Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Invisible Giants & Murder on Astor Place

I'm tired this morning. Mia woke up early with clearly no plans for letting Mommy lay in bed. I can only hope she'll take a nap this afternoon like she did yesterday. I could really go for a Mountain Dew right now, just for the hit of caffeine. I had a couple of book disappointments this weekend, but I'm going to split them up.

Invisible Giants by Mark C. Carnes has a bit of a misleading title and premise. I checked this book out, because it looked like an interesting bit of American history. The prologue promised brief biographies about great people in American history who helped shaped our country but were forgotten by the history books. Each entry was nominated by someone famous: Andy Rooney, Simon Winchester, Richard Avedon, and others. My first clue should have been in the prologue written by Carnes in which he admits that some of the people in the book may be hard to picture as Giants, such as Leon F. Czolgosz, William McKinley's assassin, and that in future additions Mohammed Atta may well be listed. As I continued to read the book, I found profiles of singers whose songs I had never heard and others whose contribution to American history seems minimal, perhaps limited to the person writing the biography. Even that kind of writing has value, because it sheds light on the writers themselves. But this book also has glowing biographies of Roger Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU and Emma Goldman, noted anarchist.
I don't understand how these people and others like them can be considered American heroes, when the majority of their lives was devoted to working to destroy that which made America great. There are true American heroes in here, some of them truly unsung: Nathanael Greene, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sequoyah, and more. But there are more here who are famous for using their power to destroy American ideals rather than live up to them. Avoid this book, or use it only to look up the authors, so you can beware of them as well.

Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson is the first Gaslight Mystery featuring midwife Sarah Brandt. Sarah has given up her wealth and prestige as part of one of the Knickerbocker famlies in Victorian New York to work as a midwife. The pain of her past losses keeps her working with the poor and desperate. When Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy investigates a murder of a young pregnant woman at a boarding house, he uses Sarah's skills to help him build his case. The rules for police procedure are nothing like those of today, a sergeant needs to have a bribe in hand in order to complete a case, but this death haunts Malloy until he feels compelled to solve it, and he needs Sarah to do it. The atmospheric details in this book are nice. Thompson does a good job of helping the reader feel a part of the scene. My one complaint about that is she never gives us an actual year. Yes, I could pull out a history book and find out when Rooseveldt took over the NYPD, but I'd much rather that Thompson had simply told me. Malloy's internal dialogue occasionally has a ring of Sam Spade to it, and Sarah often seems too good to be true. I'd like to see her cut loose her intelligent tongue on some worthy subject. The mystery moves along quickly, and although the solution can be figured out, how Malloy will handle it is the true mystery. The final climactic scene is a bit hard to follow, although that may have been intentional. The final contact between father and daughter is truly shocking. Sorry couldn't help myself. I do look forward to reading the next book in the series.

I'm currently reading Ann Coulter's How to Talk to Liberals If you Must, a collection of her essays. She has an amazingly quick wit about her. I wish I could come up with zingers like that! I'm off to watch the Rugrats move (again) with Mia on the couch.