Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Dogs have become ubiquitous in American society. Their physical abilities and emotional connections with humans have been studied and marveled about for generations, no more so than today. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh has now compiled a collection of short vignettes celebrating the human-canine connection in Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty and Life with Dogs. Handsomely illustrated with candid photographs of the dogs and the humans with whom they share their lives, this is a perfect book to dip in and out of as time permits.
While some of the two- to four-page stories are, perhaps, more “extraordinary” than others, it is likely that readers will find themselves smiling, tearing up or both as the connection between dog and man is recounted. Some of the amazing stories include dogs that have bravely served the military both in the theatre of war and with veterans back on the home front. Other pieces involve therapy dogs, including those that serve as lifesaving alarms for people who suffer from blood sugar fluctuations and those dogs who provide comfort to humans dealing with mental or emotional trauma. Still more feature canines that have come to the rescue in crisis situations, sometimes almost unbelievably, saving their human companions through intelligence and will.
Short blurbs about the breed of dog showcased and other information related to the story round out each article. A list of resources to learn more about organizations that support these incredible feats and encourage better dog welfare is also included. Its handy, easy-to-hold trim size and heartwarming accounts will make Devoted a sure favorite with animal lovers young and old.
Acclaimed poet Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, celebrates the dogs she has loved with words of tender care on each page of Dog Songs. Pet owners and animal lovers alike will find a kindred spirit in the voice of Oliver, who has immortalized her wooly confidantes with compassion and humor in a tone reminiscent of the veterinarian memoirist, James Herriot.
Oliver is known for her elegant treatment of the natural world but Dog Songs reveals a rare and intimately domestic side to the poet’s heart. She invites us into her home and introduces us to the cherished pets of her past and present like the unforgettable souls of Bear, Luke, Benjamin and Percy. Whether on a long walk, down at the surf or curled on a couch, each dog’s personality radiates with bliss and, at times, secretive wisdom.
However, we are not spared the pain that unavoidably comes with loving a life outside your own. While grieving in the poem “Her Grave,” Oliver addresses her lost friend by asking “How strong was her dark body!/ How apt is her grave place./ How beautiful is her unshakeable sleep./ Finally,/ the slick mountains of love break/ over us.” Too often the death of a pet is portrayed as an unimaginable horror but Oliver offers a holistic alternative where heartbreak and light might linger. Although devastated, she holds onto the love she has shared with her fallen friend and stands in awe of the animal who has brought her such joy, warmth and spiritual fullness.
Lifelong fans of Oliver, acclaimed for Why I Wake Early, Red Bird and Thirst, will find this both a gratifying and surprising addition to her life’s work. The narrative tone of these portraits, accompanied with gentle line drawings, make this collection appealing to non-poetry readers as well.
With the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War, quite a few books have been published recently dealing with many of the famous figures and battles of that era. However, one area that has not been explored very deeply is the role women played in shaping this period of history. In her book Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves and Spies, author and former Stevenson University History Professor Claudia Floyd examines some of the ways that women were able to make a difference behind the scenes whether they were for the Union or Confederacy.
Well-researched with an extensive bibliography and endnotes, Floyd sheds light on some remarkable Maryland women who often risked their reputations, freedom and lives to assist with issues about which they were quite passionate. During the Civil War, Marylanders fought for both the North and South, although the state technically remained part of the Union. Floyd introduces the reader to some remarkably courageous women who took up both sides of the cause. Some are familiar (Harriet Tubman) and some obscure (Anna Ella Carroll) but they all helped in ways that included assisting slaves to freedom, nursing wounded soldiers, spying (for both North and South) and holding together their families torn apart by the loss of the security provided them by their absent male relatives.
As a child, author Kimberly Rae Miller would pray that her home would catch on fire. Her prayer was answered but, to her horror, it came with some unforeseen consequences. In her memoir, Coming Clean, Miller writes about her experiences growing up as the only child of parents who were hoarders.
Miller makes it clear that hoarding isn’t just a messy home with too much clutter. Hoarding à la the Miller parents means never throwing anything away. It means online shopping so obsessively that delivered but unopened packages are stacked to the ceiling. It means sleeping on the edge of a mattress otherwise piled with junk, never opening the refrigerator since it contains moldy sludge and showering at the gym since to call in a plumber to repair leaking pipes would mean being reported to social services. Yes, it means moving to a new home to escape the detritus in the old house.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as piggybacking on the odd appeal of the popular reality TV show Hoarders. The descriptions of the Miller family’s living conditions are shocking and sad. Miller also relates the shame she felt as a child, colluding with her parents to present a picture of normalcy, and the guilt, too, after the wished-for house fire resulted in the deaths of her beloved pets. Yet, this story is multi-layered, and Miller is clear that she was raised by loving and intelligent parents who encouraged and supported her in academic and social pursuits. Coming Clean reminds us that imperfect people and good parenting are not mutually exclusive, and our circumstances do not define who we are. Visit Miller at her blog, TheKimChallenge, where she writes about food, fitness, perspective and love.
In school, we all learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there was another book published around the same time that had an important impact on the discussion of slavery in America. That book was Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave. Northup was born a free man and lived most of his life in New York. In 1841, he was lured to Washington, D.C. where he was beaten, drugged and sold into slavery. For the next 12 years, he was a slave on a series of plantations in Louisiana until his family was able to find him and bring him home to New York in 1853. 12 Years a Slave is his unflinching firsthand account of what he experienced and witnessed during that time.
When it was published in 1853, Northup’s memoir became a bestseller, selling over 30,000 copies. After the Civil War, the book was out-of-print for many years. It was rediscovered by two scholars in the 1960s and reprinted in 1968. Now, it has been adapted into a film that brings the horrors of Northup’s experience to the big screen. Like many of us, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, was surprised when his partner brought the book to his attention. He writes, “The book blew both our minds: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror and the humanity. The book read like a film script, ready to be shot. I could not believe that I had never heard of this book.”
The movie, which the New York Post calls “brutally powerful and emotionally devastating,” is already generating Oscar buzz. The film’s A-list cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. The trailer is available here.
“The paranoia was fulfilled” – that’s how Joan Didion described the murders carried out in 1969 by Charles Manson and his band of devoted followers known as “The Family.” Translation? The late sixties were already a time of intense political change and civil unrest. Throw in sensationalized murders and an equally dramatic trial, and this period was officially the craziest and most unsettling in American history, no matter one’s political or ideological leanings. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn traces the hardscrabble origins of the boy who grew up to become the infamous cult leader and murderer. Although Manson did have a somewhat unstable home life, he exaggerated or fabricated childhood tales of woe to win sympathy and devotion from his followers. In the true fashion of an “opportunistic sociopath,” as Guinn describes him, Manson used skills obtained in prison, like Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People program, to manipulate followers and bring them under his control. His teachings that “Helter Skelter”, the end of an orderly American society, was close at hand led to the “Tate murders,” where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed. Additionally, his followers murdered several other people before and after this most infamous crime.
Guinn does an excellent job alternating national and world history with Manson’s development, meticulously chronicling his childhood and adolescence in and out of reform schools, his young adulthood as a petty repeat criminal, and his time in Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood that was the epicenter for the darker side of the hippie movement where Manson did much of his initial recruiting. Those who enjoyed Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will appreciate this in-depth account of these suspenseful and chilling crimes. As James Lee Burke writes in his cover review: “Hang on, reader. This is a rip-roaring ride you won’t forget.”
Journalist Allen Salkin tells the story of one of the most amazing success stories in television history in From Scratch: Inside the Food Network. Today, the Food Network is a major entity that generates over $1 billion in revenue annually and reaches over 100 million homes. The network is known for making its stars household names, and both the network and its stars have tie-in cookbooks as well as their own lines of cookware, utensils and small appliances. The network even has its own magazine that features articles about food trends, lifestyle tips and, of course, recipes from its stable of chefs. In October 1993, when what was then called the Television Food Network came on the air, this success was beyond even their wildest imaginations. At that time, there were only a few celebrity chefs and even fewer television chefs. Stars like Julia Child, Martin Yan and Jeff Smith all appeared on PBS or the occasional cooking segment on a show like Good Morning America. No one could have imagined how the network would evolve or its meteoric rise to success.
Now, in time for the Food Network’s 20th anniversary, Salkin brings readers behind-the-scenes stories from the beginning to its current mind-boggling level of success. With this many big personalities, you know that it’s hot in this kitchen. Readers won’t believe the reactions of a couple of stars when their shows came to an end. They may be even more surprised by how much some stars struggled to become comfortable cooking on camera. When Alton Brown came up with his idea for Good Eats, he originally wrote down the three things he wanted to combine to create it. “Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, Monty Python.” During her first meeting with network executives, Rachael Ray announced, “I clearly don’t belong here, I’m not a chef. You’ve been duped.”
Salkin was given inside access to the network and its employees, including executives and stars, so he can bring readers the astonishing — and sometimes legendary — stories of what actually took place behind the scenes. He doesn’t hold back. From Scratch includes quotes, documents and scandalous stories that will surprise even longtime fans.
Punk-rock bassist and Soto Zen monk Brad Warner’s There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places takes its title from a well-known Zen Buddhist quotation. Warner believes that it “expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly.” As he explores the question of what God means to Buddhists and what non-Buddhists can learn from Zen teachings, Warner addresses spiritual and practical considerations through his experiences.
Having recently traveled the world doing book tours, spiritual retreats, and lectures, the author considers the roles of the body and mind and how people of various religious and cultural backgrounds conceptualize them. He travels to the Holy Land and meets and stays with an elderly Palestinian peace activist who owns a hostel that only takes donations. Warner also finds himself teaching and learning in places where Zen Buddhism is quite unknown, such as in Mexico and Northern Ireland. In one section, he discusses how Buddhism rejects the common Western perception of the body and mind as separate. The opposite, in fact, is a core belief of Buddhists, as the Heart Sutra explains there is no division between body and mind.
A good choice as a beginning-to-intermediate look at how Zen Buddhism and Western traditions can complement and contrast, Warner’s conversational musings are accessible to anyone wanting to think about his or her own spiritual background and understanding. Readers of comparative religion authors such as Karen Armstrong and Thich Nhat Hanh will find much to consider in this thought-provoking book.