wolf House.

“You and Wolf should pick your friends more wisely.” Sterling grins like Satan.

“Funny, I was thinking the very same thing. But unfortunately, Jack likes you.” I make a face.

Thankfully, the sixteen-piece orchestra fires up below us in the pit, and Sterling slinks back to his seat. Brass trumpets glint in the crossing spotlights and raise my spirits with their triumphant sound.

Jack sits next to me, puffing his Imperial. I can’t break his mood no matter how many times I tell him nothing happened with Lawrence.

Nothing I care to share, that is.

The Great Houdini appears in a spotlight and high-steps onto the stage, keeping time with the music, striking in his immaculate tuxedo and gleaming black hair. When the song ends, he marches right in front of the footlights and welcomes the audience, impossibly white teeth flashing, announcing his opening trick.

Women’s mouths drop open. Men scoot to the edges of their seats. His voice, harmonic and commanding, vibrates through the charged air and holds them awestruck. Houdini’s powerful arm points at Jack. Heavens.

“Mr. Jack London, ladies and gentlemen.” Spotlights flood our faces.

How does he recognize Jack?

“Won’t you join us on the stage, Mr. London?” Houdini calls, and the Crowd starts chanting: “Wolf, Wolf, Wolf…” Jack holds up his palms in protest.

The magician persists. “If not you, how about your lovely wife? I promise to take great care of her.”

The Crowd jeers for me to go up, already too much gin passed between them.

Jack leans over and whispers, “My feet are killing me. Take this one, will you?”

I see my redemption in his pleading eyes. But I feel like a bratwurst. I can’t go up there.

“Buck up your courage, Mate.” Jack pushes me to a stand. “The Crowd will get a kick out of it.”

My heart sinks as I make my way to the stairs. He wants to entertain his worshipping Crowd at my expense. Blanche swoops into my vacant seat, snuggling his arm. I yank the pearl buttons choking my neck and one pops off, rolling into the orchestra pit. Lifting my stiff taffeta skirt and crinoline petticoat, I step up, but my foot slips off.

Two strong hands circle my waist and sweep me onto the stage with the grace of a waltz. Black eyelashes rim his eyes with mystery, but kindness crinkles at the edges.

“Trust me,” Houdini whispers, smelling of wood-spice cologne. Then his voice booms out to the audience, “Let’s give the brave Mrs. London a round of applause, shall we?”

A child enters from backstage dressed in tights and velvet knickers, a fluffy beret mushrooming over his jet-black pageboy.

Houdini smiles and holds out his arm. “And another hand for my beautiful wife and assistant, Bess Houdini.”

My stomach hitches, and I look again. The elf bows with a flourish and lifts her face with a wide grin, dimples circled with rouge, throwing kisses to the audience. The miniature woman steals the show with her boyish figure in sequined tights, round eyes that flash and roll and wink and hold us spellbound no matter what Houdini is doing. I would have bought the ticket to watch her.

The magician steps into the spotlight, and the audience hushes. “And now, on this very stage, we will perform our most renowned illusion, the one and original, Metamorphosis! Pay close attention to catch any sleight of hand or cheat, for you will see none. With your very own eyes, you will witness myself, bound, handcuffed, and locked in a trunk, only to be magically transformed into my beautiful assistant, Bess.”

The audience buzzes with excitement while Bess Houdini rolls a steamer trunk to center stage. “Mrs. London, tell the people in the crematorium, have we ever met before?” she asks in falsetto.

“Auditorium?” Confused and tongue-tied looking out from the stage to three hundred San Francisco elite…“No, we haven’t met.”

“And have you ever laid your eyes on this trunk before?” Jack would say something witty, but my mind draws a blank. “No.” The burning footlights blind me mercifully from seeing his disappointment in the front row.

“Will you examine the trunk for any tomfoolery?” She waves her birdlike limbs theatrically, reeking of gardenias.

I unbuckle the leather straps and peer inside the trunk. Feeling along the edges, banging the sides. “No trick doors, if that’s what you mean.”

“I understand you’re an excellent sailor, Mrs. London.” Houdini cocks an eyebrow. “And quite an expert with knots.”

“How would you know that?” I shade my eyes to see Jack and damn if Blanche isn’t canoodling his ear. “I won first place at the yacht club for my knots.”

“Impressive, but can you tie a knot from which the Great Houdini cannot escape?”

“Absolutely.” Jack says it’s over with Blanche yet dangles my dalliance over my head like a noose.

Houdini takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves, crossing his muscular wrists together.

Mrs. Houdini hands me the rope and whispers, “Tie a slipknot.” She winks a blue eyelid. So that’s their game.

Mutiny tingles in my fingers. Like hell, slipknot. I tie an anchor hitch that would secure a yacht in a typhoon.

Pulling the sack up over him, Mrs. Houdini leans to kiss him. My God, their mouths open and move like the French. His sensuous lips suck hers like she’s a juicy plum. My belly clenches. How long has it been since Jack kissed me like that?

Mrs. Houdini pulls the feed sack over her husband’s head and winks at me again. But I tie my strongest knot on the bag, a double bowline, tight and secure.

Bess Houdini’s chirp pierces my eardrums. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll place the Great Houdini in the steamer trunk for all intensive purposes and lock it up.”

We padlock the trunk and wrap it profusely with rope. Feeling smug now, I tie yet another sailing knot: double square knot this time. No way can this trickster get out.

Mrs. Houdini closes heavy velvet curtains in front of the trunk. She smiles at the audience, and her theatrical makeup cracks around her eyes; she’s no child herself. “Mrs. London, do you feel very certain the Great Houdini cannot excape your knots?”

Jack punches his fist in the air and calls out, “Her knots have secured sailing ships from here to Borneo!”

A pang riddles my gut. What if I truly bring down the Great Houdini? The kettle drum rumbles and spectators choose sides, placing bets, laughing nervously.

Mrs. Houdini lifts her arms over her head and claps her hands together three times, accentuated by a clash of cymbals that echoes through the cavernous theater. Spotlights crisscross the frescoed ceiling. The timpani stops abruptly and pandemonium ceases. The audience leans forward.

Spotlights swing to center stage, revealing the Great Houdini stepping through the velvet curtain, fists held high in triumph. The orchestra blares.

My every nerve ending is burning, screaming. No, no, no, no. It’s impossible.

The magic man takes my hand and holds it high, a current charging from his grasp down my arm. The audience explodes with enthusiasm. He smiles intimately at me as his confidant. But I feel betrayed. He’d said, “Trust me,” yet I haven’t an inkling what just happened.

“You’re a natural.” Houdini bows and bows to the relentless applause. When it finally dies down, he looks around the stage.

“Mrs. London, where is my dear wife?”

I turn to where Mrs. Houdini was standing, but she’s gone. “She was right here.”

He taps his index finger on his cheek. “Oh, Mrs. Houdini? Are you back here?” He draws open the velvet curtain, which reveals only the steamer trunk with all my knots intact. How is that possible when Houdini stands beside me?

“Mrs. London, can you untie your knots?”

My chest crackles with curiosity as my fingers struggle with the rope, every knot as secure as I tied it. The oboe plays a sinister tune, which twists my insides.

When all the knots are finally undone, Houdini opens the trunk. Inside, the burlap sack bumps and moves.

“What have we here?” Houdini cuts the bag open with a shining saber, which appears from nowhere.

Bess Houdini pops out, all five feet of her, hands tied behind her back. She cackles like a maniac, then curtsies to the stunned audience.

The orchestra strikes up a rousing number, and the audience cheers and whistles.

The Houdinis take my trembling hands, and we bow together. They step aside, presenting me. My cheeks grow hopelessly hot as I force myself to raise my eyes to the frenzied theater and let the applause wash over me.

The Crowd chants my name from the front row. But Jack scribbles in his ever-present notebook, oblivious to their revelry.

Oblivious to my moment in the spotlight.

Yet I’m gratified. I’ve given him a fresh topic to write about.

About the Author:

California native Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where she and her husband founded the largest lavender product company in America, Sonoma Lavender. A long-time student of Jack London’s work and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian, Rosenberg is a graduate of the Stanford Writing Certificate Program. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her first novel, following her non-fiction Lavender Fields of America.

Rebecca Rosenberg’s next historical novel is Gold Digger, the story of Baby Doe Tabor. Find the author at her website and Facebook. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is available for purchase at AmazonAmazon UK and Amazon AU.

Blog Tour Schedule:

July 9th– Book ReviewKate Braithwaite

July 10th– Book ExcerptJust One More Chapter

July 11th-Book Spotlight and ExcerptBefore the Second Sleep

July 12th– Book ReviewBook Babble

July 13th– Book ReviewStrange & Random Happenstance

July 14th– Book SpotlightFictionophile

July 15th– Book SpotlightLayered Pages

July 16th– Book Spotlight & Book ReviewSvetabooks

July 17th– Book SpotlightA Bookish Affair

July 18th– Guest PostA Bookaholic Swede

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It has been a pleasure to co-ordinate with Novel Expressions Blog Tours

and I look forward to more great reading and recommendations!

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Book Review: Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir
by James Boschert

James Boschert possesses a genius for utilizing great yarns to draw readers into historical and other events and circumstances we previously knew little to nothing about. In this most recent Boschert read, Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir, the author sets his titular character’s adventures within and shortly following the 1799 battle between Revolutionary France and the Ottoman Empire, along with their British allies.

Napoleon has designs on Egypt that stretch all the way to Constantinople and India, even after his catastrophic loss at the Siege of Acre not long before. Commodore Sir Sidney Smith lands his ships at Abukir, on Egypt’s northern coast, with the goal of further demoralizing and defeating French troops, though he underestimates their resolve as well as the Turkish commander’s leadership style, and the battle is every bit as dramatic and horrific as the novel’s cover image hints.

Midshipman Duncan Graham himself, though introduced early on, takes on a greater role only later in the story when the Scot finds himself trapped behind enemy lines. Having reflected on the events that led him not only to this moment, but also this era in his life and lack of money to buy his way to advancement, his path forward is tested sorely as he and a British spy attempt to make their way back to the sea and their squadron.

The point at which Graham finds himself in dire straits marks a turning, whereby Boschert transitions us from backstory and development to the meat of the tale. It takes on a somewhat lighter tone, which is brilliant given the battle we’d just witnessed, one with a grim outcome and lasting visual reminders. He balances Graham’s fears and abilities deftly, and does something similar with his circumstances, which are certainly frightful, but also at times comical.

Boschert has previously established his dexterity with word choice, and in Midshipman Grahamhe utilizes it to forge the continuity of the balance he addresses. For instance, his omnipotent storyteller doesn’t choose sides, commenting frankly on the skills and shortcomings of French, British and Turks alike. Moving into greater nuance, the author also pairs deadly settings with simply lovely descriptive passages, at times signaling the necessity but also fruitlessness of war. We happen upon a “velvety silence” within a city in which the rats are so bold that they take the time to “amble,” rather than, say, scurry, even in the presence of man and canine.

At other moments the natural surroundings personified even act as his enemy, such as when Graham continually blunders into “low bushes, which tried to trip him up or raked his face with their spiteful thorns.” The tall ruins of a cityscape “jutted up over the other buildings looking like rotten teeth.” Boschert has demonstrated the prowess of his word choice before, and we see these are more than merely pleasant-sounding or clever word combinations: they perform a function within his story that do more than set the stage as Graham walks amongst what they represent, how they grow him and the trajectory in which history moves.

To that end Boschert engages in a bit of historical foreshadowing as well, at least in terms familiar to us. A literal bloodbath, following the Battle of Abukir, prompts a British major to cry, “The water is like a sea of poppies all around; I have never seen the like!” When the same officer continues to express his dismay as he sips on wine, Boschert illustrates to us the dual capacity of forgetfulness as well as mental self-preservation.

While this particular battle is unfamiliar to many, especially those not especially schooled in the Napoleonic wars, Boschert remains true to his standard by skillfully engaging us in a narrative, and even when we think we know the outcome, the lead to that moment is the story. Moreover, with him creating a fictional character, rather than simply re-telling the story from a historical figure’s point of view, apart from escaping the multitude of such narrations, sets up the ability to embed commentary on Georgian society and the mores of the time, including character representation of countries within the British union and the changes each were undergoing.

We would add that the novel requires an additional proofreading to benefit its presentation, though as a tale it still is able to convey a marvelous sense of adventure, growth, compassion, daring and drive. Boschert writes that, “We may not be done with this young scamp as yet,” and given Duncan’s affability, enterprise and eagerness to cultivate who and what he is, we certainly hope we aren’t done, as we part ways with his character in a manner that speaks perhaps the most to the potential of what he has before him and the empire of which he is a part.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799, by Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848) (Collections du Château de Versailles) via Wikimedia Commons

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The author supplied a free copy of

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

to facilitate an honest review. 

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Book Review: Blue Gemini

Blue Gemini
by Mike Jenne

Set during the height of the Cold War raging between its superpower players, the United States and the Soviet Union, Blue Gemini is a techno-thriller that takes readers through the early space age and behind the scenes in the rivalry many know today as the Space Race. Seen by both nations as key to national security, the quest for space dominance got its start with the Soviet Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite set into orbit, and continued with Yuri Gagarin’s journey in 1961, making the Russian cosmonaut the first human in outer space.

The road to 1969, when the Americans landed the first man on the moon, however, is paved with intrigue and action of the real-life variety, within which author Mike Jenne sets the tale of Lieutenant Scott Ourecky, a fictional USAF officer who dreams of flight school. He repeatedly falls short, but we do witness the beginnings of Ourecky’s romance with Bea, as a secret Air Force program simultaneously woos him into their mission of destroying suspect Soviet satellites. Recruited only as a fill-in, Ourecky attempts to keep his professional and private lives separate, until greater involvement and danger begins to merge his two worlds, and perhaps Bea’s as well.

One of the great draws to Blue Gemini is not only that many facets of the story are true, but also that the author reveals absolutely no classified information to achieve it. Jenne’s very striking author’s note stresses the “necessity and difficulties of keeping secrets that are larger than ourselves,” a challenge Ourecky faces as we, watching his saga unfold, can sense as we peer through time and space to witness a world we’ve only read about in school. Many readers will have personal recall of this time, still very much in living memory, and the mystique may very well have an even larger impact, given how much closer they were to it all.

Wherever readers are on the time continuum, Jenne’s style touches them as he shifts within several different perspectives, individual and group, American and Soviet, the latter achieved in a manner laid out in the narrative quite cleverly. As the novel progresses, Jenne slowly reveals layers of detail with an eye that misses nothing as it points out to us the unimaginable efforts it took to even conceive of such a program, let alone keep it up and running. While there are some technical bits here and there, it is gorgeously accessible with passages descriptive and intelligent, and ranging from “The room smelled of pine oil cleaner, cigarettes, and chalk dust” to

Henson enjoyed the sounds of nature awakening: swaying trees rustling in the wind, tree frogs chirping in the swamps, and birds rehearsing the opening notes of their morning songs[,]

and much in between and beyond. Jenne is also skilled at merging the institutional with a humanity that continuously illustrates the individuals behind the programs, while at the same time acknowledging their own very small role in the world they inhabit, a nod to the greatness of the space they are attempting to own.

The two men strolled out of the hangar as the C-130’s engines coughed to life. They walked along the grassy strip adjacent to a taxiway. By now, the sun had all but retired from the sky; the buildings and trees were bathed in the red-hued light of near dusk.

 His repertoire, however, is much larger than that, while also being notable for its almost humorous straightforward nature. “[D]o I have to remind you[,” an official asks one of the flight crew, who has just equated a romantic decision to living dangerously,] “that you’re travelling over seventeen thousand miles per hour in a flimsy metal can built by the lowest bidder?”

That, dear readers, is what we call a dose of reality, and we feel it in the indrawn breaths that accompany the uneasy chuckle. This is one of the many ways Jenne brings us closer to characters and the real-life figures some of them were inspired by.

Readers also meet up with other key players Ourecky comes into contact with, which hints at the nature of the novel as it becomes apparent it is a series story, a wise choice on Jenne’s part, as trimming away enough to contain it to one volume would lose too many events. As it turns out, the author doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in this installment, and readers will find themselves wanting to know more about the mysterious Matt Henson, for example. Resourceful, intelligent, down-to-earth, practical, funny and friendly, Henson is a character we don’t get enough of, though the novel packs so much story into itself we look forward to moving onto the sequel.

At times self-aware, Blue Gemini is part our history, part airman’s journey, blended with intense research and fascinating imagination that leaves readers pulling for Ourecky while also wondering where exactly the lines are blurred and eager to progress beyond just before the moon landing, where the book ends. Tantalizingly detailed without the weight of bogging down readers unfamiliar with space stories, this is a techno-thriller that grew this reader as did the tale itself.

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Spacefest is the event for space enthusiasts of any stripe, and author Mike Jenne will be there, signing books and appearing on a panel on space stations. Spacefest IX happens this week (July 5-8) in Tuscon, Arizona, and tickets are available at the door after midnight on July 2 (that’s tomorrow!). Click here for schedule and above links for more information about the event and what it entails.

The author provided a copy of Blue Gemini
in order to facilitate an honest review

Click here to see a series of amazing technical drawings!