Monday, December 16, 2013

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

I recently listened to A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage, (Thanks, Audible Black Friday sale!), a fascinating book. The author's basic thesis involves the way six beverages have been instrumental to key movements and developments in Western Civilization. Since the first five out of these 6 beverages are particular favorites of mine, this was a natural for me. Also, I love history, particularly the history of food and drink. Here are some of the interesting things I learned!

Beer: I'm a big craft beer drinker and it was news to me that beer was--though probably not the first alcoholic beverage created, the first to be a staple. Its widespread consumption is ancient Mesopotamia coincided with the shift from hunter/gatherer society to an agriculture based model. Apparently the beer they drank was pretty different from the beers of today, since it contained no hops.

Wine: Wine was probably invented/discovered before beer, but it was more difficult to produce--since it had to be in a climate where grapes could be grown. The ancient Greeks used wine to one-up their neighbors in the Middle East, and wine became a symbol of their intellectual superiority--largely due to the fact that it was often consumed at symposia, even though these often resembled modern frat parties more closely than the intellectual discussions described by Plato! Greek wines were also probably very different than our wines today.

Spirits: This was one of the weaker parts of the book. I couldn't glean a central thesis, because this chapter was unfocused. Spirits are of more recent date than beer and wine--because the technique of distillation came later. Their role in eighteenth century economics--rum in the triangle trade, especially--is also touched on.

Coffee: I knew next to nothing about early European coffee culture, so this may have been my favorite part of the book. Coffee's popularity began with Muslim cultures, where alcohol is forbidden, so a non alcoholic beverage that provides a stimulant was welcome. The thing I found so interesting though, was that during the Enlightenment period in London--coffee houses were everywhere--and that people used them as the essential meeting places, to exchange ideas, receive messages, and often conduct business transactions. Next time you sit at Starbucks doing work and sending messages from a computer, you can feel that you're taking part in a 350-year old tradition!

Tea: This was interesting, but head less information that was new to me. Tea's cultural importance was as the symbol for British Imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tea was brought to Europe from China during the 16th century and planted in India by the British. It represented to worldwide scope of the British Empire, and as all American children learn in school, its symbolic representation of that empire made it an ideal player in a famous demonstration of the independence of Britain's American colonies, the Boston Tea Party.

Cola: Probably my least favorite of these 6 beverages, but still a very interesting segment. Like tea in the British empire, Coca-Cola has been the symbol of America as the 20th century super power. I was very interested to learn about the history of carbonated water and the different flavor mixes that would be added to it at turn of the century American drugstore counters. Coke and its major rival, Pepsi also played key roles in late 20th century political conflicts--both the Cold War and the various Arab/Israeli conflicts.

I learned a lot and was always entertained by this book. My only complaint is that it was too short! The segment on spirits especially seemed to get short shrift. I wanted more! And I would have liked to see him follow each of the beverages up to the present day, rather than just focusing on them only in their respective moments.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History over a week ago, but I haven't wanted to write about it because I can't quite decide that I thought of it. Several people have suggested I read this book over the past few years, and I can certainly see why. For one thing, it's set at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. (I live in NYC now, but I spent my childhood as a Middlebury College faculty brat.) The fictional Hamden College of Tartt's book bears a much stronger relationship to Bennington College (which Tartt herself attended) than Middlebury, but it's still a very familiar atmosphere. And I did love the atmosphere of this book, in both senses of the word--both the physical setting and the mood. There's an intoxicating quality about Tartt's writing that makes this book hard to put down. 

I think what made me feel so conflicted about this book was that I like Hercule Poirot, do not approve of murder! In The Secret History, the narrator, Richard, tells us in the first few pages that he and four friends have killed the 6th member of their academic (and friend) group, Bunny. This book turns the mystery genre on its head. It isn't a case of who-done-it? but more a case of how and why did these people come to commit a murder. 

I don't really think it's fair to say, though that I objected to Tartt's asking the reader to sympathize with the conspirators to murder and murderer, because she doesn't exactly do that. I would say that I kept reading more out of a hypnotic fascination than out of sympathy for the characters. But I think there's a certain amount of sympathy for all 5 of them--I didn't realize this though, until their dirty secrets come out later in the book. The murder is revealed so early in the narrative, that you get to know the characters knowing that they're going to commit a murder, so their other flaws come as more of an upset. 

One of the reasons I was interested in reading this book was that I knew Tana French, on of my favorite living authors, has said it was highly influential to her work. The Likeness, is very clearly influenced by this book--as well as by Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. Another work I couldn't stop thinking of while reading this book was Alfred Hitchcock's film, Rope, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. Rope is loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case. I was especially intrigued by the role influential teachers play in the two pieces. Henry and Julian's relationship in The Secret History particularly reminded me of Brendan and Rupert in Rope

I haven't been sure how I feel about The Secret History, but I know this, I couldn't put it down when I was reading it, and now that I'm finished, I keep thinking about it. This is a book that's stayed with me.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers

In honor of Veteran's Day, I'm revisiting an old favorite, Dorothy L. Sayers' The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.* All eleven of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries were written between the wars, during the 1920s and 1930s, and World War I--or, as it was called then--The Great War hangs over all of her characters and the world in which they live, but in none of her other novels. Her detective, Peter Wimsey served as a major in the war, and in the army met the man who'd become his invaluable valet and assistant sleuth, Bunter. Also, Peter came back from the war with a very serious case of shellshock, and Sayers suggests that a desire to get his mind off the war, and a taste he got for intelligence work during the war gave him the taste for detection.  

However, in none of her other novels is the influence of the war felt as strongly as it is here. The crime centers on a stuffy West End Military club, the Bellona Club, of which Peter Wimsey is a (somewhat reluctant member). The victim of the crime and the perpetrator both have associations to the club, as well. The novel begins on Armistice Day, November 11th and the national moment of silence is a key clue to the elucidation of one part of the mystery. For me, November 11th is just a day I get off work, but in 1928 when this novel came out, the commemoration of the end of the war meant something tremendous to everyone. (The novel takes place on and in the weeks following the Armistice Day in 1927.)

Peter has his own shell shock and nervous breakdown pretty much in check nine years down the row, but the Bellona Club is littered with its victims, the club Secretary, Collier, who only has one arm; "Tin Tummy" Challoner, and Captain George Fentiman, who's still suffering from physical and psychological damage. Also, the dishonest actions committed by two other characters--Major Robert Fentiman and Doctor Penberthy--indicate something a lot bigger. These were basically decent men whose experiences in the war hardened them and made them less morally sensitive, allowing the one to attempt to perpetrate a fraud and the other to commit a murder for personal gain. Yes, this is an old school mystery with a murder over wills and inheritance and all the usual red herrings and a sparkling solution courtesy of our titled detective, but it's also a book about the impact a war had on a generation.

Another thing I love about this book is that books are very important in it. Peter surprises his best friend and frequent associate on murder cases, Scotland Yard Detective Charles Parker, but telling him he doesn't think Parker's favorite suspect is guilty because he looks at her bookshelf! And later in a conversation with her he scouts an interesting theory that people read to escape their own lives, and I'll close with this very interesting exchange: 

"And dull men in offices read detective stories. They wouldn't, if murder and police entered into their lives.”
“I don't know,” she said. “When Crippen and Le Neve were taken on the steamer, they were reading Edgar Wallace.” Her voice was losing its dull harshness; she sounded almost interested.
“Le Neve was reading it,” said Wimsey, “but I’ve never believed she knew about the murder. I think she was fighting desperately to know nothing about it — reading horrors, and persuading herself that nothing of that kind had happened, or could happen, to her. I think one might do that, don’t you?”
“I don't know,” said Ann Dorland. “Of course, a detective story keeps your brain occupied."

It certainly does! If you're looking for a good one this Veterans' Day, or Armistice Day, this is it.

*The title of this blog is, in fact, taken from a quotation from this novel. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

In my recent post on Trollope's The Warden, I referred to its more famous sequel, Barchester Towers, which I've also recently revisited. This novel is perfect. Perfect. It's got laughs, romance, drama, tears, slaps, takedowns, putdowns, backstabbing, intrigue, death, gossip, and genuine heart--human nature depicted with Trollope's most deliciously snarky style. Who could ask for anything more?

Trollope was himself a huge Jane Austen fan, and her influence is never clearer in any of his books than Barchester Towers, an Austenesque study of human foibles. Every character that appears in this novel, from the protagonists whose motivations, thoughts and feelings are elucidated at length, to a butler who makes a brief appearance in one scene, is a specific person, and Trollope knows exactly who that person is.

From the very first scene you know you're in for something very special. The novel opens with characters we know from The Warden--the benevolent old school Bishop Grantly is on his deathbed, attended by his son, the active, worldly Archdeacon.  The death of the old Bishop coincides exactly with a change in government, so the Archdeacon knows that the longer her father lives, the less likely it is that he will be appointed in his place. The Archdeacon is an ambitious man, and a strong partisan, and knows he'll be a good bishop, since he's been basically running the diocese for the last several years of his father's tenure. He struggles with his ambition, his sense of duty and his affection for his father, and prays for him to live as long as possible. The first time I read The Warden, I didn't love the Archdeacon, but his grief and struggle here won me over.

The old Bishop outlives the government and an outsider is appointed Bishop by the new Prime Minister. The new Bishop, Dr. Proudie, arrives in Barchester with his bossy, domineering wife and  a very ambitious chaplain, Mr. Slope--possibly the slimiest character in all of literature. Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie begin as allies in a campaign to force the rest of the diocese into their religious views and to systematically insult the members of the old guard. A dispute over a piece of preferment erupts into a power struggle between Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope over which of them will rule the Bishop.

I've noticed this thing in 19th century novels, that preachers were often idolized by women, the way movie stars or singers are today. The odious Mr. Slope, is detested by all men, but his faux piety has some charm for women, even though he is not physically attractive. This, in part leads to a misunderstanding which occupies a lot of this novel, the Archdeacon and his wife are convinced that her sister, Mrs. Bold (now a wealthy widow) will be induced to marry Mr. Slope. I hate misunderstandings, and if this novel has an imperfection, it's this one. But I can't hold it against Trollope when he addresses the reader and acknowledges the device: "But then where would have been my novel?"

I can't in this short piece do justice to all of his wonderful characters, but I'll just tell you about my favorite, The Signora Neroni, nee Madeline Stanhope. This lady is the daughter of a Barchester prebend, Dr. Stanhope, who has at the the time of the novel lived for the past ten years with his ineffectual wife, his eldest daughter, the competent, but cold-blooded Charlotte, his son, Bertie, a handsome, charming spendthrift, and his younger daughter, Madeline. Madeline is a great, great beauty, and an even greater captivator through her manners. But Trollope gives her something unexpected: she's returned to her father's house after an unsuccessful marriage with an abusive Italian. She leaves him, unable to walk, disabled by his abuse. She doesn't let her disability dampen her success with men though--instead she makes a great show of being carried from room to room by three servants! She mercilessly ensnares as many men as she can come across, and the odious Mr. Slope is one of her easiest conquests. She toys with him and tortures him until disposing of him in the most glorious and public manner possible at the end of the novel. She seems heartless and cruel, but when she earns the admiration of an honest and good man, Mr. Arabin, she helps him to earn the woman he loves (Eleanor Bold, nee Harding.) From this witty and delightfully nasty lady, I'll give you instead her one noble moment, when she tells Eleanor about Arabin's love for her, one of Trollope's most beautiful passages:

"What I tell you is God's own truth; and it is for you to use it as may be best for your own happiness. But you must not betray me. He knows nothing of this. He knows nothing of my knowing his inmost heart. He is simple as a child in these matters. He told me his secret in a thousand ways because he could not dissemble; but he does not dream that has told it. You know it now, and I advise you to use it."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Last week I finished reading Dark Places (2009), by Gillian Flynn.  Like many other readers I anxiously devoured her best seller Gone Girl last summer and promptly got copies of her two earlier novels. I read Sharp Objects right away, but didn't get around to Dark Places until now. I’m glad I picked it up. This is one disturbing, riveting, thrilling, book. Although I didn't guess the exact solution of the mystery, I was right about one big part of it, but I don't think this is a who-done-it kind of mystery. This is more a book about creating an atmosphere—an atmosphere of sheer menace. And boy, does it succeed.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places alternates between various narratives. It begins with Libby Day, the lone survivor of a the murder of her family, 25 years later. As a 7 year old she escaped and testified to seeing her 15 year old brother kill her mother and sisters. After coasting for 25 years on the money donated to her by well-wishers, Libby needs money and agrees to appear at Kill Club, a convention for true crime obsessives and conspiracy theorists. I have to admit, as a person who's read multiple books on the Leo Frank case and the sinking of the Titanic, I was hooked from here on in. 

To bilk more money out of Kill Club--who believe her brother is innocent--Libby agrees to get in touch with the other possible suspects to discover the real killer. This reminded me of a device Agatha Christie used in both Five Little Pigs and Sleeping Murder, and it's a great premise. But Flynn adds another twist--she alternates the contemporary narrative of Libby with third person narratives from the point of view of her brother Ben and of her mother Patty, from the days leading up to the murder. This technique builds the suspense brilliantly, as Libby gets closer to uncovering the truth, the readers are learning parts of the backstory she'll never know. So the book ends up being a cross between the Agatha Christie murder in retrospect and the intercutting between past and present of A. S. Byatt's Possession and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Being a big fan of all these things, needless to say, I loved it. 

Something else about this book really got to me personally. Whenever Libby is thinking about the night of the murders she drops the phrase "darkplace" to indicate a retreat to the deep dark depths of the horror of her memory, from which the novel takes it's name. All of us, even those of us who haven't experienced anything like the horrors the heroine of this novel lived through, have our own dark places. Personally, I've always been upset by violence, and I feel less bothered by that now. That's just my dark place.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

Yesterday I listened to an old favorite of mine, The Warden (1855), the first in Anthony Trollope's series of six novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. I've only read 19 out of his 47 novels, but I have a little goal of getting to all of them someday.

The Warden is set in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester (inspired by Salisbury), and concerns various dignitaries of the church, such as kindly old Bishop Grantly, his domineering, active and worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, and our title character, Mr. Septimus Harding, who at the beginning of the novel holds the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital--basically a charity nursing home for retired laborers run by the church.  A young friend of Mr. Harding's (who's also in love with his daughter) raises a public question of whether the funds that support the charity and pay Mr. Harding's salary are being disposed of in accordance with the original terms of the bequest. Mr. Harding isn't at fault at all but the mere fact of the fairness of his position being called into question force the sensitive man to resign his profitable living.

I suspect that Trollope wrote this novel in response to severe church reforms of the day, that sought to do good but ended up leaving people worse off than they were before.  It's possible the novel originally had some relevance to the world it came out of, but it still resonates today. Being raised without religion myself, I don't have much interest in religion and I'd never have imagined that I'd be so fascinating by these long novels about clergymen and their families, but they don't actually concern religion itself. The atmosphere of the cathedral close isn't too far off from the contemporary world of academe, for example. So, I encourage everyone to pick up these novels. Their true depictions of the petty internal politics that can often bog down even the most well-intentioned institutions will continue to be relevant to new readers as they have been for more than 150 years.

The Warden is by far the shortest entry in the Barsetshire series and it's easy to dismiss it as little more than setting up the masterpiece that followed it. And while it's true that Mr. Harding and his daughters Eleanor, and Susan, and his son-in-law the Archdeacon are also prominently featured in that delightful book, The Warden is a great novel in its own right, and one of great variety. After the reformer John Bold promises Eleanor Harding to drop the suit against her father, and becomes engaged to her, he has to go and surrender to the Archdeacon. Trollope has presented these characters with such complexity that even though Bold is a good enough guy to carry off our heroine Eleanor, we're still angry enough at him over the pain he's caused Mr. Harding, that gentlest, sweetest of men, that we can enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance.  When he arrives at the Archdeacon's house, he's greeted by the Archdeacon's three sons. The three boys completely get the better of him with deadpan sarcasm in one of Trollope's funniest scenes.

But then take the scene where the kind, generous Mr. Harding bids goodbye to the 12 old men who've been under his care as Warden. Most of the men have participated in the attack on Mr. Harding out of futile greed and ignorance, but come to regret their action deeply. He is such a good, sweet man, with only the fault of not having the courage to fight for his own interest--if that is a fault at all. And by the time Mr. Harding is slammed in the popular press, the reader feels the sting of that attack as if Harding their our own father.  The Archdeacon, too, is flawed but lovable. I love Trollope characters as I love my own friends, aware of their faults as well as the qualities that overshadow them.

I'll leave off with one of my favorite quotations from The Warden:

"They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts."