In one letter, she writes of spiritual consolations:
...I am yearning to enter the other life,
as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this
one: in death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would
hope to be able to pray ever more effectively, Sire, for you.
I do not know but that this desire of mine may be too selfish.
and in the same letter turns to everyday matters:
...I have now been assigned to teach Gregorian
chant to four young girls, and by Madonna's orders I am responsible
for the day-to-day conducting liking, if only I did not also
have to work; yet from all this I do derive one very good thing,
which is that I never ever sit idle for even one quarter of an
hour. If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire,
for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful....
Some critics have complained that, because
we know so little of Maria Celeste's life aside from what we
can read from these letters, the book is mis-titled. It is really
only Galileo's story, with a twist.
But in fact Maria Celeste's words uniquely
reilluminate a story that has been familiarly cast as a confrontation
between clear-eyed, progressive science and the hidebound reactionaries
of faith. For Galileo, though truly one of the great figures
in modern scientific history (Einstein called him "the father
of modern physics--indeed of modern science altogether"),
was himself a man of deep and abiding faith. When all the evidence
before his eyes pointed to the inescapable conclusion that the
sun did not revolve around the Earth, but rather the opposite,
he was forced into the terrible position, in Sobel's words, of
being "a Catholic who had come to believe something Catholics
were forbidden to believe."
Galileo was able to grasp that science could
not possibly contradict God, that a God worthy of the name would
embody all science and all truth. The Catholic hierarchy didn't
see it that way, and found Galileo
vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of
having held and believed the doctrine which is false and contrary
to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center
of the world and does not move...and that the Earth moves and
is not the center of the world....
and placed his book on the Index of Prohibited
Books, where it remained for four centuries to come.
Galileo was crushed by the verdict, not only
because it forbade the printing or distribution of his book (although
contraband copies quickly found their way out of the country
and continued to be produced in countries not under the Catholic
sway), but more deeply and importantly because it called into
question his faith.
Maria Celeste's letters of love and support
during her father's trials make clear that she, to the contrary,
never once questioned his faith or believed for a moment that
his discoveries could reflect anything but the work of God.
History is a mosaic made ever more vivid by
the addition of endless subtleties of detail. What is engrossing
about Sobel's book is that it illustrates a time when faith was
life, when living and serving God seemed indistinguishable, when
the Catholic Church held vast power to direct individual fates.
At the same time, in the person of Maria Celeste we see the individual,
human face of that same church, and all the humility and selfless
spiritual devotion so notably absent in the scourges of the Inquisition.
But in stepping away from the familiar track of the Galileo narrative--man
of science versus power-mad Church--to bring to life the lifelong
devotion between daughter and father, Sobel's book becomes finally,
unexpectedly, and most pleasurably, a love story.
And speaking of love stories, what else but
a true passion could lead a man to spend his life picking maggots
off corpses? In a nutshell, that's the career trajectory of M.
Lee Goff, whose book A Fly for the Prosecution chronicles
his work as a forensic entomologist--solving crimes with bugs.
Here's a tidbit for your next cocktail party
The Fresh Stage begins at the moment of death
and ends when the body becomes visibly bloated. During this stage,
decomposition causes few observable changes in the body's outward
appearance....The flies are not easily fooled, however. They
quickly converge on the corpse....I can expect the two most common
species of blow flies to arrive within 10 minutes of death....
For the uninitiated, forensic entomology depends
on the fact that the corpse-loving creepy-crawlies of the world
adhere to a remarkably predictable schedule when arriving, dining
and departing from the grand buffet of the newly deceased. We
have the Fresh Stage and the Bloated Stage and the Decay Stage
and the Post-Decay Stage and the Skeletal Stage, and each has
its designated participants lining up for the feast like so many
cruise-ship guests at their slotted dinner hour. From the presence
or absence of various bugs in various stages of their lives,
the forensic entomologist can conclude useful information such
as when death occurred, and in cases where the body has been
moved, may be able to tell where too.
Now all this is quite interesting, but the
question is whether it's interesting enough to sustain an entire
book for a general audience. And the answer is that it isn't,
unless, I think, you are willing to admit that most of your readers
are picking up the book in eager anticipation of the grossness
factor, and are willing, furthermore, to give 'em what they're
Unfortunately, Goff plays it straight, and
who can blame him? The man's a legitimate scientist and wants
to be taken seriously and not thought to be making wit at the
expense of the dead. Furthermore, he admits that a certain degree
of distance is necessary to shield him from the real horror of
what he faces--rotting, stinking corpses crawling with maggots
and other delights. The result, however, is a book that skips
quickly over the icky stuff and the backstory on the bodies and
instead spends a great deal of time on rather dry technical laboratory
details with first instars and Berlese funnels and soil fauna.
That being said, if you have a taste for the
grotesquely fascinating, A Fly for the Prosecution is
worth a read. But probably not over dinner.