Recent Reads: Reviews at Lightning Speed!

July 24, 2022 at 1:10 am (Art, Mystery fiction)

I didn’t think I’d ever read another book about Abraham Lincoln since finishing the elegant, immensely moving Lincoln on the Verge by Ted Widmer. But this volume intrigued me, especially in regard to the history of the Booth family. As Alford succinctly states, “The son of one family killed the son of the other in the most infamous and consequential murder in American history.”

This book is filled with largely anecdotal tales of people possessing knowledge of events that will occur in the future. The accounts are spread out over time and place, giving the book a somewhat confusing structure – at least it seemed so to me.

One event that does loom large is the collapse of the Aberfan Colliery Spoil Tip in October of 1966. (Aberfan is a village in Wales.)

Knight also tells the story of a train wreck. One of the passengers was Robin Gibb, soon to become famous, along with his brothers, as the Bee Gees.

Some years later, the Gibb brothers were at a recording studio when the power suddenly went out. They found themselves sitting in a darkened stairwell, waiting for something to happen.

Barry Gibb recalls:

‘”That song didn’t take a lot of thinking about because it is a catastrophe and catastrophes happen all the time.” He added: “The atmosphere just came and the song just came.’

The song was odd and somewhat haunting.”

This was fun! I learned a lot, too. Heller introduced me to a number of interesting artists. Admittedly, some of these works didn’t do much for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by others.

Like this one, by Frank Stella:

Quaqua! Attaccatai La!

The story of the nineteenth century obsession with finding the source of the Nile River. The expeditions undertaken into Africa are good examples of a trip you would never wish to take, unless you are confirmed masochist. Millard’s focus is on two explorers who did in fact undertake it: Richard Burton and John Speke.

That’s Burton on the left. This visual makes them look like great buddies. In reality, they were anything but.

Candice Millard is the author of Destiny of the Republic, a book which made a powerful impression on me and on many others as well. She admits that it was a difficult story to write, and I can understand why. It was difficult to read, too. But people need to know about the quiet heroism of James A. Garfield. He was shot by an disappointed office seeker who was clearly insane. Garfield endured months of acute misery before finally passing away at the age of 49.

The plot of Swanson’s thriller is exceptionally cunning and fast moving. Nothing too profound here, but good fun and excellent escapism.

A primer on the ecology of the Southeast, a subject about which I knew next to nothing. I know more now, but the book is so rich with anecdote and evocative description, I fear I have retained very little of its riches. A Road Running Southward is a prime candidate for rereading, I think.

The author’s choice to anchor his own experience to that of John Muir is a device that works beautifully. Many people know of Muir’s explorations of Northern California, especially his adventures in the High Sierras, his “range of light.” But before heading West, Muir headed South, and kept a detailed journal of his observations while traveling – on foot, naturally.

“‘Today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I behold the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded,except by the sky,’ he wrote in A Thousand Mile Walk. ‘What dreams and speculative matter arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!'”

Comparisons between what Muir saw then and what the author sees now are inevitable, and often deeply dismaying.

Dan Chapman has produced a marvelously informative work. A world unknown to me came vividly to life. Highly recommended.

The first part of this book reads more like an exposé than anything else. Most of us know about the lobotomies, but not about the furious rate at which they were performed in the early years of the twentieth century, and the inadequacy with which the outcomes were made known. Then of course there is electroconvulsive therapy, the results of which were also rather horrific, at least when it first came into use.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This is a complex subject, but Scull treats it in a lucid manner. One thing is made clear: Treating mental illness is a very perplexing undertaking. That is as true today, as it was a hundred years ago:

“Mental illness remains a baffling collection of disorders, many of them resisting our most determined efforts to probe their origins or to relieve the suffering they bring in their train.”

This book is filled with fascinating revelations. I found it a mesmerizing read.

And now: Even in a field of such superior works , this one stands out.

The Goldenacre is many things at once: a thriller complete with a cunning plot and a twist at the end that I, for one, did not see coming; a terrific sense of place, that place being Edinburgh, a compelling cast of characters whose motives are not always obvious, and finally, writing that absolutely soars.

The title refers to a painting attributed to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Here is how it is described:

“Mackintosh had painted a blaze of white sky, and, within that blaze, something living and diaphanous. In the distance sat the black of the Pentlands. They had been rendered as if they were not bare hills stripped of their native trees but two giant legs and a mammoth body: a distant giant cut from the landscape. The perspective of The Goldenacre was unnerving: the field was both flat and three-dimensional, and the height down to the foreground was precipitous. Throughout, the colours were bold and watery, as rich as a passing reality, as sorrowful as a dream departing upon waking.”

The story involves a young man with the improbably name of Thomas Tallis whose job it is to verify this attribution.

Anyway, just take my word for it. The Goldenacre gives proof that people can still create works of this caliber. I’m deeply grateful to Philip Miller, a writer whom I did not know. I know him now. And on the strength of this novel, I am deeply, deeply impressed by him.

Philip Miller

1 Comment

  1. sandyspherespace said,

    I am so happy to find your posts while looking for information on why Lisette Lecat did not narrate The 20th installment of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
    Thank you for your posts! I go back to them now to see what to add to my reading list.

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