Saturday, June 24, 2017


"Joan of Arc: a Life Transfigured" is the story of the rise and fall of La Pucelle, the virgin warrior who claimed she was sent by God to save France.  Joan was born in 1412 and was only 17 years old, an age when most girls of her time were either married, betrothed or dreaming of it, when her “voices" told her to rescue Charles the Dauphin and lead him to Reims to be throned as France’s lawful king.  She was only 19 years old when she was burned at the stake on trumped up charges because she terrified the Burgundians and British, who feared her powers of inspiration over the rag-tag french army.
For two years in the late 1420s Joan, with her sharp eyes and strong will, was able to persuade the cream of French nobility to believe in her vision of expelling the English from French soil and autonomy for France.  Unfortunately for Joan, she had enemies among the Dauphin’s advisers, the clergy and the Burgundians who were allied with the British in these middling years of the 100 Years War. The British had been occupying France for 75 years.  It is only fair to say, from the British standpoint, they had a lawful right through birth to the area of France they occupied.  By Joan’s time, it was unclear who had a right to any of the fought over territory.
After successfully convincing a number of worthies as well as the Dauphin (though cautiously and half-hearted) to grant her funding for arms and men, Joan set out to drive the English from Orleans. By this time she had transformed herself from a simple village girl to a woman who donned fancy armor, cut her hair to a bob, and rode and spirited horse with confidence and skill.  Further, she seemed with little effort to be able to carry and use a heavy medieval lance. After a fierce battle, she shocked the superior British army with a victory achieved almost by force of will.  From there she and her army moved on to Jargeau, again with success.  Marching on to Reims with Charles, she sees him crowned in the grand cathedral amid pomp and ceremony.  Alas, the perfidious Charles under the influence of his closest advisor signed a four month truce with the Burgundians.

Unaware of this, Joan pushes on to other occupied cities.  By now, Joan is addicted to battle, for what is her purpose unless it is to fight for the ideals she believes in.  Unfortunately in 1430, Joan is captured at Compiegne along with her brother and squire.  Joan is moved from place to place until she arrives in Rouen where a public trial is to be held.  Luckily for historians, there is ample documentation of this travesty of justice, even held up to medieval standards.  The villain here is Bishop Cauchon who does his best to trap Joan into perjuring herself without success.  Joan seems to have a brilliant mind fully able to take on the court officials as well as the Church.  What finally undoes her is her deteriorating health caused by torture and poor diet. In a weak moment Joan agrees to certain conditions including putting on a dress.  She quickly returns to her male attire and is accused of being a lapsed heretic.  This is the final charge which leads to her burning at the stake.

Harrison has done a prodigious amount of research to give an accurate picture of Joan and life in medieval France.  There are excellent maps to help place battles and Joan’s travels through the countryside.  The author includes many references to artistic renderings of the myth of Joan by mentioning plays, movies, and quotes from famous authors such as Voltaire, Shaw and Twain.  I could have done without the movie and fiction accounts, though they only occupy a small part of the book.  Harrison is at her best explaining battles, Joan’s motivation, and village life. She gives an impressive account of Joan’s trial and sentencing.  There have been many many books on Joan in Europe and the Americas.  I found Harrison’s to be readable and interesting.  Joan still remains a mystery.  Did she hear voices, and have visits from angels and saints?  Did she make it all up or was she perhaps schizophrenic?  Whatever the answer, she has survived the ages and is an enduring symbol for French courage and bravery.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CONCLAVE by Robert Harris (fiction)

I am always excited to read a Robert Harris novel.  Beside being a top-notch writer, his books are meticulously researched and full of with enough suspense to keep one reading without losing interest.  Harris is the author of the wonderful Cicero trilogy, all of which have been reviewed in these pages You will always find out something interesting on whatever subject he has chosen.  This time his subject is the Vatican and the search for a new Pope.

The time is the near future and the old Pope has died. A liberal reformer, he leaves behind a polarized college of cardinals, who under the guidance of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, must choose a new Pope from amongst their number.  Lomeli is our narrator and guide, and as soon as the cardinals are sequestered in a spartan, dorm-like building, the deceit and political shenanigans begin, not so very different from what we witness on a daily basis from our own government.  Jockeying for position and votes are four main candidates: Tedesco, an Italian conservative who thinks Popes should always be chosen from the large Italian contingent; Trembley, a Canadian who has few scruples; Adeyemi, an African who has a strong lobby of ultra-right followers; and Bellini, a liberal friend of Lomeli and his personal choice.

The action takes place over a six day period, and here Harris excels at knowing the inner workings of choosing a Pope, all the rituals, necessary prayers, and the importance of tradition in even the most mundane of details.  Each day the cardinals are transported to the historic Sistine Chapel to cast their hand-counted ballots, and each day that no majority is reached, the thousands waiting below see thick black smoke emanate from the specially erected chimney in which the ballots are burned.  This continues until a new Pope is finally chosen.  Not even the interruption of a suicide bomber stops the process.

Matters seemed in hand and set to proceed smoothly, but it isn't long before irregularities are discovered and the dirty little secrets and hypocrisy of some of the members come to light. A surprise member shows up, a late arrival, on the eve of the first vote.  Vincent Benitez, a last minute confirmation made by the recently deceased Pope, was secretly made a cardinal because of the danger of tending to the small Catholic congregation in Iraq. Benitez is a Filipino whose previous experience was in the service of several African nations.

Harris manages to make the process and story suspenseful and exciting.  I highly recommend this book to all readers, as I do all his books.  Besides a good story, the reader is sure to learn a thing or two or three.

Monday, June 19, 2017

WINTER WHEAT by Mildred Walker (fiction)

This is a lovely coming of age book about a young girl living in the drylands wheat country of central Montana during World War II.  The war was a time when everyone had to grow up in a hurry, young men brought up to run farms were shipped off to fight in Europe or Asia, young women were faced with greater responsibility, often taking over chores their brothers once did. The book has been described as a classic story of the American West.  It was written in 1944, contemporary at the time it was written.  The picture it gives us of rural life and values is a true one.  The novel has been reissued several times and it's slow paced cadence is reminiscent of the writing of Willa Cather.

Ellen Webb, a strong willed and capable  young woman is going off to college, something her parents have worked hard and saved for. The fortunes of the yearly wheat crop determined whether Ellen would go to university.  Once there she meets an aristocratic and wealthy young man, Gil Borden.  Gil and his parents couldn't be more different than Ellen and her family.  Gil is buttoned up and staid, Ellen is ebullient and open.
Ellen's parents met during WWI when her father, a college boy from Vermont, was sent to the Russian front.  He brought home a Russian bride and they decided to migrate west to take advantage of cheap farm land.  The novel is Ellen's story: her relationship with Gil and her parents, her love of the land, her disappointments and her dawning understanding of her parents and their mutual love. What at first seems such a quiet story is full of life's lessons.

Throughout the book, Ellen's attention and awareness of the hands of those around her become symbolic of the class differences among the characters.  She often describes the rough hands of her mother and neighbors.  She muses, "Our hands, all moving, seemed to say things to each other. Gil's hands didn't seem to belong with ours."  In another passage, "I watched his hands, long and carefully cared for and shapely.  Maybe I loved them because they were so different from any hands I had known."

Ellen lived through hard times, times of failed harvests and of losing loved ones, of hard winters and life-changing disappointments.  She is a member of what we have come to call "the greatest generation."  This is a beautifully written book of a way of life that is probably lost in this era of mega farms run like industries.  I recommend it to all who would like to see a slice of the past quite different from our fast-paced society.

Monday, June 12, 2017

ONCE WE WERE SISTERS by Sheila Kohler (NF)

Sheila Kohler has written a number of fiction novels and short stories, and this is her first non-fiction book, a memoir of growing up in South Africa during the height of apartheid.  It is largely the story of two sisters, Sheila and Maxine who were inseparable from birth.  They were raised in privilege on an estate, tended by numerous servants and parents who were busy with their own lives and interests; the girls had each other and a  delightful fantasy world.  When they were old enough they were shipped off to St. Andrews, a boarding school for wealthy white girls, followed by finishing school in Europe.  This memoir follows the girls as they grew into adulthood and chose unsuitable mates with tragic results.

Sheila and Maxine's father was a successful timber merchant who was proud of his business and Crossways, their beautiful home in a suburb of Johannesburg, with its swimming pool and golf and tennis courts. Their life was not unlike that lived by many other successful captains of commerce and industry who ruled and ordered the British Colonial world.  They lived in a patriarchal society, one of hyper-masculinity. All the dorms in their boarding school were named after South African High Commissioners.  Their mother was a high-strung pampered woman, content with her shopping and socializing, neglectful of the girls, always pursuing her own needs.  The most dignified person in their life was the tall, devoted Zulu servant, who never stopped caring and watching out for the girls.

As the girls grew into women, they left behind their protected life and out in the world, each married, handsome but totally unsuitable husbands.  Sheila's American husband proved to be a philander who lived off her money.  More troublesome was Maxine's husband, a successful heart surgeon, easily enraged who subjected the family to frequent beatings, abusive and cruel.  For Maxine and Sheila, their happiest and best times were the vacations and study tours they took, leaving their many children behind in the care of nannies; it was a time when they could forget the sadness and failure of their marriages.  It may seem strange to us today that they were willing to endure such treatment, but not so unusual in the context of the forties and fifties.

In the end, Maxine was killed in an automobile driven by her husband, a disaster which may have been deliberate.  She left behind 6 children, the youngest three years old.  In an interview, Kohler says she has been haunted and obsessed with her sister's plight and the puzzle of why the family did not step in and take action to rescue Maxine from her monstrous husband, who lived out his life without any consequences.  As a result when Kohler examines her past fiction she notes:
"I was driven to explore the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege."

I found the book interesting, harking back to a time when colonial life gave one an exemption from consequences, a time when many women accepted their role in society, albeit a pampered yet unhappy one.