Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Recommended Reading: The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master is a witty adventure story set in northern Europe in 1517. At that time, the buying and selling of relics - the remains of a saint, such as a piece of bone, or items that had been in contact with Jesus, a saint, or other venerated person - was booming in the Holy Roman Empire. The story's protagonist, Dismas, is a dealer in holy relics.

We first meet Dismas at the Basel Relic Fair where he is on a buying trip for his two most important clients, Frederick of Saxony and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Although the two clients collected relics for different reasons, for both men the relics produced a stream of revenue. As Dismas says, "Bones bring pilgrims. Pilgrims bring money."

When shopping for his clients, Dismas strives to purchase only true relics - no flim-flam, no fraud. He is ethical.

In all his years of relic hunting, Dismas had never wittingly purchased or sold a relic he knew to be fraudulent. To be sure, with relics it was impossible to be entirely confident of the provenance. You never really knew that it was the thumb bone of St Contumacious of Tyre, or a bar of the iron grille on which St. Lawrence was broiled alive. All you could do was honor our profession and ask the relevant questions: Did the relic emit fragrance? Had there been verification by ordeal? Had it caused a miraculous healing? Finally, had the saint permitted it to be stolen from its prior shrine? The correct term was "translation." There was logic to it: Saints were living beings, even dead No saint, or member of the Holy Family, would permit his or her relic to be translated from one owner to another unless they favored relocation.

His ethics get put to the test, however, when Dismas learns that all of his savings have been stolen. He gets the news from his close friend, the artist Albrecht Dürer. "Thank God Agnes didn't follow your advice and give our money to that bounder Master Bernhardt. Sounds like you got your money out before the calamity befell. . . . Dismas - you did get your money out??" He had not.

To replenish Dismas' empty bank accounts, the friends come up with a plan to create and then sell to the Archbishop what Dismas will represent as being a highly coveted relic, the burial shroud of Jesus, which is a length of linen bearing the image of a man. After this complicated plan goes awry, the two pals are forced to hit the road to steal - or, rather, translate - another shroud, one which is said to be the authentic item.

Many more adventures and details make this a very engaging book. And because the novel also takes place during the start of the Protestant Reformation, there is plenty of politics driving the actions of various characters. The plot of The Relic Master is woven with historical facts presented in an entertaining manner. One tiny example: the name Dismas is associated with one of the two thieves crucified to the right and left of Jesus. Dismas, according to the gospel of Luke, was the good thief who asked Jesus to remember him in paradise.

The Relic Master is a very enjoyable book; check it out!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New Cookbooks for Fall 2016

I'm going to raise a sensitive issue here: holiday gift giving. Yes, holiday gift giving even though it is only October. In the blink of an eye it will be mid-December and you may be scrambling to find a fabulous gift for someone on your list. Why wait? If that someone loves to cook, plan ahead now and check out these intriguing cookbooks, newly out this fall. They all look great.

A.S. Dixon

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Work of Author Pat Conroy in Focus

The book-reading community will be honoring the work and memory of author Pat Conroy during the week of October 24. Conroy died earlier this year at the age of 70. His writing, as described in the New York Times, "mined the people, the places and the trauma of his childhood and young manhood for his thinly fictionalized novels and a series of memoirs that captivated readers with their openly emotional tone, lurid family stories and lush prose that often reached its most affecting, lyrical pitch when evoking the wetlands around Beaufort, S.C." (William Grimes, The New York Times, March 5, 2016).

Among Mr. Conroy's most famous books are The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. I read these when initially published, but may revisit The Lords of Discipline, a look at life inside a Southern military academy, which is the latest selection for the Wall Street Journal's book club. (The WSJ Book Club is a public group on Facebook.) I wasn't a huge fan of these books, but other book- reading friends absolutely love his work. It might be interesting to see how the experience of reading Mr. Conroy's writing is different with the passage of 20 years.

If you are looking for something interesting to read, try some Pat Conroy novels this month. If you've already read his work, what do you think of it?

The Friday Photo

Messy hair, don't care. Our shih tzu, Rosie, getting rowdy this morning.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel)

In Fatal Pursuit, Martin Walker continues his series of cozy mysteries set in rural France and featuring Bruno, the police chief of St. Denis. In this outing, Bruno is called to the home of an elderly couple. It appears that while the woman was out of town, her husband died of a heart attack. Bruno, however, finds the scene suspicious and sets an investigation into motion.

Now in most mysteries, having identified the potential crime, solving the crime would completely consume the main character's time and attention. This is not Martin Walker's style. Yes, Bruno attends to his job, but that attention includes assignments outside of the dead gentleman. And the reader is also treated to an immersion in life in the French countryside; to the enjoyment of carefully prepared food, good wine, and good times with friends. And in Bruno's case, his group of friends include his horse, dog, and a new romantic relationship with a beautiful woman.

On top of all this, Bruno also spends time participating in an auto rally. And this rally, and the crowd of people it attracts to his community, shapes the resolution of the novel. But really, Fatal Pursuit is more about joie de vivre than crime busting. And for this reader, entering such a world is a welcome relief from current events.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Highly Recommended Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Moscow, 1922. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, 32-years old, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, and resident of Suite 317 at the Hotel Metropol, Moscow, is a being prosecuted for political crimes before The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Despite being in jeopardy with the government, Count Rostov is something of a hero to the powers that be for penning a poem in 1905 that was interpreted as a call to revolutionary action. Subsequent events, however, have brought him under suspicion. The Committee deliberates, and concludes:

Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class-and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.

Thus, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov becomes a Former Person and full-time resident of the Metropol; and so the story begins, and it is terrific.

Count Rostov is, as was noted even by The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, charming. And it is with charm, intelligence, and humor, (and benefiting from a bit of foresight and emergency planning) that he begins his life in his new attic room at the Metropol, a first-class hotel located near the Kremlin and Bolshoi Theatre and patronized by visitors from around the world. Responding to his new, diminished space in the world, Rostov's connections expand to the people in the hotel, both employees and guests. These guests and employees bring to Rostov the pleasure of new and unexpected relationships as well as the tense and dangerous world of  Moscow in the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s.

A Gentleman in Moscow is written in the third person and the omniscient narrator makes his own charming and wise observations.
[Nina] leaned back in her chair and appraised the Count in a manner acknowledging that she may have underestimated him.
Now, when a man has been underestimated by a friend, he has some cause for taking offense - since it is our friends who should overestimate our capacities. They should have an exaggerated opinion of our moral fortitude, our aesthetic sensibilities, and our intellectual scope. Why, they should practically imagine us leaping through a window in the nick of time with the works of Shakespeare in one hand and a pistol in the other. But in this particular instance, the Count had to admit he had little grounds for taking offence.
A Gentleman in Moscow has many bookmark moments. It is a delightful novel that winds up with an exciting, and unexpected, conclusion. It is definitely a "you must read this" book.