The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Two weeks ago I traveled to Salem, MA and walked the same routes that the accused of the Salem Witch Trials walked over 300 years ago. As such, the experience was amazing, however, I didn’t feel as though I could have gotten all I did by just going. If you do go, you need to do quite a bit of research to really understand what the trials were all about and how they became such a phenom three centuries later.

As such, a few months ago the non-fictional author, Stacy Schiff, who wrote Cleopatra released her newest work entitled The Witches, Salem 1692. The book was met with much hype and even more rave reviews. I would have to say it was one of the first of its kind; an accurate, complete, and non-academic attempt at explaining the timeline and entire plot of the Salem Witch Trials. Thus, in seeing the sites and going on an exceptional tour, I wanted to know all of the details of the “dark” time period in our country that many would like to forget.

Altogether, Schiff’s novel is 417 pages of annotated chapters. I’ve read War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, so 417 doesn’t scare me, but annotated with a 30-plus page bibliography is a bit daunting. Surprisingly, this isn’t my only complete about the work (please proceed to the next paragraph for those, haha). As noted, Schiff excellently portrays the discussion of all topics that occurred during the time period in question; all of the who, what, why (to some extent), when, and how’s are all answered through her thorough discussion of characters and timelines. I give her as many props as I can spare on the details, for there are so few sources that remain to this day. Moreover, many of them are firsthand sources, written in penmanship that’s sub-par and even worse, English that is untranslatable at times. For this, Schiff does an amazing job of delving into the material with as much information as she can and does the trials (and all of the happenings pre- and post-1692) as well as she could.

Unfortunately, this book was one of the most tedious non-fiction I have read in a long time (if not the most convoluted, ever). I’m a huge Robert K. Massie and Carolly Erickson who keep their biographies or non-fictional tales to short, crisp sentences. Schiff’s sentence structure, on the other hand, is like reading a run-on of a person who takes themselves way too seriously. If anything, this work was a textbook, which greatly took away to my main premise of reading the work: for fun! I wanted to learn, not be bored to death. Not only was Schiff’s prose tedious, it was also organized in a quasi-timeline manner, jumping around a lot especially between the timeline of the events of the witch trials and the world events or cultural norms of the time. It would have made more sense to set the scene (i.e. during this time, women did not get that much attention because the men were out fighting the Indians and trying to bring food home to the family), sacrificing the first few chapters for the reader to fully understand what it was like to live in 17th Century MA. This made reading this book really hard to follow. The only chapter that seemed well-placed was the last one which delved into, and only into, the societal repercussions and full discussions of why the witch trials occurred in the first place. In a novel such as this, if you don’t have a clear and concise way of delivering the historic details to your audience the entire purpose of the work is negated. As a reader, you don’t want to be talked at, you want to take on the presence of being enveloped in the world you’re reading about. For this reason along, Schiff’s work is way too hard to read (And I’ve read my fair share of science textbooks, and they were EASY in comparison).

Now, I didn’t quite grasp historical premise of the Salem Witch Trials before or during my trip. Considering I know much more now that I’ve read this work, I want to make a few general comments that really struck me. First off, if you do read this novel, prepare to be annoyed with the timeline of events. It’s really disturbing that I have to say this but the timeline is very deja vu, in the fact that history keeps repeating itself: accuser accuses a “witch”, judges prosecute the “witch,” and the “witch” is sentenced to death. This repeatedly happens over and over to so many people. It’s astounding that this was real life and unfortunately, the monotony of the tale takes away from each individual’s story. This is just a general comment that I had about half way through Schiff’s book.

As noted, Schiff does do an outstanding job in outlining all of the places and people that are to blame for the Witch Trials. I’ve done a little analysis in attributing the blame to three main reasons: Accusers, Judges, and Society. Many of the accusers were women, and Schiff attributed much of their drive to find “witches” to come from seeking attention. During this time, women, especially those who did not come from wealthy families, were in constant shadows of their husband. Their husband would go and fight Indians, die, and they were supposed to continue feeding their children, protecting the house, and find a new spouse. Colonists would also have large families, since only 50% (exact statistic, I’m not sure, but close to half) would survive. Thus, between eight siblings, one had to do something to be the only one with attention, especially the girls, who really had nothing to live for except marry and have more Puritan children. The second grouping I attribute the Witch Trials were the judges who clearly took their jobs way too seriously and too such a dark place that their actions were condemned by the King of England. The Judges (and yes, there was a panel of them) believed the accusers without asking any real challenging questions, asked leading questions of the accused (How do you answer: show me how you are not a witch?), and then jailing those individuals for months in disgusting jails. Seriously, if I went without nail polish for a week you could get me to say pretty much anything, let alone no heat, plumbing, or food/water. No wonder our system is no Innocent until proven Guilty; the assumption of guilt is troubling when innocence is something harder to prove. The third idea that I have to blame for the trials must be society. How could neighbor turn against neighbor, if not for land and monetary gain? Salem, while it’s not too far from Boston, in the 17th Century was far enough away that it was a civilization of its own, especially during the winter. Being cutoff from others will cause individuals to seek attention and do things they would not normally do if in an all-inclusive society or one greater than a couple hundred. At one time there were 700 accused “witches” in Salem. That is an astounding number, especially for that era. The greed of the townspeople of Salem, must be one of the most intriguing sociological studies to date. No wonder Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” about it to represent McCarthyism. Daughter turned against Mother, neighbor against neighbor, it really sends chills down my spine that humans have that amount of evil in them, especially when you think that they believed this was all because of the Devil. If anything, the “witches” were the accusers and the judges doing the malicious and heinous acts of accusing innocent victims.

Anyway, returning back to subject: if you have the time and the effort to read Schiff’s work, I would highly suggest it. But get your fine-toothed comb out for some serious reading. I could manage about 30 pages at a time, which was quite a bit. It’s dense, full of details, and will get you frustrated whether it be the monotony or the characters, be prepared. This was a blemish in American History, but mind you, America wasn’t the only place that hunted Witches under false pretenses. Many countries had similar instances, I think we just capitalized on it the best (which could be good for drawing attention to the events, or bad for capitalizing such a national tragedy). 300 years, and now we memorialize those who died, the most we can do that many centuries later.

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The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

I’ve read quite a few of Lauren Willig’s novels, in particular her series about the French spy network beginning with the Pink Carnation. Her novels are a mix of romance and 007-esque themes based in the period of 18th Century. Willig has an excellent style of writing, in that it is simplistic and well-organized. She has done her research thoroughly of the time period that she is writing about and it’s really a pleasure to read those (highly suggest them!). The novel, herein, is not a classic Willig novel, which made me think “maybe I won’t like it as much as her others.” Well, it was unique in itself!

The Ashford Affair takes place in two eras, with three different main characters. Clementine is a modern-day lawyer living in New York City. She is the granddaughter of Addie who celebrates her 99th birthday in 1999. The other era of the novel took place in the time span of early 1900s to 1929 during Addie’s childhood to early adulthood. The third main character was Bea, Addie’s cousin. The Ashford Affair alludes to the truth behind how Addie became Clementine’s grandmother.

Willig does an excellent job of jumping from modern day Clementine to Addie growing up in the Ashford manor in England with Bea. Addie was an orphan; the only daughter of Bea’s father’s younger brother. Both of Addie’s parents were bookworms and well-educated who liked quiet places and disliked high society, things that Addie reflected in her personality. Bea, on the other hand, was raised in a large estate and loved attention. The difference between these two characters and their relationship, in my mind, is what drove the novel’s main theme of friendship, relationship (romantic or familial), and blood is thicker than water, but only some instances.

The crux of the “Ashford Affair” is Bea having an affair on her husband with Addie’s best friend, Frederick, and gets pregnant by him. They end up getting married, Bea and Frederick, and move to Kenya. In Kenya, is where the story gets very interesting. I’m not going to say what exactly happens, even though I alluded to it earlier. This is the only part of the novel that not only confused me but wasn’t well-ended. Willig is usually a gifted story-teller, who completes a story in full detail. But, in this novel, the ending is rushed and it feels as if she says “they fall in love and she goes away, the end.” It’s a bit odd, and not representative of the previous 320+ pages.

As always, Willig is a stellar novelist, and for a change of her usual novel, this story did not disappoint. It was an interesting story that kept me reading and entertained. The ending was anti-climactic, but hey, you can’t have everything you desire. Anyway, pick this read up if you’re in the mood for a historical/modern fictional story.

The Green Mile by Stephen King

This was my very first Stephen King book. I may love horror films, but horror novels are not really my cup of tea. I never get as scared as I should, so the novel never hits home. Hence, I’ve never picked up a King novel, until now.  The Green Mile was made into a film in 1999 and nominated for 4 Oscars. It has been on my movie list for a while, yet I wanted to read the novel first.

The novel is about a guards who serve on a Southern death row called “Green Mile” because the linoleum is lime green. These guards are in charge of individual’s execution by “Old Sparky.” The novel starts with a black man coming onto the death row for the murder and rape of twin 10 year old girls. John Coffey is a large African American man who is kind, with a sweet temperament, and has a special power. The whole novel discusses the life on the mile, and explores the guards and their inmates as people with hearts (and in some cases, without hearts).

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel since it was straight and to the point, stylistically. Moreover, the general themes of the novel hit home for any person. Execution is obviously one of the topics that is presented for thoughts and opinions of the reader. This is especially presented when “Del” is electrocuted and there happens to be a huge mishap that happens, in which Del is essentially burned alive. Another topic that I found was the general rule of thumb: “doing the right things.” Paul, Brutal, Dean, and Harry find that John has a special power to cure illnesses, so they spring John to help their boss’ wife (Read the book for more information). They also come to find that John couldn’t have killed those twin girls, so how do they in good conscious kill him? How can you execute an innocent man? These are topics to discuss with your inner self; what would you do if you were in their shoes?

So, I have to be honest in my analysis. My favorite character in the novel is Mr. Jingles, the mouse. For a character that doesn’t say a single word, but only portrays themes through actions,  his symbolism in the novel is probably the greatest part of the book. He is at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel and is one of John Coffey’s examples of his gifts. He also is quite comical and I love King’s sections when he is brought into the action. He makes the book!!!

All in all, I read this 538 page novel in 4 days, so if that doesn’t tell you how good it is, I’m not sure what is. It’s captivating, hopeful, and well-written, all aspects to a good read. Plus, it’s not too scary, but thrilling. Go pick it up!

Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon

After reading the rather serious novel Cider House Rules by John Iriving, I was in the mood for something a little more lighthearted and a “fast read.” Thus, I turned to a book that I had in my bookcase for a while, just have never started since it’s by an author I am unfamiliar with. I’m always very cautious in starting an author who I’ve never read for if I start a book and don’t like it, I still read it. HA!

Fairy tales are something that I always turn to make me happy. There’s a way that fairy tales make you feel young again, similar to a child hearing the story for the first time. The Fairest of Them All is a story about Rapunzel and her story from childhood to adulthood. Turgeon provides a very interesting take on Rapunzel’s fairy tale and mix it with Snow White.

Rapunzel grew up with Mother Gothel in a Tower outside of the Palace in a forest. The story began with Gothel sharing all of her witchcraft skill with Rapunzel, thus Rapunzel is a witch. One day, a Prince showed up at their forest hideout and fell in love with Rapunzel. He returned to his palace to marry a princess from the East and together they had a child named Snow White. In a few years, the king dies and the prince and princess become King and Queen. Thus, Gothel has the Queen poisoned so that the king will be free to marry Rapunzel making Rapunzel Snow White’s stepmother. Read the book, if you want the end of the story!

The book took me 36 hours to read, so it’s a very easy read. The characters, while usual for the fairy tales, Turgeon is a gifted storyteller that puts an interesting twist on a traditional story. I will be honest and was not expecting Rapunzel and Snow White to be in the same story, let alone Rapunzel being Snow White’s stepmother. There were no seven dwarfs though, so sad!

All together I enjoyed the book, and while it was not something to rave about, it satisfied my reading thirst for a light read. I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi/magical books recently, so this was a good change of pace for me. And would be for you too. The best part: it was 66% off at Barnes & Noble. WIN!

 

The Cider House Rules: John Irving

John Irving is a prolific author who has written some of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century. I thoroughly loved his A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was a terrific work, extremely heartwarming story, even though it was a bit long in the tooth. Recently, I was looking for a novel that I could take on my moving trip that was long and would keep me enthralled. I couldn’t put my first Irving book down, so I figured I might as well try another of his works.

I knew of The Cider House Rules from its Oscar night when Irving himself won for Best Screenplay. The novel is about an orphanage run by Dr. Larch. He establishes it in Maine after returning from WWI. He and his two nurses not only run the orphanage (boys and girls, separated), but also a secret abortion clinic. Women show  to St. Clouds to deliver their baby and leave him/her at the orphanage. Alternatively, women show to undergo an abortion.

In addition to Dr. Larch and St. Clouds, the other main character was Homer Wells, an orphan who was adopted a plethora of times, but always returned to St. Clouds. Homer grew up under Dr. Larch’s tutelage as an obstetrician. He was Dr. Larch’s protege until he refused to abortions. Thus, Homer moved away with a couple, Wally and Candy, who was similar to age as him, and assisted Wally with his apple orchard. The Cider House was the building (if you could call it that) where the transient workers would stay during apple picking season. The Cider House Rules are those rules that Wally’s family posts in the house: don’t drink too much and don’t drink then climb on the roof, as some examples.

I think it’s interesting that Irving named this book after the cider house rules, since they played a large role, but I don’t think they played a HUGE role in the novel as a whole. If anything I think one of the most pivotal themes is the morality of human life and deception. Homer and Candy sleep together while Wally is fighting in WWII and is thought to be dead over Burma. Candy has the baby at St. Clouds and Homer “adopts” him as his son, calling him Angel. Candy and Homer deceived their family, except at St. Clouds, regarding Angel Homer’s adopted, but biological son. Alternatively, Dr. Larch has spent decades covering up the death of Fuzzy Stone, while he has “written” correspondence from him as a Harvard medical student who wants to be an obstetrician. These are only two HUGE lies that consume the novel. All I can read into it is: Irving was commenting about the depravity of humanity.

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel. There were only a few drawbacks that I could identify. The first is Irving’s style is fairly descriptive and tedious. What could be said in a sentence, Irving says in a paragraph. He sometimes gets on tangents that have nothing to do with the main theme of the chapter. While its annoying and tedious to read through, it is Irving’s writing style and you can’t fault him for that. The other drawback was Irving’s description of gruesome actions. For example, there’s this picture that causes Homer Wells and Melony see in an abandoned room. It’s of a girl and a horse (I will leave the rest to your imagination). Quite frankly, Irving’s description is disgusting and too much (beyond X-rated). It’s very difficult to read these things and take them in. I didn’t enjoy it, and it for sure is not appropriate for children.

I cannot recommend this book enough, but one must take care of some of its written prose.I cannot wait to watch the film, to see how comparable it is to the novel. For now, the book is excellent and well-worth your time.

Nuns of Sant’Ambrogia: Hubert Wolf

My recent favorite genre of book has been non-fiction. Now that I’m done with school, learning is more of a “fun” endeavor than a “necessary” one. Sometimes, though, these novels can be a huge undertaking. Tedious, chronologically difficult to understand, and highly complex characters are all immense hurtles to overcome when approaching a non-fiction work. All of these hurtles were ones that I had to approach when starting and reading The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogia. This book was a labor of love, that’s how I’m going to star this post.

The Vatican’s approach to dealing with scandal is of interest to many, regardless of the time era. With the film “Spotlight” just winning the Oscar for Best Picture, this is a topic of current concern. This novel presents an historical perspective of another scandal that rocked the Church in the 19th century, one in which the proof that this scandal even existed wasn’t released until the late 1990s. In this alone was intrigue that this novel presented an interesting perspective on the Church’s stance on scandal and how they overcome such atrocities.

There was once a convent in Italy called Sant’Ambrogia. It was run by nuns who revered a nun who was thought to be a saint. The church did not grant her Sainthood, for there was not enough evidence, but the nuns of her same convent 50+ years after her death thought that she was a Saint so they could not be convinced otherwise. Their leader was a fanatic who believed that she had messages from God, Mary, and the Holy Ghost. Not only was she a heretic, but she also was deceptive and a murderess. But, that’s not the worse of it.

A German princess came to stay with the nuns to see if their convent was a suitable fit for her. She became ill and got sicker and sicker with time. After many months of not being able to eat anything but soup, she begged her cousin to rescue her. When she left the convent, she immediately got better and both her and her cousin knew she had been poisoned. This starts that scandal in which the nuns were accused.

The above two paragraphs are a very vague and superficial description of this novel. There is A LOT more to the story than this (especially some lesbian activities), but that is the general overview. The German Princess was the Whistle blower and she is the one that began the investigation(s) into the convent and the individuals who worked there. Priests, nuns, cardinals, and even the Pope were all affiliated with this convent and the issues that were transpiring within its walls. Yet, in the end, there was no real adjudication that happened. The nuns and priests got slapped on the wrist with a few months of service to the Church, but otherwise ended up back in their initial positions. The convent was closed and its membership disbanded to a wide variety of other convents, but that was the only thing that really was remedied.

The main takeaway message from this book that I could glean from it, was the highly complex and time consuming nature of the Vatican’s investigative branch. The process included: prelim investigation, approval to continue by the cardinals and pope, informative process, decision, offensive process, defensive process, and judgment, followed by notification. Do you realize how convoluted and time intensive this process is? No wonder scandal plagues the Church!

While this book was extremely tedious and took me a long time to finish, it was worth the read just in considering the basic process of investigation by the church. The congregation of cardinals and the pope are always well-apprised of the situation, which could be good or bad. Regardless, it’s very tedious and was a bit shocking to read about.

Slade House: David Mitchell

Slade House is the most recently published novel by David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas. It got rave reviews in the papers and I liked his first book, so I thought I might as well try it. Slade House has a similar layout to Cloud Atlas in that each chapter (and their’s only six) is a different story. They all fall under the same story umbrella and concern two characters in particular, but each chapter has its own beginning, middle, and end. Unlike Cloud Atlas, Slade House, is a ghost story that takes place throughout the past three decades. This is what really intrigued me about the work and the main reason why I purchased it.

As I said, there are six chapters to Slade House, and each involve a person or group of people who gain entry into Slade House from Slade Alley that is only available every nine years. The house is occupied by two twin: Jonah and Nora Grayer. We don’t learn of their names until the the third chapter or so. And their lives’ story isn’t revealed until the second to the last chapter. I won’t go into it right now, but lets just say the Grayer twins are exceptional individuals who have magical gifts. In a nutshell, in order to live forever, the Grayers have to suck a spirit out of specific people every nine years. This spirit sustains their life forms for nine years until they have to get a new one, which is mainly where the book comes into play.

Mitchell’s style of writing is exceptionally fluid and short and concise. The book is only 238 pages and it took me maybe five days to totally read. I really enjoy the concept that every chapter is a story in and of itself. It allows for quick reading in that you can read one chapter at a time and complete a whole story. This is especially the case when it comes to ghost stories for each chapter tells a separate disappearance of an individual. Mitchell has a way of telling tales and I really enjoyed this book and how he wove the tales together to make an umbrella story.

The only real complaint I have about the novel is the lack of explanation and confusion over magical terminology. The history of the Grayer twins was really interesting, but there were quite a few magical things that they mentioned that are crucial to the story that I didn’t quite understand or were underdeveloped. How they made their bodies and concocted the world to fool their victims was lost on me. I think Mitchell could have spent more time on developing this portion of the story for it was pivotal.

In the end, I really enjoyed it and liked this book much more than Cloud Atlas. If you are in the mood for a ghost and magical story that doesn’t get weird like some of the science fiction stories I have read, totally pick this one up. It is an interesting story, something that hasn’t been done in the past and is a fast read (double plus). Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.