Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two that don't live up to the rest of their series

21. A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, are off, not to Egypt, but to Palestine. Out of chronological order, this one is set in 1910, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and the British were trying to stem German influence in the Holy Land. The Emersons set off, at the behest of the War Office, which is concerned that a bumbling archaelogist may or may not be a German spy, but in any case is likely to engage in a dig that will antagonize Jew, Muslim and Christian alike.

As in all Peters' books, the bad guys aren't always easy to tell from the good, Ramses Emerson gets into hot water, there are mysterious societies, and what's right and wrong isn't always obvious. Unlike many of her books, though, there's a sense that Peters was going through the motions, putting in the stock scenes - Amelia with her umbrella, Emerson ranting, women throwing themselves at Ramses. There's very little emotional tension, and, frankly, the motivations of the characters are almost buried.

Not Peters' best.

22. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, by Sharyn McCrumb

I was really back-and-forth about this book. I love Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series, but this one doesn't seem to quite fit with the rest, despite the presence of a very young Nora Bonesteel.

Based on the true story of Edith Maxwell, a young schoolteacher who was tried for murdering her father, this novel could have been written about a lot of high publicity trials today. Just as today, journalists tried to fit events into a pre-determined mold, not caring if what they said was true or not. McCrumb describes them coming down to the Blue Ridge from the cities of the North, expecting poverty and ignorance, and, when that's not what they found, saying it was, anyway. They decided first whether they wanted Erma Morton (the Edith Maxwell character) to be guilty or not, and wrote their stories accordingly. (Remind anyone of broadcasters like Nancy Grace?) The journalists aren't the only ones using Morton for their own ends. Her brother, the townsfolk, all have their reasons for wanting a particular outcome.

Into this mix comes a young journalist from Tennessee, Carl Jenkins, who knows this land and its people, and is shocked by the way the experts are covering the trial. Yet he is not immune. When his newspaper wants more "oomph" to his stories, he hits on the idea of bringing his young relative, Nora Bonesteel, to town. She has the "sight", and maybe she will "see" the truth and help him with his stories. Of course, she can't, because, as she tells Carl, "it doesn't work that way".

McCrumb has given her journalists interesting back stories that inform their present, the celebrity journalist Henry Jernigan and his years in Japan, sob sister Rose Hanelon and her yearning for love, Carl Jenkins and his need to fit in and "be somebody". I almost wish she hadn't wrapped up their futures in an epilogue, because I could have stood to have had them back again.

I think my small dissatisfaction with a novel I truly enjoyed otherwise was a sense that the "Ballad" part was just lying on top of the plot, rather than being an integral part of it. The story was good enough that it could have stood on its own.

There's a non-fiction book about this trial, Sharon Hatfield's Never Seen the Moon, that I'm going to look for.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Florence Invented America

20. How Florence Invented America, by Giancarlo Masini

In case you've been wondering where the heck I've been, the answer is: Florence and Amsterdam. I spent several glorious days in Florence, and then on to Amsterdam, which was also tremendous fun, but, thanks to a volcano in Iceland, I was there longer than expected. So I have been playing catch up, at home and work, but now I think I'm back on track.

And I will begin by talking about some of the books that I read on my trip.

When I travel, I like to bring books that are in some way connected to the places to which I am going. In fact, I found this one at a used bookstore and bought it specifically to read for the trip.

When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a lot of puffery and braggadoccio, but it was actually quite interesting. It's about Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni Verazzano and Filippo Mazzei. It was particularly interesting to compare Vespucci and Verazzano's explorations, and their reactions to the native people they encountered.

I learned much more about Vespucci than I had known. We are told in school, "he was a mapmaker and so America got named after him." But that's a real distortion, because he was actually the first European "discoverer" of South America. Verazzano was the first European to set foot in Manhattan. There's a stone from the family castle enclosed in a wall of the Verrazzano Bridge.

Mazzei was trained as a doctor, and practiced in a wide variety of places, including Smyrna and London, but eventually headed to America, where his agricultural and ideological interests brought him into contact with, among others, Thomas Jefferson, whose good friend he became. His philosophical exchanges with our Founding Fathers influenced the War of Independence and, later, the U.S. Constitution. Eventually, he was involved with both French and Polish progressive movements.

These men may not have "invented" America, but they were certainly in at the "creation", so to speak!