Historical Fiction: My Dear Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laurie Kamoie

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having recently watched the video “Hamilton” on TV, I found various scenes rather confusing. The last time I read anything about Alexander H. I was in 8th grade. As a result, I decided read up on him before attempting to watch the musical again, and downloaded the audio version of Stephanie Dray’s My Dear Hamilton. Based upon Eliza Hamilton’s own letters, this book is a fictionalized narrative, related by Eliza, of her experiences as Mrs. Hamilton.

Part romance, part autobiography, and part eyewitness to history, the amount of detail in in My Dear Hamilton is nothing short of astounding. And therein lies the problem. While many sections were fascinating, others were melodramatic and repetitive. The book in print runs to nearly 700 pages, the audio version to 24 hours. I gave up listening at 18 hours, after Hamilton’s death, no longer able to persevere. Though I remain curious to learn about Eliza’s life as a widow, I’ll look it up online. Then I’ll give the musical another go, with song lyrics in hand.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Iljeoma Oluo

So You Want to Talk About Race
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now more than ever, it’s imperative for those of us who are not black or brown to listen with an open mind to what those who are black or brown have to say about their daily experiences. First we need to understand what “white privilege” really means. It’s not about money. It’s about the sorts of barriers that being white protects you from having to face, for the most part on a daily basis. And it’s vitally important that whites have a clear picture of what comprises those barriers and who is responsible for making them so strong and impregnable. Ijeoma Oluo writes with force and clarity. She doesn’t mince words, laying the blame at the feet of the rich, white, male capitalists who, from the birth of this country, have made certain that only the select members of their coterie can share in the profits and power that they have enjoyed at the great expense of everyone else. There is a strict pecking order, in which people of color have been entirely disenfranchised , with women and those of certain ethnic groups following close behind. Our entire middle class is now in jeopardy, having grown expendable since factory jobs have dried up. I have become increasingly aware of this fact over the last couple of decades. Reading Ms Oluo’s detailed, elegant account of the threats, struggles and insults that so many Americans of color must grapple with every day has been even more eye opening.

Please read this book, or one like it. As Mark Twain said, “The truth hurts, but silence kills”.

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What to Do With All Those Statues

One of the hottest topics during this most controversial and disquieting of summers has been what to to about all those statues of figures who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Many have been removed, but now what? IMHO it’s important to use these symbols to tell the unvarnished story of what they represented when first erected (decades after the war ended) and what they represent today. And boy, is that a loaded question in this era of red and blue states and renewed demands for racial justice. In my recollection, our country has not been this divided since the VietNam era, and our very future is at stake. It’s hard to find reasons to hope…..

This morning I came across an article in one of my favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, which every day posts a digest of the the unusual and often downright quirky places scattered around the world. What snagged my interest this afternoon is their article about what Germany, which has long had their own social and political controversies, has decided how to handle their own monuments that “symbolize racism, antisemitism, and other forms of violence and oppression”. Rather than destroying them, they have established the Citadel Museum in Spandau, in which to display them. There  aim is to use them “ to contextualize the past, putting uncomfortable realities on display in productive, educational, and sometimes challenging ways.“

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The museum’s message is clear: A monument is not a descriptive account of history, but instead a historical artifact that tells a story about power. In a setting that invites scrutiny, visitors can study Berlin’s monuments to grasp more clearly who had power and how that power was used.

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I love this idea, and now my hope is that we can do something like this in several American cities, north and south. These are issues we desperately need to talk about in a supportive environment.

The article goes on to discuss other ways German  people are working to confront their own history. Well worth taking a look at here.

 

Modern Lit: East Coast Girls, by Kerry Kletter

East Coast GirlsEast Coast Girls by Kerry Kletter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four high school girls, intelligent, pretty, and vivacious, share a series of idyllic summers on the beaches of Long Island. All of them have less than ideal home lives, and their deep friendship helps to fill that void. Their final vacation together after graduating is bittersweet, separation looming as they prepare to set forth as individuals into life’s next phase. Driving home on their last day, they vow to remain close and visit often, when the unthinkable happens. East Coast Girls is the story of how each copes with a future quite different than what was confidently expected.  Now, at age 30, they meet at the beach one last time, but not without trepidation.

For the reader, what happened on that tragic night is a mystery, clarified slowly and haltingly, until the book ends. None of the women, for that matter, know the whole truth about what actually took place. This is what motivated me to keep reading, because much of the tale, related by each of characters in turn, seemed like a coming of age novel.  Having outgrown the support system they had created, and in the absence of any other, their confidence has dwindled in the face of the daunting difficulties that life pitches at them.

The summer reunion is beautifully developed. It is in this sequence that the characters are their most authentic. It reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club, which in essence was a successful group therapy session. As in the film, these struggling, damaged women somehow find the nerve to speak painful truths to one another, and can come to understand and accept those truths because they are told by people they once trusted and can come to trust again. During this process, the reader ultimately learns about the traumatic experience that once had the power to divide them, and now has the power to unite.

Difficult material. Well done, Kerry Kletter!

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Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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Historical Fiction: The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

 

 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

 

The Secret Supper is  a mystery that involves my favorite topics, Renaissance art, Italy, religious history, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. It’s fashionable to bad-mouth The Da Vinci  Code on literary and religious grounds, but I enjoyed both book and movie, and I don’t rely upon novels to formulate my religious beliefs. The plot of the Secret Supper is in the same genre, focusing on DaVinci’s  other masterpiece, the Last Supper. Although much of the outstanding  art of the  Renaissance  was commissioned by the church to illustrate its orthodox teachings, many painters used artistic license to express ideas of their own. The Last Supper was highly controversial during its own creation, and The Secret Supper suggests what  some of those less mainstream ideas might be.

Chief inquisitor Agostino Leyre is dispatched to Milan to discover whether persistent allegations of heresy concerning Leonardo’s work are true. Father Agostino takes up lodging at the very monastery where The Last Supper is being created, but before he can launch a proper investigation, he must first solve a cryptic riddle that was provided by the accuser, the mysterious Soothsayer. Large segments of the story therefore involve learning about signs, symbols, codes, and numerology, during which the narration devolves into tutorials about hidden secrets and meanings.  The slower chapters are relieved by action sequences involving street scenes and  nefarious murders. It came  as a surprise when the history of the maligned Cathor religious movement became central to the plot, in quite a credible way. Less successful were the portrayals of Leonardo as having purely mystical intentions, and of a young Sforza countess as a direct descendent of Mary Magdalen.

Recommended for readers who enjoy complex mysteries and  intellectual puzzles, but not those who are super sensitive about religious dogma.

Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Books Within Books: The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dearly love reading books in which other books, some real and some not, play an active role. The Library of Lost and Found has the added advantage of being set within a library and narrated by a middle aged woman, Martha Storm, who volunteers there. As a child, Martha used to write stories, allegories, really, based upon her own experiences of growing up within a family tightly regulated by her domineering father. When her parents became elderly and required live-in assistance, Martha reluctantly gave up her own marriage plans and devoted fifteen long, stultifying years to their care. Now that they are gone, Martha is painfully introverted. She can barely remember a time when she had hopes, dreams, and a life of her own, and devotes her free time to doing chores for others. Then someone anonymously leaves a slim volume of fairy stories on her doorstep, and everything Martha thought she knew is about to change…

Make no mistake, this novel is not reliant upon “magical realism”. Rather it is a charmingly told, often painful, journey of self discovery. Martha’s backstory comes out in a series of flash backs, which ordinarily annoy me, but these serve a important purpose both for the reader and for Martha herself, when she is forced to recall in detail some of the forces that shaped her. In her quest to discover who wrote the book, and why it has been inscribed to her by her beloved but long deceased grandmother, she is supported by a cast of vibrant, small town characters who help her along the way.

The Library of Lost and Found is an intelligent, heartwarming tale about finding the courage to step outside one’s comfort zone and face some facts and truths that for many reasons may long have been buried.

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