Passing Strange…Indeed

In Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, Martha A. Sandweiss manages to take a mountain of information and transform it into a smooth, reader-friendly boon. Covering a century of American history, including geographical expansion, economic trends, and social values might prove too plodding for one read, however, Ms.Sandweiss seamlessly pulls it off. With its thorough, straightforward style, Passing Strange manages to streamline an era of historical data into an enjoyable, intriguing account of the unlikely love story of Clarence King and Ada Copeland.

To untangle this intricate story, Sandweiss methodically walks us through the arbitrary and ever shifting rules of race during the Gilded Age. “The practice of passing generally involves adopting a particular identity to move toward greater legal and social privilege,” Sandweiss states. “It might mean taking on a different gender, or ethnic or national identity, but it most often involves the assumption of a different racial identity.” As many light-skinned blacks attempted to cross into the white world of opportunity, few whites opted for the reverse. Sandweiss continues, “The laws that pinned racial identities on ancestry rather than appearance paradoxically made it possible for a light-skinned Americans like King to claim a black identity.”

What makes this story so compelling is that in the late 1800’s there would be no comprehensible reason for a prominent white man of King’s stature to want to “pass” as a black man. This was, after all, an Ivy League man who both “dined at the White House” and “belonged to Manhattan’s most elite clubs.” While many freed slaves had migrated north in search of a better life, they continued to suffer from gross injustice and severely restricted social and economic mobility. The level of prejudice was extreme: If Mr. King’s secret was discovered, he stood to lose not only his social position, but his close family, friends, and business relationships as well. Regardless, when Clarence King crossed paths with slave-born Ada Copeland, he was willing to risk it all.

Though little is known about Ms. Copeland, one can infer that she was a woman who certainly could stand on her own. After leaving her loved ones behind to flee the Jim Crow south, Sandweiss surmises that Ada likely “embraced New York less as a place that acknowledged her past than as the place that let her leave it behind.” Hence, when the talented and captivating Clarence King introduced himself as Pullman porter James Todd, Ada likely had fresh hopes of starting a new family of her own.

Passing Strange cites psychologists as saying that to be a successful liar, one needs three attributes: the ability to plan ahead, a talent for managing one’s own emotions, and the capacity to read the needs of other people. Though the word liar implies malicious intent, King doesn’t come across as a scoundrel, but rather a man of deep spirituality with a profound love of family and nature. Always leading with his heart, his many correspondences reveal a man both passionate, yet emotionally strained as he tried to hold his opposing worlds together. During one extended absence he penned to Ada, “My darling, tell me all about yourself. I can see your dear face every night when I lay my head on the pillow and my prayers go up to Heaven for you and the little ones. I feel most lonely and miss you most when I put out the light at night and turn away from the work of the day.” Living as both renowned geologist Clarence King and Pullman porter James Todd, King’s dual life and lengthy absences were easily defensible. Nevertheless, such constant deception only exacerbated his recurring bouts of melancholia and fatigue which had dogged him since childhood.

Passing Strange is a solid work which pieces together the exotic life of an eccentric man. Differentiating fact from supposition, Ms. Sandweiss delivers her material with a cool, even hand, allowing the reader to step back from the fury of prejudice and interpret the material relevant to the times. Interspersed with the grand and poetic language of the day, the documented dialogue of King’s correspondences lends literary panache to this captivating tale of love and the expansion of the American west.

-By Megan Shaffer

Sunday, Lovely Sunday

I love nothing more than a quiet Sunday morning. Hot coffee, quiet house, and hours to peruse the New York Times and surf to my heart’s content. A book lover’s dream, Sunday holds the most current reviews, weekly bestseller lists, and articles of literary interest. Seeing as this happily takes the better part of my day, it isn’t until Monday morning that I can share the past week’s latest and greatest with you.

Of National Interest

-J.M. Coetzee’s book Disgrace will move to the big screen and open this Friday. Mr. Coetzee’s was the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Disgrace itself snagged the Booker prize in 1999.

A tense work, Disgrace addresses all of the traumas of postapartheid South Africa, and adapting it to the Hollywood screen was no doubt a daunting task. The New York Times quotes Steve Jacobs, who is handling the feature adaptation, as saying, “I came away from the novel feeling that you had to be the judge. I tried to make the film like the book. It was a surgical examination of a situation, not an argument for or against the situation.  It’s like you’re a witness rather than a participant.”

(Fortissimo Films)

-Because September has been declared National Literacy Month, the 9th National Book Festival will take place on the 26th of this month in D.C. with an impressive bank of authors slated to appear. International Literacy Day, however, is its own separate beast and is celebrated on Tuesday, September 8th.

Metro Voice


-In honor of the aforementioned International Literacy Day, the Free Press noted what a few of our notable Michigan women are reading; and the winner of best pick goes to…University of Michigan’s president Mary Sue Coleman with Suite Francaise! Let’s give it up for the only woman that actually admitted what she was really reading. Also on the list was Ms. Granholm with Profiles in Courage, Ms. Martinez with The Leadership Challenge, and MSU’s president Lou Anna Simon with Hot, Flat and Crowded.

-Having traveled to the Upper Peninsula two summers ago, Sunday’s Free Press feature of Steve Hamilton’s A Cold Day In Paradise reignited that latent intrigue with the “Yoop” that seems to reside in those of us who live “south of the border”.  A graduate of U of M, Hamilton is quoted as describing himself as “very much ‘a Michigan boy’ who gets back to the state regularly.”

The Paradise Mr. Hamilton refers to is our very own Paradise, Michigan which lies at the north-eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula. Referring to Paradise as “a whole different world”, he has chosen this location for his Alex McKnight series.  Steve Hamilton currently has eight novels and two anthologies and offers The McKnightly News.

Kerrytown Bookfest will take place this Sunday, September 13th. For more information  and this weeks literary happenings, see my Reading and Events page.


Bestseller Lists

New York Times

Indie Bestsellers

Publishers Weekly


Monster of Florence Continues to Intrigue

Somehow  I missed it. It was a random comment on an old blog of mine that pertained to my brief review of The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston. The comment was from a reader who was outraged by the participation of one of the investigators from The Monster of Florence in the ongoing Italian trial involving Amanda Knox. She informed me of a segment titled American Girl, American Nightmare on 48 hours (CBS News) which details the case as well as invites input from Mr. Preston.

For those of you who don’t know, Amanda Knox is the young American woman who is now serving time in an Italian prison for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Though I haven’t followed the case closely, the blog comment addressed the involvement of investigator Giuliano Mignini, who we come to know quite well in The Monster of Florence. The reason this point is so intriguing is because Mignini comes off as a little less than sane in Preston’s book. In fact, Mignini’s methods and behavior are downright frightening. Mirroring the Monster case, Mignini has introduced the same satanic orgies and other wild insinuations into this case as he did in the bizarre Monster investigation. To fully appreciate what I am talking about, I can only suggest that you read the book. (In depth interview on http://www.cbsnews.com titles American Girl, American Nightmare)

The Monster of Florence: A True Story by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Who knew?  I certainly don’t recall hearing of a serial killer or serial killings in Florence, Italy, yet here is a whole account of the heinous murders dating back to 1968.  Parallel to the gruesome deaths of seven couples is the equally heinous probe and investigation into the actual murders.  Douglas Preston takes us on a dark and fascinating journey into the hills and history of Italy as he and “monstrologer” Mario Spezi try desperately to find the perpetrator of these crimes.

Going to Italy with the sole intention of writing a new mystery, writer Preston packs his young family up and rents a charming villa in Florence.  After meeting with journalist Mario Spezi, Preston is astonished to learn that his new residence sits next to the scene of a grisly murder committed by the ritualistic killer known as the Monster of Florence.

Divided into two parts, the first takes us on a history of the Monster’s crimes and introduces us to evidence as well as the possible suspects and their individual histories. Mario Spezi takes us with him to the scene of the murders, allowing us to see through his eyes and draw our own conclusions about what might have occurred. Part two leads us into the great cultural divide between America and Italy. Covering legal procedure as well as civil rights, we watch in horror as the police run an unethical and insane investigation into the murders, ultimately taking down both Mr. Preston and Mr. Spezi.

Like watching a horror movie with our eyes partially covered, The Monster of Florence is a chilling account of the tragic murders and the ruined lives left in their wake.  To die a torturous death is hellish enough, but Douglas Preston pays tribute to the victims and their families by reminding us that those left behind still suffer and deserve honest answers.

The Monster of Florence takes us on an absolutely wild ride that still continues to this day.  With such a large cast of characters and events, one needs to utilize the timeline and character references provided at the beginning of the book.  Besides keeping the cast of characters straight, the most challenging thing about this book is remembering that it is, in fact, true. A story this insane reads like pure fiction.

-By Megan Shaffer

Why, Oh Why Mr. Eggers?

After recently reading a fiction piece in The New Yorker titled Max At Sea, I am officially intrigued, if not perplexed, by Dave Eggers. I have followed his progression from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to his internet publication McSweeney’s, to his recent Away We Go venture on the big screen, and wonder if the man has time to sleep. If you follow Mr. Eggers, it is also likely that you are aware of his incredible and tireless humanitarian efforts and drive to increase literacy among children; to all of these pursuits I tip my hat. That being said, I did find myself searching for words to articulate my reaction to the peculiar Max At Sea piece which is based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.

In Egger’s version, Max is the product of an absentee father. He resides with his mother, her “chinless boyfriend” Gary, and his sister Claire upon whom he wishes death by “flesh-eating tapeworms”. Actually, Max wishes all of them serious bodily harm which seems a touch more extreme than the “mischief” referred to in Sendak’s version (think messy bedrooms and empty cookie boxes). Once modern Max puts on his wolf suit, shouts “Arrrooooooo!” from atop the kitchen counter and proceeds to bite his mother, he’s off like a shot. Though the story continues from there, this is enough to give you the gist of my angst.

Now, I’m all for growth and creative expansion, however, as some things are better left unsaid, so too are some things better left unwritten. When I think of Where the Wild Things Are, I think of that sweetly dark, mysterious, quirky book that still conjures up images of oafish monsters and deep dark seas. It holds within it an innocent theme of escapism that we can all still happily relate to. However, my disappointment in Mr. Egger’s version is rooted in his attempt to demystify something that has stayed pure for the last forty-six years.

The beauty of the story lies in letting the individual imagination take flight (without commercial interruption), and until now, Where the Wild Things Are was one of those precious few childhood gems that had remained untainted and unspoiled. Alas, now that Max has been strapped with a load of contemporary baggage, it is unlikely that I will ever be able to look at him with quite the same eye. Dave Egger’s interpretation is interesting at best, but sadly, we will all go down with Max’s boat.The movie Where the Wild Things Are is slated for release this coming October. Do yourself and your kids a favor and read the book first.

Max At Sea appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the New Yorker.

-By Megan Shaffer

An Evening With Alexander McCall Smith

An endless supply of quotes exist telling us we should do what we love in life. Though many are cliche, I found myself rooting around for just the right one after hearing Alexander McCall Smith read from his latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Having read most of the books in his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I was eager to see and hear in person the man who brought me the much adored Precious Ramotswe. As I entered the Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, it was evident that I was not alone.

Since I probably haven’t had the pleasure of listening to someone read to me since kindergarten carpet time, it was with happy nostalgia that I sat cross-legged and elbow to elbow on the bookstore floor, listening to the cadenced voice of Mr. McCall Smith. Bewitched by his lilt and laughter, he quickly transformed the packed room of overwrought adults into a sea of sunny, eager faces as he read his favorite passages from Tea Time.

Now if you haven’t read any of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, it would be prudent to inform you of their beautiful simplicity. Sprinkled with charming formalities, this modern day series lends itself an air of forgotten sophistication and decency so integral to the traditions of Botswana. The detective, Mma Ramotswe, cheerfully runs her laid-back operation with both cunning and disarming common sense. In signature McCall Smith style, these modest mysteries quietly play themselves out while the background literary score pays tribute to the deep-rooted customs and ways of Botswana.

Referring to himself as a “serial novelist” in the Q&A portion of his appearance, the author made no apologies for the multiple series he now has moving through the markets, and quite frankly we don’t want him to. With three series in addition to The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, the prolific McCall Smith claims to write on the road, in the air, or wherever his travels take him. When asked how he keeps all of his characters straight, a broad smile takes over his face as the question inevitably cues up their images. Like a proud father, confusing his creations is not a problem; he knows every nuance of his characters including voice, personality, strengths and vulnerabilities. Clearly born out of creative love, McCall Smith regards his characters with a wistful and paternal adoration only solid nurturing can bring about.

Taking in the vibrant crowd, I sat marveling as each brief pause between questions brought about the fervent waving of hands, showcasing that age old “pick me! pick me!” determinism. One such hand belonged to an enthusiastic, heavyset woman in the front row. Quite overcome, she tearily thanked Mr. McCall Smith for making Mma Ramotswe a “woman of traditional build.” She said that having Precious Ramotswe portrayed as a heavier woman “made her feel beautiful again.”

Equally poignant was the comment shared by a dark, lovely woman, dressed in her bright yellow Sunday best. Waving throughout the majority of the appearance, the author finally chose her to end the session.  Beyond pleased, she broke into the traditional greeting of Botswana, charming both Mr. McCall Smith and the audience at large. We listened intently as she thanked him for portraying her country in such a positive light. She added that her people constantly hear about America and that it is nice to be able to share the beauty of her homeland with others.

As I made my way home, I realized that this excursion meant to satisfy my curiosity had actually shaped itself into something far more humanitarian. Rather than self-promotion, Mr. McCall Smith seemed absolutely delighted to simply share both his words and our company. As readers, we wonder about the author behind the works that move us, and hope deep down that the real life version measures up. We give ourselves over to the imagination and creativity of others, also with the hope of finding growth and inspiration. For me, Alexander McCall Smith’s sunny, engaging manner simply validates the importance of pursuing our passions in life. After all, as philosopher Albert Camus once said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

-By Megan Shaffer