Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Julia Spencer-Fleming and Her “Spiritual” Mysteries

I seem to be in “clerical” mood these days – maybe it’s Lent, maybe it’s just chance or fate – but, after last week’s post on Nuns in Black and White I am now going to recommend a mystery series that has, as one of it primary characters, an Episcopal priest.

This series has no”official name” – it is just called the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series. It is written by Julia Spencer-Fleming and the first book in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter. Anyone who has attended a Christian church during the Christmas holidays might recognize the title as belonging to a fairly subtle, but very beautiful hymn of the same name. The lyrics continue “frostly wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” This calls to my mind the cold and desolation that can be winter and it is an appropriate title for this first series entry.

The whole series takes place in Millers Kill, a small town in the Adirondack’s region of upstate New York. Clare Fergusson is a newly ordained Episcopal priest and a former Army helicopter pilot (talk about interesting combinations). Russ Van Alstyne is Chief of Police and not at all sure what to make of this “lady priest.” I began reading In the Bleak Midwinter a while back and did not finish. It did not grab me, the way I feel a mystery should. However, I just finished reading All Mortal Flesh (another hymn lyric, by the way) – 5th in the series – and I could not put it down.

So – I am going to go back and reread the series from the beginning – and recommend that you try the series, too. The characters are well drawn; what happens to and around them is often tragic and unexpected; the mystery (at least in All Mortal Flesh) was adequate to keep me guessing – at least at first. The spiritual backdrop – Clare’s exhausting and continuous struggle with her conscience; her devotion to her pastoral duties; her kindness and thoughtful approach to who she is and why – these all make me want to read more. Meg

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nuns - in Black and White

Nuns are often looked at as mysterious and fascinating. In the last few years, a number of memoirs have been published by nuns, ex-nuns or journalists who seem to have discovered that fascination, and spent months researching and then writing about their experiences with the sisters. Here are some non-fiction titles that you might find interesting.

For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun by Lucy Kaylin. Kaylin sets out to do an expose, but finds she actually came to like and admire the women whom she met. She visits a Trappistine monastery that observes strict silence, attends a “clothing ceremony” at a Poor Clare community and visits an inner-city shelter run by Franciscan sisters.

The Tupip and the Pope by Deborah Larsen. Larsen smokes her last cigarette in the taxi as it drops her off at the mother house. She entered the convent in 1960. It was not a “fit” for her and by 1965 she realized she needed to leave. She shares with the reader her intense experiences.

Karen Armstrong is a prolific writer (History of God; The Great Transformation, etc.), but often people do not realize she was a nun. Karen entered the convent when she graduated (what would be our) high school, when she was 17 years old. Her account of these first, difficult, pre-Vatican II years in the convent is described in Through the Narrow Gate. She, too, realizes she must leave and her description of this equally traumatic event is recounted in The Spiral Staircase. Both books are deeply interesting. Meg

[The idea for this post came from Library Journal's Reader's Shelf.]

Monday, February 9, 2009

Novels of the Norse - Viking Fiction

Between the 8th and 11th century, the Vikings swept out of Scandinavia, raiding and trading from the Middle East to North America. It was a turbulent time filled with technological advances, religious turmoil and more than a few battles. The following books are set in this turbulent and tense period and offer some great action and memorable characters.

Robert Low’s The Whale Road opens with narrator, Orm Rurikson, narrowly surviving a murder attempt. Joining his father and a band of Viking warriors known as the Oathsworn on their search for a mythic treasure, Orm learns that fame and intrigue can be perilous.

Judith Lindbergh sets her bleak and haunting, The Thrall’s Tale, during the Viking colonization of Greenland. Katla, an Irish slave; Bibrau, her daughter born of a rape; and their benefactor, Thorbjorg, a norse priestess, labor to eke out an existence at the far edge of the Viking world.

Bernard Cornwell has written the Uhtred / King Alfred the Great series of three novels: The Last Kingdom, Pale Horseman and Lords of the North. King Alfred is engaged in a desperate war against the Vikings and Uhtred, a dispossessed English nobleman, comes to his aid.

The Corban Loose-Strife series, by Cecilia Holland, centers around Corban and his sister, Mav, and what happens when their village is plundered by the Vikings and they are both taken captive. The books in this series are Soul Thief, Witches’ Kitchen and Serpent Dreamer. Meg

[Thanks go to Neal Wyatt for his article in a recent Library Journal. Click on titles to check availability.]

Monday, February 2, 2009

Excellent Online Resources for Book Groups

Last Saturday I attended the Reading Across Rhode Island** Launch Conference for this “one state, one book, literally” program and came away with some wonderful memories (of author Ron Carlson almost getting choked up when speaking about one of the book's characters), and all kinds of resources and ideas for books and reading.

One workshop I went to was entitled “Reinvigorating Your Bookgroup.” The presentation was excellent and I came away with a sheet listing some really interesting websites that would be helpful to any book discussion group. I thought I would share a few of these sites with you.

This is an online resource that was set up in 2001 in order to give book clubs across the United States a way to communicate with each other, and to recommend and review titles on a national scale. You can view a Book Club Bestseller List and a List of Top-rated Books. There are over 16,000 Book Clubs registered.

Reviews of Books
This site offers full length book reviews and synopses of books from major, online media sites that are available without having to register or pay to read them. Includes books published since 2002 and books that have a mimimum of three reviews in online media such as NYTimes, Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc.

Also check out
Reading Group Guides
Reading Group Choices
and finally, Seattle Public Library’s discussion of Book Group “how tos.”

**The Reading Across Rhode Island selection for 2009 is Ron Carlson’s Five Skies. A sweet, short book about three broken and lonely men who meet in the badlands of Idaho and find friendship and healing. I highly recommend it. Meg

[The information contained in this post is thanks to Librarian Joyce May and her wonderful workshop on reinvigorating books groups.]


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