Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pilate's Wife A Novel of the Roman Empire by Antoinette May

This novel, written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Claudia, the clarivoyant wife of Pontius Pilate, is an interesting portrait of what life was like for a Roman wife living at the time of Jesus Christ. Though Claudia is by no means the typical, ordinary Roman wife, she struggles with a gift that is also a curse--second sight, and the knowledge that she is powerless to change or prevent what she "sees" from coming to pass, as when her beloved sister Marcella is seduced by their cousin, future emperor Caligula, and forced to become a Vestal Virgin as punishment. Even though the principal qualification--virginity--is lacking, the malicious Empress Livia pulls strings to get her in, which years later leads to an even greater tragedy.

While visiting Egypt with her family, Claudia is called by the goddess Isis and initiated into her cult. On her first visit to the Temple, she meets a dark and intense young man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge studying to become a teacher--Jesus of Galilee, whose path will cross hers again one day, but for now it is just a brief, chance encounter, and Claudia has other things on her mind.

Two years later, when it is time for her to begin thinking seriously about marriage, Claudia becomes enamored of handsome, ambitious Pontius Pilate, a rising star in the political world, who has something of a reputation as a fortune-hunter and a womanizer. Knowing that her own dowry is not substantial, Claudia's hopes are dashed, but, unable to forget Pilate, she begs a love potion from the mystagogue at the Temple of Isis. She is warned that it comes at a high price, by which the mystagogue does not mean money, but spoiled, willful, heedless, and impatient young Claudia is prepared to pay any cost to become Pilate's wife.

Whether it is the love potion working or fate, Claudia and Pilate soon marry. But their happiness is shortlived. Pilate is ruthlessly ambitious, a man who puts his career above both loyalty and family, and a confirmed and unrepentant philanderer, who is disappointed when Claudia fails to give him a son. She begins to fear he will divorce her, for her infertility and also because her family has fallen into disgrace with the Emperor Tiberius, which has led more than once to death and tragedy. Claudia also starts to lament her lot as a Roman woman whose fate rests wholly in her husband's hands and to long to take control of her own destiny.

While visiting the public baths, Claudia overhears gossip that Pilate is having an affair and again resorts to magic potions to win him back, yet again heedless of the cost and the warning that such things bind the person who casts the spell far more than they do the one it is cast upon.

Desperate for a son and heir, Pilate sends Claudia to the luxury spa of the day, the Asklepion, for a regimine of mud baths, massages, and dream therapy. While there she befriends Miriam of Magdala (Mary Magdalene), a warm and learned woman, who also turns out to be one of the most notorious courtesans in Rome. When the healing God Asklepios fails to visit Claudia in a dream, to guide the temple doctors in her treatment, she is subjected to the Asklepion's most shocking remedy of all--a night in the Snake Pit.

Despite her fear and pleading to be spared this horror, Claudia finds salvation in the Snake Pit and emerges from it a much wiser and more confident woman, declaring that Asklepios saved her, "he gave me back myself." The scales have now fallen from her eyes, and she sees her life with an all new clarity. Most importantly, she realizes now that her "love" for Pilate was never love at all, and the mystagogue at the Temple of Isis was right all along, the spells she resorted to to win him bound Claudia, not Pilate, in the grip of an obsession that the enlightenment she found in the Snake Pit has now freed her from.

But Claudia's ambitions to physically free herself from her marriage, despite the cost and scandal, come to naught, and their marriage continues to be one of alternating periods of estrangement and reconciliation during which Pilate continues to pursue other women and his career and Claudia gives birth to a daughter and seeks solace in the arms of Holtan, a gladiator whose life she once saved, and the true love she should have waited for.

When Pilate is appointed Governor of Judea, Claudia dutifully accompanies him to Jerusalem, and there renews her friendship with Miriam of Magdala and hears the disillusioned courtesan's tale of woe, is in the audience sitting beside Herodias for Salome's dance--or rather striptease--that results in the beheading of John the Baptist, and attends the wedding at Cana where water is miraculously transformed into wine. Through it all, Claudia is troubled by nightmares about a crucifixion that will lead to great misery in the world and damn Pontius Pilate's name forever, and a shadowy figure who she knows, yet does not know, nailed to the cross and wearing a crown of thorns, an innocent man whose fate she is powerless to alter.

Pilate's Wife is an enjoyable book that gives a voice to a woman who makes only a cameo appearance in the pages of The Bible and history.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oblivion The Mystery of West Point Cadet Richard Cox by Harry J. Maihafer

On Saturday, January 14, 1950, shortly after 6:00 p.m., popular, accomplished, and handsome 21 year-old cadet Richard Colvin Cox left West Point Military Academy to dine with an unidentified friend after telling his roommates that he would return early, most likely between 9:00 and 9:30, and was never seen again.

Cadet Cox seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. The newspapers and magazines gave the story of his disappearance extensive coverage, rivers were dredged, all 15,000 acres of West Point were exhaustively searched, leaving no stone unturned, all ponds, lakes, and the reservoir were either dragged or drained, a helicopter was even brought in for an aerial search. J. Edgar Hoover even took a personal interest in the case and assigned some of the FBI's best agents to investigate, but not a trace of Richard Colvin Cox was ever found though sightings of him continued to be reported for several years, some with an intriguing ring of truth about them. Every tip--and there were hundreds--was followed up, no matter how unlikely or ludicrous, by either civilian or military investigators. Details of every aspect of the young man's life were gone over with a fine-toothed comb, searching for a clue, either in his past or present, and thousands of people were interviewed, all to no avail. No one who knew Cox could shed any light on his disappearance, and he never contacted his family, fiancee, or best friend.

Richard Cox gave every appearance of being a devoted son to his widowed mother, strong-willed Christian Scientist Minnie Cox, and his letters showed that he was very much in love with his fiancee, Betty Timmons, whom he planned to marry after graduating from West Point. His grades were excellent, he was one of the top men in his class, and there was every indication that he had a bright future ahead of him; there was nothing to suggest he had any reason to just walk away from his life and disappear. His occasional expressions of discontent with West Point life in letters to his mother and girlfriend were typical cadet complaints and, though taken into account by investigators, were not deemed serious enough for him to pull a vanishing act and cause his family and others who cared about him so much distress.

Many felt the key to unlocking the mystery lay in the identity of his mysterious visitor, who had also visited Cadet Cox the weekend before his disappearance, a man who came to be known only as "George" based on a possible phone call he may have made to Cox prior to his visit. Cox himself, in the week before his disappearance, was reluctant to discuss this man and never divulged his name, referring to him only as "he," or "him," or "my friend," though his roommates felt the last was rather odd as he gave the distinct impression of disliking the man and even being uncomfortable with or even afraid of him. Everything Cox said seemed to indicate that his visit was an unwelcome one, and he reportedly described the mystery man as a braggart and a bad apple who boasted about killing a girl in Germany, where the two had served together in an army intelligence unit. Cox claimed this man was "capable of anything."

Despite intensive searching, "George" was never identified, and rumors swirled about murder, suicide, amnesia, revenge, abduction, homosexuality, cover-ups, the CIA, and Russian spies. One persistent rumor claimed that while serving in Germany Cox had testified at a court-martial against a fellow soldier, possibly the man known only as "George," who, upon release from prison, had come to West Point in pursuit of Cox to exact vengeance, but no records to substantiate this were ever discovered. The mystery was never solved and in 1957 Richard Colvin Cox was declared legally dead and the case was officially closed, though it continued to intrigue armchair detectives and readers of books about unsolved mysteries and mysterious disappearances in which it often shared space alongside chapters about Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Judge Crater.

Thirty-five years later Marshall Jacobs, a retired history teacher, decided to take on the mystery as a research project to help while-away his retirement. What followed was an eight year odyssey to find the truth and rescue Richard Cox from the oblivion of those lost without a trace. Jacobs obtained all available documents via the Freedom of Information Act and even tracked down and interviewed all the living witnesses he could find. And, despite a rather--to my mind at least--unsatisfying conclusion, where Mr. Jacobs seems content to take the word of one informant without any proof or facts to back up his assertions, "Oblivion" is a riveting tale from start to finish.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn

In "The Queen of Subtleties" author Suzannah Dunn offers a new take on the old tale of Anne Boleyn. The story is told in alternating first person narratives interweaving the stories of two strong-willed, plainspoken women: Anne Boleyn, second of the six wives of Henry VIII, and Lucy Cornwallis, the hardworking royal confectioner. The link that binds them is Mark Smeaton, the naive, lovestruck lute player who would end his young life on the scaffold as one of Anne Boleyn's alleged lovers. And taken together, the two narratives give us both an inside and outside, and an upstairs and downstairs, perspective of the royal soap opera that was Henry's reign.

On the eve of her execution, Anne Boleyn takes up her pen to school her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, in life's hard lessons and to tell her the true story of her life; Anne is canny enough to know that Henry would like to eradicate all trace of her and, if she is remembered at all, posterity may vilify her.

Though many readers have been very vocal in their criticism of the author's use of distinctly modern language, including slang, in a novel set in Tudor England, in my opinion, though I did find it distracting, and at times rather jarring, I think it was a brave move; the style suits Anne Boleyn's bold, vibrant, no nonsense personality. This is a woman who boasts more than once "I don't do anything by halves." She doesn't pull her punches and she isn't always nice; she calls Catherine of Aragon "Fat Cath" and is just as cruel and callous to others she dislikes. And in this frank, direct, brisk language that doesn't mince words, Anne Boleyn tells it all, her rise and fall, as she saw and lived it, from the cradle to the threshold of the grave.

When he sets his sights on Anne, Henry's first move is to leave a sugar rosebud on her pillow. He proceeds to woo her with gifts of sugar and marchpane (marzipan) and, of course, jewelry. The sweets are the work of Lucy Cornwallis, the royal confectioner, an artist with sugar. It is she who creates the elaborate subtleties (candy sculptures) that grace the royal table to commemorate every triumph, holiday, or any special event deemed worthy of celebration.

Shy, young, sweet-natured, sincere Mark Smeaton is fascinated by these edible artworks and ventures into the confectionery kitchen at Hampton Court to meet the woman who makes them and to see how it is done. Lucy is surprised, but is nonetheless drawn to the curious youth, and begins to look forward to his visits to the kitchen. She doesn't realize until her shallow, gossipy assistant, Richard, tells her that Mark Smeaton is the wunderkind musician of the Tudor court.

Despite his fame as the "Angel-Voice" of the court, Mark Smeaton is in reality a lonely boy, a dreamer, secretly and chivalrously in love with Anne Boleyn. "She's true to herself," he confides admiringly to Lucy, aptly observing what an unusual, and also lonely, thing this is to be at a court where everyone is two-faced; they say one thing while thinking another. With his head in the clouds and his eyes dazzled by the vivacious Anne, Mark never realizes that Lucy has tender feelings for him; he sees her only as a confidante whose warm, cozy kitchen is a haven from the glittering, busy, bustling world of royal intrigue upstairs.

In the end, while not the book it might have been had the author steered a safer course regarding language, and made the tale of Lucy Cornwallis and her doomed infatuation with the lovestruck Smeaton the focus of the novel, like one of Ms. Cornwallis' entrancing edible centerpieces, "The Queen of Subtleties" is still an interesting read for those who are able to get past the discordant modern tone and the slang that strikes such a sour note.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Farewell To Dreams by Diane Goodrich and Sharon Rich

"Farewell To Dreams" is a fictionalized account of the secret off-screen romance between one of the movies' great screen couples from the golden age of Hollywood--Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, fondly known as "America's Singing Sweethearts."

The story begins in 1934 when handsome, blonde baritone Nelson Eddy, already a star on the concert stage, mobbed and adored by legions of female fans, arrives at MGM, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Hollywood studio that boasts it has "more stars than there are in heaven," including Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.

Nelson is a serious singer, an intense, sincere, determined man, whom many mistake for being old-fashioned and naive. He has little patience or use for the shallow and phony Hollywood way of life. He has already reached a point in his career where he can take Hollywood or leave it, he sees the movies as merely a means to increase attendance at his already phenomenally popular concerts. After a few bits parts, acting lessons, the glamour treatment, and exposure to the Hollywood publicity machine where columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper rule the roost, he is ready to kiss Hollywood goodbye when a beautiful soprano voice draws him to the soundstage where Ernst Lubitsch is filming "The Merry Widow."

The moment Nelson Eddy lays eyes on Jeanette MacDonald it is love at first sight. Even though they have never spoken a word, he knows beyond all doubt that he has found the love of his life, the girl of his dreams, the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with.

With her sea green eyes, flaming Titian red curls, porcelain-pale complexion, vivacious charm, sparkling personality, and a beautiful soprano voice Jeanette MacDonald is already well along the road of success, but her true personality belies her angelic appearance and pure public image. Although she is already a star, Jeanette has but one burning, all-consuming ambition--to be the biggest star in Hollywood. She is an adept and dedicated player of the Hollywood game who fully understands and lives the rules 24/7 and even sleeps with ruthless martinet studio boss Louis B. Mayer to better her chances. Yet she finds herself strangely drawn to Nelson and bewildered by the feelings he rouses in her; she has never been in love before and one look at him leaves her feeling as flustered and confused as a schoolgirl with her first crush. She is alternately driven to push him away and pull him close to her. Jeanette keeps telling herself that her career is everything, that sex is merely a stepping stone to be doled out accordingly to the men who can do the most for her career, love and romance have no place in her life; fame and stardom are all that matter, nothing else must interfere, distract, or come between her and her ambitions.

So begins a tense and tempestuous relationship where quarrels often outnumber kisses. The drama escalates when the two are chosen to star together in "Naughty Marietta," a fun, frothy operetta about an 18th century French princess who flees in disguise to colonial New Orleans and finds romance with a handsome mercenary soldier. When the couple gaze longingly at one another and their voices rise and blend together, like lovers embracing, in the haunting duet "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," they are absolute magic. Critics may deplore Nelson's performance as "wooden," but moviegoers, seeking relief from their hum-drum lives and the grim realities of the Great Depression, fall instantly in love with "America's Singing Sweethearts." Audiences thrill to the love that is such a palpable presence between the duo, the way they make love in song, the way they look at each other, and the tantalizing hints of an off-screen romance that sometimes grace the gossip columns. They become number one box office draws, and the studio is swamped with mail begging for more MacDonald-Eddy films; thus one of the great screen teams is born. Nelson and Jeanette become to singing what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are to dancing, they bring opera to the masses, and, at regular intervals over the coming years, more musical movie magic follows: Rose Marie, Maytime, Girl of the Golden West, New Moon, Sweethearts, Bitter Sweet, and I Married An Angel.

But life is not a movie, and the songbirds who epitomize pure and true love on-screen, are anything but angels, and their life is often more hellish than heavenly. Nelson incurs the wrath of Louis B. Mayer, whose fury at finding that he cannot control Nelson the way he can most of his stable of stars almost broaches on madness; he even goes to the extreme of putting studio profits in peril by sabotaging the couple's films, plastering Nelson's face with unflattering, often effeminate pancake makeup and cutting out some of his best scenes. He warns, threatens, and browbeats Jeanette, making her fear for her own all-important career and Nelson's physical well-being. To make matters worse, the couple fight against themselves as well as each other. Jeanette's obsession with her career does considerable damage to the couple's hopes and dreams of happiness.

When she becomes pregnant during the filming of "Rose Marie" Jeanette vehemently declares that she does not want the baby, that it will ruin everything. The lovers quarrel heatedly, and when Jeanette, always a woman of frail health, with a heart condition she goes to great lengths to conceal, suffers a miscarriage soon afterwards, Nelson refuses to believe her, thinking she has had an abortion instead. In a moment of weakness, and wanting to hurt Nelson, Jeanette accepts a marriage proposal from actor Gene Raymond, a man who, just like Jeanette herself, understands Hollywood and the rules of the game. But handsome, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Gene has an ulterior motive--if he cannot be a star in his own right he is content to bask in the reflected glory of a movie star wife who can afford to give him the lavish lifestyle he has always longed for. And he speaks the words that are magic to Jeanette's ears: He will never do anything to jeopardize her career. To keep her from wriggling off the hook now that he has caught her, Gene promptly calls Louis B. Mayer and asks his blessing. Mayer is so elated that this will spell "The End" for the songbirds off-screen love affair that he magnanimously offers to pay for the wedding, a Hawaiian honeymoon, and a stately home for the couple to start married life in. To the vindictive Mayer, Nelson's suffering is worth every penny.

Despite Nelson's pleas, Jeanette goes through with the marriage, only to realize on her honeymoon that she has made a huge mistake. Kindness and understanding are only roles that Gene plays when it is to his advantage, usually only in public and in the presence of cameras and reporters. He is a closeted but careless homosexual, at a time when homosexuality could ruin a man's reputation and career, with an insatiable appetite for handsome young men which he indulges freely every chance he gets, even on his honeymoon, and he is an alcoholic as well.

In the years that follow Jeanette and Nelson kiss and make up then break up again and again. There are even suicide attempts, which the studio covers up and keeps secret from the press. And Nelson, wanting to hurt Jeanette, makes a mistake of his own. Drunk out of his mind, he marries Ann Franklin, a vindictive money-loving shrew who, once she gets her claws into Nelson, will never let him go. Whenever Nelson even mentions the word divorce Ann threatens to call the press and drag Jeanette's name through the mud. Given the social mores of the era, and the public's ideas about Jeanette and Nelson based on their pure and wholesome screen image, even a hint of carnality, and words like "adultery" and "divorce," would mean instant ruin. The MacDonald-Eddy partnership is a goldmine for MGM and Louis B. Mayer is hellbent on protecting the profits, and both of their spouses enjoy their status too much to ever let them go, thus Jeanette and Nelson are well and truly trapped in their respective marital hells.

It is a sad and ironic truth that two people who brought so much happiness to millions of moviegoers had so little happiness in their own lives. Their romance is a story of two lovers battling the odds, themselves, and sometimes even each other, to be together and find some measure of happiness.

"Farewell To Dreams" is a rare and often costly book, for those unwilling or unable to obtain a copy, I highly recommend the much more reasonably priced "Sweethearts" by author Sharon Rich instead. Though "Sweethearts" is a nonfiction book about the real life MacDonald-Eddy romance, it is a much better book in my opinion, well written and exhaustively researched. "Farewell To Dreams" is an entertaining read that holds interest throughout, but not a remarkable one; in other words: it's an okay book with an often outrageous price tag. The authors do a good job of replicating 1930s slang and dialogue, and the two main characters emerge as painfully real human beings, not picture-perfect like their on-screen images, but complex and flawed individuals, with messy, imperfect lives, who hurt each other, themselves, and are in turn hurt by life and the machinations of others. The book is also laced with love scenes that recall the style of "bodice ripper" romance novels.
You can purchase Farewell To Dreams, if you are willing to spend that much money on a book from Amazon's used books marketplace:

For a more reasonably priced book that tells the same story, and much better in my opinion, try Sweethearts by Sharon Rich, available at

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Show Boat by Edna Ferber

This is a difficult book for me to review, and that's not intended to say anything bad about the book. Let me explain: "Show Boat" is one of my favorite movies, I consider it one of my "comfort films" that I like to watch when I am ill or troubled, or if it just happens to come on the classic movie channel during my waking hours. I have seen both the 1936 (Irene Dunne and Allan Jones) and 1951 (Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel) versions so many times that the story, as told in the films, is deeply set in my mind, so reading the book was a strange experience, even though I know perfectly well and am never surprised that movies and the books they are based on often vary substantially, sometimes only the title stays the same.

"Show Boat" spans the 1870s to the 1920s and tells the story of the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre and its denizens. For those unfamiliar with the term "show boat," in the heyday of paddle steamer riverboats show boats plied the Mississippi River docking in at rustic and backwoods towns that didn't have their own theatres. It was a huge event for the residents of these little towns, something they looked forward to all year and saved up their hard earned pennies for. They would hear the sprightly notes of the calliope that signaled the show boat's arrival and come running to buy their tickets and watch the players and band parade through the town to drum up trade. The program usually consisted of a popular melodrama of the day, staples of the Victorian stage like "East Lynne," "Tempest and Sunshine," or "Lady Audley's Secret," something with a beautiful heroine bedeviled by a sneering mustachioed villain, and afterwards there would be a variety show of musical and comedy acts.

Edna Ferber peoples the Cotton Blossom with a wonderful cast of characters. Jovial, smiling, kindhearted Captain Andy Hawks and his polar opposite wife, the dour, unsmiling, shrewish Parthenia who is a sworn enemy of anything frivolous or fun, and their daughter Magnolia, pretty and strong-willed, with a mind of her own. And two husband and wife acting teams, Julie and Steve, and Elly and Schultzy, both of whom have their own troubles.

When a member of the crew with an unrequited crush on Julie, despite repeated warnings and a trouncing from her husband, creates mischief by revealing Julie's most deeply guarded secret to the local sheriff, Magnolia finds herself cast as the leading lady after Julie and Steve's sudden and dramatic departure. This is supposed to be only a temporary, stop-gap measure pending the arrival of a replacement actress, but Magnolia finds she enjoys acting and becomes quite the success. The abrupt departure of another cast member, who had been filling in for Steve and playing opposite Magnolia as leading man, forces Captain Andy to take desperate action and hastily engage shabbily genteel, down on his luck, but nonetheless breathtakingly handsome and aristocratically suave, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, supposedly "of the Tennessee Ravenals" to fill the void.

As Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal fall in love, putting all their passion and gusto into their onstage love scenes, profits soar as their fame and popularity spreads and the audience is packed every night.

Magnolia's eagle-eyed and vigilant mother, Parthenia, sees Gaylord Ravenal for exactly what he is, she isn't fooled for one second by his fine talk and elegant manners, or his exquisite English tailored wardrobe either, but no one heeds her warnings, and Magnolia and Ravenal sneak away one beautiful spring day and marry.

They are a beautiful couple onstage and off, but all that glitters is not gold. Naive Magnolia does not see her husband for the inveterate gambler he truly is until it is too late, and even then she cannot admit it even to herself. Their fortunes vary from day to day, Ravenal may have $1,000 in his pocket one day and not a penny the next. They leave the show boat and take up residence in Chicago, which in the 1890s is a wild and booming, raunchy city that never seems to sleep. The life they lead together zigzags with dazzling rapidity between luxury apartments and cheap boarding houses, fine restuarants and greasy diners, and the pawnshop, always the pawnshop.

The latter part of the book chronicles the rise of their daughter Kim (K for Kentucky, I for Illinois, M for Missouri as she was born on the flooding, storm-tossed Mississippi River between these three states) to stardom on the Broadway stage.

Edna Ferber's "Show Boat" is an enjoyable read, but a much darker tale than the one depicted on stage and screen since "Give me a happy ending!" was a creed the entertainment industry of the time generally adhered to. The novel also contains some language that is now considered offensive and improper, however, such words were sadly commonplace in both the time the novel is set and was written in.