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The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

As if I didn’t have enough books of my own, I can’t resist browsing the library books when I’m doing research. Although my current research topic is a Victorian-era Landscape Architect who was a part of the Garden Cemetery movement, this totally unrelated book was just screaming my name…although I did rationalize reading it instead of my research because murdered people are buried in cemeteries. ;-D

Released in 2013, this 400+ page work is impeccably researched and presented in an eminently readable manner. Flanders covers the vast time frame of the Victorian era (most of the 19th century) as pertains to crime in Great Britain. She tells stories of the rich and the poor, along with the newly rising middle-class. Gleaning insights of these male and female killers (or purported killers) from newspaper articles, broadsides, and theatre productions (as found in the official censorship records of the period), Flanders shares stories of murders thematically. She discusses the great hysteria that led to the “poison panic” at mid-century, the rise of murders as entertainment, court trials as grand theatre, and hangings are festive occasions, as well as the rise of the professional police force, especially the detective. Most fascinating of all are the connections Flanders is able to make between a particular crime (or crimes) and great works of fiction, including most, if not all, of Dickens’ catalog.

Some of the transitions between one crime story and the next feel a little forced, and there are times that she references a particular name in a previous or upcoming story in a way that the reader may have difficulty following, yet these are minor issues in an otherwise compelling narrative. It is apparent that Flanders did extensive research for this book but the effort is not a drag on the text. The tiny snippets of information each source provides have been woven together to tell a cohesive narrative that is better than fiction.

bookcaseDid I mention that I own a lot of books? Took some time this winter break to build bookcases. That’s 85′ of bookcase, 65′ devoted solely to books!

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States by James Early

There’s something new going on in my life…I’ve gone back to grad school! I am working towards an M.S. in Historic Preservation. It is a lot of work, but I really am loving it. I’ll be posting more things related to the field, especially as I work on my research and thesis. The following review is of a book on my “recommended reading” list. It caught my eye, since I’m Puerto Rican. Read on to see my thoughts:

 The history of the United States has generally taken a British-centered approach. Other inhabitants, have often been simply a foil for the story of the British, and later American, conquest. In Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo, James Early endeavors to fill in the missing history of the Spanish and Hispanic occupants. His account is extremely detailed and provides not just a study of buildings and construction techniques, but is, in fact, a truly anthropological view of the period from 1526 and the first Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, through to the occupation by American forces in 1846. As Early points out, this is a length of time greater than that from the American Revolution to the present day.

Early begins with an overview of the development of Spanish settlements on the mainland. Following the instructions laid out for the West Indies in the “Ordinances of Settlement”, water-front development required a town square built at the head of the port, with the central church facing the water. In-land settlements were to be designed around a central square containing the church. Without water to restrict growth, the settlement would radiate out from the square.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the Spanish settlements, organized by modern U.S. State and, within each state, by region. Florida, with early settlements up the coast, is the first state. Early explores the reasons for the development of St. Augustine as the regional capital (not the first choice of the adelantado for the region). He further explicates the process of constructing the city, the Caribbean influences to the stone and shell-concrete construction, and the dangers of attacks that demanded it become a heavily fortified town. He moves on into the area of present-day New Mexico, where native Pueblo construction techniques were preferred, due, in part, to the lack of masons or engineers versed in any other building styles. It is as Early moves into the West that the Spanish Mission system becomes the driving force behind the architecture. Whereas St. Augustine, a cosmopolitan city with ties to the Caribbean, attracted many settlers, few Spaniards were interested in the hinterlands of New Spain. This led to missionaries, intent on the conversion of native peoples, and soldiers (to protect the missionaries), being the primary inhabitants of these regions. The structures in Texas, Arizona, and California best exemplify this history. Possessed of well-trained military engineers and masons from Mexico, the missionaries in these regions guided the construction of large churches made of stone and wood, with vaults and soaring arches. The structures, usually covered in white stucco, look simple and humble from the exterior, but are often filled with wooden and stone sculptures and paintings in a riotous array of colors.

Insightful and expansive, Early’s book should be read by anyone interested in a fuller exploration of architecture and culture in the United States.

 

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Russian Summer

Discontent with the Russian system was a fact of life before the revolutions of 1917. In Angel of Vengeance: The “Girl Assassin”, the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World*, Ana Siljak tells the story of Vera Zasulich,

a young woman from a noble family who became a devoted anarchist and decided to do more than talk. In 1878, Vera walked into the receiving room of the Governor of St. Petersburg, swathed in an oversized shawl. Under the shawl, she hid a gun. As she approached General Fedor Trepov, she withdrew the gun and, with a cry of “revenge!”, shot him. The revenge she sought was for a friend of hers,  Alexei Bogolyubov, a young man who had been flogged for refusing to remove his hat in the presence of General Trepov.

Unrest was rife in the ranks of the bourgeois at this time. Vera was involved for several years and came to recognize that many of the people in the movement were content to simply talk of a utopian future. With her single act, Vera set in motion the “Age of Assassination” that unsettled Russian society. Her trial for murder (even though Trepov did not die), was attended by the creme de la creme of society dressed in all their finery. Vera, a generally quiet and reserved person, was the picture of composure. Her attorney did a brilliant job of turning the trial into a condemnation of General Trepov and the Russian government in general. Acquitted, Vera left the country and discovered Marxism. She became a passionate supporter of socialism and was aghast at the use of assassination as a political tool of her fellow revolutionaries. She translated the works of Marx into Russian and both her trial and her translations (and further writing) influenced the leaders in the early 20th century who eventually brought about the rise of the Soviet Union.

Siljak does a masterful job presenting the story of Zasulich. The people who populate the book, the members of Vera’s social circle, her friends, her influences, her lovers, are presented in a vibrant manner that allows the reader to feel the energy and flow of life that guided Vera. Vera herself is rendered as a fully three-dimensional person. The reader gains deep insight into her psyche, her thought process, and her feelings. She is a woman to be admired, a woman of action, a woman of thoughts, a woman who functioned in a manner outside the confines of her time. Yet, even Vera regretted some of the effects of her actions and words. This complicated woman makes for a great subject and Siljak has created a lively book that captures her brilliantly.

One of Vera’s biggest regrets was that the “Age of Assassination”set in motion by her own attempted assassination eventually led to the murder of Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881. John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov document the aftermath of this assassination in The Flight of the Romanovs: A Family Saga.

The Flight Of The Romanovs A Family SagaThe story of the family of Tsar Nicolas II and his family, murdered in 1918 is fairly well known. The women with bodices lined with jewels, dying slowly as their bodices prevented assassins bullets from hitting the mark. The story that is not well known is what happened to the rest of the Romanovs. This book presents the tales of many of the vast number of Romanovs. The Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces and Nephews that supported the monarchy, or the revolution, or their self-interest, or their adopted homes, or the homeland of their non-Romanov parents. Those who buried their heads in the sand, and the ones whose lives seemed touched with tragedy long before the revolution.

Perry and Pleshakov weave the stories of these various family members in a smooth manner that makes for an eminently readable book. Even with the various Nicholas’, Alexander’s, Constantine’s, Alexandra’s, Olga’s, Perry and Pleshakov use family nicknames to help the reader keep all of the stories straight. It’s fascinating to follow this large family at this time in history that saw so many changes, and particularly fascinating how many strong-willed women influenced the course of history. In the Romanov family, the old rejoinder of a strong woman being behind every strong man is particularly true. The Romanovs of the earlier 20th century paid the price for generations of decisions made by their antecedents, as well as their own choices. The ones who left Russia generally survived. Those who thought they could protect themselves in Russia, generally could not.

Tragedy and Triumph, all in my Russian Summer.

*This is the title of the book as I read it. It has also been released under the alternate title shown in the image of the book cover.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Adrift by Steven Callahan

The Pacific castaway José Salvador Alvarenga was known by fisherman in a Mexican port and his boat was reported missing in late 2012, it has emerged.

A few days ago, this man, José Salvador Alvarenga, was rescued from the Pacific Ocean after what he claims were 13 months adrift. Some people accept his story, many are suspicious:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/04/castaway-story-backing-from-mexican

While I reserve comment on this particular case, I don’t think we have all the facts yet, I don’t find his story completely unbelievable. Why? Because I recently read an amazing book by Steven Callahan.

 Adrift: Seventy-six days lost at Sea is Callahan’s recollection of his time on an emergency life raft after being shipwrecked in the Atlantic. The story is incredible, moving, and uplifting. Callahan, a lifelong sailor, built his own boat, the Napoleon Solo in 1981. It is apparent from his detailed description of this boat that Callahan truly loved this boat. He wasn’t a “D.I.Y.er” either, by 1981, Callahan had been building and designing boats for seven years.

Callahan’s ambition was straightforward, he wanted to test the Napoleon Solo in a trans-Atlantic race called the Mini-Transat, alone. He tested the boat in a solo race from Newport to Bermuda. He then sailed with a friend from Bermuda to England, the plan being to head to Penzance where the race would take him to the Canaries and on to Antigua, thereby circumnavigating the Atlantic Ocean. Callahan claims that he didn’t have any thoughts of being the fastest, only of testing himself and his skills as a boat builder and designer, and as a seaman as well.

After leaving Penzance, Callahan faced a major storm which necessitated major repairs to the Solo. He made the repairs and headed out for the open water of the Atlantic Ocean on January 29th. He experienced smooth sailing at first and anticipated arriving at his destination on February 25th. Then, a major storm in early February, through which he fought to keep his boat safe, ended up causing such major damage that he had to abandon the Solo, managing to remove only the emergency life raft with its standard supplies and a duffle bag with extra emergency supplies he had packed and a survivalist guidebook.

Through a combination of intelligence, planning, luck, and sheet force of will, Callahan managed to survive the treacherous crossing. He had to fight hunger and, more crucially, thirst, storms, sharks, fish, and his own mind.  Callahan’s writing style is spartan. He could be an engineer in the way he focuses on the facts of the situation. Then again, this may have saved his life. With his intelligence he was able to remake his fishing spear each time it was damaged apparently beyond repair. He was even able to repair a massive gash in the side of his life raft, and modify desalination units that were not working properly. In the end, he floated to the island of Guadeloupe and Marie Galante, where he was rescued by fishermen who happened to be in an area they rarely fished. Callahan spent weeks in the hospital recovering and was eventually reunited with his family.

Callahan’s story is fantastic, and this book is an incredible testament to the power of the human will to survive the apparently not survivable. The illustrations drawn by the author are compelling and are used to great effect to illustrate complex rigs that Callahan devised during his journey. He also uses them to show the pathos of his experience, betraying the lack of sentimentality of his words.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg & One Drop by Bliss Broyard

Cover artDiscovering family secrets is the theme of these two books I recently read. In Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, Steve Luxenberg finds out that his mother, who had always claimed to be an only child, in fact had a sister who was physically disabled, and apparently mentally challenged (although whether she had a mental disability or psychiatric illness is unclear from all of the records Luxenberg found). This sister, Annie, was institutionalized in the 1940’s…whereupon Luxenberg’s mother began to deny she ever existed. Luxenberg only discovered her existence after his mother’s death, and began his quest to discover all he could about this aunt he never knew, and why his mother had denied her for so many years. Luxenberg’s writing is powerful and he looks at the facts with an unflinching eye. We are taken on a tour of the system of institutionalization of those deemed “different” from society, warts and all. The hunt for information of this kind is so elusive, we feel this in the writing and cheer every scrap of information, just as Luxenberg must have when he came across it. We also tour the impact on Luxenberg’s mother. Why precisely did she hide the fact of her sister? And why persist in the lie, even after she buried her next to her own parents? These are not questions with easy or ready answers, but Luxenberg handles them with grace and deep insight.

Bliss Broyard, daughter of long-time New York Times literary critic, Anatole Broyard, grew up in a very WASPy enclave of Connecticut in the 70’s and 80’s. As her father lay in a hospital bed, dying of prostate cancer, her mother asked, begged him to tell his children about his secret. He couldn’t bring himself to it, and so Alexandra, wife of Anatole and mother of Todd and Bliss, was forced to tell them that their father was a “colored” man. A New Orleans Creole of mixed heritage, Anatole’s family had moved to escape the segregation and daily humiliations of being black in the south when he was just a boy. Very light skinned, Anatole began to “pass” when he was in college in the 1960’s. It was an open secret among his friends, and he did not go around proclaiming that he was white, he just never corrected others when they assumed he was. Moving to Connecticut with his wife and babies, the very pale and blonde Todd, and the pale brunette Bliss, cemented his break with self-identification as anything other than white for the rest of his life.

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets follows Broyard’s quest to discover her heritage, her hidden family, and the reason’s her father chose the path he did. Broyard visited New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, hunting down the bits of information that tell the story of her father’s life. She finds family, some who also call themselves white and some who consider themselves black. She also finds the double secret that several of her family antecedents, Creole’s themselves, owned slaves during the antebellum period. The book is unsentimental and Broyard manages to present everyone involved in the story as they are, trying to understand their decisions without condemning them. It’s a story which is familiar in many families…whether they know it or not. 

In an interesting end note, some Broyard family members submitted their DNA for ancestry analysis…and discovered that they have mostly European and American Indian blood, with a small “drop” of African ancestry. What this means in this day and age, when we are often declared to be “post-racial”, is perhaps a subject for another book by Broyard.

My own family background, very light-skinned Puerto Rican, has interesting reflections in this story. I have cousins who are red-haired and blue eyed, and cousins who look quintessentially “Hispanic”. I’ve often been told that I don’t look “Hispanic”…whatever that means. In another era, would I too have “passed”, or would I have embraced my ethnic heritage? Am I “passing” now, when I can walk through stores without being followed if alone, but am tracked like a criminal when with my mother, who speaks Spanish and English interchangeably as we shop is with me? Is it strange to me that, while I recognize the likelihood of having Native American and African antecedents in my family, I receive the benefits of living in an American society that still views lighter skin as better than dark…unless it’s a tan? Lot’s of interesting questions raised by these two books. What are the hidden skeletons in my family closet?

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray

Front CoverYou know when you have dessert and you’re able to give yourself permission to enjoy it? No, I mean, really enjoy it…lick the container at the end enjoy it? That is this book. It is my favorite kind of book, so well researched (and cited), so in depth, with a risk pace meant for a lay reader to be able to get into. Originally published in 1977, the book was re-printed in 1995 in paperback (the cover above and the copy I have).

Caught in the Web of Words tells the story of James Murray, a self-taught scholar of a variety of topics. He studied botany, geology, geography, literature, and on and on. He was able to attend some school, but his main source of knowledge was voracious reading on the vast number of subjects that held his interest (a kindred spirit), and his personal observations. He was Scottish, and his early travels with his family impressed him with how little difference there was between people ( a deep cut in the earth between Scotland and England revealed the same dirt on both sides) and yet, how different the people and their languages were. As an adult, he taught schoolboys and girls and commenced his studies of etymology, the development and use of words and the changing meaning of said words through history. He was also still involved in his other interests and politics as well.

Moving to London in the late 1860’s on advice of doctors treating his wife, he had to give up his teaching and began working in a bank. His first wife, along with their child, died in London…yet Murray did not return home. He continued his philological studies (this is a great book for learning new words) and Ada, his formidable wife who bore him 11 children, was his faithful partner through many years of financial hardship, and ran the household, while still finding time to aid him in his work. He finally returned to teaching after 10 years, leaving London for Mill Hill. He was a member of many learned societies, yet felt inferior for his lack of University degree.

One of the members of the Philological Society, Frederick Furnivall, had launched, many years before, a drive to gather definitions and etymological development for a new dictionary. In 1876, through a fair bit of trickery, he convinced Murray to resume the work and edit a new, unabridged, dictionary of English. The dictionary was meant to contain common and uncommon words, quotes that showed their usage in literary and non-literary (read, newspapers and magazines) work, the etymology of words, and, controversially, phonetic pronunciation. The latter part was controversial for several reasons. The spelling of words was still not standardized, and many though this purpose should e more important than pronunciation. The presentation of phonetic pronunciation, likewise, was not yet standardized, many people putting forth their own particular pet system. Also, Murray was willing to print various pronunciations of a word, rather than one “correct”- presumably London Learned British, rather than Scottish, Irish, or any of the other derivations of the tongue. The undertaking was overwhelming, the kind of task one takes on because one is not entirely aware of the scope of the task. 30 years of volunteers reading volumes from different periods in history, hunting down quotations for various words throughout time, left plenty of gaps. Murray had to make a call for new readers, and several hundred people in Britain, and America, answered the call. Their work was, as is wont to be with volunteers, uneven. Hundreds of thousands of slips of paper had to be alphabetized, culled, deciphered, organized, chosen, further researched, all while under pressure from the Philological Society and Oxford University Press to get more printed, faster, and cheaper. Eventually, Murray would give up the majority of his other pursuits in order to focus exclusively on the dictionary. Assistant Editors, mostly hired by the Press and imposed on Murray without consultation, were eventually brought on. In the end, Murray did not live quite long enough to see the work completed.

I read the book with awe and extreme interest. Murray did an astonishing amount of research for this book, building on some preliminary genealogical research done by her father. She presents the information in an interesting, generally chronological form, while allowing herself to periodically follow a topic to it’s conclusion, then returning to the time addressed prior to exploring that topic. My only qualm is that, during the period of time Murray spent writing the dictionary, Ms. Murray concentrated all the focus on dictionary work, giving the impression (which James Murray himself did), that his life was nothing but dictionary all the time. She then uses one of the final chapters to tell about the rest of his life while compiling the dictionary. I would have preferred to see this contrast within the description of the dictionary work, rather than segregated from it. Licking the container? That’s me reading the end citations, eating up the bits of extra knowledge tucked away back there!

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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The Sistine Secret: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican by Benjamin Blech & Roy Doliner

Before reviewing the book itself, a word about the design of the hardcover edition. The dust jacket is made in such a way that it creates a pocket. In that pocket is a small poster of the Sistine Ceiling. It is a really interesting presentation. Only two problems with it. 1- I hate dust jackets and never keep them on the book (note, these are not priceless first editions we’re talking about). 2- The poster is a very poor reproduction, very out of focus and badly cropped. Speaking of out of focus photos, there are several in the body of the book. You’re not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, but, apparently, the authors did and published the blurry results. On to the text itself…

This book is hard to categorize. It’s really a book-length thesis, without any research behind it. The theory is this: Michelangelo, due to his upbringing in the house of Medici and his early tutors, was exposed to the Jewish bible, Jewish traditions and, especially, Jewish mysticism. He was, according to the authors,  a Humanist before his time (300 years or so). In the grand tradition of Renaissance artists hiding messages within their paintings (true), they posit that Michelangelo hid Jewish symbolism throughout the Sistine ceiling, and eventually, the end wall. The theory is fascinating, and they are able to show some interesting images that seem to back up their theory. Some of their correlations are a bit thin, especially when they are establishing the background of how it was that Michelangelo came to acquire such knowledge. I’m not discounting their theory, I just feel that it’s not supported strongly enough by actual facts. They shroud it all in how dangerous it was for Michelangelo to clearly show his Jewish knowledge, which conveniently provides no proof he actually interacted with the people that he is supposed to have learned everything from. The “evidence” is really thin when they start finding Jewish letters made up by the poses of different figures. They are cherry-picking from the gigantic ceiling, finding pieces that fit their thesis. I always expect that the citations listing will be the same length as a chapter in the book, here, it’s 2 pages…4 if you also count the bibliography. It’s an interesting read, just disappointing to me for its lack of substance.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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