Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Although I am a big fan of Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction and mysteries, I confess I was disappointed with her latest historical novel, Lionheart, about King Richard I of England.

Penman, a former attorney, is a meticulous researcher. I have found her stories to be historically accurate and free from the anachronisms that plague much historical fiction. 

Herein lies the problem, I think: the author and her story got lost in the weeds of her extensive research on the Third Crusade. This book is far more history than fiction. It needed a good editor to pare down the recitation of facts and genealogy that bogged it down, and to encourage more of the character development that is a great strength of Penman's other work. Most of the characters in the book (including King Richard) are one-dimensional.

Alternatively, it could have been a good work of non-fiction. I admire the author's thorough research and use of primary resources. In fact Penman says in her afterword that she developed so much information about Richard I that she found it could not all be used in one book--which was her original plan.

Penman plans a second part to her story of the Lionheart--picking up after the Third Crusade where this novel ends and continuing through the King's capture and subsequent life. That book will be called The King's Ransom. I'll probably read it and will be interested to see if the author gets out of the weeds of history and regains her creative approach to telling the story. 

I would only recommend the book for Penman fans because it is atypical of her writing. If you have never read her work, start with any of her other novels, like The Sunne In Splendor or When Christ and All His Saints Slept.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Refugee Thanksgiving Dinner

Last night Mike and I had the privilege of hosting tables at a dinner for about 350 refugees in the Houston area that was co-sponsored by our church and Houston Interfaith Ministries. 

Our church's Food Ministry provided a traditional Thanksgiving meal for our guests while church members and staff members of HIM waited tables and provided logistical assistance. We actually had a surplus of church volunteers! What a blessing.

Refugees are different from immigrants. Although they are immigrants to this country, they have come with State Department permission because of political/ethnic/religious persecution in their countries. Our guests were recent refugees, coming within the past year to the Houston area.

Seated at my table were two families: an Iraqui mother with her young son and daughter and a Burmese family consisting of a married couple, their toddler and aged aunt, and a family friend. 

The Iraqui mother, clad in traditional style, had no English ability while her young daughter chattered away in English with no accent and served as translator. I was unable to get the story of the young Iraqui family and wondered where the husband and father was. Dead? Working that evening I hope?
The young Burmese father had limited English and told me his family had been in this country for three weeks, but "we are Americans now!" They fled ethnic cleansing in Burma and were assisted out of that country by the United Nations. He is very eager to find a job and was excited about the opportunity for education his young daughter would have here. He told me he and his family are Christians.

El Jefe hosted another Iraqui family and several young teenage boys from Tibet who were somehow separated from their parents in the table assignments. He thought they weren't too sorry about that either!

The Iraqui mother at my table had her daughter ask me if the meat on her plate was pork. When I told the young girl it was turkey, she looked very confused so I told her to tell her mother it was chicken. She didn't eat it but didn't object to her children eating it--which they did with great gusto. Not sure what she really thought, but she seemed overwhelmed by the crowd and her lack of understanding English. My charades weren't that successful with her either, but she thanked me very graciously at the end of the evening.
A children's craft room was set up for the kids and they all seemed to really enjoy that activity after dinner while the adults were entertained by singers and dancers from Bhutan, Burundi, Malaysia and our Hispanic ministry group. It's really hard to follow the African drummers, I'm just saying!

At the end of the evening we taught them to sing and clap along with "Deep in the Heart of Texas", dubbing them all Texans now.

So that's the highlight of my Thanksgiving season. What's yours?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: The Dovekeepers

Although Alice Hoffman is a popular author, The Dovekeepers is the first of her novels that I have read. I was drawn to her subject--the tragedy of Masada--because of our recent trip to Israel where we visited that site.

Hoffman was also inspired by her visit to Israel and to Masada. Although the story is pure fiction, it rests on a solid historical foundation. While reading it I was constantly reminded of our own tour of Masada and the desolate land that surrounds it. Anyone who has had that experience will find themselves reliving it as they read the book.

The Dovekeepers is told from the point of view of four women narrators who are living in the Masada fortress as the Roman legions are encamped around them preparing to storm their defenses and quell their rebellion. The women have been assigned to care for the dovecotes--a vital task because the dove's waste becomes the fertilizer that causes their plants to grow and thrive in the salty desert. 

Themes of the story include the spirituality of silence, the brutality of men, devotion to God, the life-giving force of women and the persistent appeal of pagan mystical practices. 

It's that last theme that has brought Hoffman the most criticism. Several Jewish reviewers took great exception to the prominent role given to devotion to Ashtoreth and the consistent emphasis on magic expressed by the key characters.

I wasn't perturbed by this until I reached the last part of the book where the narrator is the Witch of Moab. At this point  the mysticism became tedious and I began skimming over it. In an afterword Hoffman lists a couple of books on Jewish magic as sources for her writing along with several historical works. 

Although I tired of this theme by the end of the novel, I think it is believable. The characters in the story live in the late first century AD. Each of the narrators are women who are not completely accepted by the main Hebrew community--they are outsiders and have a different point of view from the more orthodox Jews. Whenever people face grave danger that they are powerless against, like the Roman legions, it is always tempting to fall back on "magical thinking" as a way of exerting control over your circumstances.

And after all, Hoffman wrote a popular novel Practical Magic (which I have not read), so the reader should not be surprised by the incorporation of this theme.

The Dovekeepers is well written and the four major characters are complex and well developed. Women readers with a background in the history of Masada and/or the experience of visiting it will enjoy reading the book. I'm not sure men would like it because there are really no admirable male characters in the story.

And of course if you have little tolerance for the fey and the mystic, I don't recommend it to you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Checking In

Well, I'm back after an unintentional hiatus of more than a couple of months. 

The hiatus was caused by nothing more serious than writer's ("bloggers?") block which may be going away.

I've been reading as much as ever but haven't felt moved to review any of those books which were mostly escapist fare. The books offered to me by some publisher's didn't appeal, so I didn't accept them. 

I will highly recommend the Sister Frevisse medieval mysteries by Margaret Frazer. Frazer is an excellent writer and has written several different series, but the Sister Frevisse novels are my favorite. Her characters are compelling without being anachronistic. The stories are absorbing and evocative of their time and place.

The family is all well, happy and busy. I'm wrapping up my term on session and my year as clerk. Times are interesting--to say the least--in the PCUSA these days.