The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret–Catherine Bailey

secret rooms

A friend recommended this book as we were discussing my current research project and the unexpected turns it was taking.  It was, she thought, a good example of popular history that talked through the historical process.

She was right.  In fact, Catherine Bailey should have listened to her.  Closely.  This story involves secret rooms, a plotting duchess, and a family secret (and briefly a haunted castle story).  The plotting duchess is not surprising and the family secret all too quotidian once revealed.  What’s worse, the epilogue suggests all of it was for naught, which might leave a reader wondering why they had invested in more than 400 pages of reading for naught.  Even Bailey seems annoyed, as she lists the men about whom she had intended to write her book and from whose story the secret rooms had diverted her.

There is the story.  Bailey came to Belvoir Castle to tell the story of the men of the Midlands who fought and died in the trenches of WWI.  The secret rooms began the flirtation and the meticulously archived letters and artifacts of the 9th Duke of Rutland, the man who died in those spare secret rooms, completed the seduction.  Readers should not invest in this book for the story of Rutland, whose childhood sorrows and young adult dramas are different only in time and degree of privilege from most of our own.  They should invest because Bailey, almost inadvertently, tells the story of a historian’s love affair with the past and passion for a historical puzzle.  In the early chapters, Bailey keeps us focused on both her path and the duke’s emerging story, but, as the duke’s story unfolds, her path fades into the background and the duke’s story takes over.

Publishing is a business and readers are fickle buyers.  I get that, which is why I forgive the bogus haunted castle in the subtitle and the melodramatic cover art.  But readers are fickle lovers, too, and they expect satisfaction in the end.  Bailey should have mirrored her seduction of the reader with her own seduction by the archives.  Use the glamour of the castle and the family to draw us in, then ensnare us in the puzzle and let us share in the satisfaction of solving it, of having chosen to follow the duke’s story rather than the story that brought her to Belvoir in the first place.  Then we could close the covers satisfied, satiated, rather than disappointed and slightly empty.  Maybe then she would not feel herself as if her noble goals had been hijacked for an unworthy subject.

Is it worth the read?  Yes, but don’t go into it thinking that you are reading a great mystery with all the expectations that genre entails (and that the jacket blurb promises).  Read it with a keen eye to how she tracks down the story and appreciate the way in which she pulls the puzzle together.  The Secret Rooms:  The True Story of a Privileged Family, a Persistent Historian, & the Unsung Archivists.  Just a suggestion.
Finished 6/23/14


Allah Is Not Obliged–Ahmadou Kourouma

allah is not obliged

This is not a recommendation, necessarily.

Amazon recommended this book based on other apparently depressing purchases I made. It’s the last complete novel by Kourouma, “one of Africa’s most celebrated writers” (back cover), who spent much of his life being educated or in exile in the west. Kourouma died before completing a follow-up novel to this one and I am dying to read whatever he left. Seriously. So maybe this is a recommendation of sorts.

The title, which intrigued me, comes from a saying of the protagonist, Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. I can gel with that. Life is not fair. God is not fair and is not obliged to be, no matter what we wish.

However, my experience of god not being fair and Birahima’s experience are wildly different in scale. Birahima was born to a mother who caught some sort of wasting disease following her circumcision, which took place in the woods at the hands of a excisor along with all of the other village girls her age. She scoots along the floor of their hut with one leg in the air, as he describes it, her butt bumping along the ground, her second leg a rotting stump. And still his father fathered two children on her and she remarried, but to a man who could not impregnate her because he did not learn the trick of doing so, Birahima tells us.

He tells us the story of his life as a street kid then a child soldier. In the process he tells us more than we really want to know about what is going on in Africa and his view of the West’s role in those goings-on. He leaves the Ivory Coast in search of his aunt, who is to care for him after his mother’s death, but is caught in the Nigerian civil war and impressed into service as a child soldier. He kills innocents, mourns fallen comrades, loses most of his sexual innocence to a commander’s wife, and decides to tell his story with the help of Larousse, Petit Robert, and Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa.

Birahima, as children do, tells the blunt truth, but, because he is no longer a true child, the truth he tells is searingly painful. He is a translator from native languages to French, from African cultures to the reader. Parentheticals proliferate as he explains customs or defines words and phrases. Over and over we hear that human skulls mark the borders of the camps of tribal warlords. The first time we are horrified. After several repetitions for several warlords’ camps, however, we are no longer surprised and the explanation has become so routine as to be unnecessary. Dehumanization. As a Western reader, I felt the horror of imagined life under such brutality alongside the guilt of the colonizer. Birahima does not point fingers. He relates religious figures who have sex with nuns and female prisoners while demanding virginity from the child soldiers without any judgment. He gives the history of the Liberian president, who engineered a coup with a partner, then, paranoid, engineered a coup against his partner under cover of democratic elections, and who was finally murdered by pieces (literally) by a warlord who preached an end to the violence and whose passion the born-again peacenik president believed too soon–all without judgment. These are just facts.

So, too, this parenthetical: “Humanitarian peacekeeping is when one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.”

The last pages of the novel are filled with names and political details that I found hard to follow. Perhaps I was just weary from so much brutality and so much corruption. Perhaps this is how the citizens of Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, feel. Numbed to the causes because so shaken by the consequences.

Birahima escapes the last bout of violence, but, other than the fact that he survives to tell his story, Kourouma does not let us know that he lives happily ever after. Rather, the ins and outs of his tale suggest quite otherwise. But I would so like to know what he wanted to tell us about this young man in that last unfinished novel. Not because I want to hear more of the horrors, but because my pampered western soul longs from a redemptive story, some happy ending to make sense of or give him in all of the loss surrounding.

Finished 6/15/14

The Year of Magical Thinking-Joan Didion

year of magical thinking

I think I put this book on my Amazon wish list after reading about it in The End of Your Life Book Club.  I did not get to ordering it right away, a fact that was providential as when I put it on my list, I had suffered losses, but not the kind of loss I suffered since. That kind of loss made Didion’s magical thinking make all kinds of sense.  Losing my father and watching my mother process her loss lent layers of meanings to my reading.

Didion starts the book, “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.”  So simple, but true.  Near the end of the book she writes, “what gives those December days a year ago their sharper focus is their ending.”  Everything is ordinary, everything blurs until something dramatic, some drama, forces us to pay attention to every detail, to return to those details in obsessive reflection.  That obsessive reflection underpins the entire project of the book.

Didion’s husband dies from a massive coronary while she is preparing dinner.  He had earlier undergone angioplasty to open up arteries clogged over 90%.  True to her writer identity, Didion thinks of literature and the way in which characters foresee or foreshadow their own deaths.  Did John, her husband, know what was coming?  With each memory, each connection she sees another clue that suggests perhaps he did and long before she might have expected.  She wants to rationalize the irrational.  She researches death, heart failure, grief.

She notes the difference between grief and mourning.  “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”  Later she notes that “grief is passive.  Grief happened.  Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”

What Didion says is likely not new.  That is the beauty,  For anyone who has suffered this type of loss the recognition of their own experienced is what makes each step of her journey so beautiful, what keeps the pages turning.  That we all think the funeral is the hardest part, but it’s the easiest because we have focus and support and permission.  That every day of the first year is filled with what we were doing last year when we were whole.  That grief does come in waves, sometimes tidal, that chase us from parties or into bathrooms to cry without disturbing the calm of everyone else’s lives.  That without someone so close, we must reinvent ourselves and that very reinvention feels like a betrayal so painful that we hold ourselves in place rather than be so guilty.  That we second guess every second, every day, every year preceding the moment of loss.  That we try to put ourselves in the place of the lost to understand what it feels to be the one leaving rather than the one left.  That loss shakes what faith we have and reveals the weakness in the faith we will carry forward.

In the closing pages, after a year has passed since her husband’s death, Didion has an epiphany while crossing the street.  “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.  I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.  Let them become the photograph on the table.”  And here I cried because I am not at that emotional point yet.  I know it must be true, but I am not ready.  What The Year of Magical Thinking does, however, is reassure me that I will be because Didion’s account of her process, her grief, her mourning, is so honest and so authentic that her assurance that we reach this point must also be true.

Finished 6/10/14

Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire–Andrea Stuart

 sugar in the blood

I first heard of this book on public radio’s Fresh Air.  The idea of trying to trace the history of people who left no records intrigued me.  Women’s historians do this all the time, particularly for premodern women or non-elite women and I wondered how this would look when taken to the Caribbean and the world of the sugar plantation.

Andrea Stuart attempts to trace her family, but faces several handicaps.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados from England.  That branch was not the most difficult, but offered several challenges.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados enslaved from Africa and this offered much more difficulty, as I have heard from friends who have attempted smaller-scale family histories.  Her story becomes so engaging that it was only in the last chapters that I realized the book was about her maternal family and her paternal family only comes into play in the last pages and with little fanfare because so little is known and so much of the general slave narrative had been told.

When Stuart runs into gaps in the documentary record of her own family, she uses well-known accounts of others in similar or somewhat similar circumstances and times.  Sometimes she is pushed to use sources from later times and extrapolate backward.  Much of her story is contingent.  This may have been the way, this may have been the reason, the feeling, the result.  Welcome to the world of telling the story of the underrepresented, the faceless majority.  And this is just for her planter ancestors.

Her slave ancestors come into the picture when her planter ancestor chooses to become involved in a relationship with a slave women and elevate the resulting child (one of many illegitimate children he fathered with one of many slave women).  He enters the plantation’s records as property to be inventoried.  This record is harsher than the passenger list that records her English ancestor and starts the story, but tells us as little about his dreams and his judgments of what was going on around him.

Neither European nor African ancestors are completely free in this story–both differently circumscribed by the institution of slavery, but even earlier, pushed by economic and political circumstances beyond their control and trying to eek out a living in a harsh colonial environment.  

In the midst of her family’s story, Stuart mingles in the story of sugar, of slavery, of Haiti and Jamaica, of bits of the United States, and of England and France.  Once the narrative get underway somewhere in chapter two, the dance between these narratives is mostly logical and nearly seamless.  From these stories I learned many new connections of which I should have been aware, but was not.  Putting these complex connections in the context of the Ashby family story made heavy analysis fun and that is a good thing.

I do, however, have a few critiques.  At times, Stuart dives into side histories that are very interesting and in which she becomes very involved, but that threaten to overwhelm the family story that is part of her title.  The book contains some footnotes and a fairly lengthy bibliography, but Stuart’s inconsistent use of quotations is troubling to an academic and, I think, any reader.  In most chapters she gives the author’s last name and the quote, even if not footnoted, but in the first chapter and in a couple of later chapters, she says merely something like “according to a historian xxxx.”  I understand the impulse to avoid overwhelming the reader with a litany of names, but this is just bad practice.  If what the author said was important enough to quote, they are important enough to name.  This is respectful to the author whose words she is quoting as well as the reader, who may wish to follow up and read more from the quoted author.  My last critique is also in the first chapter and it was nearly enough to cause me to give up reading the book.  The first chapter of any work is crucial in terms of engaging the reader.  The reader has to be in the story enough to continue reading.  This book is trying to accomplish a lot, but the first chapter may not be the place to roll all of that out.  Introduce us to the family.  Set the stage for the opening scenes.  Tease us about where the plot is going.  Do no try to give us all of the historical background we will need to follow the story in the first chapter.  I love history.  This is not about history.  It is about too many narrative threads.  Unless one is Tolkien, keep the introduction what the name implies–an introduction.  

One last note is not to do with Stuart, but with my own field.  The back cover of the paperback quotes The Independent as saying this is a magisterial work of history.  Stuart has an English degree and has written a biography.  Historians are ceding their place to journalists and technical writers when it comes to popular history and this must stop.  Such authors are free to write history.  The more history in circulation, the better.  But professionally trained historians, who understand the importance of naming historians one is quoting, who use accepted historical methods, need to also speak to the masses about how we interpret history.  

Ultimately, I will pass this book along to several friends, but with the caveat to feel free to skim in the first chapter and catch up on the background information later once they have a good sense of where they are.  What comes later is worth the effort.

Finished 6/10/14


Orange is the New Black-Piper Kerman (Audio)

The rave reviews for the Netflix series have been so persuasive, that I added the audiobook to my listening library.  When our oldest daughter joined the chorus of those advocating for the series, I moved it up on my listening list.

What I have to say will not make me popular with fans of the series (which I have not yet watched).  I did not much like Piper Kerman.  She is a privileged white woman caught in a web of crime that she did not need to commit and in which she became involved because she was seduced by the luxury it brought.  She made the right choice and left the life of crime when she realized her girlfriend would sell her out with little provocation, but her past catches up with her and after a torturous wait for trial, she lands in Danbury women’s prison.  Piper does a wonderful job describing how her identity and privilege were stripped from her, how tribalism became a way to survive the early days of prison, how some of the guards went to great lengths to emphasize their power and the inmates’ weakness.  The drop and squat routine on visitors’ days is horrifying to anyone who has lived in a culture of privacy.

As the book went on I found myself liking her less and less.  She recognizes and names her privilege–many times.  She repeatedly relates guards and others asking how a girl like her ended up in a place like that.  This demonstrates the racism and classism of the system, but it also reminds the reader that Piper is not the kind of girl who belongs in prison.  Her crime was old and minor.  At one point she realizes that her role in the drug trade helped make possible the crimes of the women in much less privileged positions who are her sister inmates.  She feels shame and guilt, but there is not much  further discussion.  She is enraged that the system does so little to prepare the other women for life on the outside, but offers no suggestions.

Why, I started to wonder, these brief nods to the problems of others and the reminders of her own status?  Life in prison must have been awful?  Why does it so often sound, in Piper’s words, like an extended girls’ camp with particularly obnoxious camp counselors?  She may give the clue herself.  Many of the women refuse visitors because they don’t want anyone to see them as inmates, to realize what their lives are really like.  Piper’s portrayal of the social networks, the movie nights and prison recipes, mani/pedis and salon moments keep us from seeing her as an inmate and instead help us imagine an extension of her college experience, but with fewer choices on the salad bar and greater diversity in the dorm.    So why write the memoir?  To draw attention to the problems of the system?  If so, why is this not a greater focus?  I came to believe that Piper wrote the memoir to show that her life was not that bad, that her friends and family should not look at her and imagine prison rapes by guards and “dykish” (her word) inmates.  Although a lesbian when she committed her crime, she wants to be clear that she was not “gay for the stay,” that she did not return to her former lifestyle, and that she did not let anyone inside know about her former sexual identity.

From what I understand, the series diverges quite wildly from the book, so I will give it a chance.  I will try to overcome my irritation with pampered Piper and to focus on my appreciate for her courage and her positive attitude in the face of events that would have soured most of us, and by us I mean privileged white girls.  Who have the voice and the means to tell our stories and an audience with the means to consume them.

Finished 5/14

Love in the Time of Cholera-Gabriel Garcia Màrquez

This book has been a favorite title of mine for a long time. It rolls off the tongue and is suggestive without telling the whole tale.   I had not, however, actually read it.  When the audiobook popped up in my Audible feed, I was excited to remedy this omission and step into the world of this great writer as I drove.  When Garcia Màrquez died, the time was ripe to finally give this classic a listen.

Listening to this book was perfect.  Garcia Màrquez’ translated prose most often sounds like poetry (much like that of Maya Angelou, whom I’m listening to currently).  Although the books was many hours long, no matter how long the gap between listening sessions, I was able to dive right back into the world of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall in love through letters when Fermina is just a sheltered school girl.  Forced apart by Fermina’s father, the two go separate ways and when they reunite, Fermina does not know what she saw in the unusual young man.  Florentino never loses his passion for Fermina, however, and keeps her in his sight as well as in his heart.  He pursues numerous love affairs, but keeps them so private that the town rumors believe him a homosexual.  He pursues his career with the intent to become worthy of the higher class Fermina Daza and rises through the ranks and quietly accumulates wealth.  Fermina marries for position and to meet her family’s expectations, increasing her own social position in the process, to the patrician Dr. Juvenal Urbino.  The two fall in love on their European honeymoon, but lose track of that young love on their return home.  Their marriage follows the path of many marriages–children, love, less love, more love, banality, and an affair, retribution, widening distance, reconciliation, then Urbino’s accidental death while trying to retrieve Fermina’s bird from a tree.

The novel follows first Fermina, then Urbino, then Florentino.  Following Urbino’s death, after an initial misstep, Florentino renews his slow, steady courtship of the now aged Fermina.  What follows is beautiful.  Fermina resists his attentions as she deals with her grief.  Garcia Màrquez’ description of her stages of grief is beautiful and painful and became my favorite passages in the book.

Love takes many forms through different stages of our lives, as this novel captures. It ennobles, it devastates, it disappoints.  Here love is not only for the young and is, in fact, at its most perfect in those our culture often denies the right to love and desire.

Finished 5/14

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth-Alexander McCall Smith

Any book by Alexander McCall Smith is the literary equivalent of your favorite chocolate indulgence.  You know it will be sweet, it will make you feel good, but won’t offer a lot of nutrition.  McCall Smith became best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but his Isabel Dalhousie Series is also one of my favorites.  Isabel is half-Scots, half-American, independently wealthy thanks to a comfortable inheritance, and the editor of a philosophy journal.  Isabel’s identity as philosopher pervades every scene.  She is a people watcher.  She loves to become involved in helping others solve their problems, particularly strangers.  She loves Edinburgh and its architecture provides a gentle backdrop to her musings and is mapped onto the inside covers.  No matter what action, Isabel wanders into the philosophical implications of her actions and the actions of those around her.  She ponders the origins of cultural practices.

In The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, Isabel helps a fellow philosopher on sabbatical find her father.  Her young son Charlie and her young musician fiance Jamie as well as housekeeper Grace play supporting roles.  When is it better to lie?  What is the role of etiquette in social exchanges?  What is our responsibility for the actions of others that we have influenced?  These are some of the questions Isabel takes on in this installment of her adventures.

The plot is gentle.  There’s no great crescendo and then resolution.  Rather, the trajectory is like a few weeks in anyone’s life and Isabel is like visiting with an old somewhat flighty friend.

Finished 5/14