Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The world seemed to be on pins and needles recently as it awaited the announcement of the new pope who would take over after the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.  There was much rejoicing in the Americas when the first non-European pope, Francis I, was announced.  The book Francis: Man of Prayer takes a look at the background of the new pope and how he was able to become the leader of the Catholic Church.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1934 to parents who were both children of Italian immigrants (so his "non-European" roots don't stretch too far!).  At age 16, he heard a "call from God" during a confession and decided to give up his girlfriend and prepare himself to enter the priesthood.  At age 21 he entered the seminary and became a member of the Society of Jesus, the most powerful and prestigious religious order in Latin America.  In addition to wielding a great deal of influence, this order is also focused on education, with nearly all its members having a college degree.  Pope Francis himself studied widely in Europe, earning a doctorate from a German university.  He also taught literature and philosophy.

There is not a lot of information about the questions concerning Bergoglio's activities during the dictatorships in Argentina during the 1980s.  Some instances are mentioned, including his intervention (or lack thereof) in cases of kidnappings, and his ties to members of the military junta.  The author seems to take a very forgiving view of his actions during this time, stating, "What would we have done if it meant risking our lives?"  Of course, an anonymous member of the public could not wield as much power or influence as the leader of the church, but perhaps this issue was more fully discussed elsewhere.
 
The book goes on to chronicle Bergoglio's rise within the church, including his being appointed as archbishop of Avellanda in 1998.  With this new position came all sorts of "perks" including  luxurious living quarters in the "archbishop's palace", but all of these benefits were rejected.  The new archbishop continued to use public transportation, refused to have new clothing created especially for him, and maintained his work among the poor.

Further chapters discuss the history of the Jesuits and how the Conclave of 2013 went about its work in selecting Bergoglio as the new pope.  The book ends with a discussion of the Five Challenges that the new pope faces, including globalization and the scandals facing the church.

I thought the book was an interesting look at the life of the new pope, however, I also found it to be maddeningly vague in many respects.  For instance, the early chapters mention Jorge's father insisting that he start work while he was in high school, and it discusses his work as a cleaner at his father's accountancy firm. Then there is much talk of his work "in the lab," as well as how much he learned while working "in the lab" and all of his contacts from "the lab", but what sort of lab this was, and what exactly his job there entailed, are never clarified.  There is also some discussion about medical problems he suffered as a young man that prevented him from achieving his dream of becoming a missionary in Japan, but what sort of medical problem this was is also not mentioned. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Francis: Man of Prayer as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Those Irish Walsh sisters are at it again.  Over the years, each of the older of the 5 Walsh sisters has had her own novel, written by the enormously talented author Marian Keyes.  It was finally time for little sister Helen to have her own book, and boy does she get it in the new novel The Mystery of Mercy Close: A Walsh Sister Novel.

Helen, the most brash, unapologetic and unconventional of the sisters had a somewhat thriving business as a private detective.  She had her own apartment (even if the decor and furnishing were alarming to most people), a great friend (her only friend) named Bronagh, and a relationship with the equally oddball Jay Parker.  Then it all came crashing down.  The Irish economy took a severe hit at the same time that Helen was hit with crippling depression. The novel opens with Helen dealing with the repercussions of all this mess -- her business has dried up, she can no longer afford to pay her mortgage, all her furniture has been repossessed, and even Bronagh and Jay are not in the picture any longer.

What else is there to do but move back in with Mammy Walsh?  Mr. and Mrs. Walsh aren't too pleased to see the 32-year-old Helen coming back home, but she's family, so it's accepted as part of the bargain.  Luckily, things aren't all gloom and doom for Helen. She does have a hunky new boyfriend in the form of policeman Artie, but he comes with baggage:  three kids ranging from clingy (Bella) to hostile (Bruno) and a gorgeous ex-wife who seems to spend an awful lot of time at his house.  Also, Jay Parker has turned back up offering to hire Helen as a private investigator to find Wayne Diffney, member of the boyband Laddz, before their reunion tour begins in less than a week.  Wayne has disappeared, and all Jay's efforts at finding him have come to nothing.

Helen is relieved to have a job to do again, mainly because she's begun experiencing the horrible beginnings of another bout with depression.  It was quite insightful to read about the symptoms Helen experienced, as well as her efforts to find some sort of treatment that would magically cure her.  Since the author herself has written quite a lot about her own battles with depression, most recently in the cookbook Saved by Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy I know that she was speaking from experience. 

Helen's lack of progress in the case, coupled with her less-than-ideal living situation, cause her to spiral downward into more severe depression.  Still, she continues on with trying to find Wayne, even when another member of Laddz hires another private detective.  Her work on the case is the only thing that's keeping her from suicide, and eventually even that isn't enough of a distraction to keep her mind from wandering in that direction.

Although this book, like many others by Marian Keyes, has, at its heart, a very sad story, she has such a funny way of writing and and her characters are so charming that the books don't feel terribly sad at all.  I hope that we will still have more books about the Walsh sisters and Mammy Walsh to look forward to in the future.

Final Verdict for The Mystery of Mercy Close:   Four Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with the Walsh clan

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Watching a "fish out of water" story, where someone is totally out of his or her element, can be an amusing if uncomfortable experience.  No one is more out of his depth than Doctor Martin Ellingham, former high-flying London surgeon who abandons his practice to set up shop as a GP in the lovely coastal village of Portwenn.  Not only do the townspeople and Doc Martin not understand each other, but the good doctor is exceedingly lacking in common social skills, adding an extra degree of difficulty to his interactions with the locals.  The new boxed set of Doc Martin: Special Collection, contains every episode of the first five seasons of the beloved series, as well as two prequel films about the character.

The series begins with a committee interviewing Doc Martin (played by Martin Clune) to see if he is the right person to take over the practice recently vacated by the late Dr. Sims.  Martin has already gotten on the bad side of at least one member of the committee, the attractive schoolteacher Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz), by staring at her in an direct and unpleasant manner.  He believes she is suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition, but neglects to impart this information to her before offending her.  However, the rest of the committee is thrilled that such an eminent physician would choose their sleepy village for his practice, so they quickly dismiss any doubts and welcome him. 

Arriving at his new home/office, he's quickly met by some of the locals:  his quirky (unasked for) receptionist Elaine, a gaggle of giggling obnoxious schoolgirls, and a hairy four-legged companion who adopts the doctor on sight and refuses to be parted from him (despite ever increasing
protests from the doctor).  Before long, he meets others in town who are no less odd -- the plumber who turns minor problems into major ones, manic road-hogging drivers, and hoards of people who have no better place to hang out than the doctor's waiting room.  The doctor, never a people-pleaser at the best of times, manages to offend everyone in town before long.  He is startled to notice that the teacher from his interview committee is working not far from his office, so uncomfortable encounters are sure to happen on a regular basis.

Luckily, Doc Martin does have one ally in town:  his Aunt Joan, a no-nonsense older lady with a gorgeous hillside farm.  His childhood visits to her farm are part of the reason that he wanted to move to the town of Portwenn.  The other reason is something he tries, unsuccessfully, to keep hidden. He left his successful job as a surgeon because he suddenly developed a fear of blood.  Unfortunately, once the secret is out, the townspeople waste no time in teasing and pulling pranks on the squeamish physician.  It's all very annoying to the short-tempered Martin, but seeing him become the butt of jokes (when he has no sense of humor himself) is somewhat enjoyable.

The series continues with a cast of quirky townspeople getting up to no end of trouble, various receptionists with their own problems, and Martin and Louisa struggling to continue their careers and have a relationship.  The stories are all engrossing, and with Martin's gruff demeanor, watching him sort out everyone's problems is truly enjoyable.  The set also includes extras such as a look behind-the-scenes and cast filmographies. There is reportedly a series 6 to be shown this fall in Britain, so we can all anticipate more fun from the irritable Doc Martin in the future!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Doc Martin: Special Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Doc Martin: Special Collection:
Five Gherkins,  for being a delightful look at a beautiful Cornwall village and its somewhat unconventional doctor

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Most of us know little about the Amish, a Christian group known for avoiding most modern technology, from cars to telephones.  However, they are known, even to the most uninformed, for their delicious and traditionally prepared foods.  I was very happy to receive a copy of the spiral bound book Simply Delicious Amish Cooking: Recipes and Stories from the Amish of Sarasota, Florida by Sherry Gore.  This beautiful little volume offers a wide variety of recipes gathered from Amish communities across the country, as well as notes of happenings from the Sunnyside Amish Mennonite Church of Sarasota, Florida. 

The first chapter begins with the author describing how she came to write this book.  While trying to find an Amish cookbook from her community to give a friend, she discovered that such a book had yet to be written.  As a weekly contributor to the century old Amish-Mennonite newspaper The Budget, she was able to send out a call for recipes. 

The result is this marvelous book packed with recipes ranging from appetizers to desserts, from breakfast to breads.  Some of the recipes are a bit unexpected, such as the one for Alligator Stew, but I guess being in Florida, you make do with the local flora and fauna.  Non-Amish cooks need not be overly concerned that the recipes require a lot of "from scratch" preparation.  Many recipes include well-known time-saving ingredients such as Velveeta, "non dairy whipped topping" and Rotel. Mouth-watering color photos of many of the recipes make me eager to try them, and a helpful index at the back makes it easy to locate a favorite recipe again.

I really enjoyed the recipes, cooking tips, photos and clippings of articles from The Budget that help to give a more vivid picture of the day-to-day life of the author.  Her blurb on the back of the book mentions that, as well as being a writer, she is also an "official pie-contest judge" so I'm waiting for her follow-up book on how one trains for that occupation!  If you're looking for a cookbook with simple, easy to prepare recipes made with ingredients you likely already have in your pantry (well, except for the alligator), this book is highly recommended!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Simply Delicious Amish Cooking as part of the Booksneeze book review program 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013




 
While the series Downton Abbey unfolds before throngs of obsessed viewers, the curious relationship between the upper classes and their servants during Edwardian times is portrayed in all its bewildering manifestations. In the new book The Real Life Downton Abbey by Jacky Hyams, the society where such interactions occurred is explained and explored to help us better understand a uniquely British phenomenon. 

The book is divided into sections which help to clarify all aspects of servant/employer relations, including chapters on how households were set up, money (both how much wealthy aristocrats were getting through and how little the staff was expected to survive on), manners, food and relationships. 

One very useful section details the "pecking order" of the staff.  Starting from the top (the butler) all the way down through the ranks to the lowliest of the lowly (the downtrodden scullery maid), the author details everyone's position in the hierarchy and just what exactly each job entailed.  I was very interested to read, for instance, the different duties of the butler vs. the valet vs. the footman, and what the various maids might be expected to do as part of their daily chores.  I was also fascinated to read more about how many American heiresses (including Winston Churchill's mother) came over to England at this time to marry into aristocratic, if not exactly super-rich families, injecting a welcome dose of cash -- along with a somewhat unwelcome disregard for obeying the rigid conventions of British society.

The social time period that is being observed is mainly the Edwardian period, covering the years from Queen Victoria's death in 1901 and the ascension of her son King Edward VII to the start of WWI in 1914.  After the war, many things conspired to make the old servant/master class more or less obsolete:  heavy death duties which reduced enormous fortunes to shadows of their former grandeur, more employment opportunities in factories and towns for unskilled labor, and a growing sense of independence among the lower classes that came from having an income and life apart from that of the folks up at "the big house."  While many people today would feel that the life of the domestic servant of 100 years ago was nothing to aspire to (little privacy or free time, poorly paid and involving backbreakingly hard work), the truth is that many people "in service" felt fortunate to have such a position.  They were living in a clean, safe environment and knew where their next meal was coming from -- luxuries many from the lower classes didn't have at that time.  During and just after Victorian times, many people in society viewed poverty as a part of life that was unavoidable.  After the social upheavals following WWI, many came to demand that the government step in and help the poorest in society to obtain a better standard of living.

As the author provides details of particular situations within the house, she gives examples of the corresponding character in Downtown Abbey for reference.  For instance, "lady's maid O'Brien" or "the butler Mr. Carson," which helps to give a frame of reference.  The book is also illustrated with lots of black and white illustrations of  stately homes, servants, and ads from the time period.  Each chapter also ends with some more detailed facts and statistics from that era that help to put the information into context.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Real Life Downton Abbey from Independent Publishers Group in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Real Life Downton Abbey   Four Gherkins, for being an enlightening look at the day-to-day existence of Edwardian servants

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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