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When Religion Fails
Book Review: A History of Loneliness
Throughout your life, the faith you’ve held has sustained you.
In times of fear, you’ve prayed for courage. On troubled days, you’ve asked for favors. You’ve thrown gratitude heavenward, and you’ve demanded condemnation from the Higher Power you know. Some prayers are answered, some are not.
But what if your religion failed you or, as in the new book A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, if it quietly eased away?
Once Odran Yates’ mother informed him that he had “a vocation,” Odran never questioned that he would someday be a priest.
She told him that, shortly after their family of five became three in a tragedy they rarely discussed. She said it after she’d become devout and made Odran and his sister, Hannah, attend Mass every Sunday – and her proclamation made sense to him. So, as a sixteen-year-old, Odran went to Clonliffe College seminary in his native Ireland , where he roomed with Tom Cardle, the boy he considered his best friend.
While Odran was certain that he was perfectly suited to be a priest, Tom was another matter. Once, while in seminary, Tom tried to leave but his father brought him back, black and blue, and left him. Odran had wondered if that was why Tom was prone to fits of strangeness.
He’d lost contact with Tom years ago, but Odran had heard rumors that his friend was moved a lot, parish to parish. That seemed odd, and it’d been upsetting that Archbishop Cordington wanted Odran to leave his beloved position as librarian at a boys’ college to take over in Tom’s latest move. The Archbishop promised that it would be a short-term change, but weeks would become years.
With his sister ailing, his nephews estranged, and the job he loved lost, Odran hated being a mere parish priest, and he “didn’t know what to think.”
“But there’s the lie,” he said. “… I did know what to think. Only I could not bring myself to think it.”
Respectfully outraged, timely, scandalous, and loaded with more than a little controversy, “A History of Loneliness” shimmers like a multifaceted diamond. Indeed, I barely know where to start – perhaps with the character of Odran….
Odran is a simple man, a clueless go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who likes to think of himself as responsible and intuitive. He’s a likeable lad but not really friendship material; he’s predictable, gossipy, and staid except on the occasions when he doubts his faith and his vows. That’s when he surprises himself, as well as us but author John Boyne doesn’t stop there: in a setting of modern-day Ireland and Rome, Boyne populates this tale with close-lipped, complicated people; gives it dialogue rich with Irish brogue; and hands his readers plenty of exceptional back-plots.
That adds up to a stunner of a novel that feels like reading a movie, one that needs to jump to the top of your To-Read list today. But first – clear your calendar. Once you start A History of Loneliness, you don’t have a prayer.
Our Brains Can Easily Deceive
Book Review: The Magician’s Lie
Abracadabra. Now you see it.
Now you don’t because a good magician knows to hide his props behind his fingers, beneath her clothes, in his pockets. And yet we flock to see that sleight of hand, the illusions, the chance to be awe-struck, entertained, and fooled.
Now you see it. Now you don’t. And in the new novel The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister, the only thing she’s hiding is the truth.
Officer Virgil Holt figured his life was over.
Just that week, he’d learned that the bullet he carried in his body could kill him at any time. Once the sheriff found out, he’d strip Virgil of his badge; he’d lose his wife, his home, everything he’d worked for. So when a dead man was found in a theatre basement, gruesomely chopped in half, Virgil almost wished he could trade places.
But then something happened that could save him: Virgil captured The Amazing Arden, illusionist, wife of the dead man. Virgil had seen her stage show. He knew she cut men in two and he had her now, triple-handcuffed to a jailhouse chair.
He wanted a confession but instead, Arden began telling Virgil a story…
Once, long ago when she was called Ada , her mother taught her to dance and she had big plans. Then a cousin ruined everything by throwing Ada off a beam onto a barn floor. Just before fleeing for her life, she learned of her own healing powers.
As a runaway, Ada took a job as a kitchen maid where she met a boy and fell in love; he took her to New York , then broke her heart. Shortly afterward, she found work with a magic show, the owner of which taught Ada everything about illusion, and about pleasing a crowd. Ada grew to crave applause.
When the man she loved came back into her life, Ada became Arden , famous for her daring stage shows. She was in love, and happy until everything changed, all because of a fire and a chance meeting that nearly killed her.
She was a victim. She didn’t kill her husband. She didn’t know who did.
At least that’s what she said…
So you might be a little gullible. You know when someone’s fibbing – more or less. But the one thing you’ll know for sure when you read this book is that you’ve got a winner in your hands.
Set around the turn of the last century, The Magician’s Lie proves, like any good stage show, that our brains can easily deceive us: never mind the characters, we readers don’t truly know if Arden is spinning a fable or giving an alibi. I’m still reeling from the possibilities myself, because author Greer Macallister’s conjured up the kind of novel that pulls readers in, shakes us up, and leaves us feeling sawed in two.
That, and the lingering sense of having just been happily duped, makes this one very satisfying novel and you know you want it. Go now, find The Magician’s Lie, and watch your time disappear.
A Brutal Sport
Book Review: Is There Life After Football?
Your favorite player was out for most of the season.
Last fall, he took a hit mid-pass and went down like a sack of rocks. They checked him over, took him off the field, and that was that. He hasn’t been back since.
Every now and then, someone mentions him and you wonder how he’s doing, whether he’ll ever play again. In the new book Is There Life after Football? by James A. Holstein, Richard S. Jones & George E. Koonce, Jr., you’ll get a glimpse of a possible future.
A helmet to the head, helmet to the chest, a cleat to the leg, and it’s big news: football is a brutal sport and we all know its potential career-ending effects. But what happens after the cheers go silent?
To understand, we have to understand the backstory, too.
Many little boys dream of playing football, of course, but the truth is that relatively few actually make it. The journey to the NFL starts with laser-focus on a dream, incessant practice, high school, then college. By that point, future NFLers have been convinced that they’re “special;” college perks underscore that notion.
“Dreaming of a lucrative NFL career is a relatively recent phenomenon,” say the authors. “In 1956, the minimum NFL salary was reported as $5,000,” but the kind of money that today’s young player gets is often more than he’s ever seen in his life. The NFL promotes financial responsibility, but a new hire often goes wild with new-found wealth; later, he might go broke. Being in the NFL, say the authors, is expensive.
When it’s over, that’s tough to take. Living without praise, paychecks, and the social structure within the NFL is a challenge - as is living with “a lifetime of hurt.” Almost twenty-five percent of all current former players claim game-related brain injuries. Surgery is “routine.”
Some injuries are the result of a “suck it up” mentality: players are more likely to shake off an injury than to seek treatment for it, until it’s too late.
And those are just the physical ailments…
But the news isn’t all bad, and that’s the pleasant surprise inside Is There Life after Football? Authors Holstein , Jones, and Koonce, Jr. give their readers balance – and if you’re first inclination is to forego sympathy due to high salaries, you’ll get a dose of truth, too.
Using statistics you won’t see in the game, NFL history, and personal stories, this book offers a litany of things that should give fans pause: ruined lives for both players and families, ruined health, and financial ruin. But before we turn off the TV in dismay (just kidding!), we’re encouraged to lift our jaws off the floor with tales of success and of the men who’ve stepped off-field and into their own personal second half.
This is a book fans should read before the next game – or before they let their own son suit up. If you’ve ever wondered “What ever happened to….?” then Is There Life after Football? is a book you shouldn’t pass.
Children of Parents with Unusual Careers
Book Review: 'The Undertaker’s Daughter'
You are a chip off the old block.
You’re just like your father. Just like your mother. Cut from the same cloth and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – which was okay when you were a kid. Back then, you wanted to grow up just like them anyhow.
Or not. When you’re the child of a parent with an unusual career – for instance, if you’re “The Undertaker’s Daughter” – you might, as did Kate Mayfield, pick another path.
Kate Mayfield spent most of her young life surrounded by death.
Just after she was born in the late 1950s, her parents moved the family to tiny Jubilee, Kentucky , where Mayfield’s father had decided to open a funeral home. There were two funeral homes there – one for Jubilee’s black residents and one for whites – but he reasoned that there was room for competition.
He didn’t reckon on the town’s Old Guard, which closed ranks among themselves and almost stopped the newcomer in his tracks.
Slowly, though, and with the help of one of the town’s most eccentric and forward-thinking residents, Mayfield’s father was accepted in the small town and his business thrived. He hired a few locals for help when times were busy and, as was the norm then, he also ran one of the town’s ambulances. The family lived in an apartment above the coffins and embalming room, Mayfield’s mother worked her way into the town’s social life, the Mayfield children settled into Jubilee’s schools, and the dead came and went at Mayfield and Son Funeral Home.
But Jubilee was no Mayberry.
Racism was a way of life there and, though Mayfield says that the family maid was sometimes her only friend, there was an otherwise strict separation of black and white. As time passed, life in the small-town became a cauldron of gossip and sniping; Mayfield was reprimanded by teachers and taunted by schoolmates for liking a black boy; and The Old Guard continued to plague her father, whose secrets began to affect everyone around him. Mayfield, a teenager by then, knew her family would never leave Jubilee…. but she couldn’t wait to go.
Have you ever gotten a gift that was different – and better – than you expected? That’s what happens when you open “The Undertaker’s Daughter.”
You might think, for example, that the title indicates a tale of living with a funeral director, but you’d only be partially correct. Author Kate Mayfield includes plenty of funny, heartfelt, sad memories of life above death, though she starts her book with a game of bridge and a love letter to small town life, a lifetime ago.
And yet – we see the dark spots, and the love letter soon becomes a Dear John letter. For that, I buried myself in this book.
While you may (rightly) see comparisons to a couple of popular works of fiction, remember that this book is a memoir - and a good one at that. Look for “The Undertaker’s Daughter” and you’ll be glad to block off your time for it.
A Good Fairy Tale Begins
Book Review: 'While Beauty Slept' by Elizabeth Blackwell
Once upon a time…
Everybody knows that’s how a good fairy tale begins. Once upon a time – and then the evil witch arrives, chaos ensues, horses and carriages, something-something, the prince whisks in and saves the princess, The End.
Everyone knows that’s how it goes. But it doesn’t – and in the book “While Beauty Slept” by Elizabeth Blackwell, the truth is finally told.
Elise Dalriss was quite dismayed.
Her beloved great-granddaughter, Raimy, was surely entertaining, acting out all the parts of a fairy tale for her young siblings, and the children were simply enthralled. Someday, Raimy would be a great actress but Elise was troubled.
The girl had the story all wrong.
Once upon a time, as Elise knew was true, a handsome king and his beautiful queen lived inside a grand fortress surrounded by the village of St. Elsip . The castle was large in young Elise’s imagination then but, as the daughter of peasants, she seldom ventured into the village and had never been inside castle walls - though she knew her mother had, long ago.
What was it like in the castle? Elise pestered her mother for an answer, never believing she’d see it herself. She knew a secret about her own birth, but she also knew that peasant girls didn’t mix with royalty. Still, when her mother died of the pox, Elise heeded her last words and went in search of work in the castle.
To her surprise, she was hired immediately.
For many months, she worked diligently, absorbing all she could about life devoted to the Royal Family. She also learned that Queen Lenore cried almost every morning, and that gossip spread quickly behind castle walls, so she kept mum - a discretion that garnered the trust of the Queen, who requested Elise as a personal attendant. As the years passed, Elise proved herself essential to the Queen’s court.
She had so many memories of her time behind castle walls: special friendships, the birth of Princess Rose, falling in love. Her loyalty had kept her at the Queen’s side. Her wits kept little Rose safe. But when war broke out in a faraway land and evil strode across the drawbridge, could she protect the kingdom?
Happily ever after? Once upon a time, that was possible but the story’s a little different in “While Beauty Slept.”
Author Elizabeth Blackwell takes a classic fairy tale, gives it new characters with rich lives inside a bustling castle, and then she delivers a fierce twist with lightly-modern touches. That may sound like too much of a departure from the story we’ve all grown up with but Blackwell surely makes it work, managing to keep it all within the very basic confines of the Grimm Brothers’ original.
That kept my pages turning, and I think it’ll satisfy you ever-after, too. So grab “While Beauty Slept” but don’t wait – if you’ve wanted to be a princess, if you love a good jousting tale, or crave a very well-done Medieval-ish novel, then your Once Upon a Time is now.
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