1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

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Julian by Gore Vidal Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

I love historical fiction, and in my opinion, Gore Vidal is a master of the genre. Having read Burr and Lincoln, which are both excellent, I decided to check out a Vidal novel that explores something outside American history. That brought me to Julian, his 1964 novel about the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, often known as Julian the Apostate.

Twenty years after Julian’s death, Libanius and Priscus, two philosophers who had been Julian’s confidantes, have decided to attempt to have Julian’s memoir published. Once the process of doing so is agreed upon, the novel consists primarily of the manuscript of the memoir, along with the two philosophers’ marginal notes regarding their own memories of the events in Julian’s narrative—and often providing a more truthful, detailed account of what actually happened. Julian’s memoir details his early life and education, his ascent to becoming Caesar in the West, and eventually, his time as emperor. Much of the focus is on his transition from a student-prince only interested in philosophy to an ambitious military leader. Most prominent, though, is Julian’s contempt for Christianity and his interest in Mithraism and the ancient Roman gods, culminating in his efforts as emperor to restore the old Roman religion and eliminate the influence of Christianity altogether—efforts that would lead to his assassination in 363.

As I’ve noticed with the other Gore Vidal novels I’ve read, Julian has a brilliantly crafted structure that presents some worthwhile ideas. The comments on Julian’s memoir, especially from Priscus, frequently mention details that Julian chose not to include, either to make himself look more impressive to future generations or to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories. The notes between Priscus and Libanius throughout the memoir also present a more realistic perspective on some of the people Julian trusted and admired most. By writing the novel in this fashion, rather than simply as a fictional memoir, Vidal demonstrates that even a person’s own words cannot tell their entire story. There will almost always be unflattering details about their lives that they decide—consciously or unconsciously—not to discuss, and it will be up to other people to fill in those blanks. The structure of the novel also suggests that other people can often see the truth about our lives better than we can ourselves, especially when it comes to our closest friends. This is most obvious in Julian regarding the philosopher Maximus, whom Julian depends on for years for spiritual guidance and admires greatly. Priscus, on the other hand, can see that Maximus is more showmanship than spirituality, and that everything he says and does is carefully calculated to keep Julian’s favor.

The religious conflict of the era proves to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unsurprisingly from an author like Gore Vidal, the critique of Christianity is quite harsh, and the religion is presented as a serious detriment to tolerance and intellectual endeavors in the Roman Empire. However, it also seems to me that Vidal views Julian’s attempts to revive the “old gods” with some skepticism as well, especially regarding animal sacrifices and their use as some sort of indicator of future events. Though the novel is not exactly objective about this conflict, I did learn a lot about early Christianity and other practices of the era from it. I always appreciate an entertaining novel that also teaches me something and encourages me to learn more about a subject.

It is clear that Gore Vidal did meticulous research for this book, and Julian is a very accurate depiction of Julian the Apostate and the time in which he lived. It has a lot of the same qualities that I enjoyed so much about Burr and Lincoln, but also gave me the opportunity to find out more about a time in history about which I do not know very much. This is historical fiction at its very best, and I definitely recommend it to any fan of the genre.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn at the New-York Historical Society Friday, Mar 16 2012 

Jean-Baptiste Belley, an important figure in the Haitian Revolution.

Last week, I visited the New-York Historical Society for the first time since its renovation. Even more so than before, the museum is an absolute must-see for any history buff living in or visiting the New York area. With its exciting exhibits and diverse collection, it is a great place to learn more about the history of both New York City and the United States.

What I’d especially like to discuss today is one of N-YHS’s current exhibits, titled Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn. The exhibit is focused on the American, French, and Haitian revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it is the first exhibit to present these three revolutions as “a single, global narrative.” It documents the various sources of dissatisfaction among the peoples of the Atlantic, dating back to the British victory in the French and Indian War, which brought Britain to the height of its imperial power in North America.

There are many objects of great interest on display, both from the N-YHS collection and other institutions in the U.S. and Europe. These include paintings and political cartoons, a first edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s “Africa box” used in his anti-slavery lectures, and even the original Stamp Act from 1765, on loan from the Parliamentary Archives in London.

These object come together to cover a wide range of topics important in the revolutionary era, including the role of coffeehouses and newspapers as catalysts of dissatisfaction and dissent, Enlightenment ideas that sparked the American Revolution, and the transition from the acceptance of monarchy to the new ideal of popular sovereignty.  The exhibit does a particularly good job of discussing how these revolutions and the raised new questions about the ethics of slavery and what the standards for human rights should be.

As a history buff, I was pleased to see how well Revolution! demonstrated the connections between these three revolutions and paid so much attention to the Haitian Revolution. The American and French Revolutions and how one influenced the other are covered numerous times in history classes at every level of education, but in all the history classes I’ve taken in my life, I don’t recall the revolution in Haiti being taught extensively, if it was even mentioned at all. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Haiti and now feel inspired to do some reading about its revolution, which, I believe, was just as bold as the American and French ones that came before it.

The major events included in Revolution! are extraordinary enough on their own, but seeing how much these three countries influenced each other during this era makes them even more remarkable. The relatively new field of Atlantic history is not without its critics (almost nothing in academia is, I suppose), but it does the important work of highlighting how interconnected Europe, Africa, and the Americas were during the early modern era. To talk about one without talking about the others results in a failure to tell the story of that time in history as fully as possible. It was exciting to see a museum exhibit that shows such a good understanding of this concept.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn runs at the New-York Historical Society until April 15, 2012. You can learn more about this exhibit and others at the New-York Historical Society here. After my recent visit, I look forward to seeing what the Society has in store for us history buffs next.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain Friday, Jan 20 2012 

Despite taking four years of high school English and majoring in English in college, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until recently. Having finally read this classic novel, I find myself categorizing it with several other “classics” I’ve read over the years: books whose significance I appreciate, but which I cannot say I actually enjoyed reading.

The novel is disjointed, and most of the subplots are just variations on the same basic storyline—Huck Finn gets involved in a sticky situation and manages to lie his way out of it, with varying degrees of difficulty. On the surface, the book felt more like an adventure story written for children than a serious novel worthy of the discussion and dissection it has received. I realize Mark Twain must have intended for the book to read somewhat haphazardly, but I found it tiresome after a very short time. I did not want reading this book to feel like a chore, but I was soon pushing myself to continue and finish it. While I liked the two central characters well enough, I found many aspects of the story irritating and dull, and I was relieved to be done with it.

However, while I cannot say that I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I appreciate its significance to American literature, and its importance to understanding the era of American history in which it was written. This novel was one of the first in American literature to be written in the vernacular of the region where the action takes place, with a variety of dialects of Missouri and the Mississippi River region. Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the area where the novel takes place, one that teems with local color. It was one of the first novels to be so distinctively of a  particular region, and literary regionalism would become much more common in the decades after its publication. There is little doubt of the exact setting of Huckleberry Finn, and it is a story that could not take place anywhere else.

The main plot of the novel, which is much greater than the sum of its parts, revolves around runaway Huck Finn’s journey with a runaway slave named Jim and Huck’s efforts to help Jim keep his freedom.  As such, Huckleberry Finn has been thoroughly analyzed over the years for its treatment of race, racism, and slavery—and over one hundred years after its publication, there is still debate about what Twain intended to say about race, and whether the novel is prejudiced or not.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s, twenty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, Twain sets the novel in a time when slavery still existed. By the 1880s, it was clear that the end of slavery had not done enough to improve blacks’ lot in life; especially in areas where slavery had once been the norm, they were still subject to an extremely low standard of living and terrible treatment at the hands of whites. I believe in this book, Twain wanted to draw parallels between life for blacks in the antebellum South and their lives after the Civil War. Through the character of Jim, who wants to be freed from slavery and to be reunited with his family, Twain challenged his white readers to realize that blacks deserved the same freedom whites had, and that the abolition of slavery hadn’t been enough to give them that equality. Jim is a man with hopes, fears, and dreams, not a nonentity who is meant to live enslaved on someone else’s land. Slavery here represents black life after abolition, and the harsh reality that little had changed by the 1880s.

However, while many readers believe that Huckleberry Finn is a condemnation of slavery and racism, others find the depiction of Jim to be racist. Jim is portrayed as extremely superstitious and rather unintelligent. I believe it is entirely legitimate to raise questions about Twain’s purpose in characterizing Jim the way he did. The novel is heavy on satire, so was he satirizing the stereotypes of blacks that were so prevalent in 19th century America, exaggerating them to make readers realize how foolish such perceptions were? Or did Twain not consider blacks equal to whites, but still believed they deserved better lives? It is always essential to remember that many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, did not necessarily believe blacks and whites were equal. It would not be surprising if similar attitudes were still common in the 1880s; some whites would believe blacks should be treated better, but still subscribe to common prejudices. While I will not pretend to have any insights into the mind of Mark Twain, I do believe that satire was likely the purpose of this depiction, especially considering the strong presence of satire in Twain’s body of work. However, a sound understanding of American history has to leave open the possibility that there may still be at some traces of racism in Twain’s work, even if they weren’t necessarily conscious ones.

Disheartening as it may be to think that such an important and innovative American writer may not have been progressive enough to move beyond racism completely, it is important to remember that considering the racial situation in the United States in this era, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was still a forward thinking book for its time. Slavery had been illegal for less than a quarter of a century, and Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks were still considered perfectly acceptable. For a writer like Twain to question the justice of such racial inequality was still a bold move. While negative stereotypes are a significant part of Jim’s character, he is also shown to be a loving, good-hearted individual who takes better care of Huck Finn than Huck’s own father does. While Huck constantly questions the legality and morality of helping Jim escape to freedom throughout the novel, Twain clearly regards the moment Huck decides that he would rather “go to hell” than return Jim to slavery as one of important and admirable growth in Huck’s character. While it is certainly understandable to question some aspects of Twain’s approach to race in this novel, I do think that, ultimately, it is a decidedly anti-racist work.

There is much more that could be said about Huckleberry Finn, but since my interest in the novel focuses primarily on its discussion of race issues and understanding the book in the context of American history, I would like to conclude this review with a discussion of one of the most controversial aspects of the novel: the frequent use of the N-word. The presence of that infamous word has lead to many difficulties in teaching the book in literature classes, especially, I would guess, at the high school level. There has even been talk of eliminating it from at least some editions of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand the offensiveness of that word, I oppose removing it from any unabridged edition that is not adapted for children. I do not believe in sanitizing history, and I think that in order for the book to have its full impact, readers need to understand how commonly the N-word was once used. It was a word that, back in the 1880s and for decades afterwards, even “nice” people used in everyday conversation without giving it any thought. To eliminate the term from this book, or any other from the era, is to deny how commonplace—and often how casual—racism was for a huge part of American history.

So, while I did not find The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enjoyable, and do not consider it the Great American Novel (I do not believe in that concept anyway—more on that some other time), I believe it is indeed one of the more important works in American literature. Anyone interested in literature, or in U.S. history, should read it, whether in school or independently. It may feel a bit like taking your medicine, but even if you do not particularly like the book, you will probably still benefit from reading it.

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr Thursday, Oct 27 2011 

In this sequel to The Alienist, controversial psychiatrist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his eclectic team of investigators find themselves once again at the center of a complicated, disturbing case. The story begins when a Spanish diplomat’s baby daughter is kidnapped. The child’s mother approaches former police department secretary Sara Howard, now a private investigator, for help after her husband refuses to do anything to get their child back. Although tensions between the U.S. and Spain are blamed at first, the team soon learns that the kidnapper is Libby Hatch, a nurse with a troubling track record of babies dying under her care. As Dr. Kreizler and the others delve further into Libby’s life, both past and present, they find out they are up against a manipulative woman who has caused more destruction than they could have imagined.

While I’d say that The Angel of Darkness is just as good as The Alienist, this book has a very different feel to it, despite having many of the same characters. While The Alienist was more of a mystery, with the investigators trying both to identify and to stop the killer, The Angel of Darkness is more of a thriller. The reader finds out in the first chapter who the main villain is and what has become of her, and the rest of the novel reveals what is so awful about Libby Hatch, and why the team’s experience with her still haunts them. The other big difference is the novel’s narrator. The Alienist is told from the perspective of educated, well-to-do journalist John Moore, but The Angel of Darkness is narrated by Stevie Taggert, a former petty thief who began working for Dr. Kreizler after Kreizler saved him from a brutal life in prison. Stevie tells the story with a less refined tone, and he presents what is practically an insider’s perspective on the New York criminal underworld, having spent his childhood as a part of it. As a result, the dangers of dealing with the gangs and violence of that world felt much closer and much more real in The Angel of Darkness. While Carr certainly did not hold back from describing them in The Alienist, there was always a certain distance from all of it when an outsider was telling the story.

I think the most notable thing about The Angel of Darkness, though, is Libby Hatch herself, who is a surprisingly complicated villain for a thriller.  As vicious and deceitful as Libby can be, there is something desperate and tragic about her as well. There are so many sides to her personality—some real, some perhaps entirely fabricated—that she is not only a fascinating psychological study for Dr. Kreizler, but a challenge for the investigators that their target in The Alienist never presented to the same degree. I found myself wondering about Libby Hatch whether she could have turned out differently in a society that had different expectations of women, and I even came close to pitying her a few times, despite her shocking crimes—but Carr keeps Libby sneaky and evil enough to stop the reader from feeling much sympathy for her.

Like The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness presents appealing characters (though I thought Sara Howard was still a little too close to being a mere caricature of a late 19th century feminist), and an exciting, suspenseful story. Both books offer an interesting peek into a very different era of New York City history, which has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of reading them. Caleb Carr has not written a book about Laszlo Kreizler and his associates since The Angel of Darkness in 1997, but I hope perhaps he will write at least one more someday. I would certainly welcome such a book, and I’m sure many other mystery and thriller fans would as well.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin Friday, Sep 2 2011 

It took me about two months to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. This was partly because of my schedule and partly because I was reading other books at the same time. Mostly, though, it was because Team of Rivals is a very long, intense read—over 700 pages (before the notes and bibliography!) containing an enormous amount of information on a crucial period of American history.

In addition to being a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the book also contains surprisingly extensive biographies of Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination—William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates—all of whom Lincoln would select to be part of his Cabinet when he became president of a nation on the brink of war. Goodwin tells the story of the Civil War and the conflicts leading up to it largely through the experiences of the men who worked closely with Lincoln during his presidency. As such, the book provides rare insights into the lives and minds of political and military figures usually not discussed in great detail in history classes.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is still very much the central figure in Team of Rivals, and Goodwin’s portrayal of him is far from that of an inexperienced country lawyer who became president and won the Civil War on benevolence and idealism. While Lincoln was by nearly all accounts a very honest and generous man, he also proved a much more astute politician than any of his skeptical opponents expected. He looked past rivalries and divergent views in order to build the best government possible to manage and win the Civil War. He brilliantly managed not only the challenges of the war, but also the people running that war, some of whom had even fiercer contentions with each other than they had with the president. Lincoln’s ability to win the respect and cooperation of those who had once scorned him was indeed very impressive, as was his success at keeping the various jealousies, disputes, and ambitions of government and military officials from derailing the Union on its path to restoration and peace. Goodwin’s focus on these aspects of Abraham Lincoln provides a fresh perspective on this beloved but often misunderstood historical figure, allowing a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the leaders involved in it.

Considering that it is a non-fiction book over 700 pages long, Team of Rivals reads like a good novel. Historical figures spring to life from the pages, and I found myself forming opinions on them the way I would with characters in fiction. There were people I found new admiration for (like William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State) and others that I found absolutely infuriating (like Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury). In addition to political and military affairs, Team of Rivals offers great insights into the often-difficult family lives of these important men, which adds to the novel-like atmosphere. The tragic death of Lincoln’s son Willie and his wife Mary’s subsequent depression, Chase’s oddly co-dependent relationship with his daughter Kate, and the maneuverings of the prominent Blair family all play major roles in the book and in shaping the reader’s understanding of how war and politics strained every aspect of life in the 1860s. Also quite interesting is the portrait of the social life in Washington, D.C., as well as the incredible differences between life in 19th century Washington and the capital city today. Perhaps the best example is the throngs of people who would come to see Lincoln at the White House, usually seeking some sort of government office. It makes one understand why it is so difficult to obtain a meeting with the President now!

What I have said here about Team of Rivals is really just a brief summary of one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever read. There is so much to learn from this book about Abraham Lincoln, the men he worked with, and the most pressing issues in 19th century America. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War or U.S. history in general. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Lincoln, expected in theaters in late 2012, is largely based on Team of Rivals, and it will be very interesting to see how the incredible story told in this book translates to the big screen. You can be sure I will have something to say about it!

The Alienist by Caleb Carr Friday, Aug 5 2011 

Are you a history geek? Do you know and love New York City? Do you always enjoy a good mystery?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then The Alienist is a novel you must read.

Set in 1896 New York, during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner, The Alienist follows the search for a serial killer in the city’s corrupt, dangerous underworld. Joining Roosevelt in the investigation are crime reporter John Moore, ahead-of-their-time detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, secretary and first female NYPD employee Sara Howard, former mental patients Stevie Taggert and Cyrus, and title character Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and controversial psychiatrist. As author Caleb Carr explains, psychiatrists were known as alienists before the 20th century because of the belief that the mentally ill were “alienated not only from society but from their own true natures.”

Caleb Carr does an excellent job creating a portrait of late 19th century New York City. It is fascinating to read of a New York without many of the iconic buildings and institutions that are such a huge part of our image of the city today. Carr also doesn’t shy away from the violence and depravity that characterized life for so many New Yorkers in that era; in the world he recreates, it isn’t hard to believe that the serial killer at the center of this novel could elude capture for so long. The Alienist is especially enjoyable for anyone with strong knowledge of New York and its history; you will find yourself engrossed in where the characters end up on their search, and you might even figure out a thing or two before it is revealed.

Though this particular story is fictional, it’s also interesting to read about a criminal investigation in a time when scientific evidence and criminal psychology were considered both innovative and outrageous. It offers some insights into how the investigative procedures we see today on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI came into being. Kreizler’s insights into the criminal mind are especially readable and much deeper than one would usually expect in a book that is essentially a thriller.

While this is primarily a plot-driven novel without great character depth, Laszlo Kreizler is a very compelling figure, and the novel is at its best when he’s involved. Though he could have easily been written as the typical brooding, mysterious, haunted-by-the-past male character, Carr successfully balances these qualities with intelligence and kind-heartedness. Kreizler’s scientific fascination with the case, and with the human mind in general, is equaled by a genuine concern for potential victims and the many other people he has helped in his work. He is the kind of character that leads the reader to musing who would play him in a film adaptation (personally, I think a younger Alan Rickman type would be perfect).

I only have two significant criticisms of The Alienist. One of them is the character of Sara Howard. While I admired her determination to be an independent woman and to hold her own in a field usually reserved to men at the time, I thought sometimes she was trying too hard to be defiant and to be “one of the boys,” which made her seem awkward and insecure rather than strong. Since the case involves child prostitutes and homosexuality, I found the characters’ seemingly liberal views on the latter unrealistic for the time period. While their compassion for the slain boys from the “disorderly houses” certainly makes sense, most of these characters, were this a real case, probably still would have expressed some repulsion at the prevalence of homosexuality in Manhattan’s seedier institutions.

While it’s not exactly a criticism, and it isn’t something that bothered me, it’s also worth noting that this novel can get very violent and gruesome, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who can’t handle that kind of thing.

These quibbles aside, The Alienist is a first-rate thriller that will especially intrigue anyone interested in New York City history or criminal psychology. I look forward to reading its follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, and will be sure to review that here as well.