A Journey Through Tudor England:

Suzannah Lipscomb

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Just when I though I was done with the Tudors, I happened upon this book. Not really a guidebook, but more of a companion to someone lucky enough to visit these places. For the rest of us, it is a dream book. Starting at the Tower of London and other London locations through to Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, she describes 50-some private homes and public locations, all of them associated in some way with the Tudors and their courtiers.

I really enjoyed this handbook with its tips for looking in odd nooks and crannies for special things like inscriptions and unusual carvings. Well worth the time and money. I wish I could see these places in person, but until then, I’ll relay on guidebooks like these.

 

 

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In Pursuit of the Green Lion

Judith Merkle Riley

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The second of the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy finds Margaret trying to pry her husband Gregory out of the fingers of the dishonorable nobleman who has taken him prisoner for ransom. With the help of our old friends Brother Malachi and Mother Hilde, she pits her wits against the nobleman who has no intention of releasing him.

All the humor and love of Margaret that endeared her to us in the first book are present, along with the ghosts and spirits that help guide Margaret to her goal.

Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Jill Lepore

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This is the story of Benjamin Franklin’s favorite sister, Jane Franklin Mecom. Six years younger that her famous brother, Jane benefited from a particularly close relationship with him all her life. In spite of her lack of formal education, she learned to read and write at an early age. Her writing was never that of an educated person, but she managed to make herself and her opinions clear in spite of idiosyncratic spelling. In fact, IMHO, the advantages of texting and Facebook, make it possible for these less educated than most to have a voice in the common discourse once closed to them.

Just because she was denied the benefits of a formal education, Jane evidences the presences of a shrewd gauge of human beings and a willingness to express her mind in vivid prose. One wonders what would have become of her if she had been born a boy. With such a brother to back him and mind his business, who knows how life would have been eased for Franklin.

Instead, Jane was married young to a ne’er-do-well, and spent her life trying to care for and support her children who survived and depended on their mother for their financial as well as emotional support. More than once she fled ahead of a hostile army, carrying what she could. She turned to her more famous brother, not for money but for supplies to support her in work by sending her necessary items to make it possible to support herself. She never asked in vain.

Jill Lepore had a monumental task ahead of her. Even the letters of famous men were treated with less than respect. One editor felt it necessary to clean up her language and spelling before publishing a portion of one of her letters in relation to Franklin’s life. Even George Washington was not immune to this disregard. His first inaugural address was sliced into pieces and the pieces were handed out to friends of one historian.

How much less respect would be paid to an uneducated woman? In spite of the challenges, Jill Lepore manages to gather enough from the scraps that have been preserved to weave together this fascinating account of one women’s life.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World

Hugh Brewster

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‘The ship sank. Get over it!’ pretty much sums up the attitude of a friend of mine. It’s an attitude I don’t share. Ever since reading A Night to Remember by Walter Lord in adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the story of the great ship and the disaster that claimed so many lives.

This book takes a look at the boat through the eyes of the first-class passengers. It gives the history and final fate of each one. This is a well-written book with plenty of photographs to add to the stories.

One thing I didn’t realize as an adolescent, was the impact the loss of certain passengers had on the people who were waiting for them to arrive.

Even the people who survived, never fully recovered from their experience.

Moby Dick

Herman Melville

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I started reading this book in 2012. This is not a book to be raced through. It is a book to linger over, savoring each word.

This is the second time I attempted to read this book. The first time, I abandoned the effort, thankful that I escaped being assigned it in high school. I cannot imagine how a high school adolescent could possibly begin to understand the intricacies and the subtleties of this novel.

The audible version was my key to this novel. Hearing it read by a professional made it possible for me to understand the poetry. Even the encyclopedic portions of whale information were interesting. As I read, I could imagine this book as an opera, with the various crew members as a Greek chorus, or a trio, or various soloists. I know there is an opera, but I have not had the opportunity to see it.

At the heart of the book is the increasing madness of Captain Ahab, which results in the death of every crew member, save for Ishmael. He alone is left to tell the story of how this one man’s obsession with the white whale brings death and destruction down on his crew.

An epic story.

 

 

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry

Harry Kemelman

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These books are like popcorn. You can read them in about two hours, and they are so satisfying. I love them. I reread them every few years to remind myself how Rabbi Small gets into trouble with his congregation and how he get himself out again.

In this case the dispute is over whether a Jewish non-member of his congregation should be buried in the small Jewish cemetery. You see, there’s a question of the man’s death: was he a suicide or an accident? If a suicide, he should be buried outside the cemetery. At least that’s the opinion of the wealthiest member of the congregation, even though R. Small has already ruled that he may be buried there.

In order to put his mind at rest, Rabbi Small looks more deeply into the man’s death. The more he looks, the less he likes what he finds.

 

The Sheep Look Up

John Brunner

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This is a 40-year-old book that could have been written today. Climate change, breakdowns of the infrastructure, natural disasters that could have been prevented, and the voice of a prophet calling in the wilderness and being totally ignored. Brunner was prescient, and at times it seems he had a copy of today’s newspapers being delivered to him in 1972.

There are times when he goes into long speeches that seem unlikely to be delivered in the context of the book, but it is fascinating to read him describing a frightening dystopian look at life today. He had a few misses, but most of his predictions are right on, at least in incidents if not in number. Thankfully we are not as bad as he describes it—yet.

 

Yiddish Tales

Various

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Originally published in 1911, this book precedes the Russian Revolution by some years. All these stories are set in the misery of the Eastern European ghetto and reflect the hopelessness of that time and place.

Life is hard for a man, especially a Jew. There is one exception. On Shabbat eve, with candles glowing, his wife and children surrounding him in their best clothing—a man is a king. Then he can sing and drink wine and enjoy life. No matter that tomorrow his labor start again, for now he is a king.

It’s that spirit that permeates the stories, even if unspoken.Whether the stories are lighthearted or tragic, easy to understand or completely opaque, underlying them all is a sense of what Jewish life is about.

 

How to be a HERMIT, or A BACHELOR Keeps House

Will Cuppy

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Will Cuppy (1884-1949) was a well-known journalist, columnist and humorous. His best known book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was published posthumously. It, like How to Be a Hermit was a collection of essays, previously published in magazines like the New Yorker.

The focus of How to Be a Hermit is Cuppy’s time living in a shack on a small island, Jones Island, off Long Island’s south shore, from 1921 to 1929. The nearby Coast Guard crew helped him repair the shack and shared supplies and recipes with him. In 1929 the encroachment of the Jones State Park forced him off the island, but a dispensation from the head of the parks department allowed him to keep the shack, and he continued to visit the island until his death.

These gently humorous essays show the difficulty of living alone, dependent on the mercy of the coast guardsmen and the seasonal visitors to the island, who left behind miscellaneous canned goods when they left. He quotes the acerbic comments of his only companion, a black cat.

He supported himself by writing book reviews for $0.25 each, and writing a column for the New York Herald Tribune, and selling articles to the New Yorker and McCall‘s magazine. Very shy of people, Cuppy never married, thus the subtitle. He described a hermit as “simply a person to whom civilization has failed to adjust itself.”

Civilization never adjusted itself to Will Cuppy, and he got his revenge by writing these wonderful essays.

 

Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

Jonathan Sacks

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My rabbi tells me that Exodus is the book that begins the story of the Jewish people. So why did the authorities place Genesis first in the Tanach? I found the answer in this book. According to Rabbi Sacks: “By placing the stories of Genesis before the book of Exodus, with its story for the birth of the Israelites as a nation, the Torah is implicitly telling us of the primacy of the personal over the political.”

Exodus is the one big story of the birth of a people, but Genesis full of little stories of one person after another. Adam, Abraham, Jonah, Jacob, Joseph—they all take their moment in the spotlight then move offstage to make room for the next person to tell his story.

This extremely readable book takes each parasha in turn and looks at its relevance to our lives today.

I look forward to its companion essays on Leviticus.