Book Review: Blood & Ivy by Paul Collins


Author: Paul Collins
Title: Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard
Narrator:  Kevin Kenerly
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical, true crime narrative relates the story of the murder of Dr. George Parkman, a Harvard-educated physician and philanthropist, and from a prominent Boston Brahmin family.  The murderer is revealed to also be a well-born man, John White Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical College.  I’m familiar with the story since it is central story of Boston By Foot’s Dark Sie of Boston tour, but it’s not a well-known historical incident these days.  At the time though, the social class of both murderer and victim, and their connections with Harvard University made it an international scandal. Even 18 years later, English author Charles Dickens asked to visit the murder site on his visit to Boston.

Collins details the murder, investigation, trial, and conviction of Webster, but also focuses on the case’s place within the chasms among Boston’s social classes.  Initial blame for Dr. Parkman’s disappearance was directed at the Boston’s Irish immigrant population, then swelling due to the famine in Ireland.  Even after Webster is brought to trial, the defense’s main strategy is to deflect attention to Ephraim Littlefield, the Harvard Medical College janitor who is the main witness.  The class mores of the time saw the working man Littlefield as someone who better fit the mold of murderer.

Collins also explores the innovations that emerged from the case.  These include dental forensics as Parkman’s dentist was able to use dental molds to identify Parkman’s remains. The judge, Justice Lemuel Shaw, also gave instructions to the jury regarding the definition of “reasonable doubt” that became widespread in American jurisprudence, and weren’t updated in Massachusetts until 2015!

This book is a good introduction to this remarkable case for those unfamiliar with the story.  As someone who has read quite a bit about the Parkman murder, I also picked up quite a few new tidbits.

Recommended books: Dead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama
Rating: ***

Book Review: Around Harvard Square C.J. Farley


Author: C.J. Farley
Title: Around Harvard Square
Publication Info: Brooklyn, NY : Black Sheep / Akashic Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

I received a free copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel is narrated by Tosh, an African-American Freshman at Harvard who grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and is the first person in his family to go away for college.  He forms a friendship of outcasts with his roommate Lao, a student from China with a fear of robots, and Meera, an androgynous Indian student.  He also is attracted to the mysterious Zippa, a Jamaican student squatting in the trash room of his residence hall.

The trio of Tosh, Lao, and Meera take a philosophy course with an eccentric and provocative professor known as “the Chair.” They also get involved in a competition to get spots on the staff of the university humor magazine, the Harvard Harpoon.  The experience is a lot like rushing a fraternal organization with hazing rituals and cruel pranks.  Zippa appears first as something like a Greek chorus on what Tosh is doing and then later joins the action as a provocateur.

Many names in the novel are changed – like the Harpoon, which is substituted for the Lampoon – as are the names of prominent Harvard alumni, although it’s blatantly obvious who they are.  There’s also a book within the narrative called Around Harvard Square which is said to be a famous novel where all the names were changed, so that’s super-meta, I guess. The book is set in the 90s which is emphasized by each chapter being named for a 90s alternative rock  or hip hop song title.  But the dialogue in the book seems more like it’s from the 2010s.  Also, I may be stretching it here, but I see odd parallels between Tosh, Lao, and Meera with the leads in another school-based book set in the 90s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.   Only 90s kids will understand.

I really want to love this book, because it is witty and the characters and the premise are a good start.  But unfortunately, the plot just jumps around, there are way too many coincidences, and the dialogue is like people practicing dialectics rather than natural speak.  The idea that privileged white people and the academic institutions that support them need to be taken down a peg is a good one (and super relevant reading this just after the college admissions scandal), but there’s no subtlety in this satire.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Movie Review: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29


TitleHarvard Beats Yale 29-29
Release Date: 2008
Director: Kevin Rafferty
Summary/Review:

This football documentary has an intriguing title in that it gives away the final score, yet it also fibs about one side winning a tie game.  It’s a no-frills sports documentary where tv footage of the actual game is interspliced with interviews with dozens of the players who participated in the game.  For Ivy League colleges, it is interesting that many of the players had working class backgrounds.  On the other hand, one team had a player who was roommates with George W. Bush and the other team had a player rooming with Al Gore.  The latter is famed actor Tommy Lee Jones.  The interviews touch on the Vietnam War, student protests, and the sexual revolution, but largely this is the story of men in their 60s reflecting on how one exhilarating moment affected their entire lives.

Rating: **1/2

RetroPost: Happy Π Day


Today we’re celebrating a holiday I learned about two years ago.  It is the only holiday dedicated to a number, the number Π.

As my friend Steve posted on Twitter:

Today’s 3/14 and seriously, I don’t see what’s so hard about finding the end of pie. Just OM NOM NOM and you’re there.

I made sure to commemorate the day with a slice of key lime pie at Doyle’s cafe.

Make sure to listen to this Only a Game broadcast of a Pi recitation contest at Harvard University.  I haven’t been able to find any mention of this event reoccuring this year.

Happy Π  Day, to 3.141 and all!