Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
A bomb goes off outside a high school basketball game in Shiprock, and the “wrong” man dies …
Set partly in New Mexico, partly in Arizona, and entirely within the Navajo Nation, this is Anne Hillerman’s best yet. Again, her strengths are character, setting and relationships, as well as a solid plot. A good mystery is not only a case to be solved, but a story about people the reader cares about. Hillerman integrates police work with family and friendships, Navajo culture, and a sense of the sacred.
Bernadette Manuelito is again a strong and engaging central character, with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in supporting roles. It was wonderful to read a few chapters in Leaphorn’s point of view, and I admired how the author tuned into his thinking and personality, with explorations of his inner life as well as his process as he solves a puzzle. The new characters are unique and original personalities, including, as Anne Hillerman always does so well, genuine, natural humor. The bombing victim’s story is sad and true to life, making this one of the most emotionally moving mysteries I’ve read, and the man who was the real target of the attempt is developed with depth and complexity.
The various Native cultures linked to the Grand Canyon region have meaningful moments in the telling of the story, and the canyon itself comes to life as a setting. The red herrings are believable and the final solution to the mystery makes sense without a single forced bend in the trail to get there.
This is the twenty-first book in the series. A reader could begin here and not be lost, but I recommend reading all of them, the three by Anne Hillerman and the ones by her father Tony Hillerman that preceded them. When I moved, I gave away most of my paperback mysteries, but I kept these.
Never can I write of Damascus
without my fingers becoming
a trellis for her jasmine.
Nor can my mouth speak that name
without savoring the juices of her apricot,
pomegranate, mulberry and quince.
Poem by Nizar Qabbani.
Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project
Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.
If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.
Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.
The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.
Author Nupur Tustin casts composer Franz Joseph Haydn in the role of amateur sleuth, and does so with believable realism, creating a situation in which Haydn has no choice but to take on the role. Not only has his principal violinist disappeared, but the missing man has stolen some of Haydn’s unpublished new music. The plot grows more complex, entangled in political unrest and a love affair.
The working life and the social standing of musicians and their place in a royal court is a fascinating part of the historical setting. The book is full of original and intriguing characters, especially Haydn’s observant and difficult wife. Though she’s hard to live with, she provides valuable insight into the mystery. Finding her to be such a strong character, I would have enjoyed a little more description of her kitchen and her clothes (since she seems fonder of cooking and shopping than of her husband). I want to know her better, and hope to see more of her in future books in the series.
The author’s musical background—she is a composer herself—gives authenticity to the book. She strikes a good balance between the elements of a historical novel and a cozy mystery. The plot is unpredictable. Every time I thought I had the mystery figured out, along came another surprise, right up until the end. And the end is excellent. One of the best final lines I’ve read lately.
While this is a novel about crime at one level, a nerve-stretching, page-turning suspense story, it’s also the story of a man’s soul, his deepest loves, his darkest corners, his inner light, his passions, and his art. Heller gets inside the process of Jim Stegner’s whole being. When you read this book, you, feel as if you are Jim. You wade into his favorite fishing streams with him, experience his blinding rages with him, fall into the flow of creative inspiration with him, and feel every twist and turn in the road with him, as he navigates his grief over his teenaged daughter’s death, his fame, and his conflict with a dangerous man whose family doesn’t forgive or forget. Ever.
Jim is no saint, but he stands up for the weak, and he does it with fists. When he sees a man beating a horse, Jim fights with him in front of witnesses, breaks the man’s nose and liberates the horse. And so begins Jim’s trip to hell. There are stops in brief but intense heavens of love, painting and fishing, but this time Jim’s inner demons have pulled in some real ones, and they won’t leave him alone.
The landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is so alive as seen through this painter and fisherman’s eyes that it’s virtually a character in the book, it. The people in Jim’s life—his model Sofia, his friends, his oft-remembered late daughter, the police who question him—are vivid and multi-dimensional, and even the passing minor characters are so finely portrayed they seem to have lives beyond the story. The scenes revolving around art in Santa Fe are drawn from life: the wealthy collectors, the galleries, and the lionizing of the famous man. As scandal and suspicion grow around Jim, so does the value of his art. The confluence of the public pressure for pictures and interviews with the inner pressure from his emotions and the sense of being hunted like prey come together in an explosive and unexpected conclusion.
For an interview with the author about this book, go to
and click on the video for The Painter. The story behind the book is as fascinating as the book itself.
Francis Bacon is appointed to a disturbing and unwelcome job, as a member of a commission involved in the interrogation of Catholics. This is regarded as service to his country, with Catholic Spain being England’s enemy and religion and politics being intertwined. Meanwhile, Lady Alice Trumpington, looking forward to the eventual privileges and property of widowhood, marries a very old man. The book opens with her wedding night—both a comedy scene and a love scene—and then a murder. Someone kills her husband while she is not in bed with him. This plot thread weaves into Francis’s unpleasant assignment when the murder is connected to others—all the victims men suspected of Catholic sympathies.
A group of intelligent, purposeful widows engage Francis to investigate and become Lady Alice’s advisors in her new role. The complexity of the law as it applied to women and religion is integrated into the story without the slightest hitch in the action. (Should anyone need a reminder why the separation of church and state was a wise innovation in the development of democratic government, or why women’s rights have been such a long work in progress, a trip back in time to Elizabethan England will provide it.)
There’s a delightfully Shakespearean flavor to Lady Alice’s and her maidservant’s adventures in disguise, as well as an illustration of the limits on a woman’s freedom. Castle's writing style is polished, her research thorough, her mastery of the idiom of the times excellent, and her characters are irresistible. The relationships established in the previous books continue to develop, especially the connection between Tom Clarady and Trumpet (Lady Alice).
A sailor from Tom’s father’s ship is an original new character, and I liked seeing England through his eyes. However, he delivers a plot turn so strong its emotional impact overshadows everything else. I never guessed whodunit, but I was so taken up with the new events that I forgot to try to figure it out. There is also a bit of wordplay-based misunderstanding relating to this sailor that I found somewhat stretched. Until this point, the balance between serious and comic material felt exactly right, and I was thinking that the book was the best in the series. After that, however, the transitions seemed too close together, so the impact of each was, to my mind, blunted. I would have preferred to have the new story line come at the beginning of the next book. And I will read the next book. Though I didn’t find this one to be quite perfect, I most definitely enjoyed it.
Author Benjamin Radford obviously enjoys his work and enjoys telling his success stories. In many ways, he is thorough and scientific, such as when he investigates lake monster sightings or crop circles, and the claims of showman-type psychic who do tricks on TV. He does good detective work on ghosts as well, though I’m not sure he has proven they don’t exist, only that the methods of most investigators are poor and that the ghosts he has investigated don’t exist.
He falls short in his investigation of a “psychic detective” who was consulted by police. All the information she came up with was correct, but it was not as specific as she and others said it was when asked about it long after the event. Thus he shows the fallibility of memory over time, but not that she was initially incorrect. Her information given at the time of the crime (less detailed than that which was misremembered years later) was not specific enough that the police could have found the killer using it, but it was detailed enough that claiming she got it right by chance strikes me as a stretch. Radford says that her identification of the killer as an ethnically Eastern European man with hard K sound in his name and having a connection with a mechanic or being one, and having served prison time in the South are all just random guesses with good odds of being right. He didn’t do a statistical analysis of these factors to see if her odds of being right on this combination of traits were in fact as good as her odds of being wrong. The murder took place in New Jersey. He writes that 7% of the population of New Jersey at the time was Eastern European and therefore the odds of an accurate guess were good. But were they? 93% percent of people in New Jersey were not Eastern European. She had a much greater chance of being wrong. Of that Eastern European 7%, one can assume half were male. How many of that 3.5% of the state’s population had worked in a gas station or had relatives who did? Perhaps many. Jersey has a lot of gas stations. I’ll make that 2.5% of the New Jersey population just to lean in Radford’s favor. And of that 2.5% of the population, how many had a hard K sound in their names? It’s common in Eastern European names, so I’ll barely shave anything off and get this down to 2% of the population of New Jersey at the time. And of that 2% how many had served prison time in the South? (I have no idea, but if all of them had it would be remarkable.) Radford’s error in logic is assuming that because he can dispute the accuracy of various people’s memories years after the fact that he can prove she isn’t psychic. In another section, he showed that a performing card-guessing “psychic” was doing a magician’s card tricks, but this case isn’t the same. Nonetheless, he expresses dismay that the woman is still working as a psychic and refers to her customers as “victims.” He doesn’t notice the errors in his reasoning, and yet he critiques others for faulty thinking. A true skeptic has an open mind and looks carefully at what comes into it. Once in a great while, there may be a real psychic even if the majority are frauds.
Radford tells readers that he shows respect and compassion for people who believe in paranormal events. He investigated a house in which a couple perceived a scary haunting and he successfully explained the normal nature of the various events that taken together were misinterpreted as a ghost. This was a real service. But he tends to describe the couple in terms that make them look bad to the reader, by emphasizing, for example, that there was no ghostly emanation other than the cloud from the couple’s chain-smoking. The mockery is subtle, but it’s still mockery. He also uses as many disparaging adjectives as he can for other, less skeptical investigators.
I’m not sure if he takes himself as seriously as he seems to. Relieving frightened people of the fear their house is haunted is valuable, but most of what he does is merely entertaining. It doesn’t change the quality of lives for the most part. After all, what harm is there in people thinking they saw a Bigfoot? Or doing spooky TV shows hunting for ghosts? Yes, they use unscientific methods, but is entertainment harmful? He shows great concern for the dead who are reputed to be ghosts but less respect for the living who believe in them.
The book’s comingling of unrelated paranormal beliefs, ranging from cryptozoology (chupacabras and lake monsters and Bigfoot) to crop circles, to ghost sightings and psychics, and even a non-paranormal investigation into Pokemon cartoon-induced seizures in Japan made it more of a Benjamin Radford trophy case than a how-to book for would-be investigators. Though he does give some basics for how to hunt for ghosts, and also some explanations of how he disproves lake monsters and crop circles, it’s more of a how-I-did-it book than a how-you-can-do-it book.
It includes short sections by the same people who blurbed the book. I’m not sure what this means, but I noticed it.
The editing and proofreading could have been better. I usually find two or three typos in most books, but this had a few too many, as well as grammatical errors and even oddities like different font sizes on the same page. The title needed better editing. After all, if it’s a mystery, it’s unexplained, and if it’s been explained, it’s not a mystery.
Despite all the flaws, I enjoyed reading it. He’s a competent raconteur and I learned some useful material for a novel I’m working on.
I read this because a fictional character recommended it. In the Pot Thief mysteries by J. Michael Orenduff, Susannah is a fan of Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr books. I like Susannah and trust her taste in reading, and I believe the Pot Thief series is in some ways a tribute to the burglar series. (The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, for example.) The law-breaking but nonetheless kind and non-violent protagonist is something the two series have in common, and the witty, quirky first-person narration. In other ways, they are different.
Bernie has no legal occupation and as a consequence somewhat limited social circle, since he can’t tell people what he does. He’s a well-behaved burglar, however. He would never carry a gun. All he wants is to steal from the rich and otherwise stay out of trouble, but he ends up framed for murder when he breaks into an apartment with a dead body in it. His attempts to clear himself are clever, devious, illegal, and funny. While the reader doesn't fear for Bernie's life, there’s plenty of suspense with each escapade, while his freedom is on the line.
The only flaw I found was the convoluted presentation of the solution to the murder mystery, packed into dialogue without much action. The secondary mystery around Bernie’s romantic interest was wrapped up with more style. (I knew she was up to something, though I didn’t figure out what.) Definitely a fun read.
This book taught me aspects of history I hadn't known, and gave me an inside look at NASA and the work that went on there. I lived for a number of years on the Virginia Peninsula, and in reading this learned more about the region’s mid-20th Century history than I did while living there. The stories of the gifted African-American women who became mathematicians and engineers are interwoven with the impact of their work in World War II, the Cold War and the Space Race, and with changes in the society around them through the transition from segregation to Virginia’s appallingly reluctant integration.
Anyone who takes education for granted, takes civil rights or women’s right for granted, or underestimates the importance of an engaged and supportive community, should read this. And if you don’t like math or science, you should read this. The narrative makes the work of women who computed equations for a living exciting. It wasn’t that long ago that “computer” was a job description, not a machine. I was impressed by the level of commitment to helping others and being part of a world outside of work that these hard-working professionals demonstrated. They were—and many no doubt still are—a sisterhood of strength and social engagement as well as mathematical genius.
Once in a while the author veers around in the timeline, in a way that is momentarily confusing. There are few clunky sentences in the epilogue, as if it was not edited as well as the rest of the book. An occasional reminder of the roles of the less-frequently mentioned members of the cast would have been helpful, especially since popular first names at the time lacked variety and tend to show up repeatedly. These are small imperfections, though mildly annoying, in a fast and fascinating read.
A New Mexico man long missing and presumed dead seems to have come back to broadcast on ham radio, only to fade out as if something terrible has happened to him.
Patricia Smith Wood has crafted another tight puzzle of a mystery in this third in the Harrie McKinsey series, once again blending multiple mystery genres—a touch of cozy, a touch of police procedural, and now a touch of the PI story as well. Amateur sleuths Harrie and Ginger, the Albuquerque police department, and the FBI come together on a complex case with help from a new character, private investigator Bernie Thomas, a former member of the APD. His role as a liaison between the professionals and the amateurs is an effective device. The amateurs take some risks, and they use their brains and their ability to gain trust and talk with people, but they don’t do what’s better done by the pros.
Harrie and Ginger, who are studying to become amateur radio operators, are naturally and believably drawn into investigating the apparent broadcast from the missing Alan Whitney. I like a mystery that gives me glimpse into a hobby or occupation I previously knew little about, and this book provides a fascinating exploration of amateur radio without ever losing the pace. Wood slips the exposition into the energetic dialog as part of a page-turning plot.
Much of the detective works, realistically, takes place through interviews, asking the right people the right questions, and through research and the use of creative intelligence to understand the clues. Most of the violence takes place offstage, though there are suspenseful scenes in which danger threatens characters the reader comes to care about. While this isn’t in the category of a humorous mystery, there is humor in the characters’ banter, and one of the criminals was an incredibly amusing diversion. He’s a bit like someone who walked out of a 1940s black-and-white movie in a way, and yet also wholly original.
Wood is the master of the chapter-ending hook that makes you want to keep going. Surprises kept coming around the corner right to the very end. If you like to challenge your brain to solve a mystery, Patricia Smith Wood is an author you’ll come back to again and again.
Note: I finally added the cover image myself because Booklikes could only supply a blank green square.
Leine Basso has a complicated life. In this series prequel novella, she’s a professional assassin for an ultra-secret agency, the lover of a man in her same line of work—and a single mother. Things get even more complicated when her boss at the Agency seems to become more dangerous than her work itself. Berkom’s writing is tighter than ever. The pace is riveting, the plotting masterful, and the characters deep. A shocking twist at the end is gut-wrenching. I’ve read one of the Leine Basso thrillers, The Body Market, and I know I’ll be reading more of them. Berkom is one of my go-to authors. I can turn on my Nook and start the first page assured that not single page that follows will let me down.
Mystery, thriller, a touch of science fiction, visionary fiction—never mind the genre. It’s a compelling tale. Crater’s writing is polished and fluid, as she takes the readers through everything from chase scenes and fight scenes to transcendent spiritual experiences. She knows both modern and ancient Egypt well, bringing the settings vividly to life. I was fascinated enough to keep going even when I encountered such material as the Illuminati and the Shadow Government. I’m not into conspiracy theories or some of the more sci-fi-ish aspects this book, but I still cared what happened next. The characters are believable, the mysticism is beautiful, and the pace is riveting.
This third installment in the Santa Fe Café mystery series is tightly plotted, funny, and as full of local color and eccentric characters as the others. Ann Myers does a great job with the flow of the series—neither too much nor too little backstory. It’s a delicate balance that not all series authors have mastered. A new reader could pick this up and not be lost, and someone who has followed the series can enjoy it without any sense of interruption.
Protagonist Rita Lafitte’s very conventional mother is visiting her in the City Different, encountering Rita’s eccentric friends and colleagues, hot chiles, devils in a Christmas pageant, and of course, Rita’s odd luck—if one can call it that—of running into murder scenes. There is some dark humor in the choice to set a murder in the middle of Christmas festivities, but it works. There’s also plenty of light humor, character-based and authentic.
The mystery revolves in part around the process of repatriating an old family collection of Native artifacts to their tribes. The conflicts in the wealthy heiress’s family—which includes Rita’s ultra-Santa-Fe-spacey-spiritual neighbor Dalia—and between the experts hired to help with the collection lead down some twisting paths, while several intriguing side plots make for more suspects and more motives. I was right in step with Rita in trying to solve the mystery, which to me means it was set up well.
Rita and café owner Flori's amateur sleuthing is written to effectively make the reader suspend disbelief, an important aspect of this genre of mystery. Their interaction with Rita’s ex, Manny, who is so often the cop on the case when she’s investigating on her own, is well done. Manny isn’t all bad, and neither is his police work. He comes across as a competent if sometimes annoying officer, and a caring father as well as the kind of man you wouldn’t want for a husband. Celia, Rita’s artistic teenaged daughter, gets involved in the sleuthing this time, a fun change of pace. I love the relationships in this series, so it was great to meet another member of Rita’s family with her mother’s visit. It was also good to see how her romance with criminal defense lawyer Jake Strong develops. Jake’s character is given more depth and flair in this story. I got to know him better and therefore liked him better.
One thing I especially enjoyed about this book is that it gets outside of the downtown area into some other neighborhoods of Santa Fe, while still giving a view of holiday events around the Plaza and Canyon Road. (I expect it will make quite a few readers want to schedule a Christmas vacation there.) The diverse characters include one of Flori’s old schoolmates—another peculiar octogenarian—and her grandson. To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about them, but they were my favorite new additions to the cast of this series. And Flori’s latest weird hobby is her best yet. As always, there are recipes for some of the foods that are served up during the course of the story. I enjoyed the plot so much I tended to forget the culinary theme, but readers who love to cook will not. (Actually, the fact that I hate to cook and still enjoy these books so much says a lot.)
"Great books that are impossible to classify … Mae, the series character, is a psychic, but the books will appeal even to readers who aren’t big fans of the paranormal in fiction. Mae is a very real, very grounded character, and her journey makes for compelling page-turners that will keep you surprised." Saints and Trees blog, Best Books of 2014
The first ten pages should light a fire in discouraged progressives, but I think everyone, no matter who they voted for, could learn something of value and interest from this book. There is common ground for all middle-class and working-class and poor Americans in Sanders’ examination of economic issues. He has done his research. I’ve studied in depth a number of the issues he addresses, and as far as I can see, he is accurate in his assessments, especially on health care. The book could have been more tightly edited, but a little repetition when he’s trying to get a point across is okay with me. There are so many important ideas in this book, instead of a formal review, I’ve posted notes I took while reading. They do not in any way replace reading it yourself. A number of my notes are quotations from the book that I think will make great discussion points when my book club meets after reading this. I hope the notes give you food for thought, a reason to read the whole book, and fuel for becoming an engaged, thoughtful citizen.
My delight in reading the Pot Thief books never fades. As I dive into each story, I find something cozy and familiar and yet full of surprises, a quality much like pot thief Hubie Schuze’s happy hour conversations over margaritas with his friend Susannah.
This book has the best opening I’ve read in years. It sets the tone, revealing Hubie’s sense of humor, while introducing the instigating event for the mystery immediately. “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before. I didn’t think I had, but the cloth over my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”
Hubie is brought in this mysterious way to appraise a pot collection. In that collection, he finds something that shouldn’t be there. And the appraisal fee gets sneaked out of his pocket on the return trip. The lengths he goes to in order to get it back are clever (and illegal), and get him into trouble for something he didn’t do: kill the pot collector. Unexpected new romance comes out his attempts to sort out his situation.
Orenduff does something I’ve seen one other author do successfully (Martyn V. Halm, in his Amsterdam Assassin thriller series, which in all other ways is as different from the Pot Thief series as it could be, though just as good). He inserts interludes. These are short chapters which tell a story within the story, about a personal aspect of the main character’s life. These interludes are few, well-crafted and beautiful, revealing details about life in New Mexico and showing Hubie’s appreciation of old friends and of the place he lives. They aren’t unnecessary, though it may sound as if they are. The nature of these books is such that this is the pace. This is the personality. There is suspense, but it’s suspense from the point of view of a man who has some amusing opinions that he freely shares, and who savors the taste of life, from traditional New Mexican cooking and Gruet champagne, to friendships, the scenery on Sandia peak, and the unexpected companionship of a funny-looking dog.
As always, the story is full of fascinating information about what Hubie is studying. The book he’s reading on Einstein and quantum physics plays a key role in the plot and in his thinking, as he struggles to understand the uncertainty principle and figure out who really killed the pot collector.
If you haven’t started this series yet, begin at the beginning and make friends with Hubie in The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras.
As I finished this book, the following image came to me: At the roots of every tree are bacteria and fungi, life forms we may think of as “icky” which are essential to the health of the tree. In and on our own bodies as well, innumerable tiny organisms thrive, and this population keeps us functioning. Democracy, the tree of liberty or the body politic, is no different. We may find some of its components disagreeable, even repellent, and yet taken as a whole, they promote a thriving democracy as long as they remain in balance.
Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington reveals the complex human being and the social ecosystem in which he matured. There was never a golden age in American history and there was never a president or leader who didn’t have shortcomings or make mistakes. The press was always full of leaks and partisan diatribes, and the American public has always been, since the birth of the nation, susceptible to conspiracy theories founded in fear of big government. Newspapers and pamphlets were the Twitter, TV and talk radio of the day. Backstabbing under pseudonyms, outright lies, and biased editorial policies were as common if not more common than the objective journalism modern media outlets sometimes aspire to. Washington was elected unanimously, but that doesn’t mean he was president of a nation free of minor squabbles or deep divisions.
Chernow makes it clear that Washington’s genius lay not in being perfect but in knowing when to speak and when to say nothing (he ignored attacks in the press), and when to act and when to wait, as well as being tactful, listening, taking time to think, and discerning talent in others and promoting the right people.
Here are two of my favorite quotations from Washington’s letters:
In this, he was writing to his adopted grandson: “Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
The following is an excerpt from a letter Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Note that the word “demean” back then related to one’s demeanor and didn’t have its modern meaning of debasing. It meant comport or behave. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He found religious tolerance to be too weak a concept, too condescending toward religious minorities.
Perhaps you’ve read this much of the review and think, “Okay, got it, I can skip the book.” Maybe. But I think many people will enjoy reading it. Here’s why.
One of many things I love about being in a book club is the diversity of genres we explore. For October’s read, we chose this 800-plus page book. As you might expect with a book that long, we felt the need to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we chose a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election. I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”
Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes for good reading, and makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.
Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.
Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in terms comparable to being condemned to death. Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with common expectations of people in politics.
Minor characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and still he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor, and tried to reclaim those who ran away to join the British during the war. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals the conflict he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.
Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers. Even while he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him.
Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.
Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on home décor, but when his extravagance his extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.
I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.