Shirley Read-Jahn’s memoir, Dancing Through Life, is as joyous as its title promises. Not that there are no trials and tribulations in the accounts of the seventy-plus years she describes. No, indeed. But the point of all of them for her is to keep dancing and laughing and hoping and loving it all.

She has such a fascinating background, that it seems like a made-for-a -memoir script, though that was certainly not her purpose. Her purpose was not writing it, but living it. She started life in England, 1944, with her (somewhat) older sister, making her a near-contemporary of mine. Both of us war time babies, except I spent the war safe and sound in the USA, and my father was not a philandering British spy. That’s just for starters.

She grew up in both countries and spoke both languages (her propensities for languages is something else I don’t share with her.) She also had a wanderlust I could but imagine. For that, she was born into exactly the right time and circumstance. Around the world she went, she and her vagabond sister, fully immersed in the “hippie-ness” of the sixties and seventies. Her mother and father divorced, leaving their girls a bit rootless and hankering for adventure, a hankering they’ve spent a lifetime indulging. The countries and continents they’ve explored are enough to make for a full and instructive read. And always, always, fun.

She’s an Australian right now, pursuing writing and belly-dancing. Not many can live up to that sentence, but it only touches the surface of this exuberant life. I feel I know her through these pages, and I will live always jealous of her derring-do and the adventurous years she’s lived and will continue to create as her future unfolds. This is a volume 1, so please send volume 2 our way, Shirley, and soon.




John L’Heureux is a well-known literary personage, though I’ve read little of his work until The Beggar’s Pawn crossed my path.

I usually find it easy to detach my personal feelings about a book’s characters and events and judge according to literary values. I also try to avoid spoilers. With this one, though, I’m making an exception.

Whatever the novel’s other virtues, I cannot forgive L’Heureux for having a father drown his little daughter. The event, to my mind is both graphic and unnecessary.

Nothing else to say.


The Night Watchman. Doesn’t sound much like an Erdrich title, does it? The Last Report On the Miracles At Little No Horse, Antelope Wife, The Painted DrumIt takes only a few pages, though, to demonstrate that we are squarely in Louise’s territory.

It’s the early 1950’s. The Turtle Mountain Chippewas are imperiled. A racist congressman has introduced a bill relieving government of all responsibility for the tribe so that they can live more responsible American lives. That his proposal abrogates the treaty that promised them their land (scant and poor as it is) “as long as the grass grows and the river flows” is of no consequence to this guy.


Put that way, this sounds like a social protest book, and that element is certainly part of the picture. However, Erdrich grounds the saga in Native American family life. Love, sex, survival, integrity. In some ways, this is a coming of age book for protagonist “Pixie” who keeps trying to change what people call her to “Patrice” as one way of growing up. People try, but it’s a struggle. It might sound like a trivial thing that is important only to one young woman, but her battle is emblematic of the struggle for identity of an entire people. They’re trying hard to survive and stay sane and stay themselves in the face of hostile campaigns from all sides. And of course this has been going on for generations.

And what of the night watchman? He takes his lunch pail to work every night to guard a warehouse. And to write the script for the tribe’s defense against the ugly legislation. And to commune with an owl who keeps visiting for purposes baffling and mysterious.

As always in an Erdrich tale, there’s generous comedy here. Of note to me is one scene where a stallion takes off after a mare in heat and disrupts a parade. I was reminded of a sequence in Little No Horse where a sled is hijacked by a runaway moose, and we follow his bouncing balls across a lake.

But comical as some of the novel is, it is also painful and touching. We love these characters and we love following their travails. And I love the ending. A true surprise of the most pleasing and profound sort.

Thanks again, Louise. You’ve enriched my life yet again.


Ancient Rome is not my ordinary stomping grounds. For some reason, avid as I am about a wide range of history, my interest in Rome has mainly been confined to its relations vis a vis Britain. In my travels, I’ve been awed by the omnipresent ruins of the empire. Every continent seems to present with an amphitheater or a collection of decapitated columns or some such splendid ruin. However, a friend suggested I take a look at Pliny.

Pliny the Elder? I knew the name, but little else. Oh, there is a boutique beer by that name recently introduced in our area. Haven’t tried it yet, though. My Google oracle says there will be a Pliny the Younger introduced this very year. I have work to do, don’t I?

At any rate, my friend suggested that In The Shadow of Vesuvius would be a good place to start, so here we are.

For those who are as ignorant as I was before I opened Daisy Dunn’s work,


Pliny the Elder was the uncle of Pliny the Younger, who adopted the young man, whose father died young, at an early age. Pliny and his mother thus came under the care of the Elder. The family was wealthy and well-educated, and Pliny had a scholarly bent thus taking after his learned uncle, who wrote volumes about the area around Vesuvius–flora, fauna, history. Then came 79 A.D. (CE if you’re in museumspeak).

The volcano had been inactive for many long years, but not that year. Without much warning, the mountain started gushing fire, smoke, and death. Pliny the Elder was killed, probably trying to help victims escape the holocaust. Pliny the Younger survived and inherited an enormous collection of property, possessions, and slaves all located around Lake Como. A fascinating if perilous beginning for a young adult, but Pliny was up to it.

He proved as assiduous about writing and study as his uncle. He also fashioned himself a political career, drawing on his knowledge of law and his writing skills. He defended and prosecuted. He delivered hours-long speeches on the floor of the Senate, (The Senate still had a couple of centuries to go before Diocletian essentially abolished it.), and emperors took notice of him and his skills.

Pliny worked long hours with few breaks. He wrote history, and like his uncle, was interested in horticulture. He conducted numerous agricultural experiments, his vast landholding giving him access to a variety of soils, moisture, and sun exposure. And always he was writing, sometimes to explore matters appropriate to his great intellect, sometimes to acquit himself in court, sometimes to curry favor with an emperor (which could be a matter of life or death).

His was a remarkable and aristocratic life, and apparently his observations are the best record we have of first century Rome. Pretty fascinating stuff.

A note about the author. Ms. Dunn is quite the scholar herself, noting that she has done a lot of her own translating of the Greek and Latin documents she used for her research. In another life, I’ll be able to cruise through various languages in that manner. In the meantime, all I can do is worship from afar.







The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz








I first encountered Erik Larson’s masterful prose in his The Devil In The White City, wherein he turned a relatively minor incident connected to the Chicago World’s Fair into a suspenseful murder mystery. The kind of thing that makes for historical drama so intense that you can’t believe you’re reading about real-life people and events. That was quite a while back, so I welcomed with hesitant arms my brother-in-law’s recommendation of his latest.

I say “hesitant” because I’ve about had my fill of war books after having spent multitudinous hours over the last years amid the stupidity, carnage, and futility of all our major American wars plus a couple of similar conflicts in which the U.S.A. had no part. However, I figured maybe it was time to dive back in.

I mused on the title. The subtitle says this is a Churchill book, so I automatically figured HE would be the splendid one and perhaps Hitler would be the vile. But hold on. It’s not just a Churchill HIMSELF book, it’s about the Churchill family. So maybe it’s not just another paean to the conquering hero. I know little or nothing about the family. “Sarah” & “Randolph” were familiar names; beyond that, my ignorance was vast. So, without even opening page one, I had more than enough reason to turn the page.

What a family.

Larson gives us plenty of WWII, its prologue and aftermath and Winston’s part  in all of it, but the focus really is on the family, and much of it is not as admirable as the legends of the English perseverance might suggest. Here we are a bare couple of decades since what was called The Great War in which an entire generation of English soldiers had perished for virtually no gain, yet the Europeans are ready to do it all over. Once again, soldiers by the tens of thousands marched, sailed, and flew abroad and stayed there. Underground or underwater or scattered wherever the explosives dropped them. Or parts of them.

I’ve always been contemptuous of the America Firsters of this period who refused to commit the USA to this epic conflict despite the fact that centuries of western civilization–indeed, the entire English-speaking world–was in peril. However, I began to think they had a point. Not enough of a point to change my mind, but the colossal idiocy that would create such a monster as this at a time such as this leaves me breathless to even think about.

That’s one point of vileness, though not one, I think Larson is talking about.

Another point of vileness is Hitler, etc. But Larson, thank goodness, spends little time there. Adolph just is, like the weather. No need to dwell on him.

The surprising vileness to me is the way the Churchills and their ilk treated one another and their actions in face of the cataclysmic events that surrounded them. I tried to withhold my judgement, tried putting myself in their place. I’ve never been there, so what would I do if I were a child of near-royalty, inclined toward drinking and partying night after night and suddenly finding myself in a situation where the drinking and partying were inappropriate? Would I become a Nero-Roman as well? I would hope not, but who knows for sure?

For the Churchill kids and their ilk,  the band played on, and they kept dancing.  It was nice for out-of-work musicians that  there was still dancing and singing and clubbing. But when your saxophone player gets blown literally in two, might it give you pause?

Some of the vileness might have happened anyhow. Spoiled and self-indulgent Randolph, for example, would likely have fucked himself crazy, gambled away a fortune, and abandoned a sweet wife and a couple of kids war or no war.

They weren’t all like that. Mary  partied hearty, to be sure, but she also joined the Red Cross and did other charitable work. Diana worked for a naval charity. Not so Sarah, the actress, who was famously entertaining and independent though apparently not charitably inclined.

Somehow, though, all these characters in the book seem secondary to John Colville, Winston’s secretary. He’s there during the parties and during the negotiations. Beyond the history, we follow his rather pathetic romantic life. He pursues an unrequited and unrequiteable love for years. Knowing it’s hopeless, knowing he’s pitiable, yet unable to tear himself loose.

The Splendid and the Vile is well worth the read, but, I think, suffers from the lack of focus that makes Colville such a prominent character in the book, even though he wasn’t such in life. There’s a case to be made for introducing character’s such as Jonson’s Boswell who stand aside and observe and bring us insights we’d never get otherwise. But Colville is no Boswell. And though we learn facts and get descriptions from him, we gain no particular insights. As a result, Larson anchors us readers nowhere, but leaves us flitting here and there like butterflies sipping a drop of nectar here and there, but never (and let’s leave the butterfly analogy behind right here),  never sitting us down to a hearty emotional meal.