Books: American Ghost, Capital Dames, The Witches, and The Devil’s Broker

Books

 

Hannah Nordhaus. American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest (2015, HarperCollins) 3.50 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 3.43 out of 5 on Goodreads. The Internet says: “Part travelogue, part memoir, part ghost story, part history;” “beautifully written and self-aware.” “Now I know what a ghost is: unfinished business, that's what.” “This all sounds like a blast. But Julia [the ghost] is frail.” “Sometimes the story dragged on a little.” “Everyone loves a good ghost story.” “More than a ghost story.”

Nordhaus sets out to untangle the truths about her great-grandmother, rumored to be a ghost in the American southwest. Much like Empty Mansions, another book that tries to reveal a hidden or lost woman, silent and mysterious females have pasts drenched in mid-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century history: women inheriting immense wealth as a result of Westward Expansion; class, gender, and American-ness blend into a quest for identities. Less ghost story than twined exploration of American history, genealogy, culture, and pop culture, this book uses one family as a lens for legend and history, with a sliver of paranormal and memoir to make the thing easy reading for a wide variety of readers.

Cokie Roberts. Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868. (2015, HarperCollins) 4 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 3.77 out of 5 on Goodreads. According to the combined wisdom of the Interwebs: Cokie Roberts is “Cookie” and “a gifted narrator” with an “engaging narrative.” “Unfortunately the book is hard to follow.” “All the quotes made for a choppy read.” “Didn't dislike it.” “This could have been really good but I wanted it to be over because I couldn't take it anymore.”

Much like anonymous internet reviewer, I “didn't dislike” this book. I heard the interview of Cokie Roberts on the Diane Rehm Show about this book. The interview was good. Cokie Roberts has a voice like warm butterscotch and she is an encyclopedia or a news vault. And this book, centered on the Civil War, is okay. The use of exclamation points is…um, plentiful. The reach into the past into the journals and letters of the women is good, solid, built on documentation. And, still, the result is less compelling than Ken Burns' documentary of The Civil War. If it were me and I had to do it again, I would read the journals of Varina Davis and the other “capital dames.” But if you haven't the time, read Cokie (or “Cookie”), she's just fine.

Stacy Schiff. The Witches: Salem, 1692. (2015, Little, Brown and Company) 3 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 3.18 out of 5 on Goodreads. And the collective digital voice of readers around the world? The book “turned out to be a long-winded and tedious disappointment.” “There's probably no event in American history that looms so large in proportion to its size and impact than the Salem witch trials” begins one scholar's review. “I found this book to be a bit frustrating.” “Clunky and awkward.” “I feel like I missed something reading this book. Namely, the point.” “The Puritans were weirdos.”

Well, the Puritans were weirdos and, while I would disagree that the Salem witch trials loom larger than any other event in American history, this book covers the well-trod, frustrating, and significant Salem witch trials. Anyone who has ever been interested in Salem has read Demos and Crucible and seen Three Sovereigns for Sarah; they can converse in Cotton Mather and Goodwife so-and-so and Tituba. And it never quite clicks into focus. What was going on with those 12-year old and 20-year-old girls? What were the “elders” thinking? How could this happen? Schiff's Cleopatra** is so good, as biography, as use of the English language, that Schiff in Witches is, perhaps, a victim of her own success. This book is good. And, wisely, it begins with the cast list of the people involved with short descriptions of the relations and roles they held. This is necessary (and also why this book digitally or in audio form suffers a bit: that list is a requisite tool for every page). But, as good as this book is (and make no mistake, Schiff is a masterful writer), it pales compared to Cleopatra, and it's neither as personal or as academic as other versions of the Salem affair. It's an excellent companion piece but should never be the definitive or the authoritative version. For my two cents, it's worth reading, very far from “clunky, awkward,” or long-winded and tedious. Had Schiff focused on one or two of the people in the way she had been able to focus on Cleopatra, that book would rule the world. History, alas, will not provide the records for that. Women's voices need to be heard. But they can't. And so we imagine and construct. It always falls short. I blame the men of the past.

Francis Stonor Saunders. The Devil's Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy (2004, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins) 4 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 3.91 out of 5 on Goodreads. The web pronounces this a “stylishly embroidered narrative” compared frequently with the works of Barbara Tuchmann. “The character of [John] Hawkwood [the so-called 'devil's broker'] is deftly interwoven into the fabric of medieval Italy. Although he was English, he was a survivor.” “Saunders fails to take into account later scholarship.” “Although this book can in no way compare in accuracy and sheer scope of information to William Caferro's superior John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy, it is still worthwhile as long as the reader doesn't take anything Saunders says as fact.” “The papacy of these times will come a big shock.” “A good introduction to the warring mess of the Italian Warring States of the 14th Century.” “Here is also a marvelous source on reliquaries, sleeping attire, size of beds, weaponry, battle tactics, camp life, diet, armor, Chaucer, worth of money, indulgences, forced loans, and interdiction, to name a few subjects.”

This book, having read it twice, improves on the second read. The citations seem solid; the incorporation of strange details of life in the fourteenth century is immensely reassuring, interesting, and real. And, yet…this is such a tertiary source. It's one of those books you read as a corollary; but never, ever as a true, main way to understand late medieval Europe. There are two strengths to this book: (1) freebooters as a comparison to the modern world of Blackwater/Xe and the Middle East is extraordinarily useful. (2) The sense of nascent nationalism, monetarism, capitalism, and the questions of nobility, morality, and loyalty: so all-encompassing then but still present now; we're just so less well-versed in understanding the warps and weaves of global relational fabrics and alliances. It's not the least practical thing in the world to try to glimpse how people 500 years ago operated in their violent world with these parameters. Saunders helps. She doesn't clarify. But she's a solid additive or addendum.

 

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