Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pointy Hats and Magic Spells: A Mina's Bookshelf Halloween Treat

Quite a few of us will be parading down the streets with flowing black robes and wide-brimmed black hats this coming Halloween, but do we even know where the stereotype of the pointy-hatted crone comes from? How did the simple garment become a social code for witchcraft?  While the disconcerting truth about the association of brooms and witches is now validated by all sorts of researches (and hardly leaves any room for guessing), the origin of the conic shaped hat as one of the key identifiers of a sorceress is still dubious and open to interpretation.
The visual representation of witches wearing tapering caps is peculiar to American and Western European (specifically British Isles) folklore. There is no depiction of witches wearing funnel-shaped caps in either medieval icons or 16th century woodcuts: the first often showed them naked and bare-headed, the latter portrayed them outfitted in common bonnets and scarves. We have to wait until the 1700s when traditional street songs, postcards, and chapbooks from England and Colonial America introduced the pointed hat as the evocative mark of black magic and spell casting.
The stereotype caught on and the Victorian era, with its popular collections of myths, legends, and ghost stories, fueled the association of crowned headgears and evil. The reason? There might be a few, more or less plausible. According to legends, witches in Medieval England were forced to wear  Church-steeple-shaped caps there were supposed to invoke God's grace. Equally weak is the theory maintaining that pointed hats were the visual representation of the Cone of Power used by witches during pagan rituals.
(Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot, c. 1676, by John Michael Wright)
Much more probable are the explanations offered by Gary Jensen in his The Path Of The Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts. Jensen claims that the witches' pointy hats were modeled on the Jewish horned skullcaps already in use during the Middle Ages as a way of stigmatizing first-time sorcery offenders in public. The hat controversy was also connected to the 17th and 18th century growing popularity of the Quaker religious movement in England and American Colonies. It doesn't surprise that both groups (Jews and Quakers) were marginalized and frequently charged with religious blasphemy from the beginning of their rise. They represented a social, political, and economic challenge to the Puritan order—and what better way to eradicate enemies of the establishment than demonizing them and associating them with heresy and witchcraft? The fact that there were several women among the early Quaker ministers just helped the Church of England's campaign of religious persecution.
On a lighter and much sweeter note, 'Witches Hats' make 'spook-tacular' Halloween treats. Try them with Hershey Kisses or ice cream cones (filled either with chocolate mousse or M&Ms),  on an upside down fudge striped cookie, a cup cake, or an Oreo cookie. Deliciously creepy and so easy to prepare: no baking required. Happy Halloween!

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman (A Review)

My Review

"Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good."

It's official. I have developed a 'literary crush' on Neil Gaiman. He had me at Coraline. After reading The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I am spellbound for eternity. He is a wizard storyteller and, like in The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, I follow at his heels to the sound of his voice, mesmerized by the lyrical quality of his effortless prose, entranced by the intimate perspective and mournful tones of a bookish and nameless seven-year-old narrator.

In occasion of a funeral service, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood hometown in Sussex. Nothing in the English countryside looks like he remembered—his old house long gone. But as he drives down the narrow lane that connects his childhood home to a farmhouse at the end of the road, faded memories come back to him: an unlikely family of three kind women (the eleven-year-old Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock) living on that farm, the duck pond his 'strange' friend Lettie claimed was an ocean that stretched from forever to forever and yet small enough to fit in a bucket, and the bizarre and incomprehensible events that unfolded forty years earlier on the edge of that land "where the barriers between life and death were thin".

Part dark fairytale, part myth, Gaiman's narrative texture appeals to our primal self, our unstructured and buried 'child soul'. His highly imaginative tale is a powerful and moving metaphor of the distance existing between two different dimensions, two separate worlds: childhood and adulthood. Self-absorbed and distracted, grown-ups are deaf to their children's fears and insecurities, oblivious to the undeniable fact that while outside they are big, powerful and thoughtless, "inside they are really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children's books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations."
As in Coraline, Gaiman's popular fantasy novella published in 2002 and adapted into a stop-motion picture (Focus Features 2009), in The Ocean At The End Of The Lane adults seem to be, once again, unhelpful and clueless, blind to the hidden and true essence of reality, completely unable to empathize with their kids' uneasiness and struggles. "Adults follow paths. Children explore", our nameless young narrator (Gaiman's alter-ego or Everyman of a morality play, intentionally devoid, by the author, of any mark of individuality) acutely observes. While choosing to never step off the beaten path, grown-ups miss all the patterns, the gates, and the backways hiding beyond the real. To a child's heart, instead, with its refined sensitivity and innate curiosity, this big and complicated world becomes simple and easy to grasp,  enjoyable in its small joys even when greater things crumble down.

Of those 'greater things', hidden and sinister truths, our protagonist will become fully aware under the wise guidance and selfless protection of the Hampstock women, wonderful and timeless creatures, Maiden, Mother, and Crone (triple deity common to several pagan traditions), archetype of maternal warmth and symbol of an ancient matriarchal society.

My verdict: brilliant and enchanting, an absolute gem. My rating: 5 stars plus the moon and the ocean.
About the book

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Release Date: June 28, 2016
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Coming of Age
Format: Ebook/Paperback/Hardcover/Audio

UK National Book Awards 2013 “Book of the Year”
“Fantasy of the very best.”— Wall Street Journal

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. A groundbreaking work as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out.
“[Gaiman’s] mind is a dark fathomless ocean, and every time I sink into it, this world fades, replaced by one far more terrible and beautiful in which I will happily drown.” —New York Times Book Review

About the author

Neil Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains; the Sandman series of graphic novels; and the story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, and the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. Originally from England, he now lives in the United States. He is Professor in the Arts at Bard College. Visit his website at http://www.neilgaiman.com
Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Tour Schedule

Tuesday, June 21 – Book reviewed at Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin’
Book reviewed at Mina’s Bookshelf
Book reviewed at Leigh Anderson Romance
Wednesday, June 22 – Book reviewed at The Mystery Tavern
Thursday, June 23 – Book reviewed at Books for Books
Friday, June 24 – Book reviewed at AMD on Software
Monday, June 27 – Book reviewed at The Reading Queen
Tuesday, June 28 – Book reviewed at Doing Some Reading
Thursday, June 30 – Book reviewed at Comfy Reading
Friday, July 1 – Book reviewed at Shannon’s Book Blog
Book reviewed at Her Book Thoughts
Monday, July 4 – Book reviewed at I’m Shelf-ish
Tuesday, July 5 – Book reviewed at Chapter by Chapter
Wednesday, July 6 – Book reviewed at Reading Reality
Thursday, July 7 – Book reviewed at Latte Night Reviews
Monday, July 11 – Book reviewed at Torre de Babel
Tuesday, July 12 – Book reviewed at I Can Has Books
Book reviewed at The Book Bag
Book reviewed at Whispering Stories
Wednesday, July 13 – Book reviewed at Queen of All She Reads
Thursday, July 14 – Book reviewed at Rhi Reading
Friday, July 15 – Book reviewed at Blooming With Books
Monday, July 18 – Book reviewed at Southeast by Midwest
Tuesday, July 19 – Book reviewed at Svetlana Reads
Wednesday, July 20 – Book reviewed at Bound 4 Escape
Thursday, July 21 – Book reviewed at 100 Pages a Day
Friday, July 22 – Book reviewed at Natural Bri
Book reviewed at Bound 4 Escape
Saturday, July 23 – Book reviewed at Becky on Books
Monday, July 25 – Book reviewed at Book Bite Reviews
Thursday, July 28 – Book reviewed at Deal Sharing Aunt
Friday, July 29 – Book reviewed at I’d Rather Be at the Beach
Book reviewed at WTF Are You Reading
Saturday, July 30 – Book reviewed at Worth Getting in Bed For
Book reviewed at Chicks with Books
Book reviewed at Live Love Books Blog
Sunday, July 31 – Book reviewed at Cover 2 Cover
Book reviewed at Reads and Reviews
Book reviewed at Toot’s Book Reviews
Book reviewed at Books Are Love
Book reviewed at Chosen By You Book Club



Saturday, March 26, 2016

THE HOUSE WE GREW UP IN by Lisa Jewell (A Review plus Wine&Dessert Pairing)


By Lisa Jewell

Published in the US by Atria Books on August 12th, 2014
Hardcover, 400 pages
Women’s Fiction, Family Drama

My Review

Tragedies can break a family apart, but they can also bring that family back together—after all, “we are pebbles of the same beach.”

The Birds used to be a tight-knit bunch, one of those paper-chain families all fun and charming quirkiness: hippie and vibrant Lorelei, her sweet and gangly husband Colin, and their four children. They lived in the Cotswolds, one of the prettiest areas in southern England, in a chocolate-box cottage. Picture perfect—on the surface. Lorelei’s childlike cheerfulness imbued the very walls of their house:

...she is really quite magical, you know—and when she looks at the world she sees it in a very special way, like it’s a party bag, or a toy shop, and she likes to keep bits of it.

She’s the kind of woman who never throws away anything colorful, eye-catching, or shiny. Her home is not dirty, just cluttered on a grand scale. She likes to keep ‘souvenirs’ of moments from her family life, things she can look at and remember something that would be forgotten to her otherwise. You would say she is ‘obsessively nostalgic’, ‘overly sentimental’ , or at least this is the lie her weak husband and her accepting kids keep telling themselves for years on end.

Then, on an Easter weekend in 1986, tragedy rattles the Birds’ tightly connected little world—a disturbing twist in the predictable sequence of  their sheltered lives made of garden picnics, bedtime hot cocoas, and rainbows. Under the weight of unspeakable secrets and a misplaced sense of guilt, Lorelei’s family, once inextricably connected, disintegrates. And what is worse, Lorelei’s compulsive tendency to collect things reaches a whole new horrifying level:

...piles of loose, unfettered paperwork, piles of paperbacks, old coats, bin bags full of clothes, random collections of stuffed animals, snow globes, mugs, paperweights and for some unknown reason a pile of deflated pink balloons still tied with curled nylon ribbons.

Hoarding  manifests in  a wide spectrum of obsessive behaviors, from shopping addiction, to pet hoarding and unsanitary inability of getting rid of trash, but at its core there is the same compulsion—a coping mechanism, if you will,  to control one’s existence and emotions. For Lorelei, her belongings carry an innate energy, the shadow of a memory, and “memory is such a cruel thing, it discards things without asking permission.” Everything she owns is part of the context: throwing her stuff away is like throwing away something that happened.

The Birds' beautiful honey-colored cottage full of childhood memories becomes the work of Lorelei's disordered mind and the physical manifestation of buried issues and emotional unrest affecting every family member. Apart from the past, nothing can hold Lorelei’s family together. Years later, tragedy upon tragedy, that very house where their world was turned upside down seemingly beyond repair becomes a place of healing, forgiveness, and emotional connection.

The House We Grew Up In is a brilliant family drama and an insightful take on the complexities and repercussions of a mental disorder. The author’s choice of themes (mental illness, loneliness, grief, depression, sibling relationships) and structure (dual timeline and multiple points of view) shows emotional intelligence and stylistic finesse: through a variety of perspectives (including an exchange of emails between Lorelei and her virtual friend Jim), the storyline jumps back and forth between 1986 and 2011, adding dynamism and dimensions to the underlying reasons of a sadly  common behavioral disorder.

My rating
5 out of 5 stars

***An e-copy of the book was graciously provided by the Publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased and honest review.
Praises for The House We Grew Up In

“Clever, intelligent, and believable on a subject few of us really understand. Lorrie is one of the most vivid—and complex—characters I've read in years. Wonderful.” (Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You)

“You'll be desperate to find out what messed this family up so badly.” (Sophie Kinsella, author of Shopaholic to the Stars)

“A dramatic look at siblings, parents, and hoarding.” (Redbook)

“...prose so beautiful that it glitters on the page. Lisa Jewell lays down piece after piece of mosaic, revealing the heart of the Bird family, filled in equal measure with love and loss. Unforgettable.” (Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Solomon’s Oak, Finding Casey, and Owen’s Daughter)
About the author

Lisa Jewell (born 19th July 1968, Middlesex, London) is a popular British author of chick lit fiction. Her books include Ralph's Party, Before I Met You and, most recently, The Girls. She lives in Swiss Cottage, London, with her husband and two daughters. Visit Lisa’s website to learn more about her and her books.

Wine & Dessert Pairing

Easter and Spring season in the Cotswolds are recurrent themes in Lisa Jewell’s novel The House We Grew Up In. For this reason, today’s dessert pick is a traditional British Easter recipe: Raspberry and Chocolate Meringue Melt. It’s a luscious dessert, perfect for this season: you can prepare it with just a touch of chocolate flavor or sandwiched with gooey layers of brownies. A heavenly match for a Demi-Sec Champagne or any semi-sweet sparkling wine.