“Like a wasp eating marmalade,” whispered Mrs. Havelock.”



Young Katie Steelstock, back in her home village of Hannington from her TV role in London as Britain’s sweetheart, is brutally murdered after a small-town dance. Her lover stands accused but not so fast, as other bodies begin to pile up. One of Gilbert’s grimmer efforts, as in maybe he went one death too far (or maybe I mean one death short), but exquisitely well written as per usual and the scenes in the courtroom are simply superb.

Mrs. Bellamy had brought out a pair of old-fashioned pince-nez glasses, which she perched on her nose, alternately looking through them at her notes and over them at the witness. There was something mesmeric about the bobbing up and down of her head. (“Like a wasp eating marmalade,” whispered Mrs. Havelock.”)

Nobody ever did it better than Gilbert. I’m glad he was so prolific that I’m still discovering books by him I haven’t read.

The British actor had to be hustled out of the country for his own safety.



Three centuries after Shakespeare died, across the pond New Yorkers rioted over the relative merits of Macbeth as played by a British actor and an American one. The National Guard was called out, people actually died, and the British actor had to be hustled out of the country for his own safety. America had embraced Shakespeare as one of their own, and he was read so extensively and so intensively that audiences from rural Kentucky to the California gold mines could shout out the correct line when an actor in performance stumbled over it.

Author Cliff concludes, “Once a voice carried a people across a continent and helped forge a brave new world. No other writer has been so powerful, and no one ever will be again.” This book includes a survey of 19th century American history, a history of Western theatre, is peopled with great characters and you-are-there settings, and has a quotable phrase on nearly every page.

“You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help.”


It’s 1938, and ranch-raised 19-year old Bud Frazer’s family lost first his sister in a riding accident and then their ranch, and after a couple of years following the rodeo circuit he heads for Hollywood to find work riding horses in Westerns.

There are a lot of different things going on here, just for starters the real life Bud lived on Echol Creek Ranch growing up and the vastly different version that Hollywood commemorates in film.

You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building fence around a haystack or helping a heifer figure out what to do with her first calf. Those movies were full of bank robberies and stage holdups, feuds, galloping posses, murderous Indians, and claim jumpers–nothing I ever saw growing up.

There is the friendship between Bud and Lily, a budding screenwriter, who meet on the bus to Los Angeles and begin a friendship that despite differences and difficulties lasts a lifetime.

I was used to girls who tried to make you think you were smarter than them even if you weren’t, but Lily never in her life cared whether a boy knew she was smarter than he was.

It’s the story of the Depression and its effect on the lives of people struggling to get by, it’s the story of producers who will do anything to get the shot, including kill horses and the stuntmen who ride them, and it is especially the story of Bud and the guilt he feels over his sister’s death, and trying to atone for that perceived sin. She fell from her horse and Bud spends the next three years falling from horses on the rodeo circuit and in Hollywood. It wasn’t an unconscious choice of profession.

…that last week in Arizona, after the lancer charge, I lay in bed every night seeing, over and over, horses and men falling through a veil of dust and shattered glass, turning over in my head my hatred of Cab, and then in the long hours of darkness coming around slowly to knowing I’d been looking for something like this to happen, a big fall — maybe even hoping for it. And knowing if I’d been hurt or killed I would deserve what I’d been given. A settling of accounts for getting my sister killed.

What I find most compelling about this book is the voice, very similar to the voice Gloss used in The Hearts of Horses. It’s an almost canter-like cadence, a sort of run-on, hypnotic rhythm. I even imagine hearing Bud speaking in a monotone.

The pinto whirled and reared up, pawing the steep slope, and I pulled my hand back and the horse came too high–I saw it was too high. I slipped off his tail end, my right hand still clenching the reins which might be why the horse came above me, looming dark. I landed on my feet and tried to throw myself to the side, but I lost my footing on the slope. The ground or the horse rose up and hit me–a white flash behind my eyes–and then we were both sliding downhill, a long slid it seemed at the time, but maybe not more than thirty or forty feet before I hit a bit of flat shelf and the horse rolled over me–incredible red-hot wires of pain flashing through my hips and my legs. The pinto kept going all the way down the hill and came to his feet at the bottom without a goddamn mark on him.

See? The drama of these events is all in the reader’s mind. Bud is just telling his story here. Despair is Bud’s constant companion and it feels that much more agonizing when told in this emotionless, matter-of-fact way. As his father says

“Things just happen and it’s nobody’s fault.” After another pause, he said, “You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help.”

Highly recommended.

I can feel the sharks bumping my feet as I type these words.



If you’ve ever seen Jaws you’re familiar with this story. Days after it delivered Little Boy to Tinian, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The attack is so effective that the bow literally vaporizes and because they are running “yoke-modified,” or most of the hatches dogged open because the crew is roasting in the tropical heat, water rushes into the hull and the ship sinks in twelve minutes (it took the Titanic two hours and 40 minutes from the time it hit the iceberg, just as a comparison, and it didn’t even have water-tight compartments).

An estimated 400 crew members are killed outright in the attack. The rest take to the water, for the next four to five days to be preyed on by sharks (an estimated 200 of them die this way) and suffer from sunburn and hypothermia. Thirst drives many of them to suicide and subsequent hallucinations even to murder. In the end, finally spotted from the air, there are 317 survivors out of a crew of 1,196.

Why were they in the water that long? Why wasn’t the ship reported missing when it didn’t arrive on its duty station? Why was there no reaction to their distress call, heard by at least three separate US Navy radio operators? Stanton answers all of those questions thanks to new information uncovered in the late 90s and those answers do not resound to the credit of the US Navy. The captain is court-martialed and convicted and his crew spends the next fifty years trying to have that conviction overturned. Eventually they succeed, although long after the captain commits suicide in 1968, after too much hate mail from the families of the sailors lost under his command.

This is an immediate and horrifyingly riveting read. I can feel the sharks bumping my feet as I type these words. The heroism of some of these men is almost incredible–Doctor Haynes who was treating the men in his group even while they were all moving a mile an hour toward Borneo with no help in sight. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over the scene where he buried the dead. Adrian Marks, the PBY pilot who landed in way too rough seas specifically against standing orders and got as many of the survivors on board as his craft could hold and still float, even tying some of them to the wings. Marine private Giles McCoy as he dives repeatedly into the water from their raft, sharks be damned, to retrieve a crewmate who is trying like hell to kill himself. These men, god, these men.

Stanton agrees with the overturning of the court-martial’s verdict. I don’t know, though. One of the reasons there was so much confusion during the sinking was that there had been no emergency drills. Crew members couldn’t even get one of the life boats to launch. Very few of the rafts had emergency supplies and almost none of them had water. Whose responsibility was it to make sure his crew was trained, that the survival gear was fully supplied and ready to use in the event of a catastrophic event like this? The captain.

Yeah, you can cite the speed of the sinking for some of the confusion, but even in that twelve minutes some damage control people were on hoses, ready to put out the fire, if only the pumps had still been running. Yes, the mission (to get the bomb to Tinian) was urgent and brief and perhaps didn’t allow for some crew training, but the Indianapolis was sailing into harm’s way. Why wasn’t someone tasked with checking the status of the emergency supplies and the shipworthiness of the launches and rafts?

I have a little experience on ships at sea and the crews are continually training. Much of that time, they are training for potential emergencies. Maybe that’s only the way things are now, after hideous object lessons like the Indianapolis. In which case, all those men did not die in vain.

There is a lot going on here besides the central story of two star-crossed lovers.



Another recommendation by Smart Bitches Trashy Books, I’ve just finished this fifth and final book in Higgins’ Blue Heron series. Set in a small town in upstate New York, the heirs and friends of the Blue Heron vineyard fall in and out of and back into love and eventually live happy ever after. Romance novels of the closed door variety, there is some very nice characterization here, some big ass horse laughs and some seriously tear-jerking moments (I’m thinking especially of Lucas and Bryce and Joe’s relationship in Waiting On You, which has little to do with the romance and which part of the book I found most compelling). Manningsport is definitely a place you want to get back to. One caveat: I did find all of the heroines’ mania over having babies a little trying, especially Honor’s eggs talking to her in The Perfect Match. Right, no woman can be truly complete without babies, what was I thinking.

My favorite is this one, Anything for You, where the narrative is told in flashbacks, a literary conceit I usually find annoying but here was hooked in from the getgo. Connor O’Rourke has been in love with Jessica Dunn since he was twelve, but Jessica comes from the wrong side of the tracks and carries a load of family baggage that has to be read to be believed. It is believable, though, every word all the way through, and the secondary characters, especially Connor’s twin Colleen and Jessica’s brother Davey (I beg your pardon, Connor, Dave) are interesting enough to carry the narrative by themselves. There are some reveals you don’t see coming and I always love that. Nothing is forced here, this is a very well plotted book that begins with one proposal and ends with another, where everything unfolds in a natural, inevitable manner, and I always love that, too, probably because I so seldom find it.

There is a lot going on here besides the central story of two star-crossed lovers. This is what having a relative with fetal alcohol syndrome is like and boy it is not easy, the perils of co-dependency, finding the strength for forgiveness not only for others but for yourself, and one of the better illustrations of the problems of extended families I’ve ever seen, also the farthest thing from easy. There is Jordan the bartender with a tendency to drop glassware whenever she sees Connor (Oops, Connor thinks, that’s right, he’s not supposed to look directly at her), and the hilarious scene where Connor is left on his own to raise enough from serious money people to start his own brewery and ends up drinking a little too much of his own product. I loved the “twin speak” between Connor and Colleen, too.

Yep, this one stays on my Kindle. Recommended.

A Who’s Who of Americans in Paris in the 1800’s

The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisThe Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

A Who’s Who of 1800’s Americans travel to Paris to study medicine and art and to just bask in the radiance that is the world’s greatest city. Everyone’s here, Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.), James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Elizabeth Blackwell, John Singer Sergeant, Mary Cassatt, Teddie Roosevelt, the James brothers, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, and everyone else you can think of.

They ate

“The French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite,” observed John Sanderson.
“We demolish dinner, they eat it.”

They looked at art

It was on Sunday only that the Musée du Louvre was open to the public,
and to the astonishment of the Americans, the enormous Sunday crowds at the museum included people from all walks of life, as though everyone cared about art.

They observed dead bodies

…for those with the stomach for it, there was another popular attraction of which no mention was to be found in Galignani’s Guide. At the Paris morgue on the Île-de-la-Cité unidentified bodies taken from the Seine were regularly put on public display. Most of the bodies had been caught in a net stretched across the river for that purpose downstream in Saint-Cloud. Some were murder victims, but the great majority were suicides stripped of their clothes, they lay stretched out on black marble tables, on the change someone might claim them. Otherwise, after three days, they were sold to doctors for ten francs each…As Sanderson noted, “You can stop in on your way as you go to the flower market, which is just opposite.”

The flower market might have been necessary, after that.

Charles Sumner, the senator who later, after giving an anti-slavery speech on the Senate floor, would be famously and most brutally attacked in that same chamber by Congressman and slave-owner Preston S. Brooks of (you guessed it) South Carolina, was not always an abolitionist. That changed in Paris, on Saturday, January 20, 1838, when he attended a lecture at the Sorbonne. Among the audience, he noted two or three blacks.

“They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men, and their color seemed to be no objection to them…with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among is is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things…” It was for Sumner a stunning revelation. Until this point he is not known to have shown any particular interest in the lives of black people, neither free blacks nor slaves.

Paris was not only transformative for the Americans who went there, but the world itself was transforming around them at the same time. The first wave of Americans traveled to Europe by sail, a journey that could take as long as two months, and would then board a diligence (stagecoach) for Paris, taking days to arrive. The second wave arrived by steam, taking considerably less time about it, and took the train, which took hours. Paris went through one war, two kings and three revolutions during this time, and what les Americains didn’t have front row seats to they read about via the first transAtlantic cable.

These expat Americans were so well-regarded by the Parisians that you better understand their gift of the Statue of Liberty. Stacy Schiff (read my review of her Cleopatra here, http://www.stabenow.com/2011/08/01/ca…) said of A Greater Journey in her NYT review

If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Asterix it is McCullough.

McCullough is definitely a Francophile par exellence. He’ll make you one, too.

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Global Warming? or Climate Change?

If you really want to fuel the debate on global warming/climate change/whatever, you can’t do better than read Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age.

It’s a fascinating book about the years between 1300AD and 1800AD, a period following the Medieval Warm Period, which extended between the years 800-1300AD. “The heyday of the Norse,” Fagan writes, “…was not only a byproduct of such social factors as technology, over-population and opportunism. Their great conquests and explorations took place during a period of unusually mild and stable weather in northern Europe.” During this Warm Period, the polar ice retreated and the Norse were free to ransack coastal communities all the way to Constantinople and to emigrate all the way to Maine. The Basques made it all the way across the Atlantic to find the cod fishing grounds off the Grand Banks. European farmers started planting crops farther north and reaping harvests large enough to fund the building of magnificent cathedrals.

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