Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hiatus, for a good reason

I won't be posting much in the coming weeks ... But I think I have a good excuse. Her name is Aria.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sixteenth Century Thought Experiments and Kittens

We're lucky today to count Death as an infrequent visitor, but in the 16th century, Europeans had a much closer familiarity with such loss. Infant mortality was extremely high, life expectancy over all was less than half what Americans can look forward to today, and illness or accident could slay anyone at the slightest glance. Thus Michel de Montaigne found himself in his mid-30s and mourning the death of his best friend, his first-born infant daughter, his younger brother, and his father, all while expecting his own life to end within a few years. Such a cacophony of loss drove him to retire to his Bordeaux estate and resolve to steel his will with stoicism, the reigning philosophy of the day.

But this late Renaissance humanist found that he uncovered not stillness but endless curiosity when left alone with his mind. He turned to experimenting with the world - having himself woken while in a deep sleep so as to try to know slumber, traveling across Europe to "polish" his mind through contact with others, and musing about the meaning of his cat's play. These trials he turned to essays, from the French verb "essayer," to try or taste. And the result was a tremendous contribution to Western thought and literature.

In When I am Playing With My Cat, How do I know That She is Not Playing With Me? by Saul Frampton, we learn about both Montaigne's life and his essays. I've never read the originals, so I can't speak to Frampton's scholarship, but the story his writes is both compelling and edifying. Montaigne, at least by Frampton's account, is a charmingly human man, eager to learn about himself and his fellows through close contact and observation. He's also intellectually daring and honest with himself, and comes to some conclusions quite different from the mainstream of his time. I really enjoyed this book - devoured it in just over a day - and now look forward to trying (tasting, as Montaigne might put it), the original essays.

By the way, Montaigne lived during a fascinating period of French history, including the religious civil wars and the death of Henry II. Does anyone know of a good novel about him and his life? I'd love to read it. If it's not out there though, maybe I'll add that to my long list of projects I'd like to write some day!

Cover image from World Literature and Philosophy Rochester Public Library blog. Once again, what a neat cover, no?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart

It is, contrary to this visitor's expectation, a little difficult to feel the full weight of history when visiting the Tower of London. Maybe it's the conveyor belt they make you stand on to see the Crown Jewels, or maybe it's the hordes of other tourists blandly staring at yet another suit of armor. The complex can feel just a bit silly, belying its almost millennium of weighty history.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Julia Stuart's novel is quite silly, filled with a frolicking bearded pig, a tail-less centenarian tortoise, and an erotica-writing clergyman, among other oddities, but still drenched with history and emotion. Stuart takes us into the almost-cloistered lives of the Beefeaters who care for the tower and its ghosts, where we meet Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater stumbling through a thick depression after the death of his only child. Balthazar lives with his beloved wife and Mrs. Cook, a family heirloom who claims descent from Captain Cook's own tortoise and carries her home with her as she makes her slow trek across the Tower Grounds.

None of the Tower's inhabitants seem to have life figured out. Balthazar and his wife Hebe Jones are each drowning alone in their grief. The owner of the Tower's occupants-only pub suspects that she earned more than just a disappointed heart from her fling with a Spaniard. The chapel's reverend fears he will never free his dwelling from the evil occupation of yellow-toothed rats. And, worst of all, the Queen worries that visitor numbers at the Tower are down, just as she is in need of a new location for her personal menagerie.

The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is one of Stuart's greatest strengths here, and the result is a touching, if light, novel. She also sprinkles in fun bits of history - like the story of Ranulf Flambard, the Tower's first notable occupant and first escapee. This is certainly an enjoyable and charming read, particularly if you're a fan of British history and quirks.

Isn't the cover just adorable? Image lifted from Book Covers Anonymous, where you can also see the UK cover.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

The one upside of sitting around and waiting to have this tardy baby is that I've been able to do some reading. I happily finished my stack of books from the library - Toni Morrison's Jazz, Virginia Wolff's To the Lighthouse and Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River, most recently. The latter book is an excellent treatise on what not to let happen to your daughter, at least in the eyes if this one expectant mother.

Margo is nearly 15 when the book opens, a beautiful young girl in love with the river and her family's simple, grubby existence along it. She experiences a traumatic event yet, as she is slow to decision and action, she takes a long time to even classify it as such. But once she decides that she has been wronged, her revenge sets off an unforeseen chain of events that sets Margo adrift on her beloved river, roaming up and down it in search of herself and a life that fits her independent spirit.

Margo is, in some ways, a tough character to love. She seems to have completely misplaced her self-preservation instinct, particularly when it comes to dealing with men. She is so casual about her sexuality as to be almost unbelievable, but I suppose it is intended to be a reflection of her inability to value herself. I found it tough to care about a girl who doesn't seem to care about herself, but she has enough hard-chewed charm to make her story worth following. And if, like me, the last time you skinned an animal was in a previous life, you'll likely find the world she lives in to be exotic and captivating, filled with dreams of Annie Oakley and the mysterious ways of stalking herons.

The best thing about the book is Ms. Campbell's writing. She manages to be both stark and evocative, and creates vivid characters. A number of those characters are mothers, and this mother-in-waiting is grateful to learn from their mistakes and their grace.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma