Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sex With Kings

Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge
By Eleanor Herman

Sex With Kings is the sort of niche history that really gets me going. I love it when a historian bites off a little corner of history and chews on it for 200-300 pages, especially if it is a subject that has otherwise been left to rot on the side of the plate. Subjects such as the etymology and evolution of the word fuck or the history of the human fear of premature burial arouse in me a curiosity that must be satiated.

When I came across Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge (via someone else's book blog, but I forget whose. If you read this and it was your blog let me know and I will edit in your credit) my insatiable curiosity was roused. How could a history of royal mistresses not fail to entertain as well as inform. So long as it didn't focus on the detritus one finds in the British tabloids, this should have been a fantastic read.

Well, it is.

And it isn't.

First, one must give Eleanor Herman her dues. This book is an exhaustive piece of research. One wonders whether she was able to get her hands on every single existing letter written by or about royal mistresses since the reign of Louis XIV and if it isn't the definitive work on the subject, it should be.

This book is stuffed with juicy details into the private lives of the kings and queens of Europe. From the sorcery that some mistresses performed to maintain their relations with the king to the knifing ways in which they batted off pretenders to their position to the manner in which each of them was cast aside upon the death of their royal benefactor. It is a veritable historical gossip rag full of exposes and scandals.

But it that was it, if the sole purpose of Herman's work was to satisfy the leering eyes of historical royal worshippers then this book would be pointless. Herman also examines the ways in which mistresses have shaped the history of Europe. How some wars were the direct result of the meddling and others were settled due to the soothing hand of a king's dangerous liaison. In the case of King Ludwig of Bavaria, his mistress Lola Montez directly caused the revolution of 1848 that eventually forced the King to abdicate his throne and move into exile.

But I did have some problems with this book. First and foremost is the title of the book. When I first heard about this title I was excited to read the way in which mistresses were kept and perceived in a wide variety of royal and imperial settings. Sex With Kings suffers from excessive Euro-centrism. This wouldn't have bothered me so much had it been mentioned in the title. something like Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge in Europe, but it wasn't called that. I wanted to know about the Imperial courts in Japan and China, the harems of Middle Eastern kingdoms and the such. But it concentrated primarily on Europe (and if I'm being honest, it focused even more primarily on Western Europe, Russia and Serbia only factoring in on a couple of occasions).

I also didn't enjoy the organization of the book. I understand that this is always a problematic point for anyone writing history. Do you write your subject chronologically, thematically or do you write it as a character study. Here, Herman chooses a thematic organization with such chapter headings as Beyond the Bed - The Art of Pleasing a King and Loving Profitably - The Wages of Sin. I suppose this organization was as good as any other but I found it difficult to juggle the names of kings, queens and mistresses from chapter to chapter. When Herman refers to Madame du Pompadour for the umpteenth time in chapter 10 I was forever trying to remember whether she was the mistress of Louis XIV or Louis XV. I would have preferred a character study that was divided either by king or by mistress.

Nevertheless, Herman is forgiven any personal problems a reader might have with her work. As it stands, she has bitten off a chunk of history to call all her own. As of this moment, Eleanor Herman is the official authority on the history of royal mistresses in Europe.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


By Jeet Thayil

Note: Apologies, this blog post is rushed and poorly written due to the fact that my wife and I have just recently had our first child and things are a little hectic around the house. I hope I can figure out how to maintain the quality of this blog over time without neglecting my duties as a father. Let's see.

It's tough to write a different book about India.

Lots of writers write about India. It's one of those mystical locales that was tailor made for story telling with its bouquet of culture, its irrepressible sights, sounds and smells and its rich history, India has been the setting for dozens of novels that have achieved serious critical acclaim. In fact, since 1997 three Man Booker Prize winning novels have been written by Indian novelists and if you go back through the history of the prize you find that, aside from the Indian winners, many of the winning novels were set in India. 

But something I have noticed over the years is that every modern book I read about India invariably returns to the same themes over and over, most notably the continuous reverberations of colonialism and a level of navel-gazing that rivals Canadian literature. While they are always well written and interesting, I have been waiting to get my hands on something a little different from the sub-continent for some time. Jeet Thayil's novel Narcopolis is just that book.

While Narcopolis didn't win this year's Man Booker Prize, it did make the short list, and thank god for that. Thayil dared to write a novel about India without resorting to the aforementioned safe themes of his contemporaries. Instead, Thayil's narrative is a gritty, no holds barred view into the world of drugs and prostitution in the slums of Bombay. It is a side of India that is rarely mentioned in the English literature from India. While I'm not sure if I'd want to read a glut of books about opium dens in Bombay, I sure would like to read about India from some new angles.

Fittingly, the novel begins with a seven page run-on sentence and doesn't let up from there. I say "fittingly" because what follows is a dream-like narrative that follows the lives of several noted junkies and prostitutes that frequent the opium dens that were popular in Bombay prior to the 1990s. The story begins in a sort of heyday and the slow demise of the den's popularity parallels the decay of the characters.

Written as a series of entwined anecdotes surrounding Dimple, an opium addict and prostitute in Bombay. Dimple was born a boy but was castrated during childhood and lives her life as a woman. Other characters bob in and out of the narrative and each have their own debauched story to tell. The entire book exudes a certain hazy tone and the novel progresses like the literary equivalent of opium smoke languidly wafting through the air. Often many of the stories drift off into nothingness while others that seem like tangents join with the larger narrative structure and continue on from there. Stories braid themselves around each other throughout and Thayil's style has a lazy, unhurried feel as if he is chewing on the sentences one word at a time, thoughtfully relishing each word and placement in relation to the entire work. The language is debased, vile and at time shockingly graphic, but in the hands of Thayil they are impossible to ignore.

Narcopolis is the first of the 2012 Man Booker Prize short-lister that I have read. For the language alone it is worth the read. Given that it did not win, I am excited to see what may have been deemed better than this carefully crafted work. Furthermore, it's really nice to see some more unorthodox Indian literature getting recognition. Perhaps this means we can expect a run of post-post-colonial literature out of India over the next few years.

One can hope.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By Michael Chabon

It took me an eternity to get around to this book. I read Michael Chabon's book The Yiddish Policemen's Union last year and enjoyed it, but not enough to go rushing out and read another of his books, especially one that is over 600 pages long. But I kept hearing these things about this book. People kept telling me how it was one of the best books of the past ten years and totally deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. It simply weighed my bookcase down for far too long and I had to pick it up.

Glad I did.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is exactly what books and literature is all about. It's good writing and a great story about well-formed characters that deserve and gain the respect and empathy of their readers. It is well researched, impossible to predict and, as everyone seemed to tell me prior to reading, entirely deserving of the accolades it has garnered. OK, so I just sort of started vomiting attributes. Let me slow it down and explain.

First and foremost, Michael Chabon is a fantastic writer. I don't mean "fantastic" in the way we over use the word but rather in its more traditional usage as fanciful. But I knew this to be true when I read The Yiddish Policemen's Union  Of all the things I didn't like about that book (and there were a few things), Chabon's abilities as a writer were never questioned. He has an undeniable ability with tone, pace and, most of all, setting. I could practically smell 1940s Manhattan throughout this novel in the same way I could the Sitka Settlement in The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

As an aspiring writer myself, I find Chabon an intimidating novelist to read and appreciate. Reading a single paragraph is liable to send me to my bedroom a blubbering puddle of delicate emotions wrapped in a flimsy eggshell of a man not to be heard from for the remainder of the weekend. I mean how does he write that eloquently? Damn him! (And when I say "damn him," I mean he's fantastic (And when I say he's fantastic," I me... oh never mind)).

You can be a fantastic writer but if the story doesn't jive with readers, all those pretty paragraphs and succinct sentences (and all that alluring alliteration, I might add) are for naught. This was my fundamental problem with The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Great writing. Excellent characters. Wonderful tone. Good pacing. Boring-assed story. Not so with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I especially loved the fact that each character has their own story to go along with the common story of the novel. As in, each of the characters in the novel has their own problems and tribulations to deal with outside the bubble of the central story. And whereas some authors (coughcathylambcough) tend to spread the issues and drama on thick, Chabon knows exactly how much drama and stress to foist onto his characters shoulders without inducing reading induced epileptic seizures brought on by repeated eye rolling.

I genuinely cared for every single character in this novel (Yes, even Sheldon Anapol). They were rendered in such three dimensional detail that they seemed to have genuine texture and depth. I really felt like these guys existed in the annals of comic book lore. Surrounding him with real life comic book names such as Stan Lee and Bob Kane only augmented the illusion of reality. A very definite blur was put into effect.

And that's something else that deserves mention. Michael Chabon quite obviously researched the hell out of the comic book industry in the 1940s (and the Second World War as fought on the continent of Antarctica as well). As a fan of historical fiction I appreciate the attention to detail. But I also appreciate Chabon's determination to make shit up whenever it pleased him. I like Chabon's attitude toward history: Render it as close as possible to the truth whenever possible but throw it out the window when it doesn't fit the story he's trying to tell. Excellent lesson for any writer.

Speaking of the story, it is not only riveting (as I mentioned earlier) but it is also unpredictable. At no point during this narrative did I have a single clue where Chabon was taking me. There's nothing wrong with predictable story lines, good writers can take you down familiar roads and show you different sights along the way, but it's always nice to have someone show you an entirely different path. I, at no point in the reading of this novel, knew where Chabon was taking me. Furthermore, there were episodes in this novel that I could not have predicted in a thousand years of predictions.

So it won the Pulitzer Prize. Did it deserve it? Of course, I don't know. I haven't yet read everything published from 2000. But it couldn't have been the worst option. As I said off the top, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is everything that a reader should expect from literature. Good writing, strong characters and a romping good story.

I mean, seriously, in literature, what else matters?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye
By J.D. Salinger

Note #1: Never seen that cover, but I'd love to have a copy of it.

I've been a little reticent about writing a blogpost about Catcher in the Rye. It seems a little personal. Of all the books I've read, Catcher in the Rye and I have the closest relationship. It is not my favorite book ever written but it is close and it is the book I have read the most often (I think the last reading was my twelfth or something). I feel like I'm a bit too close to this story to write anything remotely coherent in blogpost so I'll refrain from that. But I can tell you exactly how my relationship with Holden Caulfield has changed over my years of reading.

I picked up my first copy of Catcher in the Rye at a used bookstore in Campbellville, Ontario when I was 16 years old. It was in an Anything for a Quarter box sitting outside the shop and didn't even have a cover. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the book as something iconic but I think the appeal lay solely in the fact that it was the only book in that box that wasn't a fifteen year old computer manual and I had a quarter in my pocket so... why the hell not, right?

Upon first reading, I didn't get it. It all seemed to be about some dumb, horny kid who doesn't care about school, goes to New York, does a bunch of weird stuff in a few bars, goes to a museum, then gets sick. I remember finishing and wondering what all the fuss was about. I also told myself that was the last time I would ever read that nonsense.

A couple of years later I found myself without a book to read or money in which to buy one (18 year old me does not use libraries). It was the summer before university and I wanted to intellectualalate and academicize myself before my sojourn into the world of higher education. For whatever, reason, the book clicked with me on that second reading. Perhaps it was because I had a couple of years under my belt and I had gone and done weird things myself (Sadly, none of them involved prostitutes in seedy hotel rooms). I found myself empathizing with Holden in a way I could not have a couple years prior. While I couldn't exactly understand his aversion to school or growing up, I could totally understand a lot of what made him tick. He was a kid who didn't get all this adult stuff. I totally understood what he was getting at. Holden was a telling it like it was. Adults were all fake and, while I didn't much care for his disregard for education, I could identify with his passionate dislike for those in positions of power.

I didn't pick the book up again for a decade. It wasn't until my first year in Taiwan that I returned to the football field of Pencey Prep. At the age of 28 I wanted to reach into the novel and slap the living daylights out of Holden. He seemed to me to be a sniveling, whiny, entitled little snot of a kid who, granted may have lost his brother and may have the most uncaring parents on the planet, but he just didn't seem to see all the advantages he was being given. He was allowing so much to slip through his fingers. He had no idea how hard it was all going to be once he was really out of school and none of these well-meaning people like Mr. Antolini and Mr. Spencer would be around to try and help him. I fell hard for Phoebe on this reading. I felt terrible for her and the influence he seemed to have on her. This reading really made me think about my own relationship with my own sister and how I might have warped her.

I've picked the book up over a half dozen times over the last three years as I have found it is a particularly excellent book to teach to Taiwanese high school students. The vocabulary isn't difficult (Holden has a very limited vocabulary) and the kids seem to relate to Holden's angst about school, parents, growing up and life in general. The students and I have a ball discussing and analyzing the bit when Holden describes his dream job of being the catcher in the rye who stops children from running off the cliff into the abyss. It is perhaps the best example of metaphor I have ever used as a teacher since it can be interpreted in so many interesting ways.

As for me, my recent readings of the novel have softened my opinion on Holden. I don't want to tear out his trachea anymore. In fact, I find that I have an unlimited ability to pity him. Talking and slapping would never do Holden any good, anyway. He's got the world figured out and there's very little anyone around him is going to say or do to tell him otherwise (Mr. Antolini comes closest but blows it by being A) drunk and B) creepy). I feel bad, but Holden is the sort that is going to have to learn life's lessons the hard way.

To me, Holden is and remains entirely disconnected from the world around him. He, at no point during the relation of the narrative, recognizes that he represents so many of the qualities he describes as phony. He is both a child and a man and totally disaffected. He's completely innocent and understands nothing about the world that is rapidly changing around him. He is caught up in a maelstrom of emotions and trauma, most likely stemming from Allie's death and cannot seem to move forward with his life. His academic, social and eventual physical failure are entirely due to his refusal to grow up despite the fact that everyone and everything around him is screaming at him to do just that. And after all the madman stuff that happened around that Christmas, he learns exactly what you should be expecting him to learn.... Absolutely nothing.

Like no other character in literature, Holden simply breaks my heart every time I read his story.

At this point, when I read Catcher in the Rye I find myself asking a very singular question: What became of Holden?