"Elizabeth The Queen"

Elizabeth The Queen, The Life Of A Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith

Queen Elizabeth II is someone I've admired all my life. She was crowned in the second year of my life, so she has been my Queen for 60 years. I can't imagine having any other monarch, though I probably will have to get used to a change if I survive another decade. It's a change I don't look forward to.

There have been many, many books and television shows about Queen Elizabeth, including the popular movie, which I loved, "The Queen", with Helen Mirren in 2006. They all have their own slant (there won't be an official biography until after her death) and it can be difficult to sort out what is fact and what is just the bias of the authour, but I thought this one was quite balanced. It acknowledges her strengths, but doesn't hide her flaws or the mistakes she's made. It presents her as a strong and honourable, but not perfect, human being.

I did find it to be somewhat anti-Diana. Whenever it discusses Charles' marriage, the fault for all their problems is clearly laid at her feet. I realize she was not innocent, but they'll never convince me that Charles was just a victim of her emotional instability. In my view, he has things to answer for too.

An aspect of the book I particularly loved was the history review. Beginning with King George VI's unexpected coronation in 1937 and continuing right up to William and Catherine's wedding in 2010, every major world event is looked at. How the Queen and her family were affected, how she responded and how she influenced the thinking and decisions of other world leaders makes for fascinating reading.

There is at least as much political information as personal here, which may not appeal to readers who are only interested in learning about her private life. To give a complete picture, the book has to be political because her life is, even as a non-partisan monarch, extremely political. It is in the face of national and international crises that her strength and character as a world leader, and as a human being, are revealed. A section of the preface says: "She also has the positive power of influence: 'the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.' In public she influences through her example, by setting a high standard for service and citizenship, by rewarding achievement, and by diligently carrying out her duties. Tony Blair, the tenth of her twelve Prime Ministers called her 'a symbol of unity in a world of insecurity....simply the best of British'."

There are also lots of glimpses into her personal life: her relationships with her parents, her sister, her husband and children and friends. And it's not all duty and formality; there are a lot of funny moments that show the Queen's sense of humour and provide some comic relief in the midst of stories about war, terrorist attacks and family crises.

A very nice addition to the book are the two sections, 32 pages in all, of photographs. We see her changing a tire as a young woman in 1945, being crowned Queen in 1953, making an unannounced visit to an American supermarket in 1957, entertaining President and Mrs. Kennedy in 1961, on the dance floor in 1972, laughing with her family in 1982 and wiping away a tear at the decommissioning of her "floating home", the royal yacht Britannia, in 1997. I was reminded again of how beautiful she was in her younger years and what a stunning couple she and Prince Philip made.

I have to say this was a genuinely interesting book. At 537 pages, it still wasn't long enough. I know I'll read it again, and I sincerely hope there will be another book one day about the next ten years of Elizabeth II's reign. God save the Queen!

"Proof Of Heaven"

Proof Of Heaven - a Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, MD

Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander had no time for the near death stories of his patients. He listened as they told him about seeing a bright light and beautiful beings, feeling peace and love in a way they never had before, and being reunited with family members long deceased. He would smile and nod then dismiss the stories as the turbulent dreams of a fevered or malfunctioning brain.

Then he got sick. His brain was attacked suddenly by bacteria that put him in a coma for seven days and had the top doctors in the field telling his family there was no hope. They said if he did survive, he would be in a vegetative state needing constant care for the remainder of his life.

This is Dr. Alexander's account of where his spirit went while his body was in the coma. It's fascinating, but it's a bit disappointing that he tells us more about what happened at the hospital with his family and his comatose body than about what he was experiencing in his spirit. I expect he wanted to document thoroughly the seriousness of his illness so his colleagues would be convinced to believe his story, but I ended the book wanting more.

I don't quite know what to think of his "Heaven" experience. As a Christian I believe the Bible to be God's word, the truth. It's my compass and some of what the authour says, and doesn't say, sets the needle spinning. These are some of the questions/concerns I have:

1. He talks about a "vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself" and quotes a17th century Christian poet who wrote: "There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness...". The Bible says in 1 John "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all."

2. It's implied that Heaven is where we are all going after death. The Bible teaches that before there can be forgiveness, redemption and the promise of Heaven, there must be confession and repentance, and that this can only happen through Jesus Christ. Acts 4:12 says "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved." I don't think there's any mention of sin, the Bible or Jesus in this book. (He may have mentioned seeing a painting of Jesus in a church he visited.)

3. Dr. Alexander says, quite beautifully: "None of us is ever unloved. Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend." I believe that to be the truth and essentially the hope of every human being. But then he says: "That knowledge must no longer remain a secret." In fact, God has not kept His love for us a secret. Jesus lived and died to show us how much God loves us and the Bible reassures us of it over and over again.

I'm not suggesting there is nothing of truth in Dr. A's story. God has given us only brief glimpses of a more vast and wondrous Heaven than our human minds could ever comprehend and maybe the Doctor was experiencing a part or aspect or dimension of Heaven that we don't know about. I don't have answers for all these things, just questions.

Another thing I'm curious about is the authour's statement that he is "proof" of the existence of life after death. I don't question the fact of it, just the idea that he is proof of it. He was always able to dismiss other near death experiences as the wild imaginings of a sick brain and says his story is different because his brain was not functioning while he was in the coma and can therefore not be the cause of his experience. My question is this: if that's proof enough for him as a scientist, why isn't it proof enough for other scientists? He tells us that people "with medical degrees" were not all that anxious to hear his story. Why not? If the medical circumstances were scientific evidence enough to "prove" his claims, then why aren't other scientists satisfied?

It's definitely interesting reading and I haven't come away from it with only questions. It reminded me that my concept of God is often far too small and helped me regain a larger perspective. It reminded me, too, that love is the whole point. It is God's character, His motivation and His goal, and as such must be mine as well. For me this book was worth reading. It's made a positive difference even though it leaves me with questions. I'd like to hear other opinions on this so if you read it, please do come back and let me know what you think. 


Dubliners by James Joyce

I didn't think I'd ever pick up another James Joyce book after my first attempt, but I'm an easy mark for anything Irish and the title got me. When I was reading the irritating awkwardness that is Ulysses, I remember thinking that Joyce would be a good story teller if he would just get on with it; still I was surprised by how good the writing is in these stories.

I sometimes find it hard to get interested in a short story because they're, well, short, but I had no problem getting into any of these. Some don't have much of a plot but they have characters that grab you and won't let go. All of the stories are about, as the title indicates, Dubliners, people living, working, playing, partying, loving and dying in Dublin. Each one is a snapshot of a few hours or a few days in a Dubliners' life. The first few are quite sombre, but later on a little more light begins to seep into the stories. In the end they are all a little sad, but they make for good reading.

These are the stories:

The Sisters - a boy's friend, a priest, dies and he goes with his aunt to visit the sisters of the deceased. 
 An Encounter - a boy and his friend skip school to go exploring and they have an uncomfortable encounter with a strange man.
Araby - a boy has a crush on a girl and makes her a promise he isn't able to keep
Eveline - a girl longs to escape the drabness of her life and her boyfriend gives her the chance if she only has the courage to take it.
After The Race - a young man gets a taste of what he sees as the good life
Two Gallants - a couple of young prostitute-seeking men are out for an evening on the town
The Boarding House - a woman running a boarding house has an unexpected opportunity to marry off her daughter
A Little Cloud - a timid man resents the more exciting life of his friend and finds no comfort in his home life
Counterparts -a frustrated, belittled office worker walks away from his job and takes it out on his son
Clay - Maria spends an evening visiting friends
A Painful Case - a man's quiet life is upset when he is befriended by a woman and her family and she sees it as more than friendship
Ivy Day In The Committee - election workers talk about the campaign over drinks
A Mother - the mother of a piano accompanist makes a scene at a concert
Grace - a man who drinks too much is invited by his friends to a spiritual retreat where it is hoped he will mend his ways
The Dead - a man and his wife attend a party at the home of his elderly aunts

Some of my favourite lines:

"He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her."

"She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life."

"He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad."

They all sound rather cheerless, but really they're very good stories and beautifully written. I never thought I'd say it, but I like this James Joyce book. 


"The Turn Of The Screw"

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

How did I not know this was a ghost story? I never read ghost stories. They're dark and creepy and I don't want or need all that creepiness bouncing around in my head weeks after I've finished reading the book. Serves me right for choosing a book without reading anything about it first.

It was, indeed, creepy, but there was so much melodrama that it became almost comical. Almost. You won't actually be laughing, especially as the story ends. Fortunately it was a short book; any more histrionics would have been too much.

Another thing that became almost too much was the awkward way Henry James puts sentences together. Has any writer ever used more commas? Take a look at these:

"When later, by the schoolroom fire, I was served with tea by the usual maid, I indulged, on the article of my other pupil, in no inquiry whatever."

"She passed that night, by the most tacit, and I should add, were not the word such a grotesque false note, the happiest of arrangements, with Mrs. Grose."

"I could only get on at all by taking 'nature' into my confidence and my account by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue,"

There were hundreds of sentences like that, some of them so complex I had to re-read them a few times to be sure I understood what he was saying. Not that I want any authour's writing to be particularly easy to read, but sometimes it seemed like James was working hard to make things more complicated than necessary.

All in all, I did enjoy this creepy, comma-coma inducing book, but I am hoping for a little more plot, and a little less punctuation, from the next James novel I read.

"The Kite Runner"

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I was surprised by this book. I shouldn't have been because everything I read about it was positive, glowing even. I've been looking at it on my shelf for a few years but hesitated to read it because of the setting. I knew it was about Afghanistan in the years leading up to the revolution and it seems to me that every story I read, or watch, set in that part of the world sooner or later ends in some kind of torture scene and, frankly, I can't take any more. I can't take reading it, watching it or hearing the screams. Who ever decided that torture was good entertainment? I hate it and I'm done. Fortunately, a friend read this and told me how good it was so I took the plunge. She was right; it's an incredible story, strong and gritty, but beautiful, and no torture scenes.

     Amir grew up in Kabul in comfortable circumstances with a successful father and a nice home. On the property was a small hut where their servants, Ali and his son Hassan, lived. Hassan and Amir were boys together and became the best of friends, as far as their positions in society would allow. It is the story of their relationship that sets the stage for everything else that happens.

When the revolution comes, Amir and his father escape to America with only what they can carry and must begin to adjust to a completely different kind of life. Amir grows into manhood, gets an education and establishes a life of his own, but everything he does is overshadowed by events that happened when he and Hassan were boys. In time, a situation arises requiring Amir to make the dangerous trip back. There he will come face to face with his past and perhaps, as a friend says, find "a way to be good again."

This is a powerfully touching story. It's beautiful and heartbreaking, sad and hopeful, a story of betrayal and redemption that I don't think I'll ever forget. I couldn't recommend it more highly.   

"Peter Pan"

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Starting out as a play in 1904, Peter Pan didn't become a book until 1911 when it bore the title of "Peter And Wendy". Since then it's gone through many re-creations as musicals, movies and sanitized "Golden Book" versions for young children that don't include killing, being killed or being eaten by a crocodile.

When my book club chose it as one of this year's selections I thought I was familiar with the story. When I was going through the list to see which ones I had read before I didn't even pause over Peter Pan. Of course I've read it. Who hasn't read Peter Pan? I remember Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. Oh. Wait. That was a movie. All I could really remember about the book was that it was thin, hard covered and had lots of colourful pictures with a line or two of words on each page. No, I had never actually read Peter Pan.

The bones of the story are the same however you experience it, but the book - the real book - has a lot more flesh on those bones. And it isn't all sweetness and charm. You have children killing pirates, Peter being horribly self-centered, and childhood being exposed as "heartless". Not the cleaned up version I'd read to my kids.

Biographers write that J.M. Barrie himself had a hard time leaving childhood behind. He befriended little boys (we're conditioned now to see that as creepy, but try to read only innocent fun into it) and was happiest when he was telling them stories and playing games with them. He once wrote: "It is as if long after writing Peter Pan, it's true meaning came to me - Desperate attempt to grow up but can't."

I've read that Barrie was expressing concerns about the position of men in society in the character of Mr. Darling. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution more men worked in factories and offices and he feared they were losing their individuality, their manliness. Mr. Darling struggles to maintain an authourity in the home which he no longer has in the world. Much of the book is written tongue-in-cheek, but you can find a hint of more serious things between the lines. It sounds ridiculous that Mr. & Mrs. Darling were adding up their bills to see if they could afford to keep Wendy. It's just one more absurdity in a fantastic tale told to children. And yet in that period men were leaving the fields to work in cities and instead of raising the meat for the family's table they worked for wages determined by someone else. They were more limited in what they could provide for their families so the number of children they could support was probably becoming a very real issue.

Another major theme in the book is the value of women in society: important in the home for cleaning, darning socks and taking care of everybody but clearly inferior to men. When Peter and the boys went out for adventures, Wendy stayed home to mind the hearth. In the great battle on the ship, Wendy is the damsel in distress that needs rescuing by the boys. A remark made early in the book about male children being a cause for greater celebration than female children pretty much says it all. Some suggest that this issue may also have been a response to the times. Women were beginning to take some of those factory and office jobs leaving their children, for periods of time, "motherless".

Neverland, is a place where you don't have to grow up or assume responsibility, where you can fill up on imaginary dinners, and where if you believe you can fly, then you can. You can even pluck a new mother out of an upstairs window and bring her back as your own. You can follow your own desires not thinking about others. You can kill and no one will hold you to account.

That's how we like to fantasize childhood. We tell ourselves it's all about being innocent and carefree but that is, in the end, just a fantasy. In truth children are fairly selfish creatures wrapped up in their own needs and desires, seldom thinking of others. If it were not so there would be no tantrums. We want to tell children they can do anything they set their minds to but that, too, is fantasy. The truth is they have limits and are never going to fly. As one critic so succinctly put it: "Neverland as it's very name suggests is an impossibility, an idealization of what never was."

Having at long last read the "real" book, I do recommend it. Everybody should be able to say they've read Peter Pan. Who the heck hasn't read Peter Pan?

"Animal Farm"

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I had a lot of flashbacks to "1984" when I was reading this...just replace the city with a farm and the people with animals. It was written as a satire on totalitarian government and as one web site said: "...to serve as a cautionary tale about Stalinism." The various animals in the story are meant to represent specific people in Soviet society/government.

It was a very easy book to read, written much like a fairy tale really, but terribly disheartening. Orwell believed that every form of government is doomed to degenerate into totalitarianism. After the animals rebelled against the humans and won control of the farm, and theoretically their freedom, it was agreed the pigs should be the leaders because they were the most intelligent of all the animals. The corruption began with a small thing: the pigs decided to keep the apples and milk for themselves because they needed the good food to keep them fit for the mental stress of leadership. They didn't need it, in fact they needed it less than the physical workers, but they say it's for the greater good and they are believed.

The greed and power-grabbing grow as the pigs grant themselves more honor and benefits while the rest must work harder and consume less. It wasn't long before I wanted somebody to stand up and say "Enough!" It's so much easier to see it happening in a little book than it is over time in the actual course of history. Of course nobody stood up and the separation between the leadership and the workers continued to widen until in the end their leaders in the "free" state became indistinguishable from the human tyrant they had served before.

Ultimately, Orwell's view is without hope. He believes it is inevitable that every society will end this way, so even if the workers revolt against their own kind as they did the humans and win, then the same thing would happen. A new group would set themselves apart and use their superior intelligence to deceive and cheat everybody else into believing they are working for the "greater good".

It's all rather depressing. I felt the same reading "1984". In both stories the leaders rewrite history to support whatever greedy new plan they want to implement next. It's infuriating and what makes these books so sad is the authour believed we are all doomed to live in this kind of world. Freedom, he felt, was not achievable.

Another common thread in the two books is the coercing of confessions to crime from the accused suspects and then executing them without knowing or caring if they were guilty. I came away from both books a little more cynical about everything I hear from government. I don't live under a totalitarian regime and I'm grateful for that, but I'm aware that what they tell us is carefully crafted to sway public thinking and accomplish their own agendas, and that truth-skirting is an accepted tool for getting things done. I have a lot of freedoms here though and I believe that people can live freely within necessary boundaries. I value the freedoms to think, speak and choose which Orwell believed were not possible. But I also think I see some of those freedoms beginning to quietly erode and I wonder if it's just a matter of time and if Orwell may prove to be right.

You won't have to invest much time reading this book (if there actually is anybody left who hasn't read it) because it's short, but you will get more out of it if you do a bit of research while you're reading. Orwell may have been a pessimist but he was a brilliant one and is worth studying. I love this book. I hate this book. Any book that can make you feel like that must be good. 

"I'll Never Be French"

I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside

Mark Greenside was living with his girlfriend in New York when out of the blue she said to him: "Honey, let's go to France". He had been in France years earlier and it had not been a good experience, and he didn't speak French, so he wasn't thrilled with the idea. But she had answers for all his arguments and eventually she wore him down. They went to France - Brittany - for the summer. This is the story of how he fell in love with the country, bought a house and became a permanent part-time resident.

The title is what attracted me. He sounds so desperate to fit in. The fact that it's about France didn't hurt either, since I can't seem to turn down anything in writing that is set there or even mentions it a few times. There's a quote on the cover from the Detroit Free Press suggesting we all "run, do not walk, to the nearest copy of I'll Never Be French." They call it a  "funny, funny book". I'm less enthusiastic. I think one "funny" is enough and walking is fine.

It's possible I've read too many of these stories and they just don't impress me that much anymore. I don't want that to be true but I don't know how else to explain my lack of excitement about this one. The writing is decent, the stories are interesting enough, his honesty about the helplessness he felt is (at least one) funny and the setting is perfect. I can't figure out why I was disappointed.

Greenside's experience was a little different than some I've read where trying to buy a house or a car turns into a nightmare. In this case people seemed to bend over backwards to help him and make it easy. What he did find difficult were the small things, like finding a locker at an airport or figuring out how to stand in line at a bakery. In his words: "It's extraordinary, really, the number of ways France finds to make daily life a difficulty."

Well I don't care. Great book or not, difficult daily life or not, I still want to go to France. As for the book, I'd give it maybe a 5 or 6, depending on my mood, out of 10. As Randy Jackson likes to say...it was just ok for me.