Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Fear of Flying was the deeply naughty, wink-wink book of the 1970s. Characters in television sitcoms who mentioned a fear of flying were advised to bring the book along on the plane, so as to escape their phobia. I finally borrowed the book from the library, thirty-five years after its publication, and found as I read it that quite a lot of it seemed familiar. We must have had a copy at home when I was growing up.

It is just about non-stop pornography, a kind of saltier Are You There God, It's Me Margaret for grown-ups. It is also, in a way, a blog before there were blogs. The narrator, Isadora Wing, is a twenty-nine-year-old poet and graduate student who writes endlessly about herself: her marriages, her feelings, her doubts, her fears, her mother, her constricted 1950s-era upbringing, how she wants to dig deep enough into herself to produce the best art she can, but also maybe get pregnant, but also be completely free and spontaneous with some new man, but also not hurt her husband Bennett, but also find true love, but also not be beholden to any man, but also not end up alone ... and so on. "I gotta be me," as the (surely contemporary) song has it. Above all, she doesn't want to be an oppressed bourgeois wife, another slave to men's definitions of womankind, and therefore unable to write poetry. As the novel opens, Isadora is on her way -- by plane -- to Vienna to attend a conference of psychoanalysts with her current husband. Psychoanalysis, a lifetime spent with "shrinks," looms very large throughout the book.

Jong keeps all this going because she is an excellent writer. The novel is almost plotless, but she can wring fascination and humor out of ramblings that essentially would do little credit to a twelve-year-old. At the conference, Isadora does meet and run off with Adrian Goodlove for a jaunt through Europe. Then, what a shock, he dumps her for his wife and children. But while they are together they simply have a lot of sex, or try to, and she tells him whole chapters' worth of details about the sex she has had in the past and why and where. Again and again, at points where another writer's prose would cope with a sunset or a wave-washed beach, and be called "beautiful," Jong copes with paragraphs-full of sexual puns -- and does it excellently.

Apart from plotlessness and really very unsensuous porn, the trouble with the book is that the characters are all so unpleasant, unhappy, wildly erudite, and humorless that it is hard to believe they are real human beings. Isadora's family's screaming fights, her own sexual adventures everywhere with anyone, her teenaged friends' brilliant locquaciousness about sex, her own locquaciousness with her first analyst (at 14, she reveals all -- about sex -- as coolly as a 30-year-old), her various husbands' ponderous pronouncements on literature, psychoanalysis, her state of mind, and sex, all eventually make the reader want to shout: for heaven's sake, not only is this unreal, but the basic need to work for a living, or raise a family, would have given all these characters a far greater challenge than anything they are enduring here. (It is strange that throughout her adventures, not only does Isadora's virtually fatherless family never interact except through horrible fights, but she herself never seems to have to worry about money.) Of course, work and a family are the bourgeois trap. The only mother of a large family in the book is shunted off to Lebanon to have her brood, and the only character holding a non-academic job, Isadora's first husband Brian, goes insane. The chapter on his breakdown is the best in the book.

The little scenes therefore, like Isadora's removing her diaphragm and then feeling her cervix for signs of pregnancy, become an icing on the cake of impossibility. Of course, it's all fiction; but Jong presents this fiction in an unmistakable "you-know-how-we-all-do-this" tone which beggars belief, and after a while beggars interest.

It would be useful to look back and see how Fear of Flying was reviewed when it first came out. There were so many shocking books and movies made in the late 1960s and 1970s, books and movies that seemed to throw off old shackles of decency (or oppression -- take your pick) and address topics that formerly were unacknowledged or at least not discussed in quite this way. Did Fear of Flying bust open doors, or merely follow through doors that had already been opened by somebody else? Isadora would fit perfectly into a Woody Allen movie, for one thing. Like Annie Hall, who is grateful for the strength to leave her room, Isadora cherishes the ability to write a letter as a triumph of emotional health.

So, did Erica Jong create one of the first women characters to bravely face thousands of years of patriarchy, or did she only help create a literature in which the caloric count of semen is considered noteworthy? I think I know my answer, but she entered the pantheon of feminist heroes such a long time ago that if I ever met her on the street, I'm sure I would find it hard to argue with deity.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sir Francis Drake Revived: the Third Voyage, the Voyage Round the World, Drake's Great Armada. By Philip Nichols, et al

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Catholic, imperial Spain was the superpower of the Western world in the 1570s and 1580s, and that was reason enough for Sir Francis Drake, doughty English Protestant, to sail around the world robbing Spanish ships and attacking far-flung colonial Spanish towns at will. Religious niceties aside, it would be a little as if, in the middle of the twentieth century, some famed American sea captain had sailed the oceans stopping and searching Soviet boats, or raiding Russian outposts, more or less with the permission of the United States government. The three short books collected here, in volume 33 of the Harvard Classics' "Five Foot Shelf" of great books, tell the stories of three of Drake's greatest adventures.

His exploits are the stuff of fable, or indeed, of Hollywood epic. Anyone who remembers the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk will recognize, in Drake's Third Voyage, a familiar plot: an ambush of a Panamanian mule train full of gold from the slave-run mines is ruined by an over-eager common English soldier launching the attack too soon. In the Voyage Round the World we are with Drake as his five ships are reduced, by storm and battle, to one, the famed Golden Hind. This is the ship which, midway through the journey, happens to put in for a while at a "fair and goodly bay" at 38 degrees north latitude on the west coast of North America -- in other words, at the site of San Francisco. The Great Armada tells the story of the largest fleet ever to cross the Atlantic up till that time. Twenty-five ships and 2300 Englishmen spent ten months trawling the West Indies, once again trying to pounce on Spain's gold fleet (they failed) and hold the principal colonial towns to ransom (they succeeded). Almost one-third of the men died.

Drake's ambitions were two-fold. He wanted to "make" (profit from) his voyages, and he wanted to show that a free Englishman serving his Prince -- Queen Elizabeth I -- could, with God's help, humble the mighty King of Spain. By the time of the Great Armada, in 1585, humbling Spain was more a matter of national survival than pride. There was another woman, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, waiting to be proclaimed Queen of England as soon as her cousin the Protestant Elizabeth could be removed, and Mary was perfectly willing to march on London with a Spanish Catholic army at her back and a Spanish navy in the Channel. The English knew that invasion was imminent -- it came in 1588 -- and a good part of Drake's efforts went to capturing Spanish cannon held safe in the Caribbean.

Drake was, no doubt, a pirate. He stole on the high seas. But he also made common cause with a quasi-nation of escaped slaves in Panama, the Cimaroons, he prevented the offering of human sacrifice among the Indians of California, he divvied up his profits with the common sailors, and he helped keep England English, when a foreign nation had other plans. These chroniclers robustly "call upon this dull or effeminate age to follow his noble steps for gold and silver" -- and adventure and a share of glory, surely.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Days of the French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

This is the best untangling of the subject that I have ever read. Hibbert follows the days, literally, that were the set pieces of the era, the days that got ordinary people out into the streets, and have remained vivid in books and movies ever since. This approach helps the reader to grasp a narrative that is otherwise mind-bogglingly complex and very gruesome.

The French Revolution seems to have started as a tax revolt among the upper classes, angry that King Louis XIV planned to solve France's economic problems by taxing their land. When they demanded that the King call a representative assembly to put the tax to a vote, ordinary French people, poor and middle class both, thrilled to the possibility that such an assembly might for the first time hear their complaints too. When the elected delegates met in Paris in 1789, representatives of the Third Estate -- ordinary people, neither nobles nor clergy -- insisted that they were not just a medieval category but were the nation. Amazingly, the upper classes' representatives reacted to this stunning new idea by agreeing to give up their privileges and join the Third Estate themselves, making it the National Assembly. The Enlightenment had truly arrived.

What spoiled these possibilities in the Revolution's palmy days was the fact that the King called in foreign mercenary troops to reverse the situation, and the people of Paris responded with mob action. Their first target was the Bastille fortress -- they were looking for gunpowder for their muskets -- and, later, the King. Once they nerved themselves to threaten and command the ultimate authority, intimidating elected representatives of successive neophyte governments became easier.

While foreign invasion, hunger, and civil war played out in the provinces, Parisians learned to make a republic the hard way. Communications were almost non-existent: the storming of the Bastille involved thousands of shouting, gesturing citizens in a courtyard facing hundreds of confused, gesturing soldiers high atop some ramparts. When people could make themselves understood, anywhere, they did not worry about libel, slander, or "fighting words." You could get up on a table in a cafe and shout that someone was a traitor, and then heaven help the traitor. Panic reigned. Men serving on various Assemblies, Conventions, Tribunals, and Committees fought like sharks for years just to say alive, all the while trying to govern. Many of the violent "days" in Paris took place in summer heat among a populace well-stoked by alcohol. The Revolution had opened a road so new and terrifying that within a few years, dissent against it virtually became a crime punishable by death on the guillotine.

After six years, reaction set in, and counter-revolutionaries prepared to bring back royal government by force. Chaotic though times were, that could not be allowed. They were dispersed by cannon under the command of the young Revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte, who gets an epilogue here. By his famous "whiff of grapeshot" he either put an end to all the nonsense and took charge, or he ruined French liberty, depending on the reader's perspectives.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

"The truth is simple," a member of my defunct book club once said concerning the theme of this novel. A Room with a View is considered only social comedy, but that member was right – its theme is the rather serious one of how simple the truth can be in our lives. Young Lucy Honeychurch meets two men during her travels in Italy, where she gads about chaperoned, or not, by a poisonous but hilarious spinster aunt. One man she loves, and the other "makes her nervous." It only remains to be seen – for her to see – which is which.

One of the great things about this novel is that all of its characters are decent people, who nevertheless come into conflict for reasons of their own. So much of contemporary fiction seems to be about dreadful suffering brought on by characters who are absolutely vicious. "Trauma memoirs" they are sometimes called. A Room With a View is different in that its characters simply meet, and talk and think together, and end up with wildly different conclusions about the truth and how to find it. Lucy’s mother and brother have qualms about her future husband, but stay quiet for the sake of Lucy’s happiness. A pair of elderly neighbors, and a "lady novelist, and a freethinking father and son," also all have opinions about, and plans for, our heroine’s future. Two English vicars have their own ideas about which lovers belong together, and about what constitutes a life pleasing to God.

If there is one character who is tragic amid all the bowing and gossiping and how-do-you-dos, it is Miss Bartlett, the poisonous aunt. We don’t learn much about her, except that some romantic failure blighted her youth. She is described as one of the "armies of the night," not as a wicked person but as one who at some point denied the truth, or a truth, about herself. It didn’t cause great suffering – "I don’t believe in this world sorrow," says the sage Mr. Emerson – but it made her unhappy and unkind. It left her "in a muddle," and as Mr. Emerson goes on to advise Lucy, "there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror."

Of course there is a happy ending. Darkness rises, and, back in sunny Italy again, "the snows of the winter are borne down into the Mediterranean." The truth is simple. Avoid muddle. This hundred-year-old novel is so full of wisdom as it entertains that I wonder whether E.M Forster just happened to be gifted, or whether it was a wiser, calmer era which could both desire and produce this gentle classic.

A Scientist at the Seashore by James S. Trefil

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Those of us who enter a library or bookstore only to rush to the fiction or biography sections may be astonished to learn that whole shelves in these places are set aside for science. (It’s the 500s in the Dewey decimal system.) Once having taken the plunge, though, a little browsing will lead the liberal arts major to something meant for him: a science book that is informative but non-technical, written to open up an entirely new universe to those readers who have only ever liked reading about people.

Physics professor James Trefil’s A Scientist at the Seashore is that kind of book. Looking at the beach as a physicist, he gets fourteen chapters out of the existence of water itself, out of the salt and tides in the oceans, gravity, wave action, what bubbles are, what sand is, why torque and lift explain the formation of dunes as well as the flight of jets and baseballs, and what sorts of electrical charges hold sand castles together.

What makes this information so difficult for the unscientific mind to grasp is (for lack of a better word) its unbelievability. Of course we know the information is true. In his conversational but not condescending prose, and in his everyday examples, Trefil does an excellent job proving how fundamental principles, such as those governing wave action or the properties of bubbles, remain the same from the subatomic to the galaxy-sized level of matter. The problem is that the information – the structure and laws of the universe, really – is so fantastic that it doesn’t look true. Anyone browsing the fiction or history stacks can believe that men and women fall in love or that knights slay dragons. I understand that frost is bad for the garden (gardening books are in the 600s). But it’s utterly fantastic that the earth’s gravity should cause tides on the moon, or that I can cause a gravitational pull on the Andromeda galaxy when I walk across the kitchen (see page 39, "The Search for Planet X"). Yet it’s true, at least in principle.

But the sciences are, of course, among the liberal arts, so really there should not be this separation between the "scientific" and "unscientific" mind. There should be no inevitable barrier to the new universes a liberal arts major may explore. The complaint that the exact sciences have no relation to daily life, and that’s why they are so difficult and dry, won’t work either. Trefil explains MRIs before they were called MRIs, and notes how useful they may one day be in diagnosing illness.

It may be that the predictable, one-dimensional messiness of fiction and biography is poor preparation for approaching science, whose laws simply govern everything, without blather. If the liberal arts major remains perplexed and intrigued, the good news is that James Trefil has written thirty other books, all telling remarkable new truths.

The East India Company by Brian Gardner

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

The East India Company represents, in its 300 or so pages, the summarizing of a huge swath of history that the general reader would never have reason to know, unless he stumbled upon this book or one like it. For almost three centuries, however, from the time of the Company’s founding in the very last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign up until it was dissolved in the 1870s, its shareholders not only ventured into the spice trade and made a profit in good years – which was the original point of the venture – they also governed large parts of India, and sent their own armies, for better or for worse, into wildly exotic places like Kandahar and Kabul, to treat with local rulers.

When the Company sent its ships to India beginning in the 1600s, its employees met an unknown, fairy-tale world of steaming green jungles, heat, disease, fabulously rich potentates, and weird cruelties. Hindu widows were burned alive; a hidden religious sect called the Thugs waylaid and strangled travelers as part of their ritual. India’s Hindu population was governed in large part by their powerful Muslim conquerors, the Moghuls, but good-sized territories of the southern subcontinent remained independent fiefdoms fielding dangerous armies. To pursue trade meant the Company had to venture farther and farther from its first landing points, arranging treaties, greasing palms, and defending itself against shahs and khans who saw no good reason why Englishmen should suddenly appear unchallenged in Allahabad and beyond.

The French and the Russians saw no good reason for it either, nor did the Dutch, who had their own East India Company patrolling modern-day Indonesia. Enemies lay everywhere.
Men who survived to reach the top of the Company service did return to London with immense fortunes, sometimes, but many more died young and anonymous in India. By the 1830s, the entanglements of a commercial firm with this ethnic and religious maelstrom – imagine Microsoft governing Iraq, perhaps – required that the British Crown take things over.

Until reading this book, I had not realized that many of the topics and names that crop up either in biographies or in nice juicy historical novels set during this long period have, as their background, the existence of the East India Company. Robert Clive, the trial of Warren Hastings, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the early career of the young Duke of Wellington, the massacre (and later, retribution) at Cawnpore, even the existence of the famed Raffles Hotel (named for Company employee Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore) – all may be glanced upon in other books, but are subject headings in the Company’s long history. Brian Gardner’s book is a good overview of the major points. His prose style is not the most thrilling in the world, but I do think anything that shines a light on this great tract of fairly recent history, and then brightens up other, juicier reading, is very worthwhile.

Two Victorian Families by Betty Askwith

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Thirty-six years ago, when Betty Askwith sat down to write about two prominent English families, they were perhaps fading from memory but not as obscure as they have become now. The Stracheys had produced Lytton Strachey, famous for his irreverent book Eminent Victorians; the Bensons, a family headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, were all literary, none more so than the younger son E.F. Benson, who wrote the exquisite social comedy novels known together as Mapp and Lucia. Askwith also chose these two families to represent the Victorian age because each functioned in a major sphere of English life, either in colonial government service or in the established church. She also seems to have chosen them because one family was happy and the other unhappy.

The Stracheys were a family of ten children, boisterously active and reveling in a full social life which included the legions of eccentric aunts and uncles whom, Askwith says, modern families of one or two children no longer know. The parents had met in India, and most of the older children spent their adult lives helping administer India when it was Britain’s colony. The Bensons were a family of six, quieter, more troubled, more serious. The father, a handsome Anglican churchman, chose his bride when she was twelve years old, in the sentimental I-shall-wait-for-you-to-grow-up fashion that Victorians found touching. Deep religious faith, which the Stracheys seem not to have had, was both a lifelong comfort and a torment to the Bensons. The Archbishop wrestled with theology while facing the death of a son, and his wife did the same as she faced her recurring passions for other women.

We think of the Victorians as staid and prudish, but as Askwith points out, we can be astonished at the depth of the "extraordinary and unconventional" relationships they had. Other things make us realize if nothing else how tough and how robust they were. Illness, bad teeth, and unmedicated childbirth were the norm. So was the sudden death of the young from infectious disease. A pleasure trip to see relatives in India took months to accomplish, and its comfort levels made it the equivalent of adventure travel today. Entertainment consisted of amateur theatricals and reading Dickens aloud. And by the way, both the Strachey and the Benson daughters went to college.

And the Victorians wrote letters. Endlessly. The Stracheys chronicled growing up, marrying, travel, and politics. The Bensons chronicled each other and their moods, until the last of them died in 1940. Perhaps the Victorians did a little too much letter-writing, for it could conceivably amount to a picking at wounds. But the habit provided the source for Betty Askwith’s sympathetic and intelligent book, and for that we can be grateful.

Wyatt Earp:Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Stuart Lake’s biography is taken from two years’ worth of interviews with Wyatt Earp, frontier marshal, himself. Since the book came out in 1931, at first this doesn’t seem to compute. Who can imagine lawman and gunslinger Earp, stalking down dusty Old West streets amid rolling tumbleweed, living into the Jazz Age? But in fact, he did; born in Monmouth, Illinois in 1848, he died in Los Angeles in 1929.

Earp’s adventures began early. His parents left Illinois for California in 1863, because they did not agree with Lincoln’s pursuing the Civil War in order to free the slaves. His father actually resigned from the army before the move. Once they crossed the Mississippi with a wagon train, they entered a world of violence in which Indian raiding parties could swoop in, kill and scalp a train guard within sight of his fellows, and gallop off before anyone could aim a gun in defense. As a teenager, Earp drove mail coaches through equally violent bandit country in southern California and Arizona. He hunted buffalo professionally, and later agreed that the deliberate extinction of the buffalo was "criminal waste." The alternative, however, was a Great Plains closed to agriculture and settlement forever.

In his twenties Earp served Wichita and then Dodge City, Kansas as marshal. These cow-towns, where several thousand cowboys would converge to raise hell with the money they earned driving Texas longhorns to market, reeled with alcohol and with the bitter resentment of South (the cowhands) against North (the Federal marshals). Earp faced down and arrested men who, if they were not psychopaths, were completely hardened bullies and killers. He did it with a combination of guts, foresight – he kept loaded shotguns ready at trusted shops, hotels, and saloons – and a demonstrated ability to kill before he was killed. His friend Bat Masterson said "a later generation simply will not credit" the kind of fast-draw "gunplay" that Earp could do.

At thirty, Earp left marshaling in Dodge and ventured to Tombstone, Arizona, where the police problem was not wild cowboys but a corrupt sheriff running the stagecoach robberies himself. Here, Earp’s brothers joined him, along with the tubercular dentist Doc Holliday. In October 1881 they met and fought off the Clanton-McLowery assassin gang at the OK Corral. But Wyatt’s brother Morgan was gunned down some weeks later, in revenge. When Wyatt found and killed the man who did it, albeit in a fair fight, he was indicted for murder. Earp mined in Colorado and ran a saloon in Alaska, while, in time, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out the indictment. He concluded his long career as a wealthy California oilman; most of the brutal men he knew died violently, and young.

Wyatt Earp was famous, and a target, almost all his life. At eighty he said that he was glad death would at last give him "peaceful obscurity." Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix was one of his pallbearers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Queen's Jewellery by Sheila Young

There is no reason to look at a book of lavish photographs of jewelry except pure pleasure. This book, published by Taplinger in 1968, shows the Queen of England in her prime -- not that the present is not also her prime, she being quite the formidable lady -- as a smiling and apparently very happy matron in her early forties. And why should she not be happy, at least in all these photographs from ceremonial and festive occasions? All her jewelry is real.

Having offered only pleasure as the excuse to look at a book of royal gew-gaws, I can't seem to help looking for more excuses. It must be the result of living in a virtuous, republican age. The author, Sheila Young, in quaintly stilted but still striking, formidable-lady prose, also looks for reasons to write, read, and think about the Queen's jewels. "To be a Queen Regnant must be, for any woman sensitive to the pulse of history, an altogether transcendent experience," she begins, and then she goes on answering the question "why this book" by jotting down the need for monarchical splendor, the historical associations of this ruby or that, the human joy in exquisite craftsmanship, and so on. For the average woman, however, the pleasure and astonishment of the book all come down to one fact. All this lady's jewels are real.

One wonders how these women, the Queen, her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, all decided what and how much to wear. Simple occasions would have been simple to deck for. Just the pearls, two brooches, small pearl earrings and a small bracelet. All real. But then there were, and are, the great events. The opera; the state visit; God help them, the Coronation. It ought to have looked tacky, even on these occasions, to wear a tiara and triple strands of diamonds and a dozen-roped pearl choker and cabochon emerald drops and an Order sash with two be-ribboned brooches featuring portraits of male relations and earrings and bracelets and rings. In the late nineteenth century, "the most brilliant period of sheer extrovert craftsmanship," a great lady added a stomacher to the inventory. There do seem to have been a few lapses in judgement here and there: a coronation photo of Queen Alexandra, consort to the pleasure-loving King Edward VII, shows her so loaded with plate as to resemble somehow a be-gemmed steam locomotive.

But for the most part it all "works," to use a term the more articulate nineteenth century would not have sanctioned. What is striking in all these photos is not only how regal the Queen and her ancestors look -- "the qualities of her presence, her upbringing and the support of her family" account for it, Young says -- but also how harrassed and dowdy the women in the background look, even though they are often the same age and dressed approximately the same as any one of Her Majesties. Poor things. Maybe they are scared to death of being in the Presence. Maybe their jewels don't work.

I have several dream-favorites among the Queen's collection. The Russian fringed tiara, stick after stick of diamonds (meant to look like a peasant headdress, how droll!), is one. Another is the simple diamond collet necklace, all twenty-six stones fat enough to stand up and argue with Queen Victoria's fat throat. The triple-stranded diamond collet necklace is also something that I could be persuaded to take to a desert island.

Forty years have gone by since this book was published. Queen Elizabeth is now in her early eighties, and looks exactly like her grandmother, Queen Mary, whose half-jaunty, half-acid eye -- her face can outface her jewels, which is a great thing -- looks out so frequently from these pages. Grandmother seems to have been the source of many of the present queen's favorite pieces. (Small wonder. The Cullinan diamond, or the 62- and 92-carat bits of it called "Granny's chips," were among Queen Mary's personal possessions.) But a Queen Regnant's transcendent experiences must eventually include bequeathing her jewels to a new generation; in a sense they are not hers at all, and that must at times give her not a transcendent but a chilly feeling.

How odd, too, for the average woman reader of jewelry books and only occasional panter after royalty, to reflect that at one time Princess Diana was in line to wear all these things. Now who's next?