Review: Rough Crossings, Simon Schama; or, how to feel decidedly unpatriotic on 4th of July Weekend

What now? 4th of July weekend was ages ago and I am the laziest book blogger ever for only getting around to posting about Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution at the start of August? Fair point. In my defense, I read this book all in one weekend, and if you haven’t been carting a book around on the subway for several days, it hardly even feels like a book you read at all! So I forgot about it. And that’s really not my fault. Because of the subway thing.

(No, you’re the lamest excuse ever. Shut up!)

A colleague of mine recommended this book because I was wanting to read about Liberia. My colleague said, “Too bad you don’t want to read about Sierra Leone! because then you could read Rough Crossings, which is very interesting, and really, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a lot in common.” So I decided that in the absence of a resoundingly awesome book about Liberian history, I could read a book about Sierra Leonean history instead.

Here is what happened (probably everyone but me already knew this): When the American Revolution started, the British promised all American slaves that they would be given their freedom if they would desert to the British side. Accordingly, many American slaves flocked to the British side, and the British — who I guess didn’t think this through very clearly — had no place to put them. During the war, lots of former slaves got sick and died in the British army camps. After the war, the British sorted out rather crappy accommodations in Nova Scotia; eventually somebody got a bad conscience and came up with the idea of moving any former slaves who wanted to go to Sierra Leone, where Britain had a small settlement already.

I found the first two-fifths of this book, about the American Revolution, pretty depressing. 4th of July, never my favorite holiday, seemed hollow and empty, and I kept thinking grim thoughts about “created on the backs of slaves” and the three-fifths compromise and other unsavory chapters in our nation’s history. Moreover, the American Revolution — oh dear, like most of American history! — bores me to tears. But when they started the Sierra Leone Company, I perked right up.

Cynic that I am, I am greatly suspicious of anyone in a history book who seems like a genuinely and consistently good, moral person. But from what I can tell, the British man who oversaw the settlement of Freetown was a genuinely, consistently good, moral guy. John Clarkson. He went out of his way to ensure the settlers’ comfort on the passage over, so that they would not be reminded of the misery of the passage from Africa, and he himself sailed on the crappiest boat. He kept his promises to the settlers even when doing so got him in trouble with the colony’s governors. He wanted to know when things were hard for the settlers, and he listened to them. And totally ruined his health looking after the fledgling colony, poor lamb.

I resignedly await evidence that John Clarkson was a prat. I only have Simon Schama’s opinion to go on here. Go ahead, you can tell me. He feathered his nest by stealing from the former slaves. He took sexual advantage of the women in the settlement, like Jim Jones. He brutalized anyone who dared to question his authority. I’m sure there was something that happened that means I cannot love John Clarkson after all. I can never love anybody. Everyone but my mumsy and daddy have feet of clay.

Also read by:

Rhapsody in Books

Anyone else?

Review: How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche

You know Chandler from Friends? You know how in Friends, somebody would say something stupid, and Matthew Perry would do that thing where he would fling his whole body into one large, frantic gesture of utter incredulity? That is how I felt all the way through How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Exactly like that. I kept flinging the book across the room (really satisfying, by the way! A nice thing about ARCs is you can dog ear pages and throw them across the room or even rip out pages if you want, and it doesn’t matter because they belong to you, but you don’t need them to last).

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a really short book, more of a long essay than a book. Yet it managed to irritate me exponentially more than anything else I’ve read this year, and y’all know, this has been a good year for people in the news being irritating. If I tried to enumerate all the things about this book that were irritating, I’d end up with a blog post nearly as long as the book itself, so I’ll try to limit myself.

Marche comes from journalism, and without wishing to insult journalism, a profession I really truly admire and I often love reading journalists’ books, his roots are showing. He makes these grand, extravagant claims like he’s designing catchy headlines (what I mean when I say his roots are showing), but he does nothing to back them up. He’ll say “Shakespeare invented teenagers!” and then spend the chapter nattering away about how Sampson and Gregory are just like these annoying kids he saw at a football game one time. Or “Shakespeare is the reason you enjoy sex!”, then he says how Freud couldn’t have happened if not for Hamlet, and without Freud we’d still be Victorians, but because of Freud and Shakespeare Americans get to enjoy lots of freaky-deaky practices like oral sex.

(You think I’m kidding but I’m not kidding.)

I mean it’s not even good storytelling. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell can come up with these unwarranted conclusions, and yeah, experts debunk them all over the place, but you can’t deny, the man can construct a narrative. Marche’s stories don’t make any sense. One chapter is devoted to a comparison of Lincoln’s assassination with the assassination in Julius Caesar. This could be (and surely has been?) done well; John Wilkes Booth’s father was actually named Junius Brutus Booth. He really was. This story should almost write itself, but although Marche has in mind the points he wants to make, he makes them poorly and fails to bring them together into a coherent narrative.

Then there’s stuff like this (quotes from ARCs may change in the finished product):

The minor industry of mugs and magnets offers pearls of Shakespearean wisdom extracted from context and often misquoted. They drive me insane….The much-T-shirted line from Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from the wisecracking scumbag named Dick the Butcher. In context, the line is a testament to why we need lawyers.

Hands up everybody who thought Shakespeare was actually advocating we kill all the lawyers. What? Nobody? Everyone except Stephen Marche got the point that it was just another good line in the long tradition of lawyers-should-die jokes?

I’m not demanding that everyone who writes about Shakespeare must be a prestigious Shakespeare scholar. But if you’re going to write nonfiction, and you can’t be bothered doing exhaustive research and spending loads of time figuring out and preemptively refuting the objections that are going to be made to your thesis (I’m saying that without judgment), at least be able to write a good story.

I received an ARC of How Shakespeare Changed Everything (along with other, better books) for review from Harper. It’s scheduled for release on 10 May 2011.

Review: The Rescue Artist, Edward Dolnick

Y’all may recall the time that Edvard Munch’s The Scream got stolen. Remember that? Nope, not the 2004 time (the one I actually do remember). The 1994 time, the 1994 version of the painting. It was eventually recovered through a sting operation executed by the Norwegian and British police, and aided by the Getty Museum. If I were the Getty Museum, I would be telling other museums about this constantly in mock-casual tones: “Tchyeah, the time that we recovered The Scream for the National Gallery in Norway, that was good times….what’s that, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Your paintings are still missing? Gosh, if only you’d asked for help at the time, master schemers that we are, we might have been able to help. Too late now, I guess. What can you do?”

As Dolnick’s The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece recounts, The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo by the simple expedient of leaning a ladder against the wall, breaking the glass in the second-floor window, and removing the painting from the wall. Because apparently that’s how you steal a masterpiece of expressionist art. Don’t ask me. I’m not in charge of museum security.

The Rescue Artist explores the rather dashing recovery of the painting, through the person of one Charles Hill, a former Fulbright Scholar and (at the time) undercover art recovery expert for Scotland Yard; it also talks a little bit about the history of art theft, recommending book after book along the way (my TBR list can’t take it!), and the difficulties of protecting art in the first place, and of tracking and recovering it when it does get stolen. I felt quite sorry for small museums, whose budgets simply won’t stretch to the kind of state-of-the-art security that, for example, the Getty Museum can organize for its masterpieces. There is very little romanticizing of art thiefs, and indeed the in-depth profiles of career art thieves tend to expose, more than anything, the fundamental shabbiness of their operations and plans for the paintings after they are successfully stolen.

Did I slightly want to read about Dr. No types stealing masterpieces for their own personal enjoyment? A bit. Did I slightly enjoy hearing about the crafty ways art thieves have circumvented security systems in order to steal paintings? A bit. I felt embarrassed when the author and Charles Hill made fun of people like me for romanticizing art theft. But I writhed when I read about masterpieces being destroyed by thieves trying to avoid detection. Art thief Stephane Breitwieser used to store the paintings he stole at his mother’s place, and when the police started looking for him, his mother cut them up and threw them out. I mean Breughel. And did you know that The Scream is painted on cardboard? The least little thing could damage the crap out of it. Eek!

Less shamefully, I also loved hearing the details of the plans the cops used to recover stolen artwork. Dolnick portrays Hill as an unflappable, adaptable cop with a particular knack for playing obnoxiously rich Americans looking to make a deal with art thieves. There are definitely moments when I felt like the author had a man-crush on Charley Hill and it was affecting his objectivity. That said, I can never confirm nor deny how much I wanted to read an Elizabeth Peters book in which an undercover cop based on Charley Hill squares off against John Tregarth. I…that would be amazing. Or against the Master Criminal! I am not picky. Either one would do fine for me. I would love to see Amelia assisting or fending off the Charley Hill character, and I would double love to see John Tregarth outwitting him. Dear universe, Can this please happen for real? Love, Jenny

As a caveat, I know less than nothing about art and art theft, and thus I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether Dolnick’s version of events is the true one. This is always the problem with reading nonfiction on a topic that is unfamiliar to me: I have to trust that the author is telling me the truth, unless I (a) do a bunch of primary-source research myself (unlikely) or (b) use the internetz to find articles by other experts in the field critiquing my author’s conclusions. I am addicted to doing (b), but there again, I have to decide who I’m going to trust to tell me the truth. I took The Rescue Artist with a grain of salt, I would say, because of how much in love with Charles Hill Dolnick seemed to be.

I came away from this book quite keen to read more about art scams and thefts. Like all the rest of the world, mightily despised of Charles Hill, I am enthralled by criminals’ crafty schemes even if of course I hate for them to succeed in stealing art. I’d much much rather the museums had them. Only if the pieces are going to be stolen, and it looks like they are, I’d rather they be stolen in clever ways. Before being recovered. I’ve got a nice little list of art-scam-theft books to read, but if you have any additional recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair

Hm. That’s it? Did I miss yours?

Review: Columbine, Dave Cullen

On Sunday, after a lovely day curled up under blankets in my pajamas eating and watching films, it occurred to me that it had been ages since I sat down and read a book cover to cover. There are few things I enjoy like I enjoy sitting down with a book and not getting up again until the book is finished. So after I caught up on teh blogz, I went into my living room and–

Well, I went into my living room and watched the Packers game. With the Saints out of it, I’m supporting the Packers for the remainder of the playoffs season. The Packers have an adorable rookie running back, James Starks. More to the point, their back-up quarterback, Matt Flynn, quarterbacked the football game that made me love football, in 2007. I will love him forever and support whatever team he joins for the rest of eternity. (Whenever I say I like a pro football team that isn’t the Saints, someone says “But what about the Saints?” Does this need saying? Obviously I support the Saints above anyone else. But a girl’s got to have a B team. The Packers are my B team.)

But after the Packers game (Packers won), my eye fell on my roommate’s copy of Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which she, along with my other roommate and Book Addiction Heather (Heathers of the world, how do you feel about the film Heathers?), had said was superb. So I picked it up and read it and didn’t get to bed until midnight.

Columbine is a painstaking, detailed journalistic account of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, covering the event itself, the decisions that led to it, and its aftermath. It’s a fast-paced book that attempts, I think quite successfully, to offer a fair, nuanced portrayal of the killers, the victims, the detectives, the school administrators, and the press. Cullen debunks myths and misconceptions about the Columbine shooting, but never without explaining where they came from in the first place (often from shaken-up kids with questionable memories).

I was extremely impressed with this book as a piece of reporting. Cullen acknowledges in his introduction that the misconceptions about Columbine were propagated by the media, and he notes that he was among the first reporters on the shooting, and thus among those who reported things that turned out to be untrue. It would be difficult to make more thorough amends for past errors in fact than Cullen does in writing this book. He is exceptionally thorough on his details, sympathetic to his subjects, and engaging but not voyeuristic in his writing style. Columbine is a wonderful book that you should read.

As far as connecting to the book emotionally, I didn’t so much. This is partly because I decided not to. I (unlike psychopaths, hooray!) have an extraordinarily active amygdala that jumps out of its seat and starts screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG DANGER LOOK OUT EEK DANGER” on the smallest provocation. When I know something is going to be upsetting, I try to give myself some critical distance to avoid stressing out my poor nervy amygdala. I kind of succeeded, but kind of not, as that night I woke up shaking from a nightmare where I was standing at a door waiting for something. That was the whole dream. I was standing in a room a few feet away from a door, and it was terribly frightening.

Partly, though, the emotional connection was lacking for me because Columbine happened a little while before I started paying attention to the news. My political consciousness began with the 2000 presidential election, and anything that happened before then made only the tiniest of ripples on the surface of my mind. I heard the phrase “trench coat mafia” at the time, for instance, but I don’t remember being quite clear on what it meant. I didn’t see any of the scary surveillance footage images, or contemplate the possibility of a shooter at my own school. (The administration must have, though; I just this minute made the causal connection between Columbine and the two or three “shooter-in-the-school” drills we had that year. Huh.) The myths that were being exploded had never taken root in my head in the first place.

If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On. And then if you’re like, damn, national tragedies are a downer; I’m only ever going to read one more national tragedy book for the whole rest of my life, then that book should be Columbine. Lots of people agree with me, look.

Review: A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin

Phew. Finally. I was reading this book for a good, ooh, three weeks I guess, before I finished it at last. Now I know a lot more things than I knew previously about the formation of the modern Middle East, but still not a lot. As with Three Empires on the Nile, much of the information contained in A Peace to End All Peace went in one eye and out the other. (That’s a gross image but “ear” doesn’t work with reading, so, er, sorry.)

A Peace to End All Peace is about the fall of the Ottoman Empire and how its collapse contributed to the development of the modern Middle East. When the Allies were ensconced in World War II, and Turkey allied itself, almost by accident, with Germany, the Allies began making deals amongst themselves, over who was going to get what bits of the Ottoman Empire when the war was over. A great deal of dishonest, behind-the-scenes negotiating went on about this, and a great deal of reneging on promises after the war was over.

I loved the parts of the book that dealt with the diplomacy: what the Turks thought and what the Germans thought and what the British thought. Like, the Germans sailed a ship into Turkish waters, before they were completely officially altogether allies, and Turkey let the German ships come into port. England and the Allies thought this meant Germany and Turkey were BFF. But in fact, Turkey was more or less blackmailing Germany, demanding Germany pay them handsomely for letting their ship come into port there. Germany had to do what Turkey wanted, since the alternative was sailing back out into waters where British warships were waiting. I wish I could read fifteen miles of books like these bits, about why diplomats thought the things they thought and did the things they did. Fromkin talks about the people who were making these decisions, their biases and their ignorance and their integrity (or lack thereof — oh, Lloyd George).

As with any book that provides a broad overview of something — in this case a fairly huge something, the division of the Middle East into its modern-day boundaries — this book threw a lot, lot, lot of characters, places, and situations. Fromkin individuated the people really well, I thought, and I kept track of them most of the time. I had a harder time remembering what countries were friends at any given moment, though, or who was double-crossing whom. And I was absolutely incapable of conceptualizing the space of the Middle East, which meant I never had a good picture of where things were happening.

Out of curiosity, how did y’all do on spatial relations in your aptitude tests? My uncle, who is an engineer, and my father, who is a jack-of-all-trades when he is not pursuing his One True Calling (social work), can look at the trunk of a car and stuff it with so many suitcases and bags it would blow your mind. This is not the case with me. I fail at all spatial relations. If things don’t come in a box that exactly fits them, I can conceive of no sensible way of storing them. You? And what did your aptitude tests say you should be? And are you that now?

A final note, while I’m on the subject of British imperialism (again): The scores and scores of trashy imperialist adventure novels out there in the world will soon be mine. Physical copies. One by one. I plan to collect them all! I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, Jenny! You are so broke! New York City is expensive! How can you afford to buy any rare books, let alone many of them, particularly rare books that you may not want to reread a thousand times?”

My darlings.

There is this independent bookstore in Soho, McNally Jackson, which is patronized by earnest, liberal, middle-class non-tourists in ironic hats and skinny jeans, and although I officially sneer at its trendy location and pretentious coffees, in reality I am rather fond of it. It hosts frequent book clubs and author events, in Spanish and English, and for its size it has a really good selection of books, particularly books in translation. And it has just installed a book espresso machine. What in the world is up?

Have you ever read any good books about diplomacy? Want to recommend them to me?

Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel

Books about perceptions of history and historical figures have abounded in my life lately, and I love them. Forever. Heather recently reviewed a book about how the impact of the Moses story on American culture, which I am planning to read soon; I got this book about how the treatment of various events in American history has changed in history textbooks over the years; and then there was Contested Will, which dealt with the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy.

In the few months when I thought I was going to write a senior thesis in college, it was going to be on perceptions of Oscar Wilde (as a writer and as a dude) between 1890 and 1930. That would have been really interesting, no? And would have provided me with many opportunities to love on Robert Ross, one of my favorite people in the world. But then it proved that I preferred to spend my senior year of college inventing this book blog, watching Buffy and Angel with my sisters, and attending football games. In retrospect, very very solid decision. Still, if I had gone the other way, I think that would have been a fun project for me.

Point being, I like books about how, as time goes by, people tell different stories and use different language and play up different aspects of historical figures and events. Not only do I learn interesting things about forgers trying to remake enigmatic figures in the desired image of the time, but also I am reminded once again that individual reality is constructed by the stories told by the community. You just can’t be reminded of this often enough.

Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory is, as you may be now have surmised, an overview of perceptions of Washington over the years. Lengel begins by explaining why it’s so difficult to arrive at an accurate picture of George Washington: his circumspection in public circles, the heirs who cut up his letters and handed them out like candy, the popular biographies with their legends that America so, so wanted to believe. Over the course of the book, Lengel covers biographies of Washington and their sources and credibility, forged Washington papers, history textbooks, oral traditions connected to towns where Washington supposedly slept or fought or ate porridge, and depictions of Washington in fictional plays and films.

Notice the casual mention of Washington in plays and films. The last chapter is about how Lengel’s on the set of this George Washington flick, oh, and the producers want it to be authentic, and that’s what Lengel’s for; and then there are these reenactors on set who are, like, hell-bent on making everything actually properly authentic to the last detail. So poor Lengel is caught in the middle. That is funny. It is so, so, so funny. You should read that chapter even if you don’t read any of the rest of this book. Reenactors are funny. (Don’t tell my uncle I said that. Apparently he reenacts things for a hobby.)

Of particular interest to me was the way that Lengel demonstrates how myths and half-truths about Washington have been used to score political points. Did you know about the widely-circulated story that Washington had religious visions predicting the Civil War? And that advocates of legalizing marijuana have suggested that Washington grew and regularly smoked pot? And anti-gun control groups frequently attribute to Washington a lengthy statement in favor of firearms that’s completely made up?

Apparently Edward Lengel has written a proper biography of George Washington. Be aware that Inventing George Washington is not that. If you go into this book expecting to learn where George Washington actually slept and what his precise religious beliefs were, you may be disappointed. I didn’t go in expecting that, but there were times when I felt like I was waiting for a punchline: after pages and pages of untrue things people have believed about Washington’s religious practice, you start thinking you’re going to hear what he really believed. But for that, I guess I refer me to Lengel’s proper Washington biography.

In sum: Good, as long as you know going in it won’t be a biography.

I received a review copy of Inventing George Washington from Harper. Inventing George Washington is due out 18 January 2011.

Review: Three Empires on the Nile: Egypt 1869-1899, Dominic Green

Colonial encounters fascinate me. Sometimes I think that I will abandon all my other reading and devote myself only to colonial fiction and nonfiction. In general, I like colonial encounters by colonizing country in this exact order from best to worst: British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Italian, German, Spanish, American. I have a particular sneaky fondness for novels from the olden days where stalwart British protagonists go abroad and have stiff upper lips and unyielding codes of hono(u)r. Please don’t judge me.

Three Empires on the Nile had a lot of players and a lot of new words and terms for various groups of players. I discovered, belatedly, that there was a glossary in back explaining the words, but it was just impossible for my poor little brain to remember all the characters. I couldn’t remember who was in charge of what: British government, British army, British government in Egypt, British government in Sudan, Sudanese armies, Sudanese slavers, Sudanese rebels, Turkish rulers, Turkish armies, Egyptian armies, Egyptian government. As long as we stuck with one set of characters for an extended period, I was okay, but if we left behind, say, the Turkish financial adviser, and then came back to him twenty pages later, I had utterly forgotten his name and why I cared about his activities. If I had had a journal to write down everyone’s name, or better yet, a glossary of characters in the back of the book, that would have helped a lot.

With that caveat, the stuff I did manage to follow was fascinating. It was the same old story of British colonialism: They wanted to carry on with their trade activities in Egypt, they didn’t want it to be governed by any other European country, and so, griping and grumbling and calling each other “the Honourable Gentleman” when really they wanted to hit each other very hard in the face, they took over Egypt and then, even more grumpily, the Sudan. The process was gradual and complicated and full of diplomatic tap-dancing around Turkey and France and Belgium and Egypt.

I also learned that the story of the gallant Gordon is quite as exciting as rumors of Gordon’s gallantry make it sound. Do you know about it? I will tell you. Well, once upon a time, England really didn’t want to be in charge of the Sudan, because it was a hot mess there (ha, literally), and moreover the Mahdi was carrying on a religious revolution. The people in charge of Britain asked the gallant Gordon, whose professional and personal reputation was very good, to pop down to the Sudan and evacuate the Egyptians who were stationed there, so that they would not get smashed up by the Mahdi and his crusaders. AND THEN COME STRAIGHT HOME (they told Gordon).

Instead of coming straight home, however, Gordon started trying to sort out a new government for the Sudan, so that the Mahdi could be quashed and would not come into Egypt and take over Egypt. He wanted to Stop the Mahdi and believed he could convince the British government to help him do it; and he became convinced that leaving Khartoum would be ungentlemanly because (he thought) then what would happen to the poor Sudanese people who got left behind? He felt responsible. So rather than evacuating Khartoum in a timely manner and then going straight home, he stuck around and fortified it for a siege, all the while sending letters back to England asking them please to send more troops as he had already promised everyone that more troops were coming. Then the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum and nobody could get out.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Prime Minister, Gladstone, did not want to send any more troops, and he did not like the gallant Gordon anyway. He said “Well really, shouldn’t he be able to get home if he wants to, and can we afford to send troops to reinforce him?” And Gordon sent more and more telegrams to say, “Hello hello, I am still here in Khartoum but now I properly cannot get home, we can survive for another few months but then we will start starving to death.” Gladstone still didn’t want to send reinforcements, so he posted Gordon a letter asking him to explain the situation in more precise detail, and that took several months to arrive. Meanwhile the Mahdi’s troops carried on beseiging Khartoum, and the Mahdi kept sending Gordon letters to say, “We know that no back-up is coming. I promise we won’t kill you if you will just surrender and convert to Islam,” but Gordon did not feel this was an act for a British gentleman and a Christian. And everyone in Khartoum was like, “Dude, you said British troops were coming,” and Gordon was like, “…I really thought they were.”

But they did not. All the people at Khartoum who did not give up and surrender to the Mahdi got killed, including of course Gordon. And yes, I know that Gordon was a nasty colonialist, but still, when I was reading the book I couldn’t help feeling terribly tense and hoping that Gladstone would give in and send reinforcements and save Gordon and the people at Khartoum. So I am not surprised that everyone in England was extremely cross with Gladstone for leaving all his fellow countrymen, not to speak of the Sudanese and Egyptians still in Khartoum, to die. They sent Gladstone loads of hate mail, which stressed him out so much he got diarrhea and couldn’t go in to work.

That story is the main thing that stuck in my brain from this book, because it is the event for which my brain had a small network of association. Everything else fell out like a sieve two seconds after I had turned the page, and that is why this is not a proper review but really just an excuse to tell you the story of Gordon at Khartoum. I’m still interested in Egypt and Britain, though, so if anyone knows of any good nonfiction books that deal with this subject, I would appreciate the recommendations.

If anyone else out there (*hem* Anastasia *hem*) shares my love of trashy adventure novels a la The Prisoner of Zenda, I just want to report that this book told me about an author called G.A. Henty who churned out novels by the dozens, all about daring British youths having adventures. They are called things like By Right of Conquest and When London Burned and With Clive in India, and look, I truly don’t know why this is, but if there is one thing I absolutely cannot resist, it’s British imperialist propaganda in the form of adventure novels.

Review: Contested Will, James Shapiro

I am a fan of delayed gratification. You may not know this about me because, for instance, I whined so much about not having Monsters of Men handed to me the identical second that I finished reading The Ask and the Answer. You may suppose that a girl who reads the end of books before she reads the middle, and interrupts cross-stitching a Christmas stocking for her little cousin to find out from Television Without Pity what is going to happen in the last twenty minutes of the episode of The Good Wife she is watching, is not a girl fond or capable of delaying gratification. You might think that I was the kind of little kid who would grab the marshmallow as soon as the dudes running the study had left the room.

But no! You are wrong! Given my druthers (yes, druthers. Problem?), I will delay gratification until my face falls off. When I get a book that I know is going to satisfy my heart, I wait. (Sometimes. Depends on the book.) I like the feeling that there is something lovely waiting for me whenever I choose to indulge in it. This is the same reason that I am bringing a name-heavy book about Egyptian history to work with me every day, rather than The Hand That First Held Mine, which between you and me I would rather be reading.

(Dear Bookwords Game: I miss you. Why isn’t there a word for a book with so many names to remember that it overloads your brain unless you are keeping really good notes, which is difficult to do on the subway (e.g., all Russian novels everywhere)? Love, Jenny)

Mumsy got me Contested Will for my birthday way back in May, and every time I wandered over to pick it up and read it, I got so excited about the prospect of learning fun facts about the Shakespeare authorship controversy that I decided to save it for another time. A time when I would be stressed and would really need someone to hold my brain’s hand and say, “Jenny’s Brain, Shakespeare did so write his own plays. Don’t you listen for a single minute to anyone who tells you different.” When I moved to New York and started apartment-hunting, I decided that would be a propitious time for me to read Contested Will at last.

It was so worth the wait. Shapiro goes over the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from the first recorded dude who chose to doubt that a low-class actor out of Stratford could write the best plays that ever got written, through Shakespeare-doubting luminaries like Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud, all the way up to the 2003 Supreme Court dudes who agreed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. At the end of the book he makes a sustained and compelling argument in favor of the Stratfordian. Hooray, my prejudices were all confirmed!

One of the things that has always given me pause is that so many brilliant people have believed Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. Shapiro made me feel better by telling me that in this respect at least, they all tended to be crazy-crazy in the head. Twain and Freud and Keller all thought (they did!) that there were extensive, complicated codes within the plays that would “prove” their true authorship. Oh, and one of my favorite things in the whole book was this one guy in the 1800s who was mad about all the historians who were going around saying Jesus never existed, so as a satire, he wrote up a pamphlet using similar methods to prove Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare. As a satire! But he used all the arguments people really use. That is awesome to me.

I guess it is time for me and Shakespeare to be friends again. Reading The Taming of the Shrew this summer annoyed me to death, and I haven’t been able to write about it for y’all, or carry on with my Shakespeare-in-chronological-order project, even though I’m only two plays away from Romeo and Juliet. But Shapiro reminded me of all the reasons that I love my upstart crow, one reason being that he’s an enigma dude whose fairly ordinary life does not easily reconcile in our minds with the unrelenting brilliance of his writing. I like that about him.

Coda: Y’all probably get so sick of me going on about football, but since I am speaking of things that make my heart happy, I just have to report it. In a stirring battle of good vs. evil (our Mad Hatter with his daring play calls and grass-eating tradition being GOOD, and their shouty diva who blames the fans when he loses being EVIL), in the midst of a season plagued by timing issues and terrifying unreliableness on the part of our two (!) quarterbacks, contrary to the general national expectation of being utterly crushed, the LSU Tigers beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 24-21. This means a lot to me because the 2007 Bama game was the game that made me love football, and that is the last time we won against Bama (until this past Saturday). It was a hella exciting game. When I was out doing some exceptionally depressing apartment-hunting yesterday, and I nearly started to cry on the subway (don’t judge. I hate apartment-hunting.), I cheered myself up be replaying scenes from Saturday’s game in my head.

Learning about the Black Panthers

Initially I had it in my head that both of the books my library had on the subject of the Black Panther Party (that I wanted – they had some older books, but I wanted shiny new ones with slightly more time perspective and declassified FBI documents, I hoped) were published by the University of Alabama Press. And I was going to say a few words about how fun it was for me to watch the Alabama quarterback being sacked over and over last night by South Carolina, almost funner than seeing my alma mater win after pulling a very sexy fake field goal stunt (when attempted by a less talented coach and team, this kind of play can fail miserably); but then I realized that the cruddy book was published by the University of Alabama Press, and the good one by the University of Arkansas Press, and now I feel like it would be mean to make fun of Alabama’s quarterback for being incapable of getting rid of the ball even when he has a player wide open a few feet away from him, unless I were following up by saying that the University of Alabama Press had done a really good book about the Black Panther Party. Turns out, they haven’t, or if they have it isn’t one of the two that I read. So I won’t say anything at all about football actually.

Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party, Paul Alkebulan

SKIP IT. This book is a hot mess: disorganized, riddled with printer’s errors, and nearly completely incoherent. And very short. And I hardly learned anything from it except a few people’s names, which was useful when I was reading the second, more useful book, Up Against the Wall, because I had an easier time keeping straight who was who.

Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, Curtis J. Austin

Hooray, this was more like it. I learned many, many things about the Black Panther Party from this book. As the title implies, Austin doesn’t try to skate over the episodes of violence and the extremely violent rhetoric of the Party, but nor does he demonize them like my American history classes in high school. Austin discusses the tensions within the Party, the ones that arose naturally and the ones that had a bit of help from the FBI, and explores the work of the leaders, the growth of the Party, and the activities of the various chapters, meanwhile reminding me why I have a hard time trusting the government.

As I mentioned briefly in my review of The Rock and the River, which was the reason I sought out some more information about the Black Panther Party, the view of the Party that you probably got in your American history classes is not all there is to the story. Although the Party initially and repeatedly emphasized black power and the use of guns, including patrolling the cops to ensure that they were not using undue violence against black people, their focus shifted in later years to include social programs like free breakfasts and free medical clinics for the communities in which they were active. The Party received the most media coverage for violent rhetoric, run-ins with the law, and black separatism, but they were actually very willing to pursue alliances with white leftist organizations like the Peace and Freedom Party.

This is not, incidentally, to call the Black Panther Party blameless saints AT ALL. Eldridge Cleaver, for one, sounds like a total nutjob. The Party emphasized black masculinity, with the result that there was a fair amount of misogyny and unpleasantness toward the female members. Arguments among the leadership and between various chapters across the nation made it difficult for the party to maintain a clear message; fear of FBI informants caused many valuable party members to be purged for very slight reasons.

The biggest thing I took away from this book, however, is that J. Edgar Hoover was a terrible person. When he was in charge of the FBI, they did all sorts of shady things to discredit the Black Panther Party. They installed informants in the various chapters who would try to incite the Party to greater violence; they sent anonymous notes (swear to God) to local gangs telling them the Black Panthers wanted to kill them; they sent even nastier anonymous notes to Panther supporters claiming that the kids who attended the free breakfast programs were being sexually molested; and they would do raids on Panther headquarters and break their stuff and destroy their food! The food that they were trying to give to poor children with their free breakfast program! Why would anyone ever do that?

Plus, do y’all know about Fred Hampton? He was the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and the FBI had their Party informant drug him, and then the Chicago cops raided the Black Panther Chicago headquarters on an illegal weapons raid and shot Fred Hampton in the head while he was sleeping in his bed with his pregnant partner.  They shot him right in the head while he was drugged. And that is why, although it is perfectly possible that many of the Panther leaders did wicked things, I have a hard time believing the claims leveled against them by the government. Because the government was being shady as hell.

In slightly strange conclusion, the Black Panther Party is also now inextricably linked in my mind with Oscar Wilde, for a few reasons. One, the word panther always reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying that his carrying on with London rent-boys was like feasting with panthers, delicious because of the danger. Two, Bobby Seale (co-founder of the party with Huey Newton) has the same birthday as this guy, which means that I will now always know Bobby Seale’s birthday. And three, the Black Panther Party is one of those things, like Oscar Wilde and his crazy life, where all parties involved have such a tremendous stake in lying that it’s difficult to know whom to believe in any given case. I do not know what Oscar Wilde would make of this mental connection I have made (I expect that if he could get past his Victorian race attitudes, he’d be pleased as punch, because Oscar Wilde was a man who could appreciate grand gestures of revolution), but I do not suppose the Black Panthers would be any too pleased. Oh well.

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.