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Monday, February 23, 2015

Madrid's First Rhinoceros

I can’t resist sharing this historical tidbit with you, as it combines my two favorite things: Spain and rhinos.

Tradition has it that Calle Abada in Madrid was named after a sixteenth-century incident in that area. During the reign of Philip II, some Portuguese showmen came to Madrid with an abada, apparently the first way rhinoceroses were referred to on the Iberian Peninsula. The rhinoceros was unknown in Europe, so the showmen stood to earn a great deal by exhibiting him to the public. They set up camp in the fields of the priory of San Martín, in an area now delimited by Calle Preciados, the Gran Vía and the Plaza del Carmen. The locals flocked to the place and paid two maravedís to enter the tent and see the fabulous animal, which they shouted and whistled at while the Portuguese beat drums and bagpipes.

A baker’s son became familiar with the rhino and fed him pieces of bread. One day the boy had the terrible idea of giving the rhino a burning piece of bread, a hot coal, or both together, and the rhino swallowed it. Crazed, the rhino lunged at the boy and killed him before the Portuguese could help it.

As soon as the Prior of San Martín, Fray Pedro de Guevara, found out what happened, he banished the showmen from his lands. In the confusion of the banishment or the shock about the boy’s unfortunate death, the rhinoceros escaped from the Portuguese, and Madrid sent out the alarm. Quevedo (one of the great writers of the time) wrote that as night fell, some warned of a threatening figure near the of San Martín (on the Plaza del Callao) and that officers armed with spears went out to hunt the beast, but it was a false alarm which proved to be a wagon loaded with hay. Others told how a running dog was identified as the rhino and caused many residents to flee in terror. According to legend, the rhino caused as many as 20 deaths during his escape. In the end, the rhino was caught near Vicálvaro by the showmen themselves, with the help of the Holy Brotherhood, an armed corps that may be considered an early modern police.

A wooden cross was erected at San Martín in memory of the boy’s death in the jaws of the rhino. Years later, when the priory of San Martín sold those buildings and houses were built on the site, Calle de la Abada, or Rhinoceros Street, got its name.

The street marker shows a picture of what looks like a black rhino. It would be fascinating to find out where the showmen picked up this wonderful animal, which probably didn't harm any humans intentionally.

Most of this post has been translated from El burgalés by José Montero.

Tune in next week for a review of a rhino novel!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I picked up Station Eleven because the sample was rife with Shakespeare quotes and references, and I'm a sucker for those. (See Tree/House if you don't believe me.) After the sample, the relation to Shakespeare is mainly the fact that he lived in a plague-ridden world, like the one in this novel. By the time I got to the sentence explaining that everyone at the theatre would be dead in three weeks, I was hooked on the great writing and a need to know how it would play out.

The novel is constructed around a series of coincidences that center around the actor who dies of a heart attack in the first chapter. Employing dramatic irony to excellent effect, the characters are unable to put all the pieces together, but the reader can. It's for the reader to decide whether the coincidences mean any more than a coincidence normally does simply because of the decreased probability that these artifacts and people could come together in a decimated world. The many characters are lovable, but what I take from the book is a meditation on the meaning of "civilization." Like some other readers, I wondered for a while what the author was doing spending so much time in flashbacks about the actor's life before the end of the world. But it turns out that the vanished civilization is what gives the new supposed wilderness meaning.

What would you miss about civilization? I found the examination of the nasty things left behind to be the most illuminating. Things like the lack of communication all these communication gadgets cause, paparazzi and the culture of celebrity, and going to work every day. The meditation on "work" especially affected me because whether the people enjoyed their jobs or loathed every moment, they became zombies of routine.

Civilization itself is something of a routine. We perpetuate it with our smaller routines, which add up to cultural movements. At one point, one of the characters, in denial about the gravity of the pandemic, says, "Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?" The other replies, "Well, it was always a little fragile, wasn't it?" It's a great point. But what they're both missing is that the end of civilization is not the end of the world. Most of the surviving characters settle into communities or tribes that help each other along in this business of living. When, near the end of the book, a ghost in a comic book describes death as having awakened from a dream, I thought he might be describing the common thread in all the characters' experiences of the end of civilization.

The main tribe, a troupe of actors and musicians, has a motto: "Because survival is insufficient." This novel has convinced me that just surviving is unlikely if not impossible. Humans will always make culture, whether it relies on the past or focuses on the present. Station Eleven is a well written, thought-provoking, and memorable novel.

Novels I've Read in 2015:
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Along the Far Shores by Kristin Gleeson

Monday, February 9, 2015

Interview with Ron Shannon, Author of The Hedgerows of June

The Hedgerows of June is a suspenseful historical romance centering around the hotly contested Saint-Lô, France, in 1944. A British spy, and American expat, and a French Resistance operative must reunite children with their parents in this war-torn landscape while keeping their own secrets and resisting their own passions. 

Today I'm pleased to host the author of this irresistible adventure, Ron Shannon.

JK: Can you fill us in on the historical background of The Hedgerows of June? What was happening before the story begins?

RS: By late June, 1944, the Allies had taken the beaches of Normandy. The Americans had driven the Germans from the port city, Cherbourg, but not without heavy cost on both sides. The next American objective was to take the town of Saint-Lô, the transportation hub for this part of occupied France. The Germans were determined to defend Saint-Lô because they were convinced it would be the key to the Allies’ victory. The American inland attack would take place in the most inhospitable terrain of Normandy, an area known as the hedgerows.

JK: The Hedgerows?

RS: The Hedgerows are not what we think of when we think of hedges. They are not the hedge plants that are pruned and trimmed into precision cuts.

JK: So it wasn't a garden. Where exactly did the Allies find themselves?

RS: It’s difficult to describe what the Americans encountered as soon as they started their inland attack. This farmland has been around for a millennium or more. The landscape consists of fields bordered by grey rock. Think of a pile of rock running along all four sides of each field. These rock rows are about three feet wide. Growing up through this rock is a mixture of small trees, shrubs, grass and weeds that have grown from three to fifteen feet high. It creates what the French call bocage, an enclosed field with only one narrow entrance.

JK: Are there any roads in this maze?

RS: The roads running alongside the hedges are very narrow, between four or five feet wide. They're dirt roads with deep ruts from the traffic of horse-drawn wagons to and from the fields.

JK: How did they transport equipment through there?

RS: Getting equipment down the roads was difficult to impossible. But the difficulties didn’t end there. The summer of 1944 was the wettest summer since 1900. The weather was miserable and the roads were not dirt. They were mud.

JK: Wow. Misery makes for a great setting. What additional challenges did you give the characters?

RS: The characters in The Hedgerows of June are faced with the same problems as the American Army. They must get from a small town on the edge of the Hedgerows to Saint-Lô.

JK: They aren't going into battle?

RS: Not battle, but the war is all around them. It’s like background noise, small gunfire, explosions, and American fighter planes. The characters are trying to stay one step ahead of the Americans, but they are running into the face of the waiting Germans. That’s trouble because the German Army wants their precious cargo—the four children they must get to Saint-Lô.

JK: Where are the Germans?

RS: The Germans are taking up defense positions in the hedges. That means they are finding places to hide in the thick vegetation. The attacking Americans will not be able to hide if they are expected to move forward. They will be wide open.

JK: How can the Americans possibly overcome this no-win situation?

RS: The Americans had no experience with his type of terrain. To say they weren't prepared is an understatement. It would require cooperation between their armor and their infantry, something they were not trained to do.

JK: Did the Americans have any advantage?

RS: Not necessarily. The Germans were experienced. They had knowledge of the terrain and the benefit it offered them to defend the region. They were also very loyal and in some cases the most fanatical soldiers in the field.

JK: Were the Americans were better equipped?

RS: Again, not necessarily. At this point in the war, the German Air Force was pretty much nonexistent. The Americans did have an air force, but remember this is the wettest summer since 1900. The miserable weather made it impossible to fly for either reconnaissance or attack. The German soldier feared the American planes, but the bad weather kept the planes on the ground. The Germans lacked heavy artillery in Normandy, but they had guns. I mention one of their guns in the novel, a rocket launcher, an odd looking thing nicknamed “Moaning Minnie.”

JK: Weren’t there paratroopers, too?

RS: Paratroopers did land behind enemy lines in advance of the attacking Americans, but they were unable to hold their positions. Many of these paratroopers were lost. My story includes a confrontation with a small group of paratroopers. It is a graphic scene that changes one of the main characters. It brings her face-to-face with the horror of this war and how the Germans defended the bocage.

JK: How did the Americans get through in the end?

RS: You can imagine how difficult it was for the Americans to launch their attack into the Hedgerows. Soldiers did use the roads, but tanks were another story. Getting into the fields presented a problem. My characters were forced to crawl into the fields. They were wide open if Germans were hiding in the hedges. The same was true for the American soldier. At first the Americans used dynamite to blast a hole in the hedgerows, but obviously an explosion did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Someone came up with the idea of turning the tanks into plows. They retrieved steel from the traps and blockades used by the Germans to defend the beaches. The Americans welded the steel to the front of the tanks. They literally plowed their way into the fields. American soldiers quickly learned how to use the tanks as shields against enemy fire.

JK: Do your characters encounter all these techniques?

RS: The war catches up to the characters and they are introduced to techniques used on both sides. The war in the hedges is a series of skirmishes between small units as the Americans make their way across this implausible battleground. As I mentioned before, these skirmishes hang in the air like background noise. At times the background noise takes on a life of its own. In one scene, Chris is listening to distant gunfire. He is a musician and he compares it to a call, followed by an answer. It’s small arms fire shared by men in a land that doesn’t care about who they are or why they fight. The land, the bocage, will be there long after they are gone and their causes are forgotten. Or at least that is what Chris determines from what he hears.

JK: Where does it all come together?

RS: The characters’ destination is Saint-Lô. That is the town the Americans want to conquer and that is the town the Germans are determined to defend.

JK: What is the result of the historical Battle of Saint-Lô?

RS: The Americans manage to push back the Germans, but the tenacious Germans do not lose their will to fight. The skirmishes are fierce and bloody. I’ve seen pictures of roads and fields littered with the bodies of soldiers from both sides. Thousands of casualties occur during July of 1944. The Germans are outnumbered and many German soldiers are taken prisoner, but the defenses into Saint-Lô are tight. The Germans are obsessive.

JK: July?

RS: July. I know the title mentions June. That is when the journey and the adventure begin. I didn't adhere to the timeline of the battle. The battle started on July 1, 1944, and Saint-Lô was taken by the middle of August. Even getting into the city was a challenge. The American fighter planes managed to attack. Bombs were dropped; heavy artillery was used as the city crumbled into ruins. The only structure that survived was the church. The city was rebuilt later.

JK: Is the battle important in The Hedgerows of June?

RS: Yes. The battle for the city brings the characters into town. They're seeking further escape, but they're caught in the war. What happens determines the future of the characters.

JK: How?

RS: This is, among other things, a story about bravery and about accepting your true identity.

JK: So, without spoiling it, the characters survive?

RS: Well, it’s also a romance and a love story. What do you think?

The Hedgerows of June is available at Amazon.

Find author Ron Shannon on Facebook.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Along the Far Shores by Kristin Gleeson

I'm happy to be able to write this review on the occasion of Along the Far Shores's new copyedited edition. This inspired, unusual tale now reaches readers free of errors.

All Aisling wants is to be near her brother. Since their parents died, he's all she has. His half-hearted attempts to marry her off to an aging lord before he embarks on a ship to "the western lands" leaves her undaunted. She stows away and makes herself useful on board until an Atlantic storm gives the first villain of the book the chance to toss her overboard.

Her good fortune washes her ashore somewhere on the Yucatán in the care of two misfits. Caxna, from the far north, is completely foreign to Aisling, but he seems trustworthy from the first moments. The rest of the novel keeps up a fast pace but simultaneously takes the time to let the reader feel Aisling becoming more familiar with her surroundings and more aware of the stakes of the next journey she embarks on with Caxna.

On the way to their final destination, Ailsing and Caxna meet new people who are not always what they seem, face betrayals, and save each others' lives. The detailed, well researched, portrayal of cities in twelfth-century Mexico and the American South made me feel I had been there. Normally, when today's readers pick up a book about the twelfth century, the European setting itself is the foreign country. Seeing America from Aisling's point of view brought both worlds into intimate focus.

Along the Far Shores has sympathetic characters and great villains, unforgettable settings and an ending that satisfies thoroughly without spelling out exactly what happens to the characters, leaving some room for the reader's imagination. I recommend it to any reader who's looking for something different.

Read about the inspiration for this unique book here.

This is the second book I'm counting toward my 2015 reading goal. The other book I've completed in 2015:
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell