The Map of My People

My daughter is getting into my shit. I mean she's getting into my old shit. She and her friends found boxes of my scrapbooks and drawings from when I was in my twenties.

"What are these?" they asked, opening those 11x14 sketchbooks, papers and clippings exploding out of the pages.

"Those," I said, "are what we did before Pinterest."

20140424-173545.jpgNow I have to stop here and hope somebody out there knows what I'm talking about. You got a big stack of magazines, a pair of scissors and a can of rubber cement. And either alone or in a group of girlfriends, you cut things out of the mags—pictures that looked good, things that sounded good, sound advice, sexy secrets, perfume ads, hot men, adorable shoes. And you pasted them into the pages of your black faux-leather bound sketchbooks. The bigger the better.


Tell me you did this. Tell me you did it for hours. Because I did and I still have them and now my daughter and her friends are going through them. And they're finding my sketches in there—pencilled portraits from sunglasses ads. A lot of ballet dancers.



"I want to be talented," one of the friends said, sighing.

"You are talented," I said from my desk. "Everyone is talented." In my head I added, put your phone down, pick up some magazines and rubber cement and touch shit for once. But it is unwise to say such things to your daughter's friends. Just a little free advice there.

20140424-174316.jpgOh, and they went nuts for this map I drew.  I got really into David Eddings for a few years, fascinated by the detailed universe he created in The Belgariad and The Malloreon.  So I fooled around with writing my own fantasy fiction, an ungodly mess called "Hawkmoon: The Most Unreadable Thing Ever Written." I think I just wanted to draw a map.

And then, in between the very last pages of the very last sketchbook, Jules pulled out this:


"Oh, wow, Mom," she said.  "Is this Daisy and Erik?"

And I just had to stop for a second because she asked that question. She knows who Daisy and Erik are. She doesn't know their whole story (frankly it's not quite fit for her ears yet) but she knows enough and she knows they're real to me.

They're my people. I sometimes forget they're not real. I see them all the time—at the grocery store, in a diner, running errands, working in the yard. I see them together.

Writing a novel is much like creating a universe. What ends up in the reader's hands is a small tip of the iceberg compared to what is in your head. In your head you have the immunization records, the family tree, the skeletons in the closet. You know their shoe size, shirt size, dress size. You know what soap and shampoo they use and whether they say "God Bless You" or "Gesundheit" after a sneeze. You know she hates to be called "Kiddo" and he loves when she calls him "Dumbass." Lovingly, of course. Teasingly. When he rips open a bag of chips and they go flying everywhere, she rolls her eyes and mutters, "Nice going, Dumbass."

Your novel doesn't need an illustrated map but you know the blueprints of the characters' houses and what trees grow in their yard.

And you know what they look like.

I took the picture from Jules and studied it. Obviously I had copied it from a magazine ad. It was dated 1989 which would've been right around the time of the Big Bang—when I began writing the material that would eventually turn into The Man I Love.

Erik and Daisy"It's a little pretty for Erik," I said. "But that's Daisy. Maybe her nose isn't so round but that's her face. And she would be lying like that. With her head on Erik's back."

Of course she would.

I know these things.


Hustle and (No) Flow

So I’m writing a book. Actually, I’ve written a book.  It’s done.  Mostly done.  Three-quarters done.  The done part is in second draft, and the remaining quarter is a fucking mess.

I’m trying to enjoy it.

Sometimes words
Sometimes words

Seriously.  I am so stuck.  I wrote like a demon since November, in the groove and full of Flow.  Now I’m busy with a section that is so central to the novel, it’s kind of horrifying I paid so little attention to it.  I’ve already written myself a stern note for the next novel:  Dumbass, if your story includes a crime, have the perpetrator and their motive completely planned out FIRST.  It sucks trying to work it in effectively after the fact.

Sounds pretty textbook, right?  I wonder why I didn’t think of it.  Actually I know why:  I wasn’t writing to publish before.  I was just tinkering.  Now I’m writing with intention.  I’m writing with a goal.  I’m writing to fucking finish this thing, get the story out of my head and out of my stomach and channeled somewhere where it might do some good.  I have to write this section.  I have to write it well.  I have to do this.

This is hard.  Really hard.  I sent the section to my editor, who takes no prisoners, and a few days later I realized I’d given her a galley ship of prisoners.  I hauled it back into port.  “It’s not working for me.  I’m not sure what it is, but this isn’t it.”

Snoopy editing
Snoopy editing

I’m writing every day.  I put that hour in, no matter what.  But Flow is in short supply right now.  It’s a fight for every sentence.  Sometimes for every word.  I’m writing by hand a lot, just to shake things up.  I’m pacing around, doing a lot of Zentangles just to keep my mind open.

I’m trying to enjoy it.

Why?  Because this is me stuck.  This is me having a hard time.  I’m trying to stop and pay attention to what this is like.  Not fight it.  If I’m going to be a writer, this is going to happen.  I already know what I’m like when the Flow is flowing and I’m writing easily.  This is me struggling.  This is me having to write, or there will be no book.  This counts.  Just like the two thousand words written in half an hour counts, the paltry two sentences covered in blood count.  This all counts.  This is all part of it.

I will write this.

It will be really really hard to write this.

It will kick ass.

This sucks.

I’m trying to enjoy it.


Sassy Girls

For a few days Panda has been very occupied in the evenings with a notebook, pens and colored pencils. "What are you up to?" I asked, "You're so quiet!" "I'm writing a story," she said, with the please don't disturb the creative process air of a true, engrossed artist.

And tonight she unveiled her masterpiece. I nearly fell off my chair. And I know this is partly the doing of her two incredible teachers, Mrs. G and Mrs. U. People told me they would light a fire under the kids in terms of reading and writing. I had an idea but I had no idea....

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 3, June 1998

Presenting a Summer Fruit Basket for You!
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
In Kitchen, and its accompanying story Moonlight Shadow, Banana Yoshimoto gives us two simple, moving stories about love, loss and dealing with loneliness.
In Kitchen, a young woman, suddenly bereft of her family, is invited to live with a close school friend and his eccentric, endearing mother.  The mother is a transvestite club performer, a well-meaning man who became a woman to assure best opportunities for his son.  The three live in a small apartment with a wonderful kitchen central to the plot.  The narrator has always taken great comfort in kitchens, and in this particular healing room, she learns that families come in all types and can be found in many unexpected places.
Moonlight Shadow tells of a young woman grieving her lover who died entirely too young.  She begins running as a means of counteracting her severe insomnia.  One morning, she meets a strange yet compelling woman.  The woman seems to know her, seems to instinctively feel and understand her pain.  Through this woman, the grieving jogger is given a bittersweet, mystical opportunity to say good-bye to her beloved.
Both stories are sincere and tender, and told with such simplicity that you almost don’t realize what a myriad of subjects they touch upon.  Not only death, loss and grieving, but joy, strength, friendship, love, food, kitchens.  Set against the background of modern-day Tokyo, but the themes are universal.  I highly recommend it.
Banana Rose, by Natalie Goldberg
I took this out from the library, but I will probably end up buying a copy for myself.  I know I will want to read it again, re-visit Taos, New Mexico and these wonderful characters.  It’s a big, grilled-cheese sandwich of a book!
It’s a rather plotless story of a group of hippies living on a commune in Taos, New Mexico.  Among them is Banana Rose, born Nell Schwarz in Brooklyn, New York.  Rose is a struggling artist, trying to find her voice and her style.  She meets Gaugin (born George Howard), a likewise struggling musician, and they fall passionately in love, a little too passionately for their own good.
In a spiritual coming-of-age story, we follow Banana Rose and her  relationship, from the sun-drenched mystical mountains of Taos, to the bitter cold streets of Colorado and Minnesota.  There they marry, and attempt to live a “conventional” life, but Rose feels empty somehow.  She deals with her Jewish identity, the growing conflicts in her marriage, and her prying family in Florida.  She also has unfinished business with Anna, a writer from the Taos commune who moved to Nebraska.
The book is filled with descriptions of breathtaking scenery, food, life in a small New Mexican town, and deep emotions.  I loved Banana Rose.  I loved her passion, her struggling, her resiliancy, how she screwed up and hit rock bottom but kept on plugging along, kept on trying, and in the end, followed her heart back home where she belonged.  It sounds corny, but I find myself still thinking about her, wishing her well.
The Orange Cat Bistro, by Nancy Linde
Like Banana Rose, this is a book I’ll want to read again.  I wish I hadn’t been so fast in returning to the library because there were a number of passages and sentences I wanted to jot down and remember.  It was a very good book to have around me at a shaky time.  It’s comforting when someone else puts into words what you are feeling and wish you could express yourself.
Claire is a writer whose novel is taking over her life. Or, rather, her novel's protagonist, a shy, eccentric, beautiful sculptor named Nevada, is living a life that's becoming inextricably linked with Claire's own; the two women have become not just friends but actual players in each other's lives. While Claire struggles with her fiction and her real life (it's often hard to tell the difference, as she spends most of her time working on the book), Nevada struggles to free herself from a bad relationship with Alec--an egotistical but talented painter--and from her latest piece of art, an enormous shell that contains within it a world of its own.
As Claire sits typing her manuscript in her room above the Orange Cat Bistro, occasionally banning Nevada to "Literary Hyperspace'' when her character refuses to behave, she reflects on her divorce, her solitary state, and on a traumatic episode from her past.  This episode is something else she and Nevada share in common, and it was a little anti-climactic when I found out what it was.  It came so late in the story, that it remained tantalizingly undeveloped.
Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Did Claire invent Nevada, or Nevada Claire, or are they both created by Madame, who owns the Orange Cat Bistro?  I found I didn’t really care, I was too taken in by what the characters had to say.  I thought the dialogue passages were great.  There were great exchanges between Claire and Nevada in Madame’s kitchen; wonderful conversations between Nevada and her new love, Nicholas.  Again, there was a lot in here that I wish I’d thought of myself.  A really great read.
The Orange Tree, by Carlos Fuentes
Five novellas spanning a wide range of eras and characters.  Each features an orange tree, symbol of Spain, brought by the Moors to Spain and by the conquistadors to Mexico.
"The Two Shores" explores the power of language and interpretors in the New World; from his grave, the narrator tells of his adventures in the service of Hernan Cortes.
"The Sons of Cortes", is told in counterpoinrt by the two sons of Cortes, one legitimate, the other the son of Cortes’ Mayan mistress.  The two Martins bring the man and his times to life with their conflicting view.
"The Two Numantias" is about the Roman conquest of Spain.
"In Apollo and the Whores", an aging, Oscar-winning actor comes to Acapulco about to portray his greatest role: death.
And in "The Two Americas", Columbus returns by jet to America, 500 years after he left.
A cornucopia for the senses and an interesting look at the conquest of the Americas.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai
Poor Sampath Chawla, at 20 years old, has become a complete misfit in the eyes of his family and to the villagers of Shakhot.  A failure as a postal worker, he runs away and takes residence in a guava tree.  There he attains widespread celebrity as he begins showering his observers with matter-of-fact revelations, and shocking insights into their personal lives (the latter of course, attained by his days in the post office, reading their mail!).
Sampath’s family sets up a compound in the guava orchard: his practical father; Pinky, his sister, who has had the bad grace to fall in love with the village ice-cream man; and his ever-hungry mother, Kulfi, who is on a quest to cook her son the perfect meal.
The hullabaloo increases when a band of alcoholic monkeys also take up residence in Sampath’s tree, and a local Atheist Society sends one of their spies to prove Sampath a fraud.
I had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it was beautifully written – I loved the language and the descriptive passages; it reminded me somewhat of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus.  When the story stayed within the Chawla family, I was interested.  Once the monkeys, and the spy, and all the government characters were introduced, I found myself skipping ahead.  It was charming, like a fairy-tale, but it got stretched a little too thin, and the ending just kind of dwindled away.
I did not actually read these, because I couldn’t find them at the library (and I’m trying to be good and not spend a lot of money on books).  But they were fun to pick out!  All reviews were taken off
Watermelon, by Marion Keyes
A grand first novel by Irish writer Keyes is a hilarious treatise on love’s roller coaster. Both elated and exhausted after giving birth to a daughter, the 29-year-old Claire is shocked senseless when her husband James comes to the London hospital not to celebrate, but instead to break the news that he's leaving her for their dowdy downstairs neighbor.
The stunned Claire, with new baby in tow, and feeling as big as a summer melon, hightails it back to her family in Dublin to sort out her life. Wandering around her childhood home in her mother's old nightgowns, a vodka bottle in one hand and the bawling Kate in the other, Claire tries to banish images of the frolicking James and his ``other woman.'' Her two younger sisters prove to be a comfort.  Sweet Anna, a hippie drug-dealer, loans Claire money for booze, and haughty Helen deigns to buy it for her. And drunken anguish does have its rewards, for in no time Claire sheds her extra weight, thanks to a steady liquid diet and nights spent on the family rowing machine fantasizing James’s ruin.
But it is only when Gorgeous Adam appears on the scene that Claire begins to recover a sense of purpose. A college friend of Helen's, Adam exemplifies perfect manhood--and helpfully takes a liking to her, too. But just as things begin crackling between them, James shows up, oh-so- generously ready to forgive Claire for driving him into the arms of the other woman. Torn between the comforts of her former life in London and a new, heartening sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency, not to mention the Gorgeous Adam, Claire finds herself hard put to make a decision. A candid, irresistibly funny debut and perfect summertime read. – From Kirkus Rewview, Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza and her family didn't always live on Mango Street. Right off she says she can't remember all the houses they've lived in but "the house on Mango Street is ours and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get."
Esperanza's childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fear of nuns: "I always cry when nuns yell at me, even if they're not yelling." Esperanza's friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.  --Reviewed by Jesse Larsen, from 500 Great Books by Women
Apple Blossom Time, by Kathryn Haig
When World War II breaks out, Laura joins the British war effort against the Nazis. Her assignment takes her to Egypt where she learns the horrors of war, including the death of her spouse.
When her term is over, Laura has an obsession to learn more about her father, whom she has never seen since he died a hero’s death in France during World War I.  She journeys to his village to learn that her sire’s name is not included on the war memorial honoring the dead. Her own family refuses to speak about him except to say that he was a hero. As she digs deeper into her family’s past, an unknown assailant begins sending her letters that threaten her with bodily harm.
Apple Blossom Time is a very good period piece that will be enjoyed by fans of the first half of the twentieth century life styles of the English. The story line is actually three sub plots that blend into a wonderful tale rich with intriguing characters. Though the novel may prove to British too be everybody’s cup of Earl Gray, fans of Masterpiece Theater will love this family saga.  – Reviewed by Harriet Klausner
Shadow of the Pomegranate, by Jean Plaidy
Synopsis from The seemingly ideal marriage of Katharine of Aragon to young Henry VIII took place under the insignia of the pomegranate, the Arab sign of fertility, in an ironic gesture of fate. What follows fills this vivid novel of love, intrigue, and betrayal in the royal courts of England and Spain--
meticulously detailed by one of the most popular authors of historical fiction
While I didn’t find this particular book by Jean Plaidy on the library shelves, I did find the other 30 historical-fiction books she’s written on every European monarch in history!  I am not allowed to go near that shelf, otherwise you will never hear from me again!
Death by Rhubarb, by Lou Jane Temple
Synopsis from Heaven Lee is one of Kansas City's premier caterers. With a string of failed careers behind her, Heaven's finally found her true love--Cafe Heaven. Open-mike night at Cafe Heaven gets pretty hairy but Heaven is shocked when lawyer Tasha Arnold drops dead from poisoning. With the law and word-of-mouth threatening to close her down, Heaven turns sleuth to find a killer who could turn her into Kansas City's freshest corpse.
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, by David M. Masumoto
Masumoto is a third-generation fruit grower in Del Ray, California. In his simple memoir, the college-educated farmer discusses the continual challenge of growing fruit in an area where annual rainfall is marked in single digits (irrigation is the answer) and weeds threaten to overtake the crop. In chronologically arranged chapters that extend from spring planting to summer harvesting to winter waiting, Masumoto reflects on a variety of topics, including the fact that his succulent, organically grown peaches, which have a shelf life of only one week, aren't in demand; and his recollection of losing 35,000 trays of drying raisins to intense rainfall reveals why he always "feels persecuted by the power of nature." A lyrically written memoir by an introspective orchardist. – From Booklist, Copyright© 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved
Raspberry Island (Our Town), by Willa Hix synopsis: Looking for a taste of true adventure, wealthy Jenna Guildenbergh becomes the nanny for the children of lighthouse keeper, widower Erik Ingman. But as Jenna slowly makes a place for herself in Erik's home--and in his heart--Erik knows he has found more than someone to care for the children. He has found a woman who makes his life worth living again

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 2, May 1998

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, by Jennie Fields
Attention anyone who sat in the movie theatre, watching Bridges of Madison County and the scene where Meryl Streep sits in the truck, her hand reaching for the handle, will she jump out and run off with Clint Eastwood or will she stay?  And for those of you who sat, screaming silently, “GO!  GET OUT OF THE CAR!  GO WITH HIM!  TO HELL WITH IT!  GO!!!”  To those of you who wished for the fairy tale, alternate ending: read this book.  Read it in good health.
Zoe Finney has moved from her posh Manhattan digs to Park Slope, Brooklyn.  With her are her charming daughter, Rose, and her severely depressed, nearly catatonic husband, Jamie.
Zoe and Jamie’s personas are vast and complex.  Zoe is the daughter of holocaust survivors.  Born poor, raised to believe she had no right to want anything, need anything, or dare complain about it, she satisfies her aching soul by shoplifting, attaining an almost sexual thrill from her petty thieveries.  This need to take what she feels she can’t have continues even after she marries into money.  Jamie, one of the Feeneys of Baltimore, believes a curse follows him; a teenage drunk-driving incident which left two people dead leaves him riddled with guilt, further compounded by the accidental death of Jamie and Zoe’s first child, Charlotte.  He satisfies his soul by retreating deep within.
Zoe hopes the move to Brooklyn will provide an escape from her rich, snobbish in-laws who never accepted her anyway.  Perhaps it will even help Jamie to snap out of it and start anew.  Instead, Zoe becomes attracted to the schoolteacher next-door, Keevan O’Connor, whose passion for life is made more intense when compared to Jamie’s depression.  He woos her with games of Clue, literary discussion, and an Irishman’s virility (he’s desribed as redheaded but I kept seeing him as Billy Baldwin…)
As a passionate affair begins, Zoe’s need to shoplift is quelled, but her guilty heart is as heavy as ever.  Jamie has become not much of a husband, and less of a father to Rose (Rose calls him by his first name, even wishes he were dead so Mama can marry “Uncle Keevan”). Her wonderfully eccentric sister-in-law, Alicia, urges Zoe to leave Jamie for Keevan.  (“If you love this man, let him be in your life.  Yes, I’m encouraging you.  I’m giving permission, damn it!”)  Still, Zoe longs for the Jamie she once knew, and her vacillations between love and duty, between Jamie and Keevan, go on until resolution finally arrives.
Woven within the main plot are several mini-plots: a peek into the lives of the other brownstones in this predominantly Irish neighborhood.  The most enjoyable is the plight of Patty, Keevan’s sister-in-law, who finally manages to kick out her deadbeat husband, get over her infatuation with Keevan and get a life.
OK, even I admit that some of the complicated situations get tied up and fixed up a little too easily.  Zoe’s shoplifting, for one thing.  Naturally she’s going to get caught (she nearly does, once, only managing to elude arrest by puking on the sales clerk and making a run for it).  Probably she wants to get caught so her dirty secret will be out there and she can finally test Keevan to see if he really loves her.  And Patty, for another – imagine all you can do with the right haircut, a pair of high heels and some lemongrass.  But I cheered her on, anyway.  Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to read a story where it all works out all right.  I loved it.  What really did it for me were the the vivid and nostalgic descriptions of the tight-knit, lovably-nosy neighborhood;  the likeable and believable characters, and face it, some of the SEXIEST writing I’ve ever read.  It was yummy.
The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson
Wow.  A big, reverberating WOW!  Wow. Wow. Wow!  I was up half the night because I couldn’t put it down, and when I put it down, I’d still be up with the creepy-crawlies. Pretty scary stuff.  Pretty gross.  And pretty Fan-tatty!  What really knocks me out is that this is Ann Benson’s first novel; all her other works have been about beading!  Yes, I said Beading.  How does a beadweaver just sit down and write this incredible medical thriller?!
You have 2 stories going at the same time; the chapters alternate.
Plot 1: 14th Century France.  Alejandro Canches is a Jewish physician on the run.  His crime: dissection of corpses to further his medical studies.  He hides in Avignon under the name of Hernandez – a name he takes from the Spanish soldier who bodyguarded and befriended him back to the city, and subsequently died of the plague.  Canches/Hernandez, the renegade Jew, in an ironic twist of fate is appointed by Pope Clement to the court of Edward III of England, in an attempt to protect the court from the plague which is ravishing all of Europe.  At the same time, Alejandro must protect his true identity from the king, the court, and most of all, from the woman he comes to love.
Plot 2: London, 2005.  Virulent outbreaks in the US have made all antibiotics obsolete and sent aspirin and ibuprofin back behind the counter and onto the black market.  A medical reassignment lottery has forced Dr. Janie Crowe (bereft of both husband and daughter from the outbreaks) to leave her career as a surgeon and enter the field of forensic archaeology.  She arrives in London with her assistant, to complete a soil-sample study that will hopefully result in her certification.  The samples are taken from random sites in London, and one of them contains a little something more than dirt: Yersinia Pestis.  Bubonic Plague.  The microbe is dormant, waiting for a host, and a freak lab accident provides the host.  Once again, plague is on the loose in Europe, and mankind is just as helpless to it as he was in Alejandro Canches’ time.
Ultimately, the stories converge.  Two parallel stories, two parallel characters, linked by history.  It was a thrilling, exciting “doomsday” tale, something like the Hot Zone, or Outbreak, but with a much more intruiging flavor because of the historical aspects.  A great blend of love and loss, medicine and politics, the medieval and the futuristic.
Wow (shiver).
Three Daughters, by Anna Mitgutsch
Three generations of women in rural Germany.  A portrait of poverty - material poverty and emotional poverty, and the struggle to survive both kinds.  Mother beats daughter, who grows up to beat her daughter.  Third daughter desperately trying to break the cycle with her own daughter.  I hope she does.  I don’t know because I couldn’t finish it.  It was too brutal, too depressing, too violent, too upsetting.  I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t take another beating; I don’t know how the narrator did, or even how the author kept on writing.  I really don’t.
The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley
A tale of Tudor England.  King Henry VIII arranges the marriage of his younger sister Mary the aging French King, Louis XII, with the intent of putting an English heir on the French throne.  Within Mary’s wedding entourage is a widowed painter, Susanna Dallet.  Left penniless after the murder of her lecherous, spendthrift husband, Susanna is forced to rely on her natural wit and artistic talent to provide for her household. The daughter of a talented Flemish painter, Susanna had been rigorously schooled in the meticulous technique of the portrait miniature. Initially regarded as a curiosity, Susanna soon gains fame and renown as a portraitist, and is retained by Thomas Wolsey as the official "paintrix" of the court of King Henry VIII.  But within her unwitting possession are the remnants of a valuable manuscript that holds the key to an age-old mystery involving the French Royal line and the Knights Templar.  Susanna becomes the target of a diabolical secret society intent on procuring the ultimate power. 
I loved it.  It had a little bit of everything: history, mystery, artistry, suspense, romance, court intruige and a tinge of the occult.  The only thing I didn’t like was that it was so closely and intriguingly woven in with the myths, mysteries and histories of the Knights Templar.  If you happen to be a Templar-phile, you’ll love it.  If you haven’t a clue who they were or what they were about, the book is still enjoyable but you might be a little lost.  I fall into the latter category.  I knew they were the order of Knights involved in the Crusades, but all the talk of “the great secret” left me confused.  The “secret” is eventually revealed, towards the end of the book, but I was so curious that I stopped reading about halfway through, went onto the Internet and did some research on the Templars.  I suppose it was cheating, but I did read the rest of it with much more pleasure, without that eyebrow-wrinkling feeling of “huh?” at every other chapter.
Again, the book is totally enjoyable in of itself.
Also by Judith Merkle Riley: The Oracle Glass, in which Riley again blends her tremendous historical knowledge with romance, mystery and a touch of the supernatural.  Set in the court of Louis XIV, where elegant French aristocrats rub secret shoulders with fortunetellers, poisoners, abortionists, and stagers of black masses. Within this dangerous milieu, Genevieve Pasquier finds notoriety, wealth, love...and an exit. 
Born crippled, into a noble house, Genevieve is rescued from suicidal despair by La Voisin (a real personage, as are several other characters), the queen of France’s occult society.  La Voisin sees potential in the sixteen-year-old, and so brings Genevieve to her house on rue Beauregarde and reinvents her as the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortuneteller.  Genevieve, now as the Marquise, is a success, with a true talent not only for cards, but for reading the swirling waters of the oracle glass which she does for King Louis, and his queen, and his reigning mistress.
The descriptions of court life are contrasted with the bustling hovel of female energy which is La Voisin’s house.  But there’s murder in the streets, the cries of witchcraft are rising, the Sun King’s satellites are closing in, and the house on Rue Beauregarde is soon to fall.  Genevieve is bound for the dungeon and ultimate trial unless she can escape…
London, by Edward Rutherford
Wow.  For the highly ambitious history lover (that ‘twould be me).  A two-pound book of historical vignettes spanning two millenia from Celtic times to the World War II Blitz, all made thoroughly entertaining by great characters and great storytelling (much better than James Michener’s, in my opinion).  Starting from Caesar’s invasion of the city on the Thames, eighty generations of several different families tell the story of London.  That’s a lot of people to keep track of, requiring several flips back to the family tree page, trying to recall who is related to whom.  Often, as soon as you become endeared to one character, the chapter is over and a new one’s begun, it’s forty years later an now you’re dealing with that characters grandchildren.  Each chapter can almost be treated as a separate story in of itself.
This is not light reading!  But I loved it, not only for the historical detail and the storytelling, but also because in every chapter, I learned something interesting: linguistic expressions (how such-and-such place got its name; cultural traditions; why stock is called stock; why the door to Parliament is ceremoniously slammed in the monarch’s face at every season opening, etc., ad infinitum). I can’t say the story was 100% enthralling from start to finish, but if you are interested in the genre of history to begin with, I think you’ll enjoy it.
Also by Edward Rutherford: Sarum, another century-spanning novel of England, this one set in the city outside Stonehenge; and Russka, same idea, set in Russia.  Both given to me for my __th birthday from Jen, thanks honey!!! (kiss kiss)  Again, not intense page-turners; I found I could put one down and pick it up again a few days later with little loss of plot.  But I enjoy history, and these stand as the most enjoyable ways for me to learn about it.
Pillars of Gold and Silver, by Beatriz de la Garza
After the death of her father in the Korean War, 7-year-old Blanca Estela and her mother, Lilia, move from Los Angeles to Ravilla, Mexico, to live with Lilia’s mother, Doña Anita.  Blanca Estela is troubled as she arrives in this strange land, so different from her home.  Her mother’s acute sadness disturbs her.  She does not understand much Spanish, and she worries about making friends.  But the children who befriend her are kind, and they teach her games.  The games, which all involve folk songs, serve as a ribbon which weaves together the chapters.  Blanca becomes close to her grandmother, learns about the lives of her neighbors, makes her first communion, and gradually, her concept of “home” changes.
I didn’t realize it was a “children’s book” when I took it out.  But after exhausting myself reading Rutherford’s London, Sarum and Russka, this was a delight.  To go from all the busy, historical detail of great, bustling cities and social/political intrigue, to the slow-paced life in a rural Mexican town was a welcome change.  Sensory descriptions of food, clothes, people and places; the charm of the children’s games; the tender, growing relationship between daughter and mother and grandmother.  A simple story, uncomplicated and touching and not just for kids.  Something to curl up in bed with.
Good Intentions, by Patricia O’Brien
Rachel Snow and her producer, Berry Brown, need a hook to expand the audience for Rachel's morning talk show on a Chicago radio station. A mysterious caller claims to be "the Truthseeker," a man who stalked and killed college students; he scares Rachel with his sexy talk and the details he knows of her life. Berry wants a show to revolve around him, so she lines up stalking experts and solicits media coverage.
Meanwhile, Rachel buys and remodels the house in which she was raised and deals with personal matters as best she can. Her mother, who keeps quiet about money and cancer worries, returns from Florida while Rachel's daughter, Edie, comes home from private school for Christmas with a new driver's license and a lascivious boyfriend. Rachel must also cope with two beaus, one a newspaper reporter and the other the station owner, who are polar opposites. With all the activity swirling around Rachel, she learns that friends are not always what they seem.
This is a good “who-dunnit”; great summer reading.  I read a few critiques which complained that there was just too much going on, and true, Rachel is dealing with quite a lot.  But I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all.  I was compelled to stay with it and find out who the stalker was (I was also quite pleased with myself for having pegged the culprit about ¾ through).  I enjoyed the characters, I thought they were very believable, very interesting women.  In particular I enjoyed the mother-daughter and grandmother-grandaughter interactions.
The Serpentine Cave, by Jill Patton Walsh
After her mother dies, Marion Easton goes back to the house of her childhood to confront her past and find the identity that has been kept from her.  Her artist mother, Stella, had been a highly eccentric, highly secretive mother who was more devoted to her painting than her daughter.  She kept the past, particulary the whereabouts of Marion’s father, a tightly guarded secret.
Middle-aged and divorced, Marion brings her two grown children to the town of Cornwall and its colony of painters called “The St. Ives Society of Artists”, of which Stella had been a member in the war years.  Of Cornwall, Marion has only sketchy memories.  But there is a cave, and a distant recollection of something terrible happening in it, a narrow brush with death, and a man who saved her.  Was the man her father?  Where was this cave and what did happen there?  Through interaction with the people of the remote fishing village, Marion finds that her identity and her mother’s artwork are tied to a 1939 lifeboat disaster.
While Marion is sleuthing her past, her children are on their own personal quests: Alice is a talented violist with love problems, and Toby is a broker with some inside-trading troubles.  The village comes to touch them as well, as the past is slowly unfolded.
I wouldn’t call this mystery/suspense so much as a story of a town’s secrets.  I took it out thinking it would be similar to Rosemunde Pilcher’s novels, which I love so much.  It turned out to be nothing like, but still, I enjoyed it a lot.
Bitter Grounds, by Sandra Benitez
Memorable pairs of mothers and daughters, caught up in the violence of recent Salvadoran history, live, love, and die for their passions. Benitez tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters whose lives intersect.
She begins with the infamous massacre of 1932, when Indian peasants suspected of being communists were slaughtered in the countryside. Thirteen-year-old Jacinta and her mother, Mercedes Prieto, are the only survivors of the attack in which their home is burned and Mercedes's husband killed. The two struggle to survive. When Mercedes begins working for wealthy landowners Elena and Ernesto de Contreras, however, life improves.  Elena, a more enlightened product of her class and times, has her own sadness: On the eve of daughter Magda's wedding, she discovers Cecilia, her best friend, in bed with Ernesto. Hurt and angry, she vows never to see Cecilia again, which of course has repercussions in a story that suffers from foreshadowing.
As the country experiences coups and falling coffee prices, the women try to live normal lives but find it impossible. Exile in Miami with a hint of a happy ending as the war heats up in the late '70s is the only option for Jacinta, Magda, and her family.
A vivid chronicle of strong women facing the challenges of living in sad and violent times.  I really loved it…its style was very similar to Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, or The Chin Kiss King by Ana Veciana-Suarez.  I’m looking forward to reading A Place Where the Sea Remembers.
The Third Miracle, by Richard Vetere
In the playground of a parochial school in Queens, a statue of the Virgin Mary is crying tears of blood.  Within the church, a mass is being said for the late Helen Stephenson, a prominent lay-nun in the convent.  Late for mass, little Maria Katowski, who is ill with lupus, is alone in the schoolyard and witnessing this miracle.  She reaches out to touch the blood, and is cured of her disease.
Thus the wheels of beatification are set into motion.  Led by Father Killeare the parish pastor, the people of St. Stanislaus petition the Cardinal to make Helen declared a saint.  A cult arises in the schoolyard, with the sick arriving to be healed by the tears of blood, which for ten years now, have been falling every October (the month of Helen’s death).
The postulator appointed to investigate Helen’s case is Father Frank Moore.  Moore has been involved in other such miracle-investigations: the last case involved Frank’s mentor, a priest who became surrounded by miracles following his drowning, and was also a candidate for canonization.  After discovering that Father Falcone’s death was a suicide, Frank’s faith was shattered (he now calls himself “the Miracle Killer”), and he went into hiding.
Frank is appointed by the Cardinal to Helen’s case.  In no way does the Cardinal wish Stephenson beatified because she spoke in favor of females being ordained as priests.  It’s Frank’s job to search for skeletons and character flaws in Helen’s life.  One skeleton seems to be a purported relationship between Helen and Father Killeare.  Another is Helen’s daughter, Roxanna, whom Helen abandoned to enter the convent.  It seems Roxanna has never forgiven her mother.  It is she who holds the key to the liason between Helen and the parish priest.
Whether the unholy relationship existed or not, the validity of the miracles, and his own sudden passion for Roxanna, are all things Frank must take into consideration as he presents Helen’s case to a Vatican team of cardinals.
An interesting, absorbing story of the inner workings of the Catholic church, the process of canonization, the nature of miracles, and faith.
Shifting Stars, by Page Lambert
Skye MacDonald is the product of two proud cultures: Highlander Scots and Lakota Sioux. Her mother, Breathcatcher, was a Lakota princess when she met and married Gregory MacDonald, a trapper who left Scotland to escape persecution of Highlanders.
When Skye is a child, Breathcatcher is killed by a wild cougar. Now a young woman, she returns with her father to visit her maternal grandparents, hoping to connect with her Lakota heritage.
Skye’s grandmother, Turtle Woman, hopes to teach Skye what she needs to know of women’s ways.  Through stories, rituals, festivals, Turtle Woman imparts the ancient, handed-down wisdom of the Lakota women.  Skye responds to the nurturing presence of her mother’s people, and becomes enamored of a young warrior scout, Mahto.
But all is not well in the Lakota camp. Gregory's old rival for Breathcatcher, Caws Like Magpie, still nurses a bitterness that he now directs toward Skye. His ominous presence eventually separates Gregory and Skye and propels her toward a deeper understanding of her mixed heritage.
Wonderful reading.  A profound, spiritual story of love and revenge, the frontier and the tragedy of White Man’s impact on Native American culture, but also, how tragedy of man-conquering-man has been a universal occurrence in all cultures.
A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman
This is one of those books that you can read a little here, a little there, skip a paragraph or a chapter.  Take what you like, leave the rest.  A cultural, literary and physiological exploration of that “great intangible”, that “white light of emotion”, also known as: love.
Interpretations of classic love stories such as Orpheus and Eurydice and Tristan and Iseult.  Stopovers in Egypt, Greece and Rome.  An extended pondering of the tradition of chivalry and courtly love.  A selection of vivid profiles of such lovers and students of love as Don Juan, Ben Franklin, Stendhal, Proust, and Freud.   I admit I skipped over all the philosophical stuff in favor of studies such as: hair; the cuddle chemical; the evolution of the face; women and horses; men and cars; men and mermaids; kissing; and sexual chic.

Interesting, and a lot of fun.  If you enjoy it, try Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.  Another great book to “nibble” on.  A potpourri of scientific facts, history and personal observation on each of the senses.  If I remember correctly, it includes a whole chapter devoted to chocolate.  Or maybe it was a whole chapter on kissing?  Either/or.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 4, December 1997

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Are you familiar with the Old Testament story of Joseph, particularly “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”?  Did you know he had a sister?  Interested?  This is the book for you, a dazzling story of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter in the Book of Genesis
A minor character from the book of Genesis tells her life story in this vivid evocation of the world of Old Testament women. The only surviving daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah occupies a far different world from the flocks and business deals of her brothers. She learns from her Aunt Sarah the mysteries of midwifery and from her other aunts the art of homemaking. Most important, Dinah learns and preserves the stories and traditions of her family, which she shares with the reader in touchingly intimate detail. Familiar passages from the Bible come alive as Dinah fills in what the Bible leaves out concerning Jacob's courtship of Rachel and Leah, her own ill-fated sojourn in the city of Sechem and her half-brother Joseph's rise to fame and fortune in Egypt.
After several nonfiction works on Judaism, Diamant's fiction debut links the passions of the early Israelites to the ongoing traditions of modern Jews, while the red tent of her title (where women retreat for menstruation, childbirth and illness) becomes a resonant symbol of womanly strength, love and wisdom.
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park
The "secret book" of the title--or libro segreto, in the old Florentine manner--is the detailed account of Grazia dei Rossi's exciting and turbulent life, written so that her son might know his legacy.
Inspired by a letter written centuries ago by a young Jewish woman to Isabella d'Este, The Secret Book of Grazia is a rich and complex work of fiction. This historical novel brings to life the sublime art, political corruption, and religious intolerance of 16th-century Florence from a rarely explored vantage point: the complicated symbiosis between Christian and Jew. Grazia dei Rossi, educated daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, has fallen in love with a young Christian nobleman. Forced to choose between her love and her faith, she chooses love. But her betrothed is whisked away by kinsmen, and the humiliated Grazia is ruined--until fate throws her another chance in the guise of a second marriage proposal, this one from the powerful Judah del Medigo, scholar, physician, and adviser to popes and kings. Under his guardianship, Grazia flourishes as a scholar and scribe, eventually becoming the secretary to Isabella d'Este, where she reenters the world of courts and courtiers.
And that's just the beginning; Park blends scholarship, imagination, and a compelling heroine to serve up good, old-fashioned literary stew, thick with the irresistible details of place, plottings, and passions.
The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan
Olivia Yee is six years old when her half-sister Kwan arrives from China.  Olivia’s neglectful mother, who in pursuing a new marriage can’t provide for her dauther’s needs, finds Kwan to be a handy caretaker.  Olivia grows up sharing a room with Kwan and becomes privy to Kwan’s secret:  she has yin eyes, meaning Kwan talks to ghosts.
Uninterested, and only pretending to believe Kwan to avoid the consequences (once she mentioned Kwan’s ghosts to her parents and Kwan was sent to a mental institution), Olivia listens to stories of Kwan’s childhood in China, and her past lives as well.  Only once does Olivia show true interest in her half-sisters ghosts:  she engages Kwan’s yin eyes to persuade her boyfriend, Simon, that his dead ex-girlfriend wants him to move on to a new life.
Thirty years later, Olivia and Simon, married and co-owners of a public relations business, are seeking divorce, much to the ceaseless advice and pleas to reconsider from Kwan and her ghosts.  Olivia is sure that Simon never gave up his love for his dead sweetheart.  Kwan sees things otherwise.  She begs Simon and Olivia not to cancel their planned trip to China to write an article on authentic Chinese cuisine.  Kwan will accompany them herself, taking the opportunity to return to her home.
In the village where Kwan grew up, Olivia confronts the tangible evidence of what she has always presumed to be her sister’s fantasy of the past.  And there, she finds the proof that love endures, and comes to understand what logic ignores, what you can know only through the hundred secret senses.
This book is a never-ending unravelling ribbon of sisterly love, letting go, past-life regression, karma and opening your heart.  I couldn’t put it down – I was sneaking chapters whenever my email was polling or the boss wasn’t around.
I am Mary Tudor by Hilda Lewis
After reading I, Elizabeth, by Rosalind Miles (a fantastic autobiographical account of Queen Elizabeth I, which I highly recommend if the subject interests you), I was eager to read more about Elizabeth’s half-sister, Queen Mary I, the infamous “Bloody Mary”.  I thought I had found a jackpot in I Am Mary Tudor.  The inside cover described the journey of a sweet, kind, loving young woman who in later history was only remembered for her fanatical acts of cruelty against Protestants.  Where had the transition occurred?  

The book delivered well, describing not only Mary’s relationship with her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and her father, King Henry VIII, but also her experience with her five step-mothers.  She was hated by Anne Boleyn and banished from court.  Jane Seymour enabled her to return.  Anne of Cleves became her confidante.  She watched as Katherine Howard met her bloody fate and looked on at her father’s last years at the side of Catherine Parr.

With anticipation and heartbreak we learn of Mary’s endless betrothals to this or that European sovereign, yet by the end of the book she is still an unmarried spinster in her thirties.  She is ruthlessly persecuted for her never-failing Catholic beliefs.  She is intimated again and again in plots of treason against her brother, Edward VI.  But thanks to the Act of Succession, and the constant support of Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr, Mary becomes Queen after her brother’s death, and, of course, after that little Jane Grey is put out of the way.  England welcomes her with open arms, cries of joy, parade and pageantry.  And you can’t help but cheer for her as well.  Finally!  She’s getting hers!  Now things are gonna get really down-and-dirty, interesting, intruige, bring it on, Hilda…
And then it ends.  Mary is crowned.  The End.  That’s it!  So the book ends up not delivering on it’s most tantalizing question:   how did this much-loved queen turn into the cruel “Bloody Mary”?  The story is fabulously written, but it ends so abruptly that it’s a let-down.  I honestly thought pages had been removed from the book.