Sweet Arbutus

Review #52

Book: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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I’ve always had great admiration for pioneers. It truly takes a huge amount of courage to do things no one has ever gone before. I also have a great admiration for New England, as my three trips there this year alone attest. So it was inevitable that I should come across and read this book about New England’s pioneers, the Pilgrims and their decendants.

In his informative yet very accessible book, Mr. Philbrick traces the origins of the journey that resulted in the 1620 landing in what became Massachusetts. This journey began years before 1620 and included a lengthy time in Holland. This I already knew. I also knew that there were 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower and I had heard about another vessel, the Speedwell, that had some connection to the Mayflower voyage. What I didn’t know was that those 102 passengers were not all the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom. The Pilgrims were also called the Leideners (after the place in Holland where they had stayed for several years), while the others were called the Strangers. These Strangers sought only land and a fresh start with no religious motivation. These few facts were only the beginning of what I didn’t already know.

Mr. Philbrick traces the voyage of the Mayflower, the search for a landing site (which of course was not actually Plymouth Rock) scouting for Native peoples, the building of Plimouth Plantation (the replica of which I had the pleasure of visiting three years ago), and the ever-changing and tenuous relationship between the colonists and the various Native American tribes, including the actions and interactions of Samoset and Squanto. He takes his story to a generation or two beyond the Mayflower-ites, narrating at length about what became known as King Philip’s War.

Relying heavily on primary sources, particularly from William Bradford (passenger on the Mayflower), Benjamin Church (grandson of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren) and Mary Rowlandson (daughter of a prominent Lancaster citizen and wife of a minister), Mr. Philbrick acknowledges the bias of his information while trying to do justice to both the colonist and Native points of view. Certainly, much of the history in textbooks throughout the years is tainted by agenda—either to extoll the contributions of the early settlers and demonize their Native enemies or to condemn the settlers’ treatment of those who were already here when they arrived. Mr. Philbrick clearly tries to take the high road, reporting on the strengths and failings of colonists and Native Americans alike.

I’ve read 10 histories/biographies this year, and in most of them I could easily detect the author’s bias—something that, in my opinion, has no place in a history or biography. In a recent conversation with my brother (who also reads many histories and biographies) we commented on and mourned the prevalence of author bias in these types of works. I should have mentioned and recommended this book to my brother. He has a taste for American history, and I believe he would agree with me that author bias or agenda was missing. Very refreshing indeed.

In No Way Disagreeable

Review #51

Book: Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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One of my JASNA newsletters had a list of Austen must-reads, and this book was on the list. With chapters on introductions, dancing, dress, marriage, servants, and more, this book was like a how-to guide so a gentleman’s daughter can successfully navigate her world.

I can’t say I learned anything terribly new, but it is always a treat to get a glimpse into Miss Austen’s world. Earlier this year I read Jane Austen’s England and was horribly disappointed. This was much lighter fare (Jane Austen lite, if you will) and far more successful.

Yes, it was fluff, but sometimes a little fluff is a welcome thing. An agreeable book on an agreeable topic presented in an agreeable way.

Master Class

Review #50

Book: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer by Caroline Stoessinger

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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Alice Herz was brought up in a rather privileged and rarified atmosphere in early 20th century Prague. Her parents were well-off and highly educated. Her mother, in particular, moved in the artistic circles of Mahler, Rilke, Zweig, Kafka, and Schoenberg, and exposed young Alice to these greats. Inspired by Mahler, Alice herself became a world-class concert pianist and teacher. She eventually settled down with businessman and extremely talented amateur violinist Leopold Sommer, raising a young son while maintaining her musical career.

She was also Jewish, which was dangerous in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and deadly by the ‘40s. The Sommer family was deported to Theresienstadt, the “Paradise Ghetto” which was in actuality a gateway to the extermination camps in Germany and Poland. Indeed, Leopold did not survive (he perished on the death march from Auschwitz to Dachau), but Alice and son Raphaël did. They emigrated to Israel after the war where Alice resumed her career as performer and teacher, and Rafi became a professional violinist.

For years, until her death on 24 February this year (at age 110), she was known as the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor. She was an incredible woman, surviving immense horror and devastating loss with grace, dignity, and, yes, humor and joy.

For details about those years of inhumanity, Miss Stoessinger had to rely on interviews and documentation provided by others. Alice did not talk about that time in her life. Not from a sense of overwhelming pain, but rather the idea that it is in the past, it cannot be changed, life moves forward, and one needs to move with it.

Indeed, Alice was quite a realist, tempered liberally with optimism. She was practical, upbeat, intellectually curious, generous, and totally devoid of bitterness. How can someone with her life experiences have survived so well?

Alice’s short answer was: music. She believed that music saved her during the war; it certainly sustained her afterward and beyond. Her love of musical creation, interpretation, expression, and appreciation manifested itself daily with her hours of practice and instruction. However, powerful as music is in her life, it alone was not responsible for her long life and positive outlook. Alice also lived simply, with very little material possessions. She believed in being a devoted wife/mother/sister/friend to whomever entered and stayed in her life. She was also determined to find the goodness that she believed had to exist in daily life.

In many ways, Alice reminds me of another inspirational holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom. Like Alice, Corrie lost many family members (her father, her sister, her nephew, and her brother) to the war and its after effects. Like Alice, Corrie was imprisoned by the Nazis (in a jail, a concentration camp, and eventually an extermination camp). And like Alice, Corrie emerged from the experience with joy and optimism. While music was Alice’s salvation, forgiveness was Corrie’s.

I always feel uplifted whenever I read Corrie’s memoir The Hiding Place, and I felt the same way when reading Alice’s biography. I am nothing like Alice. I expect that I would not rise above the terrible pain and loss as she did. While I love music, it is not an essential part of me as it was for Alice (I suspect books fill that place in my life). I am more attached to my possessions than she was to hers. I hope for goodness, but I don’t know that I am determined to find it.

I fall short of Alice in many ways, yet I don’t feel bad about myself for it. That is the charm of Alice’s life and of this book. They show us beauty, grace, optimism, and a love of life, regardless of our own situations. They teach us to recognize the jewels we are given—no matter how small, dusty, or dirty—and to aspire to polish ourselves to shine brighter. A wonderful life lesson taught by a Master Teacher.

A Rose by the Name of Amy

Review #49

Book: Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction (Classic)

Rating: 4

This is a bit late, but this weekend was busy–two days, two Jane Austen events. Life among my chosen people was great, but didn’t allow much time for writing!

As I often do, I reread my Louisa May Alcott books this year, and as I’ve done for the past two years, I added a new one to the mix. This year’s addition was Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins.

Rose picks up a few years after Cousins leaves off. Rose, Uncle Alec, and Phebe have just returned from spending the last few years abroad. On the edge of adulthood, Rose is about to come into her sizable inheritance and must decide how she is to spend it and her life. For example, should she be philanthropic like Uncle Alec, or should she be a belle like her friend Kitty?

Rose is not the only one who has grown up since we last left her. Cousin Archie has gone into the family business; Charlie dabbles in the arts and studying law, but much prefers to waste time and money; Steve busies himself with being an ornament to society; Mac has decided to study medicine; Will and Geordie attend a military academy, and Jamie is now a schoolboy.

Rose is a mixture of idealism and reality. She is incredibly high-minded, thanks to being brought up by Uncle Alec, but she also just wants to have fun, like any girl her age. Part of that fun, naturally, includes romance.

Charlie has always been much taken with Rose, and now that they are both grown up, he is ready for his admiration to turn into sentiment. The aunts are all much pleased with this development. For one thing, all of Rose’s money will stay in the family. For another, principled Rose is just what wayward Charlie needs to keep him on the straight and narrow.

A great deal of the book is devoted to the Charlie question. In fact, this idea of depending on a woman to keep a man from popular evils is hardly a new theme in Miss Alcott’s work. And indeed, Miss Alcott’s message on this topic from story to story does not vary—a woman might keep a good man steady, but she cannot save an errant one from himself. This novel is no different in that Charlie, while professing love for Rose and promising to mend his ways, chooses his vices over Rose’s healthy and upright influence and eventually pays the ultimate price.

Like all of Miss Alcott’s works that I have read, Rose in Bloom is highly moral, occasionally crossing the line into preachy-ness. I imagine that this Rose story, even more so than Cousins, is not extremely popular today. I however, have a high regard for it. Then again, I have always been a little out of touch with trends du jour. I don’t drink, I believe in healthy living and modesty (for boys and girls as well as their grown up counterparts), and for my money a little propriety never hurt anyone. But young girls, wanting to emulate teenagers wanting to emulate college girls wanting to emulate the Sex and the City style female won’t get this book. Too bad.

One refreshing thing I did realize while reading about Rose’s struggles is that the conflict of innocence verses worldliness is hardly a twentieth century creation. Certainly I didn’t think that everyone before 1900 behaved as the Victorian ideal. But I always have this tendency to think that overall, most people in the past lived more restrained lives and the party-going crowd was smaller than today. I’m beginning to doubt this. The high-fliers may have had different ways of letting loose than today, but their antics were still popular, still what most people tended to do. In other words, I would have been as out of it then as I am today.

So yes, I am a Rose rather than a Kitty, and I would choose a Mac rather than a Charlie. Some things stand the test of time.