Monthly Archives: December 2019

“Earthly Delights” by Kerry Greenwood

Earthly Delights (Corinna Chapman Mysteries Book 1) by [Greenwood, Kerry]

Corinna Chapman Mysteries Book 1 – 2004 (First US Edition 2007)

This entertaining mystery takes place in Melbourne, Australia. Kerry Greenwood is like Janet Evanovich (author of the wacky Stephanie Plum novels, set in Trenton, NJ) but on uppers. Crazier, and lots of fun. The title “Earthly Delights” refers to Corinna’s business, a successful bakery. In place of Stephanie Plum’s idiosyncratic extended Italian family, Corinna lives in an apartment building full of (mostly) loveable eccentrics. She takes up stray teenagers and seemingly lost causes with gusto, and in the end, the good guys win. There are seven Corinna Chapman mysteries, the most recent published in 2018. I probably doesn’t matter what order I read them in.

Greenwood has published dozens of books. I’ve heard her Phryne Fisher historical mysteries series highly praised, so maybe I’ll try them next.

“A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind

388 pages plus epilogue, notes, bibliography and index. Published 1998

This book is subtitled “The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash”

One of the reviews quoted on this book’s cover says “Reads like a fine novel”. No way. I disagree. No novelist would come up with so much detail, and provide such extensive historical context. This is an exceptionally fine biography. It deserves the awards it won.

Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that brings on delusions (often voices) and erratic, antisocial behavior. The old-fashioned term “madness” seems appropriate. Despite advances in psychiatry, it is still (in 2019) hard to diagnose, hard to treat and almost impossible to cure. One of Nash’s two sons also suffered from schizophrenia.

Nash was born in 1928 and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. He was hospitalized several times, and it’s hard to tell if his treatment, which included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy, saved his life or made him worse. Because Nasar delves into Nash’s mental state in great detail, this book is a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand and destigmatize mental illness, as well as being a sad reminder of how much about the human mind remains frighteningly mysterious.

Another valuable aspect of this book is its discussion of America in the 1950s, a time of political paranoia, technological hubris and rapid changes in American social patterns. The “Red Scare” and nuclear arms race impacted Nash along with other academics.

What else? Nash was a mathematical genius, but received the Nobel Prize (1994) in Economic Sciences, for his work on game theory. Is economics a science? (And what is game theory, anyway?) The Nobel Prize in economics (a late addition to the categories of the Swedish Academy) was never looked upon with favor by the Nobel Foundation and most of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nasar provides a detailed look at the controversy over giving the Prize to a man whose work had been done decades earlier, and who was presumed dead by many who admired his publications.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of this book, the role of Princeton University. What happened to John Nash after his academic life fell apart? The University, his wife Alicia and the Princeton community of mathematicians “supported’ him. His illness was so severe and his behavior so extreme that he might well have been institutionalized or ended up on the street. Alicia divorced him, then kept him in her house as a “boarder”. Princeton University allowed him to wander freely. He roamed the mathematics department, mostly at night, avoiding human contact and frightening staff members occasionally. Students referred to him as “the phantom”. He left strange long messages on blackboards. The University and the town of Princeton tolerated and protected him.

Then John Nash received the Nobel Prize and made as astonishing comeback. In mental health terms, it was either remission or cure. He was able to travel for the ceremonial acceptance of the Nobel Prize. Having learned some computer programming during the long hiatus in his career, he was able to resume work, though not as a creative mathematician. John and Alicia Nash remarried, and Nash made heroic effort to reconnect and reconcile with family and friends who had been driven away by his prior craziness and insensitivity.

Tragically, John and Alicia Nash died in car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015.

Much of this book is based on interviews. Nasar talked to more than 100 people, including Nash himself and family members. It’s a documentary tour de force. Nasar dedicated the book to Alicia Nash, showing her profound respect and admiration.

I was curious about Sylvia Nasar. She published one other book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011). Born in 1947, she earned a BA in Literature from Antioch College and an MA in Economics from NYU. On her web page, she says

“…economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.”

This is more positive than anything else I’ve read about economics! I want to learn more.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.

Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s  first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.

This book gives insight into

  • The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
  • The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
  • The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.

The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.

East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

“Enchantress of Numbers” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

This work of historical fiction is subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace”. The long version of the protagonist’s name is Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Her mother was Annabella Milbanke Byron, wife of the stunningly famous Romantic era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The marriage of Milbanke and Byron was short – Byron was unpredictable, promiscuous and moody. (That’s putting it mildly.) Byron left England, and Ada never had the opportunity to know her father.

Ada’s childhood was lonely, but she always had access to tutors and her intellectual life blossomed. She was passionately attracted to mathematics and science, and met many of the leading scholars of her age. Her name is often mentioned in connection with early “calculation machines” which preceded the invention of computers. She died at age 36, of uterine cancer.

It’s hard to read this book without applying contemporary standards of social judgement. Jennifer Chiaverini deserves high praise for staying within the cultural and social context experienced by Ada Lovelace.

Jennifer Chiaverini has published many books, including a series of TWENTY volumes called The Elm Creek Quilts Novels. I would rather start with her other six volumes of historical fiction. The only series of such magnitude I ever attempted was Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin saga.

Having now read a little about Lord Byron, I should read some of his poetry, which is considered the height of the Romantic era verse. Poetry is not my strong suit. I hope I can persist.