Friday, April 29, 2011

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Plague The Most Devastating Plague of All Time

The Great Mortality:
An Intimate History of the Black Plague
The Most Devastating Plague of All Time
By John Kelly

Before you read this blog post, I need to confess that I am both a nerd and a dork. I am also petty and vengeful. Trust me, it will help you understand.

I attended university in the mid-1990s. My major was history and my focus of interest was primarily nineteenth and early twentieth century European history. You know, the post-Napoleonic period, the Quadruple Alliance and the slow, painful march toward World War I. It's a fascinating period in history and perhaps my favorite. I read a lot of material on this period, even today.

I might favor nineteenth century history, but my true obsession are the Middle Ages. I have a twisted fascination with pre-modern Europe. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that medieval Europe was a superstitious, shit-covered backwater. How does a population that bathed an average of once or twice a decade go on to dominate the planet? It baffles.

Anyhow, I took any course available to me on medieval history and read voraciously on the topic. You want to talk about William the Bastard's Norman Invasion of 1066? I'm your man. You want to wax intellectual about the Carolingians and Merovingians, I can do that. If you want to discuss the implications of the longbow on the history of warfare, I'm in. And if you want to talk the Black Death of 1348-1352, prepare for a long night.

Everyone has their little pet obsessions. Civil War reenactments, Dungeons and Dragons, conspiracy theories, fruity beer... whatever. From an early age, mine has been the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century and wiped out between a third and a half of the entire population of the continent. For as long as I can remember I've devoured books on the topic. I think a lot of it began with the visual representations of the plague. The ubiquitous angel of death reaping lives with impunity across the European countryside, scythe in hand, smiling its skeletal smile of death. they were the sorts of images that any kid would find both disturbing and ultimately fascinating.

The Great Mortality by John Kelly may not be the definitive scholarly work on the topic, but it comes damned close and has the added bonus of being completely readable, unlike so much non-fiction. But I don't want to simply review this work. I want to tell a story that is relevant to my reading of this book.

Back in my third year of university I wrote a paper on the Black Death for my third year medieval history class. Unlike papers for my other classes, I actually started this paper weeks in advance and finished it days prior to the due date (with everything else, I started two days before and finished mere minutes before the start of class). My thesis was essentially that the Black Death was a major catalyst in the emerging enlightenment in Europe. The depopulation of the continent directly caused many of the factors that would bring about events such as the Reformation, the re-discovery of America and the revolutions that would sweep Europe into the modern age.

I'm not going to rehash all my points but essentially I argued that demographics and the collective conscience of Europe fundamentally shifted in response to the sheer magnitude of death that occurred in such a short time (and would periodically reoccur over the next three centuries). The manner in which people died, with such indignation and indiscrimination rattled the faith of many Christians (and Muslims), sparking the doubt that would culminate with the 95 theses and the rise of Protestantism. The helplessness of the medical profession at the time spurned doctors into action over the proceeding centuries, forcing them out of the barber shops and into the laboratories in order to get on with the discovery of the scientific method. And the depopulation of the continent put manual labor at a premium, so much so that many serfs and vassals were able to demand more for their services, giving the under-privileged a lifestyle previously unknown to them and a tantalizing taste of a better life. One worth fighting for. Europe would never be its same pastoral self again.

It was a damned good paper and I was careful to back up my claims factually as best I could given that I was suggesting a fairly controversial idea.

On the day in which the papers were handed back the TA stood at the front of the room and derided the entire lecture hall full of students about the poor quality of the papers. He noted that only a handful of papers were of any substance and most were not acceptable from university level history students. If any of us had views toward post-graduate work, we'd best learn how to write a paper. Naturally, I didn't think he was talking about me. I had written the best damned paper I had ever written. Surely I was one of the handful with substance.

The TA continued: "One paper in particular tried to assert that the Black Death was the cause of the Enlightenment."

The class let out a muffled giggle.

My heart crept into my throat. I'm not sure if any noticed, but I turned seven shades of red, then green... then white. I didn't hear anything else the TA said. It was like the air of my entire university career had been let out of me. I recall my paper landing in my lap and noting the 52% scrawled on the top. I'm sure there were comments, but I don't recall reading them. I was simply devastated.

(Not to worry. I finished my degree and I still maintain my love for medieval history and the Black Death in particular)

Flash forward to this past week. Kelly deftly chronicles the history of Y. Pestis from its birth as a marmot disease on the central Eurasian steppe, it's journey west to the Crimea then into Europe via Genoese merchant vessels. I especially enjoyed the way in which Kelly personified the plague as an invading army akin to the Mongols who had ravaged their way through to Hungary a century prior and whose empire facilitated the spread of the disease. But something struck me about the book as I made my way through it. I couldn't help but notice that John Kelly skirted dangerously close to the same points that got me in so much trouble years ago.

In fact, by the time Kelly reached his conclusions, he was actively postulating all of the points that had been my scholastic de-pantsing and I was reading with my mouth agape. While he stopped just short of actually typing the words: "The Black Death was a major catalyst in the impending European Enlightenment," he may as well have wrote them. He linked the Black Death to the rise of the scientific method, the demand for the printing press, the end of serfdom, the rise of the middle class and the disillusionment with the Christian (soon to be Catholic) church.

This is exactly what I was saying, T.A. Guy! See that!?!? John Kelly wrote a book about it. A good one, too! And where are you now, T.A. Guy? You are probably a stuffy, know-it-all professor in some dusty office at the University of Who Cares surrounded by your antiquated medieval tomes dismissing the Black Death as a historical speed bump. You were wrong, T.A. Guy. I was onto something. Something big (in the world of medieval history, of course). Something important. Something ground-breaking.

A decade and a half later, I feel so very vindicated.

Fuck you, T.A. Guy.

(Great book. Read it.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cutting For Stone

Cutting For Stone
By Abraham Verghese

I have a Doogie Howser reading complex as of late. According to the books I read, teenage surgeons are far more common than I have been lead to believe. First there was Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules and now Marion and Shiva Praise in Abraham Verghese's opus Cutting For Stone. Who would have thought that performing life and death procedures could be so flippantly possible for those suffering from low self-esteem and acne.

But I digress.

Cutting For Stone is an epic story of two generations of expatriate doctors living and working at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The novel is actually quite sweeping and provides a wonderful insight into life during the last years of Selassie's reign and the tumultuous years of Mengistu's dictatorship (not to mention the uncertainty of the Eritrean and Tigre independence movements occuring in the background). Verghese is an adept novelist who knows exactly where, when and how much information to divulge to the reader throughout but is also careful to remind readers along the way about key ingredients that cannot be forgotten along the way. I enjoyed the way he constructed such flawed, fragile characters and his ability to describe specific forms of surgery is borderline grotesque. Verghese reminded so much of Salman Rushdie at times that I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn't picked up The Moor's Last Sigh by mistake.

Cutting For Stone, like so many novels I have read this year, really concerns itself with time and love, our lack of time and the way we as humans fritter it away on things we assume are meaningful, much to the detriment of love. This notion is best represented in the relationships between the narrator, Marion Stone, his (formerly conjoined) twin brother Shiva and their childhood friend Genet. One uses time, another abuses it the third lives as if it doesn't exist at all. This, as one can imagine, complicates their relationships immensely as they grow up and enter the world for adults. This was the central precept of the entire novel for me. As a complete piece of work, Cutting For Stone is quite a rewarding read...

That is, if you can get that far.


Considering the plaudits this book has received since its publication in 2009, I might be sticking my neck out by saying this. The problem with this novel, for me, lies in it's first third. It's a minor problem in the grander scheme of the entire book, but it was something that bothered me the entire length of the read. I spent a week reading this book and almost half that time trying to slog my way through the first 150 pages. I hardly ever put a book down, but Cutting For Stone really tested my mettle. I can't recall a novel that eased into the story more slowly.

Verghese sets a pastoral, provincial tone for life in Haile Selassie-era Ethiopia and much of the first third is comprised of plot structures in need of construct for their inevitable culmination. I understand setting up your pins, but things need to keep moving. Furthermore, Verghese spends this portion of the novel delivering a Ondaatje-esque, dream-like narrative of life before the birth of the main character, Marion. All of this together makes for some pretty foggy reading.

There is a (non-spoiler) scene around the 150 page mark that speaks volumes about the pace of this book. Ghosh, one of the resident doctors at the mission (called Missing) hospital is asked to perform voluvus (a blockage in the bowel) surgery on a controvertial army colonel. The surgery is ultimately successful, Ghosh saves the colonel's life and the colonel is able to pass stool once again. I found this bit to be an interesting piece of art-imitates-my-reading.

Perhaps it was my own state of mind during the first few days of reading but it seemed to me that the novel itself had been suffering from a blocked narrative and this little piece of fictionalized surgery removed the blockage and allowed for the story to finally progress unobstructed without asides, tangents or fuzzy pre-birth assumptions. It was only after this scene that I was able to settle into the book and truly enjoy it.

Minor thing, I know and certainly not the sort of thing that should dissuade you from reading this novel, especially if you are interested in Africa, medicine or complicated familial relationships. Ultimately, this book is well worth the effort. Abraham Verghese is a stunningly adept writer of prose and a vibrant new face in the literary world. I'll be on the lookout for his other work in the near future.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Clara Callan

Clara Callan
By Richard B. Wright

Note: This post will include some possible spoilers, so if you plan to read Clara Callan, perhaps you may want to bookmark this page and return here upon completion of the novel.

The following is a transcript of an actual conversation I had with a Kiwi buddy. We often ask about the books we are currently reading and when he sawRichard B. Wright's Clara Callan sitting on my desk he asked:

Kiwi: "Is this any good?"

Canadian: "Yes, but you won't like it."

Kiwi: "Why not?"

Canadian: "It's Canlit."

Kiwi: "Canlit? You guys have a word for novels written by Canadian writers?"

Canadian: "Yeah. Don't New Zealanders have a term for novels written by New Zealand writers?"

Kiwi: "Yeah. We call them books."


It's no secret that Canadians are fiercely nationalist. We are not nationalist in the American-jingoist sense of the word but rather in a more self-concious way. Canadians make a sport of fretting over identity and Canadian-ness to the point of fault. It's a by product of sleeping in bed with an elephant. The tired myth of Canadian patches on backpacks round the world has warmed the hearts of millions in the Great White North as a way in which we identify ourselves as "not-American." This obssession with what it means to be Canadian (aka not American) spills over into literature. Canadian readers obssesively read Canadian novels as if it will somehow make them more Canadian. I've not encountered any other readers from any other English-speaking nation that go out of their way to read so many books by writers from their home countries. It's a small part of a larger phenomenon that I have noticed over the past eight years as a Canadian living abroad: Canadians are incorrigibly Canadian.

I prefer to remain pithy on that last statement for now. I, being Canadian, will most assuredly read another Canadian novel before too long. I believe my citizenship would be revoked it I didn't.When I do read another, I promise expound on this theory or incorrigibility further.

Anyway, back to Clara Callan.

If I (or any other Canadian) were to write the stereotypical Canadian novel it would read something similar to Clara Callan. This is not to say that it is a bad book. Far from it. I enjoyed the holy hell out of this book. It's a real page-turner and such and such but it had virtually every element that Canadian writers use in crafting their unique stories of life in the bleak wastelands of the provinces. Everything is stereotypical in this novel: the setting, the characters, the themes. Everything!

But don't take my word for it, Let's put Clara Callan to the test. Here is an informal list of elemets found in a good many Canadian novels. In brackets next to the elements in whether or not Clara Callan contains said elements. It's startling!:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945. (check!)
2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement. (check!)
3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification. (check)
4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men. (check x2)
5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks. (check x2)
6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality. (check!)
7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge. (check!)
8. Story involves a major snowstorm (check!)
10. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism (check!)
11. Story explores multiculturalism. (big miss on this one...)
12. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes. (check!)

Twelve out of thirteen for Clara Callan! If there was any doubt, this book won the Governor General's Award AND the Giller Prize in 2001.

And how could it not?

Friday, April 8, 2011

In a Free State

In a Free State
By V.S. Naipaul

(This blog post concerned the third (of three) and longest story in V.S. Naipaul's novel In a Free State. The first two stories concern third world immigrants to America and England respectively and are not discussed below.... just so you know)

I suppose you just had to be there.

That's how I felt about On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I suppose if I was young and savage and living on society's fringes in the 1950s On The Road would have been a virtual bible in my hands. But by the time I read it in my late twenties in 2004 it read like so much self-indulgent hippie drivel. So irresponsibly self-absorbed and frivolous. A precursor to the Woodstock generation. I suspect that a good portion of people under the age of 40 who claim to like Kerouac do so simply because they have been instructed to like it because, at one particular point in history, Kerouac was the epitome of cool.

As was Hunter S. Thompson. and although I actually enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it didn't hit me the way it must have hit readers when it first appeared 30 years ago. The drug and alcohol fuelled mayhem of Thompson's novel has been repeated ad nausem by lesser writers for so long that going back to the original doesn't really cut it. I've also heard some people say the same for Catcher in the Rye, but I'm not having that. Salinger's novel is as relevant today as it ever was. And as long as there are kids falling through the cracks of the education system, it will continue to speak to generations.

1984 is another dated "classic." A scathing and terrifyingly inaccurate notion of a distopian future circa 1930. While I love old ideas of what the future holds (Metropolis, The Jetsons etc...), they don't hold up well in the common consciousness. I have no idea why 1984 is considered a classic novel. Animal Farm, sure. 1984? Never.

I suppose Orwell had all the reason in the world to believe that the world would turn out that way given the direction things were heading at the time of his writing 1984, but the book has not dated well. Turns out that Orwell's vision of the future has not come to pass and when I read 1984 in high school (in 1993, by the way) I was astute enough to tell my then English teacher, Mr. Switzer, that the book had long since passed its expiration date. Aldous Huxley was far closer to the mark with his idea of a world brimming with pleasurable distractions (Brave New World).

I guess you just had to be there?

The entire genre of colonial literature is another example of books I suspect would have been more poignant if I had grown up in that particular social environment. Since very few people of European and North American descent under the age of 65 still hold to the tenants of the "white man's burden," it is extremely hard for younger readers to connect with novels such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or George Orwell's (Again! What gives, George?) Burmese Days. Most people simply don't see Africa and Asia in that same light.

This goes for V.S. Naipaul's Booker Prize Winning (1971) novel In a Free State which deals primarily with two acquaintances driving across a nameless African state (most likely Uganda or Rwanda) on the verge of a military coup against the Western-supported king. The vast majority of the story consists of conversations between these two characters, an aging colonel and an African named Peter, all of which deals with the the dying days of imperialism.

While certainly the problems that came with colonialism have not simply disappeared in Africa, the Middle East or Asia and certainly western country's have not simple "butted out" of their respective business, many of the attitudes of average Western people (especially among ex-pats living in said countries) has radically changed. Cultural relativism has replaced old colonial values among many Europeans and North American's living abroad. It seemed a little absurd to read a novel that was personifying the struggle between these two viewpoints.

But I'm no social or cultural anthropologist, so I'm not really interested in waxing intellectual on colonialism vs. cultural relativism. I am, however, a North American living (permenantly) in an Asian country I feel as though I have a valid opinion. Naipaul's novel seems as though it would have been a bombastic novel of vital importance when it was published in 1971 amid the burgeonining independence of dozens of states around the world but reading it today it seems to have lost it's cultural imortance, unless of course you are reading it as a piece of historical curiosity.

If so, it's worth a look, otherwise, In A Free State is, like so many other novels of their particular place and time, out of place in 2011.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Black Ajax

Black Ajax
By George MacDonald Fraser

I have a theory about sports movies. It goes like this: Sport, as a subject for a non-comedic film, rarely works. Sure there are all sorts of comedies about sports that entertain (Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, Slapshot etc...) but when it comes to making a serious, poignant film about a sport, the pickings become fairly slim.

There are two exceptions to this rule, however: The first exception is boxing. For whatever reason, film has always been about to portray boxing with delicacy and humnity than, say.... bobsledding. Does boxing possess more pathos than bobsled competitors? Well, ok... bad example, but there is no shortage of great films about boxing: Raging Bull, Ali, The Hurricane, Rocky among dozens of others. I guess there is something about pummelling other humans within an inch of their life that makes for human tragedy as well as filmatic consumption.

(The other exception to the sport movie theory is baseball movies starring Kevin Costner. I have no idea why but baseball movies roundly stink and Kevin Costner is an unforgivably awful actor but when baseball and Costner are brought together, it's magic. But I digress).

I am beginning to wonder whether this theory may apply to fiction as well. Surely, there is no shortage of excellent non-fiction about sport. Some recent reads include Our Game by Ken Dryden (Hockey), Invictus by John Carlin (Rugby) and The Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig (Baseball) all of which reduced me to tears, but the list of good sport non-fiction is longer than I care to type and I'm trying to get somewhere with this post, so lets just agree that sports are well covered in the non-fiction category, shall we?

Finding good fiction about sport is more difficult and usually relegated to the world of Young Adult Fiction. Here's why: The fun-loving loser (or team of losers) winning the championship works only if it's a true story. It comes across as a tired cliche if it is fictionalized. If there is an animal or alien or magician or magical alien animals involved in the winning of said championship all the more reason to not read it. With all due respect to the genre of young adult fiction, I'm not young. I want something a little more nuanced.

Black Ajax is that book.

I must admit, Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser is a bit like cheating to get an example of good sport fiction. First, it's historical fiction which immediately makes the story more believable since, you know, it actually happened, more or less. Second, it's about boxing which, as I mentioned above, makes for good human tragedy. Third it is about a particularly misunderstood era of the sport (bare knuckle boxing) and finally it is about Tom Molineaux, a former American slave and the first black man to challenge for the title of Champion of England. You simply can't make up a story that interesting.

George MacDonald Fraser is a scholar of Victorian England, its culture as well as its language and does a stunning job of chronicling the events of Molineaux's life leading up to his title fights with Tom Cribb through the voices of witnesses (trainers, former boxers, fellow slaves, sportswriters, his opponents and even the Prince of Wales) all written in painstakingly realisitic Victorian and pugilistic vernacular. A glossary is provided to translate the vast repitoire of slang used by the witnesses.

Black Ajax gives a stark and often grotesque account of the world of bare-knuckle boxing during the years of the Napoleonic Wars and the hold Tom Molineaux had over the sport for the year of two in which he was the talk of the Fancy (world of English Boxing). Fraser harsh narrative is in accordance with the views and prejudices of the time and the leading characters of the brutal sport. Reality is what a reader should look for in a work of historical fiction. In Black Ajax, the reader is provided with a wonderful example of how it should be written.

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Cider House Rules

The Cider House Rules
by John Irving

An open letter to John Irving:

Dear John,

Please excuse my sudden interuption of your highly successful career. I realize that an author of your caliber has very little time to answer open letters addressed to himself on random blogs scattered about the internet but if I could just ask you to put down that enormous bucket of money for a second and hear me out, I think it would do you and your readers a little good.

It's odd that I feel a little like your character Wilbur Larch who, in his ever-so-gradual descent into an ether-fuelled senility begins writing to President Roosevelt (and later Truman and Eisenhower) to plead his case for the legalization of abortion. Perhaps I should have begun this letter: Dear Mamie.

Ha ha. Just a joke, John. Just a joke. I'm not senile.

Not yet.

First, I must confess that I have not read a lot of your books. This is not entirely my fault, as you might not know. I don't often come across your novels in Taiwan (you should talk to your agent and publishers about that, by the way). But I did read A Prayer For Owen Meany way back in high school and recall enjoying it quite a bit.... High school, John. That was over 20 years ago. Jeez, we're getting old, huh?

I remember that Owen Meany freaked me out. Not the book, but the character. Can't remember why, though. I have forgotten most of that book.

Anyway, I just now got through your 600 page opus, The Cider House Rules. I want you to know, John, that I didn't enjoy this book and I want to tell you why: I can see by the clothes on your back and the bushel-full of currency you have at your feet that you must be doing something right. You don't spend your days unloading stacks of Benjamins if you're doing it wrong and who am I to sit here hunched over my keyboard in the early hours of an Asian morning to tell you otherwise?

(Benjamin is apparently a slang term for an American one hundred dollar bill, John. I just looked it up, Kids, these days, huh?)

Well, since you are still reading, I can only expect you want to know. It occured to me while reading The Cider House Rules that you have trouble commencing a book. It's lucky for you that I'm not the sort of person that puts a book down, John. It took me over 250 pages of random nonesense to get even a feel of where you were going. The story meandered around with no apparent sense of direction or purpose. It got so bad that I expected you to wax intellectual about a crowd of golden daffodils at one point.

Oh, it's not like I demand predictability from a novel. If you continue down this blog, you will see that I quite enjoyed the entirely unpredictable work of Kazuo Ishiguro and who doesn't like a good Kurt Vonnegut novel, hey John? Anyway, I certainly don't want to know the plot before it happens but I do want a book to catch my imagination before I am a full third into the reading. And since you're such a verbose and pleonastic fellow who often write books in excess of 500 pages, a third of a book is a hell of an investment to make just to get interested. It makde me wonder: Did you know where this book was going when you started it? Hell, there wasn't even a damned cider house until 300 pages in!

Wait, wait! I know you are checking your watch. I know you are thinking: I've sold millions of books, many of which have been made into movies that star Michael Caine and John Lithgow, why should I listen to the critique of one guy, living in the outskirts of nowhere, writing a blog read by the bare minimum of his friends and suffering from attention deficeit disorder.

Well, you shouldn't.

But, if it's all the same to you, I still felt it necessary to let you know, personally, why I didn't enjoy your novel (or, more precisely, why it took me 250 pages to develop even the slightest interest in the development of your characters, setting and plot). That's the sort of thing that makes me not want to read your other work, which will very marginally affect your vast and more-than-adequate income which, in turn, should be infintisimally disconcerting to you.


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