Mystery, history, historical mystery: restorative time-travel from the comfort of a chair. Three picks from my summer reading:
• Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, set in Cambridge in 1171. At last, a medieval mystery with a spunky, independent woman sleuth. Trained in Salerno, Italy, a progressive city of Jews, Christians, and Muslims where women can study and practice medicine, Ariana must solve the murders of English Christian children before the local community turns on local Jews as scapegoats—and on Adelia as a suspected witch. This is the first in a lively series of four.
• Cézanne’s Quarry by Barbara Corrado Pope, set in southern France in 1885. Two of Cézanne’s more disturbing paintings depict the knife-murder and strangulation of women with red hair. When a redhead is found dead in a quarry, Cézanne is one of two suspects. The other is the victim’s lover, an English radical who offends the establishment with lectures on Darwin and the age of the earth. This and its sequels touch on tenacious issues like religion/science and antisemitism.
• Nemesis by Philip Roth, set in Newark in 1944. How can a young playground director sustain self-respect when poor eyesight bars him from military service and he’s powerless to protect his playground kids from a raging polio epidemic? The hook for me is the pre-1950s polio mystery I’ve written about: Why couldn’t fly-swatting campaigns, quarantines, and insecticides stop the spread of polio?
The Day the World Grew Dark
Four minutes and thirty-eight seconds of total darkness on August 2, 1133 (Julian calendar), portended catastrophe: the death of King Henry I of England, followed by years of civil war, and Duke Frederick’s burning of Augsburg in Germany. In honor of today’s eclipse, I hope you’ll enjoy five chroniclers’ accounts:
“In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted.”
Extracts are from David Le Conte at MrEclipse.com. He credits the first two quotes to UK Solar Eclipses from Year 1 by Sheridan Williams, Clock Tower Press, 1996, and the last three to Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation by F. Richard Stephenson, Cambridge University Press, 1997 (pages 392-393).
The Great Male Renunciation
Brocade, taffeta, ruffles, and jewelry used to be common on wealthy men. Rather suddenly about 1800, men gave up their claim to beauty in favor of looking sober and useful. Beau Brummell (1778-1840), English arbiter of taste and fashion, favored suits in dark, somber colors with full-length trousers, plain linen shirts, broad-shouldered coats, and knotted neckties. Suits remained standard menswear for two hundred years.
Why did Brummell’s taste take such enduring hold? Opinions differ. Gentility and respectability displaced aristocracy under the democratizing influence of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. According to The London Tailor in 1899, “There never was a time in history when everybody was dressed so alike.” Homogeneity loosened a bit since the 1950s, but men in most settings still don’t dress to stand out from the crowd. It’s unclear who benefits.
While “the Great Male Renunciation” blurred class distinctions, it heightened gender stereotypes. Men are rational and practical, clothing patterns suggest, while women—and only women—are decorative. I bought my first adult boots in the men’s department because they were more comfortable than women’s.
Norms for masculinity are transient. Some in the early 1900s proposed dressing boys in pink. Upper-class men wore high heels, practical for riding, before the fashion spread to women. Maybe someday we’ll cycle back to the days when men could flaunt their beauty with no one raising an eyebrow.
Weeding a Life
When I moved to Wisconsin twenty-two years ago, my freelance writing moved with me. Everything else started fresh. Creating a new life was like planting a bare patch of dirt. Some activities and connections put down roots, while others soon died out. Happily, work transplanted well.
When I’ve lived in one place for years, the garden of my life sometimes needs weeding. It can get over-scheduled or unbalanced, with invasives spreading out of control. Periodically it’s time to pull out what no longer works, give essentials like writing and family the light and water they need, and plant a few new flowers in selected spots to keep the colors vibrant.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.