Apr. 26th, 2017

missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
Last week was rough. I taught three classes, and while that's hardly a ridiculous workload, this whole getting-up-and-being-vulnerable-in-front-of-people thing is still pretty new; after a couple of busy days at the spa to finish out the work week, I was really noticing the drag on my moods. Specifically, I found I was brooding over sociopolitical trends and possible futures that were very much not under my control and therefore unproductive to speculate about. Luckily some rest seems to have restored my usual more cheerful framing of the world, and I've certainly gotten some reading done in all this time spent recuperating!

What I've just finished reading

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss. I'm trying to pinpoint what left me so ultimately unsatisfied with this book, and I'm having a hard time. It perhaps suffers in comparison to Chernow's in-depth period knowledge and detailed historical detective work, but as popular biographies go it's certainly solid. Reiss has done his homework, sought out primary sources, and put together a perfectly creditable account of the senior Alex Dumas' life. Moreover, in doing so, he also gives a solid narrative of the arc of the French Revolution, and specifically the state of civil rights among men of African descent in France and its colonies at the time. Things I learned: France proper was the first European nation, post-Revolution, to establish universal manumission and emancipation; the Revolution's initial principles of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité were deemed to require it. It's not a fact without a significant asterisk, though; the situation in the colonies, whose primary export was slave sugar, was far more complicated. And eventually Napoleon walked it back entirely, due to both pressure from plantation owners and concerns about France's ability to compete in a marketplace flooded with cheap slave-produced goods. (It turns out that slavery, like most extractive institutions, was perniciously difficult to dismantle.) All pretty fascinating stuff.

And yet, coming away from it, I don't really feel like I have a sense for who Dumas was. Reiss talks at several points about how the future novelist Alexandre Dumas practically worshipped his father, despite (or perhaps because of) the senior Dumas having died when Alexandre was four. But it seems like we spend the entire book looking at Alex from Alexandre's perspective: a giant of a man, who did so many amazing things, suffered an unjust imprisonment and betrayal by his government, and eventually died in what should have been his prime. There's no real sense of intimacy, no feeling of who this man was other than the swashbuckling hero his son (and most of the world) saw him as. Not having access to the same primary sources Reiss did, I'm not sure if this is due to lack of details or merely a hesitancy on Reiss' part to ascribe motive and personality only implied by the text (whereas Chernow would get right in there and offer his opinion, as well as three or four pieces of evidence to support his assertion). It's a much more hands-off approach to biography-writing, and certainly more concise, but I have to admit my preference for the more intimate type, when it's well done - I'm interested in people because they're people, with their own personal histories and foibles and quirks and internal narratives. Their place in history is interesting, but ultimately secondary in my personal consideration.

What I'm reading now

What the F, by Benjamin K. Bergen. Still enjoying this irreverent take on linguistics, but I've noticed a pattern in the text that's starting to chafe a bit. Each chapter is written very much like a talk on the subject - tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them. (Often this pattern also holds section by section, and occasionally concept by concept!) The author is an admitted academic, and perhaps that's par for the course for academic writing, but it starts to feel more than a bit repetitive. Initially I didn't mind it so much, as I was listening and I figured it'd help me if I missed something important, but recently I've noticed my mind tending to drift because I know he'll summarize or rephrase it later. Frustrating, because there's some good stuff here, but it feels more than a bit like we're padding things out to make it to book length.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. Arguably one of the oldest entries on my to-read list - I've been meaning to read it ever since seeing the 1982 Anthony Andrews miniseries when I was...ten? Maybe? In any case, having just read an actual history of the French Revolution, now seemed like a good time to visit one of the more famous pieces of fiction set in the period. I was surprised to discover that, contrary to usual, they fleshed out the story more than a little for the adaptation - the book begins far more in medias res, and keeps the identity of the titular character secret for far longer. I'm also amused at how clearly, despite the setting, it reads as a turn-of-the-century potboiler; I'm not sure I could put my finger on anything, but there are certain turns of phrase and stylistic quirks that put me in mind of Dickens or Collins. For all that, it's certainly enjoyable enough, and I like that so much of the narrative is being told from Marguerite's point of view.

What I plan to read next

Subject to change, as always, but over this past week I had several bits and pieces of Madelene L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time series recurring in my mind - perhaps understandably, given that she wrote them during (and often about) the Cold War. This morning I ordered the set off Amazon; I haven't read them in years (and there's a fifth book I didn't know existed!), but I have a feeling the themes will resonate, probably more than they did when I was a kid.


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