Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Things I Learned from Knitting (Whether I Wanted to or Not)

I picked up Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's new book with some birthday money. It's such a slight little thing that I'm not even sure I should count it as a real book for my reading tally. It's a little collection of essays on the lessons McPhee, aka the Yarn Harlot, has learned from her years of knitting. Since I'm still relatively new to this whole knitting gig - less than a year of sock making - I still haven't learned many of the ones she lists.

But like the Yarn Harlot, I have learned that knitting teaches you patience. Knitting is the only thing in my life right now that makes me sit still and be calm. I've knitted myself out of looming panic attacks and survived interminable waits at airports thanks to knitting. I'm glad I got started on it again, and at this point, I don't see myself giving it up any time soon.

Beautiful Cigar Girl

The full title is The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. My former boss from the Attorney General's office loaned me this book, and I was just thrilled. Her niece is the curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, VA and had sent the book to her. I figured that any book recommended by the head of the Poe museum would be a good one.

The book covers the sensational murder of Mary Rogers, a girl who had worked at a cigar emporium in New York City. She was famous throughout the city for her beauty and modesty, and many credit the cigar store's success with her presence. Men would go to the store just to catch a glimpse of her.

A year or so after quitting her job at the store to help her mother run their boarding house, Rogers was found dead, floating in the Hudson River, her corpse showing signs of horrible trauma. The case was a media sensation, with the papers competing to scoop each other with new details.

The book also covers Poe's life, which was just such a tragic one. I had never read any biographies of Poe, and I didn't know much other than he was found in a gutter in Baltimore, incoherent and close to death.

Poe had such great potential, and came so close so many times to achieving success, but he really was his own worst enemy. It turns out he had a great talent for publishing and successfully ran several magazines in Baltimore, New York and Richmond. But he always ended up fighting with the owners and either getting fired or leaving under bad terms.

He published all of his poems and stories during his lifetime, but he never managed to make any money of them. He earned a whopping $9 for "The Raven," which was greeted with huge critical acclaim.

Poe ended up using the murder of Mary Rogers as the framework for a short story that was to be a follow-up to his successful "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," featuring the same sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin. In the first installment of the story, Poe promised that Dupin would solve the murder using nothing but "rationization" and the accounts published in the papers.

Ultimately, the murder was never solved and the case slowly faded from the press, and Poe ended up tweaking his fictional account of the murder when he re-published it in a collection of his work. He died shortly afterwards.

I loved this book and am going to have a hard time giving it back to ETB. I may also search out other biographies of Poe and pick up a collection of his works. I love when books I read make me want to read other books on the same topic.

Loving Frank

This is the first piece of fiction I've read in months, and I read it at my mother's suggestion. It's a novelization of the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his long-time mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Borthwick and Wright met when he designed a new house for her and her husband, the upright and staid Edwin Cheney. Wright and Borthwick's affair started during the planning for the garage addition to the house and continued for years afterwards.

I had a very hard time working up any sympathy for Borthwick. While I know women in 1910 had few options in terms of career and life choices, and I know she was desperate to be more than just a housewife and mother in Oak Park, Illinois, I can't justify her choice to abandon her children. She tiptoed out before dawn one morning, leaving her children sleeping at the home of a long-time friend, so that she could join Wright on a trip to Europe. She ended up staying in Europe for more than two years, not seeing her children once during that time.

According to the book, their affair caused quite the scandal for years - both when it was discovered and when they moved in together at Taliesin, the home Wright built in Wisconsin. Wright lost contracts and clients because of their relationship. The families on both sides, his and hers, were devastated by the furore.

Basically, you get the impression from this book that Wright was not the nicest of men. He refused to pay workers, telling them they should be honored to contribute to his genius. He wanted students to skip formal training and instead work in his studio, for no pay, just for the opportunity to study at his feet. Borthwick gave up her family to be with him and to pursue a career as a translator for a European women's rights writer. They were both just so selfish, and I had a hard time with that.

I ruined the ending for myself accidentally. I went to the Taliesin Web site to see what the house looked like and then went to Wikipedia hoping for more pictures. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry gave away a very surprising ending. If you don't already know what happened and intend to read the book, DON'T do any research.

Even though I knew what was going to happen, the ending left me gasping and devastated. And that's all I'll say.

The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher

I heard a review of this book on NPR's "All Things Considered" and immediately added it to my reading list.

It's about the murder of a young boy inside his locked him. From the outset, it's pretty obvious who committed the murder, and I won't give it away here. The interesting parts of the book are the details of the investigation and the look inside Victorian-era middle class life in England.

Detective work as we know it today was in its infancy at the time. Scotland Yard had just been formed, with just a few detectives on the staff. There were few scientific methods of detection available, and the detectives and investigators relied mostly on their instincts and hunches.

When assigned to this case, Mr. Wicher was something of the shining star of the detective force. He'd been profiled by Charles Dickens and used as a model for several characters in the burgeoning detective fiction genre.

Unfortunately, his conclusions about this case, while absolutely correct, weren't believed by the public, which followed the case closely, and some of his superiors. He ended up resigning shortly after the first trial. He was later redeemed by the murder's confession, but I'm sure that was small consolation to him.

The book wasn't quite engaging as I had hoped, mostly because there really isn't much mystery about who committed the murder, but I still enjoyed reading it for the historical aspects.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Monster of Florence

I'm a sucker for true-crime books and shows. If any of my neighbors ever go missing under mysterious circumstances, I'll be right there to help the cops.

I picked up this book last week because I couldn't find the book I really wanted. The trip to the bookstore was unplanned, so I didn't have my usual reading wish list with me. I also wanted to pick up Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country, but the store didn't have it in stock.

I am so glad I grabbed The Monster of Florence. I stayed up way too late two nights in a row because I couldn't stop reading.

The first half of the book deals with a series of gruesome murders in the hills around Florence. The killer stalked and killed couples "parking" in the hills, shooting the man and mutilating the woman in each case. To this day, the murders have not officially been solved.

The second half deals with the botched investigations and trials and the eventual involvement of the authors in the cases. They were both investigated as part of a grand plot initiated by a secret sect of devil worshippers. One of the authors, Mario Spezi, ended up in prison for a time because the judge in the case was convinced he was actually the murderer.

While the murders have never officially been solved, the authors leave little doubt as to who they think is responsible, and given the evidence they present, I'd have to agree.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

When You are Engulfed in Flames

I *heart* David Sedaris. Every time he comes to Austin to give a reading, I go hear him. I was fortunate enough to get to meet him one of those times. I love his style of writing and his wry sense of humor. I love the way, in interviews, he doesn't seem to realize how funny he is.

So I had been eagerly awaiting this new book. But I was a tiny bit disappointed. Me Talk Pretty One Day is still my favorite of all his collections of essays. I do like this book better than his last, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

I guess most of my disappointment stems from the fact that I've read or heard him read pretty much every essay in the book. Most of the pieces had already been published in "The New Yorker," to which I subscribe.

The tone of this book is more gentle than that of previous collections. Many of the essays are about his relationship with his boyfriend Hugh, and they are really very sweet. After reading them, you can see why Sedaris has been with Hugh for almost 20 years. Although, I am still baffled about why Hugh is with Sedaris, unless Sedaris doesn't give himself the credit he deserves for his side of the relationship. When I said that to one friend, she suggested that maybe Hugh stayed because of the money. But you find out in these essays that they've been together since before Sedaris was rich and famous. They met back when Sedaris was still working as a housekeeper, back when he was heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol.

My favorite section of the book, though, is the piece with Sedaris's journal entries from the three months he and Hugh spent living in Japan. I laughed out loud at many of the entries.

Now that this book is published, I'll just have to wait for my next favorite author, Sarah Vowell, to publish her book this fall.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


This biography, by Walter Isaacson, who wrote an excellent bio of Benjamin Franklin, was fascinating. I thought I knew a lot about Einstein, when in fact I didn't.

The things I didn't know surprised me.

  • Einstein had a very productive few years in his early career when he came up with the theory of relativity and the e=mc2 formula, but he still couldn't get a job as a professor.
  • Because of politics on the committee, he didn't win the Nobel for relativity or e=mc2, but rather for one of his other lesser-known theories.
  • He was treated like a rock star when he visited the states, with lectures attended by standing-room only audiences. On one trip to the states, he had to disembark his ship onto a tugboat in the harbor to evade the crowds waiting on the docks.
  • Even though Einstein developed the e=mc2 formula that led to nuclear fission and the atomic bomb, and even though he was one of the scientists who warned Roosevelt that the Germans might be developing nuclear weapons, Einstein was never involved in the Manhattan Project. He never even received security clearance even though many of his fellow physicists worked on the bomb project.
  • The FBI collected a dossier on Einstein that eventually contained thousands of pages of documents, all in an effort to prove he was a communist. However, they never could pin anything on him.

The earlier parts of the book, which are filled with explanations of Einstein's theories were tough going at times. There's a reason I struggled with physicis in high school - I just don't get it. But once I slogged through those sections, the book was really entertaining. Einstein was a fascinating man.

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters who Ruled Europe

My former boss from the Attorney General's office and I get together several times a year and have a grand book swap. We have similar tastes in books, so I always look forward to what she brings me.

She brought this book, which is about four sisters from Provence, France who all became queens during the 13th Century. One was queen of France, one of England, one of Sicily (mostly a purchased title by her husband), and one of Germany (also a purchased title).

This was without a doubt the most engaging and readable history book I've come across in a long time. The amount of contemporary documentation available to Nancy Goldstone, the author, is incredible, so she is able to provide very complete pictures of the lives of these women.

One of the things that amazed me about the stories of these women is how long kings and queens would leave their countries for. The king and queen of France go on a crusade to the Holy Land, which goes horribly awry, and are away for several years, leaving the country in the hands of the queen mother while they are gone. Could you imagine such a system now?

I also didn't know that there were royal titles essentially up for sale. One of the sisters became queen of Sicily, very briefly before dying, because her husband offered the pope a lot of money and fronted his own army to overthrow the ruler who was already there.

I'd say that example is so different from how things work today, but given our current political system, I'm not so sure that's accurate.