Friday, June 25, 2010

Sharyn McCrumb is Back with a New Ballad Novel

I was delighted to win this new book from Goodreads and thanks also to St. Martin's Press for sending me to a wonderful audio introduction complete with appropriate music as well as interviews with McCrumb. You can find these at

If, like me, you are a longtime fan of the Ballad novels, you might be disappointed to find that Nora Bonesteel, gifted with The Sight, has only a small role in this book. However, it is a wonderful read with what I think is an important message.

McCrumb is superb at characterization and that's what I enjoyed most about The Devil Amongst the Lawyers. The devil in question is New York reporters who show up in a little mountain town in Virginia for a big murder trial. The local schoolteacher is on trial for murdering her own father. The trial actually happened in 1935 and the story is basically true to what happened, just populated with McCrumb's real-as-life characters.

The main character in the book is Henry Jernigan, a famous reporter. He had spent many years in Japan and that experience plays a role in this story. He and the other reporters have packed their preconceptions for the trip, so much so that they can write their first article on the train before they even arrive. Their mission is to sell newspapers, you see, and the truth doesn't really matter at all to them, especially the fact that instead of hillbilly shacks, etc., what they actually find is normal small-town America. Nora Bonesteel's cousin, a rookie reporter for a small town paper in Tennessee, actually tries to report the truth but that doesn't sell papers. One of the NY reporters says something like the truth is merely whatever you can convince people to believe. Talk about jaded.

I knew early on whodunit, but that isn't really the point anyway. The point is the reporters' coverage of the trial and their superior attitude toward the locals which gets the predictable response. I enjoyed the book but was a little sad that too often 2010 reporting follows the example of what was true in 1935. It's just as hard to know what's true now as it was then.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

One of the most, if not the most abused First Ladies was Mary Todd Lincoln. I think most people know that she was at one point committed to a mental institution by her oldest son, and about her confirmed status as a shopaholic. If that's all you know about Abraham Lincoln's wife, you're missing a great deal. By the way, she never referred to herself as Mary Todd Lincoln, only Mary Lincoln.

Catherine Clinton has written a fairly objective biography of this complicated and controversial lady. My only quibble about it is her use of "must have's," "probably's," and "would-have's" to describe things Mary might have been exposed to as a child. Slave auctions, for instance, in her hometown of Lexington, KY. We don't know at this point whether she ever actually saw such a thing. However, we do know that her family owned slaves, who they apparently treated well, and that her beloved grandmother freed her own slaves. Clinton writes that Mary moved to Springfield, IL to live with her older sister partly as a way to get away from slavery. I think that's a stretch. She wanted to get out of her stepmother's house because she felt like a fifth wheel as her stepmother had many children. The fact that her sister in Springfield was married to a powerful, wealthy man who knew many other powerful, wealthy men and up-and-comers was also a huge impetus. Mary was in her 20s and unmarried, almost beyond hope as people of her day saw it.

She was quite intelligent. Her father had seen to it that she was well educated, and she had an inborn intelligence that served her well. For instance, of all the young men she met in Springfield, she married tall, ungainly, poor Abe Lincoln. She was one of the few who saw what he would become, and not only that, she loved him so much she couldn't marry anyone else.

Lincoln knew even before they were married that Mary had a great sense for politics. She wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper under a pseudonym; he did too. After their marriage, they talked politics and planned each step of his political career together. It was only after he became president that she was more of less shoved aside because he was surrounded by cabinet, advisors, military men, etc. and had little time for her as the war took up all of his time and energy.

That's when she started having mental problems, something than ran in the Todd family. Like many women of her era, she suffered the loss of children and each loss seemed to push her more into mental illness. The last straw, of course, was the assassination of her beloved husband. The men present when Abe died forced her out of the room because she became hysterical. They even tried to convince her he wouldn't die. Not being at his side at the end was cruel and unnecessary, and she would never get over it.

She had an obsession with money, never confident that she had enough to live on. She doted on her surviving young son Tad, but when he died at 18, all was lost. Her oldest son Robert was in an impossible situation as her grip on reality seemed to be lost, yet she had lucid periods. Finally he went to court to have her committed. Later she lived with her older sister and became a recluse. In short, Mary's was a tragic life that she wasn't emotionally equipped to cope with.

I learned many things about Mary in this book and I think I have a more balanced view of her than I had, even after years of study about her husband. Included are several well-chosen illustrations and notes, index, and bibliography for further study if you like. It's a fine stand-alone book though, and I recommend it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Psycho" is 50!

I noticed that today is the 50th anniversary of the movie "Psycho." Even though you'll learn that I'm a real wimp, I just have to tell you a story about that movie.

I went to the movie with a date when it first came out. I made it only as far as the knife slaying in the shower, poor Janet Leigh, and couldn't watch anymore. My date really wanted to see the movie so I went to the ladies room for a while, then tried to just sit quietly and not look at the screen. Unfortunately, the music and other people's reactions got to me, and by that time my date was disgusted with me, so we left. Surprisingly, that wasn't our last date.

Several years later I was still a tad nervous about taking showers. My parents had moved from Illinois to Canada and I drove up to see them on vacation. I took some two-lane roads, partly because there wasn't a better way on parts of my trip, but also because I just enjoy the trip more that way. In upstate New York, though, I waited until too late in the day to start looking for a room for the night. The few motels I saw all had "No Vacancy" signs out front.

Finally, it was twilight and I was despairing of finding a room when I spotted a "Vacancy" sign and pulled into the drive. Oh no, the little strip motel looked like the Bates Motel. Even worse, the office was in the slightly run-down house next door. Well, I told myself that if the person in the office looked like Anthony Perkins, I was out of there. Otherwise, I had better stay.

The motel was owned by a perfectly normal appearing elderly couple so I checked in. The room wasn't anything to write home about but it was clean. I turned on every light in the room, including the bathroom which had a shower but no tub. Do you think I could take a shower that evening? No way! I tried to force myself to do it, but I just couldn't. I slept all night with all the lights on and in the morning finally forced myself to shower - the fastest shower in the history of mankind!

Well, at least I did sleep, fitfully, off and on, and I did leave the place clean, mostly.

A year or two ago, "Psycho" was on television and Dave had never seen it so we tried to watch it. Still can't do it. This time I couldn't even get past Janet Leigh checking into the motel. What a wimp!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

Yesterday was the laziest day I've had in years. Dave is recovering from a fall and needed to rest with his feet up, so he sat in his recliner to watch the NCAA baseball super-regionals and ended up sleeping all afternoon and part of the evening. Then he slept all night as well. Life of the party, my husband. :D But that was just what he needed. He felt much better today.

I got a few chores done, then sank into my recliner with relief. It was hot and humid, which my lungs don't like. Occasionally it would rain hard for 10 or 15 minutes, refreshing for a while, and then muggy again. So, I just relaxed to enjoy the baseball games too.

One nice thing about these games is that many of the players have been drafted by the majors so you get to see them before they get big money and big heads. College baseball athletes play their hearts out so you see some spectacular catches in the outfield, close double-plays, exciting grand slam home runs, and great fans with weird outfits, chants, and loud colors. We enjoyed the NCAA softball world series recently for the same reasons.

We hardly ever watch professional baseball these days; perhaps because of the steroid scandals and whining from players who make such astounding money to play a game. We also are painfully aware of how much it costs to attend a game in person. I don't know how people can afford to take their kids to games now; I know it's difficult for us to buy tickets even for the nosebleed section. It's a lot of fun, but we're satisfied at this point to see a minor league game in Binghamton or Scranton.

I think college sports are more fun anyway, especially when the students are big fans of the sport. If we move south some day, one of my "must haves" is going to be proximity to a large college or university with an active athletic program - definitely football and basketball and hopefully baseball, softball, swimming, etc. For now, satellite television will just have to do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I've been singing an old song lately, but the lyrics are altered to fit my life:

Summertime, and the livin' is killin'
Grass is growin', and the weeds are high
Bushes need trimmin', but geez now it is rainin'
Hush all you muscles, Ben-Gay is nigh.

Thanks to a rainy, windy, chilly day, I can either do some geneology this afternoon or read. I'll probably read since I'm involved in Mrs. Lincoln at the moment. It's June 9th but I'm wearing sweats, plus a nice warm fleece jacket to keep warm because I refuse to turn on the heat in June. This is a bummer.

Yesterday the sun was out so I used the trimmer for about two hours and still didn't make a dent in the work to be done. I tell Dave I can't prune the bushes because there are still baby birds in the nests. :D

The torturers at physical therapy have been mugging me twice a week and then all that trimming didn't help. Thank heaven for Ben-Gay! One of these days I'll get back in shape - except that I can practically hear the grass growing from inside. Yikes! Meanwhile, if you wondered why my posts are so sporadic lately, that's the answer.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Review: Split Image by Robert B. Parker

You'll remember Robert B. Parker died a while ago, but happily I still have several of his books in my gift box to read. Needing a laugh and something light this week as I began therapy for a neck problem, I chose this Jesse Stone novel. Perfect choice. Some people stopped reading Parker in the last few years because they thought he had lost his touch, and certainly his novels had become a little formulaic, but nothing can beat his witty dialogue and his quirky characters. I especially love his portrayal of the mobsters from Boston.

For those who haven't tried the Jesse Stone series, Stone is Parker's second serial hero. The third was Sunny Randall, P.I. in Boston, ex-wife of a mobster's son. Sunny is also the daughter of a cop, and a former cop herself. I like her a lot. In a previous Jesse Stone book, he and Sunny had combined forces to solve a case and it followed as thunder follows lightning that they became involved. Both have ex-spouse issues big time (although I must admit I'm thinking, Get over it already!) and Jesse has a drinking problem because of the above. Both see shrinks (Sunny sees Susan Silverman of the Spenser series). Good grief, sounds like Susie selling sea shells on the seashore of which I have painful memories from when I was a child doing speech therapy for a lisp. :)

Jesse Stone is the chief of police in little Paradise, MA on the coast north of Boston. He's sort of an out-of-control Spenser with a police force that consists of all-wise Molly and "Suitcase" Simpson. Suit started out as Don Knotts but he's been learning well.

The case involves two Boston mobsters who have fancy estates in Paradise and are married to identical twins and a series of murders most certainly linked to them. Meanwhile, Sunny is in Paradise searching for a snooty couple's daughter who has run away from home (can't say I blamed her) and seems to be living in a cult in Paradise. One case is hilarious, the other very touching, and the book is a great beach read, or one to read as you recover from the torture at physical therapy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

This book isn't one I would have chosen for myself but since it was a gift and I was curious, I read it. I found it difficult to get into but I was interested enough to stay with it until something finally happened that meant I had to finish and figure it all out. Well, I've finished it but I'm still puzzling over it.

The blurb calls it a ghost story and it is set in postwar 1940s England. The main character is actually an old crumbling estate called Hundreds Hall in which the last members of the family live in extreme poverty. Mrs. Ayres is every inch a lady who tries valiantly to keep up appearances. Her son Roderick has returned from the war damaged badly both physically and emotionally, and he is overwhelmed by his task of running the farm on the estate and keeping up the mansion. Her daughter Caroline is the picture of country gentry, a plain-looking spinster hiding her hands which show all too clearly how much housework she does herself. They have a day cook and a live-in, teenage maid named Betty who is afraid of the house.

The narrator is Dr. Faraday, a bachelor with a small office in a nearby village. One of my problems with the book was my inpatience with him. For a supposedly smart doctor, he was so clueless as to be unbelievable, and emotionally crippled by his resentment and shame because of his lower class background. His mother had been a nursemaid at this very house.

The story of the Ayres family is told movingly; you simply must feel badly for them as they struggle to survive. Caroline is strong and capable, but later in the book I became extremely impatient with her as well. Actually each character is portrayed so well that you do begin to have a bond with them and that's what keeps you involved despite the way the story drags. Or perhaps I've been reading too many short mysteries so this more literary book seems longish to me.

I recommend this book for the use of language and the characterizations, and the way Waters imbues the mansion with a life of its own. It's portral of poor but proud gentry unable to change with the times as young couples buy tract housing all around them is an excellent illustration of an important factor of that period in English history. As for the plot, I'm still not sure. Maybe you will be more patient than me and really enjoy it.