Thursday, August 13, 2009

Boston Books

I've just spent a glorious week in Boston, and naturally prepared by reading books set there, about there, and so on. And took some to read while there and on the plane. So I have much to review!

To begin, there is, apparently, something about Boston that leads murderers to choose extremely bizarre methods of offing their victims. Two of the books I read were mysteries, and both involved very odd forms of murder. One cannot, it seems, eliminate a Boston Brahmin with nothing more than a bullet to the head or a simple stab wound. Oh, no! That would be déclassé.

57. Coign of Vantage, or the Athenæum Club Murders, by John McAleer

Someone is killing members of Boston's venerable Cart-Tail Club. The book begins with one member being knocked unconscious and locked in a freezer, where, of course, he suffocates. We learn that other members of the club have died in what had been written off as accidents. Our hero, who has just been proposed as a member, is a probabilities expert, and is asked to solve the mystery (discreetly, please, as befits a venerable Boston club).

It turns out that the murders are all connected to a woman who wrote pulp fiction years earlier, her work all based on secrets and transgressions of ancestors of the murder victims.

The motive ultimately makes little sense and the book is hard to get into. Too many characters are introduced too quickly, with too much esoteric gabbing. But once past that, it's rather amusing, though the satire is probably best appreciated by Bostonians.

58. The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

There really was a Dante Club, with many of Boston's 19th-century literary élite, that worked with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his translation of the Divine Comedy.

In Pearl's mystery, which ranges throughout Boston and Cambridge, the Club tries to solve the murders of various Boston brahmins, murders that are very specifically, and down to the last detail, replications of the punishments of sinners described by Dante in The Inferno.

The solution is not satisfactory - it's complicated and quite a stretch - and I'm not terribly fond of books that attempt to place historical characters out of their milieu. That said, however, Pearl does a decent job of evoking the atmosphere of Boston in 1865, particularly the "town and gown" conflicts and the aftermath of the Civil War. And certainly you will learn a great deal about Longfellow and the other members of the Dante Club, probably more than when you had to memorize their poetry in school (or am I dating myself? do you have to do that now?).

59. The Silent Traveller in Boston, by Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was a Chinese scholar, poet, painter and calligrapher, who taught Chinese first in England, and later in the United States. Over a period of about four decades, he wrote the "Silent Traveller" series, describing his travels in various countries and cities around the world.

The Silent Traveller in Boston was published in 1959, but Yee's descriptions of the important landmarks of Cambridge and Boston are still relevant. I was glad that I had read of his visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, though I envied him his invitation to dine there!

It was most interesting to read Yee's comparisons of American and Chinese ideas and customs, as when he contrasts the New (and Old) England concept of witches with the Chinese. (At the end of the book, he comments on the McCarthy-ite "witch" hunts earlier in the '50s, and notes that Joseph Welch was a Bostonian and that "[t]he Boston spirit of love of universal liberty had acted again."

Yee has the artist's eye for detail, and he continually surprises by what he notices and the relationships that he sees. He has an intense curiosity and desire to learn all about the places that he visits, and we are fortunate that he shares his what he learns, and, more so, what he thinks, with us. The books are greatly enhanced by Yee's illustrations, both full page color pictures and black-and-white drawings, as well as poems which are given in both English and Chinese.

If you are visiting a city which Yee included in his "Silent Traveller" series, I would strongly recommend that you find a copy of his book and read it before you go.

60. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Guide to the Collection

This guide is an absolutely indispensable adjunct to a visit to the Gardner Museum.

Mrs. Gardner opened her museum in 1909. When she died in 1924, her will provided that nothing be changed or moved. All was to remain as she had left it. There was method in this, as she was an absolute genius at installation, and when she placed an item, she had a reason for that placement, particularly in its relation to other objects.

But there are no wall signs and the one page guides available in some of the rooms are not as detailed as one might like. And not all the rooms have them. Although this slim volume does not contain every item, either (well, there are a couple of thousand!), it does cover more of them, and gives more information. Because nothing can be moved, the guide can be very explicit as to where everything is located in a room or gallery. (My edition is from before the 1990 robbery, so it includes the stolen items. How sad to see an empty frame or a card saying "stolen". Someday an obsessive art collector will die, and his heirs, I hope, will return the ill-gotten goods.)

There's a short, but useful, biographical sketch as well, that will likely leave you wanting to learn more about this dynamic woman. If so, I'd suggest Douglas Shand-Tucci's biography, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Elizabeth Anne McCauley's Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle.

61. The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, by Charles Bahne

The Freedom Trail is a two and a half mile trail, marked by red brick along Boston streets, that takes you to some of America's most historic places, such as Old North Church ("one if by land, two if by sea"), Faneuil Hall, and the site of the Boston Massacre.

This little book is splendid, particularly for the individual who prefers to go it alone. A starting point at Boston Common is suggested, and directions are given from there. But the book is hugely informative, with lots of history told in an interesting manner. I particularly appreciated the extensive detail about who is buried in which burying ground. There is a good map, a list of hours and admission fees, information about wheelchair access, and the like.

My copy is the second edition, published in 1993, which I picked up at a used book sale shortly before my trip. I did not, however, encounter any outdated information, other than the fact that the "Big Dig" is now over with!

62. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

Who were the Puritans? What did they really believe? Would you really want them living next door to you?

What you were taught in school about the Puritans and the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is mostly bunk. There's a grain of truth in the "fled England to escape religious persecution", but only a grain. They believed in religious freedom - if you believed as they did. They were a bunch of contrary, ornery, fascinating folk.

Vowell's book brings to life these people who live in dry and dusty textbooks, warts and all. She does so with style and mordant humor. An excellent and enjoyable read.


  1. Wow! You did a lot of reading in Boston - I read the Dante Club some time ago - the murder descriptions were quite gruesome - but I did enjoy it. I read Dante's Inferno in high school - required - guess I am dating myself also.

  2. Thanks for the review of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. I am going there in Sep with my book club. (I live about 50 min drive from Boston)I am really excited and want to read a good biography of her before hand, so I will see if my library has one of the ones you mentioned. The guide sounds like a good idea too.