‘Duel with the Devil’ is about so much more — and less

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is a headline that is nearly longer than the story it has to tell. For all its length, the title is a bit misleading as to the overall subject of this historical nonfiction, as the actual murder trial is but a small fraction of Paul Collins’ otherwise well-researched and interesting work.

Collins does a very good job of giving the reader a sense of time and place — in this case, New York City at the close of the 18th century. He explains the ways in which the legal system of the day was so heavily weighted toward the prosecution that to be accused of a crime was virtually to be convicted. The concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” had yet to become part of the foundation of criminal justice. All of which means that once Levi Weeks, a carpenter who living in the same boardinghouse as the murder victim, becomes the target of public accusation, he is all but fitted for the gallows. Enter Hamilton and Burr to save the day.

The problem is that the trial itself takes just two days and the jury deliberates for less than 30 minutes before returning its verdict, leaving little for Collins to gin up into a legal thriller. And that’s just one of the anticlimactic episodes I found, which included the rather prosaic reason that such sworn political enemies as Hamilton (staunch Federalist) and Burr (equally rabid Republican) found themselves on the same side of a case (the common ground being their complete inability to pay their debts, leaving them obliged to Mr. Weeks’ uncle). Further, following Weeks’ acquittal no one else was ever charged, though Collins attempts to “solve” the crime by unearthing some apparently little-known facts about another of the boardinghouse’s roomers.

Of course, with a title like Duel with the Devil, you had to figure that the famous duel between Hamilton and Burr would get some attention and it does — and again, while this section is well-researched, well-written and interesting, it has zippo to do with the putative subject of the book.

In short, then, I recommend Duel with the Devil for anyone interested in the early years of the United States, or the history of the legal system. Just be aware that the crime and trial of the title are the least of this book’s most interesting aspects.

The butterfly effect flaps its wings for Lively

The butterfly effect is a metaphor used in the study of chaos theory to explain how a small action in a remote part of a system can have large effects far from the source. That’s the phenomena that Penelope Lively examines to great delight in How It All Began.

An elderly woman is mugged. She falls, breaks her hip, is forced to move in with her daughter and son-in-law while she recovers. And that particular flap of the butterfly’s wings leads into consequences in a multitude of lives, near and far.

Lively has taken a common premise — the effect of chance in all of our lives — and deftly turned out a uniquely charming and thoughtful novel. Charlotte is that elderly crime victim, a widowed retired schoolteacher. Rose is her dutiful and loving daughter, who brings her mother into her home completely unaware of the emotional havoc that will be wrought. Charlotte herself remains oblivious to much of the havoc that will result, even in the lives of people neither Rose nor Charlotte have ever met. Marriages are destroyed and saved, romances go sour and blossom, careers are ended and begun, and all because a juvenile delinquent decided to assault a total stranger.

Lively’s writing lives up to her name. On the surface it is lighthearted, breezy, casual, but I found myself stopping again and again to mark passages that managed to capture truths that felt universal:

Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Charlotte, left alone for great swaths of the day, has plenty of time to think about her current circumstances:

You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not — life has been lived but it is all still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse. But don’t imagine that anyone else wants to know about it; this narrative is personal, and mind you remember that.

Her injury brings her face-to-face with the reality of having lived seventy-seven years:

You slide, in old age, into a state of perpetual diffidence, of unspoken apology. You walk more slowly than normal people, you are obliged to say “what?” too often, others have to give up their seat on the bus to you, on train journeys you must ask for help with your absurdly small and light case. There is a void somewhere in your head into which tip the most familiar names. … When you were young yourself you were appropriately nice to old people, gave up your seat and so forth, but you never really thought about them. They were another species, their experience was unimaginable, and in any case it was irrelevant; you were not going there, or at least not for so long that there was no need to consider it.

And, of course, the ever-present reminder of her physical state:

Pain is in residence. Charlotte is a pain expert, or maybe connoisseur is a better term. She can rate pain on a scale of one to ten, as required in hospital, even slipping in a half on occasion. “Six and a half this morning,” and the nurse’s pen falters — the charts do not allow for this. But when you have lived for years with pain you are nicely tuned to that extra notch up or down. More than that, she is familiar with the way in which pain chases around the body, popping up where it should not be. Referred pain, this is called, a sly escape from the root site of the problem. Indeed — but Charlotte sees it also as pain’s malign capacity to mutate, to advance and retreat, to behave like some bodily parasite with its own agenda, gnawing away when it feels like it, going into deceptive hibernation only to spring back grinning just when you thought the going was good. … So pain has seized the opportunity, has danced into her spine — and into the backside and down the legs — and has shoved the hip aside for the moment. Tomorrow all may be otherwise; hip may snarl, back may be in remission — pain’s agenda is unpredictable, perverse, defiant.

And always, Lively celebrates the joy of reading, of books, of learning a second language:

Language blazed at him—all day, every day. It challenged him from the sides of buses, in the Tube, from newspapers. On the radio, the television, in the street. He looked and listened, trying to follow. He snatched what he could — Ah! that I understand, this I can get. Swathes of it escaped him, chattering away into oblivion. And parallel to this perverse, obstructive language ran the words in his own head, the easy, fluent eloquence of his own tongue. When in a foreign country, he thought, you are behind a fence, or in a cell — everything is going on around you but you are not quite part of it. You open your mouth and sound like a child; you know that you are someone else, but you cannot explain it.

Balancing a light tone with some heavy philosophical musings isn’t easy, but Lively manages to walk the tightrope without a wobble. I read this book as part of the British Author Challenge on LibraryThing, where Lively was one of two authors featured in January. How It All Began was a splendid introduction to the work of this venerable British writer.

Bookish DIY from Book Riot

photo of book tote with a chalkboard paint square to write on

A tote bag with a chalkboard paint insert means you’ll never forget when your library books are due.

Over at Book Riot, one of my favorite sites of literary mayhem, they have a roundup of crafty projects to help you carry your library booty home with you. The chalkboard tote is the winner for me. How about you?

Bookish DIY: Book Totes for Kids (Book Riot)

‘Cuckoo’ takes flight without a wizard in sight

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Gailbraith. (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This one almost slipped past me. I knew, of course, that J.K. Rowling had written a detective novel for adults under a pen name, but all I remember reading about it was that fact; there must have been reviews of the book as a book and not a publishing phenomenon but I don’t remember reading any. But if you hang around LibraryThing or any other group of avid readers, you know how it goes: Listen to enough people talking about what they’re reading and eventually all those positive comments start to accumulate even in an overstuffed brain like mine. Off to the library!

And you know what? I’m glad I listened to all of you, because this one is pretty darn good. Cormoran Strike is a former war hero-turned-private detective, down to one leg and down on his luck, when a rich client comes to him with an impossible case: Prove that the death of his sister, a world-famous model, was murder and not suicide. Even Strike doesn’t believe it’s true, but he needs the money and brother John is willing to pay. And a funny thing happens on the way to a no-hoper payday: Strike starts to think brother dear is right.

Strike is no Sherlock Holmes. There are no wild “aren’t I clever” flights of deductive genius on display, just dogged determination and a tenuous sense for who’s not telling the whole truth. Temp secretary Robin ably plays non-Watson to Strike’s non-Holmes, with parts of the book told from her point of view. Galbraith/Rowling portrays Strike as a bit of a sad sack, reduced to sleeping in his office when he breaks up with his rich girlfriend, but somehow makes him an appealing sack for all of that. I’ve already put myself on the holds list the library for the second in the series, The Silkworm.

Oh, no! Not another series! But this one’s pretty good

A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd. (William Morrow, 2009)

Another series? When I already have way too many series going (80, according to FictFact.com, and who ever thought that was a good idea, tracking series)? What can I say? I am helpless before the mighty ebook sale tsunami!

Alas, this series of mysteries featuring World War I nurse Bess Crawford was worth breaking all my self-imposed rules for. The first book finds Bess, home on convalescent leave after the hospital ship she served on was sunk at sea, traveling to Kent to deliver a deathbed message to the family of a soldier who died under her care. While there, she manages to get tangled in a decades-old murder mystery. As one does, apparently, when one is a spunky WWI nurse with a heart of gold and a brain of … steel (trap)? Whatever.

I liked that this series defied some of the typical conventions. Perhaps Bess is a bit too spunky for the times, but her family (including her highly respected military dad) cautiously encourages her free spirit to a remarkable extent. That’s refreshing, as is the near-total lack of a romantic entanglement for Bess, who while no raving beauty is apparently not a complete “antidote” (yes, I’ve been reading too much Georgette Heyer lately).

Will I continue with the series? Oh sure, why not? I liked Bess and I liked her dad and his faithful batman. I’m curious to know what she gets up to next. It’s a helluva thing when an English nurse has to worry more about the murderous deeds of her fellow countrymen than those blasted Germans, though.

Thriller about the dictionary (!) aims high and falls just short

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon (Random House, 2014)

In the not-so-distant future nearly everyone owns a Meme, a sort of supercharged iPhone that can access information not only across the Internet but inside your brain. It knows to call a cab when you get in the elevator to head home from work. It can order for you at restaurants, anticipating what you will want to eat, bypassing the need for waiters and waitresses and their forced chumminess. And it can provide you with all the entertainment you could ever want, from videos (“streams”) to art (“glyphs”) to books.

In fact, so successful are Memes at running their owners’ lives, the need for the printed word is all but gone. Newspapers, magazines, and books have all gone online, the better to be accessed by Meme, and dictionaries have been superseded by The Word Exchange, an online program that instantly pops up definitions on the Meme’s screen when it hears a word spoken in your conversations that you don’t recognize. It’s so quick and easy to look up what you don’t know — phone numbers, song titles, word definitions — that people stop bothering to remember … well, anything. So what happens when a virus spreads a sort of “word flu” inside the Meme operating system that leaves people unable to think straight, speak coherently or use language at all?

That’s the premise of The Word Exchange, a book that has a big, exciting premise and lots of small successes but fails to completely pull together into a satisfying whole. The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Anana, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). The edition that is about to be printed will be the last printed dictionary on earth and when Doug disappears just prior to the big launch, Anana suspects something sinister might have happened to him. But who could be behind his disappearance? Who wants to suppress the NADEL’s publication? What is going on in the boiler room in the dictionary’s basement? And why are Anana and lots of other people suddenly unable to remember even the simplest vocabulary as she searches for answers?

Along with the suspenseful aspects of the plot (“a thriller about the dictionary” is how I described it to my friend Liz), Graedon provides long swatches of conversation and musings by Anana and co-worker Bart on the meaning of language and words. A fair bit of it went over my head, since I was sick the day we covered philosophy in school (ahem), but I got enough of the gist to appreciate what might be at stake in a world where printed words no longer exist. If there’s no authoritative source to prove what a word means (given that online definitions can be altered in the blink of an eye), who gets to write the definitions? And what if the people in charge don’t have the most noble intentions?

I wanted to love this book more than I did, although I liked it plenty. It felt as though Graedon expended so much energy and space on both the background of how Memes became so ubiquitous and the philosophy of language that the actual day-to-day plot got shoved to the side at times. The big reveal of the bad guys was a bit anticlimactic.

It felt as if The Word Exchange wanted to be two different books — a suspenseful mystery and a love letter to language and the written word — and in the end both suffered a bit for being crammed into the same suitcase. I still think it’s well worth reading, however, for the ways it will make you think about how much you’ve ceded your memory to your computer and smartphone, and how much you love the way language can communicate the human experience in all its glory and despair.

Classic Vonnegut still resonates

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte, 1969)

Thanks to a friend’s American Author Reading Challenge (read at least one book by a specific author in each month of 2014), I finally tackled this classic novel that has been on my shelves forever. It’s hard for me to understand how I didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that the main character was named Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden in World War II featured prominently, but so it goes. It was a surprise and a delight to discover the way Vonnegut used farcical situations and humor to illuminate some deadly serious events.

The central conceit of the novel, if that’s the right term for it, is that Billy Pilgrim has the unsettling habit of becoming “unstuck in time”, wherein he travels backwards and forwards in the timeline of his own life, experiencing and re-experiencing the things that have happened or will happen to him. Pilgrim himself is convinced that the catalyst is a race of extraterrestrials who at one point kidnap him and put him on display in a sort of human zoo on their home planet. Vonnegut leaves it to the reader to decide what they think is the real cause of the time traveling episodes. Is Pilgrim mentally ill? Did his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war during WWII unhinge his brain? Are the Tralfmadorians real, with their non-linear understanding of what time is? Billy tries to explain their sense of time:

It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’.

It’s easy to see how such a philosophy might comfort a man who has seen unimaginable death and destruction, in the war and back home in upstate New York.

I found myself marking many passages as I read Slaughterhouse-Five and I could fill a review with them. But I’ll end with just one more quote, which though written in 1969 could as easily have been penned in some non-linear today or tomorrow:

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive truth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

So it goes.

The most boring ‘behind the scenes’ book you’ll ever read

Country Music Broke My Brain, Gerry House. (BenBella Books, 2014)

Gerry House spent many years inside the country-music establishment in Nashville, both as a songwriter of hits for big stars and as a popular radio deejay whose show frequently hosted many of those same big stars. In other words, he is perfectly situated to know all the juiciest gossip and behind-the-scenes details of what often seems more like a small town than a multi-billion dollar industry.

When I picked this book up, I was hoping for an updated version of Three Chords and the Truth: Hope, Heartbreak and Changing Fortunes in Nashville, written by Laurence Leamer and published in 1997. That one is a good honest look at how the musical sausage gets made in Music City. It isn’t salacious or scandalous but Leamer doesn’t pull his punches when sketching the personalities and interactions of those who are hoping to make it big, have already made it big, or get to decide which of the former get to be the latter.

Alas, House is probably a little too closely associated with the movers and shakers in today’s country music scene to write the kind of book that truly breaks new ground. Never mind not dishing the dirt; House barely has anything even slightly critical to say about anyone who is still alive. A couple of mildly scandalous stories are told as anonymous fables, and it wasn’t even worth the time to try to figure out who they might be referring to. And throughout the short chapters, House’s ba—da-bump rimshot one-liner jokey style wears thin much more quickly in print than it does on the radio.

I was also annoyed that House takes a swipe at the Americana genre (or, as I like to call it, country music that’s too good to get played on the radio) by referring to artists in that genre as people who aren’t good enough to get a record deal; in addition to being surprisingly mean-spirited for a guy in whose mouth butter seemingly wouldn’t melt, he’s just flat-out wrong. Those little digs made me think that House is well aware of the artistic deficiencies in today’s brand of radio-friendly country music but you’ll never get him to admit it, apparently. At least not while he’s still hoping to get some of his cuts onto albums that get played in heavy rotation. Maybe once he’s well and truly retired he’ll come back and write another book that’s more interesting and more readable than this frothy mash note. More likely, we’ll have to wait for another outsider like Leamer to come along and shine a flashlight into the pit.

‘The Martian’ is an out-of-this-world good read

The Martian, Andy Weir. (Random House, 2014)

This book, the story of an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who gets left for dead when his crewmates evacuate in a crisis, has a lot of the elements that made me think for so long I didn’t like science fiction. Primarily, it has techno-babble. Lots and lots of techno-babble. And chemistry. And math (“I’ll spare you the math,” narrator Mark Watney says at one point, after having already devoted three long paragraphs to math, and just before devoting the rest of the chapter to … you guessed it, math ). And acronyms galore, from MDV and MAV to EVA and AREC.

So of course I hated it, right? Wrong! The Martian is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who is witty and smart and arctic chill under pressure. And he gets lots of practice being cool and unflappable, as crisis after crisis threaten to end his Mars castaway gig quicker than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle in August. Even after Watney is able to make contact with NASA to let them know he isn’t dead yet, he faces a real puzzle: how can he survive four years until the rescue mission can reach him, with food that will only last for about a year?

How Watney and NASA tackle that problem, and the other half-dozen that threaten to fulfill Watney’s missed destiny as the first late great Martian, kept me turning pages right to the end. Andy Weir tells the story with breezy blasts of profane humor that will almost have you believing that being stranded on Mars wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The beginner’s guide to Islam

No god but God, Reza Aslan. (Random House, 2011)

There was a lot to like in this book. It served me well as a good introduction to the Muslim faith, its origins and its evolution to what we see today. I have a new appreciation for the diversity of belief that Islam encompasses, and I finally (mostly) understand the differences between the Shi’a, Sunni, and Sufi branches of Islam.

The biggest takeaway, of course, is reinforcement of the knowledge that a very small percentage of the world’s Muslims hold the kind of fundamentalist viewpoint that has led to terrorist attacks on the West. Aslan’s explanation of how the words of the Quran have been interpreted in ways that seem completely contrary to the actions and words of its prophet, Mohammed, are akin to describing a centuries-long game of telephone played to advance political viewpoints. Things get lost in translation and interpretation, accidentally and deliberately, but once lost they are difficult to retrieve.

It’s also less than heartening to read that much of the growth in fundamentalist Islam came about as a direct result of Western colonial activity in the Middle East, India, and Africa. It’s difficult to read about brutal suppression and the deliberate pitting of one faith’s true believers against another’s in order to ensure native populations would be too fractured to mount a successful revolution, especially with the hindsight of what those actions wrought over the long term and into our current political landscape. In that sense, this book only reaffirmed my belief that we have no place, militarily, in the Middle East today. What is happening in Iraq is tragic, to be sure, and partly our fault, but nothing we do now is likely to make it better. We would have been far better off never to have started the war in the first place. Perhaps it’s no use crying over those past decisions but we need to keep reminding people that time has proven them to be total failures lest we stumble into the same minefield all over again, as has happened time and again.

Given all of that, Aslan seems unduly optimistic that the current brand of fundamentalist Islam that has led to so many terrorist attacks will wane as the overwhelmingly young Muslim population moves away from that message and toward a version of populist democracy. He cites the people’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to support his view, although a reader can’t help but notice that the book was written before the “Arab Spring” failed to truly catch hold and in some places was brutally suppressed or slid backwards into tyranny once again.

Aslan also is optimistic that Islam and democracy can (and will) co-exist, though he rightly points out that we in the West must stop thinking our brand of democracy is the only right way to do it. Certainly Americans have an innate distrust of government that overtly espouses a religious viewpoint, but Aslan argues that just as Muhammed ruled the city of Medina without persecuting the Jewish and Christian minorities who lived and traded there, the same governance model could work today.

As you might expect from a book that encompasses more than 900 years of history in just 300 pages, the best that can be said about No god but God is that it is a decent introduction to Islam for those like me who knew little. Further reading would be necessary to truly understand many of the complex subjects that Aslan only lightly touches on, but he provides a strong starting point for the curious.