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The Underground Railroad: A Novel - Colson Whitehead

Escaping from slavery was a daunting proposition. The escaped slave would have to leave a plantation without alerting overseers or tattletales, brave the elements with little in the way of supplies, meet up with people to provide assistance without giving himself away, and finally find a way to travel to friendlier territories. The participants in the escape had to keep absolute secrecy, with both slaves and abolitionists risking death at any misstep. Even after making it to the safety of a free state, the former slave could be captured and returned to the plantation and the grim consequences of flight at any time, all sanctioned by law.


The “underground railroad” that made these escapes possible was a marvel of human ingenuity, bravery, and dedication to principle. It also required a tremendous leap of faith from the escapee. Often there was no way to know what became of those who escaped before. Those who left were driven by optimism or naiveté or both. With others, the leap was more like jumping from a burning building; not really a choice at all.


In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead explores many facets of these complex interactions. The focus of the story is on Cora and her escape, but we also get glimpses from many other perspectives, from those who participated to those left behind, and even the views of a slave catcher. The brutal and often heartbreaking story is told with a straightforward lack of sentimentality that is more powerful and affecting for its spareness.


This seemingly candid approach disguises other layers. There is allegory and metaphor so deftly woven into the narrative that it is hard to tease out. And then of course there is the underground railroad itself. In Whitehead’s vision, it is a literal underground railroad, rendering the metaphor into reality. This is right somehow, since in a kind of converse logic, the underground railroad of history had a power in the very idea of it. The vision it represented was as important as its reality, making the leap into the unknown possible.


A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley. Expected publication September 13, 2016.

Hanging Mary: A Novel - Susan Higginbotham

On April 14, 1865, in the waning days of the Civil War, 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the head while the President was watching a play from his box at Ford’s Theatre. Booth was a disaffected supporter of the Confederacy who hated Lincoln, but his actions were part of a larger plot. The conspiracy began as a half-baked scheme to kidnap Lincoln that later evolved into a plan to assassinate the President, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Only Booth was successful in killing his target.


John Wilkes Booth (Photo from Wikipedia)


In the ensuing search for Booth and his conspirators, dozens of people were arrested. Just about anyone who had any contact with them was subject to investigation and, at least temporarily, imprisonment. One of those who came to the attention of authorities early on was Mary Surratt, a widow who owned a reputable boarding house in Washington that Booth was known to visit. Her son John, who had fled the country, was a friend of Booth’s and a Confederate sympathizer and courier.


Mary’s role in the crime was less clear. Some of the scheming likely went on in her boarding house. She conveyed instructions from Booth to the keeper of a tavern she owned outside the city, where Booth stopped later that fateful April night. But whether she was a willing accomplice or an unwitting pawn is the subject of debate.


Hanging Mary offers a fictional take on Mary Surratt’s involvement in these events. How did this respectable widow, trusted to maintain a wholesome environment by the families of lodgers that included an unmarried lady and even a ten-year-old schoolgirl, manage to get mixed up in the most notorious crime of the day? Was she a villain or a victim?


Mary gets a chance to tell her side of the story in chapters that alternate with others from the perspective of Miss Honora (“Nora”) Fitzpatrick, one of the lodgers. Between the two of them, a more nuanced picture emerges of the various members of the household and their associates. Booth is handsome and charming, a local celebrity the young ladies are proud to know. The convivial atmosphere in the house belies the darker intentions of some members of the group.


The story of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, his death, the investigation, and the subsequent trials is a complex one, involving many people, some better known to history than others. This novel focuses on a small part of the larger historical picture. There is a vivid sense of 1860s wartime Washington, still lively and hopeful before the assassination but plunged into harrowing uncertainty afterwards. As so often occurs in history, an atmosphere of fear and panic can result in an unsatisfying justice.


Mary Surratt (Photo from Wikipedia)


A copy of this book for review was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark/NetGalley.


Related link:
“Was Mary Surratt a Lincoln Conspirator?”
Video from Smithsonian:

The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia - C.W. Gortner

The Borgias are one of history’s most notorious families. Rodrigo Borgia, eventually the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, was the patriarch, father of several illegitimate children including sons Giovanni (Juan) and Cesare, whose sibling rivalry may have turned murderous. His daughter Lucrezia was known for her seductive but toxic beauty. The Borgias inspired their contemporary Niccolò Machiavelli's book, The Prince, and have provided ample material to creative artists ever since, to everyone from Victor Hugo to Donizetti to Showtime. They even star in a video game.


Many of the stories told about the Borgias were invented later as their reputations grew, but certainly not all of them. The challenge for a historical novelist is to avoid going over-the-top with wild tales that seem too fantastic to be believed while still preserving the colorful and often outrageous nature of this family. Choosing what to leave out can be as important as deciding what to keep.


Gortner wisely avoids giving an exhaustive catalogue of Borgia offenses. He sticks to what reveals his subjects’ temperaments, doing an admirable job of bringing humanity to these larger-than-life characters. (There is a central plot point that is not supported by the historic record, but it is at least plausible and compatible with what we do know.)


The story is told from Lucrezia’s perspective, making her a sympathetic and believable character in the midst of all the mayhem. This depiction probably gets fairly close to the truth. Lucrezia was no innocent, but she was also a victim of her circumstances, used as a pawn in political marriages starting at the age of 13. Surviving in that environment would have taken a fair amount of scrappiness and adaptability.


This portrait of St. Catherine of Alexandrea in a fresco by Pinturicchio may be Lucrezia Borgia (Photo from paradoxplace.com).


Late 15th century Italy was a vibrant (and violent) place. This book captures the interactions of Italy’s power centers without getting bogged down in minutiae at the expense of the story. In Renaissance Italy, several powerful families held sway over different regions and cities. In this novel, we see how the Orsini, della Rovere, Sforza, Medici, d’Este, and other families constantly jockeyed for power, with the upstart Borgias jumping right into the fray.


View from the Castel Sant'Angelo looking towards St. Peter's Basilica. The brick structure running between them is the passetto through which Rodrigo Borgia escaped when the city was invaded by Charles VIII of France in 1494.


The papacy was as much a political and military power as a religious one. Rodrigo Borgia deployed his children strategically to secure his dynasty (a strange concept when acting as a non-hereditary ruler). It was an era of change in art and science, political friends and foes could be swapped as borders were re-drawn, and the Reformation waited just around the corner. The Borgias bent the rules to suit them in uncertain times, but their unscrupulous volatility had devastating consequences to everyone around them.


Era desso il figlio mio” from the opera Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti

A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley.

Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England's Most Notorious Royal Family - Leanda de Lisle

There have been an awful lot of books, movies, and TV shows about the Tudors. Their cultural impression is larger than life. Events of historic importance certainly occurred during their reigns, probably most significantly the Protestant Reformation, but it is their colorful antics that make them memorable. Even the Plantagenets who preceded them, ruling for 331 years in contrast to a mere 118 for the Tudors, are much less prominent in public consciousness. Somehow the many wild tales of treachery and betrayal that the Plantagenets gave us pale in comparison to the doings of serial groom Henry VIII.


And really, it is Henry VIII who most represents the Tudor dynasty. There were four (and a half?) other Tudor monarchs, but Henry, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth, gets most of the press. (The recent Showtime television series The Tudors lasted four seasons but, despite the plural implied in its name, covered just one Tudor - Henry).


There isn’t much that is new here about Henry and Elizabeth, but where Leanda de Lisle’s contribution to popular Tudor histories stands out is in her treatment of the other lesser known Tudors. The story begins earlier, with events that often get just a cursory mention in Tudor books. Here we have a discussion of Henry VII’s origins, the Wars of the Roses, and the fall of Richard III. De Lisle also addresses the influence of Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and his sisters, whose marriages had important repercussions seen much later in English history. By including these events in detail, there is a historical context for the actions of the Henrys, making some of their decisions more understandable, even if not admirable.


De Lisle also includes an analysis of the “usurpation” of Lady Jane Grey. The “Nine Day Queen” is often little more than a footnote in Tudor histories, but Jane and her sisters are an area of interest for the author, who wrote another book about them. Here she justifies their inclusion by showing how the shakiness of the succession after Edward’s death may have contributed to some of Mary’s, and later Elizabeth’s, paranoia. It seems that none of the Tudors could ever completely avoid anxiety about being ousted.


Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor history is a readable one. She avoids getting bogged down in some of the details of dress, food, and other customs. (For that type of information, Alison Weir is much more complete). Instead, the focus here is on the overarching picture and historical context.

To the Tower Born - Robin Maxwell

The fate of the princes in the tower, the young sons of Edward IV who disappeared just before twelve-year old Edward was to be crowned as Edward V, is a mystery that has fascinated people for 500 years.


This treatment of the story treads a fine line between historical fiction and rather fanciful alternate history. I’ll give Maxwell credit for coming up with an unusual solution to the mystery. It’s unfortunate, though, that the basis of the story is founded on such stereotyped, almost cartoonish, depictions of the main players. Elizabeth Woodeville and Margaret Beaufort are scheming vilainesses (what other explanation could there be for women involving themselves in such important events?) Saintly Richard III is wronged by false friends. Elizabeth of York is plucky and down-to-earth, though strangely driven by vitriolic hatred of her mother (justified because her mother is an Evil Queen). Nell is Bessie’s best friend and Nancy Drew-like sidekick who just happens to be an extremely well-educated commoner, daughter of printer-to-the-stars William Caxton but worldly enough to have some prostitute friends ready to help at a moment’s notice.


All of this goes down with plenty of As you know, Bob to make sure we’re keeping up, but even that can’t help as the story gets less and less plausible. It’s readable enough entertainment, but in the crowded field of princes-in-the-tower books, there are better options.

Review of Castle Dor

Castle Dor - Daphne DuMaurier

The legend of Tristan, the Cornish knight, and his doomed love for Iseult, the wife of King Mark, is an ancient one, appearing in many variations for hundreds of years. Castle Dor is a retelling of that story set in Cornwall in the 1840s. It was begun by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British novelist who wrote under the pen name “Q,” but left unfinished mid-chapter. Many years after his death, his daughter asked Daphne du Maurier to complete it.


Daphne du Maurier, queen of the Gothic novel, would seem like the perfect person to take on this tale. Star-crossed lovers, betrayal, the dark and rocky Cornish coast, hints of the supernatural - it’s a story that is right in her wheelhouse.


Unfortunately, the book never recovers from Q’s beginning. We don’t know exactly where Quiller-Couch stopped writing and du Maurier began, but I feel certain she had no part in this description:


”This most ancient cirque of Castle Dor, deserted, bramble-grown, was the very nipple of a huge breast in pain, aching for discharge.”




The pages and pages of florid description and stilted conversation, punctuated by an occasional ill-considered metaphor and painfully obvious info dumping, are mind-numbing after a while.


Maybe a little more than a third of the way through, things get better. This line, which refers to the legend of Tristan and Iseult, seems to be a sly hint that there is someone new steering the ship:


“It is a curious coincidence that no poet, or shall we call him investigator, has ever lived to conclude this particular story. His work has always been finished by another.”


The change in style is gradual. By the end of the novel it is a much more enjoyable book, but it never overcomes its beginning. The character’s motivations are far-fetched. If she had set it up from the start, I think du Maurier might have pulled off the vaguely supernatural explanation for their actions, but it never really works. Daphne du Maurier wrote many better books than this one. It may be worth reading for dedicated du Maurier fans, but most should probably give it a miss.

Review of Every Day Is Mother's Day

Every Day Is Mother's Day - Hilary Mantel

I love Hilary Mantel. Her writing has such precision. She misses nothing and finds exactly the right way to phrase her observations.


Unfortunately, even her skill did not save Every Day is Mother’s Day. This was Mantel’s first book, the story of a mentally unfit daughter, her disturbed mother, the social worker assigned to their case, and the married man who sleeps with the social worker. There is an undercurrent of supernatural malevolence thrown in for good measure.


The writing is not quite as polished as it is in Mantel’s later books, but it’s still very good. What I couldn’t handle was the unrelenting dreariness. The characters are all unhappy people living bleak, miserable lives, but they are all so horrible to each other, so mean and malicious, that it’s hard to feel much for any of them. On Wikipedia, they call it a “black comedy,” which really stretches the definition of comedy. (A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, is more cheery.) There are some highlights here, like a dinner party that really is amusing, where nothing escapes Mantel’s keen eye and sharp tongue, but aside from that, this book is weaker than her later novels.

Review of The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel - Michel Faber

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion.”
—R.E.M. (1991)


For Peter, it’s the chance of a lifetime. He is a Christian minister chosen to be part of a carefully selected group that has established a settlement on another planet. Peter’s role is to reach out to the native, non-human population, putting him in a position to spread the word of Jesus to a far-flung new outpost of Christendom. Unfortunately, his wife must stay behind on earth during the mission, but they both feel the opportunity is worth the sacrifice.


Peter and Bea were prepared for the physical distance between them but didn’t count on the emotional estrangement. Peter finds his new flock receptive and eager for his teaching while Bea reports an increasingly horrifying series of events from home. It’s a panoply of tragedies back on Earth, from global to personal and back again. Tidal waves, rioting, war, vandalism — the world is tuned to the Misery Channel, and the chaos seems apocalyptic. (Or maybe it’s just the world as flawed as it has always been, less appealing now that there’s an alternative.) Peter can’t or won’t relate to an Earth that seems God-forsaken, while Bea’s faith is tested.


Faber tackles a lot of heavy themes here, but he does it with deftness, letting the story unfold naturally. He addresses the loaded topics of religion and tests of faith without endorsing or condemning. More important, the characters’ beliefs are plausible, even within this rather fantastic setting.


The Oasans themselves are appropriately alien. They are not human, and differ in fundamental ways from humans physically and psychologically. These faceless creatures are somehow still affecting in their frailties. Their struggle to communicate, a physiologic challenge, is handled well, with an inventive depiction of their language.


The Book of Strange New Things is nothing like the other book of Michel Faber’s I have read, The Crimson Petal and the White. I loved that book, a nouveau Victorian novel. This topic and setting are about as different as can be, yet Faber manages to create a story just as compelling, showing that great writing transcends genre.


A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley.

Tidewater: A Novel of Pocahontas and the Jamestown Colony - Libbie Hawker

The story of Pocahontas has become part of American mythology. The legend of the Indian princess who befriended the colonists of Jamestown, Virginia and saved the life of John Smith has been depicted in numerous books and films, usually in a highly romanticized way. In the animated Disney movie, as in many other portrayals, Pocahontas and John Smith were in love, star-crossed by their incompatible cultures.


It all makes for a great story, but these tales bear little resemblance to the history. In Tidewater, Libbie Hawker puts some of the historical back in historical fiction with a novel that sticks much closer to the actual events but turns out to be more interesting than the idealized version.


Pocahontas (a nickname meaning “Mischief”) was actually a child when she first met John Smith and certainly not a love interest. She was adept with languages, as was Smith, helping the colonists communicate with her father, the most important chief of the tribes in the region. Hawker uses Powhatan words unapologetically but naturally, adding to the sense of this unusual linguistic partnership of a Native American child and an English settler.


Pocahontas and Smith were both a little out of step with their respective people. Their mutual feeling of not quite fitting in formed another basis for their bond. Pocahontas unfortunately shared a weakness with the colonists as well, a hubris that came of overestimating abilities and underestimating challenges. Though more excusable in a child, the mistakes of all involved had devastating consequences that often erupted into violence. The constant threat of starvation coupled with the colonists’ fundamental misunderstanding of the native tribes sowed the seeds of conflict that would be passed on for generations.


Hawker creates a story that is by necessity much darker than the Disney version. Her research gives the novel authenticity, but it is woven into the story and the characters. Their decisions and interactions are plausible based on the time and circumstances. While some questions will never be fully answered by history, it could have gone like this.



Pocahontas (1616) (Image: Wikipedia)

Wittgenstein's Mistress - David Markson, Steven Moore

Kate is the only person living in the world.


Well, what I should have said is the only creature living.


On my honor, there is nobody else. There are no dogs or cats or seagulls or scorpions.


Quite possibly there are no fish either.


I did not verify that for certain about the fish, however.


A part I always liked is when she was living at the Louvre and used the frames to make a fire. She nailed the paintings back into place.


Actually that was at the Tate where she did that.


Helen, being the name of the person this happened to.

The narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is engaging, witty, and completely unreliable. Her existence is as solitary as it is possible to be, but she anchors her reality by connecting fact after fact in a corkscrewing collection of allusions to artists, musicians, philosophers, and classical Greek works. She is living in a world governed by the logic of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a world that is “the totality of facts, not of things.”


Her allusions, expressed with a curious precision, move in spirals, sometimes accelerating to a dizzying pace and other times slowing to a more contemplative speed. She takes an anecdote and applies it to one person after another. At times the fact is correct, but the person isn’t (or the person is correct, but the fact isn’t?) With nothing linking her to anyone else, since there is no one else, she looks for other connections, testing them quickly one by one then moving on to the next.


Kate tells us she is an artist, and she does have a knack for invoking powerful but surreal images (hundreds of tennis balls rolling down the Spanish steps, an arm full of wristwatches thrown away one by one as the alarms go off, cat food set out at the Colosseum) in a kind of performance art. Yet she balks at the opportunity presented by a blank canvas and only obliquely refers to her own paintings. Despite her carefully maintained detachment, she seems almost too self-conscious to paint anything, just as she is self-conscious in the language she chooses, even though there is no one around to look.


Occasionally there are intrusions into Kate’s strangely hushed world, causing interactions with objects (a car without a driver, a boat without a sailor) that aren’t quite consistent with her inanimate environment. These brushes with a bygone outside world can be dangerous. Whether the danger is physical or metaphorical is harder to discern.


The reader is left to determine whether Kate’s tragedy is global, personal, or philosophical, though in the end it may make little difference. She is caught in a surreality where facts and their reflections have changed places so often that truth itself is questionable. In discussing a painting, Kate says:


"So in other words what I am ultimately seeing is not only a painting which is not a real painting but is only a reproduction, but which is also a painting of a fire which is not a real fire but is only a reflection."


"On top of which the reproduction is hardly a real reproduction itself, being only in my head, just as the reflection is not a real reflection for the same reason." (WM 153-154)


In this hall of mirrors, the only certainties are ambiguity and inconsequential perplexity.

To The Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

This is going to be one of those books that I will dwell on, with my thoughts evolving as I turn it over in my mind. What follows is some of what I was thinking about as I read.


The novel shows us the Ramsay family and some of their guests at a seaside house on just two days, separated by years. There is very little backstory or physical description, or even explicit discussion about the personalities of the characters. Instead, the reader’s focus is drawn as if by a spotlight or beacon that moves from one person’s mind to another, showing the inner life of the illuminated character with his perceptions of the people and places around him and of himself.


The effect is impressionistic yet absolutely precise, and incredibly internal, more so than other books I have read that use stream-of-consciousness. This is not an inner monologue or narration from the character; we are in the mind itself. The resulting characterizations, drawn from fragments of thoughts before the beam moves on to someone else, are both intimate and complete.


The middle section, Time Passes, is one of the most remarkable chapters I have ever read. It is almost more poem than prose with its swirling wind and darkness. The passage of time in an empty house is hauntingly bleak, but evokes all the senses in a place that is still active without its inhabitants. The fates of the people, however central they are to the other characters, become parenthetical notations in the scale of time with a laconic poignancy.


This is a short novel, yet Woolf manages to explore memory, time, perception, art, and the effect of the presence (and absence) of the central figures in our lives. The language is beautiful but not overly ornate, chosen to express exactly ideas that almost defy expression.


Cover of the first edition, 1927, by Vanessa Bell, the author's sister (image from Wikipedia).

Review of Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey

"Sin, death, and hell have set their marks on him,
And all their ministers attend on him."

-William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, Scene III

Richard III is one of history’s most notorious villains. Thanks in large part to Shakespeare’s play, he is known as a remorseless usurper who murdered his young nephews, the “princes in the tower,” so that he could become King. He was King for less than two years, but he remains one of the more memorable characters from British history. 

This is not an open-and-shut case. The “Ricardian” contingent, still active as the Richard III Society, thinks Richard got a raw deal. His fame comes from a play written during the reign of the Tudor Elizabeth I, based on work by Thomas More, who served the Tudor Henry VIII. The Tudors, they argue, had a vested interest in showing Richard in the worst possible light. After all, the first Tudor King, Henry VII, came to the throne after defeating Richard in battle. Richard’s defenders hold that he was falsely accused of ordering the murders, suffering an unfair blot on his reputation that has lasted for several hundred years.

Josephine Tey presents the pro-Richard arguments in an unusual way. Published in 1951, the novel is set in the first part of the 20th century. Alan Grant, an inspector from Scotland Yard, was injured while pursuing a suspect. He is laid up in the hospital for weeks recovering from his injuries. Bored out of his gourd, he is looking for something to occupy him. It comes in the form of a picture, a print of this painting of King Richard III:

Richard III

Grant studies the painting and thinks a guy with such a lovable face just couldn’t have done those terrible things (and given his background as a detective, Grant knows faces). With the help of a friend who acts as a research assistant, he “investigates” the case, ultimately finding Richard innocent, with his successor Henry VII as the real culprit.

It’s a unique way to present this centuries-old mystery, but unfortunately it often comes off as contrived. This isn’t really a novel in the usual sense; it’s a vehicle for presenting a historical argument. There’s no real action, just Grant having conversations with people about Richard, often bringing out the information through awkwardly obvious question-and-answer sessions with his friend. He makes a good point about the simplified and often unsupported history presented in the school textbooks he reads, but much of his discussion involves setting up and knocking down straw men. 

In the story, Grant suffers from the same problem that has made Richard so controversial for historians - there just isn’t a lot of solid evidence. We are left to rely on the accounts of people who lived at the time or just afterward. Determining Richard’s guilt tends to come down to which of the often heavily biased sources you believe. 

The crux of Grant’s argument seems to be that Richard was actually a pretty good guy. He passed progressive legislation in Parliament, he wasn’t particularly vengeful to the opposition after taking power (though his Woodville in-laws might have disagreed), he didn’t try to make his bastard son heir to the throne, and lots of people said good things about him. Above all, “good sense was his ruling characteristic. Good sense and family feeling” (p. 190). This version of Richard is almost suspiciously saintly, especially given the usurping tendencies of so many of his Plantagenet forbears.

Tey’s approach to analyzing one of history’s great mysteries is imaginative, even when not completely successful. Anti-Ricardians won’t be convinced, and those looking for a more traditional mystery may be disappointed, but for those of us who find the mystery fascinating in its own right, it’s always interesting to get another take on it.

Review of I Am Livia

I Am Livia - Phyllis T. Smith

“If his oddity and mine did not take precisely the same form, still the edges of one seemed to fit those of the other, like two sides of a split piece of pottery.”

Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Livia Drusilla were the original power couple. During the course of a marriage that lasted 52 years, Augustus seized and consolidated power from the crumbling Roman republic to become Rome’s first Emperor. He defeated his rivals, ending the civil wars that took place after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and extended the Empire through conquest. He also squashed any hopes of Rome returning to a Republican government. The Senate that rejected the idea of Julius Caesar as a dictator eventually gave Augustus unprecedented power, deeming him “First Citizen,” a title that now seems more than a little ironic. 

Caesar Octavianus Augustus - just a citizen like everybody else

Throughout all of these events, Livia was by his side. She was around fourteen or fifteen when she married her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, a man she divorced five years later to marry the up-and-coming young Octavian. By all accounts she was as much a trusted adviser to Octavian Augustus as a wife, exerting tremendous influence behind the scenes.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that this woman, who managed to convince her first husband to attend her second wedding, even giving her away in the ceremony, has had a dubious reputation. She is probably best known from Robert Graves’s wonderful novel and later miniseries I, Claudius, much of which is based on Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. Graves depicts her as something of a villain, a scheming and heartless she-wolf who wields the real power behind the throne. There is also a nagging little question as to whether or not she poisoned Augustus when she was ready for her son Tiberius to take over. She’s not exactly the most sympathetic character in history. 

Livia Drusilla

In I Am Livia, Phyllis T. Smith gives a very different view of Rome’s first Empress. She lets Livia tell us her story. Make no mistake, this Livia hasn’t suddenly become a shrinking violet. Intelligent and analytical, she knows what she wants,

“Of course I wanted to control Tavius - to an extent. And to our mutual benefit, and the benefit of Rome. Any woman who says she does not want to guide the actions of the man she loves is, in my opinion, lying.”

But this Livia is human, too. She suffers doubts about marrying Augustus, fears for his safety in war, and the personal grief of being unable to bear a living child with him. She wants what she thinks is best for Rome, but at times this puts her on the wrong side of her husband, not the safest place to be. Her position and influence make her a target of gossip and innuendo during her lifetime (and in the nearly 2,000 years afterwards). The politics of the early Roman empire are a dangerous game, one even harder to play as a woman who isn’t supposed to be playing at all. 

I Am Livia is a thought-provoking exploration into the mind of one of history’s most fascinating women. In I, Claudius, the fearsome Livia warrants a certain grudging respect. Here she earns sympathy. Her vulnerability makes her more likable, but she is above all a survivor.


Two thousand years later, the paint may be chipping, but the house of Augustus and Livia still stands (Rome - Palatine Hill)

The Sekhmet Bed (The She-King) - 'L. M. Ironside',  'Libbie Hawker'


Sekhmet: “One who is powerful.” 

Sekhmet (Image: Wikipedia)

To the ancient Egyptians, Sekhmet was a warrior goddess with the head of a lion. As The Sekhmet Bed opens, Ahmose, the thirteen-year old younger daughter of the just-deceased Pharaoh, has little in common with a lioness. Her older sister has been groomed all her life to be a Great Royal Wife, while Ahmose prefers to focus on the spiritual. When their father dies without a male heir, Thutmose, one of his trusted generals, is named King. It seems straightforward enough that Thutmose, who is of humble origins, would be married to a king’s daughter to give his reign legitimacy. To the surprise of both sisters, it is Ahmose who is named Great Royal Wife to Thutmose while her older sister becomes his second wife. (There’s no way that could cause any trouble.) History tell us that Thutmose and Ahmose will eventually be the parents of Hatshepsut, one of the few women to rule Egypt, but naive Ahmose has a long way to go before that happens. 

If historical fiction is most successful, as Hilary Mantel has said, by working with the “gaps” in history, then stories about the ancient world offer a lot of opportunities to fill in the blanks. 
Hatshepsut is a relatively well-known figure in ancient Egyptian history, but 3,500 years later, there is a great deal we don’t know about her and her family. When we aren’t sure what was actual, the writer has to work with what is plausible. The motivations and decisions of the characters here are credible, offering one possibility for how events unfolded.

Where this novel really succeeds, though, is in the writing. Ironside (pen name of writer Libbie Hawker) writes with lyricism without falling into the trap of purple prose. The sense of the setting, of heat and flies and dust, of kohl and wigs and gold, of an unnaturally bright sun, suffuses the writing rather than showing up in one or two descriptive passages. The time and place here are not just a stage set with anachronistic characters dropped in.

There are occasional missteps - the “pidgin Egyptian” dialect spoken by one non-Egyptian character was jarring and didn’t seem historically and linguistically authentic. To be fair, though, I’m not sure how exactly someone would speak ancient-Egyptian-as-foreign-language.

Overall, there is a coherent vision of the interplay of setting, dialogue, story, and character. We can’t know exactly how these people thought and spoke. (As Ironside points out in the historical note at the end, the Egyptians generally did not use vowel sounds in their writing, so it’s hard even to guess what the language really sounded like.) Our images of the ancient Egyptians come primarily from the highly stylized portrayals on their tombs, defining them as obsessed with the afterlife because we know more about their elaborate burial rituals than anything else. Ironside succeeds in balancing that popular idea of pyramids and mummies and walking like an Egyptian with believable history lived by real humans.

Ahmose, Thutmose, and daughter (Image: Wikipedia)

A copy of this book for review was provided by the author.

Review of Monkey Girl

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul - Edward Humes

The argument between creationists and evolutionists was in the news recently after the debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, the Australian who runs the Creation Museum. The dispute is nothing new, though. Creationists and evolutionists have been butting heads since Darwin’s day. Ken Ham’s organization Answers in Genesis represents the more extreme end of the spectrum, the “young earth” creationists who believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time. 

Dinosaur and human living in harmony at the Creation Museum.

This argument grows particularly heated when it involves the public school system. Since the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, school boards across the country have debated first whether or not they should allow the teaching of evolution, and more recently whether or not they should allow the teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design. A recent story in Slatereported that thousands of schools are allowed to teach creationism in science classes, in spite of Supreme Court decisions like Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 that ruled that creationism could not be taught if it was advancing a particular religion.

There may be reasons you never learned this in school (Creation Museum).

In Monkey Girl, Edward Humes recounts the 2005 court battleover teaching intelligent design in the Dover Area School District in Dover, Pennsylvania. Two young earth creationists on the school board led the push to add intelligent design to the science curriculum. Intelligent design (ID) argues that certain biological features (like bacterial flagella and the coagulation cascade) are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, and must have required a “designer.” Mainstream science finds nothing “scientific” about this concept, viewing it as a Trojan horse to get re-branded creationism into schools, but the defendants in the case insisted that the goal of including ID in the science curriculum was to improve science education and had nothing to do with religion. 

Previous actions by board members made this a difficult argument to defend. When discussing including ID in science classes, one member said, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can we have the courage to stand up for him?” (Prologue, Monkey Girl). With statements like those, it was hard to argue that religious belief was not involved.

Humes does a good job of summarizing the case, with a helpful discussion of the historical background. Unfortunately he gets bogged down in details in telling Dover’s story. It’s as if he wants to give a narrative with the dramatic impact of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow facing off in the Scopes Trial, but the personalities here don’t have that larger-than-life flair. They are, for the most part, ordinary people with unwavering world views. That setting has a certain innate drama, but it doesn’t warrant the minute-by-minute treatment Humes gives it.

There is also an odd shift in tone throughout the book. Humes starts with a highly journalistic approach, presenting the facts and people on both sides in as fair a manner as possible. As the story progresses, though, it’s as if he loses patience, getting increasingly snarky. His Epilogue rambles strangely about right-wing pundit Ann Coulter. While there is no doubt that she is a good example of an anti-science demagogue, the rant is a bit off-topic for the book. 

Monkey Girl is a good treatment of an important and still relevant topic, the inclusion of religion in science education in the public schools. It would have been a better book, though, without the excessive detail and the pretense of courtroom drama. 

Better days in the Garden of Eden at the Creation Museum.

Review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste - Valerie Martin

The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship discovered in December, 1872, under sail heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar. No one was on board. With one lifeboat missing, the ship was presumed abandoned. Strangely, though, there was no indication of what caused the captain to leave the ship, along with his wife, two year old daughter, and seven crew members. There were no signs of a struggle, there was plenty of food and water, and the ship was still seaworthy. 


Engraving of the Mary Celeste at the time of discovery (Wikipedia)

The mystery of the Mary Celeste caught the public’s attention at the time, but interest surged when a short story was published in 1884 in Cornhill Magazine. Entitled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” the fictional tale was based on the mystery of the missing ship. The anonymous author was the twenty-four year old Arthur Conan Doyle, still three years away from publishing his first Sherlock Holmes story.

NPG Ax27656, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (Wikipedia)

Cornhill Magazine

“J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” in Cornhill Magazine (Internet Archive)

Valerie Martin’s novel The Ghost of the Mary Celeste draws on these historical events. She addresses the mystery of the Mary Celeste’s fate, of course, but in a way it is almost incidental to the numerous other puzzles here. Martin interweaves tales of shipwrecks, a family that seems cursed by its association with the sea, a to-be-famous writer, and the Victorian world of the occult, replete with spiritualism, mediums, and charlatans.

Martin tells these stories from different points of view, giving us little glimpses of the whole through the eyes of narrators with varying degrees of reliability. Some of these characters are more distant from the central events than others, but each is carefully drawn and feels fully realized. The character portrayals are convincing for both the historical figures and the purely fictional characters, an important trick in historical fiction. If I didn’t know in advance who was an actual person, I don’t think I would have been able to distinguish from the story, which is as it should be. 

I expected this novel to be a re-imagining of what could have happened to the ill-fated ship. It turned out to be less linear and more ambiguous than I thought it would be, and, ultimately, more intriguing. 

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Doubleday Books.