Saturday, January 31, 2009

Patrick Wilcken - Empire Adrift

A page turner it is not. This history book business is really cramping my style, because books like “Empire Adrift – the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro 1808-1821” make me read s-l-o-w-l-y. They make me ponder, and wonder, check stuff on the internet and think a lot – and that’s Not why I got into this book reading gig, man!

Because – small parenthesis here – it is hard to find the motivation to keep a tiny blog alive and sometimes, ironically, good books are just the thing that completely throws you off. Why bother?

Especially as a descendant of a people who, as every anglo-saxonic historian will stress, are poor letter writers and even worse at keeping journals. Seriously, could the Portuguese be less helpful? Thank God there was always a British consul or merchant around or else fact checking would be impossible.

Just kidding. Actually Patrick Wilcken is Australian which might still qualify him as anglo but obviously makes him totally lacking in the most annoying qualities of the british. The proof? I never once, during the whole book felt that he looked down even slightly on his main subject, the Portuguese royal family, and boy could he have!

D. João VI : fat, slothful, severely lacking in the personal hygiene department and chronically indecisive – yet Wilcken portrays as somewhat endearing, not quite as guileless as everyone around him seemed to think. D. Carlota (who was actually Spanish): scheming shrew and power hungry man-eater or a feminist before her time, struggling to have a say so in the kingdom she felt (and who can say otherwise) she was more fit to reign?. D. João’s mother the queen Maria I was certified insane and…well that’s that really.

So the court fled because that disgusting dwarf Napoleon wanted to get his greedy paws on…everything really, and ended up in Rio de Janeiro which was at that point basically a big outdoors slave market bearing to resemblance to any European city fit to host a king – it was just as well D. João preferred country air and the company of a selected few (but then not everyone had the stomach to watch him eat three whole chickens with his hands for lunch ) Funnily enough, Wilcken says the Spanish court also considered at some point decamping to Mexico. Just imagine the different world history we might have today.

One of the things I really appreciated in Wilcken’s book is that, while he follows the royal family (and entourage of thousands) as they escape the incoming Napoleonic Invasion and flee to Brazil, he never abandons the continent (unlike the king), and keeps the reader updated into what was happening in Portugal and indeed Europe.

His best quality as a history writer might be that he travels from the particulars of everyday life and singular characters to global events effortlessly, even elegantly.

Best factoid in the whole book? Palm trees are NOT indigenous to Brazil – they were first brought over by escaped Portuguese sailors from the island of Mauritius (insane isn’t it? – who can think of Brazil without palm trees?)

In the first and last monarchy in the tropics, the Portuguese reversed metropolis-colony dynamics and blindsided Napoleon. Portugal and Brazil’s history was altered forever – set on courses whose consequences are still felt today. It’s a fascinating piece of history and I doubt there’s a better or more readable account out there.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lucy Moore - Liberty

Liberty – The lives and times of six women in Revolutionary France

Liberty kept me submerged for almost a week. It’s a slow starter, granted, but it almost had to be since there are so many characters and the French Revolution is such a complex event. The first chapters are short which sort of kills the mood – I was already into Germaine de Stael when pow! It changes to Pauline Léon and so forth.

However, it more than pays off when the heads start rolling. Awful as it sounds the appeal of the French Revolution besides the hardcore (or, to our eyes, naïve) idealism is the sheer carnage. At the height of the Terror hundreds were guillotined everyday and then, as alliances shifted and Robespierre was executed, the henchmen started loosing their heads too. One month you’re exiled in shame, a few months later you’re welcomed back in arms. It was heady, violent, fuelled by the most abstract of theories on human nature and political philosophy on one side, poverty and hunger on the other, and an overwhelming sense of social injustice.

Women were there every step of the way, engaged in political discourse, public manifestations and violence. And while they weren’t given the opportunity to contribute in an productive manner, many were contributing: some, like Germaine de Stael, offering their salons as places were ideas and courses of action were first drafted, while gently leading opinions to their way of thinking; others, such as Manon Roland, going so far as to dictate their husbands political choices (Roland also wrote most of her husband’s lauded speeches); Thérésia de Fontenay used her wealth and influence to help the persecuted escape, as a sort of XVIII century Schindler of the aristocracy and royalists; working class Pauline Léon and poor girl turned courtesan Théroigne de Méricourt actually took to the streets, the first participating in the popular uprisings and establishing the first political society for women while Méricourt in a tragic twist of fate would first be admired, in her male riding suits, sword unsheathed as a new icon of the Revolution, finally reviled, mocked, humiliated and stored away in an insane asylum, convinced to very end it was still 1795; Juliette Récamier was too young to actually take part in the events, but she appears here as a sort of conclusion: after all was said and done she became Napoleonic France’s sweetheart – dazzlingly beautiful and with no involvement in politics whatsoever (except that she refused Napoleon’s advances (as did Fontenay), which contributed to piss him off further and probably kill more people).

Roland was the only one of the six actually guillotined, and the diaries she kept on her last days must be very moving – the excerpts Moore looks at are enough to make you cry. Roland, who starts out all self-righteous and kind of annoying turns, faced with execution (and having fallen in love for the first time) into a very dignified character. Moore’s description of the whole environment of prison life, where detainees were waiting around for their turn under the blade, yet trying to keep their chins up (some indulging, even behind bars in impressive “Dangerous Liaisons” antics) is impressive.

Except for Pauline Léon all the six have already been subject of biographical accounts (several for Stael, but others only in French, or out of print). Leon having remained working class all her life (from a family of chocolatiers) didn’t leave much of an official trail, certainly no letters or diaries, so she is the least fleshed out character in “Liberty”. Still, it’s a credit to Lucy Moore she included her in the book – when you read about those gangs of women going around in droves around Paris kicking ass or shouting (sometimes obscenities) from the galleries of the Convention, you can’t help but want to know their point of view. The historical record doesn’t help – no-one painted their portraits and they didn’t have much time, or inclination, to put their thoughts on paper – but they were there, hundreds of them to each sophisticated sallonière.

In short – “Liberty” is a great book, and I’m in awe of the kind of research and organization that goes into a work like this, weaving together not only six biographies but also a whooper of an historical event. I’d say I’d want to be like Lucy Moore when I grow up – if only I weren’t so damn close in age.

Monday, January 12, 2009

James Gaines - Evening in the Palace of Reason - Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Two men who stood for two very different worldviews met in 1747: one was the musician Johann Sebastian Bach the other the king of Prussia Frederick the Great.

In his sixties, Bach illustrated the hard life of a professional musician in the XVIII century, shuffling between court appointments and working for town councils (teaching at the local school and composing), profoundly imbued in the teachings of Luther and Protestantism; Frederick was a newly appointed king (1740) in his thirties and a poster-child for Enlightenment.

James Gaines takes this meeting as a starting point to explore and intertwine the two biographies as well as the collapse of religion as the axis of everyday life and the rise of philosophy in its place.

I like music but I don’t play an instrument. Most important I don’t read music. I’d say that if you don’t have some foundations of musical theory, large chunks of “Evening in the Palace of Reason” are going to fly over your head. Counterpoint, canon, fugue, cantata, sonata, chromaticism – if these terms mean absolutely nothing to you imagine how you’ll feel confronted with notions such as passus duriusculus and quodlibet. Even if the author was able to convey these terms in a simple way (which to my mind, he doesn’t, because they aren’t simple) it’s still like being colour-blind and having extol on the richness of Impressionist painting.

Yes, many of the passages on Bach left me feeling very stupid, which is never a good feeling especially while reading something aimed at the general public. In fact, I planned to start reading more musical biographies but this one already scared me stiff. I quit.

Also, Bach never really came alive to me. He always seems distant, impenetrable and aloof. Gaines himself said in an interview (included in the book) that he was surprised in his research to find Bach “such a crab”; he also concedes he came to find him frustrating and irritating. His life was sad (he became orphan at an early age, lost many infant children, brothers and first wife) and seems to have had quite a nitpicking temperament. Not much fodder for empathy maybe, but I hoped for more.

Frederick the Great on the other hand is a very magnetic character and it’s almost impossible not to become mesmerized by his life. A hair-curling, flute-playing, French-loving, hypothetical homosexual or bisexual, his personality is so complex it’s no wonder he has inspired many biographies and enjoyed cult status with many political and literary figures (including, infamously, Hitler). His father, Frederick William, was a bully who enjoyed insulting and beating him in public. He hated everything French, effeminate and arty and soon in Frederick’s life they came to blows. To his father the most important values were those of the military life and economic strategy.

Interestingly enough after his father nearly had him executed for treason (and hanged his best friend, or to some, lover) Frederick came to follow in his father’s footsteps. In a feat of compartmentalization he managed to have both a rich, artistic court life, put into practice Enlightenment values such as freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and the most disciplined and best prepared army in Europe. Not surprisingly, he became an abuser (not a physical abuser though) regularly insulting everyone and anyone around him, just like his father before him.

On the whole this book was a slog to read, Frederick’s amusing (and tragic) episodes notwithstanding. If you have no musical training it’s probably best to skip this one.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Maybe Baby - Edited by Lori Leibovich

To breed or not to breed, that is the question!

Okay, so it’s not a question for many. The majority does breed in a wanton and carefree (in certain cases too carefree) manner. Their genes, instincts, family and friends tell them to go ahead, and ahead they go with the dubious task of ensuring that the world is full to the brim with human beings. Am I giving myself away?

A small, small minority has known from childhood or teenagehood (not an actual word – yet) that parenting was not in the cards for them. For this group a few will fall along the way, victims of unplanned pregnancies, and whatdayaknow? Some learn to enjoy the hand fate dealt.

Ah but there is a most interesting, growing, sneaky group of people who manage to avoid stray bullets for most of their twenties and arrive at their late twenties, early thirties (and even early forties) with the nagging doubt: “should I or shouldn’t I?”.

Well the common sense answer would probably be “If you have to think that much about it, don’t”. Yes, but every new parent says it’s sooo great, the absolute best experience in life, the one thing that will finally give meaning, continuity, focus, altruism, happiness etc, etc, etc.

And here lies the conundrum – for the first time in history the last decades have freed women (and men) of developed countries from this particular biological destiny and yet never has western culture been so babycentric than these past ten to fifteen years. Just as the choice became widely available so did the pressure grow to join the baby camp.

“Maybe Baby – 28 writers tell the truth about skepticism, infertility, baby lust, childlessness, ambivalence and how they made the biggest decision of their lives” (phew!) explores under the headings “No”, “Maybe” and “Yes” how a few writers came to deal with this important decision.

There are many different life stories here, and if for nothing else “Maybe Baby” fosters respects for other people’s choices. I was just as awed by Lionel Shriver who first proclaimed she would never have children at 8 years of age, as by Amy Benfer who decided to raise the daughter she had at 16 and by Joan Gould who, already mother to two teenagers decided to have a third child in her forties.

Some thought they would have children somewhere along the line but it never happened, some never thought much about it and embraced parenthood as it unexpectedly appeared, some felt an urgent, sudden need to be mommy or daddy just as it became too late and everybody just tried to make the best of it, none more so than Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez whose child was erroneously diagnosed with autism.

My favorite tale is “One is enough” by Neal Pollack who tells of his wife and his decision to stop at one child and how that unexpectedly brought them under criticism (really folks? Haven’t they given enough to the cause?). On the other hand Lauren Slater who had always meant to have only one child, came to the conclusion that a second one was indeed very needed in her family.

“Maybe Baby” is probably aimed at those ambivalent or seeking support for their choices - (which would be all of us then, wouldn’t it?) even if the “Yes” tales far outnumber the “Nos” and “Maybes”- a lot of parents could probably learn something here. I recommend Amy Reiter’s “Mama don’t preach”.

And I really, really like this Joseph Campbell quote found in Larry Smith’s “The daddy dilemma”:

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Like all the best quotations, there are several ways to interpret it, and any of them could be right – for each of us.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Non-fiction I never reviewed last year and now it's too late

The best of the bunch is "Bottomfeeder - How the fish on our plates is killing our planet". Each chapter has a theme that is both a location and a dish, such as "New York City - Pan-roasted Monkfish" and which Taras Grescoe takes as a starting point to instruct us on what's going on under the waves.

Increasingly, not much, because the fishing fleets of the world (that seem to behave as modern time pirates)are depleting the fishing stocks to such a length that many species such as monkfish, cod and tuna are actually being pushed to extinction.

I was very proud to see the Portuguese lauded since our love of sardines (fish that are plentiful, nutritious and lower in the food-chain)even if it seems to have escaped Grescoe's attention that probably the third most popular fish dish in this country (after cod, also endangered) is monkfish rice (probably the stock nearest complete breakdown). Anyways, highly recommended - very readable, full of interesting information and advice on choosing fish (and seafood) with an eye on both the sustainability of stocks and health.

"Coral - A pessimist in Paradise", was also interesting but not as compelling. Coral reefs are dying, are not be able to rebuild as fast and if you think it only affects the quality of under-water scenery for scuba-divers, guess again. Coral set the stage for our own emergence on the planet and if they go we might soon follow.

Sad as it is to admit it the science part was a bit to thorough for my taste. There were chapters I read avidly and others that were really slow going. On the whole, I'm glad I read it because it is an important topic, but as a reader I was less than enchanted by Steve Jones's prose.

I read "The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer - Close encounters with strangers" almost a year ago so I don't remember it very well, except to say that when I finished reading I couldn't shut up about it and told every chapter (spent on different exotic locales with eccentric characters he meets) to my husband over lunch. So I guess it's thumbs up.

Of "To See Every Bird on Earth - A father a son and a lifelong obsession" I really can't recall almost anything, nor did remember being particularly impressed (or repulsed by that matter). Some birdwatchers can only get a kick out the hobby if they compile these huge lists of sighted birds, and spend absolute fortunes travelling to remote locations on the off chance of adding a couple of names to their roster. The way birdwatching brought together an estranged father and son is nice, but the whole list thing is kind of incomprehensible to me. I think Dan Koeppel admits somewhere in the book (or at least I think it was implied) that for many of these hobbyists its more about the list than the actual pleasure of birdwatching. Once you spot a bird (or hear its call) you move on looking for the next. Seems a bit sad to me.

"Choice - True stories of birth, contraception, infertility, adoption, single parenthood & abortion" I finished last month and its an impressive collection of stories shared by women who made different choices when faced with (sometimes) similar situations. It explores how important it is to have options available for women to make their own path whether it means having children when everyone urges you not to, or not having them when everyone wants you too. Should be required reading for teenagers and young men and women.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Edward Paice - Wrath of God

In the Richter Magnitude Scalearticle in Wikipedia only three earthquakes surpass the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Two took place in the XX century (Alaska 1964 and Chile 1960) and the third in the XXI (Indian Ocean 2004). In fact, the earliest earthquake recorded on this list is 1906, San Francisco.

But the place Lisbon occupies in the list is calculated by approximation – the scale was invented in 1935 and in the XVIIIth century scholars were still trying to guess as to what caused earthquakes – underwater explosions, magnetism etc. However, that a scientific reason was being sought, already attests to the fact that the Age of Enlightenment was dawning upon Europe.

“Wrath of God”, though, is a title that hints at what, up until that point and for a majority still, was seen as the cause of the great earthquake – divine punishment. Edward Paice’s book looks at the tragic date through the eyes of English merchants and diplomats who lived in Lisbon at a time when, through the megalomaniac ambitions of King João V, the greatest part of the riches coming from the Portuguese colony of Brazil, were finding their way into British coffers.

Their opinion of the Portuguese was, not surprisingly poor: already the country was seen as a “has-been” resting on the laurels of maritime exploits of the XV and XVI centuries, squandering resources on an opulent noble class that was forever craving more luxury items, lead by a King more preoccupied with his mistresses and endless monumental building of palaces, convents and monasteries, with zero industrial infrastructures (with England happily picking up the slack and exporting everything from shoes to matchsticks) and few roads crossing the country outside the main cities.

Lisbon for the most part didn’t cause a good impression – the largest slave population in Europe, gypsies, orphans and vagrants roaming the streets didn’t much impress travelers, while the Portuguese women – although considered very fine (but don’t the British consider all foreign women beautiful? Says more about British women, really) were kept inside rather too much.

Paice first sets the stage explaining the ongoing (and very important) relation between the nations of Portugal and England at the time, describes the city as it stood before the earthquake, introduces his characters (British subjects who later put their experiences of the earthquake to paper) and follows them through the day of the earthquake (the 1st of November, All Saints Day), then he goes back to a wider perspective and explains how and why the earthquake became so important (not only because it was news-worthy but also because it challenged the reigning philosophy of optimism) and what happened to the city in the next decades.

I liked “Wrath of God” very much, but then I might be biased since I’ve always lived in Lisbon – a great part of the interest to me, was reading about my neighbourhood and those around it and understanding how different they were (and how different they would look today if not for the earthquake). Paice writes in a very engaging style that really captured my imagination. There were a few orthographic errors in Portuguese words, a place-name I don’t think actually exists, and by the way, a Sintra queijada is not a small goat cheese, but a sweet pastry. Otherwise, to my un-historically trained eyes it seemed a great piece of research.