Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. A nonfiction book about Sabella Nitti, a woman who was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1923 Chicago – making her the first woman to be given a death sentence by an American court. (Note: not really. Plenty of women had hung or burned or otherwise received capital punishment before Nitti, but a lack of historical awareness meant that the lawyers, judges, and general public at the time reacted as though this was a new development, and chose to be proud of it or appalled by it as their personal politics dictated.) She is probably best-remembered these days as the inspiration for the Hungarian-speaking woman in the musical Chicago; here she is protesting her innocence during the Cell Block Tango.
Nitti was an Italian immigrant, illiterate, a farm wife, ugly (at least according to the reporters covering the case), and spoke no English or mainstream Italian, but only a fairly rare dialect called Barese. In addition, she was saddled with a defense lawyer who seemed to be actively losing the ability to maintain a train of thought – his behavior during the trial was remarkably unhelpful to her cause, and he would later spend years in a mental asylum. These factors almost guaranteed she would receive a guilty verdict despite the fact that it was never even clear if her husband was actually dead (it seems likelier he just decided to abandon the family), much less that she was the one who killed him. The local sheriff and one of Nitti's own sons seem to have been the prime movers in pinning the crime on her, despite the lack of evidence.
The depiction of the prejudices and passions of 1920s Chicago was where the book really shone. Women had newly gained the vote, and many saw the potential death sentence of a woman as connected to that – with power comes responsibility. Others argued that women were inherently deserving of mercy: "She is a mother and a mother has never been hanged in the history of this country. I do not believe the honorable court here will permit a mother to hang.” And then, of course, there was the issue of looks, of proper decorum – the pretty, fashionable yet obviously guilty women judged innocent by their all-male juries, and Nitti condemned to hang.
The first 2/3rds or so of the book, when Lucchesi is guiding the reader through Nitti's life before her husband's disappearance and the subsequent trial, are pretty great. Unfortunately the last third loses the thread. Lucchesi detours into describing the backstories of various prisoners Nitti would have met or other contemporary court cases in Chicago; none of it seems to have much to do with Nitti, who disappears from the page for chapters at a time. Some of these would become the inspiration for other characters in Chicago, but since Lucchesi won't mention the musical until the epilogue, the reader is left to make the connection on their own or be confused. (Overall I found the book's lack of direct acknowledgement of Chicago odd – it's so obviously hanging there, waiting for the reader to notice it, and yet Lucchesi treats it like a devil who will bring bad luck if its name is invoked. Not to mention the missed marketing opportunity.) Others, like the two chapters spent on the Leopold and Loeb case, just seem to have interested Lucchesi and were vaguely connected, so she threw them in as a afterthought.
It's a good example of historical crime writing, even if it needed a better structural editor.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD EVERYONE READ IT IMMEDIATELY. A novel set in 1746 New York City, the book opens with the arrival in town of Richard Smith, fresh from London and bearing a bill for a thousand pounds. All of the novel's action is compacted within the next 60 days, as various New Yorkers wait to receive word from England proving Smith is who he says he is and if he really is owed such a fabulous sum; in the meantime they (and the reader) are left to figure out the mysterious Smith: a conman who should be thrown in the city's freezing jail? a wealthy aristocrat who your daughters should be encouraged to woo? a French spy, come to exploit the division between the city's new-born political parties? an actor, a Catholic, a gay man, a libertine, or possibly even a Turkish magician? Through it all Smith delights in giving no answers, reveling in the New World as a place to remake himself. I generally am suspicious of books that deliberately hide information from the reader, but it's done so well here and leads to such a delightful revelation that I think it was the perfect choice.
Spufford's style is a moderate pastiche of 18th century novels; here are the opening lines as an example:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.
However, it's 18th century language hiding a 21st century attitude; this is a novel deeply aware of gender and racial divisions, for all that they're mostly hidden behind humor and a page-turning sense of suspense. It's a New York City shaped and haunted by the ghosts of the slave revolt of 1741, and its shadow lies over every page, thought it's only ever directly addressed in one on-page conversation (though goddamn, it's a conversation with resonance). Smith meets and begins to court Tabitha Lovell, who is described as a "shrew" by her family and the rest of this small-town New York. Her portrayal though, is much more complex than that stereotype, and it's never quite clear how much she is an intelligent woman brutally confined by social strictures or how much she suffers from an unnamed mental illness.
And yet it's fun book, an exciting book! There are glorious set-pieces here: Smith racing over the rooftops of winter New York, outpacing a mob howling for his blood; a duel fought outside the walls of the city that turns in a split second from humor to horror; a play acted on the closest thing New York has to a stage; a card game with too much money invested. The writing is alternatively beautiful and hilarious, and I'm just completely in love with all of it.
I really can't recommend this book enough. I came into it not expecting much, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Mount TBR update: No change: 18
What are you currently reading?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A new book by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a book which approximately one million people have recommended to me and yet I still haven't gotten around to reading. But, uh... I've got this one! :D
Pursuing political ladies, continued: with shoutout to gothickess
Another day nose-down in the Wallace papers, surrounded by that typical local record office buzz of family historians, clattering microfilm readers, etc. How very different from the rather sinister solitary sepulchral hush of the Mulcaster Muniments and its soft-footed and decrepit curator, straight out of a gothic novel (I was in constant anxiety that the strain of fetching files would do for him, probably on the wrong side of the door, leaving me locked in: no wifi, no phone signal).
Today’s box turned out to be pure gold: those copies of The Intelligencer in which Susannah Wallace’s political journalism appeared – marked up and annotated in Sir Barton’s hand with comments about his ‘clever wife’: Awwwwww, ded of kewt or what?
Furiously snapped away at these for future perusal in detail, but got distracted by the other contents of the paper: surely there must be historians who would be fascinated by ‘Sheba’s’ fashion tips? And, the fiction!
Particular shout-out here to gothickess: There is a serial ‘The Silent Simulacrum’ by ‘the author of The Gypsy’s Curse’ that I’m pretty sure you’ll be interested in for your project: intriguing conflation of the gothic, social comedy and feminist critique.
Alas, the final episode must have appeared in an issue to which Susannah did not contribute, so I can’t tell you how it ends, but, the story so far:
Our heroine is a lovely young widow so widely accepted in Society that she finds herself overwhelmed with invitations to the extent that she is in considerable concern that her inability to be in two places at once will give offence to those holding social occasions that she is physically unable to attend.
Enter her brother-in-law, a
mad scientist and inventor. She unburdens herself to him, and he proposes to make a simulacrum of her that she can send to those events that she herself cannot attend. But, says he, the problem is that although he confides that he can construct a simulacrum that will move, and even dance, he cannot see any way in which it might be made to speak.
Our heroine responds with a laugh that so long as it can look very intent at any that addresses it, she doubts any will notice.
The simulacrum is constructed, and indeed, no-one notices that it is not very conversational when it goes into society.
Our heroine sends it particularly to those occasions where her very unwanted, most objectionable, suitor will be present –
I suspect that there will be some horrid outcome involving him (castrated perhaps by the inner mechanism of the simulacrum when he endeavours a rape?), but this would need following up – have a nasty feeling that this would involve microfilm, don’t think The Intelligencer is yet available in any online databases. (Which was why I was massively chuffed to find these copies, even if they hadn’t been so usefully marked up.)
But, anyway, back to the correspondence files (Y O Y did they not date letters properly? ‘Tuesday’ is really not very helpful.)
(...for the record, my review from 2010 seems to indicate that at the time I understood and appreciated what happened at the end. Well, good job, past self, because my present self has no idea. ( Spoilers ))
Anyway! Rereading Who Fears Death got me thinking about the kind of books that are constructed around an ancient lore or a knowledge of the world that turns out to be fundamentally wrong, cultures constructed around poisoned lies. The Fifth Season is the other immediate example that springs to mind of a book like this -- not that there aren't other parallels between The Fifth Season and Who Fears Death. It seems to me that I ought to be able to think of more, but since I can't I'm sure you guys can.
When I mentioned this to genarti, she immediately said "YA dystopia! Fallout!" and that's true, a lot of dystopias are built around a Fundamentally Flawed Premise that has been imposed upon the innocent population by a dictatorial government. Those feel a little different to me, though, maybe just because that sort of dystopia very clearly grows out of our own world. We know from the beginning how to judge truth and lies, we're WAY AHEAD of our naive heroine who believes the color blue is evil because the government put an inexplicable ban on it. But Who Fears Death, while it may be set in our future, is in a future so distant from our own that there's no particular tracing back from it, and The Fifth Season is another world altogether, and we don't have any home court advantage over the protagonists as they figure out where the lies are except a belief that something that poisonous has to be wrong; maybe that's the difference.
Any expression of appreciation may be made here: PayPal, tho' 'tis ever possible that you may wish to save your pennies against the appearance of the edited and revised version.
Returning to the business of self-publishing these memoirs both in pretty bound volumes and as ebooks -
- yr amanuensis was looking over the Smashwords and Lulu sites yestere'en.
And thinking that there would be a fair amount of faff involved, and then noticing that Lulu (I may not have got that far with Smashwords) offers a package deal for doing the formatting &C, and that I am coming into a little legacy shortly -
But then thought, surely there are talented and competent people among my readers or their associates who would be prepared to undertake this for a fair price?
(It is the business of the wealthy man/To give employment to the artisan.)
I still have some final editorial touches to make to the Word documents, but if anyone is interested in this, or can recommend someone, please
speak comment or DM me now.
I also revisit the matter of covers and whether there are any among the readership of artistick ability, or knows of any such, who would be interested in undertaking cover design for appropriate remuneration?
The Sword of Winter, by Marta Randall. In the cold and dangerous land of Cherek, emerging from an era of magic and confronted by technological advancements, Lord Gambin of Jentesi lies dying and chaos reigns.
A Rumor of Gems, by Ellen Steiber. Enter the port city of Arcato: an old and magical town set somewhere in our modern world, a town where gemstones have begun to mysteriously appear . . . gemstones whose mystical powers aren't mere myth or legend but frighteningly real, casting their spells for good and ill.
Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison. The story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?
Nemesis, by Louise Cooper. Princess Anghara had no place in the Forbidden Tower, and no business tampering with its secrets. But she did, and now the seven demons are loose and her world is cursed, prey to the wrath of the Earth Goddess.
Racing the Dark, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Lana, a teenaged girl on a nameless backwater island, finds an ominous blood-red jewel that marks her as someone with power, setting in motion events that drive her away from her family and into an apprenticeship with a mysterious one-armed witch.
My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due. When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami.
Gabriel is a mason’s apprentice in medieval England. The mason is cruel, so when a troupe of traveling Mystery players comes to town, Gabriel is delighted to briefly escape his wretched life by watching the play. Then, when the mason sadistically tries to chop off his giant mop of beautiful blonde curls that Gabriel’s lost mother told him to never cut, Gabriel flees and is taken in by the players, who whisk him away and cast him as an angel.
Gabriel assumes the man playing God is wonderful and the man playing Lucifer is terrible. But no! Garvey, who plays God, uses Gabriel to create fake, exploitative “healing” miracles which he convinces Gabriel are real. Lucie (Lucifer) is unhappy about this, but that only makes Gabriel think he must be bad.
I have no idea how old Gabriel was supposed to be. At the beginning I assumed he was around twelve, but later I decided he must be closer to ten because he was so stupid and naïve. Then he got even stupider and I wondered if he could possibly be seven or eight, or if that was way too young to be an apprentice mason. Not that young children are stupid, but the less you know about the world, the more likely you are to take everything at 100% face value, as Gabriel does.
In a totally unsurprising turn of events, Gabriel is eventually shocked to learn that people are different from the roles they play. This is exactly as anvillicious as it sounds. And while I often love books in which the reader knows more than the characters, I like it when the reason is that the characters are not privy to information or context that the reader knows, not because the characters are too stupid to pick up on incredibly obvious stuff. I don’t mean to call characters with cognitive disabilities stupid, as “intellectually disabled character fails to understand what’s going on” is a well-populated subgenre. (Which I also dislike.) I’m referring to non-disabled characters who are oblivious because they just are.
It's not that I think a child has to be stupid to be tricked by adults. Even a very bright child (or adult) could be fooled into thinking they're a miracle-worker by a clever con man. It's that the way it's written, from Gabriel's POV, makes him seem like a total idiot.
However, that’s not why I gave up on the book. The reason was the incredibly unpleasant emotional atmosphere: Gabriel smugly stupid, Garvey and the mason smugly awful, Lucie and his daughter sadly suffering (with a side of smugness, because they know the real deal.) I disliked the lot of them and did not want to be around any of them. Which is too bad, because I liked the backdrop of medieval Mystery players a lot.
The prose was good, but not good enough to make me keep reading. However, it won the Whitbread award, so my opinion may be very much in the minority.
A Little Lower Than the Angels
I mean, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is certainly a lot of fun! It feels a bit more like a season of television than a novel -- very much out of that genre of beloved, relatively lighthearted crew-is-family space TV, full of aliens and semi-incidental interstellar politics, with approximately one episode dedicated to each crew member's interesting alien culture or surprise dramatic backstory as well as episodes where Everyone Just Goes On A Shopping Trip. There is a Noble Captain, a Friendly Polyamorous Lizard Alien Second-in-Command, an Earnest Financial Assistant, a Manic Mechanic, a Caring Chef Who Feeds Other Species To Compensate For The Embarrassing Genocidal Tendencies Of His Own -- ok, some of the archetypes are more archetypal than others. In the dramatic season finale, our plucky band of space truckers reaches their long-haul destination at last and becomes involved in a major diplomatic incident, ( the outcome of which is the one thing in the book that rubbed me slightly the wrong way ) Anyway, if you like this sort of thing, you will almost certainly like this particular thing.
I like this sort of thing all right but the things A Closed and Common Orbit is doing appeal to my id MUCH more. A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on two characters who appear relatively briefly in A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Sidra, an AI who, due to compelling personal circumstances but counter to interstellar law, has been installed in a designed-to-be-instinguishable-from-
The main present-day thread of the story involves Sidra's attempts to figure out whether she can comfortably inhabit a body that she was never designed to inhabit - not just whether she can live permanently as something like an independent intelligent biological life-form without giving herself away, but whether she wants to do so. The plot is mostly comprised of small slice-of-life events like Sidra Makes A New Friend or Sidra Considers Getting A Tattoo, all interwoven into a really compelling and thoughtful examination of artificial intelligence, self-determination, and free will.
The other half the book delves into Pepper's backstory as an artificially created human being, designed to be cheap disposable labor. As a child, "Jane 23" mostly-accidentally escapes the factory where she labors, and is subsequently raised by an abandoned ship's AI in a junkyard. The backstory plot does a couple of things: a.) serves as an excellent example of the always-compellingly-readable 'half-feral child must make home in dangerous environment, survives with ingenuity and a box of scraps' genre; b.) works in dialogue with Sidra's main plotline to complicate ideas of 'human' and 'artificial' and 'purpose' and 'free will'; c.) gives me FIVE MILLION FEELINGS ABOUT AI MOMS WHO LOVE YOU. Sometimes a family is an AI mom, her genetically engineered daughter, the daughter's boyfriend, their AI roommate, and the roommate's alien friend who honestly didn't even particularly want to be there that day! AND THAT'S BEAUTIFUL.
They are mobile. Oh, so, so mobile. They move very, very fast. Also, they went straight from crawling to working extremely hard at being vertical. Behaviors we have observed include standing on their own for a couple of seconds without holding onto anything, standing indefinitely while holding on with one hand, cruising (holding onto a crib or other edge and walking along it), and-- and this shocked me-- holding onto the crib edge and jumping up and down. They can also move from seated to squatting to standing or vice versa, easily, usually while holding on with one hand. They are clearly going to be walking pretty soon. Apparently the youngest baby documented walking was six months old, so this is early but not ludicrous. It seems that usually babies take some time to settle into crawling and make sure they've gotten good at it before focusing effort on walking this way? Not Fox. Fox wants to be UP.
We have had our first major trip with the baby, which involved driving from Boston to the D.C. area, spending a week with B., and driving back. Fox was pretty much fine with all the driving and a little weirded out by the new place-- it took a couple of days for them to be able to nap there, for instance. At B.'s, they developed a very specific 'chasing-the-cat' noise, as B.'s place has many long straightaways and lines-of-sight where they could just take off after the kitty. (Our place does not.) They had no hope of catching her, and the kitty is already putting up with a Pomeranian and an elderly Border Collie, so she seemed thoroughly resigned. We appreciated her patience a great deal.
New behaviors: within the past week Fox has started getting upset when someone they know leaves the room. Leaving the room is Just Not Allowed. We try to explain to them where we are going, what we are doing, and when we expect to be back, but it is too early for this to help much.
Fox has started sitting for stretches of up to twenty minutes at a time with a single board book, turning the pages, looking at and poking the illustrations, and chewing on the corners. It is adorable. They also crawl under their bouncy seat with a pile of books every so often.
We have only just started solid food, because they got a nasty cold at the wrong time and we didn't want to try introducing solids while they were on an intrusive and aggravating nebulized-medicine-through-a-mask treatment. Rice cereal gave them significant stomach upset, which is peculiar; oat cereal and unsweetened applesauce seem to go down better, although Fox's reaction to solid food is shock, betrayal, and confusion no matter what the food is. They're at the stage where they'll eagerly watch us eating and put small pieces of food in their mouth, but once it's there the switch flips to NO NO NO NO NO. Hopefully this will change soon, as the doctor says that at this height and weight (two feet four inches, eighteen pounds) they simply cannot get all their necessary nutrition from formula.
I've seen evidence of the babble syllabary broadening, and about two days ago they learned how to flap their lips with a finger and say 'Phhhhpppth'. If they do this in your direction, you are supposed to do it back, and one can have very long conversations this way. We are also getting more communication along the lines of holding arms up to be picked up (or not; if we ask 'do you want to be picked up?' and don't get arms up we don't pick them up, since gesturing for yes is now consistent enough that that works), and we're getting things like pats on the face that are clearly affectionate. B.'s new partner T. taught Fox how to kiss people on the cheek and it seems to have actually stuck.
They are learning how to use their voice generally, and I have asked gaudior on several occasions if they are aware that they gave birth to a pterodactyl. The pterodactyl screech is loud and unmistakable.
They are still focused on people more than on anything else, and need to at least say hello to everyone in the room before even considering the presence of objects. Pets get about the same amount of interest as humans, and about the same degree of gentleness, which is usually gentle enough that they can pet pets without them fleeing for the hills-- at least for a while.
Overall, an exceptionally happy, outgoing, cheerful sort of baby, who is obviously working very hard at understanding and interacting with the world. I think things are going pretty well.
The War of Silver and Ash (15883 words) by astolat
Fandom: Wiedźmin | The Witcher (Video Game), Witcher 3 - Fandom
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Characters: Geralt z Rivii | Geralt of Rivia, Emhyr var Emreis, Emiel Regis Rohellec Terzieff-Godefroy, Lady Orianna
Additional Tags: Vampires, Toussaint - Freeform, War, Nilfgaard
Series: Part 7 of Witcher works
He hadn’t come here with a contract. He’d come here to get the faces out of his head: the bloodless dead sprawled in heaps through the streets of Beauclair, the morning after the rampage Detlaff had unleashed; the blank eyes of the boy in the orphanage tilting his head to let Orianna drink from his throat, with the lullaby she’d been singing him still hanging in the air.
Wasn’t working that well so far.
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. A really fascinating account of the recent history of these two countries and how their politics have lately turned to authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism. This is self-evidently relevant to those of us under Trump or May as well; I've been making comparisons between Modi and Trump ever since the latter became a political candidate, and Peer clearly agrees with me.
The book is divided into two sections, the first on India and its current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014; the second on Turkey and its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and then, when he could no longer extend his term there, switched to president in 2014, rewriting the laws to make that position more political, powerful, and active. Each chapter is a bit of a self-contained essay, with topics ranging from the broad (the history of the BJP, Modi's political party) to the individual (the suicide of a Dalit PhD student after being ignored and disadvantaged by his school). I'm more familiar with India's current political scene than with Turkey's, but even the stuff I already knew came with very recent updates or insightful analogies. Overall the chapters convey a well-researched, thoughtful, and thorough picture of each country's politics.
If world politics remotely interest you, I highly recommend this book – though to be honest, it is quite depressing. I put off reading it myself for months because I needed more lighthearted material, but I'm glad I finally got to it. I only wish I could have read this before the July 2016 coup in Turkey. Of course it wasn't out yet, and though given its so-recent occurrence Peer is only able to address the topic briefly in his afterword, but I feel like I now understand much more of the dynamics and players involved.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. A nonfiction book that describes itself as "a passionate, wide-ranging, and fascinating natural history of the tree in American cities over the course of the past two centuries". I'm about to take issue with that blurb, but I did enjoy reading it.
My main complaint about this book is that it's not particularly focused on urban forests. Out of 21 chapters, one is about the canker than killed off the American Chestnut, four are on Dutch Elm Disease, one on the Emerald Ash Borer (a bug that attacks ash trees), and two on Asian Long-Horned Beetles (which kill several types of trees, but are particularly fond of maples). These are all interesting stories, and Elms and Ash and Maples do sometimes live in cities, but cities are very much not the focus of these sagas of disease and resistance. Another chapter is on the discovery of the Dawn Redwood, a "living fossil" from the Cretaceous, whose only connection to the idea of "urban forests" seems to be that the discoverers were paid by Harvard University, which is in Boston, which is a city. There are also chapters on the (surprisingly contentious!) history of Arbor Day, Thomas Jefferson's tree collection, and the founding of America's various great arboretums (tree museums) including the New York Botanical Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Morton Arboretum. All of which doesn't leave a lot of room for my poor street trees. "Historical Tree Diseases of the US" would have been a much more accurate title, but I suppose someone along the way decided that wouldn't sell as well.
I feel a bit churlish complaining so much though, because in the end the book is a fun read. Despite my proposed serious-sounding title, Jonnes is very much writing in the vibe of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson: she tells interesting stories in a familiar, entertaining way, and if they're a bit random and hang together more by virtue of their "cool to know" quality than their deep thematic connection, that's okay. The main point is to have fun. For instance, a chapter on how DC got its cherry trees is quite disconnected from the rest of the book, but is nonetheless a great story. I was most interested in the last few chapters, which finally got into the topic of actual urban forests, because that was what had attracted me in the first place, but they all were surprisingly engaging. I also have to be very grateful to Jonnes for introducing me to the NYC Street Tree Map, which actually allows you to zoom down onto any block in the city, click on a tree, and find out facts about what species it is, how big it is, how many pounds of air pollution it removes each year, and so on. I've had a lot of fun identifying the trees outside of my apartment.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Mount TBR update: 18, still.
What are you currently reading?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Non-fiction about the first woman to receive the death sentence in Chicago, for murdering her husband – which, Lucchesi argues, she probably didn't do, but being an "ugly", illiterate, Italian immigrant disposed the jury against her. Really fascinating!
Your excellent letter has finally caught up with us: we are now at Maraston Towers at His Grace of Humpleforth’s house-party. I am ever more persuaded that 'twas entire prudence to bring little Rollo with me, for gives me quite the finest excuse to leave the drawing-room or avoid some unwanted excursion, even tho’ there are some ladies in the company I daresay consider me most eccentrique, and even, perchance, a disciple of Rousseau. However, I am persuaded that Maurice’s fine gowns are by no means in that severity of style that the author of Emile would have approved. I wish I might have brought Cathy as well, but an infant still at breast is an easier matter to take about on visits than a bouncing girl of her years that will go explore her surroundings and get into places where she should not.
We were previously at Lord Pockinford‘s, where Biffle and I were obliged to hear a deal more about cows and dairying than we should entirely have desired, as he wished us to communicate his thoughts in the matter to Lady Jane - have you heard yet whether she and little Horatio are safe arrived in matrimonial harbour? If she has writ us, 'tis another letter that pursues us about the country.
However, 'twas not all bovine business - dear Agnes Lucas and her husband were in the company. 'Twas an entire delight to see her, so increased in confidence, both of them so well – and she whispered to me that she is in hopes of increase, and hopes to do somewhat towards filling up a rectory that positively demands a numerous brood. You will be most amuzed to learn that she and I propose a venture in authorship. Dearest Clorinda, that I hear came visit you in Hampshire beforehand, happened to mention to Agnes my essays in translating Turkish poetry, that I am no hand at all at turning into English poetry, and she was most interested in the matter, and has a very nice feeling for words, and betwixt the two of us we think we might make a nice little volume of it, though we do not intend to entitle it Songs from the Seraglio! – for Biffle, overhearing us, made the suggestion, saying 'twould be quite a sensation did we so. I said ‘twould be more like the Vice Society would bring a prosecution and we should find it burnt by the common hangman.
And on the matter of authorship, Matty dear, I wish you would think about publishing some of your charming accounts of your chickens, perchance illustrated with your delightful sketches. I read out some parts of your letter upon the topic, to a select group of friends, and this was quite the general cry.
On delightful sketches, I long to see the painting you say Raoul de Clérault has made of Deborah feeding the chickens. It cannot help but make a considerable effect. And I am glad to hear that he and his wife and child are again guests of yours. I daresay Phoebe de Clérault would not brag to you on the matter, but Papa has quite the highest esteem for her and will declare that it was a good day when he was persuaded to go into business with her over her polishes &C. She has lately shown him a powder against insects, very useful when storing items away for a prolonged period: he was most prepossessed.
Here at Maraston Towers one constantly observes that His Grace entirely doats upon dear Julia – has had one of the hot-houses turned into a little corner of Bombay with plants from those parts, and even some birds, and Julia quite delights to sit there with her mongeese - for I fear the poor creature misses the warmth of her native shore. And aside from any matter of climate, the Duke’s children behave with the chilliest civility towards her, for he never displayed the like attentiveness to their late mother: 'twas a very prudential match made up 'twixt the families in question. (This I learn from Clorinda, that has had it from Mrs Nixon, that entire compendium of scandals antient and modern.)
Another most amuzing thing. I am not sure you have ever been in company with His Grace of Humpleforth, that has many sound reforming ideas and is a great figure in anti-slavery, but has the most tiresome habits around young women of touching - tho’ not in any way that would transgress the bounds of good ton or violate modesty, so that they are oblig’d to smile and make civil does he pat them upon the arm, or put an arm about their waist, or stroke their hair &C – and paying embarrassing compliments. But I noticed that he has now almost ceased to do the like except to Julia.
I mentioned this to Clorinda, who smiled and laughed a little and said, o, I advised Her Grace to a little contrivance, with the collaboration of Lady Emily while she was visiting at Maraston Towers (there is a general supposition that there are hopes of making up a match 'twixt her and Lord South Worpley, tho’ I think they are misplaced). I told her, he will show his usual amiable fondling to her, and is she in the plot, will act as if 'tis most entirely agreeable and be most flirtatious, in some spot where you may observe them. Then, says I, later, when you are closeted with the Duke your husband, you must go show an affecting tearfulness and accuse yourself of being a wicked jealous wife, for when you saw him so cozy with Lady Emily, you were in great temptation to go slap the hussy’s face -
And now, Clorinda went on, he behaves himself a deal less annoying, even does he puff himself up about having a wife that so doats upon him as to be unreasonable jealous.
Ha, says I, I daresay we shall see some similar contrivance upon the stage quite shortly, at which she smacked me lightly with her fan and told me I was a great teaze.
I am still a little astonished that Julia seems so well pleased with this match: but after a private convocation we had I realize how very different her expectations were: no other wives, she remarked, with their jealous intrigues, scheming and spying, and no likelihood of being poisoned. And indeed one must consider that she will not in due course be required to cast herself upon her husband’s pyre, but merely to move into the very charming dower house. The lack of cordiality of the Duke’s children must seem a mere bagatelle - and indeed, they always manifest proper ton towards her. I also apprehend that the Duke does not require of her those positions that I observed in a little Hindoo book in Clorinda’s library, that she had from General Yeomans – with his years and stoutness I very much doubt he could contrive them. (Did she ever show it to you, my dear? 'Tis quite the revelation.)
Now Em is about in Society again after the period of mourning, and will no longer be obliged to keep house for her brothers now that Lord Nuttenford has married dear Rebecca, once they are returned from their wedding tour, mayhap she will finally favour one or other of her suitors, if not the Duke’s heir? The companionship of that excellent creature her cousin Miss Fenster seems to have calmed her wild ways considerable.
But I rattle on in gossip, when I should be about preparing myself to go take part in conversation among the company – after I have kissed little Rollo.
Your letters are ever exceeding welcome, even do they take so long in finding me.
My greatest regards to Jacob, and kiss Deborah and Jonathan for me.
Your affect: sister
Viola Mulcaster Little V
The book starts out with Broadway ticket-scalping scandals, jumps back to a overview of the lives of the original Shubert brothers, and lays out the drama of various generations of hard-partying Shuberts eventually being ousted by Responsible, Respectable Lawyers Jerry Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs.
Then Michael Bennett, legendary choreographer of A Chorus Line, enters the picture and the whole book gets sort of carried off by him for a while. A great deal of page space is devoted to the psychodramatic relationship between Bennett and Jacobs -- as recounted in this book, a wildly unhealthy pseudo-father-son dynamic in which Jacobs constantly attempted to ensure Bennett's emotional and financial dependence on Jacobs while Bennett was constantly attempting to break away and BE A PRODUCER ON HIS OWN, DAD. An excerpt featuring further Michael Bennett drama, including one of history's most melodramatic Tony Awards, is up in Vanity Fair for the curious.
And then it's Andrew Lloyd Webber and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Andrew Lloyd Webber, alongside an in-depth discussion of the various political and financial campaigns that eventually led to the Disneyfication of Broadway after its days of 1970s sleaze, and that brings us about up to the present day.
It's an interesting, rather gossippy account of the money, organizational politics, and personal quirks that underlie the eventual decisions about what makes it onto a theater stage; I read the whole thing and then left it in the airbnb I was staying in when I finished it, because I felt I had taken what I wanted from it and couldn't really imagine wanting to read it again. It's certainly interesting to know how the sausage is made, but it's occasionally a bit depressing to look at Broadway largely from the perspective of the people for whom profit is the most important consideration.
Kit's Wilderness, by David Almond. Kit's family moves to an old mining town, where he and another boy search the mines for the ghosts of their ancestors. Might be fantasy? Won the Printz Award.
Bottle Boy, by Stephen Elboz. An amnesiac boy and his brother are trapped in a life of crime. Author won the Smarties Prize but not for this book.
River Boy, by Tim Bowler. Jess's probably-dying grandfather is trying to finish one last painting; Jess meets a boy who might be the one from the painting. Possibly fantasy? Won the Carnegie Award.
Ghost in the Water, by Edward Chitham. Teresa and David find a gravestone from 1860 labeled "Innocent of all Harm" and find that the dead girl's life is mysteriously linked with theirs. Filmed by BBC.
A Little Lower Than The Angels, by Geraldine McCaughrean. A medieval boy joins a theatre troupe. Whitbread Best Book of the Year.
Stone Cold, by Robert Swindells. A homeless boy in London gets caught up in a mystery of disappearing street kids. Carnegie Medal
I have never read anything by any of these authors, and in most cases have only heard of them in the sense that I own one of their books. Anyone familiar with any of them?
If a book which is largely about the doctor's feelings as opposed to those of his patients, when the catastrophe happened to them rather than to him, annoys you on principle, don't read this. Personally, I liked knowing that there is at least one more doctor in the world who cares what happens to his patients, even if the caring is composed in equal parts of compassion, professional pride, and fear of being publicly shamed.
As that suggests, it's a memoir dedicated to saying how he really feels, whether that's elevated or petty. He spends quite a bit of time on justifiable raging over his hospital's incredibly terrible computer system, which keeps locking up the password so no one can see the scans they need to operate (hilariously, at one point some equally angry person sets the password to fuckyou47 (and then no one can remember if it's 47, 46, 45...), the lack of beds that mean that patients are deprived of food and water all day pending surgery and then the surgery gets canceled, and all the other myriad ways in which health care in England now sucks. (It still sounds about a million times better than health care in America.)
He talks frankly about his mistakes as a surgeon, some of which killed people. This is really a taboo topic, and my hat is off to him for going there.
There's also a lot of fascinating anecdotes about individual patients, and some beautiful writing about surgery, the physical structure of the brain, and the constant paradox of how that one squishy organ is the source of everything that makes us human and able to do things like write books, all of which is a source of wonder to him and one which he conveys very well.
It's definitely worth reading if the subject interests you, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of medical writing that I'd recommend whether the subject interests you or not. (My nominees for the latter are Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, and James Herriot.)
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery