Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff ****

Every time a woman tries to testifies to sexual harassment or rape or anything, and instead finds herself accused and her character interrogated, in part she can blame some teenage girls from 1692.
"Women also fared poorly after Salem, or at least went back to being invisible, where they remained, historically speaking, until a different scourge encouraged them to raise their voices [in the 20th century]."
Now over 300 years later women still struggle to recover.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff offers some historical perspective to the Salem witch trials. Recall the Mayflower landed in 1620. By 1692 colonists had settled the coastal areas from New York to Maine. Aside from the New England climate, they were under regular harassment from the French and the natives. In this rough environment, women achieved some equality. They physically fought abusive husbands and had the right to sue neighbors and relatives to defend their rights to property and inheritances. Yes, they had property rights.

During this period where everyone was at risk and everyone's physical labor was important, a group of teenage girls discovered they they had the power to accuse their enemies, parents, and others of witchcraft. Thus began a year that wrecked havoc in Salem and the surrounding area.

Though the author lists many reasons for the success of these girls, and inevitable the men in power co-opted the witchcraft trials, 1692 might still mark the peak of feminist power for over 300 years.

"Of the nineteen who had been hanged, [Dorothy Good] had testified under oath against all but two. For over eight months whole communities had hung on her every syllable."  
This book and the trials themselves have much to say about American society, but the damage done to  women is too little mentioned and too much present.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff offers a detailed and comprehensive history of the Salem witch trials. With footnotes, end notes, bibliography, and index, it presents as complete a picture of Massachusetts in 1692 as possible given that many of the key actors either left no record or purposely destroyed what records they had. For example, there are multiple examples of missing and blank diary pages. A history buff's delight.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson ****

The brief period around the end of the seventeenth century was the golden age for pirates. This was a time of change: England was challenging Spain's supremacy. The Spanish empire was in decline and the British empire was yet to rise. Into this power vacuum, came pirates. Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson is ostensibly about the search for one of the greatest: Joseph Bannister captaining the Golden Fleece.

The author, perhaps following the tradition of Herman Melville, punctuates the treasure hunting narrative various digressions. This includes the lives of treasure hunters from early American explorers, to the pirates, to the pioneers of modern treasure hunter and the current stars. There is also plenty of discussion of the tools of the trade such as diving techniques, magnetometers, and researching old Spanish archives.

In this extensively researched volume, there are many gems. For example, the primary search technology locates magnetic materials (gun barrels, cannon balls, etc) along with contemporary trash, but the real goal is to find a large mound of rocks. These rocks, the ships ballast, survive after the wooden hull is gone and seem to be the best indication of a ship wreck.

This book is a combination of history, hagiography, and treasure hunt. If you are interested in pirates, divers, or treasure, this is the book for you.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates ****

In case you haven't heard of Joyce Carol Oates, she is one of the stars of American literary fiction and professor of creative fiction at Princeton for over forty years. Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates is the story of a successful writer on the edge of insanity.

Andrew J Rush is bored of his successful writing career and unhappy with his designation as the "gentleman's Stephen King." His books are:
not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously... Corpses are likely to be white adult males.
In an effort to break out, he takes the pseudonym Jack of Spades, and writes extreme or x-rated noir mysteries. Over time Andrew J Rush and Jake of Spades separate with differing writing habits from location, to time of day, to plotting, and ultimately to different moralities.

As might be expected from such a proficient writer, the book can be enjoyed as a mystery or a psychological study into the mind of a writer, writing having always been just on the cusp of insanity anyway.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen ****

Do you enjoy those oddball news stories about crazy people in Florida? Well, whatever you've heard is no match for the zany mysteries/comedies by Carl Hiaasen. Star Island is a wild romp about a talentless, promiscuous, hard-partying pop star who her parents named Cherry Pye. Other players include a bodyguard with a hand replaced by a weed wacker (see Malcolm McDowell in Tank Girl), a set of twin PR agents (surgically enhanced to appear identical), and a actor hired to stand-in for Cherry Pye when she is otherwise incapacitated.

This book is advertised as Skink number 6. Skink being
... once the governor of Florida ... who has happier being an odd historical footnote ... From the air, Skink was practically invisible, his shorn head as brown and featureless as a floating coconut.
It was unwise to draw the attention of the ex-governor. A real estate developer who had targeted an ecologically important piece of land found himself with a sea urchin strapped between his legs. The result was
Jackie sagged into a leather recliner and spread his spindly legs to ease the pressure. The obstetrical pose was all the more apt because his grotesquely engorged nut sack resembled nothing so much as the slimy, purple-veined crown of an emerging newborn.
This is a hilarious, and just slightly surrealistic, read. A perfect vacation book for long plane ride or a short cruise, preferably to or from or in the tropics.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Forensics by Val McDermid ****

What you see is what you get. Forensics by Val McDermid is an overview of forensics which is all the craze on television and fiction. If you have been watching CSI in all its variations and Bones and Numbe3rs and the rest, little of this will be a surprise.

The history of various techniques is a nice addition though. There seems to be a typical path that starts with disbelief by law enforcement, the public, and especially juries. Sometimes this first step is skipped. Profiling is an example of the latter.

The next step is over confidence. This happened immediately for profiling, but has also happened for many FBI lab operations (some mentioned in the book, but several skipped as the author is British). The book included some nice examples of over-exuberance for fingerprints.

On of these examples is the recent headline: "FBI admits flaws in hair analysis over decades."

Finally, there is a balanced approach.

One technique was new for me. It seems people can be identified by the pattern of veins on their hands and arms. This has been used to convict pedophiles.

For the forensic junkie, this is a nice maintenance dose between reruns.