Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sacred Origins of Profound Things The Stories Behind The Rites and Rituals of The World's Religions by Charles Panati

My reason for reading this book was twofold. Firstly, I hoped it would help provide me with some insight and detail that would prove useful in the religiously-charged rivalry of the Tudor sisters Mary and Elizabeth, the subject of my third novel, to be published next year by Kensington. And secondly, because when I am in the thick of writing, I like books that I can easily set down and take up again, that do not have a plot or characters that I get so caught up in I am distracted from doing my own work (not a good thing when you have deadlines to meet).

Author Charles Panati has written several books that have a permanent place on my book shelves, he is interested in the origins of just about everything from toilet paper to lava lamps, cough drops to catholic doctrine. This particular volume is all about the origins of various rituals and beliefs of the world's major religions--Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. 

For instance, we learn that the custom of joining hands in prayer is derived from shackling the hands of prisoners. There are chapters on religious vestments, like Jewish prayer shawls and the color-coded vestments of the Catholic clergy. The history of the rosary and the best-loved prayers of the various faiths. The significance of the Black Madonnas that can be seen in some of the world's chapels. The history and hierarchy of angels. The origins of sacred symbols such as the halo, cross, Star of David, Christian fish, and the Swastika before it was corrupted by the Nazis and became an emblem of evil. The moral codes of each religion are discussed, as well as their beliefs about Heaven, Hell, and the Catholic concepts of Purgatory and Limbo. And how celibacy in the catholic priesthood evolved from personal choice to mandatory requirement. Feast days and holidays all rate a chapter, for example Christmas started as a rival Christian holiday which eventually eclipsed pagan celebration for the birth of the sun god Mithras. And Easter was once in honor of the Saxon fertility Goddess Eastre whose symbols were the hare or rabbit, thus the origins of the Easter Bunny. The Jewish Feast Days--Passover, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are also included. There are chapters on saints and relics, miracles, and stigmata, and Marian Apparitions, including the most famous cases such as Lourdes, Fatima, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are chapters on the beliefs and customs relating to marriage, divorce, and annulments. The many names given to the devil and how his image is derived from the pagan half-goat half-man god Pan. The rites and history of Exorcisms, and a chapter about the Apocalypse. Sexuality and religion is also thoroughly explored, including beliefs about homosexuality and how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah became synonymous with it. And how those who claim to follow and interpret the Bible literally do so selectively, for instance in the same section that prohibits homosexuality, men are also forbidden to touch anything previously touched and to sit in any chair previously sat in by a menstruating woman. Masturbation and contraception are also discussed, including the interesting factual tidbit that Ancient Egyptian women used a spermicide made from crocodile dung and honey; crocodile dung is apparently very acidic which destroys sperm. All this and so much more!

I particularly like the factual, commonsense tone of this book, the author is not preachy or pushing any particular religion or beliefs. For anyone who likes knowing the stories behind things, whether they be products on store shelves or customs and beliefs, I have never read a book by Charles Panati that failed to interest and inform me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

This is my favorite Christmas book, second only to Charles Dickens' immortal classic A Christmas Carol. It is what I call a "smile through your tears book," a story about how one little redbird changed so many lives.

The story begins when a middle-aged man, Mr. Oswald T. Campbell, is given a very grim prognosis by his doctor. Due to the condition of his lungs he is urged to leave Chicago immediately, another winter there will surely kill him His doctor recommends a quiet, humid little town in Alabama called Lost River.

The rather quirky but very friendly residents of Lost River extend Mr.Campbell the warmest of welcome. Expecting to die, Mr. Campbell is surprised when he gets a new lease on life. He takes up birdwatching, then begins to do watercolors of the local birdlife, and he begins to gain weight, his color improves, and he coughs less, and has no desire for either cigarettes or alcohol, spending the money on art supplies instead.

Another new arrival also finds a place in Lost River's heart. Patsy, a tiny, blonde, crippled girl, abused and neglected by her trailer trash parents, limps into town every day to visit Jack, the town's local celebrity, a tame redbird, a Cardinal, who lives at the grocery store.Frances Cleverdon, a middle-aged widow who always longed for a child, adopts Patsy since her family does not want her, to them she is just another mouth to feed and more trouble than she is worth because of her condition, and when it becomes imperative that the little girl have an operation the whole town goes full swing into fund raising.

As the story progresses there is sadness, but there is also a day after Christmas miracle that tugged at this reader's heart and made her smile through her tears. Tabby also enjoyed it, and, having just finished it before she went to bed, no doubt visions of redbirds instead of sugarplums are dancing in her head. She certainly snaps her jaws at them whenever she sees them out the window. Since I first read this wonderful, sentimental story I always said if I ever had a child I would make reading this book a Christmas tradition, so I read it to Tabby each year.

There are also some delicious made from scratch Southern style recipes in the back for things like macaroni and cheese and gingerbread with lemon sauce.

If you are looking for a heart-warming, old-fashioned bittersweet,sentimental Christmas story, Ms. Flagg's A Redbird Christmas has it all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tabby Waiting For Santa (And Her Presents)

Looking out the window watching for Santa (even though it's still daylight and only December 22nd).

Waiting impatiently for her Christmas presents.

Inspecting the tree.

Maybe Christmas (and the presents) will get here sooner if I just go to sleep?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Recent Review of The Boleyn Wife (The Tudor Wife)

This review was posted recently on Open Letters Monthly by Steve Donoghue at

Keeping Up with the Tudors: The Boleyn Wife (published as The Tudor Wife by Emily Purdy in the UK)

Our book today is The Boleyn Wife by Brandy Purdy, published earlier this year by Kensington. It’s a novel about Jane Boleyn (nee Parker), the “shy, plain” young woman who’s contracted into marriage with handsome young courtier George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, nephew of the grand Duke of Norfolk and brother to Mary and Anne, both of whom have attracted the amorous attention of King Henry VIII. The novel is told in the first person, and you’d think that would defeat the usual modern novel’s purpose right there. In most historical fiction these days, we’re supposed to trust the narrator completely and also like them, and by rights it should be impossible either to trust Jane Boleyn or to like her. Lady Rochford, as her marriage to George Boleyn made her, is one of the least savory or trustworthy figures in all the court histories of England; at every juncture where she makes an appearance, she makes things worse for everybody around her, including herself, through her lying, her opportunism, her treachery, her willful credulity, and her stupidity. She was one of those bitter, brittle, strident seeming-ignorant people who scurry about the edges of actual lived life, constantly counting up ills, constantly contradicting patent facts, friendless of course, despised by everyone even in good times. I’ve known many Lady Rochfords; I know one now I woudln’t trust with the life of a goldfish. If it’s three o’clock, she’ll say “that clock says 3:15″ just for the petty thrill of getting you to contradict her. Such creatures learned very early in their lives that being objectionable was a sure-fire way to be noticed, and they’ve long since made the decision that it’s easier to be noticed – even by irritating people – than it is to be liked. They make the lazy decision, which always serves to make humans repulsive.

But surely few such humans were as repulsive as Jane Boleyn! She spread rumors about her husband even before Anne Boleyn came to the king’s notice, and once that affair had begun in earnest, she worked overtime spreading rumors about all concerned. She naturally came to the attention of the Czar of Rumors, Thomas Cromwell, and in Purdy’s fantastically lively no-holds-barred novel, she also comes to his bed. And when Anne’s haughty failure to produce a male heir begins to create a groundswell against her, those rumors become deadly effective. Henry is portrayed the usual way in this book, as a headstrong, yelling monster (the highly intellectual image-repair job Wolf Hall does for Cromwell is something Henry himself could use himself … somebody write that book, hmm?), and when his eye begins to wander and he starts to yearn for freedom from the marriage with Anne that he wrecked Western Christendom to achieve, Cromwell is there well-armed with rumors … and Jane Boleyn was his armorer-in-chief.
Fans of Tudor history (or readers of my previous consideration of Lady Rochford) will recall that she intersects with that history at two crucial points: it was largely on her tittle-tattling that her husband George Boleyn was arraigned and executed along with other slandered men and Anne, and she was the chaperon who “fell asleep” and allowed Catherine Howard to conduct her illicit affairs while she was King Henry’s wife. In my opinion the historical record easily gives grounds enough to suspect this particular Boleyn wife of much, much more iniquity than just these two examples – but these two examples are mighty bad even so. This seems unpromising raw material for a novel, but Purdy is undeterred (and she seems to have an interest in history’s unsavory troublemakers), and the most pleasing fact about The Boleyn Wife is that its portrayal of Jane Boleyn isn’t pleasing at all. She’s not portrayed as some kind of misunderstood saint – she’s a petty, mean-spirited shrew from the earliest parts of the book, as in the passage clearly aimed at another Boleyn-titled novel, where Jane thinks of Mary Boleyn: Like many, I stood in awe of her dazzling beauty – she had been plucked so many times it was hard to believe her bloom had not just wilted or faded – and her equally astounding stupidity. Mary must have been unique among courtesans; she had been mistress to not one but two kings and had failed to profit from either. And it’s not just that Jane is inwardly vindictive and crass – everybody else sees her that way. They may have problems of their own, but they can always spare a moment to be ashamed of her, as in the scene where Jane and George and Anne are all watching a clearly besotted King Henry out riding with Jane Seymour. Anne comments that Jane Seymour looks good on a horse and says, “What a pity for her that there are no horses in the King’s bedchamber.” “Perhaps she will ride the King as well as she does a horse,” I suggested. “Shut up, Jane!” George and Anne snapped as one, swatting at me with their riding crops. By sure-handed and deceptively easy steps, The Boleyn Wife draws us deeper and deeper inside the mind of a woman who’s so unsympathetic as to be depraved. We see her love for George Boleyn twist and intensify into hateful obsession (spurred in part by his “occasional forays into sodomy” – in this telling of the familiar tale, one of the young Boleyns did indeed sleep with musician Mark Smeaton, but it wasn’t Anne), and when she discovers that she’s pregnant with Cromwell’s bastard, we’re given a chillingly dispassionate narrative of all the various ways she tries to miscarry. We’re never tempted to feel sorry for this monster, although she very often feels sorry for herself: Once again, I felt life had made a mockery of me. Perhaps God, I thought, had a sense of humor and I am one of His favorite jokes. When I die and step through the pearly gates of Heaven, I fully expect to see Him doubled over and howling with glee, laughing at me. The novel’s most grotesque scene takes place at its climax, when the King has a riding accident and is feared dead on the ground. Anne is heavily pregnant at the time – and out of favor with Henry, so the outcome of the pregnancy is crucial – and seeing him unconscious and unresponsive, all Anne’s enemies make a mad dash for her lying-in room to shock her with the news and perhaps cause her to miscarry. Jane runs faster than anybody, and the news does indeed cause Anne’s pregnancy to fail. Purdy spares us no detail: It had two faces but one huge head, carpeted with wispy tufts of carroty hair, so large it had savagely ripped Anne’s flesh during its egress. The little shoulders slanted sharply so that the right was higher than the left, and the spine was as crooked as the letter S, while all four limbs, though perfectly formed … were devoid of bones and as limp and dangly as jellyfish. But between its tiny, flaccid thighs a perfectly formed male organ was plainly visible. This was Henry’s much-longed-for prince. History tells us that Jane Boleyn went mad during her arrest in connection with the treachery of Catherine Howard, and thankfully, that madness isn’t mollified by metaphor here. It’s immensely to Purdy’s credit that she tells her unpleasant story without softening it or trying to drum up affection for someone who was clearly among the least attractive human beings in Tudor history. Attractive, that is, in the inner, personal sense. A student of the period can’t help but wonder, after finishing this raw and satisfying novel, how events would have changed if the real Jane Parker had resembled the stunning woman modeling vaguely Tudor-era dress on the book’s cover. For all his bluster, Henry was in some ways a very timid, pious man: when he was searching for a mistress, not just anybody would do. The women could vary widely – from impetuous and challenging to bookish and comforting – but the men involved needed a certain uniform quality: they had to be pliant. Henry would never have confronted Anne’s beloved Harry Percy and said, “Look here, I fancy your woman – give her to me” – he was smart enough to stay one degree removed and have functionaries do that. If Jane Parker had looked like the woman on the cover of this novel about her, Henry would certainly have desired her – but if he’d pursued her after she was George Boleyn’s wife, George Boleyn would have killed him, or tried to. But if he’d pursued her before they were married, the Parkers would have been involved in dynastic turmoils, and only distantly the Boleyns, and hardly at all the Howards. Interesting to think how that might have changed things, if at all. And in the meantime, The Boleyn Wife is, I hope, as close as we’ll come to Jane Boleyn, heroine.

Wishin' and Hopin' A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

The year is 1964 and the hero of our story is Felix Funicello, aged ten, an Italian-American boy, and distant cousin of the famous Annette. He attends St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School and after a grueling day under the tutelage of nuns helps out his parents at their lunch counter inside the local bus station where the jukebox frequently plays “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess” and posters of his famous relative in both Mouseketeer garb and a daring white bikini adorn the walls. He’s a typical boy, curious about the birds and the bees, and puzzled by dirty jokes he doesn’t understand, consumed by his rivalry with his busybody know-it-all classmate Rosalie, and proud of his mother’s Shepherd’s Pie Italiano being chosen as a finalist for the Pillsbury Bake Off, which means she will appear on live tv.

This is a fun little book that fans of the movie “A Christmas Story” and the trials and tribulations of Ralphie and his family may really enjoy. There are several amusing episodes which I won’t spoil for readers by describing here, including the big and hilarious disaster of the school Christmas pageant. This is a fun story, nostalgic in its setting, but not overly sweet or sentimental or with a Christmas message to pour on like too much cream cheese frosting on a red velvet cake. It’s just plain fun and just a little bawdy, like full makeup on a little girl playing the Virgin Mary in the school Christmas play. If you shed any tears reading this book they will be from laughter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Card From My British Publisher

My British publisher, Harper/Avon, sent me this beautiful Christmas Card.

My thanks and best wishes for a happy holiday season and new year to everyone who has helped with my books, bought and read them, and worked on editing, publishing, and designing them.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Purrfect Last Minute Christmas Gift (According to Tabby)

You can order this full color calendar containing several photos of Tabby in a variety of costumes and poses at

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holy Ghosts How A (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became A Believer In Things That Go Bump In The Night by Gary Jansen

Gary Jansen spent his childhood in picturesque Rockville Centre, Long Island, a devout Catholic boy who grew up to be a book editor and author of religious books about the importance of prayer in daily life, but nonetheless a level-headed rationalist who believed there is always a logical explanation for things that go bump in the night. To him ghosts were the stuff of cartoons like Casper The Friendly Ghost and Scooby-Doo and of Stephen King novels

As an adult, a married man with a second child on the way, he and his family moved back into his childhood home. At first, he thought the peculiar sounds were due to the house settling, it was after all an old house built in 1904. There were creakings and bumps and sounds like footsteps on the stairs, the doorbell would sometimes ring when there was no one there, though it was harder to explain the inexplicable sound of breaking glass when nothing was indeed broken, and the feeling of being watched, and, worst of all, a feeling like an electrical surge was coursing through his body in his son's room, where battery-operated toys also mysteriously malfunctioned.

Through a connection in the publishing industry, Mr. Jansen contacted Mary Ann Winkowski, the inspiration for the television show Ghost Whisperer, and discovered that his home was haunted by two restless spirits, an elderly woman who died near the turn of the 20th century and an angry young man who died in a car accident the day Mr. Jansen's wife suffered a miscarriage. And with her assistance, he was able to help the spirits to "go into the light" and move on.

Although it lacks the spine-tingling drama and horrific and violent incidents of the kind of hauntings that inspire big budget Hollywood movies like The Amityville Horror, or that fill the pages of numerous horror novels, Mr. Jansen's book is an interesting account of an ordinary family dealing with a more mild-natured haunting of their home and their struggle to understand and cope with it. I am glad they found a solution and it ended happily for them and their resident ghosts.