KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #3: I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick

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George Wythe was an American patriot. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as one of Virginia’s representatives at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was a well-known judge and a law professor at William and Mary (America’s first law professor, they say). Friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson and a well-respected pillar of the community, George Wythe was admired by all who knew him, so it was quite a shock to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, when he was murdered by his grand-nephew.

Wythe was 80 years old when he, along with two members of his household, fell suddenly and violently ill. His servant Lydia Broadnax, a freed slave, and his protégé Michael Brown were also stricken, with Broadnax eventually recovering and Brown dying within a week. Wythe hung on for two weeks, all the time insisting that he had been poisoned by his sister’s grandson—and ironically, his own namesake—George Wythe Sweeney.

It wasn’t hard to believe, of course. Everyone knew Sweeney as a gambler and a wastrel who had taken advantage of his uncle’s generosity time and again. While living with his uncle in Richmond, Sweeney forged checks and sold some of Wythe’s valuable books to pay gambling debts. Wythe never pressed charges in those cases, hoping against hope that Sweeney would mature and settle down, but even his generous spirit had to draw the line at his own murder. Wythe lived long enough to not only accuse Sweeney but to cut him out of his will.

The court of public opinion was roundly against Sweeney and the case against him seemed air tight. All signs pointed to arsenic poisoning, a star prosecutor was on the case, and there was even a reliable eye witness in Lydia Broadnax, who claimed to have seen Sweeney put something in the coffee that morning. Yet as with many a famous trial, mistakes were made. During the autopsy, the doctors failed to perform basic tests for arsenic that would have proven the cause of death. Two well-known attorneys eager to make names for themselves by winning an unwinnable case came to Sweeney’s defense. And Broadnax was prevented from testifying because Virginia law did not allow blacks, free or slave, to testify in court.

I Am Murdered provides an interesting account of law and politics in the United States’ early years. Chadwick delves into the relationship between Wythe and Jefferson and recounts their impact on Virginia law. He also paints a colorful picture of Richmond, which was apparently the Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial America with all its gambling houses and brothels. The botched autopsy and the doctors’ initial misdiagnosis of cholera illuminates how even the very best doctors of the day were prone to dreadful screw ups. Finally, the simple detail of Broadnax not being permitted to testify puts the period’s race relations front and center in the narrative.

I’d have to say that I Am Murdered is more about the history of Virginia than it is a historical crime story, which is fine, just not what I was expecting from a book with, you know, murder in the title. So even though I enjoyed the book and found the history interesting, I felt strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because it held so much potential to be a sensational true-life crime drama: the villain in the story is so shameless he tries to get his victim to bail him out of jail! Edmund Randolph, one of the attorneys who defended Sweeney, was the same attorney who drafted the new will that cut Sweeney out of his inheritance. My God, can’t you just see this as an episode of Law and Order: Colonial America?

As a slice of early American history, I Am Murdered is well worth the read. Just know that’s what you are getting, with a little murder on the side.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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My first encounter with Julian Barnes was when I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters on a vacation to Italy ten years ago. I was so taken by the beauty of the language and the clever way that Barnes wove common themes throughout the collection of stories that I thought the world had just found its newest Barnes disciple. Sadly, though I have read quite a few of his novels since then, none evoked the same response that I had to History. So I picked up The Sense of an Ending with a healthy dose of skepticism, Man Booker Prize be damned!

And what do you know. . I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, or rather, the story that Tony Webster remembers as he looks back at his early life and his re-evaluation of it in middle age. The novel is told in two parts. In Part One, Tony shares the story of his school days. He has three chums, and his little clique is intelligent, philosophical, and yes, arrogant in that intellectual-English-school-boy way.  When they go off to university they grow apart and Tony starts dating Veronica, whom he portrays as superior and condescending. After a bad breakup, Tony learns that Veronica has started dating his old friend Adrian. At first he pretends he isn’t bothered but later writes a scathing letter to the couple telling them exactly what he thinks of them. At the end of Part One, tragedy strikes, forever shattering the little group. Tony moves on with his life: his marriage, the birth of his child, and amiable divorce are covered in two and a half pages. In Part Two, something happens to cause Tony to re-think history, to dredge up past memories, contact Veronica, and try to figure out what exactly happened forty years ago.

Let me be clear: this is not a “he said/she said” novel. It’s more like “he said/he questioned what he said/he asked others what they thought he said.” The overriding theme of the novel is a twist on the “history is written by the winners” platitude: “History is the lies of the victors and the self-delusion of the defeated.” That second part often gets overlooked.

Curiously, in spite of all middle-aged Tony’s self-recriminations, I still liked him and, in fact, I felt like he was being way too hard on himself. Even the revelation of his vicious missive to Adrian and Veronica didn’t make me think less of him, and while the complexities of their relationship became more apparent, I still found Veronica to be superior and condescending and couldn’t muster much sympathy for her. I dare say other readers may have a different opinion, and that I think is the point. Every one of us has individual perspective and individual baggage that clouds our vision. Is there such a thing as complete objectivity? Even 60-year-old Tony can’t agree with 20-year-old Tony, so how can separate individuals with completely different backgrounds understand history the same way? So much of history, our own history, relies on our own imperfections of memory and our inability to truly understand someone or something outside ourselves.

With that understanding, I begin to wonder how my own tastes and preferences have changed as I have changed over time. Would I be as impressed with A History of the World in 10½ Chapters if I read it for the first time today? Would I like Barnes’s England, England more if the ten-year-older me read it now? One thing I learned from this novel is that we, like history, are seldom static.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #1: The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs

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In his introduction to The Animal Dialogues, author and naturalist Craig Childs invites his audience to read the book out of sequence. He hopes, in fact, “that you. . .might come upon this book by accident. . . left open to a passage on mountain lions, or flipping through its pages until you are caught in the stares of fifteen sorcerous ravens.”

Each of the essays in Animal Dialogues focuses on an encounter between author and wildlife: from grizzly bear to mouse, bald eagle to hummingbird, blue-finned shark to smelt. They are snapshots of time in which the author captures his impressions of the natural world and ponders the existence of the animals he happens upon for as long as each creature will allow. Each essay is infused not only with the author’s personal reactions, but also interesting details about the species and the natural world in general—an essay on mountain goats, for example, takes a side trip into the world of olfaction, perhaps the least appreciated of our senses.

Every encounter in the collection is a grab-bag of emotion and the reader never knows whether the result will be comical, as when the author suspects his cat of having made a side deal with the mice to let them run wild; tense, as his standoff with a mountain lion, a scene with enough dramatic tension to rival Argo; or poignant, as when he and a group of beach campers contemplate the death of a shark. The book is full of surprises, too: malaria aside, who knew that the essay on mosquitos would be the most horrifying of the lot?

For all Childs’ wonder and respect for nature, some of the most memorable portraits he sketches are of other humans. In “Camel,” one of my favorite essays, he describes an archaeological dig of a Pleistocene-era cave, where he meets a wonderful array of humans, from twelve-year-old Kate, who works so seriously and intensely that she is put in charge of one of the dig rooms, a job she embraces without flinching (“I will need three people at least”), to Dennis, a 17-year-old genius who makes our hardened author feel like a fool in the wilderness. One of the most touching essays in the collection is “Rainbow Trout,” which is as much about the author’s admiration for his father the fisherman as it is a celebration of the fish: “He is a person whom people meet along the stream, and they will talk about this stranger and his fishing for years afterwards.”

In a sense, I suppose I let Mr. Childs down by reading chronologically, but my experience as an English lit major years ago has left me with a compulsion to read books cover to cover, at least the first time—anything else feels like cheating. But the beauty of this collection is that one reading won’t be enough. Now that I’ve had my taste of all the critters within, the book will sit on my shelf, waiting for me to get that urge to revisit the mountain lion or the raven or yes, even the dreaded mosquito. While I recognize that not everyone will want to read this book front to back as I did, I believe that there is a little something in it for everyone—who among us couldn’t use a little rattlesnake in our day to keep us humble?