Friday, November 29, 2019

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, by Buddy Levy

9781250182197
St. Martin's Press, 2019
400 pp

advanced reader edition, so my many thanks to the great people at St. Martin's Press for a paper copy.

I was delighted to have been offered a copy of this book, since I am and always have been a serious devotée of exploration narratives of all kinds, most especially accounts of expeditions in the polar/Arctic/Antarctic regions.  Another factor in saying yes to St. Martin's Press was that it wasn't all that long ago that I'd watched this fascinating story play out on  American Experience (PBS)  in an episode called "The Greely Expedition" and decided that I had to know more, so of course of I was going to accept their offer.  Smart decision on my end:  once I began reading  Labyrinth of Ice a couple of nights ago at about 6:30 p.m., I didn't  stop reading until  two in the morning, and only then because I had to be up by 5:30.

According to the author,  "Like nearly all great stories from the past," the story in this book has already been told,  but he intended this book to
"provide an interpretation that focuses on the adventures, triumphs, and the unity, brotherhood, and patriotism of the men"
 which he does, but he also doesn't skimp on the strength and fortitude of these people required for their very survival.  When this expedition began in 1881, not a single person under Greely's command would have been able to visualize the horrific challenges that would face them only two years later, when things became so dire that the expedition's doctor wrote in his journal while drifting on an ice floe that
"It is terrible to float in this manner, in the snow, fog, and dark. This seems to me like a nightmare in one of Edgar Allan Poe's stories."  
When  Lieutenant Adolphus Greely accepted his mission, he knew after years of studying the history of Arctic exploration that things didn't always go as planned.   However, he ran a tight ship, so to speak, and as the author notes, he also had an "uncanny sense of the thing to do now."  His orders were to  set up "the northernmost of a chain of a dozen research stations around the Arctic," as part of the first International Polar Year,  and to endeavor to locate and rescue the men of the long-missing USS Jeannette, the subject of Hampton Sides' most excellent book In The Kingdom of Ice.  Greely also had designs on reaching the North Pole, or failing that, at least to wrest the claim of reaching "Farthest North" from the British, who held the record.  Sailing from Newfoundland, the men reached their destination of  Fort Conger "more than 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle," or as the author says, "quite literally at the far end of the earth."



map taken from CBC News

While Labyrinth of Ice covers their two years there, the real story begins in 1883, when for the second year in a row, "relief-resupply" ships failed to reach these men as scheduled.   When the first summer went by in 1882 with no relief ship arriving, Greely and his men were still well provisioned, so the situation wasn't dire, but when the summer of 1883 began to draw to a close with no relief in sight, his orders were to
"depart with his men and head south, using the motorized launch Lady Greely and three whaleboats, plus a dinghy. They would retreat, scouring the shores, hoping to find food caches or relief ships and men along the coast of Ellesmere Island as far south as Cape Sabine, or at Littleton Island, both some 250 miles south of Fort Conger."
Greely and his men could remained at Fort Conger where, "if well rationed," they would have enough provisions to last another year, but he would never have considered disobeying his orders.  He was supposed to leave by September 1st, but fearing the ice, he made the decision to leave nearly a month earlier on August 9, 1883, thus beginning an ordeal which pushed his leadership and his men to their limits.     The story of the southward journey of  Greely and his men is indeed harrowing, but what makes it even worse was that had there not been so much negativity in Washington DC about Arctic exploration under the auspices of Secretary Robert Todd Lincoln, and had the people in charge of the relief expeditions carried out the parts of their mission that they could have actually fulfilled, things may have been much different in the end.

Levy has done a remarkable job with this slice of American history, and as I said earlier, I had to keep reading it despite the fact that I lost nearly an entire night of sleep doing so.  I didn't find it "dry," as some readers said they did; au contraire, it held my attention the entire time, and it is perfect for people who don't read history as part of their regular lineup.   I have only one complaint, which is that there were so many times I wanted to know the source of a quotation or something he mentioned and there were neither footnotes nor endnotes.  I have an ARC, so perhaps they are put into the final version, so if that's the case, disregard.  I happen to be one of those geeknerds who actually goes to the notes for enlightenment so in that sense, the lack of citation was disappointing.  And just one more thing: I'm not exactly sure why he chose to use Dan Simmons' novel The Terror as a source; frankly, it just seems weird.   The book as a whole, though, is so good and so well done that in the grander scheme of things, I can certainly and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Arctic exploration -- it is truly an unforgettable story that the author has put together here and I can only imagine the amount of time he put into piecing it all together.


Monday, August 19, 2019

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom

9780802125088
Grove Press, 2019
376 pp

hardcover

"We are all born into histories, existing before us. The same is true of places. No place is without history."



Toward the end of this book, author Sarah Broom reveals that for the first time in five years, while visiting relatives, she had dreamed about  the Yellow House  before a trip to New Orleans.  On waking,  she wrote in a notebook the following question:
"How to resurrect a house with words?"
which is precisely what she does in this stunning, deeply personal, and unforgettable memoir.

She begins her story
"From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a miniscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana's boot"
then moves closer to ground level to the neighborhood of New Orleans East.  The mention of this area where the author grew up is "rare and spare, afterthoughts" in the "twelve of thirteen history-telling books about New Orleans" she has stacked up; she also mentions an Avis Rent a Car map that cuts off New Orleans East, "a point beyond, a blank space on someone's mental map," although this area is "fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city's developed surface."  It is also a part of New Orleans which doesn't find its way into the city's mythology; it's not that it  is "too young for history," but sadly, has been
"relegated to the sidelines, deemed not to matter as much, the place not having earned -- through demographics or economic success -- a spot on the cartographer's nearsighted map..."
It is also an area that reflects ongoing inequalities faced by African-Americans since before the author's childhood, but above all, it is someone's home. People lived and live there.

 Moving on, we are given a tour of the area as if the author is giving directions for driving there, a tour which hints at events involving her family at various locations along the way, slowly coming to Wilson Avenue until "finally arriving at what used to be our Yellow House," bought by the author's mother Ivory Mae in 1961 at the young age of nineteen and where thirteen children spent parts of their childhood.   It is there where the author's brother Carl often sits at a table at the spot where the living room of  4121 Wilson Avenue used to be, "where instead of floor there is green grass trying to grow."  This perfect beginning is beyond appropriate for many reasons which will become apparent while reading but more so because, as the author says in an interview on NPR,
"this is so important for me that I be able to act as a kind of cartographer and include my family on the map of a place that we love so much and also belong to" 
 an idea pointed to at the outset by her use of two different quotations, including part of Kei Miller's poem "The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion:"

"draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"

It was in the Yellow House, which no longer exists,  "within its walls" that her mother "made her world."  And although it is no longer there, it has not been erased;  as the dustjacket blurb reveals, Sarah Broom demonstrates
"how the enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure."
I find it appropriate that she unfolds these stories in "movements," since there is nothing at all static in the lives of these people (or for that matter, the street, the neighborhood or the city itself)  -- it is a story of people coming and going, absences, returns, displacements and dislocations, especially after 2005 and Hurricane Katrina.

The Yellow House is a beautiful, intricately-woven, often metaphorical book that allows the author to place her readers not  just inside  the house itself, but also moving outward,  inside the history of the family who lived there, the street, the neighborhood, and the city, about which the author has "braided, contradictory ideas."   It also moves inward, exploring her own connections to each, often from a distance.

Speaking of absences, and again quoting the author from the above-mentioned NPR interview, she says that
"it occurred to me that unless you knew a house had been there, you would never know. And I made this book in a way to stand in for that absence, to be a record, a history, so that some things might be saved.
While Carl keeps up the plot of land at 4121 Wilson Avenue to avoid it being taken away after the house had been demolished, "for any and for no reason, American History 101,"  he is also there  as "the keeper of the memory,"  knowing that he "could not put the house back together again," but still keeping watch, "letting the space transform and be the place it always was."

While I haven't even begun to scratch its surface here, I can't begin to say how much I loved this book; it is poignant, eye opening, and often funny, but above all,  so very down to earth and real, as it is told not only from the heart, but from the author's journalistic, investigative interviews with people within her own family.

 I have to say thank you to Sarah Broom for going against her "leanings" and bringing me to the Yellow House.  I have never read anything like this before, and I doubt I ever will again.  To say I loved it is an understatement.


**********

Since I'm just a reader, neither a critic nor reviewer, here are a few reviews from people who know what they're doing:

The New York Times - Angela Flournoy
NPR - Martha Anne Toll
The AV Club  - Joshunda Sanders


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

9781101947869
Knopf, 2019
311 pp
hardcover


On Saturday June 18, 1977, The Reverend Willie Maxwell and his wife Ophelia  were in the House of Hutchinson Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama, to mourn the death of Ophelia's sixteen year-old daughter Shirley Ann Ellington.  Shirley had left home one evening, and the next time she was seen was on Highway 9 not even a mile from home, but Shirley wouldn't be coming back. She had ostensibly stopped to change a flat tire, only to have the rim come loose and slip from under the jack; as a result, the car fell down with its full weight on top of her.  But hold on a moment.  Her hands were clean, the car's lug nuts were underneath instead of beside it, and the tire that she'd taken off wasn't even flat.  The rumor mill and the whispers started up immediately -- everyone in the county had an idea about  who had set up this scene and who was responsible for Shirley's death.  At the funeral, her grieving sister Louvinia noticed that Shirley's stepfather had "no tears or nothing in his eyes," and with a raised voice yelled out "You killed my sister and now you gonna pay for it!"  At that precise moment, someone fired three rounds into Maxwell's head, killing him almost immediately.   The shooter surrendered, confessed on the way to the station, leaving the question of whether he was a "hero or a cold-blooded murderer," the answer depending on, as the author notes,  whom you asked.  (By the way, I've said nothing at all here that can be taken as a spoiler, since I haven't told you anything much beyond what the dustjacket blurb says.)

It was this case and the ensuing trial that captured the imagination of author Harper Lee, who had not written another book since her To Kill a Mockingbird had been published in 1960.  It was in New York in 1976  that she'd first met the defense attorney for Maxwell's killer; a year later he had written up and sent her a summary of "the strange life and shocking death of the Reverend Willie Maxwell," a case in which she discovered "the kernel of a true-crime book" that took her to Alabama.  The attorney, "Big" Tom Radney, was "thrilled" at her interest, and gave her all of his files on the victim which encompassed "hundreds of pages of material," a veritable "gold mine."  Lee was excited, ready to face the challenge of doing something new and different, and on another level, Alabama was home.  There was also the fact that she knew that Truman Capote had stretched the facts in his In Cold Blood -- as she noted to Capote's New Yorker fact-checker and her partner  in various letters, Capote had "long ago put fact out of business" and made her "despair of 'factual' accounts of anything" -- so she was more than ready to put together a truly genuine account of her own.  At a time when, as Tom Wolfe noted about the so-called "New Journalists" of the 1970s,  "nonfiction had eclipsed the novel and that it was "the most important literature being written in America today," Lee was committed to writing "the old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired," wondering whether or not she could stand on her own as successfully as the writers "trying to make nonfiction read more like fiction."   The truth is though that with  all of the resources available to her including Radney's files, newspaper clippings, interviews, court transcripts, a background in criminal law, no set deadline and above all encouragement, only four pages were ever passed on and the book, which she had tentatively called The Reverend, never got written.  In Furious Hours, the author tries to piece together why.

This book, among other things which I won't mention here, examines the events, legal and otherwise,  that inspired Lee back in the late 1970s to write again; to get to the heart of the case that caught her attention the author goes back in time to give us a glimpse at why the question  arose as to whether Maxwell's killer was a hero or a cold-blooded murderer.  To do this, Cep had to take a look at the Reverend himself and the people in his community who knew him, or at least knew of him; his reputation was larger than the man himself, for many reasons.   She then goes onto the trial with Tom Radney and how he handled the killer's defense,  and I have to say that all of that is quite interesting --  while not a lot of suspense happens in the unfurling of that tale, it still had the power to definitely keep me engrossed, largely because of Maxwell himself, and  I can totally understand why Harper Lee would have entitled her book  The Reverend.   The biggest issue I have with this book is that it isn't until page 150 that she finally gets to Harper Lee herself, and by that time, not counting the acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, we're down to the last 126 pages of text.


the author in 1957, from Minnesota Public Radio

These last 126 pages, however,  are well worth the reading, especially for anyone not familiar with Lee except through her work and occasional bits of biography here and there,  meaning people like me.   In essence it's a biographical section  that takes us through Lee's life up to the time of her decision to write her book in the 1970s; it continues on through Lee's time on the project while working on it and not, and then comes down to her later years and her death, and then finally gets into the issue of whether or not she actually finished it.  As she relates the information here, Cep also  tries to discover what might have been the reasons behind Lee's giving up the project, but really, I think one of the issues is that Lee seems to have been so much inside herself with her own demons that trying to fathom her as a whole is just plain not doable. I will say though that I was impressed with the author's attempts, as well as her willingness to take on a woman who seems to have been far more enigmatic than can be easily conveyed on the page. As an aside, I'm also  impressed with the way she handled the whole Go Set a Watchman issue (a book I did NOT like and in so saying gained the derision of many of my reading peers) without actually offering an opinion on it, instead just relating facts around the book both in its early years and then later after it had been "discovered."

Speaking as just an ordinary reader person,  I think one of the problems other readers have had with this book (and one I completely understand)  is that somewhere along the line it's been labeled as "true crime" (and I'm just as guilty, tagging it this way but I couldn't come up with the right phrase), so when Lee finally steps in to the story, there's a bit of a disconnect somewhere. Had the book actually started with Harper Lee having met Radney, which sparked her interest in the story, then continued on as it began here with the look back at events leading up to why Maxwell was killed and what happened afterwards before circling back to Lee, things would have been a bit more straightforward and would have had more of a flow, and readers wouldn't be commenting about it seeming like two books, which it sort of does. However, after giving it a lot of thought since finishing, I'm thinking that beginning her book as the author did here, perhaps we're getting the factual story that Lee might have told had she actually finished her book, but it's a bit of a cart-before-the-horses approach that Cep has taken here, which can be confusing.  It's an issue that's hard to ignore, along with sections of text filled with what I felt were extraneous information that didn't make a difference to how the narrative progressed and could have easily been left out. On the other hand, to be very fair, anyone who reads the Prologue will clearly see that Cep lays out exactly what you're going to be reading and the order in which things are going to be happening, with Lee coming in at the last, so just beware.

Having said all of that, though, despite the confusion, I was blown away by the fact that this was Cep's first book, and I found the story to be engrossing, intriguing, a bit sad and quite satisfying.  It's a book I would certainly recommend to anyone at all interested in Harper Lee, racial politics in the American deep south, and in (for lack of a better phrase that I still can't think of) true crime. 




Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story, by Cara Robertson

9781501168376
Simon and Schuster, 2019
375 pp
hardcover

While I was reading this book, I wanted to share something in it with my darling spouse, who shares his work stuff with me (most of it I don't understand but because I want him to think that I care,  I nod and pretend like I do).  Before I began to launch into what I was going to say, I stopped a moment and asked him "You do know who Lizzie Borden was, right?"   Imagine my surprise at discovering that he'd never heard of Lizzie Borden, one of the most recognizable names in American history, a woman whose case continues to fascinate to this day.  (As a pertinent aside, I sat him down and made him watch two  (non-sensational) documentaries about Borden so he's been schooled.)


In The Trial of Lizzie Borden, just so we're clear, the author does not endeavour to solve the mystery of who killed Abby and Andrew Borden, but rather to peel away the sort of mythical elements of this story and get down to realities of the crimes, the investigation,  the trial and its aftermath.   At the same time, in presenting her account, she also examines the social and cultural factors of this time period, as the dustjacket reveals, to offer "a window into America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and the most troubling social anxieties."   By the time I turned the last page, it seemed to me that the trial and the media coverage turned less on guilt or innocence and more on whether or not someone in Lizzie's respectable position could have possibly done such a horrific thing.  As  her attorney would later say as part of his closing arguments,
"It is not impossible that a good person may go wrong ... but our human experience teaches us that if a daughter grows up in one of our homes to be 32 years old, educated in our schools, walking in our streets, associating with the best people and devoted to the service of God and man ... it is not within human experience to find her suddenly come out into the rankest and baldest murderess." 

  Robertson's book plays out the story of the case in three parts.  First, in looking at the facts of the murders themselves, she doesn't open this account with the gruesome events, but rather Lizzie's attempt to buy prussic acid at a local Fall River Massachusetts drug store.  Lizzie wanted the acid supposedly "to put on the edge of a sealskin cape,"  but the author brings in a later article from the New Bedford Evening Standard as reporting that
"If a person wished to kill and avoid detection, and that person were wise, hydrocyanic acid would be the first choice among all deadly drugs."

Prussic acid is, as she reminds us, a "diluted form of hydrocyanic acid."  Immediately  we're wondering exactly why  Lizzie Borden is  trying to buy it -- was she really interested in her cape or was there some other use she may have had in mind?   From there we're taken directly into the Borden household, a place rife with tensions that had prompted locks for every door, Lizzie's resentment of her father's "determined economies" that among other things, kept the family from living on "The Hill" with the rest of the Fall River elite and put his daughters in "virtual social quarantine.  And then, of course, there is the daughters' attitudes toward their stepmother Abby, which had gone  from "chilly tolerance to open animosity" some five years earlier, resulting in the daughters' refusal to eat with their parents and to even speak with Abby "except  in response to a direct question."  Just before she launches into the murders, the investigation and the inquest,  Robertson reminds us of an incident involving two possible food poisoning attempts in the Borden home.

  
Part two is the longest and most detailed of the three, covering the trial.  It is, in my opinion, the best and most interesting part of the book, because not only do we get a look at the actual court proceedings, in which we come to realize exactly what a circumstantial case it actually was, but even  more fascinating to me was Ms. Robertson's presentation of the press coverage of the time.  Journalists not only sat in court each day to record the events of the trial and Lizzie herself as she sat in the dock, but went on to provide speculation and opinion  to its readers,  in some cases making it very clear which side they were taking, rather than offering a more objective stance. Biased media? You bet.

Part three examines the verdict and Lizzie's life after the trial and gets into the "Enduring Enigma" and "popular fascination with the Borden mystery," which combines the "enduring force of myth and the more prosaic intellectual challenge of a detective story, it is a 'locked room' mystery written by Sophocles."     She goes on to say, in getting to the heart of her argument here, that
"Even as the murders themselves seemed summoned from a mythic reservoir of human darkness, the trial of the alleged perpetrator occurred in a specific time and place: America in the Gilded Age, its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling anxieties inscribed in every moment of the legal process.  Lizzie Borden was a devout young woman 'of good family' -- a lady -- and an accused axe-wielding patricide. It should not have been possible."
According to the "science" of the day,  no one would have been surprised had the murderer turned out to be either someone whose "criminality" would have shown in features marking their ethnicity or class.  It might have also been less sensational and more acceptable had the perpetrator turned out have been some strange man who just happened to be on hand to commit these terrible murders.  But a woman of Lizzie's station hacking her parents to death so brutally seems to have been a scenario that would have,  when all was said and done, constituted some sort of threat to the existing order of Fall River in that particular place at that particular time.

 The Trial of Lizzie Borden  is a book well worth reading for anyone who may have an interest in this case.  Aside from placing the case within its particular social/historical context,  the author seems to adhere closely to fact, doesn't go off on any tangents or theories that weren't expressed at the time, and keeps the narrative interesting enough for rapid page turning.    I'm also utterly impressed at the scope of her research.  I have read enough reader reviews to know that not everyone agrees with me, but aside from the weird word choice of "mansplaining," I have nothing to complain about.  Very nicely done.

I still think she did it.