As a capital city with a great university, Paris was host to a turbulent horde of students from all over Europe. They had privileged status not subject to local justice but only to the King, with the result that their crimes and disorders went largely unpunished. They lived miserably, overcharged for dirty rooms in dark neighborhoods. They sat on stools in cold lecture halls, lit only by two candles and were perennially complained of for debauchery, rape, robbery, and “all other enormities hateful to God”....
...An extraordinary passage from the tale Le Despit au Vilain breathes hatred with an intensity that seems more than mere storytelling. “Tell me, Lord, if you please, by what right or title does a villein eat beef?...and goose, of which they have plenty? And this troubles God. God suffers from it, and I too. For they are a sorry lot, these villeins who eat fat goose! Should they eat fish? Rather, let them eat thistles and briars, thorns and straw and hay on Sunday and peapods on weekdays. They should keep watch without sleep and have trouble always; that is how villeins should live. Yet each day they are full and drunk on the best wines, and in fine clothes. The great expenditures of villeins comes at a high cost, for it is this that destroys and ruins the world. It is they who spoil the common welfare. From the villein comes all unhappiness. Should they eat meat? Rather should they chew grass on the heath with the horned cattle and go naked on all fours....” These tales were addressed to an upper class audience. Was this what they wanted to hear, or was it a satire of attitude?
These and other passages from A Distant Mirror illustrate that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Evidently, the Greek System of higher education existed pretty much in its current form in those days, while I’d swear the author of “Le Despit Au Vilain” maintains a blog to this very day, complaining daily of having peered into other peoples’ grocery carts and found someone buying steak with food stamps and an obese person with a whole lot of Twinkies.
Elsewhere in the category of “Eras That Sucked”, we get an in-depth look at noble and peasant life in France, England and Italy during the nadir of the Hundred Years War, including the joys of plague, roving mercenary thugs, Popes and Antipopes, rule by crazy psycho church people, and rule by crazier, more psycho syphilitic royal families. It was an era in which any large group of bandits or soldiers could take your home from you; any local madman who had a weird dream could instigate a religiously inspired mob against the “heretics”; the peasants had nothing to eat, and the rich had to hire the poor to taste their food. As with most eras, it was a terrible time to be Jewish. There are chapters about the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, Wat Tyler’s rebellion, tactically arranged marriages to infant children, and hideous acts of treachery. It was the sort of “interesting times” that angry Chinese people are said to wish on their enemies.
Further, as with Gibbon, the book resonates with a theme that alternates between “this could happen here in our time” and “No matter how bad it gets, at least we aren’t there now”. For Tuchman, “now” was 1978, in the middle of the Jimmy Carter stagflation, national malaise, and the sinister popularity of The Gong Show. It was bad, but not 14th Century bad.
Tuchman ties up loose ends in the history somewhat by chronicling the era side by side with the life of Enguerrand de Coucy, a French Nobleman, warrior and ambassador who took part in most of the major battles, who was present for many additional intrigues and talks, and whose personal circumstances occasionally mirrored the age, as when idealistic but tactically unfortunate notions of chivalry and honor on the battlefield gave way to the more egalitarian and advantageous system of training and using peasants strategically. Like the Murder She Wrote lady, Coucy always seems to be around when something nasty enough to make the history books happens.
Giants in the Earth, by O. E. Rolvaag :
He had gone quite far before he paused to look back. When he did so, the sight sent a shiver over him; the wagons had shrunk to two small specks, away off on the floor of a huge, dusky room...I’d better hurry at once, he thought; mother will surely have the porridge ready by this time! His legs had already adopted the idea of their own accord. But the thoughts of his mother and the porridge didn’t quite bring him all the feeling of safety he needed; he hunted through his mind for a few strains of a hymn, and sang them over and over in a high pitched, breaking voice, until he had no more breath left to sing with...He didn’t feel entirely safe until the wagons had begun to assume their natural size once more.
This book is Norwegian Willa Cather without the lesbian overtones, or maybe The Good Earth set in the empty quarter of North America. It tells of several families of Norwegian pioneers who set up sod huts and farmland in the middle of the Dakotas, an area where all you can see for miles around is sky and flat, flat land. They endure poor crops, eight month winters, unassisted homebirths and –yes! A plague of locusts!
Foremost among them is the Hansa family, led by Per the wise, frugal, speculative farmer and trader who makes good early on, hindered at every turn by his distinctly unpioneer wife, Beret, who faints, wrings her hands, bursts into tears, has fits of madness, and repeatedly begs Per to take the family away from this horrible homestead three hundred miles from nowhere, where a man takes his life in his hands simply stepping out to try and bring the sheep to the barn in a blizzard. Beret is perhaps the most timorous shrinking violet I’ve seen on paper in years.
Rolvaag is more concerned with psychology than plot (he’s definitely of the “put characters in peril, and find out who they are” school of writing), and in bridging Scandinavia with the American prairie to make a literature that belongs to two countries. Moderately recommended, especially for people who crave Emersonian tales of nature and self reliance.
Journey to the Hebrides, by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell :
We talked of the practice of the law. Sir William Forbes said, he thought an honest lawyer should never undertake a cause which he was satisfied was not a just one. ‘Sir, (said Mr. Johnson), a lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of his cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir, what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie; he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence, what shall be the result of legal argument. As it rarely happens that a man is fit to plead his own cause, lawyers are a class of the community who, by study and experience, have acquired the art and power of arranging evidence, and of applying to the points at issue what the law has settled. A lawyer is to do for his client all that his client might fairly do for himself, if he could. If, by a better method of communication, he has the advantage of his adversary, it is an advantage to which he is entitled. There must always be some advantage on one side or the other, and it is better that advantage should be had by talents than by chance. If lawyers were to undertake no causes until they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.’ This was sound practical doctrine, and rationally repressed a too refined scrupulosity of conscience.
Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is one of the most magnificent biographies this side of Plutarch, and comes with my highest recommendations. I’ve grazed in it plenty of times, and Boswell and Johnson are like old friends to me. Never mind that Johnson can be a righteous narrow minded prick sometimes; their conversations, speech patterns, irritating habits and jokes grow on one, and there’s a lot to be learned on every page. So, I became almost wild with delight when I picked up their travel journal and found that it was Boswell’s dress rehearsal for the big biography. A couple of months from Edinburgh to Inverness and down the big glen to the islands of Skye and Mull and back home, stopping in inns and crofting huts all the way and having dialogues and round table discussions all the way. Do they see a lot of moldy old castles, crystal lochs and solitary bagpipers on windswept craggy cliffs? Who knows, and who cares! Journey to the Hebrides is a buddy road trip, and the point is not the view but the conversation.
At least it is in Boswell’s version. The book consists of both of their writings about their journey. Boswell’s is by far the longer part, and that’s where the dialogue is. Johnson, a much better lexicographer and argumentative conversationalist than he is a creative journalist, fills his brief contribution with entries along the lines of “Visited Clan MacDrunkard. Saw nothing of note”, and observations on how he thinks the Scots would improve their moral fiber by acting more like the civilized English.
I was surprised that there was little mention of how Boswell persuaded Johnson to go to Scotland in the first place. In Boswell’s biography, Johnson’s hatred and contempt for Scotland is a schtick, comparable to the feelings of WC Fields on the subject of ickle-pretty children, or mine on the subject of Adam Sandler. And yet, for his vacation, that’s where he went, and they both write as if it’s no big deal and that he’s having a not too bad time there. Or would, if the inn at Cromarty had anything to offer that was worth eating.
At the end of Boswell's journal, there's even a Comments section in the form of letters from notable persons of the day praising and criticising the first edition, together with some responses and corrections from Boswell. The style of the age is very pronounced; not one of them comments in LOLspeak, and they all take several paragraphs to say what amounts to, "Lord Blair LIKES this".
As a companion piece to Johnson and Boswell’s journey, I also grazed a bit through The Rough Guide to Scottish Highlands and Islands to compare 18th Century Scotland with what the tourism people say it’s like today. I agree with Johnson. The best, most alluring description they give of the place is rife with cold, rainy peat bogs, midges, haggis, golf, Presbyterians, Calvinists, deserted croft huts from which the inhabitants were evicted by greedy landowners two centuries ago, and landscapes and seascapes that are impossible to get to. And the inhabitants hate tourists. Unlike Ireland, the pubs are pretty much for smokers, and the whisky distilleries are like factories. The best things to see in Scotland can be found in the mountains and coasts of my native Oregon, or at an SCA/NerdCon event. Athrylis Sather Hodgetts can go to Scotland if she wishes, but I won’t be any time soon.
Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder :
Sophie put the glasses on. Everything around her became red. The pale colors became pink and the dark colors became crimson.
“What do you see?”
“I see exactly the same as before, except that it’s all red.”
“That’s because the glasses limit the way you perceive reality. Everything you see is part of the world around you, but HOW you see it is determined by the glasses you are wearing. So you cannot say the world is red even though you conceive it as being so.”
“If you now took a walk in the woods, or home to Captain’s Bend, you would see everything the way you normally do. But, whatever you saw, it would all be red.”
“As long as I didn’t take the glasses off, yes.”
“And that, Sophie, is precisely what Kant meant when he said that there are certain conditions governing the mind’s operation which influence the way we experience the world.”
I wanted to hate this book and write a pan complete with jokes about Reader’s Digest versions of intelligent subjects, and how Gaarder summarizes philosophy for pre-teens, illiterate housewives, and Vice Presidents of Marketing. Except that, after a couple of insulin shots, I found that the book actually grew on me.
Sophie’s World exists in three layers. At the core are a series of very dumbed-down but mostly accurate synopses of the major philosophers and their ideas, from the Greeks through Darwin and Freud, in the form of a series of letters to a 14 year old girl. Wrapped around the letters are the thoughts of the 14 year old as she applies what she has learned to her own life, for example, considering her set of Legos in light of Democritus’s theory of atoms. Finally, there’s a forgettable Nancy Drewish semi-mystery where the girl tries to find out who it is who keeps sending her the letters and why, and who is this Hilde Moller Knag whose mail he keeps forwarding to Sophie along with the philosophy lessons, and how come everything keeps getting weirder...and the plot walks a fine line between enchantment and creepy stalker of young girls territory and gets progressively more surreal and nonsensical as it goes along. Really, that part of the story is just thrown together to sugarcoat the philosophical lessons, like the inspirational “stories” of Og Mandino or Ken Blanchard. But it’s...cute. And educational. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read the actual works of philosophy, and maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had something like this as an appetizer before I’d first tackled the truly dense, fog-enshrouded ones like Hegel.
If you haven’t read most of the major philosophers at all, Sophie’s World is probably for you. If you’re fairly intelligent and want a real survey of the subject, a better and very enjoyable digest is Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares :
I spoke in a low, subdued voice with a composure that suggested impropriety. I repeated the words “young lady”. I stopped talking altogether and began to look at the sunset, hoping that the shared vision of that peaceful scene would bring us together. I spoke again. The effort I was making to control myself pitched my voice even lower, and increased the indecency of my tone. After several more minutes of silence, I insisted, I implored, in what was surely a repulsive manner. And finally, I became ridiculous. Trembling, almost shouting, I begged her to insult me, to inform against me, even, if only she would break the terrible silence.
It was not as if she had not heard me, as if she had not seen me; rather, it seemed that her ears were not used for hearing, that her eyes could not see.
This one is a surreal novella (less than 100 pages) that made me think of Myst games. A fugitive ends up on a small uninhabited island which has on it an abandoned museum, chapel and swimming pool, and a half-buried millstone that turns every now and then. And nothing else but foliage. While he’s trying to figure out what it all means, some people show up. He hides from them, for a while, but they pretty much ignore him when they see him. One of the people is named Morel, and he has this invention, see...and after that, it gets weird.
I’m not sure about this one. It doesn’t need a review so much as a hint manual (“Explore the basement and click on all the levers on the machines down there. Try talking to the woman by the wall. Then don’t forget to go into the museum’s library. You won’t be able to pick up the journal, but you can read it. After that, go try the machines in the basement again...”). After a lot of surreal foreign-film moments, there’s a moment where you find out what’s really happening and it all makes sort-of sense. But it isn’t satisfying, not to me anyhow. There’s too little character development and thick writing style (Casares is Argentine, and it probably loses something in translation) to care about the people or what happens to them. But the island and the strange buildings on it are memorable. Like playing Myst.
Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges :
In the midst of my hatred and terror (now that it no longer matters to me to speak of terror, now that I have outwitted Richard Madden, now that my neck hankers for the hangman’s noose), I knew that the fast moving and doubtless happy soldier did not suspect that I possessed The Secret—the name of the exact site of the new British artillery park on the Ancre. A bird streaked across the misty sky and, absently, I turned it into an airplane and then that airplane into many in the skies of France, shattering the artillery park under a rain of bombs. If only my mouth, before it should be silenced by a bullet, could shout this name in such a way that it could be heard in Germany...My voice, my human voice, was weak. How could it reach the ear of the Chief? The ear of that sick and hateful man who knew nothing of Runeberg or of me except that we were in Staffordshire. A man who, sitting in his arid Berlin office, leafed infinitely through newspapers, looking in vain for news from us. I said aloud, “I must flee.”
Quite coincidentally, I picked up a book by another surreal Argentine, who was not only a close friend of Casares but refers to him by name in at least one story in this collection. If The Invention of Morel is surreal, these tales are downright weird. Most of them are along the common theme of books: books that change reality so that you read a book about a world with yellow sky, and the sky outside your room turns yellow as you read it; books that are considered originals even though they are Don Quixote written by a 20th Century guy named Menard; books that are part of an infinite library dealing with infinite choices and corresponding to infinite lives; books that give ironic postscripts to “famous” Argentine verses that no doubt most people in Argentina know the way Americans know Whitman and Frost, but which I’ve never heard of, and therefore the whole point of the story is lost on me. None of the tales quite get to the point where characters say, “Oh, I get it! We’re in a book!”, but some of them come close. If that’s your cup of Yerba Matte, enjoy it. The tales are short and if you find yourself scratching your head at many of them, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted too much of your life.
Some stories are less surreal than others. The story I quoted from, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, is a masterpiece of suspense and surprise ending comparable to the best of O. Henry or Saki and has my enthusiastic recommendation. But I try to avoid spoilers, so you’ll have to discover why for yourself, if you choose.
A Local Habitation, by Seanan McGuire :
"Toby, can you hear me?"
I tilted my face forward, wincing as my head started throbbing in earnest. Connor was in the doorway, with Quentin casting a dark silhouette on the wall behind him. At least they weren't wandering around alone. "Hey guys."
"It smells like smoke in here," Quentin said, tone radiating relief. He probably hadn't been sure they'd find me alive. That was all right: I hadn't been sure either.
"Can we turn the lights on?" Connor asked.
"If they work. They shorted out when the flowers caught fire." I forced myself to stand. It wasn't easy. My legs were threatening to abdicate from the rest of the body, and I wasn't coming up with any good reasons why they shouldn't.
Elliott spoke up from behind Quentin. "I'll turn on the backups."
Backups. They had backups for the backups in this place. It was amazing anything had been able to go wrong. They should have had backups for the people, too.
Hot off the presses, this is the second book in McGuire's series about October Daye, the San Francisco private investigator with one foot each in the mortal world and the world of Faerie. If the first book, Rosemary and Rue (see Bookpost, December 2009) was a good read, A Local Habitation is downright fantastic, in several senses of the word.
This time, Toby is sent to a software company in Fremont ( known in the fae world as the freehold of Tamed Lightning), just to check and make sure things are OK. They are not. What follows was billed as a "locked room mystery". It is not. It may be theoretically possible to set up a locked room scenario in an environment with parallel worlds where characters have special abilities that include the creation of hidden doors and the ability to travel through the electrical system, but that isn't what we have here. We do, however, have an ingenious variant on the classic "cozy" mystery in which there are a limited number of suspects, and the increasing body count comes close to solving the mystery by process of elimination.
Is the killer a spy from the neighboring land-grabbing kingdom? The crabby metalworking faerie/hardware designer? The fastidious seneschal/sysadmin? The former dryad who lives in the network? The head of the company herself? I figured the answer out in time, but it involved changing my mind a couple of times, and counting at least one clue that the author might not have even intended. Stop at the end of Chapter 25 if you want to work it out for yourself.
This series is just getting started, and volume 2 makes it clear that the series will involve both the adventure du jour and an overall story arc. There are many stories I like, but not very many that inspire me to write actual SONGS based on the characters and atmosphere. Very highest recommendations.
Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell :
"In this garden," said the Centaur, "each man that ever lived has sojourned for a little while, with no company save his illusions. I must tell you again that in this garden are encountered none but imaginary creatures. And stalwart persons take their hour of recreation here, and go hence unaccompanied, to become aldermen and respected merchants and bishops, and to be admired as captains on prancing horses or even as kings upon tall thrones; each in his station thinking not at all of the garden ever any more. But now and then come timid persons, Jurgen, who fear to leave this garden without an escort: so these must need go hence with one or another imaginary creature to guide them--and to guide them always about alleys and bypaths, because imaginary creatures can find little nourishment in the public highways, and shun them. Thus must these timid persons skulk about obscurely with their diffident and skittish guides, and they do not ever venture willingly into the thronged places where men get horses and build thrones."
"And what becomes of these timid persons, Centaur?"
"Why, sometimes they spoil paper, Jurgen, and sometimes they spoil human lives."
"Then these are accursed persons," Jurgen considered.
"You should know best," replied the Centaur.
This one comes with my very highest recommendations and my astonishment that it is not a much more widely read American classic on a Mark Twain level.
Imagine Twain, Rabelais, Oscar Wilde and Chesterton all getting together to collaborate on a retelling of The Pilgrim's Progress, and you have an inkling of the story of Jurgen, whose snappy comeback to a monk is rewarded by the disappearance of his scolding old wife, and by a journey that takes him through Greek and Celtic mythology to the realms of Homer, Dante, the tarot, King Arthur, Faust, Heaven and Hell, with every episode containing an actual moral lesson of rich allegory sugarcoated with satire, as opposed to John Bunyan's mostly flavorless pabulum.
As with my first reading of the LeClercq translation of Rabelais, several times I found myself laughing out loud at merry tales of wenching and debauchery, admiring the "monstrous clever fellow" Jurgen as he outwits various high and mighty (or low and mighty) beings, only to turn the page and find myself looking into a soul-mirror and learning things about my nature that made me rethink various parts of my life.
Jurgen is the kind of a book that you can come back to several times in a life, and learn something new each time. Rather than try to puzzle through every bit of esoterica, I suggest just going with the flow of the fool's journey, and then maybe coming back for another trip a few years later, when it will mean something different entirely.
Pentimento, by Lillian Hellman :
It is one of the strange American changes in custom that the drunks of the day often hit each other, but never in the kind of bar fight that so often happens now with knives. In those days somebody hit somebody, and when that was finished one of them offered his hand and it would have been unheard of to refuse. (James Thurber had once thrown a glass of whiskey at me in the famous Tony’s Speakeasy, Hammett had pushed Thurber against a wall, Thurber had picked up a glass from another table and, in an attempt to throw it at Dash, missed and hit the waiter who was Tony’s cousin. Tony called the police, saying over and over again that he had had enough of Thurber through the years. Almost everybody agreed with Tony, but when the police came we were shocked and went down to the police station to say nothing had happened except a drunken accident of a broken glass; and while I don’t think Thurber liked me afterward, I don’t think he had liked me before. In any case, none of us ever mentioned it again). And so, at that minute, at the table at Small’s, there seemed to me nothing odd about what I did. I leaned across the table, slapped Sammy in the face, got up, turned over the table, and went home. The next day a girl called me to say that Sammy couldn’t remember what he had said but he was sorry anyway, and a large amount of flowers arrived that evening. The girl called again a few days later: I said there were no hard feelings, but Sammy was a bigger dope at twenty five than he had been at seventeen. She said she’d tell him that.
This is one of the more original approaches to autobiography I've seen so far, by one of America's great playwrights whose musings made me badly miss Broadway while I was reading.
Instead of talking only about herself, each chapter is about someone else who affected Hellman's life, told in such a way that you learn as much about Hellman as you do about the people--some distant family relations with skeletons in their closets; a friend who resisted the Nazis just prior to WWII; some theater people; an alternately obnoxious and generous wealthy patron...and a turtle--who have impacted her life.
Think about it. I could give you a passable autobiography of the high and low points of my life by telling you the stories of my memories of ten people named Mary Emma, Raphael, Phyllis, Jim, Crazy Al, Carl, Jenny, Tania, Gary and Rosie. You could probably tell your story via nine or ten people who were around at critical moments too. And what a story it would be, compared to just talking about you!
In addition, Pentimento (which means the original lines, later painted over as an artist corrects her mistakes, that sometimes bleed and show through the final work as it ages) is a vivid tale of life in old Broadway and even older New Orleans, with echoes of war-torn Europe and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts, which claimed Hellman as a victim for a time.
The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett :
O'Rory said, "This is O'Rory, Beaumont. Can you hear what I say?"
Moving his swollen lips with difficulty, Ned Beaumont uttered a thick, "Yes."
O'Rory said, "Good. Now, listen to what I tell you. You're going to give me the dope on Paul." He spoke very distinctly without raising his voice, without his voice losing any of its musical quality. "Maybe you think you won't, but you will. I'll have you worked on from now until you do. Do you understand me?"
Ned Beaumont smiled. The condition of his face made the smile horrible. He said, "I won't."
O'Rory stepped back and said, "Work on him."
While Rusty hesitated, the apish Jeff knocked aside Ned Beaumont's upraised hand and pushed him down on the bed. "I got something to try." He scooped up Ned Beaumont's legs and tumbled them on the bed. He leaned over Ned Beaumont, his hands busy on Ned Beaumont's body.
Ned Beaumont's body and arms and legs jerked convulsively and three times he groaned. After that he lay still.
Jeff straightened up and took his hands away from the man on the bed. He was breathing heavily through his ape's mouth. He growled, half in complaint, half in apology, "It ain't no good now. He's throwed another joe."
Seanan McGuire's completely new California noir detective inspired me to go back to one of the original masters, a story I hadn't yet read. Dashiell Hammett pretty much invented the genre. In yet another coincidence, he was married to Lillian Hellman, which I didn't know when I happened to pick up books written by both of them.
The Glass Key is one of the lesser known Hammets. No Sam Spade, no Nick and Nora, no Continental Op. Instead, we have the half hero, half antihero Ned Beaumont, gambler and friend to the ward heeler who runs the city and has either committed a murder or is being framed for it. Ned Beaumont's (Hammet pretty much uses his full name every time he's mentioned) search for the truth brings him into repeated contact with the corrupt district attorney, the corrupt Senator and his family, the corrupt newspaper publisher, and duelling old-style gangs, with the usual assortment of goons and dames. I believe the Coen brothers were strongly influenced by this book when they created Miller's Crossing, especially the Gabriel Byrne character.
Unlike Chandler and MacDonald, Hammett doesn't go for dirty-city poetics and metaphors. In fact, he almost never states what a character is thinking or feeling. Instead, he describes facial expressions, pauses and body language in just enough detail that you think he has described feelings and thoughts.
It's a fairly simple mystery in which getting to the result is more of the point than whodunnit. You have what you need to know to solve it by the end of chapter 6, but it isn't completely spelled out until chapter 10. Highly recommended.