Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

For anyone aspiring to an education in European history Norman Davies book is a "must read." The crannies of history that have remained obscure are made painstakingly clear, from the Visigoths to the Kingdom of Poland and its Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Not only is this book essential for an understanding of Europe's chaotic history, but it clarifies, through the author's own travel experiences, what's happening now and why. Davies' approach is unique in my experience in his vivid accounts of the present conditions of the lands whose pasts he delves. Most harrowing: the effects of the soviet era, depopulating cities and regions that were centers of culture and prosperity not so very long ago.

The text is littered with maps, as borders and the identity of nations change and change. One would do well to have such maps printed on clear plastic to be able to overlay them to see the lengthy passage of time, as anatomy books overlay a view into the body inch by inch. Vanished Kingdom is not easy reading, it can be head-spinning in its complexity. My advice is to take it slowly, reading a section, absorbing it, perhaps reading something else for a while (I'm taking a break with the Countess of Carnarvon's Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey), but forge on with Davies, for there lies wisdom, compassion and a true sense of our past.">View all my reviews</a>

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: The Tale of Fido Gask by Huw Thomas

The lowest depths of the human condition in civilized, Western nations (specifically in this case urban England) are drawn in exquisite detail in Huw Thomas’s The Tale of Findo Gask. Findo is a child thief, born into a world devoid of all that four thousand years of human effort has sought to make orderly, yet a world utterly familiar to the 21st century reader, down to the minutest detail of Mars bars, packaged foods and the latest in surveillance equipment. 

This work is a good deal more than an entertaining picaresque novel in the tradition of Lazarillo de Tormes and Oliver Twist; it is a close look at the feral side of mankind where well meant social programs are cancelled and the rough instincts of homo sapiens are all that is ultimately needed for survival. Findo Gask’s self effacing  cautions and delicately fostered skills of observation of his surroundings are those of the human animal in a deadly wilderness. 

Here the wilderness is the abandoned buildings of failed urban industry and their inhabitants who live by illegal means from theft to drug dealing to prostitution and “protection” rackets.
Yet The Tale of Findo Gask is a curiously tender work, not only because the young hero finds a few people who treat him with care and kindness, but because the author delves into an understanding of his every impulse and perception with an intimacy that injects the reader under his skin – and there the reader finds a being quite like he could have been.

The child thief is not the only character drawn with such insight and intimacy. A series of characters, from the drug raddled prostitute mother, to a second generation Marxist librarian, to a lonely little middle class girl, to an astute mobster kingpin are explored in what amount to side essays on the history of each. While these habitual digressions of the writer may be seen as a structural flaw according to the canon of creative writing’s “show, don’t tell”, it is perfectly in keeping with the shape of the picaresque novel. 

Should society not have done better in its millennia of effort to create a civilized world?  Should governments take note and find the means to eradicate these lower depths of suffering and violence? Or is mankind still feral in nature, recreating wilderness in even the most “developed” and controlled of societies?

The Tale of Findo Gask is a brilliant work of observation of the human condition in its most tried and trying circumstances short of literal battlefields, and Thomas has rendered his insights, miraculously, in an enjoyable and compelling way.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Another look at bullying: Peter St. John's "Gang Territory"

Gang Territory by Peter St. John
Reviewed by Katherine Ashe, author, the Montfort series, Nov.14, 2012
World War II and the bombing of London brought about the displacement of multitudes of children. We see photos of them, wan, frightened as they’re herded onto trains bound for the safer countryside or they’re led away by the firm grip of strangers’ hands. But what happened to them after that, when they arrived at their unfamiliar destinations?
Peter St. John’s autobiographically inspired story of a boy from a destroyed London orphanage gives us an insight. An insight not only into the new hazards such children faced, but into the noble code of boyhood, a code that forbade complaining when one was abused and that produced a degree of self-reliance that would serve well in later years – provided the noble spirited little lad survived.
As in a medieval romance, the hero’s name is never revealed to the reader. We will call him Boy. Boy arrives in the rural village of Widdlington which is scant of indoor plumbing but rich in gangs of children. Every street has its own gang who guard their territory from intruders. And an intruder is any other child who does not live on that street. This of course makes life exceedingly difficult for Boy, whose aunt and guardian seems oblivious to the juvenile culture surrounding her, for she makes a habit of sending him on errands where his very life depends upon his ingenuity in getting to his goal and back home again unobserved.
There may be individuals as completely lacking in humane feeling as this aunt, so completely focused on a sense of being put upon, so resentful of a young boy, and so determined to gain every instant of advantage from the unwanted presence of a child, as to resemble a slave driver with a savage tongue in place of whip. When the aunt seems to relent at sight of the boy’s injuries one senses that self-protection, not pity, is her foremost, driving motive: fear of being discovered as the abuser she is. Why is she so cramped and mean of spirit? Seen from the viewpoint of Boy, we never learn.
But if the aunt makes his new home hellish, the principal local bully, known as Slug, turns the entire outside world into a trial of strategy for Boy as he must navigate from place to place nearly always under the threat of severe bodily harm if he loses his focus of attention for a moment. St. John sets up hazards and triumphs that make the plot predictable but that also create suspense – and a certain admiration in the reader as we know what must be coming but well drawn intervening events keep forestalling the inevitable.
Widdlington is peopled with kindly folk as well as brutes: from teachers to parents to children – mostly girls – and the local derelict known as Dummy. Many speak in dialect although, thank heaven, Boy does not. As yet another “Oi” for “I” is uttered, the words of Henry Higgins spring to mind: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” Walter Scott loved writing in dialects too, so St. John is in illustrious company.
The issue of bullying is as timely now as ever and St. John’s exploration of the ways in which children cope: isolatedly, determinedly, with fear and bravery, is as resonant in Gang Territory as in Huckleberry Fin, and as salutary a reminder of obtuse adult perceptions and the complexity of the world of childhood.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Remembering Celeste Holm

It must have been 1992 when I met Celeste. A mutual friend, Carmela Ross, high in years to be undertaking such a thing, was launching a new theater company. The party, on New York’s East Side in the neighborhood of the UN, was chatty, congenial, attended by prospects well enough heeled to possibly invest in the company.

I knew no one but Carmela and was lingering by the canap├ęs table when a voice near the front door announced loudly “I have the flu!” As if plague had been declared, the whole body of guests vacated that end of the room. It was Celeste, making a theatrical but truthful entrance. She sat demurely alone. I went to sit by her, declaring, “Well, I’ve just had a flu shot.”

This was at the time when I had a radio theater production company, Jefferson Radio Theater, lodged at Public Radio Station WJFF-FM.  Like any producer, I ransacked my mind for what “property” I might have that could be of interest to this classic star of stage and screen who was quietly sniffling beside me.

Elegantly white haired, with an oval face as perfect as a Noh mask but with an impish sparkle, Celeste even in her depleted state was impressive. And I had a role for her – though there was no way in the world my little company could afford her. But, luckily, that thought never crossed my mind. 

I had a little twenty-minute playlet called “Martha Speaks Up” a monologue of Martha Washington entertaining the officers’ wives at Valley Forge with the story of how she and George met and wooed. Martha, it struck me, was a perfect role for Celeste. And when I spoke of it, she seemed to think so too.

A few days later I delivered the play to Celeste’s Central Park West duplex, a dwelling that combined Hollywood grandeur with feminine, upper class East Coast flowery prettiness. There was of course the piano, where no doubt an array of “greats” had gathered and sung old Broadway favorites of their own creation. And there were portraits of Celeste, done by her artist mother who clearly was smitten by the beauty she had brought into the world. My favorite of the portraits showed only Celeste’s hands with a red ribbon or tassel.

A few days later Celeste called me. She loved “Martha Speaks Up,” but, rather than do it as a radio play – could I enlarge it to a television series for her? There was a producer at PBS who was looking for a “vehicle” for her and this might be perfect.

I had written “Martha” after reading James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington. The thought of doing a thirteen-hour script on the first First Couple was exhilarating, inspiring. Yes, of course I would do it! 

Fortunately, I had a good friend in Virginia who was happy to have me come stay for multiple extended visits. Jean Ryland Walker was a Walker of Walkerton and her family had been in place since the 1600’s.  She knew everyone, was related to nearly everyone, could provide insights into Tidewater culture and access to private homes that were old when Martha was a child. It took me three years to write “The Washingtons” but I had a grand time doing it.

In the meantime, Celeste and I got to know each other better. Celeste performed “Martha Speaks Up” at various venues, including the Boston Historical Society, and I wrote a monologue companion piece for her so that the two plays made a performance of suitable length.

And Celeste was intent upon the prospect of the Washington series. The producer at PBS faded and died so we went searching for a new producer. The search took the form of a performance of “Martha Speaks Up” at the New York City Parks Department Armory in Central Park. Several well known producers not only were invited but showed up. 

The armory space turned out to be far from satisfactory with echoes and places where sound vanished, and the producers we were most hoping to interest told us they were looking for an “event” property – like “Titanic.” But the parks department people approached me and asked if I could write little plays like that for the various houses belonging to the New York City Historic House Trust – which is how I happened to write a monologue of Edgar Allan Poe. So the event was not without happy results.

And Celeste seemed to be nursing along a producer. I completed the script, sent it for the opinion of the leading expert on Martha and was waiting his reply when Celeste was offered a role in the lucrative television series “Promised Land.” So Martha was put on hold. Then, while shooting the first episode of PL, Celeste, required to dance with a gaggle of teenagers at the location’s high altitude in Utah in stifling summer heat, collapsed and developed congestive heart failure.

Ever the brave trouper, she not only completed the season but went on to do more seasons with PL. She attempted to bring me in as her writer but that couldn’t be worked out.

Before she’d gone off to Utah, I’d visited Celeste not only at her New York apartment but had driven her out to her little summer house in Hackettstown, New Jersey. In that rather shabby rustic setting that she greatly loved she told me somewhat of her life story, of her sons, one of whom was quite dear but was far away and the other with whom she had never gotten on well. And she told me of her husbands – Hollywood nightmare marriages, then her very happy marriage to fellow actor Wesley Addey. I never met him but clearly this was a marriage that gave her the companionship and love the other marriages had not.

Heading back to New York together, we stopped at a garden center and at the ShopRite grocery store in Chester. This is a vast, cool emporium with wide aisles providing vistas. And it was here I observed the “celebrity effect” in action. People came up to her, announcing – as if she didn’t know it – “You’re Celeste Holm!” and reaching a hand out at arm’s length to touch her shoulder, as if measuring the distance between themselves and fame.

One night, when Celeste was home in New York from Utah, I got a desperate call. She was frantic. She was considering throwing herself out the window. Wesley was dead. He had come down with a relatively minor problem and been taken to the hospital. Thinking he was in good hands, she’d left him – and in the course of a commonplace procedure he had died. She was certain that if she’d stayed the apparent mistake wouldn’t have happened, or he could have been saved. She blamed herself for his death.

I told her to sit tight and I would be right down. It’s a three hour drive from my house in rural Pennsylvania to New York City but I made it in just over two. Celeste, in a woolly robe, was sitting in the kitchen with a woman whom I took at first to be a relative – a not mentioned daughter? Diana Walker was as solicitous and able as the daughter one would have hoped Celeste had. 
We stayed with Celeste through the night, until a new shift came to help her through this agony of spirit. In the elevator, leaving with Diana, I found she, like me, was just a friend; she was a theater producer with her own company, The Manhattan Playhouse. She and I became good friends and some years later I gave her a puppy who was so pampered by her that she reconstructed a building she owned in order to provide him with a garden. If not Celeste’s perfect daughter, she was a determined and energetic friend.

Gradually Celeste recovered from the loss of Wesley Addey – and then she met Frank. She was coping with the congestive heart failure with medications so she was already somewhat depleted. She should not have been alone. There was a secretary/general factotum, but he was there only for working hours. Frank Basile was a godsend.

I met Frank when he came bouncing into Celeste’s kitchen grinning like a boy with a big surprise. The surprise was his early arrival – just back from Teheran where he, an opera baritone with a blossoming career, had been singing. Celeste, in wonderment, had just been telling me about this young man who appeared to have fallen in love with her and who was now living with her – when he wasn’t booked to sing somewhere, which soon became seldom.

I was skeptical. A good looking young man less than half her age? A fortune hunter? Most likely, I thought.
Frank plunked down on a chair at the kitchen table and gazed at Celeste adoringly, then proceeded to detail why he was in love with her. Her wit, her loveliness, her habit of grabbing the pole of the awning at the apartment house front door and swinging around it like a kid (which I could well believe – Celeste did things like that, delighting in puncturing the impression of an elegant grande dame.) 

I remained skeptical. Diana Walker was more so. But year after year passed and Frank was still there. From one health crisis to another he was there, becoming her devoted care giver. His career in opera, so promising before he met Celeste, faded. Whatever he could gain from this relationship, he was sacrificing his life to it – and clearly he was sacrificing his life for her. Celeste was very happy.

Where were her sons who should have been taking care of her? They were opposing Frank and doing all in their legal powers to see to it that the apparently mismatched couple would be miserable. They got control of Celeste’s finances and put the pair on an ‘allowance’ that barely covered the grand apartment’s rent, and the couple’s basic living expenses.

Celeste went on appearing, giving performances. Sometimes irritatingly, as when the New York Philharmonic, advised by the Parks Department, contacted her when trying to reach me to book my Poe show for Poe’s centennial celebration. Instead of giving them my contact information, Celeste piped up with “I’ll do it!” And indeed she did. When I called her about another Poe event, she boldly announced “I did it!” Yes, if it was a chance to be on the stage, she took it – even from me.

Frank managed gala events for her: her birthdays, at theater restaurants where all her old friends of Broadway were invited. It was at one of these that their marriage was announced. The marriage split her friends into the approving ones and the condemning ones. I was among the approvers, seeing Frank as the care giver her sons failed to be. Most important – she seemed happy.

But that happiness was impaired. Law suits followed as her sons tried to make sure Frank would get nothing – now or when she died. And Frank and Celeste fought back. Frank remained with her, devoted in his care of her to the end.

It was a shameful attack that her sons made upon her life, her freedom of choice, and the one person who was willing to give up his life for hers.

Now that he’s alone, my hope is that Frank Basile’s career can begin again. But Celeste’s friends were two generations away from the producers who build careers these days.

If Frank was a fortune hunter – he gave more than he could possible ever have gotten. If he truly loved her, then this is a strange and sad love story indeed.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Even adults get bullied. What to do about it?

On the blog today I have a guest post by Tahlia Newland author of You Can’t Shatter Me, a new young adult novella about bullying. Tahlia writes magical realism and contemporary fantasy for young adults & adults. Her short story A Hole in the Pavement  is free on kindle until the  7th July.

When I wrote You Can’t Shatter Me, although I set it in a school situation with teens as the main characters, I wrote it for everyone no matter what their age and situation because even adults get bullied. One of the reasons bullying is so entrenched in our society is because it permeates all strata of life, often hidden beneath an ‘acceptable’ veneer and unrecognised for what it is.

Bullying is a persistent, deliberate attempt to hurt or humiliate someone. There are different types of bullying but they have three things in common:
  • They involve deliberately hurtful behaviour
  • They are repeated over time
  • They involve an unfair balance of power which makes it hard for those being bullied to defend themselves.
Unfortunately, bullying is alive and flourishing on the internet. Perpetrators of cyber-bullying are called Trolls, and prolonged & shockingly systematic attacks by such people on authors are becoming far too common. Katherine Ashe, one author who has borne the brunt of this kind of behavior, says, That fellow authors and their friends would behave in this way on the World Wide Web is worse than shameful. It’s unprofessional and infantile.”

It is also quite simply wrong. However, stopping it is not a simple matter because those who bully enjoy the drama and feeling of power it gives them. Also, they are likely to find valid-sounding reasons to justify their behavior and may even not be aware that what they are doing is actually bullying.

So what are we to do if we are the butt of bullying?
First we need to accept that we can’t control the bully’s behavior, but we can control how we let it affect us. Normally, we get angry and defensive. We lose our peace of mind. But instead of reacting with fear and hatred, we could use the situation to arouse our compassion. Having compassion in our heart calms and strengthens us, and through our changed behavior positively affects the behavior of others. Here’s the logic.

People bully because they are feeling one or more of the following.
  • Afraid
  • Jealous
  • Envious
  • Cruel
  • Angry
  • Insecure
  • Unhappy
  • Arrogant
  • Weak
These are unpleasant mind states to be in. So the bully is unhappy or, at the least, ill at ease in some way. Just like us, they want to be happy, but they aren’t. Imagine how it would be to live with a mind and heart full of any of those emotions listed above? Ouch. Not a good feeling, right?
Now, try wishing that they be well and happy.  Visualise them as so well and happy that they no longer feel the need to hurt others. It takes courage to turn our attitude around like this, to wish well the person who is hurting us, but each time we do it, we become stronger and more able to stay cool, calm and collected in the face of abuse.
With this attitude we will naturally be less inclined to inflame and more likely to ease the situation. A compassionate attitude is so radical that actions imbued with it can stop bullies in their tracks.
So for online bullying I’d say
  1. Don’t take it personally, even if they mean it to be. It’s just a bad role they’re playing in a cruddy story. Don’t make it yours by buying into their drama.
  2. Ignore it if you can, and use the perpetrator’s suffering to arouse your compassion. Think, how awful it must be to be them, and remind yourself that their behaviour will do them more harm in the long run than it will you.
  3. If you need to respond to a valid question, or correct a misunderstanding,
    • don’t attack them back or use language that will inflame them. Don’t even call them Trolls in direct communications with them, instead appeal to their better nature. Even though they may seem like it, they are not Trolls by nature, just people behaving like Trolls.
    • Be very respectful and kind. Leave a short, polite, non-emotive statement. Let them know that you respect their opinion and would appreciate it if they could, in turn, keep their comments respectful.
  4. If it continues, it’s best that you ignore it, but if you must reply, leave another polite statement that indicates that you’re sorry they feel that way, but the manner in which they express their opinions is hostile and inappropriate.
    • If they are still raising the same concerns or arguments, don’t repeat yourself, instead leave links to places where you have already addressed their concerns.
    • Let them know that you do not intend to engage with them any further.
    • End by wishing them well.
  5. Then, say no more. Let them talk into a vacuum. If you reply to them, the whole thing will keep going. Simply don’t visit the forums where they abuse you. It will blow over eventually.
I use analogies and metaphors for the magical elements in my writing. One that helps here is that bullies are playing a game, but you don’t have to play with them. For a game to continue, it needs two sides, one to throw the ball and one to hit it back. If you don’t hit it back, they are left chasing the ball. So don’t play and tell your friends not to play either.
The next time someone hassles you, remember that they are unhappy in some way and wish them happiness. See how it changes how you feel. A heart full of love and compassion is the best protection.
These are the kind of ideas that pervade You Can’t Shatter Me. How do they sound to you?

You can find Tahlia's book at: 
Epub files for Nook, Kobo, Sony etc: http://catapult-press/shop
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book website:
personal website:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series