TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

medieval-lives-pb-visual-7lI like reading about various periods of history, and the medieval period is one of my favorites.  But, you have to admit that a lot of what is written is …how shall I say this …. while interesting, not always entertaining.  I have read monographs, thesis papers, published books, both recent and pretty darn old — moldy and dusty.  Well, they would be moldy and dusty if I were reading the actual book, but electrons don’t make you sneeze, so chalk another one up for e-readers.

Gotta tell ya, this book has got to be my favorite so far.  It is somewhat along the lines of Misconceptions About the Middle Ages,  in that it talks about our erroneous ideas of what life was actually like in medieval times.  Misconceptions considers the middle ages to be from 500 AD to 1500 AD, whereas Medieval Lives  likes to think of it as being from 1066 (the Norman invasion, doncha know) to 1485 when Henry Tudor took the reins. Whatever.  I am up for any interpretation.

 The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves.  In their widest ramifications ‘the Middle Ages’ thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.

We learn all kinds of nifty facts, such as a ‘village’ was where the lord of the manor kept his villeins – men who were bound either to the land itself or to his personal service, and who lived with their wives and children in wretched cottage hovels.

We learn that literary culture arose out of the tradition of jongleurs, the troubadors and traveling poets.  Remember, there was no TV so folks had to get their entertainment somewhere.

We learn more about the horrific eradication of the various religious groups and ethnic groups.  Honest to pete, we are a savage species with only a thin veneer of what we call civilization.

The Albigensian Crusade was truly genocidal in intent, and it has been estimated a million people were slaughtered.

All in the name of God.

I learned that ‘forest’ was a technical term in the Middles Ages and stood for something that was far from idyllic.

One of William’s first acts as conqueror of England was to create ‘the New Forest.’  This didn’t mean he planted a lot of nice trees so people could enjoy a picnic in the shade.  What he was doing was ear-marking a vast tract of land as his own personal hunting ground.  This is what the Norman word ‘forest’ meant.  Where there were trees or not wasn’t really the point.  The ‘forest’ was wherever ‘Forest Law’ applied, and ‘Forest Law’ was not something anyone wanted to live under.

Towns and villages could be, and were, destroyed, and every animal and tree became royal property.  The forest was administered by royal officials with draconian powers, who replaced the community as denouncers before the court.

Give a whole new meaning to ‘a walk in the woods’, doesn’t it.

We learn about the Church:

But the men who then ran the Church were not theologians.  The most powerful bishops and archbishops were career politicians, with little or no theological training.  For them, the Church was a political and economic power base.

Did you know that Isaac Newton was also actually an alchemist, and that by far the greater part of his writings was devoted to alchemy and interpreting the Book of Revelation?  Yeah, me, neither.

There is just so much in this book, about knights and chivalry, and who was and wasn’t a good king, (“The Good King/Bad King stories are the propaganda of their successors.  And even the question of who was and was not a king of England was decided after the men themselves were dead — by the chroniclers.  Propaganda, thy name is History.”).

The emphasis is on that period in England, with only brief references to the time in Europe and other countries.  It is not a comprehensive world overview by any means, but, so what.  I loved it.

Terry Jones is best known from his stint with Monty Python, but he is a comedian, screen writer, poet, musician, director, and historian.  Well, no wonder the book is so readable.  ‘Real’ historians, you know, those with degrees and such, write for the most part for other historians and academics.  Jones (and his writing partner Alan Ereira) write for us unwashed masses, so it is all so much more entertaining.

If you like history, read this.  You will love it.  If you like in particular the medieval period, read this, you will love it.  If you simply want to disabuse yourself of some erroneous ideas, read this, it will help with that.



PhysicsYou’re dead.  You are in a place where everyone else is dead, too.  But nobody speaks to anybody else, just walks around muttering to themselves. Where is this place? Who are these other dead dudes? How did they get here?  How do you get out, for Lucifer’s sake?

Two men, Hart and Bowler, seem to be trapped in a square mile of Coventry, a space superimposed on the real town, where they can walk around and through buildings, cars, people.  Hart has been there for something like 60 years.   Hardly any new people ever come, but they can see what he calls ‘flyers’ appearing above the city and disappearing into the heavens.  There are also those few mysterious ‘blueys’.  What are they?

When the much younger Bowler arrives, Hart goes to him immediately and tries to speak with him as Bowler acclimates.  Apparently it works, and they can speak and hear each other, and pal around together.

I am such a sucker for anything with “Quantum” or “Physics” in the title, I just had to see what this was all about.  What it is about is Not Knowing.  We the readers have no clue, no more clue than the people in what Hart calls The Foyer.  It is just an amazing story, and we come to find out more and more only as our two fellows find out anything.

It’s called a metaphysical fantasy, and that just about covers it.  I love reading others’ ideas of the afterlife.  And this one is a doozy.  I kept reading and reading, unable to put it down because I wanted to know WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE!   I can’t possibly guess if you would like it.  I loved it, but I suspect it is not for everyone.

Some of the blurbs call it a murder mystery,  but it isn’t really a murder mystery.  A couple of people are found ‘dead’ which is really a mind blower, because hey, they are already dead, right?  Although now they are really dead.  [Scratching head in perplexity.] Were they ‘murdered’?  How did they ‘die’?

I just so love it when I come across a novel idea and the execution of that idea is absolutely superb.  Yeah.



$RSVOO6RA sweet, gentle story of being lost, and finding what is lost.

Our protagonist, the younger son of a farmer in Michigan, near the shore of Lake Michigan, hates the farm, and isn’t all that crazy about his stern, father, who expects him to work hard on the farm and eventually take it over.  He leaves the farm and gets a job driving a trash truck.

One day, due to his carelessness, he drives the trash truck and another car off the road over a cliff.  His best friend in the truck with him is not badly injured, but he himself suffers a badly broken leg.  An eight year old girl in the car was drowned in the car when it went into the lake.

It is about the native Odawa people of the area, and about nature.  It has been called magic realism, and a ghost story.  Eh.  Maybe. Maybe not so much.  He hears a voice, the voice of the girl, telling him that it is all lake.  He must learn what that means.

It involves a visit to a Native American medicine man, or shaman, who tells him he must spend some time alone at the lake to find redemption.

It is a difficult story to tell, one of a rejection of his parent’s lifestyle, one of unforgiveness of himself for the death of the little girl, one of grieving.

For me, with such a deep subject matter, I felt it wrapped up too quickly and too easily. You know, everything will be all right for those who mean well and have a good heart.  Well, OK.  Sometimes.



tidying upYet another book on how to de-clutter your life and home.  I like these kinds of books.  When I left the Good Ol’ US of A, I had sold everything I owned except a few kitchen articles for the RV, and some clothes, and a couple of other items that fit into the camper.  Then off to Canada, then southward, following the sun, to …. as the folks in the southern states put it … to Old Mexico (as opposed to New Mexico.)

My first rental here in Sunny Mexico was a very small two bedroom condo. Furnished, except for a bed, so bought a bed, oh yeah, and a very old microwave.  Remember those older model microwaves?  They were almost as big as the bed.  After the laundry service abruptly closed for four days with every piece of clothing that wasn’t on my back,  it was clear I needed my own washing machine.  Then, after about 8 months in the condo, I saw a three bedroom house I liked, so carted my bed and microwave there, but needed to buy living room furniture, and a table to eat on, and a refrigerator.

By the time I moved out of my fifth rental (and second city), I gave away two pickup trucks full of stuff, mostly to my cleaning gal.  How did this happen?  Where did it all come from?  I brought almost nothing into the country, and in about 9 years had enough to fill a four bedroom house.  (And YES, I needed a four bedroom house.  My computer needed it’s own bedroom, and so did my sewing machine.  So there.)

We humans are accumulators, amassors, dare I say it?  hoarders. The tendency, nay, drive, to compile, stockpile, conglomerate, is innate.  It probably goes back to our Neolithic ancestors, when the wife wanted to keep a pretty rock for decor, and Nuug, her husband, said, what’s it good for?  What are you gonna do with that thing?  or when she said she needed another fur skin garment, and Nuug said, what for?  You got a fur skin garment, and she said yes but that one is brown.  I want a black one, that the spark to make sure we were never out of pretty rocks or enough clothes was born.

But enough about me and the Clan of the Cave Bear.  What about this book?  Yeah, what about it?  This Japanese chick has spawned a whole industry out of folding clothes and throwing crap  unneeded items out.  It’s all about paring down to what each individual feels is sufficient for themselves.  I remember the heyday of the minimalist movement, with idealistic young men bloggers vying to see who could get all of their possessions down to a minimum.  The gold standard was some guy’s 51 items.  Total.  She-eesh, I got more than 51 items in my underwear drawer.

Well, Ms. Kondo isn’t about paring down your belongings until they all could fit in a shoebox.  She is all about getting it down to a reasonable amount that you can stow out of sight!  She is all about built-in shelves and drawers in your closets, and folding as many clothes as possible, rather than hanging stuff, because hanging stuff takes up a lot of space.

She is also all about a very specific folding system, that stands everything up on end in drawers, so you can see what you have.  She is anti-piles — she says clothes and belongings have to rest, and how can you rest with a pile of weight on top of you.  So there is quite a bit of the book devoted to folding.  Well, you know what I think?

aintWhat I liked about her approach is her attitude to her possessions.  She recommends thanking our things for their service when we are giving or throwing them away.  She recommends thanking them for their service when we put them away in their places every day.  It makes us more mindful of our relationship to our possessions, because if you have to much stuff to remember what you own so you can thank it, you got too much stuff.

Her criteria for keeping or tossing is to handle each item, and ask yourself, does it give me joy?  If not, out it goes.  Why be surrounded by things that do not give you joy.  We have so much stuff because we don’t know how not to have it.  She gives us a way to measure if it is valuable to us.

So back to me again.  Yes, yes, it is all about me.  Possessions-wise, I am as pared down as I care to be.  Maybe a bit more could go, and it will, probably right before I move again, when I move again.  But still, I did glean some nice tips, ideas, and attitudes from the book.  Even though I am never in this lifetime going to fold my tee shirts so that I can stand them up, the vast majority of the stuff I have does spark joy.  Good enough for me.



THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainIf you liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girlyou will most likely like The Girl on the Train.  It has the same darkish underlayment, the same kind of convoluted plot line with events you didn’t really see coming.

It is narrated by three women.  Rachel is the main figure, youngish, divorced, and a moderately upscale alcoholic.  Every day she rides the train on her way to work in the city from one of the suburbs.  It always slows down by a small development of homes which back onto the railway, and she idly sits there staring at the patios of the various homes.  She quite often sees a young affectionate couple at one of the houses, and makes up a story about them, including what she thinks of as romantic names for them.

Turns out her interest stems from the fact that she used to live a few houses down from the couple she sees.  Because of her alcoholism, her husband left her for another woman.  He bought her out of the house, and moved the other woman, Anna, in.

Then, the news reports that the woman she sees, Megan, has gone missing.

Rachel, who still two years later is mourning the loss of her marriage and her husband’s betrayal, constantly phones him, sends email, and …. OK, stalks …. him.  And she wants to get involved in the search for the missing woman.

We have portions from the first person point of view of Anna (the new wife) and from Megan, as well as from Rachel.

The book is all about secrets.  Like Dr. House says everybody lies, well, everybody’s got secrets.

It’s a great read, and was on the Times best seller list for a long time.  It is now going to be made into a movie, but… get this…. changing the setting from Britain to the USA.  Whaaat?   Who knows what idiocy lurks in the minds of movie makers.

I like these intelligent and inventive twisty plots.  But gotta admit, I felt the final outcome was leaked a bit, but that is OK.  Because I never figure out whodunnit in regular murder mysteries, so I got to feel clever.  Feeling clever is a good thing.



American CrowA British tracer of missing persons, something of a P.I., rough and ready type, is sent by his company to the US to find the missing daughter of a London financier.   This is a noir-ish kind of detective story, minus the detective, having instead of a detective this P.I. guy.  Lots of action, and really basically a fun read.

What I Didn’t Like:   First of all, our guy seems to have had a problem in the US in the past for which there is a warrant out for his arrest.  Although the author bio states he left his journalist job 12 years ago to write fiction, this book seems to be the only one.  So there is no prior book explaining Blakey’s legal problems, nor any backstory given.

Second, because of his legal problems, he is smuggled across the border into the US from Canada.  WTF?

Third, he is in Minnesota and the dialog sounds like something a non-American would dream up to be Minnesotan talk.  Really awful.

Fourth, the trucker he is riding with leaves him eating at the restaurant while he goes to ‘check the oil’ with a lady trucker he knows.  He doesn’t return fast enough for Blakey, so Blakey steals his rig!  When he stops several states away, he wakes up in a restaurant parking lot to see some bikers working over a Somalian store owner.  He steps in, saves the guy, and takes him to a hospital in the guy’s car.  Meanwhile, the bikers burn his rig — in which he has left his coat, duffle bag with clothes and his wallet.  And he is supposed to be the best of the best hot shot smart tough guy.

So far so stupid.

Later on, he hitches a ride with that same lady trucker, who appears not to recognize him.  Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine… oops, sorry.  That’s Casablanca.  Of all the thousands of 18-wheelers plying the highways of the USA at any given minute, who stops to pick him up but a minor character from several chapters ago.  And who leaves him in the rest stop restaurant, after he has again left his coat and money in the truck cab.  Oh, pleeze.

What a freaking loser.   Because the story opens with him at the seaside in France or someplace with his formerly estranged 17 year old daughter.  He is on the beach, she is on some sail thing on the ocean, waves at him, collapses, disappears off the sail thing and drowns, from an epileptic episode.  We are then told he thought all that epilepsy stuff was over, and even though he knew she shouldn’t drink, had suggested a couple of wines at lunch time to celebrate her birthday.

Loser. Idiot.  Capital Jerkwad.

And we are only one third into the book.

Fifth, the over use of the word “clock”, as in notice, as in I clocked the door that was half open…  And it appears on almost every damn page!  Very tedious and annoying.  Dude, use a thesaurus, please!  I guess it is meant to make him sound edgy and slangy, but …..

Sixth, his descriptions of buildings and places in the US sound like he has never been in the States.  For instance, he is going to call on a druggie who lives in one of those awful low income hi rise buildings, and goes into two apartments, and inside  these apartments there are stairs to the second floor of the apartment.  When was the last time you saw two story apartments except in luxury condos?  When did you ever even hear of apartments composed of two floors in LOW INCOME HOUSING!  He talks about depressing the door handle.  That would be a lever style handle.  No way.  American doors all have round door knobs.  Levers are for the rich and decor-minded.  Also, the living rooms have doors in his story.  American living rooms never have doors.

Seventh:  It sure could have used a goodly amount of editing and proofreading.  “…weary grey eyes that had seen far more than it’s fair share of life.”   Its?

Eighth:  It is basically about King Coal, the coal mining industry in the Appalachians and the environmental destruction thereof, and the greed of the over-the-top Evil Company Owner.   And the absolutely unforgivably awful attempts at writing southern regional accents.  Please.  Just don’t do that.  It would be me trying to render a Yorkshire accent on paper, me who has never been to England.

It’s one of those kind of books that you enjoy while you are reading, and then when you are done, all the inconsistencies and improbabilities and strangenesses start to come to the fore in your mind, and you think, gee, I really liked it, but now that I think about it, it was awful.

What I Liked:  It was a good story, fast paced, with interesting characters.  I enjoyed reading it, in spite of all those things I was just bitching about  pointing out.

I got it free.  Every swing of the bat isn’t going to be a home run.


Controversial mountain top removal coal mining site.

Controversial mountain top removal coal mining site.



MAUD by Donna Mabry

maudThis is a lightly fictionalized account of the life of Mz. Mabry’ grandmother who was born in 1892 in the northwest corner of Tennessee.

It begins when she marries at age 14.  Well, no.  It doesn’t begin there.  That is just the story-teller’s art.  It begins at her birth, in this tiny, rural town, and where her parents were killed in their house fire while Maud was off visiting her married sister, who was about to have a baby.

As the house becomes more crowded, she is strongly encouraged to marry the young man who adores her, and the further recounting of her difficult life is just spellbinding.

I really hate to tell you too much about the story because it is such a gem of a read, so I am not going to.  I just want to tell you to read it.  I almost didn’t, because I don’t usually read memoirs, biographies, and the like.  But I am certainly glad I read this one.  It’s a doozy.

Her life covers the period where the country went to war, and most towns lost many of their young men.  It covered the Spanish influenza epidemic, and we readers were up close and personal with the suffering wrought from that terrible time.  It covered the period where women finally got the right to vote, and then the great depression.   She lived through the Second World War, and the account of her losses is heart wrenching.

Read it.  Such a time in the history of the USA to have lived.


Biology of beliefBruce Harold Lipton is an American developmental and stem cell biologist best known for promoting the idea that genes and DNA can be manipulated by a person’s beliefs.

In this very readable book, Dr. Lipton takes the reader through the mechanics of cell life, and makes his case by the route of cells responding to their environment, starting with individual cells, then those grouping together for better survival, to the complex system that makes up our own bodies.

He is insistent that the interconnections throughout our body are also connect to our brains, thus our minds, so that what we think can have a great impact on the health of our cells, both individually and as a differentiated group.

Of course, none of this is exactly new – Eastern belief systems have been saying this for millennia.  But now he presents the science to back it up.

The thing I found MOST interesting was the idea put forth by Candace Pert in Molecules of Emotion, where she showed how her study of information receptors one nerve cell membranes led her to discover that the same ‘neural’ receptors were present on most, if not all, of the body’s cells.  Thus, she says, the “mind” was not focused in the head but was distributed via signal molecules to the whole body.

So…. our mind is throughout our body!   We have already learned from recent studies that our memories are not located in specific areas of the brain, but all over the brain.  So this fits in quite well.  We all talk about ‘muscle memory’.   So, our mind throughout our entire body.  You know, think about it — reflexology, chakras, acupuncture points, all that kind of thing.  Something to ponder on.

I really like reading about all kinds of different views, no matter how woo-woo.  I don’t think we have the definitive answer to much of anything yet.  Today’s ectoplasm could be tomorrow’s fourth dimension.  Who knows?  Not me, that’s for sure.


I was a little disappointed that he ended with that old standby= the deity done did it.  When we don’t have an answer, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.



TheMaddonnas_300_450_100What a wonderful book!  Wow.  A first novel by Debra Dean which garnered a number of the smaller, lesser known awards, it is the story of Alzheimers, the 900 day siege of Leningrad, and of art and memory.

Marina, whose parents were imprisoned and then killed when she was a young child, before the Second World War, was taken in by an uncle, a noted archeologist.  When she finishes school, he arranges for her to have a job as a docent, a tour guide, in the famed Hermitage Museum in what was then called Leningrad.

She has fallen in love with the art, and with a young man who is soon to be sent off to the front lines, as this is 1941 and the Germans are pressing closer.  As soon as the director of the museum hears that the Germans are coming and shelling of the city will begin, he has all the museum workers pack up everything and load it on trains to be taken away for safekeeping.

The siege of Leningrad begins, and the workers and families are sheltered in the basements of the museum, and the time of deprivation is upon them.

We meet Marina today as a woman in her much later years.  She is now living in the USA with her husband of 63 years, the man she fell in love with so long ago in Leningrad, who miraculously survived the war, and she is  struggling with dementia, with remembering, and we are privy to her thoughts that are of a dream-like nature, more at home in her days in Russia than in her present life, where everything is now confusing and bewildering.

A grandchild is getting married, and it is the weekend of the wedding, and the narration goes back and forth between the challenges of the present day and its dementia, and her memories of her time during the siege.

It is an excellent recounting of the siege in Leningrad, the preparations for the war, the saving of the artwork, just amazing, and made the reader feel life as it was for the average person, not just the cold facts of the history book.  And when she is elderly, we can see the contrast between what is real today and what was real 60 year ago.

A wonderful book, and one that makes me curious as to why it didn’t receive some of the more prestigious awards.


Музей Эрмитаж

Музей Эрмитаж



my-brilliant-friendIn keeping with my desire to read more  authors from other countries (than the USA or Britain), when I came across this author, I thought it was just the thing.  It is written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein, and since I don’t speak Italian, I don’t have the slightest clue as to whether it is a good translation or not, but it read beautifully and smoothly,  so for me,  it was a good translation.

This is the story of two girls who become friends, of sorts, and of a neighborhood, and of a way of life.  Set in postwar (that would be postwar WWII) Naples, Italy, it tells of how the two girls met in first grade.  Elena is the narrator, and although not nearly as innately brilliant as Lila, the two compete in school for the top awards and the teacher’s approval.  Lila is careless and grubby, only slightly more grubby than anyone else in the poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples.  Elena is a drudge of sorts — always studying, ambitious, wanting more.

When I say a friendship of sorts, it is because Elena is thoroughly enamored of the rough and tumble Lila, who disdains her from the start, but gradually allows a grudging friendship to be formed.   While the more intelligent Lila does not go on to high school, Elena studies especially hard to pass the exams for the classical high school where she will learn Latin and Greek.

Lila in turn, has a brother who works in the shoe repair shop with his father, and secretly attempts the making of beautiful shoes of Lila’s design.  In order to finance this endeavor, Lila accepts the advances of the lovelorn grocer’s son, a prosperous family, by the standards of the neighborhood.  His father was some kind of bad guy, and was killed by the father of one of Elena’s friends.

Not only is it about a brilliant friend (of sorts), it is a brilliant book, neither maudlin nor saccharine.  It is a recounting of life as it is.

The book starts off with an frantic phone call from Lila’s brother to Elena, telling her the Lila has completely disappeared.  They are in their sixties now, or so, and from here, Elena says she will tell the whole story.  Frankly, I never did figure out why or where Lila disappeared to.   The story then proceeds in detail through their adolescence, with only a couple of very minor references to their later lives, and ends with Lila’s marriage at 16.  Seems like a lot missing, or that whatever came after was of so little importance that it wasn’t worth telling.

But nevertheless, I found it to be a wonderful read.

The author, although quite celebrated, is really an enigma.  No one is sure if that is her real name, if she actually lives in Italy, is a woman or a man, or anything else.  She, and I am using that pronoun advisedly, has a number of other well-received books in English translation, so you may hear more about her as I get around to reading some of her other work.