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Vikings 3, Episode II: The Wanderer

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

So, who is the Wanderer of the title of this episode? Note that the title is singular, not plural. One Wanderer, and not our band of Vikings who are roaming Britain’s green and pleasant land.

There is an Old English poem titled The Wanderer. He is an outcast – an exile who wanders winter-weary the icy waves, longing for lost halls, a helping hand far or near.*

Could series writer Michael Betrayal Hirst be evoking that poem? There is a mysterious figure in this episode who appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug and Siggi. He is always walking through snow.

The Wanderer. Photo Credit:

The Wanderer. Photo Credit:

One of his hands is bloody, and in the other he carries a ball of burning snow. Near the final moments of the episode, he walks into Kattegat – not a dream this time, but real – seeking help for his bloodied right hand. Is he the Wanderer?

But wait. Let me start at the beginning…

If you’ve been paying close attention to this series you know that there is a story arc for each episode, and also an arc for each season. Of course, it’s hard to see what that seasonal arc is going to be until we get very close to the end. The earliest episodes are set-ups, leading toward a dramatic denouement in the season finale. What is the technical name for this? I don’t know. I just call it Brilliant Storytelling.

The many story lines in this episode, and the many cuts between Mercia, Wessex, Kattegat and Hedeby, were dizzying. Let me see if I can summarize somewhat.

Porunn & Bjorn. Photo Credit:

Porunn & Bjorn. Photo Credit:

In Mercia we witness post battle trauma symptoms in Bjorn, Torstein, Rollo and Kwenthrith. Bjorn proposes marriage. Torstein, wounded by an arrow, is in pain and visibly suffering. Rollo and Kwenthrith, both intoxicated, are wildly violent, he against the living and she against the dead.

Ragnar and company have won a battle against half of the Mercian army (see previous episode), and the Mercian soldiers who remain across the river flee when faced with Viking ships ornamented with Mercian heads. Was there historical precedence for this grim scene? Oh yes. The heads of slain enemies – whether warriors, criminals or innocents – were used throughout history to terrify an enemy army or populace.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

As the gruesomely bedecked ships approach the Mercian shore, Kwenthrith calls out to her brother, Burgred, assuring him that he will come to no harm. I was reminded of Floki’s words from Episode 1 as he watched Kwenthrith dance among the men in the Viking camp: “No man should trust the words of a woman.” Personally, I don’t trust anything that Kwenthrith says, even the reasons she gives for hating her uncle and brother. Burgred, whose stupid battle tactics have already convinced us that he’s an idiot, has to be dragged away from his sister and those dangling heads by one of his thegns.

In Wessex King Ecbert is still playing realtor. He delivers Lagertha to her new home, hands her a fistful of dirt, and assures her that he will protect her people.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Lagertha is reassured. I am not. Sure enough, in a later scene, Athelstan’s Christian blessing of the house is interrupted when one of Lagertha’s people prominently displays a figurine of Odin. The stage is now set for future conflict between Viking settlers and the Christians – possibly the ones they’ve displaced in this vil. It is not looking promising for Lagertha’s folk and, unknown to her, over in Hedeby, her trusted manager Kalf has taken over as jarl. He wants to be famous, like Ragnar. Spoiler: he won’t be. Throughout the centuries between then and now, there has been no Viking war lord more renowned than Ragnar Lothbrok.

King Ecbert’s daughter-in-law Judith appears to have been smitten – along with all the women watching this series – by Athelstan’s bedroom eyes. She reveals this in confession. In a confessional. I hate it when the set designers do this. Confessionals probably didn’t appear until the 17th century or later. Michael Hirst! Stay in your own century! That phrase ‘Bless me father for I have sinned’ doesn’t belong here either. Minor quibble, I know. I guess I always have to find one.

Ecbert is smitten too – by Lagertha. Nevertheless, the king warns Judith off of Athelstan, saying that the more complicated a person is, the more dangerous he is. She responds with this episode’s zinger line:

“And would you say that about yourself, Father-in-law?”

She doesn’t see Ecbert’s answering smirk, but we do. Yes, Ecbert is complicated. And probably a little tricksy. Be careful, Lagertha.

Now, all through this episode there are two mysterious story lines: the first is the wounded Torstein. He took an arrow in the upper arm, but no one has tended him, unless you count a few magic mushrooms and Ragnar’s hope that “Freya will lie with you tonight and take care of you” as medical intervention. Why is that? He’s in obvious pain, and finally he asks Floki to remove his arm. Floki obliges, but that wound too is untended. Why? The point of this eludes me, unless it is meant to portray the hazards of the Viking life.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

The other mystery is, as I mentioned earlier, the Wanderer. Three times he appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug, and Siggi. Three dreams, three female dreamers. Three has ever been a mystical number. (The Blessed Trinity and the three Norns of Norse mythology come immediately to mind.)The Wanderer finally arrives in the flesh, and that brief segment is followed by an even briefer one when Athelstan approaches Lagertha with his hands dripping blood from his stigmata.

So I’m guessing that the dreams, the dripping blood, and the puzzling prophecies we’ve been hearing from the spamaðr in the first two episodes and in webisodes (Athelstan’s Journal), portend a clash between the pagan gods and the White Christ, played out among their followers. Have to say, though, that the previews of Episode 3, with King Ecbert, Lagertha and Athelstan in the bath at Bath, looks pretty friendly. What will Ragnar think about that?!

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

* “The Wanderer” Translation by Greg Delanty in The Word Exchange, ed. Greg Delanty, W.W. Norton, 2011.

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VIKINGS 3, Episode 1: Mercenary



The Vikings are back with a vengeance! There are new plots afoot in every part of the Viking-Saxon world, and writer Michael Hirst has promised that we’re going to France, so grab hold of the gunwale and get ready for a wild ride.

Although the title of this first episode is “Mercenary” the theme seems to be man’s struggle between his yearning for peace and his desire for adventure and excitement. First thing on the agenda is Ragnar’s determination to return to Wessex and take King Ecbert up on his offer of arable land for farming.



In Hedeby Lagertha, shield-maiden and earl, appears at first to be the very picture of Viking role reversal. There were no shield-maidens (that I know of) in the sagas. There were, though, women who managed farms and the people on them. There were also women who accompanied their men to distant lands (Iceland, Vinland) in search of better lives, and in this episode, at any rate, Lagertha is taking on that role. She is leaving her Hedeby steading in the hands of Kalf, a man she trusts. Of course, it is only a matter of time until he betrays her. (Betrayal must be Michael Hirst’s middle name.)



Meanwhile, in Kattegat, Bjorn has an awesome new hair-do and a pregnant, shield-maiden sweetheart who is every bit as stubborn and fierce as Lagertha. Like Lagertha, Porunn is eager to take ship for the planned voyage to Wessex, and he is unable to persuade her to stay behind. He, of course, is young, virile, eager for adventure, eager not for farming, but for battle. Why? His father asks him. For power, Bjorn replies, giving King Ragnar the opening for the best lines in the episode:

Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.



Meantime, Ragnar’s passion for Aslaug seems to be cooling. I wonder if we are being set up. Is there a new love interest in Ragnar’s future? Or are these the seeds of some other kind of betrayal?

Floki – the trickster – is eager to return to Wessex as well. He is feeling trapped by fatherhood, and his poor wife, Helga, has no more luck at figuring out his mercurial moods than we have. Floki is a wild card. We never know what he’s going to do next.

It is at exactly 27 minutes into the episode when my man King Ecbert finally comes on the scene. What took you so long???? Be still my heart!



But wait! He is flanked by two dark-haired beauties, and it takes me a moment to determine that we’ve seen them before. One is Judith – his son’s wife who seems to be quite taken with Athelstan. (I smell a new plot line here.) The other is that she-wolf Kwenthryth who wore Ecbert out in bed last season and is still looking for an army to vanquish her uncle and brother. Apparently she’s lost the last batch of Vikings that Ragnar gave her. (See last year’s recap for background on the Real Kwenthryth and her family history).

There is a feast in Ecbert’s hall. There is a great deal of Old English bandied about which must make my friends in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists giddy with delight. There is a plan agreed to between King Ecbert and King Ragnar, with Ragnar and company agreeing to fight Kwenthryth’s uncle and brother. So why do I feel as if nobody is happy about it, that there is enormous tension in that hall, and that nobody trusts anybody else? Because this script is written by Michael Betrayal Hirst, that’s why.



After the feast, Ragnar and his men take to their ships to go attack the Mercians while King Ecbert plays the role of realtor, attaching himself to Athelstan and Lagertha in order to show them the 5000 acres he’s promised them. (Actually, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t measure land in acres. They measured it in hides, the definition of which changed over time. A hide was, at first, equivalent to the land farmed by a single family. By the 11th century a hide might support 4 families. To be a thegn, one had to own at least 5 hides of land.) Right. To continue: As Lagertha, Athelstan and Ecbert are bouncing along on their wain, the king is speaking in Old English, Lagertha is speaking in Danish, Athelstan is translating for them, and we’re seeing the modern English on our screens. Ecbert, it seems, is smitten by Lagertha. “She is unlike any woman I have ever met. I’m infatuated by her! She is incredible!” There’s more, but you get the idea. He waxes eloquent. Athelstan’s translation in Danish to Lagertha is somewhat less inspired: “He likes you.”

And now we come to the only scene that stuck in my craw. I’m not going to gripe about the storyline, which is pretty much fictional. Hirst is using names of real Mercian rulers – Berhtwulf, Burgred – and a vaguely accurate time frame, but he’s telling a story, not recounting history. I’m okay with that. (History: Mercian king Beornwulf invaded Wessex, and in 825 King Ecbert vanquished him at the Battle of Ellandun.) No, what bothered me was the idiotic sight of the Anglo-Saxons splitting their forces on either side of a wide river and waiting for the Viking fleet to arrive. Really? We’re supposed to believe that the Mercians were so stupid that they expected the Vikings to split their force in half instead of simply ignoring the larger army on one side of the river and attacking the smaller one? It annoys me when the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed as dolts.

Okay, with that single gripe behind me, allow me to give a hearty two thumbs up to this first episode of Season 3. Bring on Episode 2 and please – more King Ecbert!

King Ecbert looking royally awesome.

King Ecbert looking royally awesome.

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On Inspiration

A very generous Elisabeth Storrs, author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice – novels set in Ancient Rome – invited me to answer a few questions about inspiration. She’s posted the resulting Q&A post on her web page, and I hope that anyone interested in what goes on in the mind of a writer when contemplating a work of fiction will find it – well, inspiring.

An Excerpt: There were women of power in that world, yet anyone reading 11th century annals might imagine that women did not exist at all because they were so rarely mentioned. I wanted to write about women’s power and what that might have looked like…

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The Book Launch Party

Diesel2There were lots of familiar faces last night at the Diesel Books launch party for The Price of Blood. Friends from as close as next door and as far away as New York turned out to buy books and cheer on our favorite medieval queen, Emma of Normandy, and her nemesis, Elgiva.

Book club members, fellow writers, tennis buddies, even my friend the Norse sailor (retired) greeted each other – and me! – although there’s never enough time to schmooze at a coming out party as much as I would like.

Diesel3The audience devoured the two pounds of Sees ‘Normandie’ chocolates that my husband had carefully arrayed on a delicate glass platter — and thank heavens! God forbid I should have brought the leftovers home!

So, what did we do, besides nosh, drink wine and chat? Well, I spoke about Emma, Elgiva, and the ghost who haunts the king; about why I’m writing this medieval trilogy; about the business of publishing a book. I read a little from the novel, answered questions, and exchanged lots of hugs. Tonight, in Pasadena, I hope to do it all again!


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The Price of Blood

9780525427278_PriceOfBlood_JKF.inddMy second novel about Emma of Normandy, The Price of Blood, releases on February 5 in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

I imagine that someone who’s written a dozen books can regard a new release with aplomb (I could be wrong about this). As for me, I am still giddy with delight at holding the book in my hands. I love talking to readers, or prospective readers – or anyone who’ll listen – about the book, the history, the characters, my research, my writing.

Sometimes I worry that because of my passionate interest in Queen Emma and the 11th century I can be something of a bore. I have to be alert and watch for that moment when the eyes of my companions start to glaze over and it’s time to turn the conversation elsewhere.

audio cover final Price of Blood

My life, more than ever before, is lived in the pages of books: my own novels, research books, the works of other novelists. It’s a little like being a child again, when I spent long summer days immersed in one novel after another until my mother had to shoo me out of the house with orders to go play. And when I’m not reading, I’m writing or preparing to write or editing what I’ve written the day before. It’s my job, and I love it.

It’s customary to include Acknowledgements at the back of a book, and I’ve done that, but I could not include everyone. There are so many I wish to thank: casual acquaintances who responded to questions concerning things they know about and I don’t – horses, for instance; scholars I met who pointed me toward research I was unaware of; librarians and library supporters who went out of their way to promote my first book and encouraged me in writing this one and the one to follow; friends who introduced my novel to their book groups; all the readers of Shadow on the Crown who have taken the time to write to me, to post a review on-line or to connect through social media; other novelists who have been such supportive colleagues.

And there are many more, I know. I hope I’ll be forgiven for my omissions.

Because I can’t seem to stop talking about Emma, I am about to go on an ambitious book tour over the next few months. It begins on Feb. 9 in my hometown of Oakland, California and continues to Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle and back to the SF Bay Area. I’m looking forward to meeting as many of Emma’s fans as will take the time to make their way to a bookstore to meet me. I hope some of you reading this will find your way to one of these events. I promise to pay close attention to my audiences, in case their eyes start to glaze over and I need to sing or dance or something. Think about it: a medieval queen and a singing author. Really, you know – you won’t want to miss it!


Mortuary Chest. Emma of Normandy. Winchester Cathedral.


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Robson Green and James Norton in Grantchester, Masterpiece Mystery

Robson Green and James Norton in Grantchester, Masterpiece Mystery

I was very naughty tonight. I watched the first episode of Grantchester on Masterpiece Mystery when I should have waited for my husband to return home from his trip to Peru so we could watch it together. I’ve been wanting to see Grantchester though, and tonight I just couldn’t wait any longer.

It was worth the wait, I have to say. I enjoyed it very much, even though, having read the book, I knew ‘who done it’. James Norton makes a wonderful Sidney Chambers. I was quite surprised by the casting of Robson Greene as Inspector Geordie Keating, who I had imagined to be a rather bear-like fellow when I read the book. Robson is great to watch. I remember him from Touching Evil. He’s a favorite of mine, although in this first episode of Grantchester we haven’t yet seen a close-up of his piercing blue eyes.  I love that name, Geordie. I know this old folk song by that name. “Ah my Geordie will be hanged with a golden chain…” But I digress.

Grantchester is filmed in Grantchester and Cambridge, one of the reasons I’ve been so eager to watch it. I studied in Cambridge one summer eight years ago and I have very fond memories of the town. Oxford gets so much airplay (Inspector Morse, Lewis, Endeavour), that it was long past time for Cambridge to get a little action. And so it does. I spotted King’s College in several scenes.

King's College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

There were plenty of shots of the fens that lie between Cambridge and Grantchester, and of the two paths that cross the fens, the upper path and the lower path along the river. I only went to Grantchester once, along the upper path in both directions, and I still regret not walking along the river because it’s supposed to be lovely.

The fens outside of Cambridge

The fens outside of Cambridge

I walked to Grantchester to take tea at The Orchard. It was practically a requirement if you spent any time in Cambridge. Rupert Brooke lived there for a while, and Virginia Woolf was among the group of literati who would have tea with him there. Tea at The Orchard was lovely – and I was lucky enough to be there on a day when the weather was fine.

The Orchard, Grantchester

The Orchard, Grantchester

There were no glimpses of The Orchard in the first episode of Grantchester, but plenty of shots of the church of St. Andrew and St. Mary.  I believe that the interior shots, when Sydney gives his sermons, are filmed there as well.

The church tower, GrantchesterAs I mentioned, Grantchester is based on a series of mystery novels. They’re written by James Runcie whose father was the late Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury. So when James writes about a vicar in the 1950’s he knows his stuff. I had the very great pleasure of meeting him when I was in Wales last winter. We were both speaking at a literary festival – unfortunately our talks were at the same time so I couldn’t attend his. (Full disclosure: he pulled the larger audience.) I hope he’s pleased with how his characters have been brought to the screen. I think the production is wonderful. Highly recommended, and I urge you to read the books as well!

With James Runcie, Gladstone's Library, Wales

With James Runcie, Gladstone’s Library, Wales

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A Pre-Raphaelite Artist & a Church in Wales

St. Deiniol's Church, Hawarden, Wales

St. Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden, Wales

“Be sure you go into the church and look at our Burne-Jones window.”

I had just arrived in Hawarden, Wales and was being escorted up two flights of stairs to my room in the residence wing of Gladstone’s Library when my guide mentioned St. Deiniol’s Church and its window.

“Burne-Jones?” I asked, a little breathless from the climb. “The Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones?” As if there was any other artist by that name who designed stained glass windows.

“That’s the one,” she assured me.

I’ve been a long-time fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, and had seen exhibits of their work in museums in San Francisco, New York and London. I hadn’t expected to find a window by Burne-Jones in a parish church in this small village in Wales.

StD7From my bedroom I could see St. Deiniol’s churchyard, and I soon learned that there had been churches on this site dedicated to the 6th century Welsh saint for over a thousand years. Some elements of the current edifice have been traced back to the 14th century, but St. Deiniol’s had been through several restorations and one fire, and as a result, most of it was now 19th century work. Still, once I was inside, it felt awfully old to me.

I made a number of visits to the little church over the next two weeks, slipping in for quiet contemplation. There were, I discovered, several Burne-Jones windows, but the real stunner was the 1898 west window.

Burne-Jones Window, St. Deiniol's, Hawarden, Wales

Burne-Jones Window, St. Deiniol’s, Hawarden, Wales

It portrayed a Nativity scene, and anyone familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites would recognize the Burne-Jones style in the designs incorporated into the fabrics portrayed and in their lush draping. Like much of Burne-Jones’ work it suggested the medieval. The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by the medieval past, and Burne-Jones’ gave his artwork a dream-like quality, more beautiful than the middle ages could possibly have been.

Burne-Jones Tapestry, Adoration of the Magi, Exeter College, Oxford

Burne-Jones Tapestry, Adoration of the Magi, Exeter College, Oxford

This was not the first nativity scene of his that I’d had the good fortune to see. I’d visited Oxford’s Exeter College church the year before where a tapestry, The Adoration of the Magi, hung. The works were quite different, but both were memorable. When you’ve seen a piece by Burne-Jones, you don’t easily forget it.

There were other artistic elements within St. Deiniol’s that moved me. On the wall of a side chapel an angel plucked the strings of, appropriately, a Welsh harp. Spanning the nave was a carved wooden cross that I thought quite unusual.

Hawarden War Memorial, Remembrance Sunday, 2014

Hawarden War Memorial, Remembrance Sunday, 2014

It had been placed there in 1915 to commemorate William G. C. Gladstone, who was killed in France only three weeks after he had arrived at the front. His tragedy, like so many others, has been commemorated across the nation every Remembrance Sunday, and 2014’s centennial year would be no exception.

On the north side of the church there was a monument dedicated to former Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, the grandfather of that younger William who died in the Great War, and the founder of the library where I was studying. An angel hovered over the bronze sculpture of Gladstone and his wife, Catherine, lying side by side, and everywhere there were memorials to relatives and to parishioners whom they would have known. In fact the church was crowded with memorials and memories. It was crowded with the past.

StD4The past, of course, was my reason for being in Wales at all. And so I spent most days studying Anglo-Saxon history in the library while occasionally making my way to the little church that had its history in its walls and, thanks to Edward Burne-Jones, in windows that so beautifully evoked the medieval.

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The Ghosts of Christmases Past

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

Did you notice that, this year, the Christmas shopping season began considerably earlier than in the past?  Christmas decorations now appear in store windows right after Halloween – pumpkins to pine trees in the blink of an eye. Many shops ignored the traditional start of holiday sales known as Black Friday, and had their doors wide open even on Thanksgiving Day.

This frenzy of shopping throughout November and December is relatively new, if you consider the past 1200 or so years of Christmas traditions. In centuries past, the four weeks before Christmas – Advent – were a time of prayer and fasting, culminating in a feast on December 25. In the 9th century, it was the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, Boarwho extended the Christmas Day feasting into January, so that the celebrating lasted a full twelve days, starting on Christmas day and lasting until Epiphany on January 5. The Anglo-Saxons must have needed all the carbs (from beer) and protein (from boar) they could get to last them through the long, lean days of winter until the next great feast at Easter, but the celebration did not start until December 25.

The medieval Christmas feasting that was embraced in England from the time of King Alfred (9th century) all the way through the reign of Charles I (mid-17th century) stopped abruptly, though, when the Puritans came into power. The stern Puritans believed that the celebration of Christmas was an abomination, and so they cancelled it. From 1644 until 1681, there was a law on the books in England forbidding excessive celebrating at Christmas.

PILGRIM_FATHERSAnd it was those same stern Pilgrims who founded the New England colonies across the sea. They must have been admirably courageous, stoic and resilient to endure those early, desperate years in the American wilderness. But they were also hard-nosed, flinty-eyed, no-nonsense, religious zealots. (I write this as one who, my genealogy-minded sister has informed me, had an ancestor on the Mayflower.) On Christmas Day in 1620, at Plymouth, the Pilgrims showed their contempt for Christmas by spending the day building their first structure in the New World. No feasting, no singing, no holiday, and not even a religious service. It stands to reason when you think about it. The need for shelter against a cold New England winter must have trumped any thoughts of celebration. Nevertheless, even as late as 1870, Boston public schools were open on Christmas Day, and students were expected to attend or else.

In the southern colonies of America, the story was a little different. Jamestown was founded in April, 1607, not by Puritans but by members of the Church of England. Their first Christmas was not recorded, possibly because by Christmas of that first year, only 38 of the original 104 settlers were still alive. The deaths of two-thirds of their company over eight months must have been a bitter blow. But the intrepid John Smith describes a 1608 Yuletide feast of shellfish, meat and poultry that he celebrated with the Indians when he and a dozen of his companions were foraging for food outside the settlement. Bleak as it may have been, Christmas Day was observed in early Virginia.

ChristmasTraditionWhen the later colonies were founded, they celebrated Christmas with the traditions they brought with them from the old world, whether they were Dutch or English, Polish or Portuguese. As the colonies became a melting pot of nationalities and religions, the earlier Puritan prohibition against celebrating Christmas faded, and even in Boston folk kept Christmas however they wished. Thomas Jefferson described his 18th century Virginia Christmas as “a day of mirth and jollity”.

DickensChristmasOver in England, where the Industrial Revolution had emptied villages, the exhausted, dispirited urban populace had no energy for celebration. Luckily for all of us, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1853, and he is credited with reviving the spirit of Christmas in Britain. In America, the March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) celebrated the season not by shopping, but by making presents for Marmee, giving us a tender picture of a thrifty New England Christmas. By the time President Grant declared Christmas a Federal holiday in 1870, the kinds of excesses that had offended the Puritan settlers no longer characterized the feast. It had become a time of nostalgia and hope, of family warmth and communal ties, of tradition and good cheer. Alas for us, it would become the Season of Shopping soon enough.

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The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave

Some months ago, the editor of my university’s alumni magazine called with a request: “Could you write an essay for us on the theme of ‘The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave’? Is there a story like that in your past?” Continue reading

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Celebrating Book Clubs

PegasusIf you belong to a Book Club, raise your hand. See? I knew it. Lots of you. I have this theory that Book Clubs deserve a good deal of credit for keeping the publishing industry (and their authors) going. Continue reading

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