Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Confessions of a Pagan Nun
Author: Kate Horsley
Shambala, 2002
188 pages

How do I begin to describe this little gem of a book? Written in the form of an autobiography (supposedly from scrolls found and translated from Irish Gaelic) of a woman who was born into Ireland’s pre-Christian “pagan” society, apprenticed as a Druid priestess, and winds up as a nun in the abbey of St. Brigit at the dawn of the Christian era in Ireland.

Gwynneve is a literate woman, and her job at the abbey is to translate church documents from Latin and Greek. As she tells her life story, she is translating some works of Patrick, the man whom we know today as Ireland’s patron saint. We learn of her origins in a village far away and of her love for her mother, a kind woman who was the essence of feminine beauty and a sort of healer in the community; it was from her that Gwynneve learned about the healing powers of herbs and plants. We learn of Gwynneve’s apprenticeship with a Druid priest who was also her lover for many years, and of her losses.

Gwynneve’s firsthand experience of man’s inhumanity to man perplexes her, as she doesn’t understand how the Christians can have such a beautiful theology (she loves that Jesus Christ was all about love and helping the less fortunate), yet be so violent and extreme. The abbot at St. Brigit’s, for example . . . she witnesses him having wild sex in the church with another one of the nuns. So obsessed is he with his own guilt that he has himself castrated so that something like this will never happen again. Gwynneve doesn’t understand why Christians deny themselves the passions of the body – any why they would inflict pain on themselves to overcome it. After all, according to her culture and upbringing, pleasure is something to be celebrated.

So she’s caught between two worlds – the old pagan world and the new Christian world – and she doesn’t really belong in either, entirely. She finds herself drawn to St. Brigit (formerly a Druid goddess? Made a saint by the church in attempt to convert the locals?), yet she is also drawn to Jesus Christ’s messages of love and helping the less fortunate. But the Druids have lost their power now and the Christians are in control. The tide has turned. Forever.

They say the winners write the history books. What knowledge was lost in this transition of power? What power was lost by women as Ireland transitioned to a patriarchal religion? (Gwynneve’s life embodies the “death of the divine feminine” in so many ways.)

There’s just no way I can do justice to this small but powerful book. Reading it was like a dream. I was transported to 5th century Ireland. I was there. Wow. Yet it’s not an easy book to read and it may be way to slow (even boring) for some. I think that it helped that I’d been to Ireland before and knew a little about the historical part. OK, really a little. But at least I had some context, which I think will be helpful for anyone who reads this book.

Rating: 4 stars. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, 2008 (originally published 2006)
337 pages

First, let me say that this is one of the scariest books I've ever read. Not stupid scary, but realistic scary. It's scary because . . . it really could happen.

Miranda is an ordinary, average teenager living in rural Pennsylvania, just outside of a small town. As the book opens, she learns that her Dad's new wife is pregnant. This is a difficult concept for her (apparently her parents haven't been divorced that long, wounds are still fresh, and her Dad has already moved to another state and remarried) but she tries to be grown-up about it, which makes her Dad and stepmother very pleased. Miranda writes about her feelings and her life in diary form, and just a week or so after the opening, everyone is excited about an astronomical event: an asteroid is due to hit the moon.

However, no one could have predicted that the impact of the asteroid would be powerful enough to shift the moon from its axis, bringing it much closer to the earth. Suddenly, there is a global emergency: tsunamis and tidal waves submerge entire countries and states; hundreds of millions of people are killed and more are homeless. Governments collapse. Weird things happen. 

But this is only the beginning. Soon, earthquakes begin occurring in unusual places. Long-dormant volcanoes in places no one even knew their were dormant volcanoes begin erupting. This changes the weather - first frost comes in August instead of October, which kills crops that would have otherwise been used as food. The winter is longer, colder, and darker than usual.

Quick thinking and planning by Miranda's mom in the beginning of the catastrophe ensured that they had enough food and supplies . . . at least in the beginning. But as winter encroaches, one disaster leads to another. Will Miranda and her family survive? Will she ever see her new baby brother or sister? Will life ever get back to normal? You'll have to read the book to find out.

This is a Young Adult novel, but adults who like disaster stories will enjoy it. It certainly opens the doors to some interesting "what if" conversations. It might prompt some to stock up on canned goods. And it certainly makes you think twice about wanting that oceanfront property.


Rating: 4 stars.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Random House, 2008
507 pages

Every now and then a book comes along that just surprises you with either unexpectedly good writing or a deliciously palatable plot. Here's one that has both. The 19th Wife is a book within a book, a thesis within a history, a complex web of plots and twists. It's just clever. And I like that.

Ann Eliza Young was one of polygamist Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) leader Brigham Young's wives back in the late 19th century. Apparently she divorced him, wrote a book, and toured on the lecture circuit, making her quite the tabloid celebrity of her day as she campaigned against polygamy. Eventually, the Church had to end its official policy on plural marriage, and she gets part of the credit for creating awareness of the various negative aspects of that institution. The 19th Wife is in part "autobiography of Ann Eliza Young" combined with various "historical documents" written by people in Ann's life: her father, her son, her brother, and Brigham himself. 

Meanwhile in Mesadale, Utah - a desert outpost of a town known to be the home of an offshoot of the church that still practices polygamy - a family patriarch is murdered. His "19th wife" is implicated, arrested, and prepares to be convicted in what will surely be the trial of the century. Her son, Jordan, returns to Utah from California to help, and through his narrative we get the perspective of polygamy's affect on a 21st century male - who happens to be gay. 

The books goes back and forth between characters, writing styles, and centuries. Ebershoff is convincing using any voice. Despite the mediocre ratings on Amazon.com and other book review sites, I liked it a LOT. It's one of the best books I've read this year (OK, I know it's just February). Consider it highly recommended from this reviewer!

Rating: 5 stars because I LOVE the writing. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets
Author: Korin Bridges
Create-Space, 2008
422 pages

It wasn't all that long ago that a friend of mine mentioned to me that she was writing a novel. My first impression was skeptical. After all, I'm writing a book, too! I'm constantly writing a book; I just never seem to finish. Not only did my friend finish her book, she published it! And she wrote a second book, and is now almost finished with her third! 

The main character in The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets is a young woman named Isabella who has a group of close girlfriends, of whom she is the clear leader. One night, on a whim, the women decide to visit a new age store to have a psychic reading. They learn that each one of them has a special "gift" and this draws them into a supernatural world, the likes of which they had previously only seen in movies or read about in paranormal romance novels. I can say no more about the plot except to say that the ending is a cliffhanger and you will immediately want to read the second book.

I like that this first-in-a-series installment features some really strong females, including a few who don't fit the usual stereotype. Even the men are a little different. Strong women plus hot men always equals steamy. So don't make the mistake of reading Chapter 17 on an airplane, like I did. This series may have been inspired in part by Twilight, but it's not for Young Adults.

I actually liked The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets, despite some editorial issues that Korin became aware of after publication. (She gets extra credit because unlike me, she actually FINISHED her book(s) and is now officially a published novelist.) I really believe that if the right person would come across this book, Korin could be the next Charlaine Harris, because I could so easily see this story as a TV series like True Blood

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets is not available in stores, but can be found on Amazon.com. Check it out. Read something pure and raw for a change. Invest in a local author. Be inspired that if Korin can make it happen, then you can, too. (And so can I, if I can just focus on something long enough to finish it!)

[I should also insert a plug for "S" because she designed the book cover. She also designed the book cover for Book #2, which I believe will be available in March.]

Rating: 4 stars - for the story that kept my attention, and because I like the Sadie character so much.  :-)