"Jackie's Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family" by Kathy McKeon (Gallery Books, 2017)

When Jackie Kennedy died, May 19, 1994, I cried—not the same kind of tears as the death Jack Kennedy, who died when I was 20—the tears of one woman mourning the loss of a great woman who died long before her time.  Jackie should have enjoyed her later life:  the Onassis money, her adult children, her grandchildren, her lovers.  We wanted her to find peace.

So, when I saw that Kathy McKeon, former personal maid and sometimes nanny for Jackie Kennedy, wrote a memoir, it was required reading.  And a lovely memoir it is.  Just enough beans spilled to pique interest, nothing in bad taste.  An homage to a great American family.

Such fascinating things are revealed.  The lives of Irish immigrants who serve the wealthy on the Upper East Side, paid a pittance, but given lodging and meals and a foothold in the U.S. The title, Jackie's Girl, comes from Rose Kennedy who could not remember any names in the throngs that surrounded her.  There was such sadness in Kathy’s telling of the solitary evenings of “Madame” as she rearranged furniture and artwork to kill time.  Caroline is shown to be the blossoming figure of adult responsibility.  John Jr. is shown to be capricious, rowdy, even described as medicated for ADD.  Both children loving and respectful with Kathy and their mother.  

Madame was grateful for Kathy’s talents, which she needed to raise her children in the rarefied air of the truly wealthy.  But she did not respect Kathy’s personal time or needs.  Madame came first, not surprising.  

The story is woven throughout with the trappings of the lives of U.S. royalty (Greek, too): private planes, multiple homes with staffs, summers on the Cape.  But the Kennedy family and Onassis, never seem stuffy, overly demanding or entitled.  Ok, somewhat entitled.  Kathy’s life experience while with the Kennedy’s (She joined them when she was 19 and lived with them for 12 years, until 1976.), at least in her retelling, was touched at various stages by learning, tenderness and inclusiveness.  

Jackie’s Girl reads quickly—large leading on the pages, so it fluffs out to 300+.  It shows the polish of a good ghost writer and editor.  The small photo section in the middle is heart-warming.  Recommended for all Jackie fans.  

Physical Festival June 2-10, 2017

This is our third year attending the festival.  It’s all the things we love to see on stage, with plot and drama created by movement, puppets, mime.  It’s a festival, so some are great, some good and some, well, just toads.

There was one spectacular performance:  Anatomy of Fear by Teatteri Metamorfoosi from Finland. It’s one actor relating his daily fears, mostly centered around work, where either he is, or is made to feel, inadequate by his manager.  The fear is represented by a slightly larger than life puppet – a doppelganger, manipulated by two superb puppeteers.  This is not done with strings; the puppet is the main character on the stage, brought to life by the puppeteers holding and working the puppet, mostly from behind, so it appears to have human movement.  Since the puppeteers are in total black (not even eyes showing) you soon forget their presence.

Misiposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych by Portmanteau of Chicago – a wonderful local puppet company.  This time the puppets are about two feet tall, rendered in beautiful detail and manipulated by four puppeteers, who also manipulate the scenery.  Again, the puppeteers totally in black so you can lose yourself in the miniature staged creation, forgetting how it is wrought.  We have now seen this group three years running and they deliver each time.


The Confetti Maker by Frank Wurzinger (Germany) – a one man Blue Man Group, with paper instead of blue goo.  Impossible to describe in a short paragraph, but if you are familiar with Blue Man, you get the picture - the one above is after the performance.  We loved it.  (Side note:  Blue Man Productions was recently purchased by TPG, who own Cirque de Soliel, so watch for major expansion.)

Wojtec: The Happy Warrior by The Quarter Too Ensemble (UK) – this would have rated higher because the story is fascinating, but was lost in the frenetic presentation.  It’s a true story of a Syrian brown bear adopted as a cub mascot by a Polish Armament Division stranded in the Middle East in WWII.  When they are deployed to Italy and fight in the Battle of Monte Casino, the now full-grown bear accompanies them and serves as a carrier of ammunition to the troops throughout the attack. 

Memory of Dust by Theatre de l’Ange Fou from France and Spring Green WI was an hour-long performance of modern dance/poetry performed by Steven Wasson and Corrine Soum.  Not exactly our cup of tea, but would have benefitted from more poetry, which was lovely.  The performers are easily in their 70’s with the stamina of young adults.

We also attended the evening of performances by locals learning the craft.  We were underwhelmed and hope that next year’s crop is either better pre-judged or that the organizers open the stage to a broader geographic audience of new performers.  

Overall, we enjoyed the festival and will always be there to be treated to unexpected greatness.  


“Barometer Rising” by Hugh MacLennan (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)

Second in the books I’m reading to prepare for my first visit to Nova Scotia in September.  Barometer Rising is an historical novel based in 1917, the First World War as experienced from the Canadian Maritimes.

MacLennan’s first novel (he went on to become a prominent figure in Canadian letters) folds elements of the Canadian experience into a romance set in history.  The reader’s experience is multiple:  how Halifax embraced her key role as the UK’s major port in the West, the jumping off point for convoys heading to the war bearing munitions, arms, lumber, coal, men—all produced in Canada and extracted to support a war effort that was not Canada’s. There is the experience of a provincial city (about 60,000), influenced by the mores of immigrants from the colonial U.S., Scotland, and the U.K., all conservative.  There is a touch of women’s rights, but only because of the war effort.  

The focal point of Barometer Rising is the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  As I was unaware of this tragedy, it pulled me right into the climax of all the characters’ development according to how they responded.  It is the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bomb.  Read the book or check Wikipedia if you want the horrible details.

MacLennan did an excellent job of setting up rich characters who harbor slowly revealed secrets and set the story in a time unique to Halifax.  This is an “old fashioned” historical novel. Just a soupçon of sex, lots of conflict—a well-written and easy to read book.  


"Hookman" , a play by Lauren Yee, produced by Steep Theater, May  2017

We saw Hookman over a month ago – mostly because we try to see everything that Steep produces, not because we were attracted to the play.  To refresh my mind, I read through several reviews, and this one from "Picture this Post" by Brent Eichoff seemed to capture an uneven night of theater, “this genre bending play jams one part drama, one part coming-of-age story, one part horror, and one part comedy into its 70-minute running time. The result is a dizzying and at times uneven, but thoroughly enjoyable play addressing such topics as the safety of young women, date rape, and survivor’s guilt."

What I remember most is the guiltless viciousness (funny as well) of the protagonist’s college friends.  Lexi, a college freshman from the Left Coast is attending an Ivy League school on the Right Coast, likely on scholarship.  A stream of frenemies keeps up a riff of indifference, boredom, malice and faux support.  Guileless Lexi finds solace in the reappearance of her West Coast BBF, who was killed in a gruesome auto accident involving Lexi.  It’s interesting that male reviewer Eichoff captured nothing of the loss of a loving friend and the reality of shallow acquaintances.  

The playwright, Lauren Yee, won multiple awards for her work, though she is just 21.  Yes, 21, and already has plays produced by The Goodman and Steep.  Imagine what the future hold for her and for us.   

"The Death of a Pope" by Piers Paul Read (Ignatius Press, 2009)

I've enjoyed Piers Paul Read's other books, so thought this would be a good read.  It was and it wasn't.  Quick and easy - sort of a Catholic thriller set around the death of one pope and election of another.  Good setting and Read knows his Catholic stuff.  But, the book needed to be fleshed out more.  Characters lacked depth, and as with most thrillers, the ends tied together all too easily.

The plot centers around the possibility of terrorist activity in Vatican City when hundreds of thousands of Catholics are in St. Peter's Square watching for white smoke.  Nice time to set off a bomb, either by ISIS or others who would like you to think that ISIS in involved.  That situation is not something that occurred to me, but I'm sure it has to the Vatican and the Roman police. We live in such strange times.

The Death of a Pope is a good beach read.

“The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” by Alistair MacLeod (Ontario Review Press, 1988)

Book #3 in my research reading for a trip to Nova Scotia.  These short stories are existential in their presentations of life, choice, decisions, death.  You won’t come away laughing or even smiling, but you will feel that you have experienced MacLeod’s vision of the people of Cape Breton.  Some stories (there are only seven.) have one protagonist, others cover generations.  The atmosphere is always starkly real.  

Nova Scotia had many waves of settlement. The Micmac were the natives when the Europeans took up residence.  First the French, the famous Acadians who were expelled mid-18th century by the British after six wars for domination.  The British encouraged emigration from the New England colonies and 2000 families came in the early 1760’s, both farmers and fishermen. At the same time, Gaelic Highland farmers in Scotland were forced off their crofts (rented land) by the Highland and Lowland Clearance: landowners forcing the change from farming to sheep grazing.  Also, many Highlanders were Catholic and the prospect of more religious freedom in Canada appealed. Many of these Highland farmers settled in New Scotland, Nova Scotia, around Cape Breton at the far eastern end.  It is the descendants of these people, some still speaking Gaelic, who are the protagonists in MacLeod’s stories.  They settled in Cape Breton to be away from others and continue their Highland traditions.

MacLeod’s stories arise from the pressure of more contemporary society on the traditions and the psyche of these settlers.  They are mostly farmers and fishermen; few characters are from the city.  Animals are laborers, not pets.  The older generation cling to their independence despite infirmity.  In the remote areas, there are no phones, no electricity, only bad roads and tight fishing boats.  

In a slightly different vein, the last story, The Closing Down of Summer, is about miners who go “off-island” for the big bucks and the big risks.  Again, it’s about the pressure of change, knowing that you and your mates will likely be replaced by equipment.  And the miner reflects a point of view I’ve not seen expressed in relation to work underground.

“I have always wished that my children could see me at my work…And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do.  That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculation of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.”

I am not a short story lover, but I felt fulfilled by MacLeod’s stories because they allow for character development.  All situated in Cape Breton, you begin to understand the nature of the environment, the people and plots from story to story.

Highly recommended, but not light reading.  

“Barometer Rising” by Hugh MacLennan (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)

#2 in the books I’m reading to prepare for my first visit to Nova Scotia in September. Barometer Rising is an historical novel based in 1917, the First World War as experienced from the Canadian Maritimes.

MacLennan’s first novel (he went on to become a prominent figure in Canadian letters) folds elements of the Canadian experience into a romance set in history.  The reader’s experience is multiple:  how Halifax embraced her key role as the UK’s major port in the West, the jumping off point for convoys heading to the war bearing munitions, arms, lumber, coal, men—all produced in Canada and extracted to support a war effort that was not of Canada's making.  There is the experience of a provincial city (about 60,000), influenced by the mores of immigrants from the colonial U.S., Scotland, and the U.K., all conservative. There is a touch of women’s rights, but only because of the war effort.  

The focal point of the book is the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  As I was unaware of this tragedy, it pulled me right into the climax of all the characters’ development according to how they responded.  It is the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bomb.  Read the book or check Wikipedia if you want the horrible details.

MacLennan does an excellent job of setting up rich characters who harbor slowly revealed secrets, and setting the story in a time unique to Halifax.  This is an “old fashioned” historical novel.  Just a soupçon of sex, lots of conflict—a well-written and easy to read book.  

“Holmes & Watson” by Jeffrey Hatcher, produced by Arizona Theatre Company

Billed as a “thrilling new Sherlock Holmes mystery”, it was more a “tongue in cheek mystery” based on Sherlock Holmes characters.  The plot is complex, as you need in a mystery, the acting was fine, the conclusion tied up all the loose ends.  It just didn’t light my fire.  Thankfully it was one long act.  Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a genre—you know what to expect.  There were several clever character reversals, and I appreciated the twists.  I would call this standard matinee fare, and we attended the matinee.  

"Hidden Ones: A Veil of Memories" by Marcia Fine (L’Image Press, 2017)

I love historical novels that make me dig deeper into the history told in the books.  And such is Hidden Ones, a novel about the Conversos, or Crypto-Jews of the new world.  

Set primarily in the 1650’s in Mexico City, the book traces the lives of Celendaria Crespin and her grandmother, Doña Clara Henriquez de Crespin.  They are victims of the Tribunals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the Spanish Catholic Church (and therefore Spanish government, there being no separation of church and state) against heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and unorthodox believers. The Inquisition was not limited to Spain, but included Italy, Portugal, the Papal States, and Spanish and Portuguese colonies.  It began in 1231 and officially ended in 1834.  

The Crespin family are Sephardic Jews, originally expelled from Spain in 1492 (yes, the same year Columbus discovered the New World) and the from Portugal in 1497.  The resulting diaspora spread Sephardic Jews throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe and into the New World.  At first, the choice given the Jews was convert to Catholicism or be arrested as heretics.  Later, even Conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) were arrested for their Jewish background and the belief they still practiced in private.  It was a no-win situation, driving Jews into complete denial and occlusion of their heritage.  Today, their descendants, most living as Catholics are amazed to find Jewish ancestors on the family tree.   The Crespins followed other Jews they knew to Mexico, hoping for a better life.  The Inquisition followed the diaspora.  

In Hidden Ones, the Crespins leave Mexico City in the 17th century for parts further north, eventually ending in Santa Fe, New Mexico by the 19th century.  Celendaria marries into a Converso family and they continue to carry on Jewish traditions without rabbis, books, synagogues, or minyans.  They learn to identify fellow Jews and bond with them.  

I was raised in the Catholic Church.  They don’t dismiss the role of the Inquisition in church history, but we learned more about bringing heretics and radicals to trial (think Galileo) than about Jews and Muslims.  It was uncomfortable and enlightening to put sympathetic, though fictional, characters through the gauntlet of accusation, arrest, bribery, torture and imprisonment.  

Until recently, the Crypto-Jews have remained an unknown part of the settlement of the Southwestern U.S.   When I moved to Tucson, part of the fascinating history was the role played by famous Jewish families who settled here to provide supplies for the mines:  Levis, Goldwaters, Drachmans, Appels.  But they came in the 1850’s from St. Louis and points east or west. Little did I realize that Crypto-Jews had been living in Arizona for centuries, immigrants from Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese colonies.  The University of Arizona website has a page on Crypto-Jews with links to historical research.  http://swja.arizona.edu/content/crypto-jews

Marcia Fine wrote this book in short chapters (a plus) titled to identify the point of view, Clara or Celendaria, and the date.  This enables a different type of dialogue using no quotation marks or attributions, as you know who is speaking. It makes for smoother reading and eliminates unnecessary words.  Initially, I had to make little associative leaps to get the rhythm, but after two chapters, I was into the flow.  

The story of the Crespin family is a solid foundation on which Hidden Ones is written.  The plot is straight forward and linked believably to the historical context.  It’s an easy read and one that may lead you to look more closely at local history and your family tree.

Reviewed by Ann Boland


“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins, 2016)

I read through the best-seller list in the WSJ every week.  Mostly, I don’t recognize the books, sometimes I do know the authors, but it keeps me in tune with the top of the book market in which I work.  Repeatedly, my eye was drawn to the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance which has remained on the non-fiction best sellers for months.  I was attracted by the unique title, but most of all by the author who I erroneously assumed was J.A. Jance, best-selling author of many mysteries set in the states of Washington and Arizona--great recreational reading.  I realized my cognitive error (old age) and looked up J.D. Vance—and ordered the book.

This is a memoir from childhood through early career of a boy born into a hillbilly family in Kentucky who migrates to Middletown, OH.  They move from rural poverty to urban factory jobs, along with other Kentucky families.  J.D. has a miserable childhood:  15 father figures who rotate in and out of his mother’s life, an unstable mother, and eventually, poverty.  But he is blessed with a loving and level-headed older sister, a mentoring aunt and grandparents who, though thoroughly hillbilly (a culture that he defines through example), love, nurture and guide J.D.  

It’s difficult for those of us who are middle-class white to empathize with poor whites.  I saw a bit in the 1950’s Ozarks where my grandparents had a 600-acre rock farm.  They were made poorer by the depression, but the rock farm was originally their hunting lodge, where they were now forced to live full-time.  Compared to our neighbors, the O’Mally’s, the DeVeaux’s, the Hogan’s, we were royalty.  And, since these neighbors owned farms, they were higher on the pecking order than most hillbillies in the book, and they were of a different generation. When U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood opened 20 miles away, many flocked to the steady government jobs and likely upward mobility.  

The kernel of J.D.’s memoir is that lower class whites feel they have been abandoned by both Democrat and Republican politicians and governments.  Traditionally Democrats, lower class whites feel abandoned by elite liberals from the East, much like they have been ignored by traditional Republicans who focus on the role of profitable business to float all boats.  And along comes Trump, who usurped the Republican party and paid attention to lower and middle-class whites and their plight of closed factories and disappearing jobs.  Combine that with distrust of print media and willingness to believe conspiracy theories about Obama, Clinton, health care, voting so enough changed parties to elect a man who really has no substantial understanding of the lower classes, black or white.  

The refreshing point of this memoir is that J.D. does not point fingers at the local, state or national government or the politicians for his childhood problems.  In true conservative style, he proves through his life that we all contain within us the ability to “move up”, make reality of our dreams.  He acknowledges the critical roles played by the mentors in his family, his universities, the Marines, his religion and his wife.  Conversely, he feels there is much more that can be done by government and middle and upper class individuals to focus on the core problems of poverty:  single mothers, a flood of cheap and available narcotics, underperforming schools, and the loss of religion.  

I can’t say I enjoyed this book – most of it is too bleak to be enjoyable.  It is well written; it’s a quick read; it isn’t didactic, and it makes you think.  If you are interested in one man’s insight into why the U.S. is foundering, you should read it.

I recommend that after you finish the book, you read this interview of J.D. Vance with Rod Dreher of “The American Conservative”.  It drills a bit further into Vance’s point of view.

And if you want some good reading for a mental holiday enjoy any of J.A. Jance’s books.  

“The Illegal” by Lawrence Hill (W. W. Norton & Co, 2016)

I listened to this book and the best thing about it is the narrator, Gideon Emery.  As many great audio book readers do, he created a voice for each character, making a rather dull book into a masterpiece.

Lawrence Hill also wrote The Book of Negroes which I reviewed several weeks ago.  I was interested to see what he would do with a contemporary novel.  

It’s the story of a young black marathon runner from Zantoroland, living illegally in Freedom State.  Why Hill thought it necessary to make this a slightly dystopian plot with fictional national entities, I don’t know.  Why not just use Somalia or Nigeria and South Africa?  Doing so would have required a lot more careful research, but it would have been so much more compelling.

In reading through the Amazon reviews, I noted that one Canadian reviewer thought the book depicted the condition of African-Americans.  That never crossed my mind.  Yes, Hill portrays problems of illegals, but they are universal problems today, and African-Americans are citizens, not illegals.  That said there are significant problems in the U.S. regarding the treatment of minorities and illegals.  Canada has a much better track record. 

I can’t find much to recommend The Illegal.  Not a bad read, just not good enough to merit the investment of time.  Listening to it in my car as I drove around Tucson was the perfect way to fill those boring minutes. 

“Any Human Heart” by William Boyd (Vintage International, 2004)

William Boyd rarely disappoints.  This epistolary novel pulls you into the intimate journals of Logan Mountstuart, born in Uruguay in the early 1900’s where his father was a corned beef baron.  It ends in 1991 with Mountstuart’s death at age 85 in France.  

In between, Mountstuart and family move to London and the adventures begin.  I felt that my protagonist was somewhat of a Zelig figure, in and out of every major event in the 20th Century.  But, isn’t that somewhat the point of writing a novel covering 85 years? Your main character gets to do interesting things:  public school, Oxford (Jesus College, a third in history), a moderately successful writer, a bad husband and father, then a good husband and father, a spy in WWII, family lost in the Blitz, art dealer in New York, bad husband again, professor in Nigeria during the Biafrian war, penniless quasi-revolutionary in London, finally a peaceful death alone at his home in France.

There’s a marked contrast between his privileged youth and middle-age and his more enlightened older, destitute days.  He learns to settle, to cope, to need friends, to be a friend and to be at peace.  

Boyd is an excellent writer.  Each of his books is a unique experience—well researched and a pleasure to read.  Highly recommended if you want to lose yourself in the world of Logan Mountstuart for a week or so.  

“The Book of Negroes: a novel” by Lawrence Hill (Norton, 2008) originally published in the U.S. as “Someone Knows My Name”

Lawrence Hill’s books were recommended to me by a friend living in Nova Scotia who is directing me to good historical fiction about the Maritime Provences of Canada.  We will be visiting there this summer.  

Hill is the son of a black father and white mother who emigrated from the U.S. to Canada in the 60’s.  Both parents were active in the Canadian civil rights movement and influenced Hill’s life work as a journalist and author.  He continues to live and work in Canada.

The Book of Negroes is the story of the Black Loyalists—slaves in the North American colonies who were promised freedom for remaining loyal to the British during the War of Independence.  They worked for the British in the military and in all sorts of skilled and unskilled trades. The story centers around the fictional life of Aminata Diallo, from her childhood in Mali, through capture, slave life, runaway life in New York, emigration to Nova Scotia, emigration to Sierra Leon, and final emigration to London.  As befits a heroine, Aminata is clever.  She becomes literate and numerate, speaks several languages and manages through a long, difficult and sad life.

There were about 3,000 slaves listed in The Book of Negroes, which is the hand-written list of former slaves given their freedom and transported to various places in the Maritimes of Canada.  They did not flourish.  The British government did nothing for them and the locals hated them.  You can’t say these former slaves would have been better remaining in the new United States.  To even return would have risked capture and re-enslavement.  In the 1790’s, British abolitionists funded a colony in Sierra Leon and invited former Black Loyalists settle there.  Life was ultimately no better, as they were abandoned by the abolitionists.  

When we visit Nova Scotia, we will be able to visit Birchtown, the original settlement of the Black Loyalists.  Because of the upcoming trip, I enjoyed this book immensely. Like most historical fiction, the story had to bend to reveal the events.  So, there is a feeling of a contrived plot, but it is all for a good purpose.   


“The Horseman: a novel” by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Oh, what a lovely book!  The time is January, 1911 through June, 1912.  The place is the estate of Lord Prideaux in south-central England.  The main protagonist is Leo Sercombe, 11, youngest son of Alfred Sercombe, the carter on the estate.  Leo’s stoic, quiet demeanor is enlivened only by horses.  He barely endures school, often truant to be with the horses.  

Leo’s same age is Lottie Prideaux, only and willful child of Lord Prideaux, who is widowed.  She is an excellent horsewoman and hunter – a little tomboy.  This book is the first of a trilogy taking Leo and Lottie from adolescence through the end of WWI.  

What makes this book special is the loving detail with which Pears describes life on the farms of the estate through the year and a half.  We witness the intense labor involving horses, machines and labor pools that expand and contract among the neighbors as needed.  We learn the roles of the carter, the grooms, the wheelwright, the farmers, the gamekeeper and other trade specialists that keep the estate producing.  Woven throughout are the personalities of these people and Leo’s immediate and extended family.  

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy a good historical novel based in early 20th century England.  

"The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts" By Joshua Hammer, (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

As part of the history of Spain, we’ve heard how the Muslim conquerors from Northern Africa had a flourishing culture of literature and science—and that much of it was lost when the Arabs were driven out of Spain.  But wait!  All was not lost.  Some of those priceless books, written in Arabic and other North African languages were hidden away by families and clans living in the desert and in the cities.  As were manuscripts written in Africa about astronomy, agriculture, religion, and poetry.  These were considered so valuable they hadn’t seen the light of day for centuries.

From the Simon & Schuster site:
“In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, … threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.”

There are three parts to the book:  the first describes the history of the texts and Haidara’s harvest.  The second details the political background for the rise of Al Qaeda in Mali.  The third tells the story of the rescue.  It’s easy reading except for the middle, where the similar Muslim names continue to challenge me.  

The author, Joshua Hammer, spent years in Mali.  In 2014, he wrote an account of the manuscripts in National Geographic.  Here you can see a few photos to enhance the story.  The book itself has only one unreadable map and no photos.  What a shame.  It’s an interesting book that I recommend for history buffs. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/innovators/2014/04/140421-haidara-timbuktu-manuscripts-mali-library-conservation/

"Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash", created by Richard Maltby, Jr., produced by The Arizona Theater Company

Maybe I don’t like the music of Johnny Cash as much as I thought, or maybe this wasn’t a great production.  Ring of Fire did not resonate with me, or the two fans attending with me.  It is not like the bio-pic, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that resounded with the music and personalities of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.  Ring of Fire is a vocal bibliography of most of the hits and some of the sleepers.  

The cast of ten surprised me.  Groups like Arizona Theater Company have swung away from large productions because of the cost of talent.  You not only have to hire the cast, you must pay room and board for a several months.  The cast was good.  They did not try to mimic Cash and Carter.  Some of the numbers were fun.  

Overall, a mediocre evening at the theater.  One good note is the new restaurant located next to the theater, Simplicit.  I had the poke bowl and reveled in the sushi/salad combo.   

“Conclave” by Robert Harris, (Knopf, 2016)

Continuing my light reading spree, I enjoyed the world of Conclave.  It’s about the election of the Pope, following the sudden death of a Pope with the liberal leanings of current Pope Francis.  The protagonist is Cardinal Lomedi, Dean of the College of Cardinals—a man who the former Pope declared his “manager”, but Lomedi doubts his personal spirituality.  There are 118 cardinals, various lesser administrators, the Sisters of Holy Something or Other, who handle the cooking and housekeeping at the hostel built to house the cardinals.  It’s a vast cast of characters and Harris does a good job of not confusing the reader with too much background on such rich personalities.

The main plot is the election, with various sub-plots on why prime suspects for election have clay feet.  The winner is not a total surprise, but Harris does pack a good punch into the end.  As a Catholic, I enjoyed revisiting the rituals of the Vatican and all the inter-Nicene conflicts between European, new world and third world cardinals.   Best of all, a great map of Vatican surrounding St. Peter’s begins the story.