Sisters of Fortune (Touchstone)
The paperback edition of Wake’s history of the Caton sisters takes full advantage of Downton Abbey mania, from the Downton-ish estate on the new cover to the blurb from series creator Julian Fellowes. (“I could not have enjoyed it more. I envy the people who have still to read it.”) That’s all well and good, but the book certainly stands on its own merits. In fact, it’s a remarkable and well-researched account of four sisters from a prominent Maryland family—their grandfather was Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence—in the early 1800s. Gleaning intimate details of their lives in Maryland and travels to Europe from family letters, Wake tells a remarkable story that would quicken Jane Austen’s pulse. She fleshes out each of the Catons and examines their strengths, vulnerabilities, and aspirations as they cleverly navigate society life that includes summering at Doughoregan Manor in Howard County and mingling with the British aristocracy. With cameos by the likes of the Duke of Wellington, a PBS/BBC adaptation seems inevitable.
Jehanne Wake will give readings at the Barnes & Noble on 33rd Street and the Howard County Historical Society on March 14 and March 25, respectively.
Straight (Beacon Press)
As the same-sex marriage issue gets traction in Annapolis, Blank’s exploration of heterosexuality is both timely and welcome. Blank, an independent scholar/historian in Baltimore, weaves personal details through a spirited look at how various legal, religious, scientific, and social issues have shaped our definition of heterosexuality. Along the way, she questions the value of such a label and predicts that, ultimately, “as a culture we will imagine our way into some different grand explanation, some other scheme for explaining our emotions and our desires and our passionate entanglements.” It’s perceptive and provocative, the work of a straight shooter.