Review Of ‘The Europeans: Three Lives And The Making Of A Cosmopolitan Culture’


This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.

It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?

And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).

I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.

So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.

Mistrust


Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.

The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.

Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:

In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.

Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say  something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:

No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…

Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.

 

Monticello


For a final trip before school started up again, we visited Monticello, the vaunted home of Mr. Thomas Jefferson (we also visited Williamsburg; the colonial playground portion of the city a sad ghost town in this, the plague year, but I did enjoy the chance to see a monologue performed as the enslaved preacher and reformer, Gowan Pamphlet, who I recognized only because of Peter Adamson’s Africana Philosophy podcasts).
I wanted my daughter to see it and to, in time, have memories to call upon later when she tries to process what our country is.
Asked what she took away from investigating the inside of the house, she said that every room had stuff for writing. She also remembered that he had a device for copying what he wrote.
Posing before going to listen to a Jefferson impersonator speak. I made several notes about how the re-enactor subtly, but not too subtly, criticized President Trump. ‘Jefferson’ called out the British for sending armed troops into American cities. He criticized judges who answer to the king, instead of justice, He criticized the king for ignoring petitions. Finally, he said that the pursuit of science is in the Constitution as one of the duties of Congress and that he would always follow science, wherever it leads.
Books and letters. I can look at old writings for hours, though she is not there yet.
Posing with a young looking Jefferson.
Most likely, Thoughts on Political Economy is the treatise by Daniel Raymond, believed to be the first systematic treatise on economic written in America.
Because the struggle to balance disgust and admiration still exists for me when I contemplate Jefferson, this is important to include: the Monument for Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, which he founded and whose original buildings he designed. I think what I am struggling with is my admiration for Jefferson as a figure of Enlightenment (though I have recently read a book that posit in one as a post-Enlightenment proto-Romantic and another as more like a Renaissance polymath than a true Enlightenment thinker), and I say figure, because the idea of the thinker, reader, writer on the mountain is so alluring, and my inability to forgive him.

‘Selected Essays’ By John Berger


img_5316A wide ranging selection and a reminder that a very good writer and an insightful thinker can also write a great deal of crap in their lifetime.

I had heard such glowing things about his art criticism and about his BBC series, The Art of Seeing, that I was excited to buckle and read Berger, but I almost gave up about 1/20th of my way through. A slimmer volume might have done me better.

He almost but not quite seems to have read and grasped history (especially intellectual history) enough to support his bigger theses. When identifying romanticism, it’s an interesting idea to place it between Rousseau’s Social Contract and Marx’s Capital, but he seems to just kind of fade off… rather than properly support it.

I can understand what he brought to the table, bursting onto the scene. A learned, perceptive eye, but not an academic one. His Marxism was present (he is also a sort of elder statesman figure to soixante-huitards), but not intrusive, adding much needed context to some artists (his essay on L.S. Lowry being an obvious example).

The thing is, I don’t need what he brings. Or maybe I do, but I’m too proud and too dense to see it. I’m not saying that I could do better (I couldn’t), but that I think I have enough that his unique perspective isn’t useful. Arguably, possibly because he opened the doors, it is already sufficiently understood now.

One item stood out for entirely the wrong reasons and for reasons for which is (almost) entirely blameless. He writes about the Museum, a capital M institution of implied fuddyduddiness. Berger writes as a sort Angry Young Man figure, but when you start to read it, in the current environment, your mind automatically drifts to question of race, gender, cultural appropriation, and colonial pasts, which, of course, an art critic from the mid-sixties is not so much interested in. Speaking on race, gender, and colonialism, his analysis of so-called primitive art is very… primitive. Smacks of a kind of orientalism.

Also, he really overused the word peasant. At a certain point, it kept reminding me of the eurocentrism of his whole project (because the peasant is always, clearly, a certain European figure; he may think it he means a global class, but it is also clear that the image in his head is European).

But he does know a lot more about art and artists than I do and I, we, must always be grateful for the opportunity to learn. For myself, he brought up dozens of artists and works (much of the book is devoted to relatively short essays about particular artists or artworks) that I had never heard of (Frans Hals) or else had never given much thought to (Pierre Bonnard; I like one of his paintings, but had never thought much about his context).

And he will also come up with a little throw away line that just hits you as being too perfect, like calling Marshall McLuhan a ‘manic exaggerator’ or saying this about Picasso:

Above all Picasso suffers from being taken too seriously.

Finally, I have to love him for, when he wants to illustrate historical atrocities and complicities, turning to poets and poetry to express has happened.

The Loch


This is by the same guy who wrote the Meg books, which I have not read, but I did see the movie because, hey, giant sharks. It all started when, maybe a week before I picked it up from the library, I started thinking about the Loch Ness monster, about which I have complicated feelings. I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster, but I want to believe it in it hard enough that I might actually believe in it. Certainly I was devastated when (and am in a form of state of denial regarding) that famous photo of it was revealed to be a fake.

So, googling happened and I saw this book and can you believe it was available at the library? Apparently the market for nearly two decade old hack work is not booming. I blame the coronavirus.

The hero, Zachary Wallace, was born sickly, but amazingly grew up to play college football (American football), is descended from William Wallace of Mel Gibson fame, and who is , despite not sounding super educated, in possession of a doctorate in marine biology and enough technical know-how to build a giant squid attractor. Like I said, I didn’t read The Meg, but saw the movie and you can definitely imagine Jason Statham pretending to have a PhD in the movie version of this book.

This novel doesn’t just have a handsome PhD hero, a buxom wench with childhood connections to said hero, a sensational murder trial, and a Loch Ness monster (no, the secret is not that Loch Ness is incapable of supporting any kind of large monster, making the real villain man’s inhumanity to man and also global warming, though there is a little bit about oil being bad for marine life, but it turns out, it was kind of a fluke caused by one bad actor and so most drilling is totally ok)… it also has the Knights Templar!

And the hero is super impressed with the knowledge his dad passes on (‘I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge,’ he says while daddy dearest explains how the Scottish Freemasons are Templars, just like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who totally ripped off the super democratic ideas of an order of military monks when writing the Declaration of Independence, which I used to think was written by Jefferson, though actually Adams deserves more credit, but what am I saying is, it’s Templars, you fool!). It’s a veritable grab bag conspiracies to make that Da Vinci Code guy proud (but he shouldn’t be; he should feel ashamed all the time, the kind of shame a man might feel if his sainted mother caught him abusing himself while leafing through a carefully curated collection of  Wilfred Brimley photos, because his books are terrible). To read about the hero (who, again, is supposed to have doctoral degree) praising his (maybe) wrongfully accused, alcoholic, womanizing (which includes sex with minors, which, while noted in the novel, doesn’t feel like is properly recognized as being a super bad thing to do, but maybe not surprising, because the hero opens the book as a professor at Florida Atlantic University, where in addition to teaching marine biology and being super handsome and smart, he is also engaged to an undergraduate he met because she was in his class, which is totally an ok thing to do, right, but it’s also ok, because they break up because, and this will blow your mind, undergrads aren’t always super emotionally mature and she was kind of ditz because, you know, women, amirite? high five guys!) father for his grasp of… history, I guess, really takes one out of the moment. Did I mention there is an rogue branch of the Knights Templar, imaginatively named the Black Knights, presumably after the famed Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the last I saw it was at a midnight showing and my wife almost divorced me for taking her; the time before that, I fell asleep during the movie and when I woke up, Joe Lieberman was telling me that we’d invaded Iraq; on the other hand, what a great movie and you can’t go more than five minutes into an in-depth discussion of the sources behind Eliot’s modernist classic, The Wasteland, before someone says ‘Nee!’).

So, a lot going on here, and I swear that none of the books many plot reveals look like they were put together using a broken Magic 8 Ball and a set of Erich Von Daniken playing cards.

One interesting conceit is that, in addition to claiming descent from Mel Gibson’s nom de guerre, the hero’s family also claims relation to Alfred Russel Wallace, who worked on a theory of evolution in parallel to Darwin (Darwin was actually encouraged publish Origin, which he had been dithering over, because he was told that Wallace was close to beating him to the punch). Excerpts from his writings pepper the beginnings of chapters and I found them fascinating, though they failed to gussy up the book in the classy veneer which Mr. Alten no doubt intended. You seen, any class which nineteenth century scientific writings may have added is more than equally subtracted by clauses like ‘my groin awakening for the first time in months.’ Also, by tossing in the occasional Darwin or Gould excerpt, he weakens the semi-unique conceit of the ancestral relationship to Wallace, but, hey, book learning!

However my hands down favorite literary flourish, redolent of Finnegans Wake‘s finest fart jokes (actually, Finnegans Wake does have a lot of fart jokes, only they are just as impossible to understand as the rest of the book) is the way characters, every time someone else says ‘but,’ interject ‘- butts are for crapping.’ Unless they’re doing a really deep Scottish thing, in which case its ‘butts er fer crappin’, dinna ya ken, ya wee laddie!’ I’m transported. You can already smell the fresh highland air of a free and independent Scotland, can’t you? So evocative.

But, when this potboiler finally reaches its heart pounding conclusion, it’s gotta be exciting right? Actually, the finale was too cluttered. It was like one of those action movies where the director keeps the camera moving and cutting so you can’t figure out what’s happening (check out the final shootout in Johnny To’s Drug War for a masterclass in how to film a visually coherent and exciting action sequence). Which is even worse in a book than it is in a movie. Also, our intrepid hero was going to free the monster, but then decided, meh, let’s kill it. This is after determining it wasn’t her fault (the monster is a girl) that she had become aggressive because of specific environmental damage caused by humans, but, meh, let’s blame an animal for all our sins. And let’s, I kid you not, kill it with William Wallace’s sword. I would say you couldn’t make that up, but obviously someone did, but I think that it would be correct to say, you could make that up, but you probably shouldn’t. Also, the hero is supposed to be a marine biologist. Typically, wouldn’t one be less blithe about slaughtering a hitherto unknown marine animal (it’s an eel, by the way, a giant eel)?

So if you like Monarch of the Glen fanfiction, history gleaned from cursory glances at wikipedia articles, and you also like giant sharks, then this book is that other book by the guy who wrote that other book about the giant shark and which also has those other things.

Sarong Party Girls


img_5315Yes, I know. Not my usual fare. Only, I did read all those Crazy Rich Asians books. But what actually happened is that I signed up to receive email alerts from a Singapore bookstore during a very enjoyable weekend I spent in that city-state. As my friend says, it’s the best run dictatorship in the world.

This is not Crazy Rich AsiansIt’s something more funny, local, and desperate. It’s not wealth porn. In fact, the main character seems lower middle class. And Crazy Rich Asians has plenty of phrases from the country’s dialect, this book is basically written in dialect (while there, I heard it described as ‘Singlish,’ but I can’t say if that’s a common, accurate, and non-offensive descriptor).

There is something a little sad about the ‘protagonist’ (anti-hero), Jazzy, and her friends. A pretty girl hanger-on to wealthy (and, needless to say, male) friends seeking a caucasian (ang moh, in the dialect) boyfriend to marry because… well, that’s what you do. The sheer volume of drinking makes me feel old. I remember being in my twenties and able to drink quantities and not be brutally hung over the next day, but that feels very long ago. She is a fascinating protagonist and following her adventures feels almost anthropological. But while this book feels more ‘literary’ than the breezy Crazy Rich Asians, the protagonist of that book did seem like she might be an interesting person to talk to; Jazzy, on the other hand, lives in the moment (despite, theoretically, having opened the book by hatching a plan to find said ang moh boyfriend who is also husband material).

Without giving too much away though, the book does end on a somewhat happy note. Jazzy has a moment of maturity and makes a decision to grow up, as it were. It is an ever so slightly feminist decision, but also appears rather suddenly. This may sound odd, but it reminded me of the ending of A Clockwork Orange (the book, not the movie), where our nasty little anti-hero grows up and gets bored with ‘ultraviolence.’

The Dark Side Of The Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, And Spiritual Seekers In The Age Of Reason


In his intro, Fleming explains that the ‘dark side’ of his title is a kind hearted pun, rather than a hint that reader is about to enter the gloomy, sordid, and evil underbelly of eighteenth century France.

Various figures who are almost part of a Counter Enlightenment (and appropriate phrase, considering how often he alludes to the Counter Reformation) drive the stories he tells. It’s not an overarching thesis which drives him, so much as curiosity about certain individuals and ideas who seem so different from our idea of what the Enlightenment was.

Most were new to me or provided new perspectives (I knew about the Port Royal movement as an intellectual school, but not about some of the spiritual healers and relic veneration around it). I was disappointed, I will admit, at how little space the Rosicrucians got. I used to be a reader in conspiracy theories of a certain sort (the sort mocked in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) and would have liked to have seen it gone into a bit more. But a minor quibble, surely?

A larger quibble is what I hinted at a moment ago: how does this connect to the Enlightenment, beyond happening at roughly the same time? The occult strain within the Freemasons is real, but a chance to firmly connect them to the intellectual ferment of the age is sadly missed (just connecting it slightly to the gentleman’s club or the coffeehouse, the latter of which, predates modern Freemasonry, is not really doing it service).

In general, I confess to a general, though slight, feeling of disappointment. Disappointment because the book also feels a little slight. So many sections manage to feel undercooked (if always interesting). Alchemy is such a fascinating subject with a luxurious iconography and from this book I learned that… 18th century alchemy is a fascinating topic, with interesting iconography. Cagliostro is undoubtedly a fascinating and elusive figure and relevant to the topic… but did such a plurality of the pages theoretically devoted to him actually have to be an explanation of the history of L’affaire du collier (the infamous Affair of the Necklace)? I understand he was charged (and acquitted) in the matter, but is his distant involvement stupendously relevant to the history of spiritualism, occultism, alchemy, etc. in the Enlightenment? Similarly, there are two chapters on Julie de Krüdener, a writer who I confess to have never heard of before, and while her story is interesting and maybe relevant because she appears to be an early literary figure in the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism, but that’s kind of a stretch (though he attempts to bridge the gap by tendentiously connecting her to a series of semi-mystical writers who she… met? read? as well as to a later obsession with numerology which he also connects to Tolstoy and… wait for it… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy).

So, in conclusion (I sound Phillipa Chong now), I learned a lot, but a lot less than I would have expected about the supposed topic of the book.

Review ‘Inside The Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing In Uncertain Times’


 

For someone who writes about what a book critic looks for, Chong’s own writing has very little of what she describes. Rather, it has a lot of flat, affectless sentences and the style of a student writing their senior thesis. She writes, at one point, how one reviewer (James Wood, if you’re interested) was recognized for using quotations to explain how an author did or did not do something well. So…

Plan of the Book

The chapters that follow take the reader through the review process told from the perspectives and experiences of the critics themselves.

I’m pretty sure that I wrote something like that when I had an extra two hundred words to make my quota for a college research paper.

I’m too lazy to copy out the next example, but just a glance will tell you it’s bad writing (ironic for a book about how critics identify and describe good or bad writing).

She even titles her final, concluding chapter… wait for it… wait for it…

Conclusion

The most interesting, to my mind, questions about the role of the critic must be the decline of the power and influence of the critic as cultural gatekeeper. As someone with more than a touch of cultural elitism in their makeup, I mourn that (even as I contribute to it; blogs like this are some of the forces driving its decline). Chong notes this decline, early on, but then proceeds to almost entirely ignore it. It’s as if someone was writing a book about the music business and noted that iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, etc. had created a seismic shift in distribution, but then went to spend the better part of one hundred and fifty pages discussing the manufacturing process for compact discs.

Tek Money


Can you believe this is the seventh book ‘written’ by William Shatner? Though he comes closer than ever to admitting Ron Goulart as the author of these novels in his acknowledgements.

Like its immediate predecessorTek Money has an international flavor to it. This time, they go to Spain which is kind of a third world country in the future, apparently. There is a democratically elected government, except that maybe it’s bad. And an insurgency that’s allied with the sort of American intelligence agencies that thought bombing Laos would be good for everyone and also with drug cartels, except maybe they’re not and maybe they’re not so bad. I guess.

The ostensible hero, Jake Cardigan, fades into the background a bit relative to his partner Sid Gomez, whose characterization always flirts dangerously close to ethnic caricature, without ever quite going all the way. It’s like a Heideggerian being-approaching-racism. But, despite those concerns, he is actually becoming more interesting than his caucasian buddy. Also, whoever is writing these novels needs to stop putting in subplots involving Jake’s teenage son, Dan and his partner in crime/occasional girlfriend, Molly. There was a confusing and pointless one going in and out during this book, that both managed never to make sense and to not go anywhere. Best of both worlds.

‘Trust Exercise’ By Susan Choi


It took me a bit to follow the narrative shifts, even after I’d finished the novel.

Trust Exercise begins with a teenage girl at a high school for the performing arts and how the ups and downs of the experience and moving in and out of acceptance within the drama group (literally, drama; acting, stagecraft, theater, is what they specialize in), but most especially her love for another student. Their time as boyfriend and girlfriend ends relatively quickly, but hangs over it all.

Then, it’s revealed that what we just read was a novel by the now grown girl. It’s revealed by another classmate, who was composited, rather than directly portrayed, the in novel, who complains about that and about how, actually, the drama of those two teenage lovebirds was the swirling center about which everything seemed to revolve in the classroom.

Then, it’s all undone again. The second narration was as fictional(ized) as the first. A visiting group of English students and their teacher/chaperones might never have existed. The drama teacher was not actually gay, but even more predatory (in the novel that is the first part, he may have taken advantage of a male student).

Everything described actually happened. Mostly. Just rarely to and by the same people as in the earlier version.

It’s a brilliant book, but my main feeling is to be grateful I never have to live through high school again (and that our own drama program – I did four years of high school drama – was not nearly so bad).

Somewhat unexpectedly, I realized that this book, which I got from the library for my little one, is also by Susan Choi. I discovered it because a Facebook friend posted a link to books by and about the Asian-American experience for APIA History Month. It’s a beautiful, elegiac book of magical realism for elementary school children.