It’s a Mystery: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

 

The Secret History
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Papen is chronically depressed, a loser in his own eyes. Penniless, he leaves his native California and his dismissive parents for Hampden College in New Hampshire, where he hopes to reinvent himself. Still very much a fish out of water, his knowledge of the language of ancient Greece eventually comes to the attention of the school’s elite, a group of five wealthy students who study all things Greek under the tutelage of distinguished scholar Julian Delgado. To Richard’s astonishment and delight, he’s invited into this exclusive coterie. Soon, as a result of the mythology and philosophy in which the students become immersed, one of the group will die at the hands of his fellows. This is the secret. As narrator, Richard’s job is to guide readers along on the journey that leads to murder and its inevitable tragic aftermath. This is the history.

The Secret History owes much to such classic forerunners as Crime and Punishment, Brideshead Revisited, and Lord of the Flies, as well as the body of Greek Mythology. To the credit of its author, however, this mystery cum coming of age tale is no mere derivative.

This is an accomplished first novel. Yes, it has its problems. The plot, though certainly compelling, is not complex enough to warrant nearly 600 pages, and it drags in places toward the middle. Readers who expect to “like” the characters will probably not like The Secret History; while they each possess a level of intellectual brilliance, morally they are bankrupt. Self-appointed elitists, the totality of their self absorption will ruin them all. Except for Richard, whose self-contempt paralyzes him to the point that he watches their actions as though watching a game or a movie. But Ms. Tartt is spot on in her portrayal of the 1980’s texture of life at a small town college during a snowy winter, well enough to invoke some nostalgia for my own college days. While revealing the secret in the prologue saps the story of suspense, knowing what will happen evokes a strong sense of dread that grows as the plot plays out, rather like watching a snake from a distance when you know it might strike. Rather like we do whenever any heinous act splashes itself across our television screens.

Fascinating work by a talented writer. Can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

Crazy Lorenzo Dow: American original

During the 19th century, many an American mother named her new baby boy Lorenzo Dow, after a flamboyant preacher from Connecticut. The namesake of all these sons was born in Coventry in 1777, where he spent his youth much tormented by religious uncertainties. At the age of 21, he joined the Methodists, against the wishes of his father, and became a circuit preacher. The following year, Lorenzo traveled to Ireland as a missionary, and introduced to England the camp meeting system of the movement known as the Second Great Awakening.

Over the next 30 years, Lorenzo visited nearly all parts of the US, accompanied by his wife Peggy, and later, Sally. He quickly became famous for his eccentric dress and manner, and his sermons were always attended by great crowds (at times as many as 10,000), assembled in town halls, barns and open fields. He liked to appear in a town unexpectedly and announce that in exactly one year,

he would return to preach, and he always did. Skinny and unbathed, (lucky Mrs Dow) his long hair and beard were described as never having met a comb. He owned only one suit of clothing, and relied upon his listeners to replace pieces as they became too tattered. He carried nothing but a box of Bibles to give away. An ardent abolitionist, he was often run out of town.

Not surprisingly, there arose many stories about Lorenzo and his foibles and talents. Several are reproduced in the following posts.

Lorenzo Dow died in Georgetown, D.C. in 1834, having touched the lives of more Americans than any other man of his day.

dow

It’s Fall! A Little Halloween Reading

A list of some of my favorite books for getting into the mood of the holiday.

 

Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

In 1889, Eleanor Bly flung herself from the tower of Five Mile House after murdering her seven children. More than a hundred years later, her ghost reaches out to Leslie Stone, a New York cop who has killed a child murderer and is haunted by her actions.

 

Smile of a Ghost, by Phil Rickman

Or anything by Rickman, for that matter. Smile is an eloquently written ghost story wrapped in a mystery, and the suspense never flags. Also see  The Cure of Souls.

Vampire Legends of Rhode Island, by Christopher Rondini

Vampires are not just the stuff of legends and fantastic literature. In the 19th century, an outbreak of belief spread throughout New England and resulted in many bizarre incidents aimed at preventing vampires from preying on their relatives.

This little book is a well-researched account of the 19th century beliefs that connected consumption (tuberculosis) with vampirism in the minds of many New England residents.  Check it out if you’d like to discover what was done to prevent the dead from stealing away the living. And yes, it did involve stakes and hearts and burning. If reading this account doesn’t put you in the mood for creepiness and hauntings, nothing will.

Food for the Dead by Michael Bell

Scarier because it’s real……

New England folklorist Michael Bell spent some time in Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, interviewing people who still have direct connections to a little known outbreak of vampire beliefs a little more than 100 years ago. Food for the Dead, admirably researched, presents a series of case studies involving the (still-common) belief that the dead can be jealous of the living and return to spirit them away.

Solstice Wood, by Patricia McKillip

Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.

Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

When Jude buys the ghost advertised on an online auction, and opens the box it arrives in, everything changes in an instant, and life will never be the same for either of them (or for the dogs!)
Heart Shaped Box is a modern ghost story full of almost believable supernatural threats. Following Jude and Mary Beth as they scour first their intellects, then their instincts, and finally their very souls, trying desperately to evade the deaths that seem inevitable.

 

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

A classic, and still one of the most chilling, and psychological, ghost stories ever told.

The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another great classic. House of Seven Gables is an eerie ghost story based upon actual historical events. Hawthorne knew Salem and its history inside and out, and he also knew how to create a haunting atmosphere and a story that stays in the mind forever.

The Darkest Part of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell

One one of those novels that is more atmosphere than adventure. If you allow it to proceed at its own pace, it will weave its web around your mind. Subtle but effective, it’s sense of threat and menace grows a bit with every chapter.  I’ll tell you, I sure wouldn’t set foot in that woods.

 

 

These should keep you busy – and nervous –  until the witching night is over!

 

 

Nathan Hale Homestead’s Great Pyramid – George’s Folly?

When guests exit the visitor’s center at Nathan Hale Homestead, they invariably ask, “What’s that big stone thing over there?” and “Why do you have Thomas Hooker’s bones?” (Thomas Hooker being a founder of CT.) The short answers are, “A memorial pyramid” and “We don’t, it only looks that way.” Wait a minute, a pyramid in Coventry, CT?

Memorial pyramids have a lengthy history, particularly in England, where they, along with various other odd structures, are often referred to as “follies.” The Hale pyramid was constructed in 1938 by the man who restored the house and property of Nathan Hale’s family, George Dudley Seymour. A patent attorney from New Haven, Seymour devoted his life to historic preservation, and while he owned Hale Homestead, he usually summered there, a gentleman farmer reforesting the area and tending to his animals. Among the latter was a cow named Octavia, after a Hale daughter-in-law; for a brief time Seymour ran a small cheese-making business, presumably in partnership with Octavia. His favorite animal companion, however, was a retired war horse named Thomas Hooker Bones. Seymour is pictured above, proudly astride Bones in front of the Hale house. TH Bones undoubtedly enjoyed his peaceful life following his WWI military service, and when his noble, courageous spirit departed this earth in 1937, Seymour decided that Bones was too fine a character to warrant a final trip to the knacker’s. He interred THB right on the historic property, immediately behind the house, no easy task, as a horse is much larger than a dog or cat. And he set about memorializing Bones in a way that not even Nathan Hale received. A few years later, the black dog that can be seen in front of horse and rider is Sheba, and when she died, she was also buried there.

There is a precedent to the story of George’s folly on Farley Down, west of Winchester, England. Erected in 1740 by Sir Paulet St John, this much older pyramid commemorates St John’s horse, who survived a horrific fall into a 25 foot chalk pit while fox-hunting. The horse might have had second thoughts about his good fortune when St John renamed him “Beware Chalk Pit”, but that’s another story. At any rate, Beware’s exploit is commemorated in the shape of a 30 foot high pyramid that still stands today. TH Bone’s pyramid is only half that height, but in the hills of rural New England, is no less a marvel.

TH Bones’ Latin epitaph, extolling his exemplary character:

Post revised 9/29/14.

Archaeology News: UMass search for the Original Village at Plymouth

Many visitors to  Plymouth Plantation do not realize that this recreation of the pilgrims’ first village lies about three miles from its actual site in what is now downtown Plymouth. An archaeology team from UMass Boston is currently searching for evidence of the wooden palisade that surrounded the fort and the houses that surrounded it. Although most of the evidence unearthed so far dates from the 19th century, the hope is that some 17th century artifacts will turn up. But the main goal is to find the remnants of  the first houses and of the post holes the supported the walls built around them to protect the settlers. According to the article in the June 21 issue of the Boston Globe, the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. The map posted here is from the same article, which can be found in its entirety here .