The Dawn of Everything

What a doorstopper!

The reason I meticulously note (almost)* everything I read here is so that I remember reading it. I don’t know enough about the brain to know if writing about things really helps it transfer over to long-term memory, but I’ve already had the experience of completely forgetting something I said or did until I re-read a journal entry about it, so I assume the same holds true for books.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m capable of doing The Dawn of Everything justice here. In a nutshell, David Graeber and David Wengrow look at archeological and anthropological evidence to (in their own words) “ask better questions.” The paradigm that they’re trying to upend is actually quite similar to the one that Stephen Jay Gould also sought to demolish in Full House:

The argument Gould makes in Full House is basically one against the teleological framework of evolution: that things evolve for some higher purpose, or more specifically deliberately towards complexity; that complexity is somehow the best, most special, or most desirable form of life.

(quoting my own summary there)

But instead of deconstructing a teleology with complexity as the end goal, here Graeber and Wengrow are deconstructing a teleology with agriculture and the state as an end goal; that agricultural was an instant revolution that inevitably led to an apparatus we currently call “the state,” and that the world we are living in now is more or less the inevitable end state of things. They also occasionally take the time to dunk on Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

The whole book is something like 400, 500 pages to argue against this conclusion, and frankly I don’t have the recall or the comprehension to reconstruct it here. Like David Graeber’s Debt, I’ll have to read this one multiple times to really be able to confidently explain its premise. What I can say after one read-through is that they believe the archeological evidence points towards a history of mankind that experimented with flexible and novel arrangements of power that, even on a large scale, preserved what they call the three basic freedoms: the freedom to make promises, the freedom to disobey orders, and freedom of movement (the freedom to leave a place if the situation becomes too onerous).

There’s a lot of non-fiction that I read because I have weird niche interests, or because I ran across it at the library and it seemed interesting. There’s also non-fiction that I tackle because I want to better understand the world I live in, and The Dawn of Everything falls squarely in that category. More than that, there’s a category of non-fiction that I wish were required reading so we could start building consensus reality again and so we could maybe learn something from history. The Dawn of Everything is one of those books.

*Some are so niche and special interest that I don’t really see the point in including them here in my public record of reading. My commonplace book, as it were.

Homeboy

I summarized my “acute TBR” a few weeks ago thusly:

the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month).

Since then I have finished Frère d’âmeone of those Swedish reference books, and that third English reference book. And now Seth Morgan’s Homeboy! Will I wrap up the acute TBR before my trip to the US rolls around in May? Who knows!

This particular entry on the acute TBR was more acute than I realized at the time. By the time this post goes up, the book’s owner will be en route back to the UK, unlikely to return to Sweden again. I could have returned it to him unfinished, of course, and eventually procured my own copy. Or I could have held on to it and returned it on a future visit—a bold move on my part, but I know I would have followed through. Nothing wrong with either of those!

But Homeboy wasn’t just any recommendation—it was one that came up in a conversation about what I term “bagel books,” books that you like so much you simultaneously want to tear through them as quickly as possible and never want to keep reading because you don’t want them to be over. A bagel book is a very particular, almost hallowed kind of recommendation. Being able to spend a friend’s farewell party talking to him about one of his own bagel books was therefore an appropriate and meaningful send-off.

Personal circumstances aside, Homeboy is also an interesting work from a historical? biographical? perspective, the only novel from the man who was Janis Joplin’s fiancé at the time of her death. That’s the other reason I was keen to get into the book, even though by all accounts Morgan and Joplin had a really dysfunctional relationship. You could make an argument that Morgan was a contributing factor in her overdose, even, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t about my weirdly in-depth knowledge of Janis Joplin’s biography, it’s a book review!

In my farewell party extemporaneous analysis, I described Homeboy as a mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Jack Kerouac, though my friend didn’t entirely agree, so take that with a grain of salt. The plot centers around the theft of a rare diamond, the Blue Jager Moon, from pimp Baby Jewels Moses by protagonist Joe Speaker, and everyone’s subsequent attempts to recover it. Joe wants to eventually move it and get clean; Moses wants it for blackmail material over a judge on the California State Supreme Court; Officer Tarzon needs it as evidence to put Moses away and complete his own private revenge.

There’s a lot more than that going on, but reading it in summary isn’t the same thing as reading the book itself. Homeboy has an ensemble cast of street life characters who all have assorted arcs, rises and downfalls interwoven with the main Blue Jager Moon narrative. Morgan also has a knack for the right kind of details that make even one-off side characters instantly distinctive, like dealer Rigo La Barba:

Rigo La Barba slumped on the nod in the crushedvelvet front seat of his ’62 Impala lowrider at the corner of Sixth and Mission. He was called La Barba, the Beard, after his carefully groomed goatee.

Next to the highgrade chiva he dealt, La Barba was proudest of  his lowrider. It had jeweled vanity mirrors attached to the sun visors, a miniature crystal chandelier in place of the dome light, a goldplated chain steering wheel, and, next to the ivory Virgin atop the minklined dash, a keyboard on which he could play “Besame Mucho,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or, more to the point, “Chinga Tu Madre,” according to his cholofied caprice. Over twentyeight handrubbed coats of topaxflake lacquer, sequined rococo script announced La Barba’s philosophy on one rear fender: Low ‘n’ Slow; and on the other he christened his chrome galleon Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Joe hits up La Barba once for some heroin and that’s it. We never meet La Barba again.

The whole thing is great fun and imbued with a surprising amount of pathos; I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been turned into a movie yet, given the break-neck pace and the visuals, both comic and gory. Speaking of which, there is a fair amount of casual gore, and in fact a fare amount of casual just-about-everything. A good chunk of the story is set in prison, and when we’re not in prison we’re following the progress of pimps, hired goons, or sex workers, so it’s a lot. The two things worth mentioning are:

  1. Someone could probably write an essay on Baby Jewels Moses and anti-Semitic tropes. Is it so cartoonish and over the top that it circles back to become lampshade and subversion? Is it just Problematic? I’m not equipped to answer these questions.
  2. Someone could a probably write another essay on gender and sexuality in prison culture as depicted in Homeboy. The “queens” in the prison are central characters to some of the later events and fellow prisoners are mostly untroubled by their gender presentation. The AIDS epidemic also looms large in portions of the novel, with sympathetic rather than terrified undertones.

A fun, meaty book. A bagel book, even.

Delayed Gratification No. 52

One of the reasons that my book reading is taking a temporary dip is because I had some magazines to catch up on. Since I think those are just as important as books—and just as prone to otherwise getting lost in the void—I decided it was worth summarizing them. For posterity’s sake, and also to help me retain what I read.

Background: Delayed Gratification is a UK publication put out by an organization called Slow Journalism. It was recommended to me after I mourned the loss of the English language arm of the incomparable De Correspondent, a news project that is unavailable to me because I don’t read Dutch. De Correspondent features long-form stories focused on underlying causes or trends rather than rapid-fire news updates, and after a successful launch in the Netherlands they expanded into the English-language market as The Correspondent in 2019. Things went well until the economic fallout from the pandemic kneecapped their “pay what you want” subscription model, and rather than selling adspace or short shrifting the writers and graphic designers, they closed the project down. All of the English-language stories they published are still available on their website if you’re curious.

Enter Delayed Gratification! It scratches a similar itch and carries a mix of longer form journalism and shorter interviews/explainers (called “Moments that mattered”), along with more infographics than I really would care to read. Nobody’s perfect!

Every issue features a different artist on the cover, and opens with an interview as well as some of their other work. This quarter it was Robin F. Williams, with “Matched.” None of her other pieces are really a….match…for the painting featured on the cover (pictured above), nor was hers the most interesting or insightful artist interview I’ve read:

Starting a fire with a match requires precision, care and timing. It’s an individual action with the potential for a profound impact.

“Skill issue” was a friend’s glib response to that quote. “Grant for writers to take a wilderness basics course…”

Longer pieces

1. “Nahel Merzouk is buried amid riots in France.” The article by Rob Orchard highlights the work of French journalist Valentin Gendrot, who went undercover as a cop and wrote about it in the book Flic. French cops seem to resemble their American counterparts, is my takeaway, though perhaps they aren’t quite so heavily militarized (yet). Flic also ended up on my TBR: a French language and non-fiction two-fer!

2. “The coming storm.” Joint reporting by Matthew Lee and Rob Orchard on the bankruptcy crisis for many UK councils, whether current or looming. In some cases, poor decisions were made (going all-in on commercial real estate investment in the name of “development”). In others it’s just bad luck—shifting demographics is one reason highlighted in the article, where national funds are allocated to councils at the local level based on population data that is wildly out of date. Upon reflection, maybe that’s less bad luck and more “this is what happens when you kneecap actually-useful parts of bureaucracy.” Some areas are full to bursting with families with young children, for example, but not seeing the national funding to provide schoolingfor them because demographics statistics at the national level haven’t been updated.

3. “Metropolis now.” Marcus Webb, with photos by Nick Hannes. Projects to move national capitals: Egypt, South Korea, Nigeria, Kazakhstan. The people designing and paying for these new cities all gush about Dubai,  striving to emulate it in their city planning. This story, in combination with the previous article about bankrupt councils and a later one in this issue about rich people who want to live forever, is rich grist for the dystopian science fiction mill: wealthy, powerful people trying to build self-sustaining isolated little enclaves for themselves, away from unwashed masses, for all eternity.

4. “What lies beneath.” James Montague. Last July the loading ramp from the MS Estonia was pulled out of the Baltic, sparking renewed interest in assorted Scandinavian and Baltic conspiracy theories about why the cruise ship really sank. I didn’t know much about the topic going in, since it’s never come up in my life here—just that the MS Estonia had been a cruise ship that sank with absolutely catastrophic fatalities, and that there are a whole raft (if you’ll pardon the pun) of conspiracy theories about it. Montague interviewed several people with different relationships to the disaster: a Swedish survivor, a former Swedish politician from the Green party who remains convinced that Russian espionage was involved, the Estonian son of a couple who were lost in the sinking, and another young Estonian guy who was so fascinated with the sinking he grew up to become an expert in analyzing shipwrecks.

5. “Who wants to live forever?” Matthew Lee. This one touched a nerve with me. I can’t find the topic of “eccentric billionaires who want to live forever” interesting or entertaining—all I can think about is the tremendous exploitation and waste of resources involved. It also seemed clear that Lee doesn’t have the requisite background in science to really contextualize “longevity research.” (I’m directly quoting their language but I’m also making the scare quotes gesture with my fingers.) The project is painted in a mostly optimistic, friendly light and most of the people Lee interviews are of basically the same opinion. This is in contrast to the article on the MS Estonia, where Montague included a variety of perspectives that kept the speculation distinct from what could be asserted based on facts and data. To Lee’s credit, he also made sure to speak with a noted critic of the movement along with its cheerleaders, but the bulk of the article is concerned with the longevity research’s possibilities and proponents.

The last thing worth mentioning about this one is that one of the longevity companies Lee discusses is The Methuselah Foundation, and he makes a point of drawing the explicit (inoffensive and even vaguely favorable) connection between the foundation and its star backer, Peter Thiel. Yet nowhere does Lee see fit to mention this interest—not only longevity research generally, but Thiel’s participation specifically—has become one of the richest veins for Qanon conspiracy theorists to tap: tall tales about wealthy elites preying on children in pursuit of eternal youth, Thiel shooting up adrenochrome, God knows what else. Nor does Lee mention Thiel’s more unsavory, anti-democratic activities, which include limiting journalistic freedom as best he can. Is that relevant for a journalist to bring up in an article about longevity research? Do I just have a particularly strong personal antipathy towards Peter Thiel? Maybe it can be both?

6. “A wolf at the door.” Harriet Salem. The reintroduction of wolves to Europe is tricky going. Most frustrating seems to be that the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, could just unilaterally decide to undo years of wildlife preservation work by greenlighting wolf culls.

In absolutely, definitely, for sure unrelated news, der Leyen’s prize pony was killed by a wolf a few years ago.

The thing I noticed in this article was how many of the concerned farmers who want to bring back wolf culls are self-described “hobby farmers.” It reminds me a bit of Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid at Versailles, though to be fair, maybe hobby farming is how we slowly start to decentralize food supplies so that we have more food ready at hand. (But then maybe it’s more practical to grow grains, fruits, and vegetables than to raise livestock? In which case wolves are irrelevant?) Plus, left to their own devices with a normal mix of population, cattle (and I assume sheep) are a pack animal that have interesting strategies for surviving attacks from predators. There’s really interesting material about how cattle fared after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, which I don’t have the time to look up right now. Not to mention that, as Salem also points out, domestic dogs are more of a threat to livestock than wild wolves.

7. “Derna is a city drowning in sorrow.” Interview by Marcus Webb with photographer Mohamed Nabil, Zainab Chamoun interpreting. An on-the-ground look at the flooding in Libya. Hopefully they’ll put at least the photos from this story up and I can come back and link to them because I think it’s difficult to understand the scope of this flooding—especially considering other huge geopolitical crises going on at the moment—without seeing pictures of the damage.

Moments that mattered

1. “Lahaina is destroyed by wildfires.” Interview with Crystal Mitchell, Lahaina resident and business owner, by Matthew Lee. It seems that incompetence was a huge contributing factor into the fires becoming as bad as they were, as well as the scope of the damage. Unlike previous wildfires, the Mitchells (and many others) received no warning to evacuate and had no time to prepare. The escaped with their lives, but they lost two pets in the fire and Mitchell’s husband suffered pretty serious burns. Lots of events in the last few years, including the Lahaina fires, have me thinking about the inherent fragility of tourism-based economies.

2. “Luis Rubiales forces a kiss on Jenni Hermoso.” Interview with Verónica Boquete, former Spain women’s national football team captain, by Harriet Salem. A short summary of the state of misogyny in women’s football in Spain. Spoiler: it’s pretty awful.

3. “Azerbaijan takes control of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Interview with Laurence Broers, co-founder of the Caucasus Survey, by James Montague. Speaking of stories that get swallowed in huge geopolitical crises, how about this one? I had a vague sense of violence in Azerbaijan at some point recently but that was about it. This wasn’t a huge in-depth explainer of the history of the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but still informative. The major takeaway from me was how much Turkey’s support made a difference, especially as Russia’s presence in the region is basically nothing now that they’re caught in the quagmire of Ukraine.

Other

1. “Saddam and the supergun.” Marcus Webb with art by Carol Adlam. A sort of graphic novel visual narrative of the life of Gerald Bull. All the conspiracy theory talk with the MS Estonia and Qanon when there’s much more fertile (and likely) ground right here, with briefcases full of cash and assassinations and everything!

More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

One of the things about living abroad is that you end up feeling more like you’re from a particular place than you did when you lived at home. Maybe it has something to do with the desire to distinguish yourself from other people from the US, maybe it’s homesickness, maybe it’s a lot of things.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that living in Stockholm has made me interested in filling in the gaps of my local history. The biggest gap is probably where the Lenape are concerned, so my reading started there. A reference to Hannah Freeman, or “Indian Hannah,” came up along the way and that’s how A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman ended up on my TBR.

The title (A Lenape Among the Quakers) and the subtitle (The Life of Hannah Freeman) pretty aptly describe the two parts and goals of the book. Author Dawn G. Marsh sketches out the events of Hannah Freeman’s life, interweaving it with the evolving (or maybe more accurately, deteriorating) relationship between Pennsylvania and the Lenape. Marsh is a professor of history at Purdue University, but the book is popular history written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly text. Still, it includes footnotes, a bibliography, and a small appendix with relevant historical documents, so there are avenues there for curious readers.

The framing device of Freeman’s life is a great way to examine standard fare Pennsylvania history from another perspective and level some well-deserved criticism. In terms of A Lenape Among the Quakers, the book is pretty solid. The benevolence and moral authority of Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlers compared to some of the other colonies is part of the commonwealth’s identity and mythos; pointing out that they weren’t cutting fair deals with their Lenape neighbors, even when William Penn was still alive, is a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.

When it comes to The Life of Hannah Freeman, however, the book deflates. In the absence of a robust historical record, Marsh hypothesizes about what life might have looked like for Freeman and speculates on how she might have thought or felt about particular events. While these suppositions are always clearly marked as such, and based in fairly reasonable historical assessment, it still feels like a stretch. On the one hand it’s important to be reminded of the human face of history, but in the absence of anything like journal accounts or other primary sources it’s pretty slim pickings. Black Tudors, which is a similar project in structure with even scantier primary sources, nonetheless engaged in far fewer creative exercises. However, Kaufmann had the advantage of ten biographies to include in the book rather than just one; there was enough material for a book without too much creative license.

And while Marsh is justified in criticizing the myth-making of Hannah Freeman by Chester County residents and Pennsylvania historians, it’s not clear that what Marsh is doing in this book is necessarily anything different. The last chapter focuses on Hannah Freeman’s memorial in Chester County and the public pomp and circumstance surrounding it in two different ceremonies (the first one in the early 1900s and the second one around a hundred years later). The memorial boulder, Marsh points out, isn’t even where Freeman is (most likely) buried. And the dedication events both times around were, let’s say, clunky.  The original ceremony had a lot of romanticizing of “the Indian,” with poetry and dramatic reenactments based on the “noble savage” stereotype; the re-dedication ceremony in 2009 included a smudging ceremony carried out by a member of the Cherokee, rather than Lenape, nation. (I don’t know enough to know whether smudging is even part of Lenape spiritual or religious practice.) Marsh criticizes both of these as events that miss the point and that flatten Hannah Freeman into a symbol to serve a myth-making narrative instead of treating her as a complex human being.

Yet Marsh herself has spent all of the rest of the book “[moving] Native American women’s history away from a narrative of loss and victimization toward a framework of resistance and adaptation.” It’s one thing to invite readers to reflect on what this moment may have meant or felt like for a human fellow traveler—it might not have value as reportage of historical fact, but it does have value in reaffirming the complex humanity of historical figures to readers who usually just think of them as names and maybe a handful of pertinent facts. It’s also one thing to recognize the biases inherent in the available historical record and seek to correct them or at least adjust for them in your interpretations. But it’s another thing to set out on a project with the goal of elevating a historical figure to a symbol of resilience and entrepreneurship. It still reads like the same symbol- and myth-making Marsh comes to condemn in the memorial dedication ceremonies.

It’s a fine line to tow, in the end. If you want to write a biography of someone like Hannah Freeman, you know from the beginning that much of the scraps of primary sources you have will be biased against your subject, maybe even outright hostile to them. On one level because of their gender, and then an additional level because of their race. As a result, these firsthand accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems like Marsh set out to write the The Life of Hannah Freeman portion of the book to justify her own opinion rather than chronicle a life.

En japansk näktergal

My sambo has tremendous thrift shop karma, which is how I came to be in possession of this lovely hardback book, a Swedish translation of an English melodrama/romance by Winnifred Eaton writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna*: A Japanese Nightingale.

Cover of the Swedish edition of "A Japanese Nightingale" by Onoto Watanna

As a hardback book from 1907 with several full color illustrations, it seems like it should be kind of rare and expensive, yet the going price for this book on Bokbursen wasn’t anything more expensive than your standard new paperback release and there were several listings for it. I guess it just goes to show how much I don’t know about actual book collecting.

Full color illustration from "A Japanese Nightingale."
There were maybe half a dozen of these full page, full color illustrations throughout.
Pages from the Swedish translation of "A Japanese Nightingale" featuring pastel green illustrations behind the text.
My photography wasn’t the best here, but those green splotches are illustrations. Left: three figures singing or playing musical instruments in a tea house. Right: flowers in a landscape.

All-American wealthy playboy Jack Bigelow is in Japan for unclear reasons. While he is waiting for his mixed-race friend Taro to come join him, Bigelow marries Yuki, a charming and mysterious mixed-race geisha. Even as Bigelow reflects on Taro’s contempt for foreigners who take temporary Japanese wives, he lets himself be talked into just such a marriage. Still, their relationship is a happy one, except Yuki’s mood swings and constant requests for money. Bigelow acquiesces, though not without misgivings and suspicions.

Taro finally arrives and—here’s a shocker—Yuki is his sister! Taro is shocked and appalled, both at Bigelow’s actions and at Yuki’s condition. It turns out that Taro and Yuki are from a noble family that conveniently ran out of money while Taro was at university in the US with Bigelow, and rather than reveal the change in their fortunes Yuki began earning money to support her brother by performing in teahouses. When that proved insufficient, she agreed to be married off by a nakoda.

Taro and Yuki are stunned to see each other. Yuki runs away, distraught at her brother’s perceived disappointment in her. For plot-related reasons, neither Bigelow nor Taro immediately follow her, so she is allowed to slip away and disappear. In her absence, Taro falls ill and dies. Bigelow promises the dying Taro that he will spare no expense in tracking down Yuki. He wanders all over Japan, Yuki wanders all over Asia, but eventually they have a heartfelt reunion at their old house in Tokyo and swear to never leave each other again.

The end!

On its own, A Japanese Nightingale is very dated reading. Is it an improvement over Madame Butterfly, which it is theorized to be a response to? I…don’t know? How are we defining “improvement” here, anyway? The happier ending with a reunited Bigelow and Yuki seems to imagine better prospects for interpersonal relationships between white Westerners and Asians (or just Japanese) than Madame Butterfly, which makes sense given Canada-born Eaton’s English father and Cantonese mother.

But much of the book feels predicated on Orientalism and appealing to Western fascination with Japan, which I guess still happens today but not in the same way as in the years immediately following the Perry Expedition. There are didactic little asides about Japanese culture and beliefs and customs, but judging from her biography Eaton never visited Japan. She was also “rebuked” by maybe the only Japanese person she actually knew, the poet Yone Noguchi, for her “masquerade” (to use the language of that linked timeline), but I don’t have the Google-fu to dig that referenced article up.

All of that said, I think it’s ridiculous to go into a book like this with the expectations and standards we have for books today. And I don’t just mean expectations about race and Strong Female Characters TM and gender relations—I mean even just the construction of the narrative itself. Authors in 1907 were writing to meet different expectations than they would be today. One of the more obvious examples of this might be the shift in narrative distance that’s come to be regarded as acceptable in third-person narration, but also things like suspension of disbelief, the role of luck and coincidence in a plot, characterization, etc. etc.

The clues about Taro and Yuki’s relationship are there for readers to pick up on, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept that plot twist is a big ask. Taro’s death makes no sense on a surface level reading (he faints and hits his head  and then…wastes away from a mysterious illness?) and is equally baffling from a plot perspective, since there’s no action or realization it prompts within Bigelow. Nor would Taro’s survival have impeded Bigelow in any way in his quest to find Yuki. The whole episode feels like nothing more than a melodramatic flourish to no purpose. Omatsu, Taro and Yuki’s mother, appears for a while during Taro’s lingering Mystery Illness, and Bigelow swears to look after her like she was his own mother, but then she gets shunted off to her own parents and never appears again.

To a modern reader, all those aspects and more are enough to make A Japanese Nightingale stylistically passé, never mind how completely unappealing a character and hero Jack Bigelow is in the Year of Our Lord 2023 or whether or not the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters is ProblematicTM and if so to what extent. Even though the book was by all accounts at least moderately popular in its time (it was turned into a stage play, and then a movie), it’s so “of its time” that the appeal today is one of historical curiosity rather than rip-roaring good yarn.

Oh! This was a translation, after all. Is there anything interesting I can share about Hilda Löwenhielm?

Not really. She was a teacher and a translator and died in 1927. Never married, no children. Well, cool.

The story itself may be underwhelming, but it at least it was delivered in a singularly attractive package that can serve a much more aesthetically pleasing purpose as an objet d’art.

*Onoto Watanna, what a wonderful phrase! Onoto Watanna, it ain’t no passing craze! It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy: Onoto Watanna!

Döden till mötes

I rescued this book from a “free to take” box along the sidewalk after a run sometime in summer 2020? 2021? What is time? Along with Miss Marples sista fall, because I can never say no to a free book, especially if it’s Agatha Christie.

There’s a Rian Johnson Tweet somewhere about how Christie’s novels are anything but formulaic and how she used the mystery novel as a front for experimenting in all kinds of other genres:

Something I love about Agatha Christie is how she never tread water creatively. I think there’s a misperception that her books use the same formula over and over, but fans know the opposite is true. It wasn’t just settings or murder methods, she was constantly stretching the genre conceptually. Under the umbrella of the whodunnit she wrote spy thrillers, proto-slasher horrors, serial killer hunts, gothic romances, psychological character studies, glam travelogues.

This element of Christie’s writing eluded me in my middle school whodunnit phase, but I think you can forgive a 12-year-old for not considering the finer points of genres like spy thrillers.

This quote came to mind as I was reading Döden till mötes (Appointment With Death), as did the fact that Christie rather famously couldn’t abide her fan-favorite protagonist. Appointment With Death came out in 1938, so there were still other Poirot books and stories to come, but already you can see Christie sidelining the Belgian detective as much as possible in order to tell another story.

Most of the book happens without Poirot present and, as Johnson’s observation above suggests, is a combination of gothic romance (the mysterious and alluring Raymond Boynton trapped by a domineering stepmother and protagonist Sarah King’s determination to rescue him) and glam travelogue (Christie’s eye for character is also turned to the landscapes of Jerusalem and Petra). And as far as that story goes, it’s…fine but dated. Anything set in Jerusalem these days is just going to come across as oof, to use a technical term. Even without the “aged like milk” setting, there’s a lot of surface-level psychoanalysis from the French psychologist Dr. Gerard that is meant to be narratively sound, and maybe even came across as reasonable and plausible in 1938, but today reads like pompous buffoonery.

On the other hand, Christie has a few conversations and observations that are still timely 80-odd years later. I don’t remember her roasting women quite so thoroughly in other books, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any so who can say. We have the tyrannical murder victim, Mrs. Boynton, who is quickly established as a vile and hideous creature through and through (the book never lets us forget that she’s fat!)*; we have the tiresome but accomplished Lady Westholme who is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes, both for her domineering personality as well as her unattractive looks (powerful Hillary Clinton energy); and scatter-brained Miss Pierce is more or less dismissed by everyone. The golden mean of all three of these seems to be protagonist Sarah King, who can neither abide the airheaded Miss Pierce but who also finds Lady Westholme too much. As a result, King feels like a mouthpiece for Christie’s own opinions about women’s place in the world.

As for the whodunnit itself, it’s clever (to be expected!) but not as satisfying as other Christie novels. Some bits I untangled right away; other asides are dropped in that sound like they’re set up for a big reveal, but ultimately they just fizzle and go nowhere.

The Swedish translation is a job well done, though perhaps it’s easier to convey Agatha Christie in Swedish than Elmore Leonard. Regardless, Einar Thermaenius succeeded where Einar Heckscher failed; while my copy was fairly old, even new Swedish editions of Agatha Christie today are often still Thermaenius’s translation (his translation of The ABC Murders from 1938 saw an eleventh printing in 2015). Even “new translations” of Thermaenius (and others) are more often new edits of old translations rather than entirely new translations. Why mess with perfection?

*And a weird postscript to that. The English book covers all have covers that feature the landscape, elements of the plot, or spooky murder imagery unrelated to the actual story. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find one older example of a cover featuring Mrs. Boynton herself, and then rendered fairly neutrally:

The cover of "Appointment With Death" featuring an illustration of an overweight old woman in a pink dress in profile against a desert backdrop.

It took me zero seconds and zero scrolling to find much less flattering Swedish portrayals of Mrs. Boynton:

Cover of Swedish version of "Appointment With Death" featuring a caricature portrait of an overweight old woman with yellow cat eyes looking directly at the viewer. Another Swedish edition of Appointment With Death. There is once again an illustrated rendition of an overweight old woman sitting on a chair, but it only takes up a fraction of the cover space and she's not immediately menacing.

Are…are you OK, Sweden? Who hurt you?

Philadelphia Noir

My approach to gifts is fairly unstructured and sporadic. If I see something that a friend or family member would like during the year, I buy it and then save it for the next appropriate gift-giving occasion. Usually, also, this takes the form of a book, because I like to stay on brand.

This is how I ended up in possession of a copy of Philadelphia Noir, the Philly entry in Akashic Books‘ popular Noir series. I’m from the area, a bookish friend has a particular penchant for crime and noir…it seemed like a natural fit for gift from me to him! Of course, I would be remiss if I gave someone the gift of a book without reading and vetting it first. I had enjoyed the copy of LA Noir a friend sent me, so I could probably trust that the Philadelphia edition would maintain the same level of quality, but still.

Well.

“Some of the stories are better than others,” I wrote in the note that I included with the gift. Which is the most diplomatic way I can possibly phrase it. And some of the stories are really good, or at least fun, and I had a great time with them (“Princess,” “Secret Pool,” “A Cut Above,” and parts of “The Ratcatcher” and “A Fishtown Odyssey” stand out). Others were a bit rough around the edges and had a tenuous quality to them, as if the author had written and submitted the story for the collection at the last possible minute, or if the editor had a limited pool of stories to choose from. That’s okay; maybe they were someone else’s cup of tea.

The only one of those I feel like calling out is one of the historical fiction stories in the last section of the book: “Reality.” I wrote the “Some of the stories are better than others” comment about halfway through my reading; by the time I got to “Reality” I left am extra post-it note with the comment “skip this one.” The premise of the story is that first the author (not the narrator, this is not a fictional affectation; I mean the author) brags about being a descendent of a minor historical figure in the area for absolutely no reason at all, and then while walking her dog runs into what she believes to be Colonial-era reenactors just acting out a scene in the middle of the sidewalk. She deems them as “surprisingly good, actually,” and assures us that she would know because she’s a history nerd and author. She also goes to great pains to include “comedy” in the guise of a cliche sitcom family before showing us that the crowd is also loving it and thinks this is the best thing they’ve seen all day. This becomes insufferable when it turns out these aren’t actors. No! They’re characters from her historical fiction (mystery?) novels come to life! And they have a crowd of admirers hanging on their every word!

Powerful “and then everyone clapped” energy.

At a last grasp to make it vaguely noir-ish, one of the historical characters fires a warning shot from his musket to threaten another one of the characters and, plot twist, it hits and kills a father who had been especially laudatory and impressed with the performance (and constantly telling the author/narrator to shut up so he could hear more of the story). The story closes with his young son thinking that his father’s very real gunshot wound is just part of the great performance, which he was also definitely enjoying a lot as an eight-year-old! Not bored out of his skull, this one! “Mom’s gonna be real mad about the stain on your shirt though, Dad. Dad? Dad?”

Did the story have the intended effect of me looking up the author? Yes. Did it have the intended effect of me wanting to read any of her novels? Absolutely not. The other dodgy stories in there were at least just stories for their own sake, so to speak, and definitely fit the noir theme. This one felt like a weird cross between advertising, wish-fulfillment, and self-aggrandizement, with the ending tacked on to make it a barely plausible candidate for entry into a noir collection.

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

In keeping with my “one book per indie bookstore per city visited” rule for my vacation last August, when my hosts took me to Book People in Austin I stood resolute to acquire one (1) book. I went in, prepared to be ruthless and discriminating in my choices, but in the end that was unnecessary because the solution presented itself almost immediately upon our entrance. And on sale, even!

While a to-read list can quickly become a graveyard of aspirations, I still find it to be a handy filter for bookstore and library visits. If I have a vague awareness of at least some books I at one point wanted to read, then it can help narrow down my browsing. That was exactly the case when I more or less walked right into The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free.

I read an excerpt from the book during its promotional rounds on Lit Hub, and thought the excerpt and the premise of the book were both interesting. On to the TBR it went. Two years later, here I am! The downside is that while I might have knocked Barbizon off my TBR, over the course of reading the book I probably added five or six other books because so many of the illustrious personages Paulina Bren outlines in the book sound like fascinating people and writers. In that sense, writing about the Barbizon is a great framework for looking at women writers from the mid-to-late twentieth century. It would be a great idea for a literary anthology or series and I wonder why no one’s done it yet.

Barbizon is a quick read; I was able to knock it out in about a day and a half. Of course, I was on vacation with bookish friends who were happy to spend hours sitting quietly and reading, so I might be overstating how snappy the pace is. Regardless, it’s a fun and breezy look at a piece of American history I’d never known about (even though I’ve read The Bell Jar) and, as I told one half of my hosting couple, it made me happy that I live here and now instead of sixty, seventy, a hundred years ago. If you plopped me in the lobby of the Barbizon hotel back in the fifties, or if I had been a college student in the sixties applying for a Mademoiselle guest editor role, I have no doubt I would have been summarily dismissed and rejected for not being pretty enough. Nor would I have been cut out to be a homemaker or mother, which even the most talented and ambitious women who boarded at the hotel seemed to inevitably become. (And yet, with all of this freedom and free time available to me, I fritter it all away on nonsense. But that’s another issue entirely!)

If only the world weren’t on fire…!