Thursday, December 24, 2009

An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson

Andro Linklater has written a fabulous book. It is incredibly detailed. It took me more than a month to read because I could only digest it in small chunks. Thirty or forty pages a day were all that I could take in before having to put it down. Yet, at no time did I feel that I was slogging through it, pushing myself to just finish the darn book. It was truly a joy to read.


It’s a big “but”. My problem with this book is the misleading marketing. The book is heavily marketed as the story of a colossal traitor who somehow fooled everyone including the military and four presidents. What an exciting story! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

But that’s not this story. This is the story of a Southern gentleman who was raised to be very courtly, very conscious of his place in society, to run a plantation and live a very wealthy life. However, his meager inheritance was not enough to support his lifestyle. He was fortunate that the American Revolution occurred right after his graduation from medical school. He had a knack for the military life. But once the war was over, he was forced to engage in business, something at which he was an enormous failure.

The rest of his life was a story of continuous debt. He was always having fallings out with business partners after borrowing monies that he couldn’t repay. His off and on military career couldn’t support his lifestyle that grew more and more lavish.

He agreed to spy for Spain as just another source of income. As Mr. Linklater makes abundantly clear, General Wilkinson never intended to destroy America. When his back was finally against the wall during the Burr Conspiracy and he had to make a decision, America or Spain, he chose America. Most importantly, everyone knew that he was taking money from the Spanish. Everyone. Including the military and the four presidents for whom he worked.

The men who founded this country were not fools. They would never have knowingly employed anyone who was seeking the destruction of America. They knew that Wilkinson was brilliant militarily but couldn’t handle his personal finances well. So they continued to employ his services which were acutely needed by the young country and overlooked the thinly veiled payoffs from Spain.

Once I got over the hype surrounding this story, I genuinely enjoyed this book. General James Wilkinson was an important figure in American history. He seemed to go everywhere and to know everyone. He was also quite a character, even a scoundrel in some cases. He gleefully smeared the reputation of anyone he viewed as a threat, he regularly betrayed his superiors and friends but at the same time was a loving and attentive husband.

Mr. Linklater has done an excellent job of bringing to life a colorful figure from our past who played an important role in the founding of our country.

Review copy courtesy of Walker Books

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ghosts of Central Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills

What better way to spend a wintry day than listening to ghost stories in an old house. I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Gordon Thomas Ward this past January that was held in the Van Wickle House, a 18th century Dutch farmhouse. He is an excellent speaker, holding us spellbound with accounts of his investigations into hauntings in central New Jersey. Afterwards, he held a book signing. Being a collector of autographed books as well as wanting to know more about his investigations, I purchased his book.

I finally took the time to sit down and read his book this past week. It covers the same material as his lecture but goes into more detail about the historical background of each location he investigated. Too much more detail for my taste. Chapter 6 about the Prallsville Mills was a classic case of overkill. Reading it is like reading the begats in the Bible as he meticulously traces every owner of the property through three centuries. Twelve pages into the chapter, the last paragraph on the page starts out “This second period of operation at the Prallsville Mills property came to an abrupt end with the destruction of the stone gristmill by fire on the afternoon of August 21,1874.” Twelve pages, and we’re only up to 1874? How much longer until we get to the ghosts?

Perhaps he is writing for skeptics, trying to establish himself as a serious scholar in a legitimate field of study. He doesn’t have to convince me. I’m a believer. I used to live in a haunted house. The first few months after we moved in, we were awakened every night by the sounds of someone stomping down the stairs from the attic to the second floor, across the hall and then down the stairs to the first floor. That phenomenon subsided and the rest of our ten year residence was more playful. The ghost loved to hide things. Which was merely an annoyance unless I needed something urgently, like my car keys. After a few minutes of looking, I would ask the ghost to return them, wait a few more minutes and then look around the house again. They would always turn up in an odd place such as the top of the microwave or on a shelf in the bookcase, places I would never leave my car keys (metal and microwaves, yikes!).

Mr. Ward doesn’t just look for evidence supporting evidence of paranormal activity, he also actively debunks local legends such as the story of the phantom carriage. There is a vintage photo of the very same scene. So he questions if the legend was inspired by the photo.

Another debunking was not so much a debunking as an historical correction. Having been raised in upstate New York on Washington Irving’s Leatherstocking Tales, I was disappointed to learn that the legend of the Headless Horseman originated in the Great Swamp in New Jersey and not in the Hudson Valley.

If you enjoy a good ghost story and are curious how they are investigated, I recommend you attend one of Mr. Ward’s talks. If you prefer more in depth coverage of the historical background involved in paranormal phenomena, then definitely buy his book.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery

I first became aware of Arlington National Cemetery after President Kennedy was assassinated. Like so much of the country during those dark days, I watched the funeral on television. Growing up during the sixties, Arlington was ever-present, as many of the young soldiers who died in Viet Nam were buried there. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware that the site had originally been the plantation belonging to Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate forces during the Civil War.

I’ve visited Washington, DC several times. On my most recent trip, I was able to visit Arlington. Several surprises were waiting for me. Lee’s house is still standing. For some reason, I thought that it had been destroyed during the Civil War. There are areas with grave monuments that I would have expected to see in a civilian cemetery rather than the more austere uniform markers found in the rest of Arlington. Most puzzling was the placement of some of the memorials. Especially the mass grave in what looked to me to formerly be a garden.

The answers to all of these mysteries are found in Robert Poole’s excellent book on the history of Arlington. I hesitate to use the word “history” which conjures up the idea of a dry tome filled with names and dates and battles. Mr. Poole’s book contains all of those but he tells his story in a more reader friendly manner.

Just because this is a history written for a popular audience doesn’t mean that it has been dumbed down at all. The author covers each major era in the history of Arlington, seemingly without omitting a single significant detail. He tells how the cemetery came into being, how the traditions we see today are the result of years of development some of them still evolving, and how and why burials were placed in the cemetery.

The story of Arlington National cemetery is as much the story of the military and government officials of their times as it is about our country. I’m sure that many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that Arlington was not always the revered place that it is today. After reading Mr. Poole’s first-rate account, it’s easy to understand how a need for burial space and one man’s near obsession with appropriating the property of a traitor became a national symbol and coveted place to spend eternity.

I’m looking forward to visiting Arlington again, this time with a better understanding of it and with this book tucked under my arm.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily

I came of age in the 1970s at the height of the Women’s Movement. It was a heady time full of marches and protests and petitions. Women’s Studies departments were formed at colleges and universities. The study of history, full of dead white men, was expanded to include herstory, bringing to light the lives and achievements of women in the past.

Women have come a long way since then, now full partners at home, in the workplace and in the history books. But I still find myself, when confronted with a choice of books, always reaching for the one by or about women.

It was with great anticipation that I began reading “The Lady Queen”. Imagine, a woman ruler in medieval Italy, surrounded by “chauvinist” aristocracy and popes who shamelessly exploited women. How did she come to rule? How was her rule different from the men who preceded her and then followed her? How did her subjects feel about being ruled by a woman? What, if any, changes did she make to Italian culture?

Sadly, only my first question was answered. The rest of the 300+ pages were filled with the usual battles, funerals, coronations, plots and counter-plots found in most history books. This book was written for a popular audience, yet it is all the things that everyone hates about history. Just a dry recitation of dates and historical figures.

Ms. Goldstone tries to excuse the paucity of material concerning the actual life and rule of Joanna on records that were lost during WWII. What I found most frustrating were the tantalizing hints of her life. Her concern with and improvement of healthcare, the arts, and religious orders are mentioned again and again but never expanded upon. I kept hoping for more details on them which would, directly or indirectly, tell me more about Joanna as a person and as a queen.

Joanna’s life was ended by assassination. There was a problem with what to do with her body because she had been excommunicated and couldn’t be buried in hallowed ground. A religious order, of whom she had been a benefactor, came up with a solution. I just wanted to scream. What had she done for them they were willing to put aside their religious convictions and provide her with a resting place?

Alas, this book does not live up to its title. I know very little more about Joanna and her “notorious reign” than I did before I read this superficial biography.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

Friday, November 6, 2009

No Tomorrow

I love reading books on history. Occasionally I grow tired of heavy, dry tomes and want something lighter and fanciful. I don’t care much for modern literature, preferring books written a century or more ago. But not because they are historical. I like them because they were written by people living at that time in history. They allow us to experience the feelings and dreams of people who lived long ago.

Often historical novels or Hollywood films get all the details are correct but the thoughts and emotions of the characters are modern. I understand that this makes the characters more accessible to modern audiences but I hunger for authenticity.

Vivant Denon was no ordinary author. In fact, “No Tomorrow” is the only fiction he is known to have written. The rest of his works were travelogues. He was an engraver, a courtier and a diplomat. He accompanied Napoleon on his military campaign in Egypt. Denon was the first Director of French Museums. He was largely responsible for the collections in the Louvre. It is safe to say that Vivant Denon was no hack writer.

This brief tale of a young man’s seduction by an older married woman is a window into the past. The opera house where they first meet is seen through the eyes of an author who had spent many hours in opera houses. Their long flight by coach to her husband’s secluded estate necessitates changing horses multiple times much as we would refill the tanks in our cars. Just as we use water to symbolize intimacy, the lovers consummate their affair to the sounds of a stream that runs past the summer house where they sought privacy.

On an emotional level, modern readers may be shocked to learn that sex in France during that era was regarded very differently from our own more puritanical outlook. This is the authenticity that I seek. To be able to vicariously experience the emotions and outlook of a world so different from our own. Not to be titillated, but to actually live, however briefly, in that time.

“No Tomorrow” is not graphic. It is not pornography. It is more dreamlike than erotic. It is a story in the Romantic tradition. An age that ended with the French Revolution and the guillotine. Knowing this as you read it lends poignancy to the story.

Review copy courtesy of New York Review Books Classics

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time's Up!: An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis

Almost everyone today agrees that Global Warming is real and is happening even faster than originally estimated. We can see the effects already in the melting of glaciers and sea ice, storms of increasing frequency and intensity and devastating droughts. Added to the ongoing degradation of the environment caused by industrial farming and fishing, the pollution from the burning of coal and gas to produce electricity and fuel our cars and you have the makings of an environmental catastrophe.

Just how devastating this catastrophe will be if we continue on our current course comprises the first half of Keith Farnish’s excellent book, “time’s up!”. His explanation of the complex food web and the adverse effects of climate change and pollution is the best I have ever read. It is detailed but easily grasped. Most amazing is that he makes what is normally a dry, academic subject, interesting.

The second half of his book is about what he calls “Industrial Civilization”, how it is holding us in thrall to consumerism while destroying the planet and how he thinks we can and should break free. I heartily agree with him about the ill effects of the so-called Industrial Civilization, but Mr. Farnish and I part company on the solution to our woes.

He advocates the complete destruction of Industrial Civilization. Much like Communism, this is an idea that sounds good on paper, but doesn’t work in real life. We have already had a taste of what total destruction of Industrial Civilization would be like in the ongoing global recession. Academically, it seems like a great idea to rid the world of greedy corporations, but as we have so painfully experienced, in the real world that means throwing millions of people out of work. The ripple effect can be seen in every town in the For Sale signs on front lawns and the empty storefronts previously filled with small businesses.

The author uses his own life, going off-grid and growing his own food, as an example of how we should all live. Obviously, he has never seen Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens or (insert the name of the megalopolis closest to you). There are not enough community gardens or local organic farms close enough to feed these huge population centers.

He also advocates the elimination of motorized transportation. He gets around just fine on a bicycle. Mr. Farnish lives in southern England. The climate there is so warm that people work in their gardens in January. I suggest that he try bicycling during a frigid Minnesota winter. Or perhaps a jaunt through the Rockies (the Donner party comes to mind).

He also loses sight of the fact that his book was grew out of his blog. If everyone quits their jobs and goes off grid as he so fervently advocates, then there will be no one to run the internet (hence, no blogs) or to publish books. They will all be in their backyards chopping wood and tending to their tomatoes.

There is the germ of a different solution in part three of this book. That is the use of people power (my phrase, not his) to effect change. Instead of the destruction of Industrial Civilization, the grassroots efforts he promotes could aim for the evolution of Industrial Civilization towards a more benign effect on the planet. Prior to the recent financial meltdown shareholder revolts, trying to wrest control of companies from greedy Boards and CEO’s, were growing more and more common. Farmers Markets are springing up all over. To keep them stocked with produce will require more organic farms which could eventually lead to fewer factory farms. Drivers are getting rid of their gas-guzzling SUVs and replacing them with smaller fuel-efficient or hybrid cars.

Eastern Europeans, who successfully rebelled against a Superpower, can attest to the power of citizens to effect change. We should all be inspired by their example to make the changes in our lives and countries to slow down global warming and the destruction of our environment.

Mr. Farnish ends his book on what even he agrees is a controversial note: healthcare. Or, more exactly, the lack of healthcare when we all go back to the land. He feels that that we don’t need modern medicine. In this, he is showing his youth. I grew up listening to the stories of my grandparents’ generation (his great-grandparents) of what life was like before the advent of modern medicine, i.e. before antibiotics and most vaccines. When all that doctors could offer was palliative care. When a simple cut could mean death from infection. When epidemics of childhood diseases raged, killing and maiming hundreds, sometimes thousands of children.

I find it difficult to believe that the author would rather that doctors spend their time gathering herbs for poultices rather than in laboratories working on vaccines for scourges like the Swine Flu that could very possibly kill his own children.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights

There is a revolution going on. At first it was a quiet revolution. The initial skirmishes were fought on the fringes of society. Over the past few years, the revolution has become more vocal, more powerful. It has moved from the fringes to the very center of our culture. People are becoming more conscious of the food they eat. And not just what kinds of food. They also want to know where it came from and how it was produced.

The food issue has become so central that the government, normally oblivious to anything that happens outside of the Beltway, has become aware of and is even co-opting the terms and principles of the movement. Manufacturers are legally required to list the ingredients and nutritional values of the food they sell. The term “organic” is no longer a folksy assurance of goodness. It has been quantified and codified. No one may use the term who has not met the stringent standards set by the government.

Still on the fringes but becoming more common with each passing year are those who not only reject the products resulting from the factory farming model, such as enormous feedlots that are so unsanitary that the cows must be fed a steady diet of antibiotics to keep them healthy enough to produce milk or meat (antibiotics that may actually be contributing to rise of “super bugs”, antibiotic resistant bacteria), these consumers are also rejecting the preparation methods mandated by law: the pasteurization and homogenization of milk.

Aficionados refer to it as raw milk. Raw milk producers and drinkers are not the wild-eyed fanatics or zany non-conformists. They live all over the country including the Midwest and New England, areas not known for radicalism. They are people who value milk for its nutrition. Nutrition that is destroyed by the processes of pasteurization and homogenization.

Louis Pasteur, credited with the discovery of pasteurization and long seen as a hero, lived during the era of the rise of feedlots, the factory farming of cows. Those lots were, and still are, breeding grounds for diseases of both animals and humans. Pasteurization is necessary to make milk safe to drink. Prior to the Industrial Revolution which brought first workers and then feedlots into the cities, cows were raised exclusively on farms, grazing in pastures during the summer and eating hay in the winter. The resulting milk was safe to drink. Disease was not a large concern.

The raw milk revolution is an attempt to reach back to our roots. Raw milk dairies raise and nurture their cows the old-fashioned way. They observe strict sanitary methods. They are subject to and welcome constant inspections. The consumers who buy their milk and milk products claim that this “natural” product is more healthful than the pasteurized, homogenized, antibiotic filled product found at the local grocer. These health claims are explored in depth.

I have to confess that when I first picked up this book, my “fanatic alarms” were going off. But once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I devoured it in two sittings. The author, David Gumpert, is a journalist who uses his training to give as well-rounded a treatment of the subject of raw milk as possible.

The author admits up front that he is a raw milk drinker. He tries to present as many points of view in the debate as fairly as possible. He interviewed dairy farmers who sell raw milk and raw milk products, consumers who buy raw milk, the parents of children who became ill drinking raw milk and the government agencies, both local and federal, who are doing their best to stop the sale of raw milk. It’s that last group that is not well represented but not through lack of trying on Mr. Gumpert’s part. He was constantly stonewalled by the very bureaucrats to whom he was trying to give a voice.

This is a well-written, eye-opening book. Anyone who is interested in healthy eating should definitely pick a copy. Before I read this book, you couldn’t have paid me to drink raw milk. Now that I am better informed, I am admittedly curious. I’ll be keeping an eye out at farmer’s markets for raw milk.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names

It’s no secret that I love roses, especially heirloom roses. I love their gorgeous flowers. I love their heavenly scents. I love their toughness. And I love their names. Residing in my garden are Baronne Prevost, Cecile Brunner, General Jacqueminot, Mme. Pierre Oger, Mme. Plantier, Therese Bugnet and Zephirine Drouhin. Who were these people and why were roses named after them?

Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello set out to solve those mysteries. They initially chose about four dozen roses with interesting histories. But the problem with roses and their stories is that when you start out discussing one tale, it leads to another story about another rose which leads to yet another story about another rose, etc. By the time the authors finished, the four dozen roses had become over 1200.

It’s those stories that make this book so fascinating. Rather than a dry list of names each followed by a short explanation of the person/place/thing for which the rose was named, we are treated to tales of danger, intrigue, humor and pathos, all with historical tidbits thrown in to put it into context.

We visit gardens that no longer exist and gardens that are still going strong. We learn about the game “Rose Alphabet” wherein players must come up with rose names for each letter of the alphabet. Also included are several recipes using rose petals or hips along with the story of the discovery of rose oil in India.

Most of all, it’s the people and their stories. Gods and goddesses, kings and queens, saints and sinners. Presidents, war heroes, painters, fashion designers, actors and actresses. Humbler folk such as family members of rose breeders.

The authors debunk a few legends. My personal favorite is the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.” Not true, unfortunately.

A glossary of rose and gardening terms is included as well as a bibliography, both very helpful. The lack of an index was the one glaring omission in this otherwise wonderful book. There is no way to look up a specific rose.

As for the “people” growing in my gardens? Five of them are covered, but you will have to read the book yourself to find out which ones and the stories behind them.

Review copy courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

"Stalin's Children" was written as a memoir of a family but it is much more than that. It is an intimate look at life in mid-20th century Russia. The story of those years is told through the lives of three generations of the Bibikov family.

Scholarly histories can only give dry descriptions of the tumultuous years from Stalin's purges through Perestroika. The Bibikov's lived those events. Through them, we experience the despair of parents rounded up in a purge and sent to the Gulag, the helplessness of orphans caught up in the chaos of the mass evacuations as the German army invades Russia. We share the joy of two sisters, separated during the war, who are miraculously reunited. Then we settle down with the sisters in Moscow and endure the privations of the Cold War.

Owen Matthews, the author, is the son an Englishman, Mervyn Matthews, who studied Russian, worked in the British Embassy in Moscow and fell in love with both Russia and one of the sisters. It was the correspondence between Mervyn and Mila during the six years that they were separated while Mervyn worked to get his fiancée out of Russia that inspired this book.

Readers who came of age after the break-up of the Soviet empire may find the tactics Mervyn used in his six year campaign unbelievable, if not downright silly. Those of us who remember "duck & cover" drills, hiding under our desks in school in the vain hope that they would shield us from nuclear attack, will be less skeptical. We remember the extreme measures taken by those desperate to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

There is danger in writing a true story about dramatic events. The result could be maudlin or read like a fictional thriller. The author has avoided both of these extremes. He allows the family members to tell their stories through reminisces, letters and official documents, accurately capturing the fatalistic attitude of the Russian people.

I was a little disappointed at the end of the book. The constant foreshadowing of the dramatic love story between Mervyn and Mila builds expectations so high that the actual telling is a letdown. The final chapters are an attempt on the part of the author to draw parallels between his parent's lives and his own. His effort to make his story, told in a rambling oblique manner, as dramatic as his parents' doesn't end the book so much as let it just fade away.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

Thursday, September 10, 2009

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA

During the Great Depression, many programs were created by the Federal Government to provide jobs for those who had none. We are still benefitting today from the fruits of that labor which created many public buildings, roads, bridges and parks. One project, however, never saw the light of day.

The "America Eats!" project was about traditional American food. Out-of-work writers were assigned to write about the events in their communities and the food that was served at them. The final document was not meant to be a cookbook. It was more akin to a documentation of regional foods made by non-professional cooks and served at regional gatherings such as fairs, church socials and harvest festivals.

Author Pat Willard, who stumbled on to the project while reading a book for research, was intrigued enough to visit the Library of Congress where many of the original manuscripts are stored. Reading the surviving documents inspired her to make a cross-country culinary tour, visiting the places and events written about in "America Eats!" to find out if they still existed and if so, how they had changed if at all.

She was heartened to discover that many of the local events mentioned in America Eats! are still going on albeit with a few modern changes. Squirrel meat, once the main ingredient in Brunswick stew, has been replaced by poultry, beef and pork due to the dangers of Mad Squirrel Disease (who knew?). She traces the evolution of the foodie culture in Washington State from the local harvest festivals mentioned in America Eats!, which are still going on.

Other local gatherings never made it to the 21st century. The traditional southern barbecues that were once mandatory for political events have disappeared. The mile long trenches filled with smoldering wood have fallen victim to zoning ordinances forbidding them on public land. Tobacco, once an important crop in North Carolina, is being replaced by vineyards that have led to new festivals celebrating wine.

Each chapter covers a particular type of event such as rodeos, funerals, harvest festivals and social clubs, to name a few. A relevant essay from "America Eats!" is followed by the author's own experience followed by more essays and occasionally, recipes. Because each essay was penned by a different author, the reader is able to get a sense of the local customs and culture as they were experienced by the people living at that time.

The book begins and ends with what can only be called rants about American cooking. Ms. Willard is rather defensive about our indigenous cuisine. In the first chapter she defends its shortcomings compared to European cuisines and then in the last chapter laments its demise thanks to the entry of women into the workforce leaving them no time to cook.

This would be a much better book without the author's long-winded opinions of American cooking. If you excise the first half of the beginning chapter and all of the last chapter, you have a wonderful book about Americans, their customs and their food, past and present.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA