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American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus
American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest

mwgerard, April 15, 2015

I am very lucky to have a grandmother and a father who are very into genealogy and ancestry. She held on to family quilts and dug up photos of relatives long since gone. I have the strange privilege of looking back on this people, 150 years ago, knowing that although we never met, we are connected. There are few images from my father’s side, but he has managed to trace our roots to the 14th century.

But as far as I know, none of them is a famous ghost.

Hannah Nordhaus’ great-great-grandmother Julia is said to haunt the hotel (once her grand home) in Santa Fe. A rather stereotypical weeping woman in a black dress has been noted since the 1970s and is assumed to be the unhappy spirit of Julia Schuster Staab.

A researcher and reporter by trade, Nordhaus sets out to discover her grandmother’s story, and the wider story of her family’s emigration from Germany. A skeptic herself, she is determined to set aside her assumptions about apparitions and explore every avenue to learning about her grandmother. She stays in the ‘haunted’ hotel room and visits self-proclaimed psychics. She also does an incredible amount of archival research ��" books, newspapers, oral histories, diaries ��" to find out about the Staab’s early days in old Santa Fe.

The streets of Julia’s new city likely held no more comfort. The Plaza was crowded with carts, wagons, teamsters, camp cooks, roustabouts, horses, mules, burros, pigs and goats. There were cockfights and gunfights. The town was a confusion of commerce, a babel of languages. ~Loc. 703

Julia has a difficult time adjusting to the New World, despite the Staab’s quick rise to respectability. Nordhaus also pieces together that Julia was most likely clinically depressed in a time and setting that didn’t acknowledge such a thing. She tries to uncover the possible causes for Julia.

I have to say, I was riveted by the story of someone else grandmother. Julia Staab led an interesting life, that has been put back together by her inquisitive great-great-granddaughter. For the most part, the narrative structure is clear and addicting. There is a section when the author travels to Germany to learn about Julia’s visit and the story gets mired down in tangential pages. It needed to stick closer to Julia’s story throughout.

All in all, it is a fascinating read. And it makes me want to find out more about the lives of my own ancestors.
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Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England by Catherine Bailey
Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England

mwgerard, April 15, 2015

Anyone with a penchant for the tension between the past traditions and the coming future (a la Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) and historical nonfiction should pick up Black Diamonds. Catherine Bailey, author of The Secret Rooms, has once again scoured archives private and public looking for the missing links in noted family’s story. Posterity is all good and well ��" unless, of course, it exposes a unsavoury side of a ‘respectable’ family.

Bailey traces the Fitzwilliam dynasty, and the history of their massive manor Wentworth House, through the memories of the villagers, the occasional letter or diary entry and newspaper clippings. The author follows (mainly) the 7th and 8th earls of Wentworth House and the time to which they belonged.

The book begins when the earl dies, the last bastion of the Victorian era at Wentworth and, as many at the time did, speculates about the validity of new earl’s heritage (After all, he had been born is a remote outpost in the Canadian wilderness). Despite the rumblings that he was a changeling, at the time of his 1902 succession to the Earldom, he became one of the richest men in Britain, inheriting an estate of significant land, industrial and mineral-right holdings worth £3.3 billion in 2007 terms. But it was a new century not just on the calendar but it signified a new era in society and what being a member of the landed gentry meant.

The Fitzwilliam’s massive wealth was built upon the rich coal seams that ran throughout their properties. They both owned the land that was being mined and owned the collieries themselves. Entire towns of mine workers and their families grew up around the “pits”, as they were called. Their money was borne on the backs of men and boys who toiled in a dangerous and harsh environment. And the entire country relied upon coal. Heat, lighting, cooking, and more were dependent on it.

Strangely, these two worlds lived side-by-side. And Wentworth House survives the massive multiple mining strikes. The revolution taking place in the rest of the world only grazes the outskirts of the Fitzwilliam family.

It was a world away from the pit villages nearby, where the Earl’s miners stood up their family corpses in the corner of their front parlour rooms to make way for the crush of mourners, and where, in the overcrowded cottages, dead relatives frequently shared the family’s beds. As late as the 1920s, a boy from Gresbrough, one of the Fitzwilliams’ villages, told his teacher, “Please, Miss, they’re goin’ ter bury our Ernest tomorrow., he’s in t’ big bed in t’room now. Our Jimmy wouldn’t sleep wi’ him last night ��" ‘e wor frightened.” ~Pg. 6

The 8th earl did a great deal to maintain the good will between the estate and its workers, but it was only a matter of time before the modern era crept in. His title became more and more honorary and there was less he could do to affect his estate. Strained by the second World War, his marriage was failing and he was without an heir.

Then along came Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. She had already married one duke-in-waiting. She and the heir apparent to be Duke of Devonshire, master of Chatsworth House, were married only a few weeks when he was killed by a sniper. She retained her title as Lady Hartington but the dukedom would never be theirs. She took up with Peter Fitzwilliam. Though still married, he was on the brink of divorce and she was a young, spunky widow. The two had flown to Paris to seek the approval of her father (an ambassador) when they too were killed.

And these are just a handful of the scandals, secrets and misdeeds uncovered by the book. At times, the narrative seems to wander a bit too much, but at the same time there is so much to explore, it’s hard to blame her. And occasionally Bailey makes a bit too much out of missing documents and letters. Her frustration at their destruction is palpable and understandable, but the reader is not always sure why she is focused on it quite heavily, and for so many pages.

Wentworth House still stands, albeit much changed.

At night, the view over the surrounding country stretches for miles. To the south, the hills above Sheffield are coloured by a livid orange glad; the south-west, Rotherham and Rawmarsh blaze, a sodium-lit sprawl; the M1 marches along its western edge. But like totality in a solar eclipse, in the midst of this, one of England’s greatest urban conurbations, there is a vast expanse of black. Startling in its size and density, it conceals woodland, fields and parkland. It is the land once encompassed by the nine-mile perimeter that encircled Wentworth House. ~Pg 451

The irony is that Wentworth House now is on a precipice brought about by its own doing. It was built by coal and is now endangered by the greed it engenders.
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The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales

mwgerard, April 15, 2015

The archetypal story of untapped treasure has been proven possible again. Erika Eichenseer discovered thirty boxes of von Schonwerth’s manuscripts just waiting to be uncovered. Hoping to find such a trove, Eichenseer brought to light what had been stored in the Regensburg archive for more than a century.

Fairy tales are fantastical by their very nature. Yet they contain insight into a culture’s fears and desires.

When I studied German in college, one of the things we did to practice was translate fairy tales. They were short and usually contained simple vocabulary. We could stumble through it anyway. I will never forget the story of “Die Waßernixe“, the water-sprite. In short, a brother and sister don’t listen to the warnings, fall into a fountain that is inhabited by an evil water sprite. She enslaves them. One day, they decide to escape. They leave just as she returns from church (?!?!), and she chases them. In order to get away, they throw a hairbrush and a comb with each turn into a bristly mountain. This is not enough, so the girl throws a mirror over her shoulder, which becomes a slippery glass mountain. This stymies the sprite and they get away.

To this day I am still puzzled by this story. What is the moral? Don’t play next to fountains? Always bring a hairbrush and a mirror? Don’t trust fairies who go to church?

The point of my little tangent is that fairy tales are the stuff of local imaginations and simple lives. They both explain so much about a set of people, and are always somewhat unattainable. These stories made perfect sense to those who told them around a fire or to a child before bed.

This book is sorted in to categories: magic and romance, enchanted animals, otherworldly creatures, legends, tall tales and anecdotes, and tales about nature. There are dozens of stories, some of them barely a page long. But each contains its own (if inscrutable) dose of wisdom.

Their style is terse and unflinching.

There once was a king with a daughter named Barbara. She was so ugly that everyone made fun of her. She lived a lonely life. ~Pg.130


“Oh, no,” they said. “It’s just the meat.” She turned the sack inside out, and to her surprise the corpse of an old woman fell to the ground. They buried her as quickly as possible and no one was the wiser. Then they devoured with gusto the meat they had stolen. ~201

Readers are very fortunate that Eichenseer found and compiled this book. I am excited to see the literary works that grow up around these stories, especially in this day of reimagined classics like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

mwgerard, April 15, 2015

In Larson’s latest, he manages to bring tension worthy of The Hunt for Red October or Das Boot to a pivotal day in May 1915. Two vessels, unaware of their fates, barrel toward an outcome the reader knows all too well. Despite the fact most are aware of at least the basics of the sinking of the Lusitania, Larson presents the history in the way he does best ��" with layers, multiple perspectives, varying narrators and impeccable timing.

World War I was less than a year old and America was still adhering to its isolationist policies. President Wilson had recently lost his wife, Ellen, and was in no state of mind to handle the increasing tension. Meanwhile, u-boats terrorized the seas and had the potential to starve the island of Britain.

It was in this unhappy climate that the Lusitania set sail from New York on May 1, 1915. Many of its occupants considered the trip business as usual, with only an unlikely hint of danger. Larson himself seems to be surprised by the lack of concern the collective public had for its safety. Though the tragedy of the Titanic was hardly in the distant past, travellers thought the lessons from that trip had been learned. Not to mention, the Lusitania, at full speed, was faster than any known submarine or torpedo. They could simply outrun any danger.

Larson unfolds these assumptions one by one, showing just how bare the Lusitania was. He has combed through newspaper reports and telegrams, of course. But he has also sifted through the diaries of passengers (those who survived and those who didn’t), letters of the families, ship logs, and even anecdotes. The author also opens a secret file on Room 40, a completely covert team within the British government that oversaw the Admiralty. This small group of high-ranking men made the tactical decisions that almost no one knew about. Churchill was of course one of these men.

Perhaps most startling to discover was how very quickly the ship went down. Even with calm and orderly passengers and a top crew, it takes time to fill lifeboats and get them to the water below. The Lusitania had neither of these, nor did it have any time. It took just 18 minutes from the time of the torpedo’s impact to the ship being completely underwater. And for less than half of that time was the boat in any position to lower lifeboats. The damage cause the ship to list severely.

Thankfully, the day was relatively mild and the sun was out. Those that made it to a lifeboat or even a piece of floating debris were picked up by one of the many boats that came to the rescue.

This is the best Larson has written since The Devil In the White City. He has found the perfect mixture of humanity, intrigue, danger, and lost history to create a compelling narrative. Even though the reader “knows how it ends”, we don’t. Not really. We think we know but Larson once again shows us so much more.
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Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King
Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

mwgerard, April 15, 2015

The 1920s marked the transition from classicism to modernity in the East as well as the West. For Istanbul, known as the gateway between the two for centuries, the developments were no less dramatic. The city was on the edge of two worlds, trying to decide which way to turn. Tradition or modernity, Islam or Christianity, empire or parliament, isolationist or world player? And in many ways, being the pivot so many other entities meant Istanbul itself had little to say about any of it.

King analyzes the intricacies of the time from multiple perspectives, using the Pera Palace, a fine hotel itself on the edge of a changing neighborhood, as a touchstone. Not only was it the chosen place for foreign tourists, it was a hotbed of domestic intrigue.

The number of informants was so great that a sign in Pera Palace reportedly requested government agents to yield seats in the lounge to paying guests. ~ Loc. 425

Although the Turkish politics to a lay person are a bit complicated, King makes them approachable for the reader. Some of the nuance might be glossed over for clarity but this book is not meant to be a treatise. It succeeds in being an interesting, accessible history about another brief, gilded era. Like a curl of smoke from the hookah, it was all-encompassing and inescapable. Then it was gone.

Kudos to King for putting this impressive work together.
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