Review 1316: Famous Trials

Cover for Famous TrialsFamous 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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Day 1294: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

Cover for Birds, Beasts, and RelativesWhen I began reading this sequel to Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, I assumed it would begin sometime after the first book, which ended with the Durrells leaving Corfu and heading back to England. Instead, it seemed to be about to cover the same ground, starting with an abbreviated account of their arrival.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyAlthough this novel is slightly repetitious of the previous one, briefly reintroducing some characters and summarizing important events, for the most part it covers different events and introduces new characters. We meet Larry’s friends Max and Donald when they arrive at the house, drunk, at 2 AM. We also meet the disreputable Captain Creech, and Sven, the accordian-playing sculptor. There are also old friends like Theodore and Spiro.

The book relates memorable events, such as what happens when Margo agrees to take care of Gerry’s baby hedgehogs and how the family receive a performing bear that follows Gerry home one day. Although I began the book worried that this memoir would cover too much of the same material, I ended up charmed again by the stories of this eccentric family and their stay in Corfu.

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Day 1291: Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature

Cover for Through the Looking GlassThis book sounded interesting to me, but I did not realize it was a collection of Selma G. Lanes’s essays on various topics related to children’s literature. Lanes herself was a writer about children’s literature, as well as an editor, critic, and essayist. Although Lanes writes in the introduction about the tendency for publishers to look for marketable books rather than good ones, the essays largely deal with a more congenial time for children’s literature, the 1970’s.

This collection includes reviews, obituaries, and opinion pieces on such topics as whether children’s books are literature, what constitutes a great children’s book, and whether the pursuit of political correctness can go too far. These topics are interesting, but because most of the essays are from the 1970’s, some of them seem dated. Lanes also is nostalgic for the works of an earlier time, many of which I’m not familiar with.

A final essay about J. K. Rowling written in 2004 brings us more up to date as does the introduction. Still, a reader looking for good reading for a child (and sometimes an adult) can get some ideas, albeit older ones, from this book.

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Day 1281: My Family and Other Animals

Cover for My Family and Other AnimalsI first was charmed by My Family and Other Animals many years ago, but it is only recently that I learned it was part of a trilogy. So, I am reading it again to kick off the trilogy.

Gerald Durrell was a boy in 1935 when an impulsive decision on a dreary summer day lead to his family deciding to move to Corfu. This book is an account of the indefinite period of their life there before Mrs. Durrell decides they must move back to England for Gerry’s continued education.

The Durrell family members are all the types of people who know their own interests from an early age. Larry, who becomes the well-known literary novelist Lawrence Durrell, fills the house with his literary and artistic friends. In fact, the family is forced to move to a larger villa to accommodate them. Leslie is interested in hunting and is constantly shooting things. Margo likes sunbathing and clothes and has an atrocious taste in young men. With Gerry, it’s animals, and he proceeds to fill the house with them.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThis memoir is very funny, with a humor that derives from the family just being themselves and the eccentric friends they make. It also has lush, gorgeous, and sometimes stunning descriptions of the setting and flora. Durrell says that he intended to write a book about Corfu’s flora and fauna, but his family kept intruding.

Whether the family decides to give a small party and just invite ten people—at which point each of them invites ten—journey off on an outing in a perfectly round boat, or give another party when the dog is in heat and snakes are in the bathtub, I assure you, you’ll be laughing.

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Day 1249: Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957

Cover for Wild BeautyAlthough we live in Washington, one of the most beautiful wild areas nearby is the Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon. That’s why, when we saw a program about Wild Beauty on television, we had to have a copy of the book.

Wild Beauty is a collection of stunning photos of the Gorge, taken between 1867 and 1957. The introduction explains how the Gorge was formed geologically and tells about advances in the field of photography during the time these pictures were being taken. Then, the book is divided into five sections, roughly chronological.

Section I features the photography of Carleton Watkins, who made several trips up the Gorge between 1867 and 1885. The introduction explains that the state of photography at the time required him to cart along large panes of glass and a portable darkroom, because the photos had to be developed immediately. Each picture is accompanied by a short caption telling what is known of the photo. This section contains the first known photo of the famous Multnomah Falls.

Section II shows photos by a variety of photographers between 1885 and 1910, when advances in both transportation and photography made it easier to take photos in the Gorge.

Section III is devoted to the work of Lily White and Sarah Hall, whose photographs tended more toward the artistic than the historical. The two women traveled up and down the Gorge on a houseboat between 1903 and 1905.

Section IV features photography along the Gorge’s new scenic highway between 1911 and 1929, including some photos that are hand tinted.

Section V features photos between 1930 and 1957 after dams were built along the river. Many of these are also hand tinted.

This book is full of stunning photographs that provide a historical record of the Gorge. This is an interesting book for people interested in the beauty or history of Oregon and Washington or the history of photography.

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