Monday Morning Poem: March

By Celia Thaxter

 

THE keen north wind pipes loud;

Swift scuds the flying cloud; 
Light lies the new fallen snow;
The ice-clad eaves drip slow,
For glad Spring has begun,
And to the ardent sun
The earth, long times so bleak,
Turns a frost-bitten cheek.
Through the clear sky of March,
Blue to the topmost arch,
Swept by the New Year’s gales,
The crow, harsh-clamoring, sails.
By the swift river’s flood
The willow’s golden blood
Mounts to the highest spray,
More vivid day by day;
And fast the maples now
Crimson through every bough,
And from the alder’s crown
Swing the long catkins brown.
Gone is the winter’s pain;
Though sorrow still remain,
Though eyes with tears be wet,
The voice of our regret
We hush, to hear the sweet
Far fall of summer’s feet.
The Heavenly Father wise
Looks in the saddened eyes
Of our unworthiness,
Yet doth He cheer and bless.
Doubt and Despair are dead;
Hope dares to raise her head,
And whispers of delight
Fill the earth day and night.
The snowdrops by the door
Lift upward, sweet and pure,
Their delicate bells; and soon,
In the calm blaze of noon,
By lowly window-sills
Will laugh the daffodils!

History is Mystery: The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

imageMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lincoln Letter is the tenth and latest  William Martin’s series of historical novels, several of which feature antiquarian book dealer  Peter Fallon. Now Fallon is back and hot on the trail of a heretofore unknown letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life.  The letter is brief, addressed to  former War Department decoder Hawley Hutchinson , and seems to refer to a diary that Lincoln lost earlier in the Civil War. Fallon heads to Washington DC, only to discover that he  is not the only hunter in this increasingly dangerous quest. While Fallon is feverishly searching and defending his life, a series of flashbacks, narrated from the point of view of Hutchinson, illustrate how and why this mystery came to pass.  The plot is enriched by the actions of colorful characters in both time periods, and I found the Civil War story the more compelling. Martin adroitly handles the moral issues  of slavery and political machination without becoming preachy, and the African American characters are among the best developed.  Why were people so determined to find Lincoln’s diary in the 1860′s? For its value to anti-Lincoln factions for use as a weapon. Why are they so determined in the early 2000′s? For the diary’s value, to history, yes, but more importantly, for the fortune it would bring.

A fast paced, engrossing tale, thoughtful and well presented.

Ghost Story: The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from  the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father.  When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter.  From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……

The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses  categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar.  Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction?  Grace is soon to know the whole truth.

This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation.  And possibly a sequel?

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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Great Nonfiction: The Sacred Remains, by Gary Laderman

The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each October, I’m asked to give tours at several historic cemeteries here in CT. The Sacred Remains is the book I use most for fact checking and for answers to questions that visitors sometimes ask that I can’t answer. Meticulously researched and documented, the book opens with an account of the many funerals of George Washington (GW’s “invisible corpse”), with emphasis on how the extravagant, nationwide expressions of mourning affected Protestant American burial traditions and attitudes toward death itself, especially with respect to the physical remains. Adopting a cultural, sociological perspective, Dr. Laderman examines the spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors that influenced how families dealt with the preparation of the body of the deceased in the decades preceding the Civil War, when the vast majority of Americans died at home and were “laid out” by relatives and friends, and buried, necessarily, within a day or two. When the war began to produce an avalanche of disfigured corpses that died far from home, it became necessary to develop procedures for embalming those that would be transported from battlefield to their northern homes, introducing professional undertakers into what had been an intensely private process. Ending with the ” birth of the “business of death” that occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century, with “corpse as commodity”, the author illustrates how the mortuary industry ensured that the body would be “ushered out in a comforting manner for the living.”

“The dead do not simply vanish when life is extinguished….The dead must also be accounted for in the imagination.” The Sacred Remains is a compelling study of the ways in which Americans have accomplished this task.

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Historical Fiction: The Spiritualist, by Megan Chance

The Spiritualist

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To office assistant Evelyn Graff, it seems like a fairy tale when the handsome Peter Atherton, one of the wealthiest bachelors in Victorian Manhattan, proposes marriage to her. She can’t believe her luck when his family readily accepts her, and suffers disappointment as her husband grows neglectful of her. One evening, Evelyn reluctantly accompanies Peter to a society seance, even though she’s not a believer. Three days later, his body is discovered floating in the river, and, the following week, a horrified Evelyn finds herself in a holding cell, accused by the powerful Athertons of his murder. Peter’s law partner undertakes her defense, and as she searches for exonerating evidence, Evelyn finds herself pitted against the city’s most influential medium in the dark world of the occult.

The Spiritualist, though competently written, is not particularly original in its Svengali-type plot. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce the identity or motive of the real killer. Nor is it especially spooky. Evelyn, however, is a spirited protagonist and there is an intriguing outcome for her as she becomes aware of some hidden talents. The period atmosphere is also good. Recommended for readers looking for an undemanding, entertaining book to while away a long winter’s evening.

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Almost Heaven: Near Death Experience, 19th century style

This is a true story about a woman by the name of Anna Mathewson, who was born in Coventry, CT in 1810. Anna grew up healthy and strong, but at the age of 24, things took a turn for the worse. Her health was described from that time on as delicate, and from 1841-44, Anna was confined to the house, often to her bed, unable to rise without assistance. Dr Norman Brigham attended Anna all this time, and finally, things grew so serious that often she could not speak. It was necessary to prescribe opiates for the pain (no diagnosis is provided in the record), and Anna herself claimed to be suffering “all the pains of death”. Death, she said, had “commenced at her extremities”, and when it reached her heart, she would fade away.

Apparently it did reach her heart, because on Tuesday, May 20, 1844, Anna’s spirit left her body and soared to heaven. The doors of heaven opened upon the “abode of the blessed”, and the most delightful singing was heard. Alas, Anna was welcomed but not permitted to enter. She was instructed to return to earth, and was given a divine mission, to “warn Christians to wake up, that the churches might be revived and sinners converted.” Only when her task was accomplished could she return to Paradise.

Imagine the reaction of her friends and family when Anna’s “corpse” sat up and spoke to them! There were even more surprises to come. Although Miss Mathewson had had difficulty speaking, and certainly had never sung, her voice suddenly “came to her and she would sing continuously for hours”. She told everyone that the angels were singing with her and she longed for all to hear them.

Mr. S. Bliss of nearby Tolland heard of this wondrous miracle, and decided to pay a visit. He published an account of his meeting in the Boston newspapers, fully corroborating the story. The rush was on. Seven hundred people descended upon little Coventry in seven days, and before all the excitement settled, more than 2000 made the pilgrimage. This in an era when travel was an arduous, lengthy process. One hardy and zealous soul trudged on foot 150 miles, “that he might see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears” the woman who had been to heaven and back again.

[from The History of Tolland County, JR Cole]

Historical Fiction: Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Allen Poe, in the eyes of modern readers, is many things, including enigmatic, gothic, talented, and a bit crazy. As author Lynn Cullen imagines him, he’s talented, enigmatic, and romantic. Yes, romantic. He fell madly “in love” with his young cousin, Virginia, ten years before this novel begins, but the marriage hasn’t developed as he might have wished. Instead, Virginia is still childlike and very sickly, and while Edgar does love her, any eroticism that he felt originally has long since dissipated. The constant presence of Edgar’s mother in law doesn’t help matters. Now he’s the toast of New York, and while attending an intellectual salon, meets Francis Osgood, a minor poet trying to eke out a living, as her profligate husband has deserted her and their two daughters. Edgar and Fanny are instantly attracted to one another, and a love affair, first platonic, then increasingly sensual, blooms. But Mrs. Poe, though frequently bedridden, isn’t blind, and as her suspicions grow, so does the tension, and, Fanny learns, danger.

Ms. Cullen has skillfully used the few existing grains of factual information about this relationship to pieced together a consuming romance which, in the pages of this novel, obsesses both Edgar and Fanny. Her attention to detail, her ability to bring the gas lit streets and mansions of the city to life, and her very human character portrayals, especially of Poe himself, are enthralling. Cameo appearances are made by the literati of the era, and Fanny encounters one famous personage after another. Imagine meeting Louisa May Alcott, Mathew Brady, and Walt Whitman as you sashay down Fifth Avenue. Actually, there’s a bit too much celebrity sighting, leading the reader to wonder if anyone ordinary lives in the city, but it’s a fun situation to picture. One of the personages in the book, the editor Rufus Griswold, did a thorough character assassination of Poe after his death, and Ms. Cullen has done a service by providing a more sympathetic image of the man, who had to be more complex than the one presented by Griswold. Mrs. Poe is intelligently written, and while it is historical fiction, it’s refreshing to shake up one’s notions and consider alternative possibilities to biographies believed to have been set in stone.

Edgar Allen Poe

Virginia Clemm Poe

Frances Sargent Osgood

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Historical Fiction: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

P.D. James, declared by no less a source than the NY Times to be England’s “most talented practitioner” of British Crime Fiction, makes a departure from her contemporary work to visit the world of Jane Austen. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have been Happily Married for several years and are the Parents of two Young Sons (and Heirs). Elizabeth’s impetuous sister, fans will recall, is married to the roguish and ever unfaithful George Wickham, who is Decidedly Not Welcome at Pemberley. In the course of arriving as uninvited guests, Wickham becomes involved in the death of his close friends, which takes place during a stormy night in the Pemberley woodlands. He’s accused of murder, of which even Darcy refuses to consider him capable. Soon Wickham will be on trial for his life.

Ms. James is the consummate author, and she does a more than creditable job of channeling the Regency era among the aristocracy. The plot is simple, and Darcy is no Dalgliesh, but it’s a great pleasure to follow the course of this charming story, which does capture the tenor of Jane Austen’s fictional world. The Darcy marriage is, of course, idyllic, and he never neglects the opportunity to declare his love for his wife. He calls her Elizabeth, but we don’t know what she calls him, as I can’t recollect ever seeing her use a name. Fitzwilliam? Wills? Billyboy? Fitz? Alas, we’ll Never Know. I’m generally Not Fond of books in which authors confiscate the Famous Characters of others, but in the case of the brilliant P.D.J., I’ve made an exception.

Nothing short of Delightful.

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It’s a Mystery: A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd

A Fatal Likeness

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are many unanswered questions about the short life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lost many loved ones to untimely deaths. Lynn Shepherd’s latest Charles Maddox novel proposes some possibilities. Maddox is hired by the widow (who is the author of Frankenstein), son, and daughter in law of the famous poet, who live in fear of the publication of some scandalous material pertaining to those deaths. The Shelleys engage Maddox to ascertain whether Claire Claremont, despised stepsister to the widow, possesses compromising papers and plans to publish them. Soon he finds himself dead center in the battle of the relatives, and the truths he unmasks are indeed shocking.

This is an intriguing premise, but the book has some problems. First, the plot takes way too long to gel. Second, the characters, with the exception of Maddox, remain too shady and remote for the reader to gain a sense of who they really are. Third, the frequent shifts in perspective, as related by the omniscient narrator, are generally confusing. Fourth, the sinister conclusions drawn about the deaths are difficult to accept. Fifth, in spite of it all, there is very little of substance to learn about Percy’s life I know the author can do better, having enjoyed The Solitairy House, the first Charles Maddox novel. Perhaps some tighter editing could have made Likeness more readable.

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