Wednesday, January 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: This Republic of Suffering. Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering. Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust is an unusual choice for me. It is a study of the Civil War focused on death. This isn’t one of the journalistic type histories that takes an interesting hook and builds a broad narrative around it. This book is a narrow look at what death of such magnitude did to the United States in the nineteenth century.

Topics include the problem of killing (How do men bring themselves to kill other men and justify doing so?) and dying – (What is a "good death" and how do young men reconcile themselves to the fact that they are likely to die?) How is it possible to bury so many corpses and why it is necessary to bury them? How can loved ones be appropriately informed so that they can begin the process of mourning? What is the process of mourning or what should it be, for individuals and collectively? What happens when a loved one’s body cannot be found or when corpses can’t be identified? How did death on such a massive scale change religious attitudes, politics, and governmental policies?

This is an exhaustively researched and thorough discussion of the subject. It’s a fairly dispassionate book. No exaggeration or melodrama is needed to document the horrors of the battlefield and the unimaginable grief of survivors. My only quibble is that it grew repetitive, an unavoidable complication of examining one subject from slightly different angles.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Tempt Me with Diamonds by Jane Feather

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

I read a Jane Feather Historical Romance in the past and enjoyed it, so when I saw Tempt Me with Diamonds available for review I quickly requested it.

Feather sets this story in 1902, following The Boer War.

Colonel Rupert Lacey is a survivor of the war. Unfortunately, his best friend since childhood, Jem Sommerville, died fighting in South Africa. Jem’s father died shortly after. The inheritance was to be divided between two children, Jem and his younger sister, Diana. With Jem’s demise, the fortune should all have gone to Diana. However, unbeknownst to the sister, Jem had made a will leaving his half to Rupert. This includes half of the family home and one-half interest in a superb racehorse.

Diana Sommerville is a headstrong, intelligent young woman who returns from South Africa deeply grieving the deaths of her father and brother. She is horrified to find Rupert already installed in her home. Of course, the two have a past. Lifelong friends who fell in love, they were engaged to be married until betrayal led to breaking of the engagement. (Rupert betrayed; Diana left him. But there is more to that story than is initially explained.)

Diana expects Rupert to leave the house, even if she must buy out his share. They can’t live together when they are not wed. Rupert refuses to leave. His suggestion is that they simply pretend to have been wed in South Africa as originally planned. They will treat each other courteously in public but divide the house in two and lead separate private lives.

Jane Feather’s romances are of the steamy variety, so this couple has already consummated their relationship and waste no time resuming that side of it. It takes a bit longer for them to hash out their old hurts and forgive one another. In this author’s skilled hands, the pair do not irritate the reader by prolonging their bitterness and recriminations, but rather build upon a regard for one another that predated their falling out in order to reach a workable compromise. And then fall in love all over again.

Despite the somewhat strained premise, the story is an enjoyable read and the characters make for a satisfactory Romance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

One of my New Year’s resolutions (like everyone else) is to tackle my TBR pile.

Long ago, I decided I should read Ursula K. Le Guin, so I bought Lavinia, which can be shoe-horned into the historical novel category. It sounded like something I would enjoy. Nevertheless, it sat neglected on my shelf. When Le Guin died last year, I meant to read it soon, but it has taken me a whole year to buckle down and read it.

What a gorgeous book!

It could be described as Vergil fan fiction. The story is told by Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins, who became the bride of Aeneas at the end of his long journey from conquered Troy. Aeneas is the founder of the Roman people. (Aeneas’ mother was the goddess Aphrodite.) In Vergil’s The Aeneid, Lavinia is a passive character who never speaks. She’s simply there to be claimed. Le Guin gives her a voice.

The novel is written in the first person but is not told linearly. It has a dreamy, otherworldly feel to it, the right atmosphere for mythical people who live very close to their gods.

While on a visit to a sacred place in the forest, Lavinia communes with Vergil, a poet who lived long, long after the fall of Troy, but who comes to Lavinia in a vision as he is dying, to tell her of the poem he is creating – a poem that essentially creates her. She understands her own fictionality. This fictionality makes her immortal, which allows her to tell us her story. Because she has heard the story from the poet, she knows how it will turn out. This time twisting adds to the mythological quality of the tale.

Lavinia is her father’s only living child and they are devoted to one another. (Her mother is another story.) She is obedient and pious. When she reaches marriageable age, she is sought after because she is the daughter of the king. The leading contender for her hand is her cousin Turnus, but the thought of having to marry him depresses her. Fortunately, she learns from her poet that she is destined to marry Aeneas. Unfortunately, she also learns that the peace of her kingdom will be shattered because of this and the war will be terrible. It’s horrible knowledge to have. And yet, the inevitability of what will come to pass gives her strength and acceptance.

Everything happens as the poet foretells. Lavinia knows there is nothing she can do to prevent the tragedy. Moreover, she wants to wed Aeneas. It’s a difficult position to be in because she doesn’t want to be the cause of a war but she is content with the outcome.

Aeneas and the Trojans fight Turnus and Lavinia’s own people, and Lavinia is the prize. The novel does not sugarcoat the horror of the battles and the reader feels it intensely, maybe even more intensely than Lavinia. She’s not detached, but she knows things her people do not. She even knows things Aeneas does not. It’s an odd reading experience because I’m hoping the worst of the poet’s predictions will not happen, even though of course they will.

I love retellings of ancient myths and legends and Lavinia is an example of how to do it with originality and beautiful prose.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Our book group’s next selection is The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace. This is one of those journalistic histories that uses a particular event as a focal point for a broader study of a time period or subculture. In this case, it is the December 5, 1985 auction of a rare wine by Michael Broadbent of Christie’s. The wine was purported to be a Chateau Lafite from 1787, engraved with the initials Th. J., indicating that it had once been owned by Thomas Jefferson. A German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock had unearthed a cache of wines that had been hidden away in a Paris cellar. His plan was to sell most and drink some. This particular bottle sold for $156,000.00 at auction, a record amount.

The subsequent tale of this bottle is unfortunate and not very interesting. The new owners had no intention of drinking it, and it was displayed under conditions far from ideal that destroyed any possibility of it being drinkable.

Much more interesting is the story of the wine dealers, auction houses, collectors, wine experts, and, eventually, scientists, who became embroiled in the various tastings and sales promoted by Rodenstock.

The rare wine industry skyrocketed during the 1980s and 90s. A tremendous amount of money changed hands along with these very old wines which were not as rare as one would expect.

At first, the book draws you in with the descriptions of these exquisite vintages and the excitement of tasting a wine that is more than a century old. There are specific ways to inspect a bottle that can give a clue as to the condition of the wine, but there is no definitive method except opening the bottle and drinking it. An opened bottle holds a great deal of promise, but once the bottle is opened, the probability that it will disappoint is high. So why spoil these priceless collectors’ items by actually tasting them? Why bother proving that they are genuine?

As the narrative proceeds, the inconsistencies of the stories build. Jeffersonian scholars doubted the wine’s provenance from the start. But once one bottle is proven to be a fake, it destroys the credibility of the remaining Jefferson wine cache, the credibility of Rodenstock and the rest of his collection, the credibility of Christie’s auction house, and the credibility of the rare wine industry in general. There is a lot at stake.

Moreover, it is (or at least was) surprisingly difficult to prove a wine is fake. It is especially difficult without opening the bottle.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar ties together the threads of the mystery of the Jefferson bottles with the greater world of rare wine collectors and sellers. It’s a compelling account of how ultra-luxurious living and fraud too often go hand in hand.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve read many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances, but aside from Penhallow, I haven’t really delved into her mysteries. Some are being re-released by Sourcebooks and are available on Netgalley, so I decided to give one a try.

Footsteps in the Dark is a gothic tale with a bit of a Scooby-Doo set up. Charles Malcolm, his wife Celia, and her siblings, Peter and Margaret, have moved to a house – an old priory – in the country. The siblings have inherited this quaint and somewhat dilapidated relic from an elderly relative. It needs work, but the siblings have fallen in love with its possibilities.

The family is warm and congenial and it’s pleasant to spend time with them.

They haven’t been in the house long before they hear tales from the neighbors. The house is haunted. A previous renter left in a terrified hurry, but the new owners are more sensible. When they hear footsteps and groaning noises, and see a dark-cowled apparition of a monk, they are convinced that a human is behind it all. Someone is trying to frighten them away. But why?

They meet an odd assortment of neighbors and visitors to the town. There is a retired colonel, an eccentric moth-collector who wanders about the property at will, a local doctor who drinks, a foreign artist/drug addict, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and a rough rather mysterious man whose employment is unclear but who seems to show up in unexpected places. This man, Michael Strange, catches the eye of Margaret, an otherwise sensible young woman who decides to trust him against her better judgment.

The novel starts with the owners’ curiosity, but this builds to unease and outright fright as the mysterious sounds and creepy premonitions multiply. The sense of danger escalates, especially after a murder is committed in the small town. Charles and company are more determined than ever to solve the mystery, even--responsibly – bringing in the police.

The novel is evenly paced. The characters are clever and behave in a rational fashion. The mystery is not wildly original (though it may have been in the 1930s when first published) but it is well-plotted and the loose ends are tied up nicely.

Although the mystery is set in a more recent past than the Regency Romances, it has a sweet, old-fashioned flavor and is recommended for cozy mystery fans.