It’s a Mystery: The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman

The Widow's House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Books about books are always fun to read, and this one features three different writers, each working on their own novels. Thirty-something couple Clare and Jess leave behind their trendy loft in Brooklyn to relocate to the Hudson River Valley. Though Jess published a respectable debut novel, ten years later he hasn’t managed to complete a second. Clare would like to get back into writing, and they’re counting on this move to revitalize them professionally and as a couple. They find themselves taking on residence as caretakers at the River Road estate of a famed author who taught some classes while they were in college. It’s a happy reunion, and for a short while things go well, but from the get-go, Clare, who has always been sensitive to the paranormal, begins seeing apparitions of one of the mansion’s previous employees. Her husband encourages Clare to channel her experiences into a novel, telling her to use her imagination or her imagination will use her.

All of the Goodman books that I’ve read and enjoyed involve women academics, writing, water, and the paranormal, but no two have been alike. The Widow’s House is an amalgam of the gothic, the mystery, and the supernatural, and the story depends equally upon each of those elements. The weather and the river mists add to the ambience of the bucolic setting, as do the local history and folklore that are so prevalent in the region to this day (where the Headless Horseman and Rip van Winkle got started!) The tension builds incrementally as strange things keep occurring, and grows so strong that Clare doesn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. The same can been said for the reader, at least those who enjoy a well crafted ghost story.

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Modern Lit: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alice Hoffman works her magic again in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a tale about a place that, in its time, would ordinarily be referred to as a freak show. The museum is located near Coney Island’s Dreamland. Among its extraordinary performers is the owner’s daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbed fingers, and therefore, to his way of thinking, will make a perfect mermaid. Night after night, she immerses herself in her tank to entertain audiences  that range from ordinary folk to out and out perverts. Her autocratic, rather demoniacal father also forces Coralie to take nightly swims in the Hudson, to foster stories about a mysterious river creature.

Coralie narrates her own role in this tale, sharing the protagonist role with Eddie, a young Jewish emigre who is estranged from his father, a garment worker in New York’s sweatshops. Eddie rejects this life to become a photographer, quite a gifted one, and he narrates his own side of the story, working among the lower classes in such settings as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. He also develops a reputation for being exceedingly good at locating missing persons. Eddie and Coralie’s paths of course with cross, and the second half of the book chronicles the  halting development of their relationship.

This is a book replete with vivid period detail. Hoffman includes among her characters some real-life figures as she depicts the terrible hardships of life among the underclasses at the beginning of the twentieth century, and one of the joys of reading her is that she never has to lapse into preaching to make her point clear. Though it is ultimately a love story, even its denouement is far from light and airy; this is the sort of tale that will stay with you long after you’ve returned the book to its shelf.

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It’s a Mystery: Surrender, New York, by Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disgraced criminologist Dr. Trajan Jones, formerly of the NYPD, has set up shop with his business partner/friend, Dr. Mike Li, in the village of Surrender in upstate New York, where the duo teaches online forensic science courses and takes on private cases for investigation. Trajan bases his methods on those of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, protagonist of author Carr’s fine breakout novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Having lost a leg to cancer in his youth, Jones has psychological issues of his own and must deal with constant pain and the possibility of relapse. As a character, he shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, including the annoying traits of arrogance and irascibility. As the novel’s narrator, Trajan is also prone digressing into lengthy lectures about science, literature, and human foibles. Mike Li, on the other hand, is relatively free of heavy baggage, and is much more genuine colleague than Dr. Watson ever was, though he does offer a sense of humor and steady emotional support and when needed.

The complex plot is replete with other colorful characters, most notably the irrepressible, teenaged “consulting detective Lucas, and Marcianna, the beloved cheetah that Trajan rescued from an abusive petting zoo. Both provide relief from the intensity of Trajan and Mike’s current case, which involves the deaths of a series of “throwaway children”, homeless kids left behind when their parents simply deserted them. It soon becomes clear that the Empire State’s senior politicos understand the depth of this problem but simply don’t care, preferring to cover it up. Trajan and Mike determine to rectify this situation no matter whom they must take down and how much resistance they encounter.

Plot, setting, and characters blend well together, but at times not well enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings. One is its heavy use of profanity, especially the f word, which peppers every chapter regardless of who is talking. Trajan is also overly fond of the word “indeed” and the use of convoluted sentences when simpler and shorter ones would do just as well. Finally, the book is just too long, and the many suspenseful and/or gruesome scenes are interspersed with passages overloaded with detail.

Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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Constitution Island, West Point, NY

The staff of the Webb Deane Stevens museum in Wethersfield, CT, gathered together a while back for a rare, and most enjoyable, field trip to the scenic Hudson River Valley, a region of outstanding natural beauty and historic significance. Our first stop was Constitution Island, located on the river within view of West Point and part of the military academy itself. The Island is most famous for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War, to prevent British ships from navigating this strategically vital stretch of the river. No military action was to take place on the fortified island, which was the first fort built by the newly-declared independent Americans. Interestingly, it was named “Constitution” to remind the British that America was due the same rights as England under the English constitution. The US Constitution had yet to be written. The 230-year-old house that stands on the island today began as military barracks. In 1836, it became the residence of the Warner family. Susan and Anna Warner were well-known authors in the nineteenth century, producing over 100 books between them. Susan wrote The Wide, Wide World in 1850 which became a best seller of its day. Anna is best known for writing the words to the hymn Jesus Loves Me. The sisters taught Bible classes to West Point cadets for forty years, entertaining such well-known soldiers as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. The house was enlarged by the Warners, and contains a large collection of their furnishings and other belongings, including albums full of photos of handsome young cadets. Now a museum, it is maintained as closely as possible to its appearance at the time of the death in 1915 of Anna. A slide album of highlights is presented below.

Following our visit, we were treated to an elegant catered lunch and a cruise on the beautiful Hudson River upon the personal yacht of the Superintendent of West Point Military Academy. Then, back on the van for the short drive to Boscobel, which is discussed in the following post:

Modern Lit: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Already well known as a successful writer of young adult novels, Lauren Oliver ventures into the adult market with  Rooms.  Long estranged from their wealthy husband/ father, the Walkers return to their former home in upstate New York for his funeral. Each of them has brought a parcel of personal struggles along with their baggage, and in the days before the service, long buried memories bubble up to the surface, compounding their distress. Only one of the family, teenaged son Trenton, realizes that they are not alone in the house; two of the former residents, now long dead, have failed to move on.

The stories and circumstances of each of the six main characters are told from their own points of view in a series of alternating vignettes. These play out within a specific room in the house, which accounts for the book’s title. These people are all interesting in his/her own right, and each is emotionally distanced from the others, locked in their own misery. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of their own deaths, and not merely because of the funeral. Their depression is palpable, and it’s easy to see why the ghosts have yet to move on. For me, the most compelling characters are Trenton,  and the shades of Alice and Sandra, who were each in early middle age when they died.  Yes, their capacity for denial and repression is strong, but these three have cracks in their armor into which slices of honesty keep filtering. Perhaps that is why Trenton senses, hears, and sees faint manifestations of the spirits, especially when they comment  between themselves (sometimes humorously) about the Walkers.

One of the most popular songs of 2014 is Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen.  One of the recurring tropes in Rooms is the phrase, “You’ve got to learn to let go.” This is a lesson that everyone absorbs during the last quarter of the book, in greater or lesser degrees, as they are forced by a series of unexpected shocks that turn what they thought they knew upside down,   to confront the truths that are holding them in misery. Yes, there is reason to hope, even though none of us can entirely know another.

Bad Girls: Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to grasp the fact that Yoko Ono Lennon is 80 years old. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she and her parents moved between Asia and the US as demanded by the dictates of her father’s banking job. They were in Japan during WWII and suffered the deprivations common during war. In the early 1950’s, the Onos settled in Scarsdale, NY. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College, and to the dismay of her parents, embarked on a “Bohemian” life style as an artist. Yoko married a composer and attempted suicide after the marriage failed. In 1962, she married again, giving birth to a daughter, and despite marital strife, stayed with her husband for several more years, pursuing her career and leaving child care responsibilities to him.

In 1969, everything changed for Yoko when she met John Lennon, who attended one of her art exhibits. Lennon was attracted to her avant garde attitude towards both art and life, but their relationship did not heat up for a couple of years. When their affair finally began, and Lennon divorced his wife, public outrage was enormous. John and Yoko married in 1969, at the height of the peace/love/drugs movement, and became the most famous couple in the world, demonstrating for their beliefs with flamboyance, via a bed-in, naked photos, appearing in public wearing bags, and other in-your-face antics. The Lennons were flattered by their inclusion on President Nixon’s infamous anti-American list. Lennon insisted that Yoko participate in his music, though she was not especially gifted in that area, and when the Beatles ultimately broke up, disappointed fans held Yoko responsible. The couple was widely criticized for their treatment of Julian, Lennon’s son from his first marriage. Yoko’s former husband, believing that Lennon was a harmful influence on his daughter, kidnapped her from Yoko’s custody and refused to permit any contact. Attempts were being made to deport Lennon for drug use, and for a time, the marriage foundered.

The following year, Yoko and John reconciled, and their only child, Sean Lennon, was born. Shortly after the release of a joint album, John was murdered in front of their apartment at the Dakota in NYC.

For years, animosity toward Yoko continued, but she never gave up her artistic and social endeavors. She created a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, Strawberry Fields, and the John Lennon Museum in Japan. Yoko recently has instituted a $50,000 Peace Prize for Palestinian and Israeli artists. Now 75, Yoko Ono has finally been given credit and recognition for her artistic and political contributions, and has reconciled with her daughter. It’s tempting to wonder what her reception might have been had she been Caucasian and beautiful.