Editor's Choice

La Belle SauvageClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Philip Pullman

Summary

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy….

Malcolm's parents run an inn called The Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust—and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, he sees suspicious characters everywhere: the explorer Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a daemon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl—just a baby—named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

BookBrowse Review

Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I heard that Philip Pullman would be revisiting the world he brought to life in the His Dark Materials series – not as a prequel or sequel series, but what he refers to as an "equel" – a series that is meant to stand on its own, yet as companion to the first. While I'm not sure if I agree that this is what he has achieved with the first installment of the new trilogy, I can say with certainty that La Belle Sauvage has left me excited for all that might come next in the series.

La Belle Sauvage is set in the same alternative universe as the earlier trilogy, and tells the story of how Lyra Belacqua - the protagonist in the first series - came to reside at Jordon College at Oxford University. While the beloved heroine is in the text, she is just a baby. It is the need to protect Lyra that drives the new young protagonists Malcolm Polstead and Alice Parslow on their epic journey from Godstow Priory to Oxford by canoe in a flood.

The book pulls from multiple literary styles: part spy novel, part bildungsroman, part adventure or quest tale, then, suddenly, glimpses of magical realism and embedded other-worlds. And while any one of these stylistic choices could have lent a very fascinating take on the narrative, there were places in which this mix of styles, combined with the detail paid to setting and sense of place, served to disrupt the pacing. As in the earlier series, the setting does help to draw the reader in, but here it is not seen through Lyra's eyes and is, instead, viewed from a wider, more distant lens which made it distracting. So much detail is given that, at times, I felt my interest fading; it was less of a map leading me to the heart of the narrative and more like an inside conversation with those who know and love Oxford, leaving the rest of us who have never been there trying to keep apace with the conversation. The other drawback for me was that, at times, it felt like instead of letting the narrative lead him freely, Pullman was trying to tie up too many loose ends from the first series with regard to how Lyra, as a little girl, came to be living amongst the scholars.

That being said, this is a charming fantasy. Alice has quickly become one of my favorite characters ever written, and Pullman shows us again that he is a master of writing, not only for children, but for anyone. All readers who come to his books will find something for them. It is not a text that can be easily simplified to mean any one thing, and I am certain that those who come to this series first, and then look to read His Dark Materials, will have an utterly different experience. That is the mark of a good fantasy; it should be approachable for all, but not one-size-fits-all in what a reader might take from it. The narrative should provide us each with our own journey into our perceptions of the world. In a time of prescriptive fantasies, Pullman has once again given us an adventure that, for adults, appeals to the myriad complicated emotions we once had when we were young.

Book reviewed by Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Beyond the Book:
Godstow Abbey

Godstow AbbeyIn his first trilogy, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman brings readers into the story through an intense use of space; he gives us a fantastical Oxford, but described in such a way that readers could visit the real place and trace Lyra's adventures around the city and colleges and thus bring the fantasy world into their own. Pullman's new book, La Belle Sauvage is no different; Godstow Priory, which plays such a large role in shaping the plot and setting of the text, is based on a real place: the Godstow Abbey or Nunnery. The Trout Inn is also real.

Godstow Abbey WindowGodstow is a hamlet on the River Thames about 2.5 miles northwest of the center of modern day Oxford. The abbey (in our world, at least) was built in the 1130s. Founded by Edith of Winchester, sometimes known as Dame Ediva (widow of Sir William Launceline of Winchester) it was built on what was then a small island between two streams that ran into the Thames. According to local tradition, Edith had a vision in which she was told to go live near Oxford and wait for a sign from God directing her to build a place in his name. One night while staying at Binsey, a village in Oxfordshire, she heard a voice tell her to go where the light from heaven reached the ground and build a nunnery for 24 gentlewomen. The light she saw was over Godstow, so she went to King Henry I with her vision to ask for approval for the new nunnery. It became a Benedictine nunnery for aristocratic ladies, and enjoyed patronage from many noble families, including the royal family. Rosamund Clifford, who was King Henry II's mistress for many years, is buried there.

The abbey was entered through a two-story gatehouse with two gates: a large one for carts and a smaller one for foot traffic. Inside were multiple buildings including a guest house, nunnery, a priest's lodging, St. Thomas's chapel which was used by the servants at the abbey, the abbey church and cloisters.

George Price Bryce

Henry VIII, through Parliament and the Second Act of Dissolution, dissolved the abbey in 1539. His physician, George Owen, then converted it into Godstow House, which was occupied by Owen's descendants until 1645. Though in Pullman's book it is ruined by a flood, in our world the buildings were damaged during the English Civil War, after which they fell into disrepair as locals removed and repurposed the stone into other buildings. However, remnants of Godstow Abbey can still be seen, and Pullman's association with it is not its only artistic connection; the Godstow site was painted by George Price Boyce, a Victorian Pre-Raphaelite watercolor painter; and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, brought the Liddell sisters to Godstow for picnics and river trips -- where the ideas for Alice in Wonderland are said to have been formed. It was also well known to such Oxford writers as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who frequently traversed the footpath that runs past it.

The trout InnSince 1924 the site has been held in trust by Oxford University and can be visited easily from central Oxford. Just as in Pullman's book, it sits opposite The Trout Inn - a popular and active pub – directly on the Thames Path, a 184-mile hiking and biking trail that follows the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds through London to the sea.

Remains of Godstow Abbey and its best preserved window, both courtesy of www.britainexpress.com
George Price Boyce's Godstow Nunnery, Oxfordshire, 1862, courtesy of arthistory.wisc.edu
The Trout Inn, courtesy of www.dailyinfo.co.uk

Leonardo da VinciClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Walter Isaacson

Summary

Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo's astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo's genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.

He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history's most creative genius.

His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history's most memorable smile. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper. Isaacson also describes how Leonardo's lifelong enthusiasm for staging theatrical productions informed his paintings and inventions.

Leonardo's delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it - to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.

BookBrowse Review

The name Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most recognized in all of Western history, and his paintings are some of the most beloved works of the Renaissance. In November 2017, Salvator Mundi, which still has experts disagreeing over whether Leonardo actually painted it, sold for a record-breaking $450 million. When tackling such a well-known figure, it takes both skill and creativity to share new insights with readers. Thanks to his innovative use of source materials, Walter Isaacson has done just that in his latest biography, Leonardo da Vinci.

Isaacson quickly sketches Leonardo's early life as the illegitimate son of a middle-class notary. Rather than be shunned because of his status, Leonardo, born in 1452, grew up surrounded by family, seemingly untroubled by his being a bit of an outsider who showed artistic talent at an early age. In reconstructing his life story beyond childhood, Isaacson relies primarily on Leonardo's own notebooks, of which over 7,000 pages still exist today. This allows us readers to see the inner workings of his mind and imagination as his life took him from a tiny Tuscan village to the epicenters of the Renaissance. (See 'Beyond the Book')

Around 1464 Leonardo moved to Florence, where he became an apprentice in an art and engineering workshop run by a minor artist, Andrea del Verrocchio. He would stay in Florence nearly 15 years before relocating to Milan to live and work at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. The constantly shifting nature of Italian politics caused Leonardo to move frequently throughout his life, as the fortunes of his patrons waxed and waned.

As his story unfolds, Isaacson pauses throughout to delve into the many aspects of Leonardo's genius: designing war machines, studying fluid dynamics, exploring flight, performing dissections and anatomical studies, and of course, painting, to name only a few of Leonardo's obsessions. By using the notebooks as the primary source material, Isaacson shows us doodles and flights of fancy as well as detailed diagrams and planned sketches. He describes the entries in detail, and reprints images directly from them.

We see how Leonardo's study of light and optics resulted in the chiaroscuro, or shadowy contrasts, that make his paintings so realistic. We learn how his diligent exploration of facial and lip muscles helped him to paint the most subtle yet memorable smile in history in the Mona Lisa. Isaacson explains, "…his analysis of nature informed his art, which informed his analysis of nature." And indeed, his notebooks reveal a mind of boundless curiosity and singular brilliance.

We also learn just how much of Leonardo's genius stayed in his notebooks and never reached his contemporaries. From principles of motion to innovative sewers, Leonardo was far ahead of his time. His theorizing and experimentation preceded the scientific method of the Enlightenment, and his discovery of how heart valves function wouldn't be properly understood by doctors until the 1960s.

And yet, so much was left undone—countless discoveries went unpublished, his flying machines and fearsome weapons were left unbuilt, and numerous unfinished paintings were never given to those who commissioned them. Isaacson, however, reinterprets these events with a twist: rather than bemoan what didn't happen, he opines that Leonardo was happier by moving from subject to subject, that he enriched his own life by following his changing passions.

It's hard to argue with this interpretation. The Leonardo who comes through in this account is a friendly and approachable genius. He appears comfortable with his homosexuality, unlike his contemporary Michelangelo. He's surrounded by students, assistants, and friends throughout his life—the very opposite of the brooding loner trope so often applied to artists. Isaacson does Leonardo a great service by humanizing him, and he clearly admires his subject's genius, which was all the more impressive since Leonardo had very little formal education. However the author sprinkles references to modern geniuses throughout and particularly in his didactic conclusion telling readers to be like Leonardo. Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a genius in his own right, but comparing men who lived almost 500 years apart is ahistorical since their times are so different, and too often it feels like Isaacson is plugging his earlier books.

These stumbles aside, the biography provides a rich and fascinating look inside one of the world's greatest minds, from his to-do lists to his masterpieces. It inspires wonder at what one person can do, and appreciation for all that this true Renaissance man accomplished.

Book reviewed by Rose Rankin

Beyond the Book:
The Education Revolution

The term "Renaissance man" means a polymath, or someone who excels at many fields. Few people earned that moniker as brilliantly as Leonardo da Vinci, who actually lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance. Making his accomplishments even more remarkable is the fact that he didn't receive much in the way of a formal education. Leonardo was rightfully proud that he didn't "accept dusty Scholasticism or the medieval dogmas that had accumulated since the decline of classical science and original thinking," as Walter Isaacson explains in his biography of the Renaissance master.

But while Leonardo himself was working and discovering, education in the Renaissance was undergoing important changes, ultimately setting the stage for the study of liberal arts that we still recognize today. The program of Scholasticism, a method of study that dominated the Middle Ages, was being swept aside as European societies re-discovered works by ancient Greeks and Romans. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy, this evolved into the studia humanitatis, the educational program of the Renaissance. The studia humanitatis consisted of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy based on the reading of classical Greek and Latin authors. In the 1400s both the texts and the purpose of education changed. Writers whose works had been lost to Europeans for centuries were re-discovered, and education became a means to self-improvement. The development of humanism and its emphasis on mankind rather than theology prepared the ground for this shift in the larger purpose of education.

For example, in the first years of the fifteenth century the humanist scholar and teacher Pier Paolo Vergerio wrote a treatise on education, The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth. In it he said, "Thus in philosophy we find rules explaining what one may profitably do or shun, but in history we find examples to follow." Humanists valued both philosophy and history because they focused on bettering the individual through knowledge of virtuous actions and examples of people in the past. This was a significant change from the Middle Ages, when past events were interpreted as the progression of God's will, not the actions of independent people.

The value placed on the history of non-Christian ancient people in the early Italian Renaissance removed the veneer of theology from history, and humanists began to see the subject as the choices and actions of men, not the will of God. This new outlook allowed humanists to see value in the personal qualities of historical characters, and they praised certain people for their valor and successes and condemned others for their failures or mistakes. Teachers used texts from ancient Romans including Livy and Valerius Maximus, and over the course of the fifteenth century, they added ancient Greeks like Herodotus and Thucydides. In the process they fostered the critical study of history, which was the beginning of the modern subject as it is studied today. Likewise, moral philosophy was taught via these ancient authors and others including the poems of Virgil, Terence, Horace, and Ovid. As Paul F. Grendler explained in Schooling in Renaissance Italy, these morals were considered the basis of a loyal, industrious (male) citizen: "He learned to honor laws, institutions, and customs, as well as persons. Social ethics consisted mostly of loyalty to family, friends, and patria, especially patria [homeland]."

Cicero Underpinning all these changes was the revival of classical rhetoric—meaning the ability to give an eloquent speech and write persuasive letters and documents. The study of rhetoric in the Renaissance was based overwhelmingly on the writings of the ancient Roman politician Cicero. Whereas in the Middle Ages rhetoric meant formulaic letter writing with very specific salutations and structure, Renaissance rhetoric emphasized emulating the style of Cicero's letters and speeches, particularly their ability to persuade and teach. Renaissance princes, politicians, and businessmen were expected to take part in the active civic life of their cities, kingdoms, and republics; therefore they needed to know how to communicate. Cicero provided extensive examples of emotional, moving letters and exhortations to duty and service. "The human situations and civic values that filled Cicero's letters clinched their primacy for the Renaissance," according to Grendler. "The letters taught not only practical rhetorical skills, but personal morality in a social context." As a result, Cicero's style became the centerpiece of an educational program that focused on improving the individual and helping them contribute to society.

The changes to education that took place in the Renaissance—an appreciation of history, an emphasis on persuasive and stylistic communication, a reverence for classical literature and Latin—shaped education into the twentieth century. Today, the liberal arts education that focuses on research and writing is a direct outgrowth of the studia humanitatis, and only in very recent decades have the classical languages Latin and Greek taken a backseat. The educational program developed by humanists also became a way for middle-class students in the Renaissance to climb the social ladder with marketable skills—and education remains as much a vehicle for socioeconomic advancement today as it was 500 years ago.

Picture of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo - Musei Capitolini - Rome by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The ImmortalistsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Chloe Benjamin

Summary

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

BookBrowse Review

On a summer day in 1969 in New York City, the Gold children agree to seek out a mysterious neighborhood fortune teller who is rumored to be able to predict the day you will die. One by one they enter the psychic's apartment, from youngest to oldest – Simon, Klara, Daniel, and finally Varya – to receive their fortune, which they are warned to keep secret. As the siblings regroup outside, visibly distressed, they realize that whether the fortune teller is genuine or a charlatan is almost inconsequential; these predictions are going to haunt them for the rest of their numbered days.

After this intriguing prologue, The Immortalists shifts into four distinct sections set over the next fifty years, each focusing on one of the Gold siblings as they forge their own identities in light of their fortunes.

This simple but effective mystical conceit allows Benjamin to expertly play with our notions of pre- and self-determinism. What makes it even more gripping is that she never makes it explicit whether the psychic's predictions are self-fulfilling or not. It is up to the reader to decide, and without spoiling anything, suffice to say that there's plenty of evidence for both sides of the argument. Whichever one readers choose probably indicates which of the Golds' lives, and consequently which chunk of the novel most resonates with them.

Simon flees to San Francisco where he can explore his sexuality freely and, given the naivete of the times, rather recklessly. Klara dedicates her life to becoming a stage magician, living a freewheeling existence trying to make ends meet. Daniel and Varya, the older pair, opt for more conventional, quiet lives closer to home and their widowed mother. Daniel falls in love and becomes an army doctor. Varya steadily isolates herself from people and relationships, choosing to throw herself into her scientific research to prolong life.

Benjamin beautifully presents these four individual lives, with their own enviable ups and tragic downs. They all feel equally believable and each sibling acts according to his or her own interior logic. Daniel, who was the one to instigate the visit to the fortune teller in the first place, feels a lifelong sense of guilt for having caused his siblings so much mental turmoil. He is constantly trying (and failing) to keep his family safe and tightly knit. Klara, who is perhaps the one sibling to fully embrace her fortune, throws herself into life, happy to dedicate her time to her passion for stage magic even if it comes at a cost.

It is perhaps Benjamin's deftness in writing about familial matters that is most exquisite. From section to section, the reader is made to empathize with the brothers and sisters as they navigate a shared inner conflict between family duty and personal desires with their looming death days in mind. With uncluttered incisive prose, the author constantly brings to light the quiet tensions and bonds operating just under the surface of the relationships between the Gold family. She gracefully shows the small rifts that have the potential to become irreconcilable fractures, such as when Simon goes against his mother's wishes and runs away from his responsibilities to the family tailoring business. In this moment he realizes "there now exists a pane of glass between him and his former home, a pane he can see through but not cross." It is a subtle observation perfectly and concisely expressed, which anyone can relate to as we all face that point of no return when adulthood beckons.

Conversely, at a point when Klara is forced to return home, feeling trepidation at the prospect since she hasn't seen her family in years, she only has to walk through the door and see her sister Varya to realize "the time apart did not matter, not yet. They were sisters. That mattered, nothing else." It's these moments that are the glue of the novel, and as a reader you are really made to feel that no matter how far apart the siblings are — geographically, emotionally, in life and in death — they are forever bound to each other. These gentle, often unspoken intimate moments particularly stick in mind and tug at the heartstrings, even more so than all the dramatic, suspenseful scenes.

The Immortalists' one discernible shortcoming is arguably its length. At around 350 pages, once we are past the prologue, each Gold sibling is afforded approximately 80 pages of dedicated time. All things considered, that's a rather short while to establish where they are presently at in adult life, to garner insight into their backstory, to understand their worldview, their idiosyncrasies, their motivations, their raisons d'etre. No sooner are we fully invested in one of the Golds' lives than their narrative arc comes to an all-too-soon conclusion, and we're whisked onward to the next sibling only to begin the process of acquaintanceship all over.

On the one hand, this succinctness keeps the pace moving along and makes for a lean entertaining novel. There really are no dull moments here, no unnecessary digressions. Also to this point, pretty much every character serves a function. Every key supporting character introduced re-enters the fold at a later stage in the novel to some degree. Benjamin is evidently not one for waste.

The downside of this is, because it is so skilfully and intricately woven, the novel does ring a little false on the whole. Real life is full of incidental moments and tangential events. We have odd and sometimes meaningful encounters with people whom we never see again. It's these loose ends that make for a richer, more serendipitous existence. As such The Immortalists would have perhaps benefited from a lengthier showing that would have allowed for a smattering of calculated detours to more accurately reflect the winding, haphazardness of everyday life.

Ultimately, this criticism serves as a testament to Benjamin's effortless writing style and the likeability of her characters that by the end, the reader wishes they had been given more time to spend with each of the four siblings. While there is plenty to enjoy in the way of story and characterization, it is perhaps the profound ideas and questions the novel poses about fate and free will that will stay with readers and make The Immortalists one of 2018's most discussed novels.

Book reviewed by Dean Muscat

Beyond the Book:
Romani Fortune Tellers

Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists begins with four children visiting a fortune teller in New York in the '60s. The fortune teller is nameless. Her whereabouts is only gleaned from hearsay and neighborhood gossip. What's more, the psychic is said to regularly change address to avoid being detected by the authorities. Despite being shrouded in mystique, she still manages to attract a regular clientele of New Yorkers who swear by the precise insight she has to offer through her clairvoyance.

Later in the book, it transpires the fortune teller is Romani and comes from a tight-knit family of immigrants who, despite having lived in America for years, have managed to not allow a great influx of outside influence to mar their cultural identity. They communicate in their mother tongue. They don't regularly consort with other New York communities, happy to keep to themselves. Furthermore, the entire family appears to make a living using their primary talents of divination and fortune-telling.

To this day, the Romani, including the few that earn their living as fortune tellers, continue to be a large but mostly hidden community in New York. Tracing their history is key to understanding why they are so secluded.

The Romani people have long been associated with having psychic powers and are even commonly attributed with the invention of Tarot cards. Within Romani tradition, fortune tellers, in their language known as the drabardi, are always female. This psychic tradition dates back several hundreds of years, and legend has it that this community, probably of Indo-Aryan ethnic descent, acquired their supernatural skills in the Byzantine Empire (the capital of which, Constantinople, is today's Istanbul).

Gypsy Fortune Tellers

It seems that the rise of fortune-telling among the Romani correlates to the people's constant displacement. As a community who have never identified themselves with one specific territory or national identity, the Romani have forever been a free people with no ties to a homeland. Their enigmatic beginnings are also perpetuated by the fact that Romani people have not traditionally kept written records of their history.

By the 14th century, it is believed that the Romanis had expanded into Eastern Europe, particularly into the Balkans and Bohemia (part of modern day Czech Republic.) As a nomadic people who needed to make a livelihood on the outskirts of these often unwelcoming towns and villages, the Romani found it profitable to pedal their esoteric psychic talents to the gadjé, a term which refers to all communities of non-Romani people. Despite the Church's strong warnings against such superstitious practices, which according to several Bible passages are associated with the doings of the Devil, the Romani were to find people the world over who continued to seek them out. The Romanis promised they could remove curses, contact spirits, and of course tell fortunes. The Romani fortune tellers have continually used a variety of theatrics to present their mystical arts, including palmistry, tasseography (tea-leaf reading), cartomancy (Tarot readings), and the crystal ball.

It is said that Romanis first came to the Americas as slaves, shipped with Columbus in 1482. Over the next few hundred years, as more Europeans began to colonize America, they continued to bring with them groups of Romani slaves. It wasn't until the abolition of slavery in Romania in 1864, when Romanis began to enter the United States voluntarily. More large-scale emigration of Romanis to the Americas took place in the early 20th century, the majority of them fleeing economic depression and the persecution of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I.

Today it is estimated that there are close to 100,000 so called Rom Amerko living in New York. What's particularly fascinating is that these NY Romanis remain somewhat apart from the rest of the New York community, and many abide by their own Romani Code, which sets rules for customs, behavior and other aspects of Romani life. For example, it is important for Romanis to share food and cook lavish meals for fellow Rom guests. Not doing so is considered shameful and can lead to discord. The kris romani (Romani court) allows Romanis to settle family disputes and keep mutual respect between families. Much of these goings on are hidden from gadjé New Yorkers.

The most apparent Romani presence in New York continues to be, as is their tradition, female psychics, who operate from a number of street-level parlors. As fortune-telling for money is against the New York State Penal Code, these psychics do their best to keep out of sight. It is hard to place exact figures, but it is estimated that there are approximately 200 Romani fortune telling establishments in the metro area.

From Byzantium in AD 1000 to New York in the 21st century, the Romanis remain an enigmatic presence that feed our endless hunger and fascination for superstition and spiritualism.

Picture of gypsy fortune-teller in Poland by Antoni Kozakiewicz

The KitesClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Romain Gary, Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Summary

On a small farm in Normandy, as Hitler rises to power in Germany, young Ludo comes of age in the care of his Uncle Ambrose, an eccentric mailman, kite-maker, and pacifist. Ludo's quiet existence changes the day he meets Lila, a girl from the aristocratic Polish family who own the estate next door. In a single glance, Ludo instantly falls in love forever; Lila, on the other hand, remains elusive. Thus begins Ludo's adventure of longing, passion, and steadfast love for Lila, who begins to reciprocate his feelings just as Europe descends into war. After Germany invades Poland, Lila and her family disappear, and Ludo's journey to save her from the Nazis becomes a journey to save his loved ones, his country, and ultimately himself.

Filled with unforgettable characters - an indomitable chef who believes Michelin stars are more enduring than military conquests; a Jewish brothel Madam who reinvents everything about herself during the war; a piano virtuoso turned RAF pilot--The Kites is Romain Gary's poetic call for resistance in whatever form it takes.

BookBrowse Review

Published by New Directions for the first time in English, Romain Gary's The Kites tells a story of heroism and hope as the inhabitants of the small town of Cléry in Normandy face occupation by the Nazis during World War II. It is also about two lovers separated and reunited over the course of the tragic events.

Ludo Fleury is nine years old, an orphan raised by his uncle Ambrose, when he meets Lila Bronicka, a wealthy Polish girl vacationing in Normandy with her family. Lila is eleven, a "severe blond apparition" and Ludo falls in love at first sight. Over the years, Ludo is accepted as an unofficial member of the Bronicka family, and he and Lila begin a romance. Ludo's biggest problem is his rival for Lila's attention, her austere Prussian cousin, Hans. When war arrives, Ludo's idyllic world and his future plans with Lila are torn asunder. Poland is annexed by Germany, and Ludo loses contact with the Bronickas. He joins Normandy's resistance movement (see 'Beyond the Book') and spends his days pining for Lila in between rescuing and hiding downed Allied aviators, never wavering in his certainty that he and Lila will be reunited.

The subjects of war and seemingly doomed love make for a great story (and have since the ancient Greeks at least), but beneath the central narrative are layers of symbolism that shed like an onion. The kite is the first and most prominent of these symbols, as the protagonist's uncle, Cléry's kitemaker and resident eccentric, describes poetically, "You have to hang on tight to them...they'll pull, and sometimes they break loose and fly too high—they take off in pursuit of the blue yonder and you never see them again." Ludo takes this lesson to heart and holds onto Lila with an iron grip, lest she be sucked into the sky and never seen again.

The kite is a symbol of the love of Ludo's life and also of the Fleury family who are, according to Uncle Ambrose, known for their "historical memory." To Ambrose, historical memory is about maintaining loyalty to France. He recalls a Fleury who was killed by a firing squad during the rule of the Paris Commune (the revolutionary government during the French Revolution), and Ambrose, Ludo's father, and their other brother all fought in World War I.

In addition to these larger symbols that establish the themes, Gary seasons the narrative with eloquent and deft figurative language. While visiting the Bronickas in Poland, Ludo watches Lila's brother play the piano by the Baltic Sea as the waves "ended in the sand before the piano, like a dog lying down at its master's feet." Later, Ludo and the family sit before the fireplace in the calm before the storm of war, and Ludo notes, "the fire leapt and roared with the voice of an old lion dreaming of its tamer's death."

The Kites' only flaw is that its principal characters are somewhat one-dimensional. Ludo is completely defined by his devotion to Lila; Uncle Ambrose is an archetype of French patriotism. Lila is a bit more complex, but she is missing for half of the novel, and when she returns, her charming joie de vivre has been decimated. Fortunately, some of Gary's secondary characters, including a chef accused of collaborating with the Germans and a brothel madam turned resistance leader, are more nuanced. Miranda Richmond Mouillot is a superb translator, ensuring through footnotes that the reader has access to Gary's many historical allusions and plays on words that require dual language explanation. The Kites is a moving love story that is an ode to the power of optimism.

Book reviewed by Lisa Butts

Beyond the Book:
D-Day at Normandy

In the dramatic final pages of The Kites, the Allies arrive in Normandy to liberate its inhabitants from Nazi occupation, an event that occurred on June 6, 1944 and drastically altered the landscape of World War II. It was the most expansive amphibious invasion in history, with British, American, and Canadian flotillas storming five separate beaches simultaneously, with assistance from additional troops in the air. The entire assault was codenamed "Operation Overlord"; the naval assault was called "Operation Neptune." In total, the Allied forces numbered around 156,000, the vast majority arriving by sea.

Glimpse of the Normandy Invasion The Allied assault was led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (who went on to be elected president of the United States in 1952). Eisenhower worked closely with British general Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the ground forces, British admiral Bertram Ramsay, and Royal Air Force commander Trafford Leigh-Mallory. The Normandy invasion was a cunning piece of warcraft, as the Allies employed methods of subterfuge to confuse and deceive the Germans. Double agents and phony radio transmissions passed along false information, and inflatable tanks and landing craft were established along the coast near Dover to give the impression that the invasion force would cross from there to Calais (the narrowest point between England and France). Empty parachutes were dropped over alternate locations. All of these tactics served to draw attention away from the actual landing sites in Normandy - considerably further to the west, and much farther from England. The French Resistance, of which the protagonist of The Kites is a member, also played an important role in the victory at Normandy, destroying roads and railway lines and further delaying German response to the invasion. The Resistance also established a base of operations in Brittany for amassing supplies and reinforcements, though this outpost was discovered by the Germans on July 12, 1944. Many of its inhabitants were killed or wounded and the base was rendered inoperable.

The battle was also significant for its unique weaponry, including amphibious "swimming" tanks, tanks equipped with flame throwers, and tanks with high caliber weaponry designed to easily smash through or detonate bridges, mines (of which there were roughly four million on the beaches planted by the Germans), and concrete barriers.

In addition to being flummoxed by subterfuge, the Germans were stymied by the absence of General Erwin Rommel (who by an unanticipated stroke of fate had gone home to celebrate his wife's birthday, believing the weather to be unfavorable for an invasion). Hitler failed to supply adequate reinforcements, as he firmly believed that other assaults were imminent elsewhere. By the time the scale of the assault was apparent, it was too late to stop the rolling tide of Allied troops, who represented a united front on the beaches, protected from above by the air force. In addition, some of the troops fighting against the Allies in Normandy were conscripted Poles and Soviet prisoners of war who had agreed to fight as an alternative to enduring the brutal conditions in the German POW camps. They preferred to surrender or desert when faced with the superior strength of the advancing Allies.

While precise figures for casualties are unknown, they are estimated at 200,000 killed, missing, and wounded for the Germans and over 209,000 for the Allies. In addition up to 20,000 French civilians were killed, mainly due to Allied bombing. The Germans never recovered from the initial shock of the invasion, and their defeat was a major turning point. With their newfound momentum, the Allies marched across France, liberating Paris by August of 1944. In the months that followed, they were able to join forces with the Soviets and invade Germany. The vastly weakened Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, putting an end to the war.

For more about the Normandy invasion from PBS, click on the video below:



Picture shows an LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarking troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. From National Archives and Records Administration

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