Review 1339: In Pieces

Cover for In PiecesI don’t normally read celebrity biographies or memoirs or, for that matter, very many autobiographies at all, because I don’t expect them to be truthful. Or let’s just say, I expect them to leave a lot out. Also, I’m not interested in celebrities so much as literary or historical figures. That being said, I was struck by how forthcoming Sally Field seemed in an interview, so when I saw In Pieces at the library, I decided to read it.

Field talks of a lifelong battle between what she needed to do for herself and what she needed to do for other people. The roots of her problems and her lack of confidence in herself seem to lie in the sexual abuse she underwent throughout her childhood at the hands of her stepfather and her mother’s reaction when she told her. Because of that, she learned to separate herself from her emotional life and only connected with it when she was acting.

Also interesting is her struggle to get herself taken seriously after her role in The Flying Nun. This problem haunted her career, even after she took on some difficult parts.

I found this an affecting and interesting book. It is well written and involving.

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Review 1335: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Cover for Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon details a past that was once infamous but now almost forgotten except in Osage country. In the 1920’s, the Osage nation in Oklahoma was the richest population per capita in the United States. This phenomena was a result of wise decisions by the tribal leaders during the 19th century land grab by the whites. They voluntarily moved from their homelands, purchasing land in Oklahoma that they thought white men would deem worthless. Then oil was discovered on their property. Because the nation had purchased the property, it couldn’t be taken back.

However, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, deemed the Osage unfit to handle their own money. So, they appointed white guardians for them. As you can imagine, there were many eager to cheat these people out of their headrights, as were called their shares of the tribal fortune.

The Osage began dying. Grann centers much of his book on Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Ernest Burkhart. One by one, her family started dying. First, her sister, Annie, was found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, died of a mysterious illness, believed by many to be poison. When her sister Rita’s husband, Bill Smith, tried to investigate, he and his wife and servant girl were killed one night when their house exploded. Other Osage were dying, too, and investigators either came up with nothing or were themselves murdered.

As the FBI was in its infancy and trying to figure out its own jurisdictional powers, new director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the Osage murders, which were becoming infamous as indicators of failure and corruption, would be good ones to solve. So, he sent out a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate.

Grann follows their investigation, and it is a fascinating one. This is a shameful period in our history that should not be forgotten. Grann goes further than the FBI, though, by looking into other deaths that were not investigated.

This book tells a mesmerizing story about a shocking time not so far in the past.

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Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Review 1316: Famous Trials

Cover for Famous TrialsBest of Ten!
Famous Trials is excerpted from the multiple-volume Penguin Famous Trials series, which in its turn originated with the Notable British Trial series. This series of first-hand accounts of trials began in 1905 and eventually comprised 83 volumes, each for one case. Famous Trials presents eight of those cases. The only one I was previously aware of was that of Crippen, the man who murdered his wife and buried part of her body in his cellar.

Three of these trials were of innocent people, two of whom were imprisoned for years before their cases were re-examined. Florence Maybrick was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic when there was no actual proof he died of arsenic poisoning or was even murdered. Although there was a small amount of arsenic in his system, he was known to take arsenic himself. She was more likely convicted because she admitted to having an affair.

Oscar Slater was convicted of murdering an old woman, Marion Gilchrist, because he hocked a brooch that was similar but not identical to one reportedly stolen during the murder. He was identified by two unreliable witnesses, and he probably never met Mrs. Gilchrist, who was almost certainly killed by someone she knew.

The case of Robert Wood, a man accused of murdering a prostitute, is notable for the lucid defense case. Robert Wood was almost certainly not guilty, and he was found so.

The writer of the Crippen case, Filson Young, was clearly rather sympathetic to Crippen, a weak man with a rapacious wife who planned to leave him penniless after he spoiled her for years. Although he fooled people for some time into believing she had left him, he made the mistake of letting his mistress wear his wife’s jewels. Crippen is also notable for being the first fugitive to be apprehended in flight because of the recent installment of wireless on the ship, as detailed in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

The trial of George Joseph Smith was known as the Brides in the Bath case, as Smith bigamously married several women, cleaned them out, took insurance policies on them, and then drowned them in the bath tub. In the case of one of his victims, only 30 hours expired between the insurance policy and her death.

Herbert Rowe Armstrong was a hen-pecked husband who poisoned his wife with arsenic. Her death was only looked into after a business rival became ill after having tea with him and was found to have arsenic in his system.

Rattenbury and Stoner were lovers who were tried for murdering her husband. Although Mrs. Rattenbury almost certainly had nothing to do with the crime, she received so much approbrium during the trial that she committed suicide.

I am interested in true as well as fictional crime and found these accounts fascinating. They are extremely readable. In addition to presenting the evidence and arguments in an understandable form, they include assessments of the case and behaviors of the prosecution and defense by observers knowledgeable in law. Although some of the comments, especially about the women involved, are truly Victorian in outlook, this is a fascinating book that makes me interested in reading the entire Penguin series.

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Review 1308: Notes from a Small Island

Cover for Notes from a Small IslandBill Bryson had been living in England for about 20 years when he and his family decided to move back to the States. Before he left, he decided to take a seven-week trip around England, mostly using public transportation. Notes from a Small Island, published in 1995, details this trip. He interrupts the journey occasionally to tell stories about how he came to England on vacation and stayed.

Bryson is always an entertaining tour guide, because he is voraciously curious about everything and has lots of obscure stories to tell about the places he visits. His sense of humor is sometimes juvenile but often amusing.

In this book, he takes a winding route through the country that includes more obscure or unusual destinations than the common tourist stops. During the trip, he comments on the things he likes and dislikes, particularly his disdain for the number of historical buildings that have been torn down and replaced by ugly modern ones.

I found this a particularly interesting route, because Bryson visits as many places of little distinction as he does others, sometimes spontaneously hopping a train or bus to an out-of-the-way destination. So, we hear about thriving communities as well as those that have not fared as well. This, by the way, is also a hallmark of his later book about traveling in England, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which he revisits some of the same towns and reports on how they have done in the intervening time. In many ways, the books together are sort a of sociological and historical study rather than travel books, but always entertaining.

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Review 1303: The Book: An Homage

Cover for The BookI’m not sure what I was expecting from The Book, maybe a collection of interesting facts or stories about books or the history of books. What I got was something quite different.

Burkhard Spinnen is a German writer and bibliophile. This book consists of a series of very short essays about books, particularly about whether the hardcopy book, or text, as Spinnen refers to it, will give way to the ebook. But it also has little essays about types of books, Spinnen’s relationship to books, and so on. Some of the essays read as if they were written long ago (referencing an incident in the 1970’s as “recent,” for example), while others are about more current ideas and issues.

I guess I think of this book as a trifle—something you might give as a gift to someone who loves books. I am a book lover myself, but I have to admit I didn’t get that much out of it. I’m not familiar with Spinnen nor with most of the German authors he cites, and this book feels like one that would appeal mostly to people who are fans of Spinnen. Maybe I should be more familiar with him and the writers he mentions, but I’m not sure.

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