Wednesday, January 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

For those disheartened by the current state of politics/economics, The Financier by Theodore Dreiser is probably not the best book to read. It’s not a satisfying novel for those who hope that at least in fiction, justice will prevail. Published in 1912, this is one of those brilliant classics that is as relevant today as when it was written, no matter how much we may wish it was not relevant.

Frank Cowperwood was the son of a mediocre banker in post-Civil War Philadelphia. Frank knew from an early age that he was going to make scads of money. Shrewd, brutally intelligent, and completely amoral, Frank made his way up in the world working at various finance-related jobs until he was able to open his own brokerage company. He came to the attention of various wealthy, none-too-scrupulous, politically connected men in the city who were impressed by his understanding of the intricacies of the world of finance. He made money hand-over-fist, but too slowly for his liking, especially because he could see there was real money to be made if only he could take over the streetcar lines in growing parts of the city. For that, he needed even more capital.

His big break came when the newly-elected city treasurer, a dull political hack, appointed because he was weak and biddable, came to him for financial advice: he needed to sell city bonds for more than most people were willing to pay for them. Frank knew how this could be done in a way that would allow him to skim a good deal of money off the top, with a little on the side for the treasurer as well. Although not legal in a strict sense, "everybody was doing it."

Frank was not only grasping when it came to money. While fairly young, he married a pretty, wealthy widow whose bewildered reluctance he easily overcame. He bought a large house and furnished it expensively. He had two children. But all the while, his main goal was ever more money.

He fell in with a wealthy businessman who also speculated in just about everything, Edward Butler. They had a mutually beneficial working relationship and for a time liked, or at least respected, one another. But Butler had a beautiful, high-spirited, young daughter. It wasn’t long before Frank put her on his list of things to acquire. Pampered, spoiled, and convinced no man was good enough for her except for the wealthy Mr. Cowperhood, Aileen Butler rushed headlong into her seduction. Adultery, betrayal – none of this meant anything to these two excruciatingly selfish people.

Frank continued to use city money for self-aggrandizement while seeing Aileen on the side. Everything was going swimmingly for him until the Great Chicago Fire. The ensuing financial panic reached Frank even in Philadelphia as insurance companies, banks, and businesses failed. Frank was overextended, owing money to creditors who wanted it speedily as well as being five hundred thousand dollars in the hole to the city. On shaky legal ground, he was nevertheless confident he’d done nothing wrong. At least, not wrong enough to ruin him or land him in jail. The city treasurer was in a worse position, being such a poor steward of public funds. Frank tried to intimidate the man into lending him even more city money so that they (or at least Frank) could get through the worst of it. For once, Frank’s schemes didn’t work.

His exposure was so great that to buy time he tried to enlist men more wealthy and powerful than himself. He had the gall to go first to Butler.

With an election coming up, the wealthy businessmen of the city hunkered down and looked for someone to blame for the misuse of city funds. They pulled their support from their treasurer-puppet. Someone would have to take the fall, either Cowperwood or the treasurer. Or both.

At just this time, Aileen and Frank were found out, thanks to an anonymous tipster. Butler, an aggrieved, infuriated, broken-hearted father, convinced his cronies that Frank should be the scapegoat.

Frank is such an awful person, that even though everyone is greedy and awful in his sphere, the magnitude of his offenses and his utter lack of remorse makes the reader hope for his downfall. Aileen is obstinate in her refusal to believe anything Frank may have done should hurt them. Wrong or not, if she and Frank benefitted, nothing else mattered. She doesn’t care who gets hurt and even blames her father for trying to keep her from her lover.

Frank is convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary. Readers may rejoice. But don’t be fooled into thinking karma got him. Even there, privilege buys him special treatment. He adapts. He’s released early. He ends up with Aileen. It’s a devastating ending.

The novel is written in old-fashioned style with an omniscient narrator and dense details of the financial world. Every new character is introduced with wordy physical description that stops the action dead. And yet, the book is gripping. I didn’t want to put it down. There is a sequel that follows Cowperwood west to Chicago. I’m sure I’ll have to read it at some point. But I’m too drained now by the apparent triumph of such disgusting people.

Friday, January 25, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Jay Cooke's Gamble. The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 by M. John Lubetkin

Jay Cooke’s Gamble. The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 by M. John Lubetkin is a fascinating account of the bold, visionary (or impractical, depending on perspective) endeavor to build a second transcontinental railroad in the 1870s.

I’m interested in learning about the Panic of 1873, but quickly discovered that U.S. economic history is far too convoluted and complex to grasp without investing a lot of time – and I’m not that interested in it. When I came across this book, I thought it might be a way to approach the topic obliquely. I expected something detail-rich and narrow in focus, but dry. But this book is anything but dry.

Lubetkin has researched the topic thoroughly and presents it in a well-organized, tension-filled fashion. The major players are fleshed-out, three-dimensional people whose talents and strong points are balanced with their foibles. While the author was reasonably non-biased, I nevertheless found myself rooting for some and peeved with others.

Jay Cooke is the focal point. The most prominent banker of the time, Cooke was particularly skilled at selling bonds – a talent that gained him the reputation as financier of the Civil War in the North. After the war, he needed a new calling and found it in the Northern Pacific Railroad. Convinced it was God’s will that he help open up the Pacific Northwest to Christian settlement, Cooke took on ownership of the foundering project.

His own reputation was sterling, but he partnered with J. Gregory Smith and Thomas H. Canfield, two greedy, dishonest men who began bilking the company pretty much as soon as it was formed.

Aside from the financial shenanigans, construction of the railroad was hampered by the lack of a defined route. The bulk of the narrative concerns the surveying expeditions sent out to determine the best path. Although led by dedicated, hardworking men, the surveys were troubled by poor maps, horrible weather, and fear of Native Americans. The route along the Yellowstone River took them through the territory of Sitting Bull and the Sioux, who were well aware that a railroad through their hunting grounds would be devastating. The survey teams received military escorts, but these were of inconsistent efficacy, especially as a couple of the top commanders were alcoholics whose leadership was unreliable.

The final survey, just before the collapse, received the largest military escort. The calvary was commanded by George Armstrong Custer. The author does a wonderful job of portraying Custer fairly, showing both his strengths and weaknesses, a harbinger of things to come.

In the end, the combined financial strains, environmental forces, and fear of Indian attack were too much for skittish investors. Cooke had more and more difficulty raising the necessary funds to keep the company solvent. His own bank was too heavily invested in the railroad. When one of his junior executives bailed out and betrayed him, Cooke was blind-sided and hadn’t time to gather resources to save his bank and smaller connected banks. While many other factors also played into the Panic of 1873, Cooke’s bankruptcy was a major precipitant.

The summary does not do justice to how well this book presents the material. Using letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and a host of other material, Lubetkin transports the reader into the midst of the events. I’m surprised by how riveting I found the read.

Monday, January 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

Years ago, I read Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery with my daughter and I’m still nostalgic for the shared enjoyment. When I saw Sarah McCoy wrote a novel focusing on Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who took Anne in and grew to love her as a daughter, I knew it was a book I had to read.

Marilla of Green Gables is a sweet prequel to the beloved Anne series. It opens with a young Marilla working devotedly alongside her brother, Matthew, on their parents’ farm. Her father, Hugh, is a man of few (to no) words. Her mother is more sociable but currently isolated due to a difficult pregnancy. Marilla’s Aunt Izzy has just arrived from the city to help out. Izzy tries expanding Marilla’s world, if only by taking her out more to spend time with the neighbors. Marilla meets the girl who will be her closest friend, Rachel White. Marilla also becomes reacquainted with a neighbor, John Blythe. The two are destined to fall in love.

Unfortunately, tragedy strikes. Marilla’s mother dies in childbirth. Her last words extract a promise from Marilla to take care of her father and brother. No doubt, Marilla misinterprets her mother’s intention. She takes it into her head that she has promised never to leave Green Gables – never to marry or have a life of her own. Maybe it’s an excuse. She loves her home and doesn’t want to leave.

Marilla leads a fairly quiet life, devoted to her family, punctuated by encounters with John that leave her questioning her choice. Often she is irritated by her own conflicting desires and strikes out, pushing John away. (Readers may grow frustrated by her here.)

Marilla is a native of Prince Edward Island. During the time frame of the novel, Canada is undergoing an upheaval as conservatives (those loyal to the Crown) and liberals (those who look to the U.S. as an example of freedom) come to violence. Marilla comes from a long line of conservatives. John is a liberal.

Additional historical context is provided with Marilla’s response to slavery in the United States. Through charity work, Marilla comes in contact with ex-slaves who have escaped by crossing into Canada. Although slavery is against the law in Canada, slave catchers are active and are supported by the government. Marilla and her aunt Izzy work with a Catholic orphanage to help runaways. This is more dangerous work than I would have expected, imagining Canada as a more welcoming haven.

The injection of these historical bits adds drama and interest to Marilla’s tale. The failed courtship gives the story poignancy and provides a plausible backstory for the Marilla of Anne’s story. You don’t have to have read Anne of Green Gables to appreciate Marilla of Green Gables, but you’ll be missing out on a beautiful classic if you don’t. Like L.M. Montgomery’s works, this book can be enjoyed by older children and adults of all ages.

Friday, January 18, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer

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

Continuing with Georgette Heyer’s re-released mysteries, I read Death in the Stocks. In this delightfully humorous novel, a corpse is discovered early on, stabbed in the back and propped up in the stocks on the village green. The novel is set in the early twentieth century, so the stocks were a quaint historical relic as well as a bit of a red herring.

The victim is Arnold Vereker, a wealthy businessman from London, a nasty and disliked character who had taken a home in the country as a weekend getaway for himself and various lady friends. The immediate investigation of his home revealed a young woman at the house, his half-sister Antonia (Tony) Vereker, who had come from London to argue with him, but not, she claims, to kill him.

In short order, we meet her attorney, Giles Carrington, a sensible man who is a cousin by marriage, Tony’s artist brother Kenneth, Kenneth’s fiancĂ©, a cold beauty named Violet, and Tony’s fiancĂ©, Rudolph. Rudolph is the accountant for Arnold’s corporation and he has recently been caught embezzling. Everyone hated Arnold for one reason or another, except for Violet, who is nevertheless pleased to hear that he’s dead since Kenneth is the heir and will now be wealthy.

They all have terrible alibis and are quite glib about the whole affair, which exasperates the inspector and troubles Giles. Giles happens to be in love with Tony and is just waiting for her betrothal to Rudolph to fall apart. He works with the inspector while counseling his cousins, a conflict of interest of which they are all aware but accept.

Things are confusing enough, and then, Arnold’s long-lost, presumed dead brother Roger appears on the scene, recently returned from South America. He replaces Kenneth as heir and chief suspect. His alibi is even weaker. The siblings are pleased to pin blame on him, though no one seems to actually believe him guilty. They also bandy about the possibility of their own blame. Kenneth, in particular, takes pleasure in baiting the inspector. However, when Roger is murdered, Kenneth is not so amused. It isn’t the fact that his own guilt now seems assured, but rather, he fears being the next victim.

The inspector is a competent detective who methodically pursues clues and discusses them with Giles, the only sane-appearing member of the family. Giles does his own clue chasing, being better informed and knowing the quirks of the Verekers. Naturally, it is Giles who solves the case.

The plot zips along and the mystery is well constructed to keep everyone guessing. What makes this novel shine, however, is the dialogue and the relationships among the various characters. It is farcical for a murder mystery, and also contains a cute romance. Although the novel started out a bit slowly, establishing who’s who and what their motives might be, it’s well worth sticking with it to see how it all plays out.

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.