Re-read: My Own Cape Cod, Gladys Taber
I'm getting close to my re-read of the main Stillmeadow books with this volume about Taber's Cape Cod hideaway, Still Cove, near Nauset, MA. It was the first of two books she wrote about the beach cottage, which she and her best friend Eleanor Mayer ("Jill" in the books) bought together, thinking they would retire there and leave Stillmeadow to their children. Alas, Jill passed away before that could happen.
As in the Stillmeadow books, Taber talks about the landscapes, the weather, and the personalities surrounding her second home; a little differently, she doesn't share the usual recipes, and, of course, there is no talk about Jill's usual projects and active lifestyle. If you've read the previous books it rather leaves a hole in the narrative. She talks mostly about Amber, her Abyssinian cat, with some chatter about Holly, the Irish setter, but in the past tense, so it seems Holly may have died by the time the book was published. She also captures a little bit of the times: some talk about the Vietnam War, and some sad commentary about the aimless hippies who wander about flaunting their freedom, but to Taber seem sad and without purpose. Happier tales capture the traditional country stores, Snow's and Ellis', who extend credit and which are clearinghouses of neighborhood information, and her generous neighbors, one who comes to check the house regularly, another who plows her driveway in winter and tries to set the garden in order in summer, and a young man named Bobby who Taber watched grow from age ten to a husband and father who is a skillful builder of homes.
There's also talk, of course, about the "summer people," the tourists who migrate to the Cape the moment it gets warm and then vanish in September, sometimes leaving disorder and abandoned pets in their wake. But mostly it's about the beauty—and sometimes the inclement weather—of the area.
The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, edited by Mike Ashley
I got this in a slipcase along with The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, and although I enjoyed the other wayyy back in 2017, this collection seemed to have more stories that "didn't set a foot wrong." It begins with an intriguing story set in prehistoric aboriginal Australia and ends with another enjoyable Solar Pons tale about a governess hired ostensibly to care for two children, but who finds many strange things going on in the beautiful home they live in. One mystery actually comes from the Bible, and another is tackled by the Wise Men. To me one of the least interesting was "The Duchess and the Doll," more a history lesson than a mystery, although the history itself was absorbing; both the nuns' tales were enjoyable, and Sister Fidelma's was in addition suitably creepy to suit its subject; Gordianus the Finder and his young ward Eco solve a theatre murder in ancient Rome, while Judge Dee searches for the murderer of a beggar in ancient China—in another Chinese-set story, two brothers with completely different philosophies track down the murderer in a monastery; Harrison Hull looks into the real-life poisoning of George Wythe in early America, while western cowpoke Ben Snow trails a bank robber in mission-era California. All in all, one shy of thirty enjoyable stories.
Literally dozens of these "mammoth books" were published in the 1990s, including volumes of nonfiction, and the historical mysteries collected are some of the best.
Great Maps, Jerry Brotton
I found this for five dollars at Ollie's Discount Outlet and enjoyed checking it out: it's an oversized DK/Smithsonian volume of historical maps, from Ptolemy's first map "of the world" all the way to Google Earth. Inset closeups for most of the maps show you items of interest, like the first mention of "America" on a map, or how a place is portrayed, or other legends of note. There's Dr. Snow's famous "cholera map" that was the first to link feces-contaminated water to disease, a Catalan map that looks like a modern AAA "Triptik," the famous vellum Hereford "Mappa Mundi," a map of Utopia, Chinese maps that were made long before European exploration, the first surveyor-made map of France, and lots more. Perfect for map fans!
The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey
In 1921 Bombay, preparations are under way for the visit of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII. Not everyone is happy about this: many Indians are already clamoring for freedom from British rule. One day Perveen Mistry, the only female solicitor operating in India (mainly because her brother is totally unfit to take over the family business and her father has enough clout to make her work meaningful) is surprised when a Parsi student from the local university visits her for advice. Freny Cuttingmaster is lucky enough to be one of the few female students and wonders if not showing up to greet the prince as the rest of the college will be doing will endanger her student status. Perveen advises her to consult her student manual.
Next day Perveen joins her British friend Alice Hobson-Jones, a university instructor, to await the Prince's parade. Noticing Freny is missing, Perveen goes looking for her, and finds her murdered in the center of a quadrangle. The police are eager to believe that insurgents killed Freny; her parents are only frantic to get her body released for funeral services, which must happen within a certain amount of days in Parsi society. Perveen wants to help them, but she also wishes to find out why Freny was killed; she doesn't believe for a moment it was one of the political protestors. Making her investigation even more difficult (since as a woman she should be keeping her nose out of it) is that riots have broken out about the Prince's visit and parts of the city are blocked off.
This is the third book in the Perveen Mistry series, and the first one I've read. I chiefly enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, and the machinations that Perveen has to observe to be able to investigate Freny's death. I also did not know anything about Parsi society and am now embarrassed that I thought they were a sect of Hinduism. They are actually followers of Zoroastrianism, which originated in Persia, today's Iran. The Mistry family are also Parsi.
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, Marc Ferris
When Mark Ferris became curious about our national anthem, he discovered a lot more than he thought he'd find.
What is an "anthem," anyway? Derived from Church of England tradition and the word "antiphone," it's a type of song exciting an emotional response. "God Save the King," for instance, became England's anthem during the takeover attempt of "Bonnie Prince Charlie." Early on, "Yankee Doodle," originally a derisive song chanted by the British, became an American rallying cry, but later another song, "Hail, Columbia" (not to be confused with "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," a later song) became popular. Then came the War of 1812. "The Defense of Fort McHenry" (the song's original title) was the ultimate rallying cry.
Yet over the years the song has also been controversial. Most people say it's too hard to sing. Even professional singers have mangled it at sporting events and important occasions. Others complain that it glorifies war and doesn't adequately represent the United States. Katherine Lee Bates' "America the Beautiful" is so much easier to sing and prettier. Or what about "My Country, Tis of Thee"? Sure, it's sung to "God Save the King," but it's got American words! And it mentions those new heroes, the Pilgrims!
One of the most interesting sequences in this book is how the Confederacy tried to co-opt "The Star-Spangled Banner" as their own. After all, it was written by a Southerner and slave-owner, Francis Scott Key, and it was written in the South. It belonged to the Southern states! Eventually, of course, other songs, like "The Bonnie Blue Flag," became representative instead. ("Dixie" was actually written for a minstrel show. By a Northerner and abolitionist, to boot.)
It's all here: how different songs have been proposed, but nothing found to replace it; efforts to at least simplify it—to howling protest; and everyone weighs in on how good or bad it is. A thorough discussion of the song, the alternatives, the protests, and more.
Murder at Veronica's Diner, J.D. Griffo
Alberta Scaglione, her sister (the ex-nun) Helen, her sister-in-law Joyce, and her granddaughter Jinx are meeting for a customary breakfast at Veronica's Diner, Helen's favorite eatery, when they notice their favorite waitress, Teri Jo, looks tired and harried, so when she asks them to see that a package gets mailed, they willingly agree. Minutes later Teri Jo emerges from the kitchen with a knife in her back. Later, searching behind the diner, they find a small figurine of a Swiss girl, and then Alberta's house is broken into (thankfully, Lola the cat is safe). Still, the Ferrara Family Detectives aren't about to back down, especially when they discover Teri Jo wasn't who she seemed. Teaming up with the police, and with Father Sal and Alberta's sweetheart Sloan trailing behind, the improbably quartet find themselves involved with a secret in Brooklyn.
Okay, when the comic book appeared did you start screaming at the characters in the book? Seriously, it took them so long to catch on to that clue! I wanted to stand up on a chair and yell at them to pay attention. Otherwise, a fun mystery with yet another eyebrow-raising improbable ending.
A Mudlark's Treasures: London in Fragments, Ted Sandling
This is an interesting little English history with the history told through fragments of items found while "mudlarking" in the Thames—searching the shore of the river during low tide. In Victorian times and earlier, trash of all sorts was thrown into the river, then buried in the estuary sands, and during those times, the wretchedly impoverished scoured the sands during low tide for valuable items to sell so they could buy food and shelter. Today, "mudlarkers" still do it for fun, still pulling up dozens of pipe stems, Victorian bottle caps, 17th and 18th century glassware, Pepys-era wig curlers, RAF buttons, and even Roman-era items.
Each entry talks about an item, like the wig curlers or bottle bases, and what it represents in the historical narrative. (I was pleased to note that Sandling doesn't ignore the fact that the wealth that prompted the manufacture of many of these items was founded on the back of slavery.) The only thing I didn't like was that the items, which are prettily reproduced in watercolor on the book endpapers, are not linked to the book's chapters in any way, and some of the items he talks about are not pictured. I feel like I need to go back through the book with a pen and note on each chapter the number of the item pictured on the endpaper and/or note the pages relevant to the item underneath it. The watercolors are pretty, but I would have preferred photos of the items. Still, a really nifty walk through English history and the world of mudlarking.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, Koren Shadmi
This is a quirky little graphic novel about Rod Serling's life told in flashbacks as he chats to a woman on an airplane flight, from his being the short Jewish kid that got picked on to bulling his way into airborne school during World War II (he was technically too short to be a paratrooper, but his superiors admired his persistence and his chutzpah) to fight Nazis, only to be sent to the South Pacific and viewing the gruesomeness of war to his homecoming when he starts writing for radio and then for infant television and wants to "say something" in his media work, which repels networks and advertisers alike. From early attempts and advice from his older brother Robert (also a writer) to his failures to his successes, it brings home his driving personality and propensity for overwork that eventually came to tell on his health.
As for the ending—well, it's a bit derivative, but it did give me an uncomfortable chuckle, and probably suitable for the guy who conceived The Twilight Zone.
If you're interested in Serling (and the network stupidity he had to go up against), but don't want to tackle a full biography, this might be your cup of tea.
Lincolnomics, John F. Wasik
Okay, I was intrigued by the title of this book. We hear about Abraham Lincoln all the time, but always in the context of the Civil War or about his assassination; some paragraphs are given to the Lincoln/Douglas debates or his early law work. And you might have read the "Lincoln and Speed" historical mysteries. Wasik discusses Lincoln's other beliefs, and how they are still pertinent today, especially investment in the newest technologies. In his early years Lincoln was an advocate for good transportation, which in his era was the canal system. He believed in the expeditious transport of goods and people, and at the time water was the most efficient way to carry both. His one patented invention, in fact, is a device to shift a boat off a sand bar and back into the river current. Later he expressed interest in the railroads and probably would have led the way in their development had he not been so early taken out of the equation. He also supported land-grant colleges and inexpensive education as education made better Americans.
There are a lot of interesting historical tidbits here, but I thought the prose was a bit turgid and had to fight a little to get through it. There was also a word choice that flummoxed me:"telegrammed"? I looked up the word to see if it was proper usage and it is, but wouldn't "telegraphed" or "wired" have worked better?
The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Golden Witch, Jerry West
Finally! It's book 30 in the Hollisters series and the family is home in Shoreham! And it's October to boot. Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue are off with their parents to the Johnson farm to buy pumpkins for their annual Hallowe'en party. They find Farmer Johnson stuck in the lane that leads to his pumpkin farm, his tractor broken. This means he won't be able to harvest his pumpkins and sell them at his farm stand. The warmhearted kids offer to help him harvest, tend the stand, and loan him their little burro, Domingo, and his cart until the crop's in, as well as offering their collie Zip as a watchdog for the burro. They also, while exploring the farm, discover a private graveyard and a riddle on an old headstone that hints there might be a treasure hidden on the farm! Plus Farmer Johnson has an old Model-T Ford in his barn, and the kids spot a strange young woman prowling near it. But it's when Pete and his friend Dave meet a man who offers them a reward if they find a weathervane in the shape of a witch that the mystery really starts.We're taking a break from the travelogue stories of the last few books with a homegrown mystery involving the witch weathervane, why the mysterious "Curie-Us" is looking for it, the young lady who was found wandering near the barn, and even a woman entrepreneur, Aunt Nettie, who runs the local cider mill. Of course there's Joey Brill and Will Wilson to toss in a few mean pranks, and the Shoreham Hallowe'en festivities. An enjoyable entry in the series, with a couple of novel Hallowe'en items (like the RSVP for the party invitations) that I'd never heard of before.
Re-read: Country Chronicle, Gladys Taber
This is the last of the "Stillmeadow books" that actually talks about Stillmeadow, as Taber by this time was pretty much living full time at Still Cove, her cottage in Orleans, MA. Once again recipes dot the text, and you can tell she's getting older: she comments some about hippies, the inexplicable music, and mourns drug use and the loss of old-fashioned values. Still, she finds beauty in both countryside of Connecticut and shore of Massachusetts, and talks glowingly about her wonderful friends and neighbors, along with Amber, the eccentric Abyssinian cat. She also chats about the wildlife she feeds at the Cape, including Blackberry the skunk (she's braver than I am; I wouldn't go near one!).
I find it funny that Taber raves thus about the maple syrup from the Stiles farm: "the pale, honey-colored syrup we all prize...the later run is dark and is what one buys commercially" when in my own home we eschew the pale syrup and want the dark, deep, dense maple taste of the later run! The light stuff is too much like corn syrup to us! Also was amused when she talks about finding time to read, and comments "you can also read while you wait for the washing machine to go into the rinse cycle." Wow, I hadn't thought about having to do that in years! (For you young whippersnappers or for those of you who don't remember, washing machines in the 1960s didn't have dispensers. You threw the detergent and/or the bleach into the washer—or, if you had a GE washer, into the FilterFlo that sat on top of the agitator. If you wanted to put fabric softener in the washer, you had to set a timer until just before the wash cycle ended, and be at the washer just as that happened. You then shut the washer off, poured the fabric softener in a cup you reserved for the process (no measuring cap lids then, either) and then into the washer, then turn the washer back on so the rinse cycle began.)
The Atlas of Christmas: The Merriest, Tastiest, Quirkiest Holiday Traditions from Around the World, Alex Palmer
The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger
If I say "home ec" (or as it was called when I was in junior high, "homemaking"), what do you think? Me, it brings back mostly unhappy memories of dull cooking classes when we made "surprise muffins" (with jelly fillings) and disgusting pea-ham-and-cheese casseroles, and sewing classes where we made a pillow with an embroidered cover and an A-line skirt. But in Dreilinger's fascinating study of home economics, what we find are women who used home ec to not only break into scientific fields at a time when a woman was expected to be a wife and baby tender, but to make solid contributions to American life (like devising healthy meals during the "wheatless, meatless days" during World War I and rationing during World War II).
Catharine Beecher is first noted as a prototype for the trailblazing home economists; the spinster sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and brother of the rock-star-like preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Catharine was as highly educated as her brother and became a teacher, writing the bestselling A Treatise on Domestic Economy, not just how to cook and clean house, but how keeping a good home led to a successful life. Her two spiritual descendants were white Ellen H. Swallow Richards, an ambitious New England girl who could talk literature, milk cows, and keep house, and—well, talk about the people who get excised from history: I've heard from childhood about Booker T. Washington and his efforts to advance racial equality; I had never heard about his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, who was the first Black home economist, and all the effort she put into making life better for the African-American woman, despite barriers thrown at her left and right. I found myself inspired by this seemingly indomitable woman.
Sadly, Richards and her comrades never integrated to join forces with Washington and her followers; together they would have been an awesome organization. Others followed in their footsteps: Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer, soulmates from the beginning; Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who graduated college (gasp! and she was even pretty!) with a home ec degree and after her husband's death became a noted industrial advisor; Annie Dewey, whose husband was Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System; Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, who, as the only Spanish-speaking member of the organization was sent to the American southwest; and Mollie and Russell Smart, who enjoyed true professional and domestic equality in their marriage but still persisted in writing "the party line" about women as homemakers. These are only a few of the great people you'll meet in this narrative.
By the way, for God's sake don't think of this as a "woman's book." My husband is currently reading it and is enjoying it as much as I did, and I can almost hear him rolling his eyes at the old-fashioned sentiments quoted by the professionals of the times, like college professors saying women didn't have enough brain power to complete a typical college curriculum, or personnel departments not wanting to hire women because "they had no control of their emotions during their menstrual periods." An absolutely fabulous sociological read!
The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans, Cynthia Barnett
This is one of the best books I have read so far this year, but I find it hard to describe. Basically, it's the story of seashells: conches, scallops, the chambered nautilus, clams, oysters, etc., and how their environment is endangered by rising temperatures and sea levels.
Shells, Barnett tells us, have been with us throughout history; shoreline archaeological digs teem with seashells. However, they have not just been useful as a source of food, with humans and animals seeking the creatures inside. Shells have been money ("wampum" used by Native Americans was made from shells, and cowrie shells were also used as money, later coming to symbolize slavery and the cruel "Middle Passage" that brought Africans to the shores of the Americas). Cahokia, a great civilization that apparently flourished in the now Midwest-area of the United States, was built on a foundation of shells which were taken for trash until they were more thoroughly studied. Barnett even tells the story of the Shell Oil Company, which began with an English entrepreneur who sold seashell souvenirs and became wealthy, later partnering with the Royal Dutch oil company. Shell creatures as food, like oysters, clams, and snails, are not ignored, nor the use of shelled creatures for dye (the murex, which provided "royal purple" for kings). We meet fascinating people like Charles Lyell, geologist; Geerat Vermeij, a blind fourth-grader who fell in love with shells thanks to his teacher and who became an expert in them; and one of the forgotten women of conchology (the study of mollusk shells), Julia Ellen Rogers, who wrote one of the primary textbooks on the collection and study of seashells, but whose name was later buried by male scientists. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's classic book Gift from the Sea is also cited, as well as the Victorian mania for collecting seashells, and, of course, today's efforts to save their habitats.
Barnett's writing is a dream. She evokes vivid personalities, landscapes, and historical practices. You'll be sad when the book comes to an end, especially if you grew up with the song of the ocean as your childhood lullaby (the Atlantic, in my case).
Fan Fiction, Brent Spiner
This is a mostly fun mystery/comedy/noir novel that Brent Spiner based on his time playing the android Data (who, like Pinocchio, someday hoped to be a "real boy") on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the often-odd fan mail he received. It's 1991, in the middle of Next Gen's run, and Data has become a very popular character, hence Spiner receives a lot of fan letters. As the book opens, he receives a disturbing missive supposedly from "Lal," the android "daughter" Data built in one of the episodes. She threatens to kill him, and next day the rather loutish Paramount deliveryman brings him a package containing a pig penis floating in blood. Concerned, he contacts the police, but the officer assigned to the case seems to be too busy trying to sell a Next Gen script. Then, when a post office employee is cut by a razor blade in another missive addressed to Spiner, the FBI is called into the case and assigns an agent to him: an attractive woman who just happens to have a twin sister who's a private detective. Spiner's eventually wigged out enough to hire the latter as a bodyguard.
Spiner juggles the mystery of the too-attentive and -aggressive fan, the 12-hour days on set, the fan letters (including one from a Canadian woman who is pretending Spiner telephones her), his co-stars (who he paints with an admittedly exaggerated brush), and the two attractive law-enforcement characters, along with recurring memories of his charismatic but inflexible stepfather Sol which haunt his dreams. He also parodies some fan fiction tropes, especially the "Mary Sue" (or rather "Marty Stu") convention of having the FBI agent (Cindy Lou) and the private eye (Candy Lou) be love interests, and there's even a red herring.
I'm on the fence on this one. I was a Data fan myself and it's fun going back visiting those days. Spiner said he wrote his co-stars as exaggerated versions of themselves and that's fun, too. However, I don't particularly like stories about stalkers (or the gross things they send in the mail), and the whole sex-wish-fullfillment with the twin sisters kinda turned me off, as did a scene where a non-medical person offers him a Quaalude and he just takes it as if drug use is okay. If you like thrillers with quirk, you may enjoy that portion of the novel more.
Hell is Empty, Craig Johnson
One snowy day Absaroka County sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputy Saizarbitoria are transferring three prisoners to the state line. They stop to feed their prisoners at a roadside diner where further lawmen turn up with other prisoners to be transferred. However, the arrival of the FBI throws a spanner into the works. One of the prisoners, an adopted Crow named Reynaud Shade, who Walt considers a bit creepy, has told the law that he murdered a Crow boy ten years earlier and buried him in the Bighorn Mountains, except for one bone which he mailed to compatriots, telling them he had money stashed from a robbery. Walt's heart sinks when he hears the child's name: he knows the family. And when the convicts, orchestrated by Shade and with the help of an unlikely source, escape with two FBI agents as hostages, Walt knows he has to keep tracking them to bring justice for the dead boy, in a frosty, frightening odyssey up to the highest peaks of the Bighorns, and luckily he has help from a Native man he mistakenly arrested for a murder two years earlier, Virgil White Buffalo.
Johnson has written a taut thriller of Walt's rather Ahab-ish pursuit of Shade through many ordeals (and you will be wondering if Longmire is indeed made of iron rather than flesh by the end) paralleling Dante's Ninth Ring of Hell (Saizarbitoria is reading The Inferno and gives the book to Longmire before they separate) which is, despite the sobriquet "inferno," is ice cold. Driven by his need for justice, neither fire nor ice nor snow will stop Longmire on his quest to return the Crow child's body to his family.
I noticed this garnered a lot of criticism because "it didn't feature the usual gang" of characters and that some were bored or confused by Walt's nearly solitary odyssey. Myself I found it tense and an exploration of Walt's psyche, especially the blurring of the lines between reality and fancy—even if I did wonder about how he'd really survive the punishment.
Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
In 1910, the North London Cellar Murder was as much as a news event as the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s and the Kennedy assassination in 1963. The difference was that it happened on the cusp of another technological marvel, the birth of wireless communication—and it was wireless communication that finally trapped the alleged murderer.
Dr. Hawley Crippen was an American homeopath who basically sold patent medicines in the US, and later in London. Infatuated with a blowsy young woman named Cora who wished to become a musical performer, he married her. From all accounts he was a gentle, indulgent husband who bought his wife a huge wardrobe, supported her career even though she wasn't that talented, and didn't seem to mind her having a supposedly non-sexual relationship with a fellow male performer, Bruce Miller. Cora later changed her stage name to Belle Ellmore, and it was under that name she disappeared. Crippen initially told everyone that she'd gone home to America to nurse an ailing relative, had gotten sick herself, and died, to cover up the fact, he confessed, that she had run away to the US with Miller. By this time Crippen was being unfaithful with his secretary, Ethel Neave. The police had no reason to doubt his story, until Crippen and Neave left town and someone started poking at the bricks in the cellar.
As in Devil in the White City, Larson tells Crippen's story parallel with Guglielmo Marconi's efforts to transmit wireless telegraph signals. Marconi, a driven, spoiled man with an Italian father and Irish mother, had read about Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves, and, not really understanding them, pressed on with inventions that transmitted them, and was convinced that these waves could carry telegraph signals "through the ether." At the time transatlantic cables could carry messages from land to land stations, but ships at sea had to rely on passing ships to tell them news or flares to signal distress. Marconi's massive wireless stations, with their blue sparks and thunderclap sounds, would revolutionize communication with ships. But he faced stiff competition with British scientist Oliver Lodge and scientist and magician Nevil Maskelyne, among others, who also had been working on Hertz's "waves," but in a less aggressive fashion, and who considered Marconi a foreign interloper with an unproven system.
As always with Larson, well written, but if you're in this for the true crime stuff (Crippen's was the second most famous British murder case, after Jack the Ripper), the Marconi stuff will bore you, and if you're in it for the science, the Crippen portrayal of a disintegrating marriage will probably make your eyes glaze over. There's also a great deal of Marconi's legal disputes with Lodge, Maskelyne, and even people he's recruited to help him, like Forrest. But there's also a great deal to like in the Marconi parts, especially the portraits of early wireless telegraphy stations—the blue sparks and the crackling of the early transmitters sound at once both frightening and fascinating—and the weather they battled against. Enjoyed, but you must have patience with it.
Murder at Ochre Court, Alyssa Maxwell
In the sixth in the "Gilded Newport" series, reporter Emmaline Cross, related to the Vanderbilts on the "poor side" of the family, returns after a disappointing year writing for James Gordon Bennett of the New York World. Instead of writing real news stories as he promised her, she's been relegated to the society column because of her connections in society. Emma has resolved to quit after writing one final social story for the World: the "coming out" party of Cleo Cooper-Smith at Ochre Court, one of the famed Newport "summer cottages." Mrs. Goelet has fashioned a spectacular tableau vivant for Cleo's coming-out, complete with a throne for the girl as "Cleopatra," illuminated by the new electric lights. But Cleo is electrocuted instead, putting suspicion on the electrician, a friend of Emma's. She resolves she must clear him.
I mostly enjoyed this installment of Emma's adventures, which features not only the mystery but the face of changing Newport, with controversies over the changeover to electric power and away from gaslight, and a rising problem in 19th century America, the establishment of criminal gangs. Plus there's Emma's internal struggles: primarily her determination to get away from society reporting, but also her conflicting feelings for two different suitors, Jesse Whyte, the police officer, and Derrick Andrews, the wealthy scion of a newspaper publisher, and some of the action takes place at Fort Adams, still a working fort in those days, which I've visited several times. There's also an interesting supporting character in this book, Cleo's older sister, Ilsa, who is not considered marriageable due to a severe curvature of the spine, a scathing indictment about the treatment of differently-abled people in that day.
My only problem: Maxwell keeps tossing in modern terms that make me cringe. Some of them can be glossed over, but "growing a business"? In 1898? Seriously?
(Note: Ochre Court still exists, but is not one of the Newport mansions you can tour. It is the headquarters of Salve Regina College.)
Earthed, Rebecca Schiller
One thing you must understand about this book is that it's not just about a woman, her husband, and two children moving to a smallholding and attempting to make a difference by raising their own food (vegetables, goat's milk, and eggs). Schiller and her husband did agree to do this because it had been a dream of theirs, but the story became much more: for years Schiller had felt there was something wrong with her, that she wasn't good enough, that she was inordinately clumsy and said the wrong thing at the wrong time, that she fell into some projects with enthusiasm and others she was incapable of following through. And although raising crops, enjoying the flowers and trees with her children, and caring for her animals did "ground" her somewhat, she still found her emotions erratic—one morning she beats a pitcher against her head and destroys some china cups. Diagnosed initially with anxiety, she did as the doctor asked and found herself still at sea, with physicians not believing she wasn't being helped by the treatments. If this wasn't bad enough, just as she thought a correct diagnosis of her condition had been found, COVID-19 reared its ugly head.
Schiller writes beautifully, whether talking about the landscape, her children, the discoveries she makes about those who lived on the land previously, and even about her emotional difficulties, which make it easy to understand her confusion, pain, and sense of isolation. She also cares deeply, not only about her family and her farm, but about injustice, the past, and the future, and bares her soul. Reading this is an emotional experience in every sense. If you are looking for a simple "how I moved to a small farm and how it changed my life" narrative with an emphasis on animals and plants, I would look elsewhere.
One Dozen and One Short Stories, Gladys Taber
Gladys Taber made her living from writing; some from books, some from her columns, but, from what I've gathered, a great deal from short stories which she published in numerous magazines. Today, with television, the internet, streaming video, and the like, we rarely see magazines with short stories any longer, but they were a big part of the past. Magazines that are still published, like "Redbook" and "Woman's Day" had short stories "way back when," but no longer. Tiny romance short stories and mysteries are published in "Woman's World," but they are a sad cry from the past. The only magazine I know that still regularly publishes short stories of the type Taber would write is a Scottish favorite, "The People's Friend," which just celebrated its 150th anniversary!
These are G-rated stories of the type that would have been found in "The Saturday Evening Post" and "Ladies' Home Journal" among others. They are not necessarily "love stories" as you might classify something in the "chick lit" category. Five involve or are about dogs, including the sweet "Little Goat Goes Up," about a runt cocker spaniel who isn't valued because she's not a show dog. "Portrait of a Gentleman" and "Money of Her Own" are both based on Taber's childhood memories, the former with a dog based on Timothy, her Irish setter as portrayed in Especially Dogs, the latter based on an event later recounted in Especially Father. "Dear Bachelor" is a romance, but told in a nifty epistolary fashion. "Just a Little Havoc" is a comedy; "Impetuous Wedding" is sort of an early version of John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. "When the Wood Grows Dry" has Good Morning, Miss Dove overtones.
Definitely not for the sex-or-deep-social-commentary crowd, but pleasant before-bed reading.
Re-read: Still Cove Journal, Gladys Taber
I am technically at the end of my Stillmeadow re-read, although I have other Taber nonfiction: Stillmeadow Album, which is a photo book; Especially Father, about eccentric Rufus Bagg; and Harvest of Yesterdays, where she reminisces about her childhood. (There are also the two "Amber" books, both which I just bought after finding inexpensive/no postage copies. I'd read them electronically, but electronic books rarely stick in my brain long.)
Taber's daughter, Constance Taber Colby, opens this final book by her mother with an account of Taber's final illness in February 1980. She was rushed to the hospital with heart palpitations in February and never left the hospital again, passing away on March 11. Amber, Gladys' last cat, died soon afterward, even though she was tenderly cared for by Connie and Gladys' neighbors. Colby finished editing Still Cove Journal, which was published in 1891. One more time we joined Taber at Still Cove, enjoying the beauty of Cape Cod, even during its storms, and tales about the wild animals and birds Taber fed. What really shines in this book is the friendships and old-fashioned kindnesses done for Taber by her Cape Cod friends: they define "neighborliness" effortlessly. Someone brings her firewood, or fuel oil, neighbors at the local stores will take Gladys' groceries home for her rather than her having to drive out for them, when she is sick or absent they will come over to care for Amber.
I thought the Stillmeadow books rather faltered after Eleanor Mayer's (Jill) death. It's obvious, despite all her wonderful friends, Gladys had lost the one person she synched with most in the world. She also seemed to give up all her dogs at that point, probably because a cat was easier for her to care for on her own. Still, there's magic to be found in the books following Another Path, especially Taber's wonderful friends in Orleans, MA.
Stillmeadow Album, Gladys Taber with photographs by Jacques Chepard
This is an oversize book with 61 photographs taken at Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow. Some are of the house and grounds (including Gladys' well-loved Quiet Garden and her prized milk glass collection), several of her granddaughters Anne and Alice and also her daughter and the rest of the family, a couple of the two neighbor boys who faithfully came to help her (and earlier her and "Jill" [Eleanor Mayer] with shoveling snow, working with the trash, burning paper, fetching the mail (Erwin, the boy standing with Taber in the photo on the back cover, still lives on Jeremy Swamp Road, near Stillmeadow), and of course photos of the dogs, including Holly the Irish setter arranged artfully across the sofa. Anyone who's read the books will love the homey comfort of Stillmeadow, which is still in daughter Connie's family (Connie, known in the earliest books as "Cicely," passed away in 2020). For Stillmeadow lovers everywhere.