Book Reviews/Discussions

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

This title had been on my to be read pile for quite some time.  One of the upsides to the Covid Crisis has been that I am working my way through some really good books that I had never gotten around to reading.  In stark contrast to Star Spangled Scandal, this narrative nonfiction offering delivers the goods.  It is highly engaging, well written, and offers a glimpse of a lesser known episode in history.  I mean, who doesn’t love a murder mystery?  And unlike attempts to unmask Jack the Ripper, the solution turns out to be pretty convincing to the reader.  

The subtitle here is revealing:  The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Murder Mystery.  Indeed!  The year is 1800.  Erstwhile frenemies and uber-competitive New York Lawyers Burr and Hamilton are co-counsels for the defense and they definitely put on quite a show.  However, Hamilton-mania aside, there is much more to the book.  The lives of women and workaday people are revealed here as well.  When the body of Elma Sands was found in a well belonging to Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company (the water company he founded to get around banking monopolies held by Federalists in NY), he is already invested in trying to keep the scandal manageable.  But when Levi Weeks, master carpenter and general good guy is accused of the murder, he and Hamilton, along with Brockholst Livingston are hired by Ezra Weeks, Levi’s influential architect brother, to represent him at the trial.  All of this occurs during a Yellow Fever epidemic, no less.

The public were already convinced of Levi’s guilt, so it was something of an uphill battle.  Along the way, the reader is privy to many of the details of Burr’s and Hamiltons’s personal histories together. Fascinating stuff and much less worshipful of Hamilton as some kind of champion for the little guy, since he was not–that role actually belongs to Burr of all people. Fans of the musical may be unhappily surprised to find that Hamilton was not as great a hero, nor Burr a villain as portrayed, but I digress.

In the end, Burr and Hamilton pull off a Perry Mason–they accuse someone else of the murder and get their client off.  The author then does the reader the kindness of solving the crime and tidying up the loose ends.  Altogether, this is a highly readable, extremely interesting slice of Early Republic life, complete with the tangled webs of connection between families in New York society. The book is painstakingly endnoted and sources are listed for those who want to read more.

I impatiently await Burr the Musical

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What was the most surprising thing you found out while reading this book?  What surprised you about it?
  2. What would you like to learn more about after reading this book?  Why?
  3. Do you think the author was correct in his solution of the murder?  What did you find most or least convincing?
  4. How were the courtroom scenes different to what you expected?
  5. Was there anything not included in the book that you thought should have been, or included that you thought should have been left out?  Why?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Star Spangled Scandal by Chris DeRose

This is another case of a great story resulting in a mediocre (at best) book. I was extremely interested when I saw the blurb and I got an advance copy in e-galley form.  I finished it, because I wanted to write an honest and fair review, but dear reader, you will do better to read this article from American Heritage in 1967 to get the story without having to read this book.

At times plodding, Star Spangled Scandal reads like a court transcript with a few tabloid headlines thrown in for good measure.  Though there appears to have been research from the endnotes, there was no real synthesis of information, no art in the telling, and no argument made at all.  Most disappointing is its failure to add any new points of view, say from some of the women involved, who are treated as unimportant props.  There is too much detailed and mostly irrelevant background every time a new male character is introduced in the narrative; it clutters the book to the point of making it unenjoyable.

In the concluding section the author finally makes a point that would have been better made at the beginning as his argument and then shown through evidence–that the use of the temporary insanity defense and the “unwritten law” allowing men to murder other men who soiled their wives, sisters, and mothers, stemmed from this court case.  As it is, this section came too late to save the book.  In addition, historical errors abound.  One reviewer has already pointed out the national anthem error, but DeRose also mentions in passing that Marie Antoinette’s extravagance was to blame for the French Revolution, a ridiculous theory that has been debunked numerous times, only occasionally turning up among those who don’t know any better.

Save yourself the pain of reading this book and get the Sickles’ story from the Library of Congress instead.

You’re welcome.  🙂

Up next–A much better book about a murder trial from American History.

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

Austenalia

The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett

As I continue my quest to read the Gothic novels that Austen read, I came to this gem.  Technically speaking, it could not have been an inspiration for Northanger Abbey, since it was published in 1813 and read by Austen in February and March of 1814, however, it provides a fascinating look at Gothic parody and has an interesting connection to Austen, which I will reveal later on in this post.

Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in a letter dated March 2-3, 1814: 

I finished the Heroine last night & was very much amused by it.  I wonder James [their elder brother] did not like it better.  It diverted me exceedingly…We have drank tea & I have torn through the 3rd volume of the Heroine, & do not think it falls off.–It is a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style.  (Le Faye 266-67)

The Heroine was popular upon its publication, and remained in print until 1927 (Horner and Zlosnik 3). No less a light than Edgar Allan Poe had this to say:

…although it has run through editions innumerable, and has been universally read and admired by all possessing talent or taste, it has never, in our opinion, attracted half that notice on the part of the critical press, which is undoubtedly its due. There are few books written with more tact, spirit, näïveté [[naïveté]], or grace, few which take hold more irresistibly upon the attention of the reader, and none more fairly entitled to rank among the classics of English literature than the Heroine of Eaton Stannard Barrett. (41)

I myself will admit to having laughed aloud several times while reading it.  The Heroine follows the adventures of the self-styled Cherubina de Willoughby as she manages by turns to be clever, silly, naive, rude, and self-absorbed in her quest to become a heroine just like those she has read about in novels–all the usual suspects–Mysteries of Udolpho, the Monk, The Italian, Pamela, etc.  There is a 2011 edition available, but through the magic of print on demand, you can also get the 1909 version with an introduction by Walter Raleigh, which is the one I read.  Raleigh does not have a lot of respect for Barrett, but I agree with Horner and Zlosnik that Raleigh may have been too quick to dismiss Barrett’s talent (2).  I think Poe was right.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book, though, was a reference to Sir Charles Bingley on page 98. Yes, that Bingley. Janeites will know that Pride and Prejudice was first published in January 1813.  The Heroine was also originally published in 1813, though I have not yet found the month.  This led me to wonder about any connection between the two writers.  Now, you will say, wait–you were reading the 1909 version, perhaps it was revised.  I had the same thought, so through the magic of the Internet and the Hathi Trust, I located a scanned version of the 1813 edition.  In volume II, page 15, the very same text appears referring to Sir Charles Bingley. (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015059389596&view=2up&seq=6)  Cherubina is referring to Stuart, her paramour, when she writes, “Would Sir Charles Bingley have deserted me so I ask? No.  But Stuart has no notion of being a plain, useful, unsuccessful lover like him” (15).  The reference is not repeated and there is no further elucidation, but the statement implies that our heroine has read Pride and Prejudice, which means Barrett had as well.  He also seems to expect that the reader will know who Bingley is.  Could this reference to her own work have been one of the reasons Austen so enjoyed the book? I don’t know if we will ever find out, but it is interesting to wonder.

The Heroine is definitely worth your time, if you enjoy parody, or the Gothic.  It is certainly a bit of fun and a little bit of a literary history puzzle. I have mentioned in a previous post that even though The Heroine could not have inspired Northanger Abbey, it may have been on Austen’s mind when revising it for publication.  I am glad to report that I am not alone in seeing the possible connection: 

Austen reworked Northanger Abbey some time between 1816 and 1817, and it seems probable that at least some of it is indebted to Barrett’s work.  We might suspect a reference to The Heroine in its ironic first sentence, for example:  “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Northanger Abbey 5).  Like Catherine Morland, The Heroine’s heroine, Cherry Wilkinson, has read more Gothic novels than are really good for her.  Like Catherine, Cherry has difficulty differentiating between life and fiction.  (Dow and Halsey)

Give it a try; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Works Cited

Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 1, December 1835, 2:41-43.

Barrett, Eaton Stannard, Esq. The Heroine: or Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader. London, 1813. Accessed via Hathi Trust 5 July 2020, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015059389596

Barrett, Eaton Stannard. The Heroine: with an introduction by Walter Raleigh. London: Henry Frowde, 1909.

Dow, Gillian and Katie Halsey. “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years.” Persuasions Online 30.2 (2010). Accessed 5 July 2020, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no2/dow-halsey.html.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. “Dead funny: Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The heroine as comic gothic.” Cardiff Corvey: reading the romantic text 5.2 (2000).

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen’s Letters (fourth edition). Oxford UP, 2011.

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

This has been sitting on my to be read pile for quite a while.  I originally received it as an e-galley, but decided to wait and buy it because I enjoy books more when they are in physical format.  I could tell this one would be one that would require some time and attention.

First, it is a beautifully written book. The pacing is slow, but not too slow, and as with many books I have read recently, time is fluid.  The reader floats between different events in the main characters’ lives, sometimes doubling back to see something from a different perspective/point of view. So, the first thing I would advise readers to do is to be prepared to savor this one.  It isn’t a beach read, but it also isn’t Proust. It fits quite nicely somewhere between. 

The novel opens at a party in the German hinterland in 1938. This party guests include a few Nazi sympathizers, but they are mostly intelligentsia, not fans of Hitler or his methods. From here, the reader sees in glimpses, the horrors of the war writ small. On everyday Germans, Poles, French, Jews, Russians–disaster is visited.  At the core of the novel are a group of mostly German resisters–they plotted to assassinate Hitler, but failed. After the men are executed, the women are left and Mariane von Lingenfels has promised to care for them and the children. She proves up to the task, but it is not easy.  There are so many secrets, so many ways people have been hurt and twisted by the war, that survival itself is heroic. Survival with a sense of human dignity and recognition of the humanity of others is even more heroic. 

Shattuck’s characters are finely drawn, even the children.  The reader feels the pain, humiliation, even the hunger portrayed, but Shattuck never goes for the cheap Nazi caricatures that so many other writers have left us with. The reader never gets all the details, and while that may be unsatisfying to some, it adds to the depth–just like real people are never presented to us as completely revealed, neither are these fictional characters. This is a character driven book, those looking for a plot will need to look elsewhere.  However, if you enjoy a beautiful story of struggle and hope, this one will suit you just fine.

Discussion Questions for your Reading Group:

  1. At the beginning when Mariane is first “assigned” to care for the women and children of the plotters, she feels it is a lesser task, but by the end, she has changed her mind.  How do you view this assignment?
  2. Which of the three main women–Mariane, Benita, or Ania do you most identify with and why?
  3. Mariane doesn’t want Herr Muller to come to the castle and she actively thwarts his relationship with Benita.  Do you agree with her assessment? What would you have done in her place?
  4. We often read novels where the protagonists succeed in their rebellion, or pull off an impossible mission.  How does The Women in the Castle differ from these types of novels?
  5. What do you think about the final fate of the castle?  How does this relate to Mariane’s mission to care for the women and children?
Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

Darkness at Pemberly by T. H. White

If you have read my earlier post about the Austen in Austin exhibit at the Ransom Center in Austin, you will have seen a reference to this book in my comments.  After I visited the exhibit and heard Janine’s talk, I had to find the book and read it.  This little book combined two of my favorite things, or so I thought…a cozy mystery and Jane Austen.

Well dear reader, the book was fun to read if you are a fan of the cozy mystery genre; it was sort of Agatha Christie meets Dashiell Hammett sprinkled with a few Austen references for the heck of it.  Originally published in 1932, it attempts to straddle the English village mystery and the hard-boiled detective story, and manages to do it somewhat successfully. Our detective, aptly named Buller, is an English copper who retires after he is unable to gather the evidence necessary to arrest a crazed killer who confesses in the first part of the book.  I’ll admit, I was scratching my head for the first 92 pages trying to figure out why Pemberly was even in the title, since neither the estate, nor any Darcys were yet to be found.  However, I persisted. And was rewarded in part the second when the detective inspector, now retired, is revealed to be a friend of Sir Charles Darcy, descendant of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, and his sister Elizabeth.  Sir Charles is a little bit of a ne’er do well–he has even served time in prison–and a slight hothead. I won’t ruin it for you, but Sir Charles becomes embroiled with the diabolical murderer from part the first and Pemberly becomes the setting for most of the rest of the Novella as the cast of characters, including chemists, butlers, and more try to avoid being the next victim and catch the killer before he can do in Charles or Elizabeth.  Needless to say, there is a very chaste romance between Buller and the 1930s Elizabeth, who is a “modern” woman of the era. 

All’s well that ends well and readers expecting everything tied up and explained by the end will not be disappointed.  It was satisfying as a mystery, less so as Austen fan fiction, but I am not sure what I was expecting from T. H. White, he of The Once and Future King. If you only read it as a curiosity, it will be worth it, it doesn’t take long at only 286 pages, and it is intriguing to see how White imagines the progeny of the Darcys and the decline of Pemberly. Copies are readily available on Amazon.

Austenalia

The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser

The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser 

Johns Hopkins University Press (2017), 295 pages

Paperback (2019), $19.95

First published in 2017, I am reviewing the 2019 paperback version with a new afterword.  For those interested in reception history and Jane Austen reception in particular, this well-researched book contains much that is original and highly thought provoking, as well as wonderfully detailed. Dr. Looser treats readers to fresh ways to think about how Jane Austen became JANE AUSTEN! Looser included numerous endnotes and source lists for those who want to continue reading on the topic.  Sources include archival material and period specific analysis, as well as her own informed original analysis.  Her meticulous research allowed her to uncover an error in the identification of Austen’s first illustrator with convincing evidence that it was Ferdinand Pickering, not George.

Looser argues that Austen was not made by the literati alone.  Though the literary establishment had its share of Austen lovers (and haters), public interaction with her work contributed to her renown. Long lasting worldwide engagement with Austen belongs to casual readers, illustrators, dramatists, political movements, and school teachers. Her argument may sound familiar to Janeites; recent JASNA conferences included many presentations on this theme, most notably Janine Barchas, author of several talks about the forgotten editions of Austen.  However familiar the story of how Austen’s books went out of print and were “rediscovered” and reissued by Richard Bentley in the 1830s, only to experience a Victorian surge in popularity among literary elites in the 1870s, recent research goes beyond critics and collectible first editions.

Part I begins with the illustrations commissioned by Bentley. She examines how the illustrator’s choices–the focus of the action, who is in the illustration, even the captions–frame reader reception.  Pickering, Austen’s first illustrator, mostly depicted the heroines and female characters in domestic scenes (23). Later illustrators often followed Pickering’s lead, even down to choosing the same scenes to illustrate (51).  She helpfully places the illustrations in conversation, so the reader can see how they evolved and influenced reader reception, making Austen’s work recognizable to many people who may only have seen the illustrations.

In “Part II” Looser discusses the dramatization of Austen, including professional, college and school adaptations. One striking trend that emerges from these chapters is the evolution of the dramatizations from female centric to male centric. She includes a brief discussion of implications of this trend for film adaptations as well. I will never watch the 1940 Olivier P&P with quite the same condescending attitude as I have in the past.

“Part III: Jane, Politicized” demonstrates that politicians of all ilks have co-opted Austen to further their causes, from Suffragettes to second wave feminists to Conservatives to Marxists. Looser comments, “Whatever party Austen may or may not have affiliated with during life, her legacy puts her all over the political map…your sense of whether that would have pleased her or left her nonplussed, may hew more closely to your own political beliefs than to anything we can prove about hers.” (145)

“Part IV: Jane Austen, Schooled,” delves into the many and varied ways that Austen’s texts were used and taught in schools and out of schools.  Looser begins with George Pellew’s dissertation–the first written about Austen, and continues through Austen’s inclusion on reading lists, in readers, and in college courses–Lionel Trilling turned away students when too many signed up for his Austen course (212). Unafraid to examine less scholarly views of Austen, such as a 1971 mock-ad in National Lampoon (213), Looser handily makes her argument. 

According to Looser, Jane Austen became Jane Austen! because she could hold the “attention of scholarly and popular audiences alike.” (218) Reception does not have to be a zero sum, it can be both and. While frustrating to the literary establishment, ultimately Austen’s adaptability is what makes her great. In the afterward, Looser adds that perhaps we should take Austen’s declaration that she does not write except for those with great ingenuity, as a sign of her confidence in her readers (227). All readers, great and small can find meaning in Austen. 

Austen lovers of all types will enjoy the reference in Looser’s final words. “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend haughty, highbrow exclusivity or celebrate uncritical adulation.” (223) 

Both, please.

Tea Totaling

Tea Time Treat: Chocolate Loaf Cake

About a year ago, I embarked on a project to adapt a beautifully illustrated but dreadfully written cookbook, Maison Kayser’s French Pastry Workshop: a Step-by-Step Guide. You can read my review and those of many other disappointed home cooks, on GoodReads. Basically, the ingredient lists are a joke, containing things like, “1 ½ cups + 1 T. + 2 t. of confectioner’s sugar.”  I did not make that up, it is on page 12. And it is NOT a step-by-step guide to anything, unless tearing one’s hair out in frustration is the goal…

 I have previously posted recipes I have adjusted and rigorously tested, and today, I am finally ready to post Chocolate Loaf Cake.  This one has proved a little tricky, but I think that the following ingredients and instructions will allow the home cook reliable and tasty results.

I have tried this cake with both hazelnut flour/liqueur/nuts and almonds, both work fine. If you don’t have mini-chips, just put regular sized ones in a blender or a food processor and chop them up–the smaller bits won’t sink in the cake. I have found that the cooking time is variable, so I am sorry that is not more precise–you know your oven, hopefully. Warning–this cake is like brownies in that a regular tester won’t work–it will come out with crumbs, and you do have to be careful not to overbake or underbake, both are bummers.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do–it is a really good cake, now that the ingredients are in manageable, measurable numbers. If you would like to print as a PDF, here is that option.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Review: The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

It is true that neither of these titles is new, but they are worth consideration for mystery fans, especially fans of the mystery sub-genre, lovingly called “cozies.”

If you are looking for a little light reading to get you through quarantine, these two Horowitz gems may do the trick.  Full disclosure–I am a Horowitz fan!

These are sort up updated versions of an English Cozy mystery, starring Hawthorne, an ex-cop who is something of a mystery himself.  The gimmick, if you want to call it that is that these are Roman a clefs of a sort–Horowitz has made himself a character in the books and there are real people who appear in the stories, like his wife, Jill Green a television producer, and even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson). So the identities are not secret as in a traditional Roman a clef, but there is the sense that the reader is in the “real” world of famous people.

First, the positives.  Since Horowitz is the narrator, the reader never has to really fear for his life, even when it looks like the murderer might get him.  He has to live to finish writing the book! The mysteries are serviceable, though if you are a frequent mystery reader, you may figure it out before the narrator.   I think perhaps Horowitz is letting the reader feel smart by writing them that way…They are not too long and the reader does get most of the clues–I hate it when there are unknown clues at the end during the big reveal. Horowitz is fairly self-deprecating as the narrator and there are Easter eggs for Horowitz fans, enjoy! The pacing is good and there is a decent amount of suspense.

Now the negatives. Hawthorne is kind of strange and mostly unlikeable, not a deal killer, but I did feel like in both books the narrator spent rather too much time trying to figure out Hawthorne and too little on the actual mystery. As is often the case with a Roman a clef-ish book, there is a lot of name-dropping.  This can become tedious and tiresome; making the reader feel excluded rather than included in the world of the glitterati. Some of us would really like to get on with solving the crime and don’t really care about blowhard actors, etc.

I think these two titles will most appeal to readers who are already fans of Horowitz’s television writing (Midsommer Murders, Foyle’s War).  His earlier mystery–The Magpie Murders was much superior. It was a cleverly done novel within a novel–a frame story. But these are nice ways to pass the time on a rainy day.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

If you are a GenX woman, this is the support group you’ve been looking for–you are not imagining it, being GenX sucks. Squeezed between Boomers and Millenials, GenX has gotten a bad wrap for being whiners, but as this book shows, we’ve got plenty to whine about.

It’s not all bad news, though.  If you are a woman of a certain age, go immediately to chapter 9: Perimenopause for a section that will make you laugh out loud and give you hope, because you’ll know you are not alone. 

And really, that is the main takeaway from this book–you’re not imagining it and you’re not alone! Reading this book is ultimately an exercise in hope; give yourself permission not to excel at everything. Sometimes your family has to eat take out and sometimes you buy the birthday cake and it’s okay–society doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  Also, maybe your career isn’t glamorous or especially fulfilling, but that’s okay, too. The world needs all kinds of people doing all kinds of jobs. Learning to let go of unrealistic expectations if the first step toward feeling better–and know this: midlife, like most things, including coronavirus, won’t last forever. Things will get better and GenX can still save the world!!!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Ten years ago Maya was on the LA jury that acquitted Bobby Nock, accused murderer of one of his students with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship. The jury’s names were leaked to the press and none of them have had any peace since.  Most of the public believed Bobby was guilty and they could neither understand the jury’s decision nor leave them alone after the trial. In the intervening years, Maya has become a defense attorney, determined to make the system work better. Most of the jurors haven’t really kept in contact, but for the 10th anniversary, a reality TV show wants to get them all together to rehash the trial and their verdict.  Rick, another juror, claims to have found evidence that will prove Bobby did in fact commit the crime; Maya is still convinced he was innocent and would rather pass on the TV show, but her boss convinces her it would be good for the firm for her to be on the show. When another murder takes place during the reunion, Maya is propelled into a search for the truth in both the past and the present.

Told from varying perspectives–each juror has a story–interwoven with Maya’s story, The Holdout is a thriller that does not disappoint.  Readers of Moore’s earlier novel, The Sherlockian, will enjoy this one as well. Suspense, mystery, a level of both unpredictability and storytelling skill that is sadly lacking in most thrillers.  

If you are looking for something to read while you wait out the Corona Virus, pick this one up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the premise that most people who have jury duty see it as an important responsibility related to self-government?  Why or Why not?
  2. Do you think the setting of Los Angeles adds to the story, or could the novel be set anywhere? Why or why not?
  3. Before the final reveal, where had you landed on Bobby’s guilt? What made you think what you did?
  4. Which juror’s story did you most identify with?  Why?
  5. How does this novel change the way you view the justice system? If not, why not?