Tag Archives: 19th century

Lost At Sea

A Burial at Sea: A Mystery (Charles Lenox Series) by Charles Finch (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 336 pages)

British mysteries are often set in post-Word War I London or quaint villages (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series). Here’s a nice change of time and place to the open seas in 1873 aboard Her Majesty’s Ship the Lucy. Former detective and current junior Member of Parliament Charles Lenox has accepted an assignment to travel to Egypt in the hope of uncovering a traitor in the British Intelligence community. Relations between England and France are strained and war seems inevitable. During Lenox’s weeks-long voyage a murder takes place and he is the default person to identify the killer.

Just near the gun room was a small closet with a caged metal door and a large, impressive lock. It held the ship’s spirits, wine and brandy for the captain and the officers, rum for the men’s grog, as well as a bottle or two of harder alcoholic drinks. When ships were foundering or there was a mutiny afoot, sailors were occasionally known to break into it, an offense punishable by hanging.

A Burial at Sea (sharp)

While the story line is important, the portrait painted in words is the star of the book. Charles Finch has done a masterful job of bringing the reader into an era of strict class distinctions. The accuracy of the language of the late 19th Century Victorian Era adds to the immersion of the reader. Nautical expressions and sailing references firmly establish the scenes on the Lucy.

This experience is so far removed from the present day navy that it seems somewhat cozy. Finch’s narrator has a distinct masculine tone; however, there is ample kindness and appreciation expressed throughout the book which makes it appealing for all readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Agatha Christie meets Patrick O’Brien… the best in the series to date.” Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A Burial at Sea.

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Green, Green Grass of Home

Genius of Place (nook book)

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead by Justin Martin (DaCapo, $20.00, 464 pages)

That was his plan – plan being a very loose term at this point. He began casting about. As a sailor-turned-farmer-turned-park maker, later a gold-mine supervisor, there were so many things he had done, more still that he might do. He found himself pulled this way and that by all the possibilities – a tyranny of choices.

If ever there was a frustrated idealist, Frederick Law Olmstead (FLO) certainly fit the type. His boundless imagination and spurts of energy propelled him into a role as a pioneer in America on many fronts. Most people who know of FLO associate him with the design of New York City’s Central Park. But wait, as the reader will discover, there’s more, so much more.

Author Justin Martin does quite well by his subject in this comprehensive and thoroughly annotated biography. The account of FLO’s life begins on a somewhat dry note. This can be forgiven as his family and neighbors in 1822 had no inkling of the greatness that was born that year. In the absence of the means and motivation to document a child’s life in that era, it’s remarkable that Martin was able to find the background information he provides to the reader. A childhood marred by the loss of his mother, but balanced by the loving indulgence of his father, became slightly more dynamic as FLO finally broke away from the confining tediousness of proper New England Christian schooling.

Martin’s narrative takes on a life and charm of its own as FLO finds his passions and motivation. Clearly, there were times when the peaks and depths of emotion chronicled in his letters home and personal notes make a case for some mental frailties, or powerful obsessive qualities in the man’s psyche. Moreover, his strong sense of responsibility and ownership for projects put him at odds with his governing boards. Regardless, the vast number of significant accomplishments achieved through FLO’s persistence, fervor and energy helped to shape the landscape and thinking that prevails today – democratic public parks rather than private sanctuaries in cities, preservation of fragile scenic areas for generations to come, conservation of natural resources, and organization of aid to fellow citizens in the precursor to the American Red Cross.

As a key player in many social movements of the 19th century, including the Civil War, FLO was a husband, father and step-father. He was never able to tailor his life to the demands of a steady income stream. This reviewer was deeply moved by the breadth and depth of this marvelous biography. Clearly, it could easily serve as an engaging textbook for both young and older readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Engaging.” The Wall Street Journal

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There’s a Kind of Hush

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, $26.00, 352 pages)

If you’re an introvert, should you devote your energies to activities that come naturally, or should you stretch yourself…?

Quiet grants a marvelous sense of relief to anyone who has been concerned because they are easily tired by energetic crowds, fierce competition or small talk with strangers.   Susan Cain, a former Wall Street attorney specializing in negotiation, has made good use of her natural inclinication to be an introvert.   This book is the culmination of literally a lifetime of being one of the quiet people.

Ms. Cain took a long, thoughtful look at the existing literature and studies focused on extroversion vs. introversion.   Moreover, she travelled around meeting with various well-respected experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychology to assure that her book would contain the latest in findings.   In addition, Ms. Cain is a consultant to businesses and professionals who are seeking the skills to succeed in a culture that has, within the last 100 plus years, shifted from valuing character above any other human characteristic, to one that dotes on fame, aggression, group thinking and power.   Her expertise and ability to see both sides of the issue lend great credibility to her writing.

The book begins by explaining how we have arrived at a new set of values only recently that has been embraced by business, politics and popular culture.   The current cultural ideal is the Mighty Likeable Fellow that replaced the person who exemplified the Culture of Character in the 19th century when the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable.   We are told that Dale Carnegie was the first well-known speaker and teacher to gather the hapless masses to his events so that they may “win friends and influence people.”   His books are still in print and his work is carried on in the 21st century through seminars, etc.

Today’s counterpart ot Dale Carnegie is Tony Robbins whose Unleash the Power Within program has been attended by thousands of people seeking to become the ideal person/salesman.   This reviewer had the experience of staying at a Hyatt Regency atrium hotel where Mr. Robbins was conducting one of his seminars.   I will own up to the fact that I am an introvert who is never-the-less able to deliver speeches to hundreds of folks on topics that matter to me.   And, no, I don’t get sweaty palms or stage fright!

After a long day filled with much discussion among licensed professionals who were deliberating very serious public health, safety and welfare matters, I adjourned to my third floor hotel room that was facing the atrium.   To my dismay, at 9:30 p.m. the Robbins acolytes proceeded to perform the famous fire walk, complete with chanting, whooping and hollering.   Needless to say, I fled to the far corner of my room, pushed earplugs into position and wished for it to be over soon.   By 11 p.m. I was exhausted and nearly in tears.   Finally, the last fire-walker completed the dash and the group disbanded.

The above-described event could have been exciting, stimulating and entertaining; however, it had the opposite effect.   When I returned home and described the goings on to my immediate co-workers back at my office, most of them could not understand why I didn’t rush down to enjoy the excitement.   That puzzled and even upset me.   Some 15 years later Ms. Cain’s book recently came into my possession and it has provided the answer to that old puzzle.

As in any engaging survey, Quiet begins with a few historic elements that capture the reader’s attention – Rosa Parks’ refusal to obey the bus driver in 1955 along with background on Carl Yung and other pioneers in the study of psychology, as well as clearly identifiable introverts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.   It proceeds to explain the logic behind today’s culture from a popular perspective and moves on to the physiological reasons behind the brain’s response to stimulus.   From there it explores the geographic clustering of introversion and extroversion in societies around the world.   Lastly, Quiet offers really helpful suggestions for understanding the difference between the two types.   (Actually, the extroversion and introversion tendencies that people have can be plotted graphically and they are more of a band with locations rather than two poles.)

If you’re wondering if you are more introverted or extroverted, or if you have a good idea, this book is well-worth the time and money to broaden your understanding of how we function in today’s atmosphere of fame and larger-than-life personalities.

As Ms. Cain so engagingly states, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Help!

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. (W. W. Norton; $24.95; 302 pages)

Medical Journalist Randi Hutter Epstein presents an easy-to-understand, yet not patronizing, overview of childbirth across time.   Each of the book’s five parts features some aspect of the cold, unvarnished reality faced by pregnant women and the subsequent delivery of their babies.   The time frame discussed in the book spans the ages; however, the 19th and 20th centuries are Epstein’s primary focus.   Clearly, fads and political movements in these two centuries have had a heavy influence on how childbirth has been addressed.   The ongoing struggle between physicians and midwives for clientele became an ugly smear campaign, never mind that nearly all doctors were male and that they perpetuated ludicrous theories for hundreds of years causing massive harm to their patients.

“In the meantime, doctors were doing what they considered the best medicine.   They believed they were saving lives by luring women away from midwives and into the hospital, where doctors could control the business of babies.   Ironically, what they thought was (the) best medical care was sometimes the deadliest.”

Dr. Epstein conveys her views in a most engaging manner.   She has a very strong sense of irony and makes good use of it.   This reviewer was unaware of the sometimes-bizarre methods employed in the past during delivery, including twilight sleep that wiped out all memory of the childbirth experience.   Never mind that during labor a woman using twilight sleep had to be lashed to the delivery table in order to keep her from falling off while writhing in pain.

There is some overlap among chapters with regard to the material covered.   A reader interested in a particular section of the book will find a comprehensive write-up much like a stand-alone article.   This makes perfect sense because the author is a widely published medical journalist.

There does not seem to be an intended audience for Get Me Out.   Rather, most anyone can benefit from the book, as was the case for this reviewer whose granddaughter was born right after I finished reading it.   By the way, Dr. Epstein has four children of her own which qualifies her on yet another level.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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