Through the Eye of a Needle

needle jacketThrough the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD by Peter Brown

“Again, I tell you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.”  With these words, spoken by Jesus and brought to us by the gospels, Peter Brown, in his new book, attempts to deal with “The distinctive manner in which wealth and social status came together in Roman society.”

Wealth in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, was as unequally distributed as it is today.  Riches derived from the fruits of the land, expansion of the tilling of the soil and favorable planting conditions.  Rich farmers would intermarry with other wealthy landowners, so the profits would be kept within the family.  Well off families would create magnificent villas, and in time the Fabulous City of Rome with its overarching Emperor.  A lot of wealth was also created by using a slave class to do work that was not compensated.  Slaves were imported from conquered territories throughout the Empire.  In order to keep the slave and working classes pacified, in the cities, the wealthy patrons of Rome held almost daily Games and Circuses that were free to the general public.  While attending these events the common folk could forget their wretched lot for a while.

The rise of the Christian Churches started to compete with these enterprises by offering the Liturgy and the Eucharist to the wealthy and the poor.   By offering Jesus’s vision of “Eternal Wealth in Heaven” instead of transient riches here on earth, the Church was able to sway and gain hold with the moneyed class in what was now termed a “Pagan Environment”.   So instead of endowing themselves or passing on their wealth, the rich gave their treasure to the newly rising Christian church. “in some way or another, to give within the Christian Churches was to open a path to heaven.  That Wealth despised on earth should somehow follow the ethereal soul up to the stars opened a new horizon.”

Another element of giving to the church was the notion that possession of riches was evil. “There was a common proverb, cited on one occasion by Jerome, which stated that “a rich man is either a wicked man or the heir of a wicked man”

The writings of Augustine (City of God), Ambrose and Jerome amplify this thesis as the Roman Empire begins to disintegrate at the end of the 4th Century, due to Barbarian invasions and widespread internal corruption.

“Through the Eye of a Needle” reads like a novel. “His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in Heaven.”


Hattie Ever After

hattie jacketHattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

I enjoyed listening to Hattie Ever After, although I’m not sure if I read Kirby Larson’s first book, Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is now 17, an orphan, and working at a boarding house in Great Falls, Montana. Her friend Perrilee wants her to move to Seattle, and her boyfriend Charlie, just back from World War I, wants to get married. But Hattie has a dream, and impulsively takes a job as seamstress to a vaudeville troupe that is heading to San Francisco. Hattie’s big dream is to be a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She gets a job at the paper, but no writing is involved. Her entry-level job seems to pay pretty well, and she’s saving money to visit Perrilee. But then her new friend Ruby Danvers, who knew Hattie’s Uncle Chester, needs the money to visit her daughter. Ruby is quite friendly, but is not what she seems.

Hattie eventually gets some chances to write for the paper, beginning with a bet to get an assignment to cover a baseball game. A minor earthquake, an opera star who want to go flying and a visit from President Wilson provide some more opportunities. But Hattie has to decide just how important her dream is. San Francisco in 1919 comes to life, and Hattie is great company and often funny. I thought the narrator, Kirsten Potter, had a more mature voice than expected for a teenager, but was otherwise excellent. The author spent a lot of time with maps, online newspaper archives, and an old city directory to make San Francisco seem authentic. Now I need to listen to Hattie Big Sky, about her earlier adventures on a homestead in Montana.


Calling Me Home

kibler jacketCalling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Miss books like “The Help”? Can’t get enough of mid-century historical novels? Love to discover new authors? This book by new author Julie Kibler is a true winner, a poignant, tragic tale of forbidden love between Robert, a young African American teen in 1939 Kentucky and his lady love, 17-year-old Isabelle, who is torn between societal norms and her passionate love affair. The story is told in hindsight by 90-year-old Isabelle to her dear friend and hairdresser, Dorrie, who has agreed to accompany Isabelle to a funeral that she knows nothing about. As the story unfolds, it was shocking to read the racial prejudices that occurred, but it is still eye opening to read the similarities of prejudice, even today. I must say, this definitely does not read like a debut novel! Kibler writes similarly to Kathryn Stockett, especially as she draws from the experience of her own grandmother in telling this story. The characters are very well developed, and the story develops at a very quick pace. You won’t be able to put this one down!


The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

smitten jacketThe Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

I like cookbooks. I select them for the library’s collection, and I also collect them, skim them, look at the photos, flag promising recipes, and bake or cook recipes from each. But I don’t generally read them out loud. Deb Perelman’s entertaining first book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, was meant to be read out loud. She is young, has a tiny New York City kitchen, a husband, and a toddler. She also loves to cook and entertain, and find new dishes at a restaurant and then experiments (or obsesses) with getting them just right in her kitchen. Her wildly popular blog,, is full of recipes and observations on food and life. In the cookbook, the notes for each recipe are often hilarious, and guaranteed to make you hungry. I’ve already tried a few recipes, and my coworkers at the library agree that Deb’s Brownie Roll-Out Cookies are delicious.


The Great Escape

great escape jacketThe Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Sometimes I want something lighter to read, especially when I need an audiobook to listen to when I’m driving. Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s characters are very good company if you want a romance with some comedy. This is a companion book to Call Me Irresistible, and they can be read in any order. Lucy Jorik is the former president’s adopted daughter, and feels the need to live up to that responsibility. When she finds out at the last minute that she just can’t marry her perfect fiance, Ted Bodine, she panicks and runs away in a choir robe and heels. Wedding guest Patrick, who goes by Panda, gives her a ride on his motorcycle, and they end up on a road trip with Lucy in disguise to escape the press. Panda, although he wears offensive t-shirts, is very attractive and Lucy falls for him. Later, Lucy decides to track him down and ends up staying in his summer house on an island in Lake Michigan. She needs to do some writing for a book about her famous mother, but keeps getting sidetracked. We meet Bree, who has just become guardian to 12-year-old Toby, and is learning to keep bees, and local realtor Mike Moody, who Bree tries to avoid. When Panda, a security consultant, is hired by longtime client Temple, he brings the television diva to the island so she can lose weight while avoiding publicity. Lucy and Panda’s bickering, fighting their attraction, is very funny. Bree’s gradual realization that Mike is no longer the annoying boy she remembers is more heartwarming.

Readalikes for this book would include Jennifer Crusie, Janet Evanovich’s romantic comedies, and Elizabeth Adler.



foundation jacketFoundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors.  By Peter Ackroyd

Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short.  Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area.  There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years.  If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake.   If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.

Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword.  King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.

Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans.  The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”

The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies.  The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.

Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one.  Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created.  The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”

The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.

In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion.  There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.”  I guess some things never change.     There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of  2013.


Mistress of My Fate

fate jacketMistress of My Fate by Hallie Rubenhold

Miss Henrietta Ingerton has grown up in a life of privilege in 1780s London, but forever shadowed by her proud, selfish cousin, Lady Catherine. In a Mansfield Park-esque manner, Henrietta is timid, always bowing to the needs of her cousin, whom she desperately wants attention from, until the dashing Lord Allenham pays tribute to both girls. Henrietta and Lady Catherine both fall for him, but it comes out that Lord Allenham loves Henrietta, but cannot marry her, as she has no fortune. This comes to spell tragedy for the couple, but Allenham whispers a word to her that she will always remember: SURVIVE. So this tale is a first-person recollection of Henrietta’s survival so she can one day be reunited with her beloved, who mysteriously disappeared. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel–it has twists and turns, and feels a little like both Moll Flanders and Mansfield Park, rolled into one. The author is a Regency historian, which makes it quite fun for historical fiction lovers.


The Midwife of Hope River

midwife jacketThe Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Midwife Patience Murphy settles in West Virginia in 1929, hiding from her past. The midwife who trained her has died, and she gets her own clients as the local midwife, Mrs. Potts, nears retirement. Reluctantly, Patience soon acquires a young African American assistant, Bitsy. Called out at all hours and in all weather, Patience and Bitsy are just scraping by, as many of their patients are also struggling. Gradually Patience reveals her past, from being orphaned at 14, to working at the orphanage laundry, running away to become a chorus girl, and becoming a wet nurse. She has also lost the two men she loved, one to an accident and the other in a violent workers’ strike. Descriptions of the births are detailed and sometimes joyful, and life in the Appalachians during the Great Depression is vividly portrayed. A nearby vet is unexpectedly helpful, and friends are found in unlikely places, but so is trouble. A memorable first novel, written by a nurse-midwife.


Readalikes for The Shoemaker’s Wife

The Big Read Selection for 2013 is The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, a novel about Italian American immigrants in the early 1900s. Here are some more novels you might enjoy:

Alcott, Kate. The Dressmaker.  Titanic survivor in New York City.

Cohen, Paula. Gramercy Park.  Set in the 1890s, famous Italian tenor rents house near Gramercy Park while singing at the Metropolitan Opera, falls in love.

Duenas, Maria. The Time in Between.  Spanish fashion designer stranded in 1930s Morocco, opens dress shop.

Forster, E.M. A Room With a View.  Written and set in early 1900s, an Italian pensione caters to British tourists.

Gentle, Mary. The Black Opera.  Nineteenth century Italy, opera librettist.

Mazzucoo, Melania. Vita.  Two children from southern Italy try to survive in New York City’s Little Italy in 1903.

McDonnell, Adrienne. The Doctor and the Diva.  Early 1900s opera singer seeks treatment for infertility.

Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism.  Young priest teaches orphans at a convent during World War II, redesigns old handcrafted puppets to tell Bible stories, but the puppets come to life in this horror novella.

Moser, Nancy. An Unlikely Suitor.  Italian American dressmakers in 19th century NYC and Newport, Rhode Island.

Olafsson, Olaf. Restoration.  Set in Tuscany in 1944.

Pezzelli, Peter. Home to Italy.  Recently widowed Peppi returns to his native Italian village and finds that his old friend and fellow mountain biker Luca now owns a candy factory run by his lovely daughter Lucrezia.

Russell, Mary Doria. A Thread of Grace.  Northern Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Many thousands of Jewish refugees fled here during World War II.

Schoenewaldt, Pamela. When We Were strangers.  Italian American immigrant finds work as seamstress in 1880s Cleveland and Chicago.

Trigiani, Adriana. Lucia, Lucia.  Italian American seamstress looks back on her life in NYC.

Trigiani, Adriana. Very Valentine.  Family owned shoe company in New York City, started in 1903 by Italian American immigrants.

Walters, Jess. Beautiful Ruins.  1960 Italy and modern day United States.