Archive for January, 2011

Memoirs of a Medieval Woman

Friday, January 28th, 2011

By Louise Collis

(This year I’m highlighting some books that really made an indelible impression on me — as well as continuing to review new books)

The Short Take:

This book is phenomenal! It’s the true story of a 15th century Englishwoman who goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem — and it’s largely drawn from her own autobiography. It’s a wild journey and an even wilder woman. You simply can’t make up stuff this good.


Just the fact that an English mother of 14 would set out on this massive journey through Europe and into the Holy Land is pretty astounding. The fact that she later dictated her experiences to a priest, creating what may be the first memoir written in English, is even more amazing. But the real show stopper here is Margery Kempe herself — a woman so opinionated, so over-the-top pious, and so vocal in all things that she even manages to alienate her fellow pilgrims.

MArgery Kempe is a character for the ages. And, Collis does a great job of not only presenting her but providing all the context you need to fully understand the scope of her travels and the times she lived in. This book includes both jaw-dropping incidents and scenes that are flat out hysterical. You seldom find all of that in a work of fiction — and this story is true!

A Little Plot:

Margery Kempe was a well-off woman, married with 14 children. She also believed she talked to God and various saints. And she wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for some secret sin. Today her visions and conversations would probably get her committed – and there were those who thought she was pretty odd back then. However, Margery was also a woman of unbelievable drive, determination, and courage. She got what she wanted, no matter how much it discomfitted those around her.

This real story about a real woman also gives you a brilliant portrait of medieval times, not just in England but across Europe and in the Holy Land as well. But this is no stuffy history. It’s full of passion, outrageousness and daring. No wonder it’s still in print after more than 50 years!

It’s one of my all-time favorite reads — a book I’ll truly never forget. I simply had to tell you about it.

The Elephant’s Journey

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

By Jose Saramago

The Short Take:

Start with the true story of an elephant’s trek from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551. But tell that elephantine tale with sly wit, delightful language, and a bemused modern viewpoint. It’s hard not to be completely charmed. I was.


It didn’t occur to me until I had almost finished this book that it could be true. There was something so magical about how the story unfolded, its characters, and the mere fact that an elephant would walk across Europe, including through the Alps in winter. Of course, my history is not what it should be, but I figured at best the late Saramago had thrown in a few historical characters like the Archduke Maximilian. Not so. This is a real tale from start to dramatic finish. But it is also very much a novel.

I will warn you that punctuation and customary capitalization are pretty much non-existent in this slim book. One single sentence can actually contain lines of dialogue by two people. But I quickly fell into the rhythm of the writing and I bet you would, too. The story is told in such a me-to-you fashion that you accept the punctuation as part of true story-telling pacing.

The elephant’s trainer, or mahout, is a delight with his curiosity, concerns, and private schemes. And while the elephant itself is never anthropomorphised, it’s dignity, determination, and intelligence are clearly on display.

Of course, I have a lot of gall even writing a review about a book written by someone who received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’m so glad I read this totally delightful tale.

A Little Plot:

King Jaoa of Portugal offers to give his elephant to the Archduke Maximilian and the Archduke accepts the gift. That means the elephant, Solomon, and it’s Indian mahout, Subhro, must make a journey of epic proportions and largely on foot. Of course, transporting an elephant requires special provisions as well as protections for the dignity of all parties involved. Then there is the awe and delight people all along the elephant’s route experience when they see the first — and probably only — elephant in their lives.

But the journey is largely a framework for the musings of our storyteller. Here’s just one observation about humanity that really impacted me: “We are, more and more, our own defects and not our qualities.”

It’s because of lines like these that you should read this book. If you want to know more about Saramago and his works, you can go to his Wikipedia entry by clicking here.


Sunday, January 9th, 2011

By Keith Richards

The Short Take:

If, like many people, you’re surprised Keith Richards has actually reached the ripe age of 67, you’ll be even more so after reading his autobiography. However it’s not his lifestyle but his commitment to music that will make a lasting impression.


I’ve never been a huge Rolling Stone fan  — just ordinary “like them” — but there’s something about Keith Richards that fascinates. I knew I had to read his autobiography, and though it’s not the sharpest writing in the world (it has a certain rambling style that I found endearing but which others might find distracting), it is certainly revealing. And, while I don’t particularly mean “shocking,” there’s some of that, too.

The dust cover flyleaf gives you an idea of what’s in store. It reads: “This is the Life. Believe it or not I haven’t forgotten any of it.” No cute little essay about what you’re going to discover inside: Just start reading and get on with it.

The drugs, the arrests, the fights within the band, the loves, and the escapades are all in here. You’d be disappointed if they weren’t. But it’s his amazing passion for music — both his and others — that really defines the man. And there’s plenty of ink devoted to his musical life in this book. Some of it was beyond me — like his discovery of open tuning — but I loved reading about his love and respect for other performers and how they influence his own work.

Of course, being a Memphis native, I was thrilled to see local legends like Jimmy Dickinson, Scotty Moore, and the Stax and Hi recording stars prominently mentioned. But Richards’ musical interests not only encompass Blues but also Country, Bluegrass, Reggae, and pretty much everything else you can think of. And, you can feel his unfettered enthusiasm in every word.

One thing that struck me while reading this book was just how much things changed in such a short period of time in the 60s. Richards repeatedly points out how the establishment felt deeply threatened by this sea change in dress, behavior, and music. It sounds almost amusing today — the stuff of tabloid featurettes rather than mainstream news. But those truly were the times.

And, boy, didn’t Keith Richards fully represent most parents’ greatest fears for their own children? Absolutely!

A Little Plot:

You know the basics already. Richards’ autobiography covers everything from his school days as a choirboy soloist right up to his mother’s recent death. Along the way, some rumors are put to rest while others are given the stamp of approval.

More time is spent on the early years of the Rolling Stones, when they struggled simply to get a chance to play, then suddenly burst through and worked practically every day for years. Richards also includes segments written by others in his life who give their own point of view about various occasions. These observations highlight both some of his worse behaviors and some of his greatest moments. Heck, sometimes the two are one and the same.

But you expect nothing less from a man who was proud to be number one on the Rock Stars Most Likely to Die list for 10 years. You’ve got to say this: Richards delivers, both on stage and in this fascinating autobiography (with the help of James Fox).

If you want to know more about Richards, this book, and his many musical collaborations, click here.

Merit Badges

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

By Kevin Fenton

The Short Take:

This coming-of-age-and-then-some novel follows a group of friends from a small Minnesota town through high school, college, and then more of life’s ups and downs. What sets this one apart from similar books is that it’s much more nuanced and focuses more on each individual’s growth (or lack there of) rather than their relationships. I liked that difference. Very much.


Even though the territory has been explored many times, this book has a very fresh feel. A lot of that is due to the richness of the writing style. Unexpected descriptive phrases and brief philosophical insights raise everything to a higher level. The characters aren’t the usual suspects, either. Well, at first you think they might be, but first-time-novelist Fenton brings unexpected characteristics, interesting vulnerabilities, and surprising set backs to enrich his portraits.

While it certainly contains the angst and alienation  you expect from a book that begins in the teenage years, Merit Badges presents a rounder, more realistic portrait of a small community and one group of young people it unleashes on the world.

Each chapter is titled like a Boy Scout merit badge and includes one requirement for earning that badge. I’m not sure this really added anything, but it didn’t hurt either. I think most readers would understand how the book’s title describes what happens in this novel without it.

The plot pulled me straight through in a very short time. I just wanted to know what would happen next. And, how can I not enjoy a book that uses the word “ghosty?”

A Little Plot:

A tight group of friends, all growing up within a few blocks of each other, finds high school changes their relationships and perspectives. When his father dies, Quint (ostensibly the central character), sinks into delinquency and drugs. Slow tries to become his family’s father figure when his dad moves out. Barb doesn’t understand why the group doesn’t relate to each other the same way anymore.

By turns amusing and touching, as well as highly nostalgic if your high school days were in the 70s, Merit Badges follows the separate paths these friends take over about 25 years. A lot happens, but it’s not ridiculous stuff. It’s more like real life.

Kevin Fenton has a website but it’s more about his career as an ad writer and creative director. In the interest of full disclosure, that describes me, too. But I don’t think that influenced my opinion. To visit his site, click here. There’s also a website just for this book, to visit that, click here.


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January 2011