Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History(2015) by Bernard Bailyn

Book Review
Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History(2015)
 by Bernard Bailyn
Published January 20th, 2015 by Knopf

  Bernard Bailyn is a heavy United States historian specializing in trans-Atlantic history focusing on the British Empire and the early United States.  Over a lifetime of writing and teaching, his is one of a small number of really first rate global-level academic historians who can also write to a broad, popular audience.  Among his major hits are The Ideology of the American Revolution (1992), a kind of synthesis of state of the art academic history with some of the revisionist themes in popular history that sprang to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s; he also wrote The Peopling of British North America (1988), which the standard undergraduate level treatment of that particular subject, and for over a period of 30 years at this point.

  The general theme of his work is to emphasize the connections between the Empire of Great Britain and the colonies that would become the United States.  Thus, this book of essays- many of which seemed to have been adapted directly from speeches given on various august occasions, orbits around the ideas he has explored over a lifetime and other areas: there are repeated mentions of subjects like Australian and Caribbean history.  The non-speech essays seem to be either articles or introductions written for various special events within the field of history.

  His thoughts are illuminating if you are interested in historiography (the study of the study of history) in a general sense- although endnotes are included, everything is pitched at a general level and the book itself is under 300 pages.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Good Morning Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

Book Review
Good Morning Midnight (1939)
by Jean Rhys

  "As depressing as a Jean Rhys novel" should be a metaphor. Like the other Rhys title that has shown up during the 1001 Books project (Quartet (1929)), Good Morning Midnight is about a woman at loose ends.  Rhys' train wreck protagonists are half proto feminist icons and half Edwardian "fallen woman" existing in the grey area between mistress and prostitute.  In fact, they had a phrase for it "demi monde."  Quartet was explicitly a roman a clef (thinly veiled fictional account of biographical material) about her lengthy affair with Modernist Author and Editor Ford Madox Ford.  

  Neither Good Morning Midnight or Quartet are explicitly biographical, but it's hard not connect the dots.  Quartet is a portrait of the author as a young woman, and Good Morning Midnight is a portrait of that same woman as a drunken, suicidal, penniless wreck, shifting between horrific flashbacks involving a life on the margins and an equally horrific present, where she aimlessly wanders the streets or Paris, spending a monthly stipend left by an unnamed benefactor from her past- enough to survive but not enough to live.

  The end of Quartet involves her being raped- or maybe it's just an attempted rape- and robbed by a gigolo.  Good Morning Midnight is sad in a thoroughly modern way.  The great sadness and loneliness at the heart of the "liberation" brought by modernism to men and women around the globe is itself one of the great themes of 20th century literature, and Rhys is one of the earliest practitioners of the sad science of individualism.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

After the Death of Don Juan (1939) by Sylvia Warner

Book Review
After the Death of Don Juan(1939)
 by Sylvia Warner

   Talk about your minor classics, After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Warner doesn't even have it's own Wikipedia page! Sylvia Warner is included in the 1001 Books project because she is an early LGBT author, and a Communist to boot, thought After the Death of Don Juan has zero LGBT themes.  After the Death of Don Juan is supposedly a parable about the rise of Franco in Spain, though I would have been hard pressed to identify it had I not read it separately on the internet.  The Don Juan in question is "the" Don Juan, or at least "a" Don Juan, one of the line of legendary lotharios who have inspired authors for centuries.  Warner doesn't identify the time of the events in her book, but the manner and speech of the characters seems to place After the Death of Don Juan in the early 20th century.

  In the opening pages, Don Juan disappears after murdering the father of one of his would-be conquests.  The only witness to his disappearance is his valet/man servant, who testifies that Juan was literally pulled down into hell by demons.  This explanation is accepted by most everyone except Juan's long-suffering father, who is doubtful in a "modern" way.  Juan then reappears, claiming that he disappeared because of an outbreak of an embarrassing skin condition, and that he told his valet to make up whatever story he wanted.

  Juan's reappearance causes a rebellion amongst the long suffering peasants of the region, who have been exploited by Juan's father to pay for his prolfigateness(sp?) and there is a rebellion, ruthlessly suppressed by local soldiers.  Soooo... not exactly sure how you get from here to the Franco dictatorship.  Like many of the minor classics in the 1001 Books project, After the Death of Don Juan was genuinely surprising to read in the sense of "What is going to happen next?"  The combination of an exotic setting and a familiar main character makes for a diverting read.

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