So, for the record, this is what my star ratings mean:
5 stars = FREAKING EPIC, gigantic story, everything works well, my mind is blown that a human being thought this up.
4 stars = love this book, it's just not as humongous in scope as a 5. But it's totally awesome and everyone should read it, it's a keeper.
3 stars = mixed feelings (this is where the "I think others might like it, it's just not for me" reviews are likely to go). Not that bad, but has some issues, or it's an okay story but nothing really stands out to me as being memorable. It was a pleasant enough read for a few days, but I'll probably just end up giving the book away rather than rereading it again.
2 stars = generally pretty terrible, but not 100% so. There was at least one thing in this book that made it not totally horrible. This book isn't really recommended to all and sundry, but you might get some value out of the one thing if you try.
1 star (rarely seen here): It's a wallbanger. Nothing is redeemable about this book, it's utter crap, and I probably only finished reading it so I could do an awesome bitchrant about it and I can't justify doing that to books I didn't finish.
So here's the last of my Sarah Vowell reading, just in time for Thanksgiving! I'll admit I had reservations about this one because it's about the Puritans, and are they really anyone's favorite anything? Sarah mentions that most folks her age know of the Puritans through the usual stuff in school and terrible television comedy episodes. After watching the Happy Days Thanksgiving episode, “I remember sitting there watching that and realizing, for the first of many times, “Oh. Maybe the people who founded this country were kind of crazy.”
“Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Betwitched produced not one but two time-travel witch trial episodes-one for each Darrin.” “Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.”
Sarah’s also delighted to recount the brief existence of a 1999 show called Thanks, about how miserable the Puritans were in winter. “The show was quickly canceled, but I cannot overstate how excited I was about it. I felt the way an avid stamp collector might if she found out CBS was about to debut its new series, CSI: Philately.” The gag is that they’re all miserable in a cramped cold house wher ethe teenager can’t stomp off to her room. “The main character, here named James Winthrop, though he’s clearly modeled after John, is the lone dreamer in a town full of whiners. He welcomes in the spring, saying, “What a beautiful day it is. The snow is melting. Everyone out and about airing out their clothes, lugging out their dead.”
Anyway, so she got fascinated with television Puritans, but what about the real ones? She’ll tell you:
“I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell.”
“This book is about those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem, the ones who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then Rhode Island during what came to be called the Great Migration.” She wants to focus on them because “the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire.” She cites John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he calls on New England to be “a city on a hill.” Which was something Reagan cited a LOT.
“Because even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don’t even believe in God! And I have heard the screams! Why is America the last best hope of Earth? What if it’s Lichtenstein? Or, worse, Canada?”
She goes into some detail on Puritan beliefs--namely that God will do whatever he wants and then Puritans will thank him for it anyway, God already knows if you’re going to hell or not so you need to seem saved, and even John Calvin himself doubted if he was a good enough Calvinist--“which is of course the most Calvinist thought he could have.” John Winthrop mentions a woman who went so crazy over the idea she threw her baby down a well and said now she was sure she should be damned. “That’s how heavy the weight of Calvinism can be-that a mother would seek relief in murdering her own offspring.”
Even though Sarah starts out liking Governor Winthrop, she likes him less as her reading goes on. Christian charity? He orders a dude to be whipped, LOSE HIS EARS, and get banished--but the latter won’t happen until winter’s over. “Winthrop was one of those parents who never wants to see his kid again but drives him to the bus station to make sure he leaves town warm and dry.”
This one's probably more of a research/retelling book rather than a travelogue. While there's some travel scenes here and there with sister Amy and nephew Owen, mostly it sounds like Amy and/or Owen found them very disturbing. Owen was traumatized by a museum video and started asking Sarah if ANY states never had a war (nope), and in that case, which state probably had the least wars? Sarah guesses “Idaho?” but guess what, they had a war too. Meanwhile, Amy runs into “Pilgrim Archie Bunker” at a re-created English village and gets annoyed at his bigotry towards Indians. “Then my sister grabbed Owen by the arm and said, “Come on, Owen. Let’s get out of here before Mama punches a Pilgrim.” I like you, Amy.
Here's a fun incident for you: “A certain Salem resident who shall remain John Endecott”--oh, Sarah. wanted the red cross of Saint George cut out of the king’s flag because Puritans don’t like crosses and consider it a graven image and idol worship. Knowing “that gossip this juicy is not going to stay on this side of the Atlantic for long,” eventually the court condemns Endicott, but he gets a mild sentence of not being allowed to hold public office for a year--”and not, say, having his ears sliced off with his own flag-ripping sword, because he acted “out of tenderness of conscience, and not any evil intent.” In other words, they agreed with what he did, just not the showboating way he did it.” Uh-HUH, Puritans.
There’s a lot of fun involving the religious battles of ministers Roger Williams and John Cotton. “Neither Williams nor Cotton will ever get over their arguments of 1633-35. The two will spend the rest of their lives irking each other so much they would engage in the seventeenth-century New England version of a duel: pamphlet fight!”
A lot of the book is dedicated to the drama that Williams stirred up in particular.
“Williams’s greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing more than harmony and groupthink. He cares more about truth than popularity or respect or personal safety. And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination, and religious liberty that good people now hold dear. In his tormented, lonesome, obsessive, Calvinist way, he is free. I find him hard to like, but easy to love.”
Roger Williams writes his wife a letter when he hears she’s ill and oh, the snark that Sarah comes up with about it. He sends her something worth more than gold and silver: a sermon that he considers a bouquet. “See? This is better than regular flowers. Regular flowers can’t boss her around from the grave.” Also: “This charming, romantic get-well card includes this returning image of a repeat sinner: a dog vomiting, then lapping up its own vomit. There is the comforting reminder that Mrs. Williams should regard her bout of the sniffles as a “warning from heaven to make ready for a sudden call to be gone from hence,” i.e. as good practice for death.” Fun dude.
Massachusetts Bay colonists consider a lot of things to be omens, such as Roger Williams getting a case of laryngitis being a hint that he should shut up. “it pleased him to stop your mouth by a sudden disease, and to threaten to take your breath from you,” said John Cotton. Eventually Williams gets banished from the colony for refusing to shut up when writing letters--because nothing will shut him up!
And then there’s my favorite Puritan, Anne Hutchinson, “a female blabbermouth who is so difficult and so defiant that the General Court will long for the good old days of bickering with the comparatively easygoing Williams.” Anne was a John Cotton groupie that she followed to America. She had a husband that pretty much did what she wanted and fifteen kids. She was a midwife, met all of the ladies in town, and held some Bible study classes that got pretty popular and influential, down to the Governor listening to her.
“Unfortunately, Hutchinson didn’t write down or publish any of her commentaries. She suffers the same fate in the historical record as the Pequot: her thoughts and deeds have been passed down to us solely through the writings of white men who pretty much hate her guts.”
“She has something other people want, some combination of confidence and glamour and hope. She is the Puritan Oprah--a leader, a guru, a star.” Hutchinson, still swooning, spiritually speaking, for Cotton, nevertheless starts departing from her mentor’s lectures and lets rip her own opinions and beliefs.” This was considered threatening. “The difference between Anne Hutchinson and her accusers is that Hutchinson believes that anyone, even a nonbeliever, can seem saved. The only way to know one is saved is when one feels saved. Puritans, however, are suspicious of feelings, especially the feelings of a woman without proper theological training from Cambridge University.”So they put her on trial and she argues like a champ. “Winthrop really is no match for Hutchinson’s logic. Most of his answers to her challenges boil down to “Because I said so.” Anyway, her friend Cotton exonerates her, and she could have gotten acquitted except that Anne ... kept on talking and got herself banished for being super scandalous.
“I wish I didn’t understand why Hutchinson risks damning herself to exile and excommunication just for the thrill of shooting off her mouth and making other people listen up. But this here book is evidence that I have this confrontational, chatty bent myself. I got my first radio job when I was eighteen years old and I’ve been yakking on air or in print ever since. Hutchinson is about to have her life--and her poor family’s--turned upside down just so she can indulge in the sort of smart-alecky diatribe for which I’ve gotten paid for the last twenty years.”
Anne claims she hears the voice of God, Moses, John the Baptist, the Antichrist.... which she knew by an immediate revelation, she claims. “This is blasphemous enough, but she’s on a roll. She then dares them to mess with her, a woman who has the entire Holy Trinity on speed dial.” She compares herself to Abraham and Daniel and thinks she’s going to be saved by God. “She was quoting God. Not the Bible. Just something God said to her one day when they were hanging out.” At this point Cotton has a dilemma-- if he sticks up for her now, he'll get banished. So instead he sells her out and she gets banished and excommunicated. Banishment left her “somewhat dejected,” but excommunication cheered her right up. According to Winthrop’s diary, “she gloried in her sufferings, saying that it was the greatest happiness, next to Christ, that ever befell her.” She moved to Rhode Island with her friends/followers and Roger Williams and founded Portsmouth.
(Then the book gets into this whole “buried the mutant fetus” rumor thing where it was rumored that Hutchinson buried her friend Mary Dyer's mutant baby and they actually dug up the body to check. They blame the mutant baby on Anne, and then gloat when Anne's sixteenth kid is born dead. Sarah straight up calls Winthrop a monster when he mines for gossip about that one, and John Cotton celebrates the death of the fetus in his next sermon. GROSS, PEOPLE.)
At the end of the book, Sarah visits the Hutchinson-Dyer Women’s Healing Garden and feels uncomfortable there. “It’s unfair that her gender kept her from pursuing her calling. She should have been a minister or a magistrate. She should have had John Cotton’s job--or John Winthrop’s. Instead, she spent her working life brewing groaning beer and burying deformed fetuses in the dead of night.” Hear, hear.
Let's finish out with a Quote Corner:
“Honestly, I wish I wasn’t so moved by this Puritan quandary. I wish I did not identify with their essential questions: What if my country is destroying itself? Could I leave? Should I? And if so, what time’s the next train to Montreal?”
“So I always cringed, wondering why, when the English showed up, most of the Cherokee dropped whatever they were doing and adopted English ways on the spot, from becoming Christians and speaking English to eventually printing their own newspaper, ratifying a constitution, and owning black slaves like the white Southerners they aspired to be. Perhaps this is why: they “despaired so much that they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe.” It makes so much sense. Some microscopic predator comes along and wipes out most of the tribe and of course they would abandon their gods. Their gods abandoned them. Of course, they would take one look at the English-so alive, so well-and bow down to this English deity with so much mojo he endows his believers with some magical vaccine.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors: and let each successive generation thank Him, no less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.”
The Vowell family stays in the Mohegan Sun Casino, run by the Mohegan tribe. “It looks like it was designed by Ralph Lauren, Bugsy Siegel, and Willy Wonka after a night of peyote. Which is to say that I kind of like it.”
“So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy--namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed.”Still smarting about Gore, I see.
“In fact, before this trial started, the colony’s elders had agreed to raise four hundred pounds to build a college but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it. After Hutchinson’s trial, they got cracking immediately and founded Harvard so as to prevent random, home-schooled female maniacs from outwitting magistrates in open court and seducing colonists, even male ones, into strange opinions.”
The author is the Chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, “has won the most prestigious awards for White House coverage and is the former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.” He has written six other books. I found this book while digging up Sarah Vowell books--along with another book with the exact same title so we’ll see how that goes when I get to reading it. I thought the title sounded like a great topic and grabbed it. However, this book is VERY short-barely over 200 pages-and it feels like the whole idea behind it must have petered out uh, pretty quickly/maybe halfway through the subject matter. Basically, the first half is fairly interesting, albeit short, and then the second half feels like a bunch of listicles. Since it was published in 2015, I don't know, maybe that's "the thing," but it gets kinda like a trivia book or filler at the end.
The book's idea is cool--analyzing how some presidents worked their celebrity, created a positive image, showed that they were down with the general public and pop culture-and how some just totally did not do it well at all. The author identifies certain criteria that presidents need to follow--represent what's best in America, stand for our values, define themselves positively and distinctively, and need to be larger than life/iconic. He then goes to identify which presidents were good at that and which weren't. Let's give a rundown, shall we?
Old school presidential stars:
Washington was treated like a rock star, even though he wasn't particularly into being one. He looked the part and created an image.
Lincoln had the common touch and knew how to play to his audience, and Northerners felt like he understood them. He had an official campaign photograph taken of him from a distance and standing up to emphasize his height rather than his funny looking head and lack of fashion. Even then, apparently photographers could retouch that sort of thing. It was a big hit. Lincoln's one liners were treasured, particularly the time when Stephen A. Douglas called him two faced and Lincoln memorably said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”
Jackson was a champion of the plain people and the first ordinary president, a war hero, man of the people. He also threw a party just to serve people a giant block of cheddar cheese, which led to a huge mess.
Grover Cleveland apparently became popular for marrying his old law partner's 21-year-old daughter Frances, who was Jackie Kennedy before Jackie Kennedy existed--gorgeous, smart, charitable (she supported the "Washington Home for Friendless Colored Girls") and threw a lot of parties. They lived on a farm near DC to get away from the paparazzi.
The six biggest stars to occupy the White House in modern times:
Teddy Roosevelt was an athletic legend, kicked off the "teddy bear" phenomenon for refusing an easy kill, and held a summit meeting of football coaches to talk about injuries (something Obama has tried too) and actually got some reforms going in 1906.
FDR used radio to bring the country together, and always left them wanting more by only doing 2-3 "fireside chats" a year for a half hour. He actually wore a false tooth to muffle a whistling noise he normally made while talking. “He once told the actor Orson Welles, “There are only two great actors in America—you are the other one.” He realized that being associated with stars would increase his fame and get him more money, but he couldn’t look too into that without also looking superficial. “He understood that it would be best for him to establish a direct bond of celebrity with the American people," and he had 18 stars attend his birthday party in 1940. Regarding his polio, “Roosevelt didn’t mind that people knew he had polio, but he kept the extent of his disability a secret from the public. Even news photographers at the White House were part of the cover-up. They wouldn’t take or use photos of the president in a wheelchair showing that his legs were useless. Photographers starting work at the White House were told these ground rules in no uncertain terms.”
JFK: “There is an old saying in politics that a candidate is greatly advantaged if he likes and enjoys people and even more if people know that he likes and enjoys them. Kennedy won praise in this regard. He liked himself, he liked politics, he liked and enjoyed people, and people knew it. He had stage presence and star quality.” –Thomas E. Cronin, political scientist. JFK was the son of a Hollywood film mogul and loved show business people. While he wasn't into classical music/opera/ballet, Jackie was, so they hosted a lot of those events at the White House. JFK himself was more into reading, especially James Bond.
Reagan, an actor, of course knew how to handle these things. “How can a president not be an actor?” he said. People wanted to be seen with him. In 1984 Lesley Stahl did a hard hitting negative story about Reagan’s policies that the Deputy Chief of Staff LOVED. Uh, why? To quote the fellow himself, Michael Deaver: “Nobody heard what you said…. You guys in televisionland haven’t figured it out yet, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.” Ouch. Where Stahl went wrong is that she used positive photos! He was staged very well. Reagan also used pop culture references, had Michael Jackson over, and said politicians have to be entertaining or they will flop. He also managed to look "more presidential" by not wearing a coat around Gorbachev. Reagan got totally offended and hurt when some lady said she thought he was the best president, but she never liked him as an actor. He preferred to be complimented on both!
Cut to Bill Clinton playing his sax on Arsenio, eating junk food, watching a lot of movies, being the rock 'n roll president. He hung out with actors and jogged in public.
Obama uses his celebrity to get approval from the general public rather than Congress (because ain't no way he can get that). He's been on Fallon and Between Two Ferns, uses social media, and uses himself as a role model in speeches.
And here's the presidents who REALLY sucked at PR:
Johnson and Nixon were workaholics who were mostly only interested in politics and power, so they weren’t really interested in anything else that other people were interested in.
Eisenhower: competent but boring.
Truman had tough decisions that weren’t popular.
Johnson did terrible on television, came off as a belligerent cowboy. Had zero interest in popular culture, didn’t market himself to voters.
Nixon was an anticelebrity—couldn’t connect with popular culture even though he tried. He met with Elvis, which was just weird. Sample conversation between them: “You dress kind of strange, don’t you?” “You have your show and I have mine.” He invited Merle Haggard, to the white house but nobody was into country music except for Okie from Muskogee. Nixon did connect with people as a sports fan.
Ford unfortunately had several public trip and fall moments and despite being an athlete, made everyone think he was a huge klutz and got all over SNL for it.. He was a bland Midwesterner that couldn’t do the pop culture celebrity thing. Also, he had The Captain and Tennille sing “Muskrat Love for Queen Elizabeth II. WHAT?
Jimmy Carter had the common touch but came off as hapless and ineffective and lost his status. Carter was into theater, though.
George H.W. Bush came off as a preppie Brahmin despite eating pork rinds. He only got a few Republican celebrities on board, and they were Ahnuld and country singers.
Dubya didn’t like to watch the news or much popular tv, and he pissed off country music and Kanye.
Now let's get to the other First Ladies besides Mrs. Cleveland:
Dolley Madison was cited as a celebrity--she redecorated, threw parties, wore a turban.
Eleanor Roosevelt toured everywhere and visited everything, and wrote a 6 day a week newspaper column.
Jackie was another cultured young hottie, set off fashion crazes, popularized “camelot.”
Nancy watched out for her husband, consulted astrologers, and started Just Say No.
Barbara Bush visited people with AIDS.
Hilary got famous for co-presidenting, the affair, was a key figure in two musicals, A Woman On top and Clinton: The Musical.
Michelle Obama is also a style maven with celebrities coming over.
Abigail Adams didn’t get much traction, but was ahead of her time.
"Mamie Pink" became big.
Lady Bird Johnson beautified highways,
Betty Ford (and Nancy) publicized breast cancer.
After this, every chapter pretty much devolves into lists of what shows presidents watched on TV, how they handled news media, what movies they watched, what books they read, whether or not they were into sports or music, the trends they set, what pets they had, who played instruments...you get the drift. Which is very mildly interesting, but pretty soon into that I was all, "dude, this is it? That's all you've got?" It'll be interesting to compare the other book I picked up to this, lemme tell ya.
So...three stars. Mildly interesting, but there's not too much to this.
Oooh, I really like this one. I think I like Sarah V. best when she's doing history tourism. Or as she calls it, a pilgrimage. Also, this book is SUPER awesome for quotes!
We start out with Sarah Vowell in a bed-and-breakfast, which is not her thing because she has to chat with strangers. Finally she comes up with something to talk about to her fellow guests: she saw Assassins last night! “It’s the Stephen Sondheim musical in which a bunch of presidential assassins and would-be assassins sing songs about how much better their lives would be if they could gun down a president.” She swoons over the romantic scene between Emma Goldman and Leon Czolgosz, and:
“And I found myself strangely smitten with John Wilkes Booth; every time he looked in direction i could feel myself blush.” Apparently, talking about going to the Museum of Television and Radio is “too personal,” but I seem to have no problem revealing my crush on the man who murdered Lincoln. Now, a person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins and admired the bed-and-breakfast’s teapot collection, they probably didn’t want to think about presidential gunshot wounds. But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.”
You see, Sarah's suffering through the Dubya era, making cracks about how Dole makes her nostalgic for the days when someone lost the election and didn't actually become president, she's feeling angry and kind of getting where assassins might come from except she still doesn't want to kill anyone (something the director mentions in his program notes as well, wondering how far away he is from the "invisible line"), noting that assassins and presidents have a lot of ego. “Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot.” Despite her anger about Dubya, she worries about his safety because “I don’t think I can stomach watching that man get turned into a martyr if he were killed. That’s what happens. It’s one of the few perks of assassination. In death, you get upgraded into a saint no matter how much people hated you in life.”
Anyway, as per the title of this book, Sarah's going on an assassination vacation/pilgrimage because she's got Dubya issues, and she's obsessed with death and history. “That is the kind of person I have become, the kind of person who rips open a package in snowman wrapping paper to discover that her only sibling has bought her an executed slavery hater’s hair. (I got her a DVD player.)” A friend of Sarah's tells her, “You know that Kevin Bacon game?...Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon. No matter what we’re talking about, you will always bring the conversation back to a president getting shot.” This leads to “There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.”
BWAHAHAHAHAH. Anyhoo, Sarah decides to go visit all the places where Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were assassinated--and the related places to those places. (Note: if you are into this idea, or not, I highly recommend you read theselinks.)
Notable bits about Lincoln:
Robert Todd Lincoln “was in close proximity to all three murders like some kind of jinxed Zelig of doom.” He was a few feet away when Garfield was shot, and arrived in Buffalo right after McKinley got shot. “Late in life, when he was asked to attend some White House function, he grumbled, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there.”
Sarah watches the musical 1776 in Ford's Theater. “I can see exactly where this compromise in 1776 is pointing: into the back of Lincoln’s head in 1865.”
“Ever since I had to build those extra shelves in my apartment to accommodate all the books about presidential death--I like to call that corner of the hallway “the assassination nook”--I’m amazed Lincoln got to live as long as he did.” He had a plot going to kill him before his first inauguration, he had a desk drawer of death threats, someone shot at him while he was riding. “So tonight, I leave the memorial knowing that the fact that Lincoln got to serve his whole first term is a kind of miracle.” BRIGHT SIDE!
John Wilkes Booth was a member of the confederate secret service and he was able to move freely between both sides because he was a nationally famous actor. “The Confederates were shrews to take advantage of Booth’s fame. There is a lesson here for the terrorists of the world: if they really want to get ahead, they should put less energy into training illiterate ten-year-olds how to fire Kalashnikoves and start recruiting celebrities like George Clooney. I bet nobody’s inspected that man’s luggage since the second season of ER.”
Sarah adores a plaque on Secretary of State W.H. Seward’s house where he was stabbed in bed the night Lincoln was shot (it was part of a 3 part plan to send assassins after Lincoln, Seward, and the vice president, but the VP’s assassin got drunk instead.) . Sarah is ridiculously excited about that plaque and plaques in general, but her friend Bennett doesn’t give a shit. she loves that thing. “Seward plaque,” by the way, has become our synonym for disappointment." When she can’t get Fiddler tickets, Bennett responds that he can take it, “my people have been getting Seward plaqued for millennia.”
Seward also arranged to purchase Alaska. He went there to visit his purchase and got a ton of presents from the Tlingits, but hadn’t brought any to give them. After waiting for three years and not getting any presents back, Chief Ebbit commissioned a shame pole in Seward’s honor. It's a dwarf man on an upside down box.
Sarah recounts the story of Henry Rathbone and stepsister/fiancee (!) Clara Harris, who were sitting next to the Lincolns during the assassination. Rathbone tried to stop Booth and got knifed in the arm for it. He basically went insane and later shot and killed his wife Clara and got stopped from doing the same to their kids. Ouch.
Booth timed his shot to go off during a laugh line in the play. “It is a comfort of sorts to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw. Consdering how the war had weighed on him, at least his last conscious moment was a hoot.” While taking a tour at Ford’s, she asks the guide why he doesn’t say what the funny line was. “Tell you what. I’ll tell you the line. You decide if it’s funny.” It isn’t really, but someone is called a “sockdologizing old man-trap.” (They looked it up, it means manipulative.)
Sarah discusses the grandfather paradox--what if she went back in time to off her great-great-grandfather John Vowell, who ran around killing a ton of people in Lawrenceville, Kansas in 1863. “After my great-great-grandfather and I have it out, let’s suppose that against all odds, a gun-toting bushwhacking guerrilla warrior could be overpowered by me, a former art history major.”
Sarah looks into Dr. Samuel Mudd, who went to jail for treating Booth for a broken leg after his shooting. Notable suspicious fact about this: Mudd’s house is hard to find in the 2000’s, so how did Booth find it in the dark? Mudd went to jail for aiding and abetting, but he claimed he didn’t know anything about the murder and he was just doing his Hippocratic duty. Mudd did get a presidential pardon from Johnson for doing heroic doctoring during a yellow fever outbreak, which makes Sarah forgive him until she found out he was also a huge racist. The guy's grandson Richard spent a lot of time trying to clear his grandfather's name, and actually managed to convince Carter and Reagan of that.
Edwin Booth, famous Shakespearean actor and brother of John Wilkes, briefly quit his career after the murder but then had to go back to work when he ran out of money. Casts were made of the president’s hands and various copies were made. Edwin Booth came across them at a party and once he found out whose they were, he put them back down real quick. He later rescued Robert Todd Lincoln when the guy fell on train tracks in Jersey. Noting Edwin Booth's popularity as an actor, Sarah proposes: "Perhaps this is the approach Dr. Mudd’s grandson Richard should have taken. Instead of spending his very long life pestering state legislatures to pass resolutions recognizing his grandfather’s innocence, if he really waned to get the country behind his family name, he should have recorded a hit song or come up with a dance craze or something.”
Sarah goes to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and talks to the museum's director, Gretchen Worden, who says she wants her body to be preserved in the museum. “That’s traditional. A lot of the curators end up as part of their collections. “It’s always fun joking about it, but basically the coolest thing would be to have some sort of ironclad will where I have to attend every senior staff meeting to eternity and where I have a permanent display just to make myself as big a pain in the neck to every future curator.” But there's a note at the end of the book: “As this book was going to press, I was dismayed to learn of Gretchen Worden’s death. The director of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, she was only fifty-six. The world is a little less interesting without her in it.” Of course, I had to investigate this possible situation. While the lady's grave doesn't turn up on findagrave.com, she did get a gallery of gross body parts dedicated to her, with a portrait painted of her as well. And she might have visited that night...
Sarah goes to the Museum of Funeral Customs by Lincoln’s tomb. “I actually giggle when he tries to steel me for seeing the re-created 1920’s embalming room, as if I’m not wearing Bela Lugosi hair clips; as if I didn’t just buy a book for my nephew called Frankenstein and Dracula Are Friends; asi if I was never nicknamed Wednesday (as in Addams); as if in eight-grade English class, assigned to act out a scene from a biography, when all the other girls had chosen Queen Elizabeth or Anne Frank, I hadn’t picked up Al Capone and staged the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre with toy machine guns and wadded-up red construction paper thrown everywhere to signify blood; as if I’m not the kind of person who would visit the freaking Museum of Funeral Customs in the first place.”
Sarah visits Lincoln’s house, which is very Christmassy garish. “I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m not really feeling anything. I came here to get closer to Lincoln. So why is it that I feel closer to him sitting on my couch reading my paperback copy of his Selected Speeches and Writings than I do here in actual Springfield staring at the actual couch where he read his beloved newspapers and Shakespeare?” It’s really more the wife’s taste than his...
Moving on to Garfield:
“The most famous thing ever said about President James A. Garfield is about how nobody has any idea who the hell he was.”
Turns out Garfield was a total book nerd and would rather have been reading than president. Sarah feels sorry for him for not getting to finish all of his reading. When giving a speech at Hiram College, “Mr. Loner McBookworm, on the other hand, stands up and breaks it to his audience, the future achievers of America, that the price of the supposedly fulfilling attainment of one’s personal and professional dream is the irritating way it cuts into one’s free time....The only thing stopping this address from turning into a slacker parable is the absence of the word “dude.” Hah. “As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It’s hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn’t mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on “Heroin.”
Sarah, her sister Amy, and three-year-old nephew Owen visit the Oneida cult that Garfield's murderer, Charles Guitear, was a member of at one point. SO MANY JUICY TIDBITS TO THIS.
“I told her that my happy yellow teapot has a kinky backstory involving a nineteenth-century vegetarian sex cult in upstate New York whose members lived for three decades as self-proclaimed “Bible communists” before incorporating into the biggest supplier of dinnerware to the American food-service industry, not to mention harboring their most infamous resident, an irritating young maniac who, years after he moved away, was hanged for assassinating President Garfield.”
Oneida's founder, John Humphrey Noyes, pursued group marriage. After his wife Harriet had a bunch of dead babies, he started working on “male continence” so they could still have sex without him ejaculating. Everybody at Oneida had to do it because they shared everything but sperm. You were also not allowed to have any strong preferences for anybody, anything, or any talent or it would be taken away from you. “You know you’ve reached a new plateau of group mediocrity when even a Canadian is alarmed by your lack of individuality.”
Oneida had a charming game of “Mutual Criticism” in which the entire group would just rag on someone. But hey, it cleared the air. I'm surprised it didn't lead to like, murder.
The rule at Oneida, what with the continence/no sperm sharing rule, was that hormonal young guys could only be boinked by postmenopausal women, and of course young girls could only get to bang old men. OF COURSE.
Sarah quotes Oneida docent Joe Valesky on Guiteau: “Well, he was here from 1860 to 1865. Then he left and came back. From what I’ve read, he was pretty annoying. He was not happy. And yet he stayed here for five years. And they let him come back and then he tries to sue them.” Amusingly, Oneida was only down with consensual sex, and nobody wanted to fuck him. His nickname was “Charles Gitout.” HAH. Even his own dad thought he needed to be locked away in an institution, but nobody had the money to pay for it.
“There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: “It was on this spot...” My fantasy is to one day become a docent.” Oh, Sarah.
“I am pro-plaque. New York is lousy with them, and I love how spotting a plaque can jazz up even the most mundane errand.”
“Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American history--a guy so relentlessly upbeat, so unfailingly optimistic about his place in the world, so very happy for others lucky enough to have made his acquaintance, such a sunshiny self-important glass-all-full sort of fool that he cannot open his mouth or take out his pen without coming up with one unintentionally hilarious gag after another.”
The dude was a loser--divorced, college dropout, failed at every career he tried, he was the one guy in a free love commune who could not get laid. But he didn't think he was a dud, he was in the employ of Jesus! OPTIMISM!
In Assassins, “Compared to Hinckley, a downbeat creep, or the McKinley assassin Czolgosz, a sad sort of immigrants always dragging down the room with laments about the unfairness of factory working conditions, Guiteau is the audience’s goal-oriented golden boy who smiles while he sings perky lyrics like “look on the bright side.”
Guiteau wrote a poem to be read right before he got hanged. “I am now going to read some verses which are intended to indicate my feelings at the moment of leaving this world. If set to music they may be rendered very effective. The idea is that of a child babbling to his mamma and his papa. I wrote it this morning about ten o’clock.”
Sample lines of the poem: “I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad, I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah!”
On to McKinley!
“Owen is the most Hitchcockian preschooler I ever met. He’s three. He knows maybe ninety words and one of them is ‘crypt?”
“I have not been particularly shocked by how much I love Owen, but I am continually pleasantly surprised by how much I like him. He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”
Amy and Sarah got waylaid by some crazy lady who called the cops on them, saying their rental car scratched her Pontiac. “Of course the officer sided with Amy, who, gloating as she got out of the police car, sneered at the Pontiac driver, “My sister is writing a book about our trip and I bet she’s going to put you in the McKinley chapter.”
“When I told a friend I was writing about the McKinley administration, he turned up his nose and asked, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?”
Sarah recalls snapping at some guy being all, “Cheer up, everybody, we’re part of history!” during a blackout. “I snapped at him, “Sir,” I said, “except for the police who were there that one day they discovered the polio vaccine, being part of history is rarely a good idea. History is one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between.”
Arcata has a statue of McKinley. It’s the town mascot, it gets a Santa hat at Christmas. Someone broke off its thumb and the mayor called it a “mean, punk-ass thing to do.” The thumb was recovered and welded back on. The Arcada Eye’s editor Kevin L. Hoover moved there because he heard that someone stuffed the statue’s nose and ears with cheese. “I had a pretty horrible job at the time, I said to my best friend, ‘Let’s go somewhere weird.’ I wasn’t in journalism at the time, but I came to Arcata and asked around about the cheesing of McKinley. I talked to the actual guy.” That’s when he decided to move there. “It was a place where people stuffed cheese in statues’ noses.”
“I don’t know what surprised me more about this town and its statue--that McKinley could be “fun” or that anyone alive was thinking about him at all.”
Words that describe Teddy Roosevelt: ranchman, scholar, explorer, scientist, conservationist, naturalist, statesman, author, historian, humanitarian, soldier, patriot,... “all of which add up to the unspoken ‘better than you.’”
Sarah, perpetual indoor kid, actually goes on a hike up a mountain to experience what it was like for Roosevelt to hear the news that his president was dying while on a hiking trip. Damn, girl. After getting a telegram saying “absolutely no hope,” Roosevelt finishes his lunch before leaving.
Regarding the Lincoln-Kennedy weird facts list: it gives Sarah the chills. “I no longer believe in a Supreme Being in the sky producing cosmic episodes of Presidential Punk’d.” but it gives her the chills anyway, especially the stuff with Edwin Booth and Robert Todd Lincoln. "But those creepy historical flukes offer momentary relief from the oppression of chaos and that is not nothing. They give order to the universe. They give meaning. Of course, life is still pretty meaningless and death is the only true democracy. But Robert Todd Lincoln, huh? Weird.”
Four stars. This is a really cool, fun, warped, interesting, weird read. Yay for crazy facts!
The author's third book, another collection of essays, here comes individual rundowns again:
What He Said There: Sarah visits Gettysburg because she is a whopping history nerd. “Fact is, I think about the Civil War all the time, every day. I can’t even use a cotton ball to remove my eye makeup without spacing out about slavery’s famous cash crop and that line from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address that “it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.’ ....I guess Gettysburg is a pilgrimage. And like all pilgrims, I’m a mess. You don’t cross state lines to attend the 137th anniversary of anything unless something’s missing in your life.” Like many who visit there, she’s a Lincoln fangirl--which Gettysburg is perfect for, in my experience, because somehow you end up leaving with a tiny version of the Emancipation Proclaimation on a keychain with a temperature gauge and compass, that you can’t even read. It reminded me of my own brief trips through there and I enjoyed it.
The First Thanksgiving: Sarah has her relatives over for Thanksgiving, and every darned one of them except for maybe baby Owen can’t freaking wait to go back home and leave again. “I’ve always had these fantasies about being in a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends the entire visit daydreaming of suicide. I’m here to tell you that dreams really do come true.” This is followed up by, “It is curious that we Americans have a holiday--Thanksgiving--that’s all about people who have left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parents’ lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It’s as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets.”
Ike Was a Handsome Man: Sarah investigates presidential libraries and how they’re handled, especially with regards to the negative things about someone’s presidency. She notes that LBJ actually insisted on having more representation of Vietnam in his so as not to have “another damn credibility gap.” Or to quote the guy quoting LBJ some more, “Good men have been trying to protect my reputation for forty years, and not a damn one has succeeded. What makes you think you can?” Good point, sir. This sort of thing is why LBJ’s and Nixon’s were her favorite libraries. Take note, President Clinton!
God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass:“A few years ago, I was in Paris, taking a walking tour of the French Revolution, because that’s how I spend my vacations.” History nerd, part 2! However, her favorite domestic bloodbaths are Salem and Gettysburg, and she loves puritan New England and the Civil War. “Because those two subjects feature the central tension of American life, the conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good. That is a fancy way of hinting that sometimes other people get on my nerves. I’m two parts loner and one part joiner, so I feel at home delving into the epic struggles for togetherness.” Sarah enjoyed going through Salem, Mass. as much as I did (seriously, it’s awesome), and can’t help but be amused at the embracing of witch kitsch, where “bloodthirsty tourists would sip her life story from a souvenir shot glass.” She also notes that the sorts of women who were accused as witches were pretty much killed off for living the life she lives now. However, once she got home and started feeling guilty about her enjoyment of the deaths of a bunch of innocents, she called a psychologist friend of hers who actually works at a program for survivors of torture. Her shrink friend diagnoses ambivalence and something playing out in her unconscious. Sarah decides it supports her motto in life, “It Could Be Worse.”
The New German Cinema: I didn’t even know you could have pretentious snobby artistes in Montana, but Sarah says differently.
Democracy and Things Like That: I recently went to see Sarah Vowell in person in my town (maybe when NaNo is over, I’ll get around to writing it up), and she mentioned this story at great length--about the time that presidential candidate Al Gore went to talk to a high school about violence. The students were impressed by him, especially by him pointing out that people who were protected and insulated by friends, family, and teachers were probably immune from going hostile. But in media reports of the event, what he said got blown hugely out of proportion by mentioning the words “Love Canal.” Ruh-roh! Suffice it to say that media studies class got quite an education.
Pop-A-Shot: This is a game in which you shot mini-basketballs for 40 seconds. Apparently it’s fun to play.
California as an Island: At one point, Sarah lived in San Francisco working at a gallery that sold maps. Apparently her boss was THE bigwig when it came to map selling, which I did not know was A Thing.
Dear Dead Congressman: Sarah writes a letter to the deceased congressman who encouraged her to vote.
The Nerd Voice: Back on the subject of Al Gore, Sarah muses that Gore’s nerdiness, while awesome, turned off a country that doesn’t like smarty pants. Imagine her joy at the “winning” of Dubya. She makes a crack about Dole of sorts--”I’ve developed a soft spot for Dole because he symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and like, not actually become the president.” She muses that things like global warming don’t move people politically because the public is dumb and reactive, and can only deal with things right now. Then it wanders into nerd vs. jock territory, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how Americans get made fun of for doing their homework vs. the Brits who will disdain you for not doing it. In the end, she concludes that Gore needed to take up amusing self-deprecation a la Buffy. If Gore had only used the nerd voice, according to Buffy writer Doug Petrie, “he’d be president for life.”
Rosa Parks, C’est Moi: Too many people are claiming to be like Rosa Parks these days. Maybe that’s a bit inaccurate.
Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous: Self-explanatory title, but watching Magnolia actually made Sarah think differently of him.
Underground Lunchroom: While visiting Carlsbad Caverns, Sarah discovers the underground lunchroom and the controversy that happened when some folks decided they wanted it eliminated. This is a pretty cool story, actually, dealing with the contrast between visitors enjoying it and the vague shame of it being corny.
Wonder Twins: Sarah compares herself and her twin Amy to Luther and Johnny Htoo, 12-year-old twins running a guerrilla army. “The similarities are uncanny. Luther and Johnny were illiterate, Baptis, messianic insurgents struggling against the government of Myanmar, and my sister and Amy and I shared a locker all through junior high.” But seriously now: “At twelve, Luther and Johnny probably already suspected twindom’s secret lesson. Namely, that no matter what they accomplished--who they trained, inspired, or killed--their greatest allure might be the circumstances of their birth.”
Cowboys v. Mounties: Sarah thinks about Canadians and Mounties and the Canadians’s sensible ways of handling the wild West compared to Americans. She notes that historian Pierre Berton thinks that hot weather may have contributed to gunfights, whereas you just wouldn’t have the same experience in a Moose Jaw winter, trying to get to their weapons under all those clothes and getting frostbite from their guns.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot: This title comes from Sarah watching the movie The Patriot and writing this essay a few months after 9/11, when the word has come back into fashion. However, she thinks “the true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government.” She remarks on Thomas Paine talking about “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” who don’t stand by during the hard times, and likens herself to the book’s title.
State of the Union: A collection of random thoughts with no segues and no real point, the sorts of things that would be tweeted nowadays. Uh...whatever?
Tom Landry, Existentialist, Dead at 75: Sarah muses on Tom Landry saying that something was missing in his life until he found Jesus, which led her to pray that hopefully nothing would be missing for her--well, until she lost her faith in God and well, now there is.
The Strenuous Life: Sarah muses on Teddy Roosevelt’s sickly childhood (which makes the non-action girl Sarah jealous) and how he went to North Dakota. After finding out that North Dakota wants tourist dollars, Sarah immediately calls up her sister and asks if she wants to go to North Dakota for the weekend--despite the fact that Montanans like to make fun of their neighbors. Naturally, she was compelled to investigate Teddy’s sojourn in North Dakota after the death of his wife and mother. She also muses on the Montana-ness of her relatives-- Amy refers to a cop as a “lawman” and her dad has a story about shooting a snake off of his arm, but Sarah is “the worst Montanan in history.” After watcing a musical dedicated to Teddy, she says, “My whole life, no matter how happy I am I’ve always had this nagging feeling that Teddy Roosevelt is looking over my shoulder whispering, “Is this all you are?” He was a jock and a nerd at the same time (gasp!), and probably the only president who read Anna Karenina while looking for cattle thieves. (BWAH.)
I pretty much had the same reaction to this book that I did to Take the Cannoli. Memorable subjects to me were the historical tourism ones (all of 'em were great), presidential libraries, nerds vs. jocks in all contexts, Mounties, and the Underground Lunchroom. A few essays were kinda weak (or in one case, super weak). But overall, I was pretty entertained, so three and a half stars again.
This book (Vowell’s second, I’ve decided to go officially read most of her work, except probably Radio On because I already had to live through my mother’s Rush Limbaugh phase) is a collection of essays, so I'll give a rundown of them all.
Shooting Dad: Sarah and her father don’t have much in common, especially that he’s a gunsmith and she is totally wigged out by guns. And then he builds a giant cannon... which Sarah is surprisingly into. As she records the whole thing, she comes to a startling realization: “He’s talking about my tape recorder and my microphone--which is called a shotgun mike. I stare back at him, then I look over at my father’s cannon, then down at my microphone, and I think, Oh. My. God. My dad and I are the same person. We’re both smart-alecky loners with goofy projects and weird equipment. And since this whole target practice outing was my idea, I was no longer his adversary. I was his accomplice. What’s worse, I was liking it.” She notes that the two of them both like noisiness, but she’s fine with the cannon because “it’s unwieldly and impractical, just like everything else I care about.” And of course...take a wild guess what her father wants done with his ashes.
Music Lessons: This is about Sarah’s experiences in marching band. She compares the orchestra kids to Hitler Youth--took German, played soccer, well-scrubbed blondes--which as a former orchestra kid, makes me think, “Yeah, we did not look so perfect where I grew up.” She switched instruments and wasn’t good at most of them--except the unpopular recorder which only the elderly are into.
The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest: Sarah used to make friends with people who were into apocalypses, and calls that a proven way to do so! Sarah reading the Bible as a kid sounds like she was a lot of fun for others to deal with. She notes that “God wasn’t exactly a children’s rights advocate. The first thing a child reading the Bible notices is that you’re supposed to honor your mother and father but they’re not necessarily required to reciprocate.” --you know, like Abraham being told to kill his kid, stuff like that. She got shushed for asking why we’re supposed to pray for bars to be shut down when Jesus was basically a bartender providing drinks for all, and “every person ever born has to suffer because Eve couldn’t resist a healthy between-meals snack?” She sounds fun. Anyway, growing up in the Reagan era influenced the apocalypse thinking when she got into antinuke campaigns.
Take The Cannoli: Sarah got really obsessed with watching The Godfather at one point and would sneak snippets of watching it when everyone else was out of the house. Somehow she found the “clear and definable moral guidelines” to be fascinating, the rules for living. She finally got up the nerve to go to Italy, but never quite got the nerve to go to Corleone itself.
Vindictively American: Sarah went to Holland for foreign exchange during the whole Rodney King drama.
These Little Town Blues: Sarah goes to Hoboken to see how Hoboken feels about its famous son Frank Sinatra. She labels him the first punk for having rhythm, style, poetry, comedy, defiance, and ambition. But how into Sinatra is Hoboken?
Chelsea Girl: This one’s all about the insanity of the dirty, freaky Chelsea Hotel, “the one for weirdos at 222 West Twenty-third Street.” I don’t think I’d want to sleep in the joint either--doesn’t sound like Sarah enjoyed the gross and the condom wrappers--but then again, that’s part of the legend. I was amused at the reference to Christo wrapping everything in his room down to his wife--”Something tells me they aren’t having this conversation over at the Grand Hyatt uptown.” Lance Loud tells her he thinks the Chelsea maids actually leave condoms and mess around on purpose. To him, it was his dream destination. “Some people want to go to Valhalla. Some people want to go to El Dorado or Shangri-La. When I was a teenager, I wanted to end up at the Chelsea Hotel. With or without a needle in my arm and lipstick on my face.” Sarah finishes with, “He arrived at the hotel as the kept companion of a psychotic drug addict. Who says dreams can’t come true?”
Michigan and Wacker: Sarah labels this Chicago intersection as a vortex and talks about the bridge. I’ll be honest: as a person who knows nothing about Chicago, this pretty much washed over me.
Species-on-Species Abuse: After a scrubbled shuttle launch and nonrefundable plane tickets happen, Sarah takes David Rakoff to Disney World instead, which sounds like that guy’s total nightmare. Sarah of course loves the Hall of Presidents there. They finish off by visiting Celebration. David is never, ever coming back there.
What I See When I Look At The Face On The $20 Bill: Sarah brings up a topic that people are still bringing up in 2015: why is Andrew Jackson on a dollar bill? As someone who’s part Cherokee, she’s really affected by Jackson’s anti-Native American policies and the Trail of Tears. In what might be her first historical road trip story, she and her twin Amy drive along the trail and Sarah has ALL KINDS OF FEELS about everything. Jackson was definitely a real lulu--he was the sort of fellow who straight up wouldn’t follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. “In the twentieth century, when people bandy about the idea of impeachment for presidents who fib about extramarital dalliances, it’s worth remembering what a truly impeachable offense looks like.” It kinda makes me think that perhaps she shouldn’t have visited his home, the Hermitage, where Sarah pretty much interrogates the volunteer on duty. Even worse, Jackson had his life saved by a Cherokee chief at one point and gave the guy a watch for his bravery--later the poor bastard died on the trail. “We’re on a death trip, and I can’t go more than a few miles without agonizing and picking apart every symbolic nuance of every fact at my disposal. Which Amy might have found charming in Georgia since she hadn’t seen me or my obsessions in months, but halfway through Tennessee--right about the second I see her wince in the company of Carolyn Brackett--I can practically hear her silent prayers that I shut up.” But at the same time, despite her Jackson hate, Sarah has to acknowledge that Jackson was the first “riffraff president” and that “The American dream that anyone can become president begins with him. My sister and I disapprove of what Jackson and I did to our people, but the fact is, Jackson is our people too.” The first redneck president! Sarah’s in love with the United States, but conflicted about it. “When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife: Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance.”
Ixnay On The My Way: Sarah isn’t the world’s biggest fan of Sinatra’s “My Way.” The note on the front of this story says she was hoping people wouldn’t play the song when Sinatra died, and of course it happened anyway. She argues that the only way the song works is if the person singing it is dumber than the song, which is why it didn’t work for Frank, or anyone other than Sid Vicious.
Thanks For The Memorex: Sarah briefly recalls a long distance romance she had in which the two of them didn’t agree on music, gets into the book HIgh Fidelity, and then hears about a service that records record albums for you.
Drive Through Please: Sarah doesn’t drive--that’s her sister’s job. She says what I would have thought of saying regarding her Montana upbringing and journalist profession, i.e. how did you get around without driving--answer, it’s not a problem in small towns, or in big cities. Also, Barbara Walters doesn’t drive, so there! (Okay, this would have been a point I could have made back in the early 2000's when I was a reporter without a license...but then again, I can't call taxis where I live.) However, when your boss, Ira Glass, makes the offer to teach you... it’s not learning how to drive, it’s working on a story! As a late-in-life driver myself, I was amused by this story--not to mention amused at the whole idea of driving with Ira Glass. In the end, Sarah gets all excited at actually getting to go through a drive-thru.
Your Dream, My Nightmare: Sarah goes to rock ‘n roll fantasy camp. The title says it all: it’s not something she’d want to do, which compelled her to sign up for it. She’s mystified at being lectured to clean guitars. Dark Circles: Sarah tries to do something about her general sleeplessness. It doesn’t go super well.
American Goth: Sarah decides to go full on Goth in San Francisco, where you can get a Goth makeover from “Mary, Queen of Hurts” and her friends.” Amusingly enough, Sarah picks the Goth name of...BECKY as the most perverse thing she can think of. “It turns out by saying the magic word “Becky” I have suddenly moved to the head of the class, gothwise. As Monique puts it, ‘You are understanding the pink of goth. You’ve skipped a couple levels and you went straight to pink.” Because pink is apparently the apex of expert goth...whatever that means, but this is giving me a whole new perspective on the concept of a “perkygoth.”
In the end, I enjoyed this one. Some essays stuck out to me a lot more than others--particularly Andrew Jackson, American Goth, Disney, and driving--and a few weren't exactly subject matter I was super into, but overall, she makes fun and interesting and poignant points about a lot of things and it was a quick and entertaining read that made you think. I'm down with that. So...three and a half stars overall, I think.
“There is a story older than my family, and somehow we stumbled into it, my sisters and I. But you cannot have a Cinderella without her wicked stepsisters, and I refuse that role. I will not be their destruction.”
Henry wakes up (dead? deadish?) in the whiteout wood, knowing that her enemy has taken over her body in the real world. After consulting with the other Snow Whites, she finds out that the only possible option to get back there and warn her team is to consult the magic mirrors. She won’t be able to get her body back, but Henry thinks it’s worth it to try and warn her team, especially since Sloane’s the ony one she thinks will be able to take care of herself. If you go to the mirrors, you can make a trade. The stories are hungry and if you show them a story they don’t know yet, they may be willing to help you in return. Ayane is apparently aware of this, which makes you wonder why and if she tried it. Henry consults with the mirrors and they start poking through her brain. And they find a story that they haven’t heard...and heck, it’s one even Henry hasn’t heard herself directly, but she knows the person enough for that to reflect, apparently.
And for the rest of this chapter, we find out Sloane’s backstory. Amity Green used to be a happy girl living in the Colonial era, before her mother remarried and started treating her stepdaughter Gabrielle like the family servant. She got possessed by the story, along with everyone else. Amity can feel herself losing herself at times, and she’s treating her stepsister like shit and having homicidal thoughts when she doesn’t want to. But when she’s not caught up in story, she’s still willing to do her own work and sneak Gabrielle food. Amity goes to church and prays for help, but of course there’s no answer. After reading the story, she realizes what she’s got to do: get the fuck out of there before things go all the way wrong. Three days of travel later, Amity meets a Rose Red and can smell the roses on her, and she’s accompanied by two other gentlemen (Jack and Hiram), at least one of whom is also story-touched. (I’m not totally sure on Hiram.) The new people are looking for her family, and Amity corrects them: now that she’s left, they should be safe. She pretty much dares them to kill her and make sure.
“She had given up, this girl, and in this girl, in this place and time, giving up seemed to have unlocked some great wellspring of anger in her soul.”
One of the guys (Jack, possibly the Big Bad Wolf) thinks Amity has done the impossible and wants to know how--how is she able to side-step the story and escape it? The story wasn’t meant for her and she should have been a mindless husk by now--and she smells roses. Her new allies take her away, and find out that yes, Amity thwarted the story by leaving. Jack mentions a Council of Librarians (hee, how very Buffy) and thinks they can use Amity to sniff out other stories. They test her by bringing in various people while she’s blindfolded to see if she can figure out their stories. While she can’t quite peg a little mermaid or a wolf, she can certainly smell the sea and dog. Jack explains the situation as they knew it before the Aarne-Thompson Index was published and ATI was founded, and Amity joins them, losing her freedom and her old name and taking a new one. As time goes on, Sloane gets forced to work for the US government instead and gets processed in the Index as a “Treacherous Sister,” which isn’t accurate but kind of the best they can come up with.
Henry wakes up in another Snow White’s body in the hospital, looking to warn her friends.
Holy shit, this chapter is near-epic. I love finding out Sloane’s story. I love that she is apparently some kind of Cinderella breaker who has enough of a sense of herself to make sure the bad things don’t happen. And saved her family. Sloane is awesome. And Henry’s not too shabby herself either. Wowza to all of this.
Four and a half stars.
“We were supposed to be orphans. We were supposed to meet our princes after we fell into a sleep like death, after we ate the apple and were sealed under glass. No one would know if our personalities changed, because there wasn’t supposed to be anyone who really knew us as people. We were cyphers, black and white checkerboard girls, completely interchangeable.”
“How the forces that control our lives love their princess stories! I’ve never understood why. They don’t do the most damage, or have the highest body counts, but the narrative will almost always abandon its original intent to go after a princess. To be born a Cinderella is to have a target painted on your forehead in colors only the story can see.”
I picked this up because I used to do ballet, and found it to be a very good book about female friendship. I don't think I can think of all that many books covering that subject so much any more, so this was refreshing.
The book takes place in San Francisco at the West Coast Ballet Theatre, featuring the following folks:
Alice Willoughby, a former star ballerina who was forced to quit after a career ending injury and later went into administration and fundraising and all that jazz. She comes from a well off family, lost her mother in her teen years but has a lovely stepmother. She's finally started dating a friend of hers, Niles, and is crazy about him...except for the part where he's apparently a workaholic. Alice still can't stand to watch ballet even ten years later.
Gil Sheridan, Alice's wheeler-dealer fundraiser coworker/boss/partner (more or less). The dude can and does schmooze everyone and everything and tells them what they want to hear--possibly in a bisexual or just flirty way, even. He's a chameleon and a master of manipulation and whether or not he actually means it when he does nice things for you--who knows? He has a sugar momma "public girlfriend" named Julia who pays for his home and nice car, but supposedly they don't boink any more. Uh-HUH. Alice is glad Gil's on her side, but I wouldn't count on that always happening.
Lana Kessler, the new ballet star, recently moved here from Kansas City. She is cute, SUPER sweet and SUPER nice and super talented. You'd hate her, except she's so nice--but in the ballet world that means most people around her do. Gil falls for Lana right off the bat and puts the moves on her--and enlists Alice in helping Lana, especially when a homeless guy gets murdered in front of Lana's apartment and she needs somewhere safe to live. Lana sounds like she's got the ideal family life, but she's the oldest of a lot of siblings, and her mother mentally went off the deep end after the death of one of them. Lana's used to having to emotionally manage her mother, but her moving to Kansas City has only escalated the situation.
Alice isn't super thrilled at being forced by Gil to adopt his new girlfriend in various ways--get her a suitable wardrobe for a party, pretend to be her friend, later become her roommate--especially since Lana is a whopping reminder of everything Alice lost, and seems to have a close relationship with her mother. Lana also hits it off with Alice's best friend Montserrat due to having harder upbringings than Alice had, which bugs Alice. But the more Alice and Lana get to know each other, the more they trust and rely on each other and buck each other up. This is especially great when it comes to Gil because when Gil is all "so sorry, Julia is forcing me to go to LA this weekend!," Alice is all, "No, he asked Julia to LA so he could do some ass kissing and keep his home and car, just so you know." Naturally, this sort of thing makes Gil not so happy, and gives Lana the opportunity to hear the vastly different messages he leaves both her and Alice.
Even more fun is Alice and Gil sorta-fighting over Andy Redgrave, their rich fundraising target. After a night of cocaine and telling dirty jokes (Alice is apparently great at this!), some flirting goes on with Andy and Gil, which makes Alice and later Lana wonder wtf is going on with that. Andy and Alice actually end up hitting it off in a friends kind of way, especially when Andy gets the (not so correct) impression that Alice goes for ladies like Lana. Which also makes Gil jealous.
What's especially good in this one is Alice helping Lana deal with her mother. While hanging out with Lana kind of helps Alice to get over her fears of watching ballet again and appreciating the stepmother she had, Alice is an excellent backup when Lana's mother goes into manipulative, child-endangering mode. While things go to a hard, ugly point with that, you end up thinking that it's probably all for the best.
You can guess from my writeup of this that I don't think Gil's a super awesome dude. More like a "dump the jerk, please" sort of dude, as he goes downhill as the book goes on, much to Alice's shock. Alice thinks she's a lion tamer, but sometimes the lion can attack. Lana has moments of wanting to back away from Gil, but he's also very good at being there for her when she's having parental disaster too. In the end, the author starts to indicate that while Alice and Lana may very manage very well without Gil, maybe he's not a total unredeemable ass? I don't know how I feel about that--I'd love it if both chicks totally dropped his ass and maybe they will, but it's kind of nice to see someone trying to pull his head out of his ass too.
Overall, I was pretty hooked on this story and steamrolled through it very quickly on Halloween (it's NaNoWriMo, I'm kinda busy and behind on reviews), and I went to like four different things on Halloween day and night, so that's saying something that I managed that!
"Talis's first rule of stopping wars: make it personal. And that, my dear children--that is where you come in."
HOLY SHIT, THIS BOOK, YOU GUYS.
I tried describing the plot of this book to a friend of mine over the weekend and she pretty much did the driving-a-car equivalent of giving me an askance look of "Why would you read something like this?" To which I was all, I know, I know, but it's fascinating and I can't think about anything else right now, and I had to drive for over 2 hours and was pissed off I couldn't read the book while driving and I have been up in the wee small hours of the morning reading it because it's freaking compelling. As Donald Maass (author of the best writing book I've ever read, Writing the Breakout Novel) would say, there's tension on every page.
Which of course is quite reasonable when your main characters are waiting to get murdered.
Here's the plot: we're living in a world where the environment started going to hell and humans can get uploaded and turned into artificial intelligences, but most of them don't survive the process. But one of them, Michael Talis, gets assigned the job of preventing humans from going to war. Talis does a spectacular job of this by (a) taking over the world and all the nukes and weapons, (b) zapping cities out of existence, and (c) insisting all leaders--even if you want to be lord high dogcatcher--have children. Which (d) he keeps as hostages in little country farm schools in the middle of nowhere until the kid turns 18. If your country goes to war, your kid will be murdered. Period.
So yeah, this has cut down on wars for the last 400 years, but wars still happen and kids get murdered by Talis's Swan Rider soldiers. The book starts out with one getting killed, of course. However, our narrator, Princess Greta of the Pan-Polar Confederation (basically Canada) knows she's highly likely to die before she hits 18 because her land has water and the attacking force, the Cumberland Alliance (basically the deep south of America) needs water, and the Pan-Pols don't have enough to provide for both countries. The previous hostage just died for it, after all. But they've all grown up knowing this fact, Greta deduced on her last visit home that it was likely to be her last visit home given how her mother the queen was behaving, and she's fairly well resigned to going out with bravery and dignity when she has to.
So when the new hostage for Cumberland is brought in--Elian is the general (uh, more or less that's her title without saying that's her title)'s grandson--he hasn't been raised to be a hostage his whole life, he's not reacting well to his change in circumstances, and he keeps quoting Spartacus a lot. The other Children of Peace know they're being watched at all times and behave, but Elian is generally rather freaking out and uncomfortable and getting electrical zaps constantly whenever he says the wrong thing...and Greta can deduce that it's probably because she and he are likely to die together very soon for their families' actions.
And of course, things get worse when Elian's grandma gets the bright idea to attack the school where her grandson is being held, which pretty much dooms almost everyone involved to insta-murder in their future because Talis isn't going to stand for that--and he comes out to visit personally by borrowing a body. This leads to the awkward question of "how do we force the queen to give us her entire water stash when she's probably accustomed to the idea of her kid dying," so....they torture Greta on camera instead. (Don't says I didn't warn you that this happens, but it's not super awful, or at least could have been much worse.)
How is Greta going to survive this situation? She can't, right? Well...we'll see. The intensity of this is high and fascinating. And yet in between potential wars, there's still some moments for silliness, mostly involving goats. Lots of goats. Especially the use of goat pheromones, heh heh heh.
Greta's never-cut hair, which earns her the nickname of Guinevere, is a symbol of her queenliness--if she ever makes it that far. Elian's the kid of sheep farmers who's way over his head in a situation he's never had to deal with before. And then there's Talis, who is a mostly amoral TOTAL SMARTASS that kind of wins you over strictly from the horrible/true/snarky/funny things he says. He's also amusing when he makes pop culture references the reader will get, if not his audience in the book.
I should probably mention the love interest situation, because there's always got to be one of those. You probably reasonably assumed that Elian becomes a love interest for Greta--well, yes and no. I believe by the end that they do care about each other fiercely, but .... there's also Xie, Greta's roommate and best friend, and yes, turns out the two ladies are bisexual and Greta clues in that Xie's also interested in her as well. So props for that. Either way, Greta's relationships with these two are very sweet. However...I'm gonna hint to readers that "who ends up with who" is not gonna be a major focus of this tale.
As a character, Greta's really got the "noble royalty" thing down, as does Xie, and they think about things far differently than you or I. They haven't the faintest idea how to plot anything and have learned lots of obedience, so coping with death is a different thing to them--it's their duty if need be. Greta knows at heart that her mother may love her, but she WILL let Greta die, period. It's what she's been trained to do, "take it,"--but can she go through with that? Or is there a third option of sorts?
Anyway, this book is epic and gets five stars for holy shit factor. Damn, what a journey.
Other really amazingly written reviews of this book can be found here and here. And a Q&A with the author is here.
Previously read book by the author here. Previously read books as I continue aboard the Hamiltrain here and here.
This is about America's favorite fighting Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, a rich, orphaned, titled teenager who fell in love with the ideals of freedom, etc. and decided to run off to America to join their revolutionary war even though he pretty much got forbidden to do so and had a pregnant wife at home.
"The thing that drew me to Lafayette as a subject--that he was that rare object of agreement in the ironically named United States--kept me coming back to why that made him unique. Namely, that we the people have never agreed on much of anything. Other than a bipartisan consensus on barbecue and Meryl Streep, plus that time in 1942 when everyone from Bing Crosby to Oregonian schoolchildren heeded FDR's call to scrounge up rubber for the war effort, disunity is the through line in the national plot--not necessarily as a failing, but as a free people's privilege. And thanks to Lafayette and his cohorts in Washington's army, plus the king of France and his navy, not to mention the founding dreamers who clearly did not think through what happens every time one citizen's pursuit of happienss infuriates his neighbors, getting on each other's nerves is our right."
Lafayette was pretty much a wonderful guy during the revolution: offered to fight FOR FREE, as a volunteer for a nation he hadn't even been to before, and did an excellent job of rounding up resources for an extremely broke military. He became buddies with Washington, helped win the war, and had an amazing victory tour return when he finally got to come back to America after the French's revolutionary war went so wrong. (Poor dude: it really didn't go well for him in his nation and he spent five years in horrible jails.) Parties were thrown for him like every night for over a year and there was tons of souvenir merchandise, because everyone loved that guy.
Fun details and Sarah Vowell quotes:
"The newly dubbed General Lafayette was only nineteen years old. Considering independence Hall was also where the founders calculated that a slave equals three-fifths of a person and cooked up an electoral college that lets Florida and Ohio pick our presidents, making an adolescent who barely spoke English a major general at the age I got hired to run the cash register at a Portland pizza joint was not the worst decision ever made there. On the one hand, the French rookie got himself shot in the calf in his very first battle. On the other hand, he was so gung ho that he cut short his recuperation and returned to duty with one leg in a boot and the other wrapped in a blanket. Which might be the first and last time in history a Frenchman shirked rest and relaxation to get back to work. The redcoat general Lord Cornwallis sneeringly referred to Lafayette as "the boy." This put-down became all the more delightful once said boy helped cream Cornwallis at Yorktown."
"That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart."
"As the British historian and politician Lord Acton described the effect that our Revolutionary War had on our French allies, "What the French took from the Americans was their theory of , revolution, not their theory of government--their cutting, not their sewing."
Quote from Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy: "It was Hannah Arendt" (in the book On Revolution) "who really made that point well. What she wanted to do was understand revolutions--why so many fail. And why the American Revolution seems almost a model for a successful one because they already had experience in self-government." Whereas the French only knew how to live with a monarchy.
Sarah read the message written by FDR on the 100th anniversary of Lafayette's death. "I cannot think of a more euphemistic, upper-crust, dry martini of a zinger than "rare felicity," FDR's wry acknowledgement that every now and then, even a bunch of backbiting blowhards like the United States Congress can temporarily come together with their president to mourn the death of one of the few people, places, or things they and their fidgety constituents have ever agreed on. As a Frenchman who represented neither North nor South, East nor West, left nor right, Yankees nor Red Sox, Lafayette has always belonged to all of us."
Lafayette's given name: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier. "I was baptized like a Spaniard, with the name of every conceivable saint who might offer me more protection in battle."
In the previous book I read of hers, I fell for the awesomeness of Lucy Thurston. In this book, the most awesome besides Lafayette is the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont, who served as a male soldier AND a female secret agent during the Seven Years' War. "No one was entirely sure of his/her gender, and he/she kept them guessing." The French government wanted d'Eon back in the country and put their greatest playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais on the job. He got an invite to a dinner party to meet him and tried to convince him. d'Eon said he was a woman and was afraid of being locked in the Bastille. "Whether or not that was true--and technically it wasn't, based on a postmortem examination of d'Eon's anatomically male corpse years later--the professionally imaginative Beaumarchais concocted a theatrical solution. After handing over the invasion plans, d'Eon would be welcomed back to France and receive his military pension as long as he agreed to live out the rest of his life as a woman. Which happened!"
"It's worth noting that right from the start, America brought out the best in Lafayette, as if he had vomited up his adolescence somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic and come ashore a new and wiser self."
Sarah on Washington: "Still, it does get on my nerves how easy it is for tall people to make a good first impression." Har.
Defining Washington's military family. "So when Washington said "family," he meant "chummy minion." The orphaned Lafayette heard "son."
"After the fiasco of the New York campaign, Washington returned to the question he hollered amid the sloppy retreat from Kips Bay: "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?" The unfortunate answer--yep--prompted him to face the grim fact that "it is impossible, at least very unlikely, that any effectual opposition can be given to the British Army with the Troops we have." Hence the plan to play to his army's strengths. The men might have been lacking in skill and discipline, not to mention ammo and food, but given their behavior in New York, they were not inexperienced in running away."
At one point Sarah talks to some Quakers, who object to Sarah writing another history book about war. Her friend Wesley Stace, who's married to a Quaker, has some thoughts. "That's not a bad point that the whole of history is seen through war, It's very Quaker. I like it. I condemn your book. Previously I liked it and now I condemn it. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a Quaker wedding? People were slightly horrified when the mother of the bride said, "Of course I love my daughter--and I'm learning to love her husband-to-be." To me, that's Quakerism in a nutshell: "I'm going to say the right thing now, but I'm also going to be a little more honest than the situation calls for." Quakers are all about frankness and honesty."
"Soon French women were sporting weird wigs "a la Franklin," imitating his signature backwoods hat. If he could inspire Europe's most fashionable ladies to wear varmint hair, maybe he had a shot at convincing their menfolk to lend them their navy."
"It's possible that the origin of what kept our forefathers from feeding the troops at Valley Forge is the same flaw that keeps the federal government from making sure a vet with renal failure can get a checkup, and that impedes my teacher friend's local government from keeping her in chalk, and that causes a decrepit, ninety-three-year-old exploding water main to spit eight million gallons of water down Sunset Boulevard during one of the worst droughts in California history. It is just me, or does this foible hark back to the root of the revolution itself? "
"Though the story I'm telling necessitates typing reams of irritating words like "marquis," "duke," and worst of all, "lord," at this point the only useful aristocratic title belongs to the Count on Sesame Street. Every time I come across a historian in a snit about Baron von Steuben not being a real baron, I am reminded of Theodore Roosevelt's exasperation at making small talk with all the royal muckety-mucks at the funeral of Edward VII: "I felt if I met another king I should bite him!"
"Literally: Washington ordered drummers and fifers to badger the man from the camp, making him "the first known soldier to be dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality."
Lafayette found out that the treaties of alliance with France were signed at the same time he found out his daughter had died. "This sad news followed immediately that of the treaty; and while my heart was torn by grief, I was obliged to receive and take part in expressions of public joy."
"It's not as though either man could make an educated guess about how this sort of coalition usually works out. They couldn't exactly look up what happened the last time the son of a Boston soap maker was in cahoots with the crowned head of the House of Bourbon. Sometimes there is something new under the sun, or, in this case, under the woefully bedazzled ceilings of a grotesque hunting lodge gone wrong."
"Anyone who accepts the patriots' premise that all men are created equal must come to terms with the fact that the most obvious threat to equality in eighteenth-century North America was not taxation without representation but slavery. Parliament would abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1833, thirty years before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclaimation. A return to the British fold in 1778 might have freed American slaves three decades sooner, which is what, an entire generation and a half? Was independence for some of us more valuable than freedom for all of us? As the former slave Frederick Douglass put it in an Independence Day speech in 1852, "This is your Fourth of July, not mine." You know your country has a checkered past when you find yourself sitting around pondering the humanitarian upside of sticking with the British Empire."
OMG CHARLES LEE AND HIS SHITTING THE BED AT MONMOUTH! This is even worse than the musical said! The dude expected to be appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army and never really got over Washington getting the job instead. Fort Lee, New Jersey was named after him thanks to Washington. "Soon thereafter Lee was captured when the British tracked him to his lodgings in a country tavern, yanking him out in his bathrobe and slippers. He spent over a year as Manhattan's most pampered POW, being wined and dined nightly in comfortable, officer-worthy digs while his patriot comrades jailed on the prison ships in the East River were getting their dietary protein by licking the lice off their hands. Washington had his suspicions that Lee might have gotten treasonously cozy with his old redcoat coworkers. Eight decades would pass before someone nosing through the papers of William Howe's secretary in 1857 found a document proving Lee's collaboration with the British. A page with Lee's advice to Howe on how to take and hold Philadelphia was labeled "Mr. Lee's plan, March 29, 1777." OMG! In June 1778, Lee was offered command of troops once Washington decided to attack at Monmouth. "Qualms or not, Lee had seniority." Lee declined, deeming it beneath him and that it should go to a "young, volunteering general," so Lafayette was offered it and accepted happily! Then Lee decided he wanted it back. Washington reminded Lee his heart wasn't in it. Lee agreed and backed off, then changed his mind yet again. Washington threw up his hands and told Lafayette to proceed. Lee complained he'd be disgraced if he was usurped by a junior officer. Lafayette gracefully conceded. Hamilton wrote, "General Lee' s conduct with respect to the command of this corps was truly childish." Then at Monmouth, Lee ordered a retreat before most of them had even started to advance. Washington ordered Lee to go to the rear and then cussed him the hell out. Here's a quote from General Charles Scott who witnessed the incident: "Yes, sir, he swore on that day till the leaves shook on the trees. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing, before or since. Sir, on that memorable day, he swore like an angel from Heaven."
Why is Fort Lee still named Fort Lee? "Even setting aside the probability of Lee's treason that was uncovered in 1857, surely getting kicked out of a struggling army that could not afford to be terribly picky about who was in it was grounds for renaming Fort Lee back in the day." Especially since they did rename Fort Arnold! "The scene of Washington cussing out Charles Lee was for some reason not included in the series of bronze illustrations of the Battle of Monmouth on the monument at the county courthouse. Even though it was the most New Jersey-like behavior in the battle, if not the entire war."
"Lafayette's most annoying qualities--being a single-minded suck-up prone to histrionic correspondence--made him a first-rate advocate for his men. He charmed one city after another out of food and supplies."
As for Sarah's trip snark, Owen is dragged along with Sarah and her sister to colonial Williamsburg. "Who better to identify with surly victims of tyranny raging against their oppressors than a teenager on a car trip with his aunt and mom?"
"Basically, the governor of Virginia" (Jefferson) "had thoughts on everything but how to arm and feed and reinforce the soldiers risking their lives to save his state." And we continue on the "Jefferson was an asshole!" train! Sometime I'm gonna have to get around to reading Fawn Brodie's book on the dude (recommended by Chernow, found by me at a library sale).
She interviewed Mark Schneider, the Lafayette impersonator at Williamsburg. He reports that a guy told him he used to hate France until he heard the story.
Ranger Williams at the Yorktown battlefield on "all men are created equal": "Now, we know in America's history we sure have stumbled on that. We have made horrible mistakes, and we've had incredible successes. As a nation, we're still working on what those ideals mean to us. But those would have been just beautiful words on a beautifully written piece of paper if what happened here had not happened."
There are little cartoons of the dudes in the book and the best one is of King Louis XVI's decapitated head.
“I suppose the double-sided way I see the history of Hawaii--as a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed plates in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal--tracks with how I see the history of the United States in general.”
This is my first Sarah Vowell (disclaimer: going to a talk by her tonight), one I intended to get because it was about Hawaii. It's a mix of Sarah going around Hawaii, apparently accompanied by her nephew Owen, and doing research in other states on the theft of Hawaii from its people. I found it an entertaining read, but Sarah's snark and tone about her research and experiences is what really makes the book good. She likes to relate the experiences from other times and places to what happened in Hawaii, like comparing a story about her grandfather sharing his only food--a giant hunk of cheese--with a guy sharing his only food, a giant salami. “Growing up, I came to know America as two places--a rapacious country built on the destruction of its original inhabitants, and a welcoming land of opportunity and generosity built by people who shared their sausage and their cheese.” How fitting is that?
Sarah spent a lot of time reading and discussing the experiences of Hawaiian missionaries in the 1800's. She remarks that the original men sent out for the job were told they had to get married as soon as possible. This is how she describes this process: “Stars of reality-TV matchmaking shows have known their betrotheds longer than the missionaries knew their wive before shoving off. Luckily, this frantic bride hunt scared up ladies so suited for the task it was like something out of a fairy tale, albeit a fairy tale in which happily ever after involves the married women doing more backbreaking chores than Cinderella suffered before she met her prince.” She has some amusing commentary on Hiram and Sybil Bingham-- "Their wedding is what normal people refer to as a third date" --and when she reads that Sybll thanked God for providing her with Hiram: “Having read his insufferable memoir A Residence of Twenty-one Years in the Sandwich Islands, all I can say to that is: I’m happy for her?”Oh, that question mark! Says it all!
Sarah has especial love--and rightfully so-- for the awesome Lucy Goodale Thurston, who she describes as a catch, an educated girl with a large and loving family. Clearly she had to be very sincere about her ideals and desire to convert the natives to give all of that up forever. Lucy's memoir, "The Life and Times of Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston," is apparently a lot better read than Hiram's. Sarah sounds shocked that Lucy's family agrees that it's her decision to marry Asa Thurston or not, and the family had a sing-along when he came to meet them for the first time. By the end of the night they were "interested friends," which is a cute term we should perhaps bring back.
Before landing in Hawaii, the missionary wives were quite afraid of the rules of kapu forcing them to eat apart from their husbands, and they were afraid of being put to death for eating the wrong food. ("Plus, it’s hard enough to leave behind one’s friends, family, and country; a woman is supposed to give up bacon, too?” Sarah says.) However, luckily for them, the rules of kapu were utterly thrown over right before their arrival. Much as I'm 100% in favor of women's liberation and the desire to eat bacon with their husbands, given how Hawaiian civilization went to crap amazingly fast after the kapus were broken...maybe they had a point, dammit. Sarah's reaction to it is great. “As a female carnivore, I’m delighted that half the population was freed to eat pork. As a former Smithsonian intern, I am horrified that priceless cultural artifacts went up in smoke.”
Their arrival went pretty well, with the ladies being welcomed pretty nicely and happily, and with Lucy being impressed by prime minister Kalanimoku well, wearing pants. Though the white ladies were so ah...popular that they were followed around like paparazzi. Lucy reported that she tried to sit by herself under a tree and counted seventy people following her over within five minutes!
To finish out the Lucy saga, we find out that she had breast cancer and sat upright in a chair, totally sober, while the doctor cut off her breast. “Her take on the operation was that it ‘inspired me with freedom.’ Afterward, she proclaimed, “I am willing to suffer. I am willing to die. I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid of hell.’” RESPECT THE LUCY, FOR SHE IS A BADASS.
As to the missionaries' original goals: ”In summary, the missionaries’ brief was to remake Hawaiian society without aggravating the keepers of the status quo--to butter up the Hawaiian king while teaching his people that the only true authority is the king of kings. What could possibly go wrong?” Interestingly enough, it sounds like the whole missionary thing went fairly well at first and then went to hell later on. I don't feel much like recounting all of the horrors that went down in Hawaii, but let's briefly focus on the royal child beating, i.e. missionary Amos Cooke and his wife beating the royal family kids while they were at school. Sarah apparently befriended a descendant of theirs, Laurel Douglass, who became obsessed with Hawaiian history after her son died and started wondering if the family line was cursed. This led to Laurel wandering into a flower shop and confessing to a random native Hawaiian, “Don’t you think if your people ever put a curse on a family they would put it on the family of the man who beat your royal children?” Laurel says, and the lady holds her hands in hers and says, “Yes, dear, forever. Hurry, tell the story.” WHOA.
And let me just mention Sarah’s nephew Owen: “If I could marry Hawaii I would do it immediately.” ME TOO, KID, ME TOO.
The book finishes out with the image of Sarah and Owen listening to "Over the Rainbow" by Iz, followed by his song "Hawaii '78," about how their land is in great danger and Kamehameha would have hated what's happening to the place. Owen asks what the song's about, and Sarah replies, "It's about how people like us wrecked this place."
Hear, hear. Sarah's reminding me of me. I love Hawaii, but shitty asshole haoles had to come along and trash the place, and it makes me hate them. And kinda myself because I'm a shitty asshole haole, even though as far as I know my relatives have had nothing to do with trashing and stealing Hawaii. It's one of the things I think about when I daydream about moving there: the islands don't need another shitty haole there, eh? I'm with ya, Sarah: it breaks the heart.
Four stars. And before we finish, a ...
Talking about Yale in 1795: “This generation did not just read Voltaire; they literally addressed each other as “Voltaire” the way kids today call one another dude. Like, “Voltaire, I’m so high right now.” I giggle my head off just trying to imitate that.
“I envy a people who celebrate their leaders’ private parts--that they love their leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do. In the democratic republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn’t going to see his name on a ballot again.”
“In my life, I’ve been some exciting places--red carpet ceremonies. Movie debuts. Yachts in the south of France. I’ve met more movie stars than you can shake a wand at. But I’ve never had as much as I do when DJ and I are in the same room. It doens’t matter if we’re drinking watery beer at the pizza place or sitting on his roommate’s old sofa with books. Wherever I can see his lopsided smile, I feel happier than if I’d just won an Oscar.”
This story features Lianne, Bella's suitemate from the previous book. She's already interested in Daniel "DJ" Trevi, the little brother of big shot hockey player Leo that's been mentioned off and on in the series, and the two of them are pretty much adorable short sweet geekiness personified, especially when DJ gets Lianne into (literally) DJ'ing the hockey games for Harkness with him. Lianne has spent most of her college career so far hiding--which is reasonable when a paparazzi starts following you into class and the bathroom--but these days she's getting out a little more.
However, DJ's got a dark and terrible secret that's like an anvil hanging over his head with regards to well, his whole life. After having a one-time hookup with his lab partner Annie--it's pretty clear to DJ that she was initiating everything--DJ felt awkward about sleeping with a girl he wasn't into in that way, and a relationship never took off. But four months later, Annie reported him to the dean saying that their sex was...not consensual. Now DJ's banned from being within fifty feet of Annie at all times, he can't live in the dorms or access certain areas of campus--which makes things awkward when a class gets temporarily moved into a dorm or Annie shows up in the pizza parlor DJ was planning to meet Lianne at for their first date. And he's living in limbo waiting to get kicked out of school and basically have his whole life ruined for something he knows he didn't do...but even he doubts himself, so how can anyone else believe him?
It's kind of even worse for the Trevis since Leo's (beloved by the entire family) high school girlfriend Georgia got raped in the past and the stress from that ended their relationship, and DJ can't help but wonder how she would see this.* I have to say that DJ and his situation are handled just wonderfully and treads carefully through hard territory--he's very sympathetic and not blaming of Annie at all, he just truly wonders what the hell happened and knows he'll probably never find out. But one way or another, you can't stop living life for this.
* See spoiler space for more about this in the future.
So yeah, imagine having to tell the girl you really like that people think you're a rapist. However, Lianne takes it pretty well since she's gotten to know DJ and knows darned well he's all about the consent.
By comparison, Lianne's own problems aren't so bad, so she sorta gets short shrift to some degree when compared to the ugly drama of DJ's situation. Mostly it boils down to one paparazzo stalking her for awhile, her jerky agent wanting her to do a nude love scene in her next movie, her sorta-friendship-sorta-not with her regular costar in the Princess Vindi movies, and her wanting to play Lady Macbeth. There are some very fun scenes with her and DJ when he helps her practice for the role, and use of quotes, and at one point Bella gets a hold of Lianne's copy of the play and starts writing in it....very cute! The sexy jokes and quotes and porn Shakespeare titles are just glorious.
Here's the thing about this book: the romance is lovely. Very, very lovely. The characters are sweet, and you feel for them, and the book treads well through minefield territory, especially when you find out who Annie is and what's been going on with her. However, I generally agree with this Dear Author review in the "hoo boy, do I wish this book hadn't gone into this particular territory in a romance novel." The author handles it well (as opposed to say, the "gray rape" situation they did on the show Switched At Birth, a plotline I despised, but this one does remind me of it), but generally speaking, that's a hugely sensitive topic for a female readership.
And on a realistic note, I find it very hard to believe that Lianne's fame combined with DJ's problem didn't end in something publicly explosive. She gets followed by one paparazzo, who mis-identifies DJ when he's photographed kissing her because he's driving his roommate's car (the roommate is amused), and somehow nobody ever finds out that this guy Lianne is dating is a potential rapist and this doesn't get blasted across tabloids. I was unfortunately expecting this to happen (given the title, which seemed foreshadow-y) and while I was relieved it didn't, at that same time seemed really implausible that it didn't. Hell, it'd be a freaking miracle for that not to happen in the 2010's. It was very nice of the author not to do that and it probably would have blown up the relationship had it happened, but at the same time I kept wondering how that didn't happen.
In general: loved the romance and the characters, but the accused rape plotline, while handled well, is inherently going to be a bit of a buzzkill and wandering into uncomfortable territory for folks regardless. So...three and a half stars.
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an actress who made millions wielding a magic wand. I can go all day without hearing a single Princess Vindi joke.” --Lianne. (Even though the name she uses online is Vindikator!)
“I just want to go back to my dorm room and play another round of DragonFire. Is that so wrong?” --Lianne
“Well, slap my ass and call me Sally. I’ve just insulted our professor’s taste in twentieth-century theater and his entire career. Kill me already.” --Lianne
Bella and Lianne discuss Lianne's costar Kevin Mung, who always makes Bella think of mung beans. “You’ve tasted the mung bean?” --Bella
“How about this--you get me some progress on the Scottish play, and I’ll give you side boob.” I can’t believe I just formed that sentence. It sounds as if we’re describing a cut of meat at the butcher shop.”--Lianne to her agent.
“I’m starting to understand just how good an actress this girl really is. And it depresses the hell out of me. Who wants to be good at ignoring everyone?” --DJ
“This year I seem to spend ninety percent of my time worrying about what other people think of me. It’s exhausting.” --DJ. (TELL ME ABOUT IT, KID.)
Porn Shakespeare names: The Taming of the Screw, Two Gentlemen Do Verona, King Rear, Coroiolanal, As You Lick It
Bella’s annotations of the Scottish play, with highlighter quotes: “What wood is this before us?” with a pink smiley, “The wood began to move.” “Though comest to use thy tongue.” “I have gven suck and I have done the deed.” “I hear a knocking at the south entry.”
“If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that telling the truth isn’t enough. The universe works on another set of rules, and I don’t own the manual.” --DJ
“I’ve never Shakespeare-propositioned anyone before.” --Lianne
“Just like everyone else in his life, I have to decide whether I believe he’s telling the truth or not.” -Lianne
There's a lot of commentary about John Green novels and everyone dying in them. I haven't read any John Green books, but is he the new Lurlene McDaniel?
“I’m here to visit Kevin Mung. But I forgot to ask him what ridiculous superhero he registered under this time. It’s usually Captain America or Thor.” “Well, Miss Challice, I can’t tell you if Mr. Mung is a guest of our hotel. But there is a superhero registered to the Suite Royale on the penthouse level.”
“Only Lianne would rehearse a sex scene.” -Kevin
I just wanted to mention that at one point, Rikker and Graham reunite after a game by...Rikker giving Graham a headlock and a noogie. “Christ. And you wonder why I don’t wait for you here in estrogen alley.” --Graham.
The remaining members of our team, Sloane, Andy, and Demi, are off dealing with a “Godfather Death” memetic incursion (have you heard of that story? Me neither) in which a doctor started seeing Death all over the place and then started killing people. Sloane has to tell the guy he’s just on super psychotropic drugs instead. “You killed a coat rack, and a balloon bouquet, and an IV stand. Very good killing of things that the drugs made you see as people. A+ murderousness.” Sloane’s tired and cranky, misses half her group, and it bothers her that Ciara is so far unflappable in dealing with her because Sloane needs to piss people off. So she punches the dude-- “We’re with the United States Government; we’re allowed to punch people if we want to”-- in pre-emptive self-defense.
But really, what you’re here for is to find out: DOES SLOANE FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO HENRY IN THE LAST CHAPTER OR NOT?!? The answer is....sorta? Sloane figures out pretty much instantly that something’s wrong--strong smell of apples, the heavy winter vibe, the dead grass under Henry’s feet--and Ciara seems to feel it just as badly, with the rest of the team having lower level weird vibes. But does she say much about that to anyone? No. Does she call Henry out for being weird? No. They all just go along with it...and I’ll admit, that’s probably because “Henry’s” doing a darned good job of talking like Henry, putting Sloane in doubt as to whether or not to save a possible enemy, or to believe her when “Henry” tells them to head to a glassworks factory to find their enemies. They all head to the factory, where they find a Rapunzel and her hair everywhere, but so far no Dorothy to spread pollen/glass throughout the city. In the end, Sloane can’t quite put her finger on it, but something’s wrong around here.
There’s some discussion of Birdie’s motives, which are a bit baffling even to Sloane, who admits she hasn’t known a whole lot of Storytellers. Sloane thinks she wanted access to a lot of broken stories to create her new army. Which would replace Sloane’s team, which wouldn’t follow her rules. That last bit is posited by “Henry,” and again Sloane doesn’t quite think that ... sounds right? Sloane eventually deduces that the bad guys are going to pull a “Snow Queen,” i.e. using a magic mirror with contagious glass. As “Henry” goes after them, Ciara and Sloane agree to watch her and try to save people from being killed. Meanwhile, both of them notice that “Henry” doesn’t exactly give them instructions or seem to acknowledge them very much.
We also find out that Ciara .... well.
“Are we watching a woman try to seduce a lock? I’m not objecting if we are--your kink is okay and all--but I just want to confirm that everyone else is seeing what I’m seeing, her.e”--Andy. “No, we’re watching a woman successfully seduce a lock. Fascinating.” --Jeff “Her love life must involve a lot of handcuffs.” --Sloane “Don’t ask about mine and I won’t ask about yours.” --Ciara. The ribbing is all in good (shocked, horrified, amused) fun, but Ciara later says to Sloane, “It’s not a parlor trick. It’s the world.” I don’t quite know what that means, but SHIT GIRL, IF YOU CAN TALK LOCKS INTO UNLOCKING WHAT HOPE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUR LIFE?!
Anyway, they go into the factory, have to get out of Rapunzel’s attacking hair, and as they wait for a cleanup crew....the ominous feelings continue.
You know, it’s a well written chapter--Ciara’s lock talents are jaw-dropping and you know I love Sloane’s narration--but man, I’m so frustrated! Nobody’s doing anything about that cuckoo in the nest! Gah! It just feels, well...like the plot had to be drawn out for another chapter without that level of resolution, to be honest. I know that sorta thing happens, but it makes me a bit growly anyway. So...3.5 stars.
Quote Corner, all-Sloane edition:
“I’m not a demon, I’m just a bitch.”
“I like profanity--it’s practically my mother tongue--but I try to use words that insult without demeaning, when I can. Anything else risks losing the point, and if I insult someone, I want them to understand that I mean every word.”
“She was never far from me, that girl I had once been, all anger and action, an arrow in quest of a bow. She never did find her bow, but a story found her, and tried to make her into a better weapon. It failed, or maybe it succeeded: it made her into me, and I wanted nothing more than to strike at the heart of every story that had ever harmed a child.”
My fascination with the whole Hamilton thing has continued on enough for me to buy this book when it came out. While it's a few hundred pages shorter than the Chernow*, I actually liked reading this one better. I'm not exactly sure how he did it, but this author had a way of making me feel like I was more invested in the plot--it felt more immediate to me and fresh and captivating from the beginning and thus I rushed through it in two days instead of two plus weeks. My usual problem with reading older biographies is that some of them just don't manage to suck me beyond dry recitations of the facts, but this one kept me interested. So yay for that.
* This author states in the back that he mostly just read other people's books and research rather than trying to find information others haven't yet, and synthesized it all.
The author actually mentions that he was pretty inspired by reading Gore Vidal's fictionalized "Burr," because it emphasized people's flaws and fights and struggles. "Vidal inspired me to consider Hamilton and Burr as if I'd heard them gripe about money or squabble with their wives, or smelled their cologne. Since each got under the skin of the other, I imagined a parallel biography, showing their tightening trajectories, would reveal features that would otherwise be concealed, and provide a truer account than if I'd placed either man on a pedestal alone." That's exactly what attracted to me about this book and what works about it--the chapters mostly alternate between the two until well, they can't any more.
What gave the author the idea to work on this was when he was working on a book about his family's history ("In The Blood") and he found out that one of his ancestors was friends with Alexander Hamilton and was sent one of his last letters written the night before he died. What could be so important to communicate on that last night, you wonder? What was so important that the author's mind was blown, that to him it was a better explanation of why the duel and what would come of it than anything else?.... Well, you won't find out until the dead end of the book. As to what it was...I'll put it below the spoiler cut.*
Anyway, the book alternates telling the two's stories and tying them together when possible. Sometimes the book has more detail on subjects, sometimes it has less. Notable moments from this one include:
Even Aaron Burr's own mother didn't like him, calling him "very sly and mischievous." AS A BABY, HE WAS SLY, WTF?
Burr's parents were quite the horny little religious family, apparently.
The romance between Burr and his first wife Theodosia sounds like it was actually pretty sweet for the most part (until she got really sick, anyway, sounds like he kinda went off her then?). They were both total book nerds and apparently Burr was inspired by her to be a feminist/in favor of women's rights. Well, at least with regards to his wife and daughter anyway, probably not so much for all the other tail he chased while single.
Burr to his wife on his daughter, Theodosia II: "But I yet hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appear to believe--that women have souls!" Isn't that really our issue, folks: somehow people don't believe that women have souls and are people? To this day, it continues.
Burr was actually rather a hardass on his daughter. He educated her very well--poor kid was up studying at 5 a.m. from an early age and he nitpicked the crap out of her letters. When she was writing about her mother needing laudanum, he nitpicked her use of the word "it." Jeebus, dude. Naturally, the kid worshipped him, probably because she didn't know any better.
Even worse, Burr kinda adopted a French refugee girl to be friends with Theodosia II and called the French girl "the loveliest creature that I know of her age." Which was a year apart from his kid. Ouch, dude.
Jefferson was such a married-woman-chasing skeezebucket that he followed his best friend's wife into her bedroom--and she was NOT wanting any of that. Dude!
Burr wanted to write a history of the War of Independence and was spending a lot of time in the Department of State taking notes--until Washington heard about it and barred him from the archives.
Hamilton felt "a religious duty" (from a man who wasn't religious at all at the time, the author points out) to oppose Burr's career. He also claimed that he had "hitherto scrupulously refrained from interference in elections," to which the author is basically all LOL TO THAT BECAUSE THAT IS ALL YOU DO NOW.
Hamilton's friend Robert Troup, regarding the "Quasi-War" and Hamilton and Burr being nominated for the army as generals together, told a friend he had seen the impossible: Hamilton and Burr actually being polite to each other.
Burr truly is the founder of modern campaigning, and at least when he had a slate nominated, it worked like gangbusters and all thirteen people got elected. Didn't so much work for himself though....but he was right in there, sending campaign people to drag voters out, keeping track of the polls.
"To call Burr a Burrite was hardly to ascribe to him any political philosophy. He was what he always was--a code that could be read one way by one key, and another by another. Because any political position was available to him, hew as free to redefine himself however he liked, even as a Federalist, and no one would have accused him of inconsistency. Burr was what he was not." (Well, Hamilton would have accused him....ahem. Also, Burr: founder of modern "flip-flopping.")
Burr's refusal to say "pick Jefferson for president, I'll wait 8 years" is pretty much what did him in on the 1800 election and in the Jefferson administration, which the author likens to political suicide only equal to the Reynolds pamphlet. "Burr became something he had never been before, a negative, an empty space left to others to fill. And, mystified by his intentions, no one budged."
The final vote--the thirty-sixth taken--only picked a side because some folks started abstaining rather than voting. If Hamilton had anything to do with the campaigning, the author doesn't mention it at all here. What?
A group of Federalists were wanting to secede from the Union and were trying to get Burr on board. Despite half a dozen dinners, Burr of course didn't commit. They THOUGHT he was with them because he listened well, but after they went over his statements, they realized he hadn't said a darned thing indicating he was with them. "No man's language was ever more apparently explicit, & at the same time so covert and indefinite." -William Plumer. Burr bashed them privately because of the execution of their plan--he'd have to win the governorship, then inform the voters oh, you elected me president of a whole new country!
Shortly after Hamilton called Burr a "dangerous man" in February of Hamilton's last year...Burr hiked over to Hamilton's house in the middle of the night begging for ten thousand dollars (note: twice his VP salary). Hamilton took notes, said he'd see what he could do, and got a loan from his brother in law Church--the one who'd already been in a duel with him! Burr was so clearly grateful.... “So who do you think that was?” Hamilton said to his wife upon returning to bed. She couldn’t guess.
Regarding the treason plot: Burr was going to seize the Louisiana Purchase and declare himself emperor a la Napoleon.
The line about “if any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend to him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time.” was said after Burr was failing in wooing a woman named Celeste and she had thrown him over for good, and he had just decided to quit wooing women (for the moment). Ah.
When hiding from law enforcement, burr got recognized by land commissioner Nicholas Perkins, who had seen the governor’s offer of a $2000 award for the fugitive. The ad described burr as his eyes “sparkled like diamonds.” Burr and a friend of his asked Perkins directions to a homestead two miles away and despite the beaver hat he had on, Perkins saw that Burr’s eyes were sparkly. Perkins told them that the bridges were out, they’d be better off sleeping at the tavern-and the two men ignored that advice and kept going. That confirmed it: no honest man would pass up a bed close by for one more distant, so then they got busted.
When Burr arrived in Baltimore, he was greeted by angry crowds who were ready to hang him in effigy and who dragged a proxy of him “habited for execution” about the city “in full huzzah in fife and drum playing the ‘Rogue’s March.’” How appropriate of a tune! 1500 citizens surged down the street breaking windows, and Burr had to sneak out a mail stage to avoid being seized by a mob.
Burr admitted to Jeremy Bentham that he was “sure” he’d kill Hamilton, which horrified Bentham.
While in Europe, Burr wrote a journal to Theodosia, in which he shared toooooo many details of his sexual affairs with her.. The author mentions that this “verges on epistolary incest.” I for one would love to her Lin-Manuel Miranda do an outtake song on Burr blabbing about his sexual conquests and Theodosia being all, "Daddddd! TMI!"
Burr was a financial idiot. Even when he was super poor, he’d borrow money and spend it on lavish presents for his daughter and then have to sell them back for a fraction of what he paid. He made a little money translating English books into French, including one that was a political diatribe containing “a quantity of abuse and libels on A. Burr.” He translated it faithfully.
What a lulu, eh?
Anyway, I'm giving it four stars for being easy and compelling to read.
Big Magic strikes me as being one of those (mostly) writing books along the lines of “Bird By Bird” or any of the other ones that people recommend to you about the mindset of writing. I think this one’s going to be one of those that everyone recommends, because it’s lovely.
This book is about having the courage to bring forth what’s inside you and having a life that is driven more by curiosity than fear. The author said she used to be afraid of pretty much everything, so she had to learn to keep going instead of always yelling stop, to say “yes, you’re going to be here, but you’re not allowed to drive.”
Things that stood out to me:
The story of Jack Gilbert (no relation), a poet that could have been famous but didn’t give a crap about that. The concept that ideas are just floating around waiting for someone to take them up, and what happens if you do or don’t do that. (Liz suggests that if you get approached by an idea that’s not right for you, you politely say, “I’m honored by your visitation, but i’m not your girl. May I respectfully suggest that you call upon, say, Barbara Kingsolver?”)
Once upon a time Liz got the idea to write a romantic story in the Amazon rain forest, featuring a middle-aged woman in love with her boss. However, her life got sidetracked by the events mentioned in Committed, and by the time her life settled down enough to go back to the Amazon novel, she’d lost the driving force to write it. But around this time, she met Ann Patchett and became friends with her, and they discovered in a conversation that both of them had had the same idea for a novel in the Amazon about a middle-aged woman in love with her boss... Ann’s the one that eventually got that written (“State of Wonder”). The two of them figure out that Ann got the idea around the time that Liz lost her feeling for it, and they figure that idea got passed along. And that was such a specific idea--not a genre!--that it had to be the same one.
You don’t have to go to grad school or get a big shot teacher--you can learn from the world around you, even by taking crap jobs.
How to cope with life after having a hit book and having so many people having opinions about it, and how you should keep going no matter what other people’s thoughts are.
You’ll have to deal with some form of shit sandwich even when doing what you want.
Day jobs are an honorable and reasonable thing to have, and that way your creativity doesn’t have to always be running to support you.
Take a lesson from Tristram Shandy--when you’re feeling stupid and blocked, dress yourself up.
It’s better to release an imperfect book into the wild than it is to never show it to anyone.
Once upon a time, Liz was working on a ranch in Wyoming when she heard about a guy named Larry D. Jones who makes elk-calling recordings and makes a living off of doing that. Liz thought this was hilarious and she and a friend of hers got drunk and went into the woods with a boom box and the elk calling tape to see what would happen. AND THEN IT WORKED, and a giant elk showed up, all pissed off. They threw the boom box away and hid until it went away--and then that became a story called “Elk Talk.” This story got rejected by a lot of people, but the rejection that stood out to Liz was the one from the editor in chief of Story Magazine, who said she liked it but the ending fell short. Years later after Liz has become famous, her agent calls her up to say that she sold “Elk Talk” to Story Magazine and the editor now loves the ending. Whaaaat? LIz points out that yeah, her fame might have had something to do with it, but also, maybe the editor was just in a better mood this time when she saw it.
She mentions a Q&A done with Richard Ford, in which a middle-aged man gets up and says he’s never been published, do you have any advice for me that isn’t to perservere? So Ford says well, I’m going to tell you to quit because clearly you’re not enjoying writing any more and you should go find something else more fun to do if this is killing you. Buuuuuut..... if you can’t give up writing in the end, “then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to perservere.”
You don’t have to be a tortured artist, and creativity can love you back. Why would creativity harm you if it needs you to make things manifest? She recommends rejecting martyrdom and embracing being a trickster.
Liz tells the story of getting her story “Pilgrims” sold at Esquire, and then being told that after a major advertiser had pulled out, pages were cut for her month and either she could cut her story by 30 percent and still have it in there, or else pull it from the magazine and try her luck elsewhere. However, the fellow who broke the news to her said that while he thought the story would suffer, her story may never get published or the editor that liked it might move on. Liz chose to cut 30% of the story (which is painful when it was only ten pages), because “let’s be honest. It wasn’t the Magna Carta we were talking about here; it was just a short story about a cowgirl and her boyfriend.” She came out with interesting new results, and it turned out to be a good idea that she’d done that because the editor left pretty much right after that, and its publication right then got the eye of her agent.
When you’re low on ideas, just follow whatever you’re interested in. When Liz was feeling brain dead on big ideas and the only thing she was interested in was gardening, that eventually led to a novel idea.
Here’s a fun story Liz heard at a party about a guy who was living in Paris and got invited to the biggest party of the year, in a castle with the rich and famous, and it’s a masquerade ball. Wanna come? So the guy works on a costume all week, drives there, walks in.... and that’s when he finds/figures out it was a themed costume party, a medieval court--and he’s dressed as a lobster. What do you do at that moment? Well, the lobster walked right in and when everyone stops dead in their tracks upon seeing him and someone gets the nerve to ask what he is, he bows and says, “I am the court lobster.” People loved it and the guy ended up dancing with the Queen of Belgium. To quote Liz, “This is how you must do it, people.”
The story about how Balinese temple dancers were being hired to dance at resorts for tourists, but high-minded Westerners started to get freaked out about sacred dances being ruined. So the Balinese dancers started making up non-sacred dances for these occasions... and then after a few years going the dances get more refined and transcendent, and then the priests start incorporating the “fake” dances into their temples....
Seriously, this is a really fun book to read, and inspiring, and explains some interesting things. Four stars.
Oh mah gawd, this book. This is hardcore. This is probably the most hardcore collection of short stories that make a complete novel ever. I've previously mentioned reading some of these stories before. And I highly recommend reading this review.
The setup is that Haviland Tuf, a strange dude by all accounts, is a trader who ends up in possession of an ancient starship with an amazing library of biogenetic science. He decides to become an ecological engineer and fly around the galaxy looking for worlds that could use his help.
This may sound nice, sweet, and inspiring. Holy crap, it's not, but it'll give you something to think about. For one thing, Tuf is a benevolent but really odd dude. He's fat and bald in a world where those things seem rare. He doesn't like being touched. He has no personal attachments except to his various cats, who he adores. He's willing to help others, but for a very expensive free--though to be fair, dude has bills to pay. He has a very interesting, flowery way of speaking. He doesn't lie to you, but watch out for what he's NOT telling you. (Hoo boy, do I mean that.) And whether or not he becomes corrupt when he gets this level of power...you'll have to be the judge. He seems so improbable that nobody believes him, and he gets pouty at that.
For another thing.... I'm going to talk about the short stories in this collection not in the order they are written. Three of them take place on the same world, with five years' duration between then, and I'm going to pull those out of the narrative to talk about separately.
The prologue is a horribly creepy apocalypse log about two people who landed on the world Hro B'rana, which has some kind of plague star that sends a billion horrible diseases to get you if you breathe the air. Then comes the first full story, The Plague Star. A group of super dubious individuals have come together to track down a derelict biowar seedship of the long-dead Ecological Engineering Corps--that's the "plague star" orbiting Hro B'rana. They need someone to take them there, and they hire Haviland Tuf, a meager trader, to do the job.
The team are all a bunch of jerks, though the mercenary Rica Dawnstar is kind of a hoot/the least bad of the bunch for most of it. The most memorably irritating one is the whiny, cat-hating Celise Waan, who Tuf has to tolerate, but gets his own back when she wants meat and he eventually reveals the only meat on the ship is the catfood.
When they find the ship, people scramble for various space suits and invade the thing...and then find lots of fun creatures like a dinosaur and "hellkittens" ready to attack them. And if you're dumb enough to breathe the air without doing a purge first, there's plenty of horrible plagues to catch! Which is unfortunately demonstrated on Tuf's cat Mushroom--but hey, part of the fun of this ship is you can clone your dead cat. In the end, a "And Then There Were None" scenario goes on and you wait for the various villains to take each other out or be taken out by plagues or hellkittens. In the end, well... you know who wins or else we don't have the rest of the book. And Tuf takes up a new profession.
"In fact, I have decided to give up the crass calling of the merchant, for the nobler profession of ecological engineer."
I'm going to come back to the second, fourth, and seventh stories later. I've actually reviewed #3, "Guardians," and #5, "A Beast For Norn," over here previously.
#6, "Call Him Moses," starts with Tuf getting randomly assaulted in a restaurant by a dude named Jaime Kreen. Tuf bails Kreen out of jail and basically owns him until Kreen pays off his bail in labor--and Tuf charges him for every petty thing like using the toilet. However, he finds out that Kreen was motivated to hurt him because he thinks Tuf has been involved in an ecological war happening on Kreen's home world of Charity. Some dude calling himself Moses has been executing various Biblical plagues to force the population into joining his church, which doesn't like technology. Tuf is sympathetic to this plight and offers his services to the Charitans, and deduces how Moses did his plagues by laying plans years in advance--but he can't do real plagues like Tuf could if he wanted to. Ahem.
Now I'm going to go to the S'uthlam trilogy of stories, which are the most memorably whammy of them all.
In "Loaves and Fishes," (#2), Tuf needs some repairs made to his new ship, and goes to the highly technological world of S'uthlam (Malthus backwards....ish). He tourists around the place for a few days and can't help but notice that it's super crowded, there's no cats or any other pets, and the food is rather skimped on. Tuf deduces that the place has too high of a population. Meanwhile, the S'uthlam government is desperate to get a hold of Tuf's ship--pay a fair price or just plain steal it, whatever--so they can bioengineer enough food to feed thirty billion.
Tuf sorta-kinda makes friends a wee bit with Tolly Mune, the portmaster assigned to deal with him. She explains to him that current estimates of the planet having a famine/everyone dying are in 27 years, and the murder, rape, and crime rates are raising every year. Oh yeah, and a few folks have taken up cannibalism.
Tuf is all, "you can solve this by using birth control," which Tolly privately agrees with. BUT the entire basis of S'uthlam culture is the Church of Life Evolving, which 80% of the population follows. The Church believes in unrestricted births so that eventually people will evolve into godhood, and restricting birth may interfere with human evolution. Who wants to abort the next god, proto-genius, one savior? And so far it's working, as when you have billions of people, you have milliions of geniuses, and that's why this place is a tech wonderland.
Tuf doesn't want to sell, but he's willing to offer his assistance. However, dealing with the government becomes complicated, especially when trickery is involved and Tuf makes the mistake of bringing down his kitten Havoc so Tolly can meet a cat. Next thing you know, Tolly's babysitting a very cute hostage.
“During our last private discussion, I was set upon by men with nerve guns, verbally pummeled, cruelly deceived, deprived of a beloved companion, and denied the opportunity to enjoy dessert. I am not favorably predisposted to accept further invitations.”
But despite that, Tuf's willing to bioengineer up some ideal foodstuffs, and they eventually come to a bet of sorts.
“Tuf is going to take a try at making fish sandwiches for thirty billion. I think he’ll just get flour on his face and choke on a fish bone, but that doesn’t matter. If he fails, we get the goddamned seedship, all nice and legal. If he succeeds, we don’t’ need the Ark any more And the way I got things rigged, even if Tuf does win, he’ll still owe us thirty-four million standards. If by some miracle when he pulls it off, odds are we’ll get the ship anyway, when he comes up short on his damned note.”
In the end, Tuf comes up with pretty literal loaves and fishes...but alas, that only inspires the government to want to steal his ship anyway. Tolly does a traitorous thing and warns Tuf of this, and even returns his cat to him--which is a lot of trouble. Even though she'll probably go to jail for what she's done, she's got her reasons:
“I sat at that meeting, Tuf. I sat there and listened to them talk, and I heard what the Ark had done to them. They were honest, honorable, ethical people, and the Ark had already turned them into cheats and liars. They believe in peace, and they were talking about the war they might have to fight to keep this puling ship of yours. Their entire creed is based on the holy sanctity of human life, and they were blithely discussing how much killing might be necessary-starting with yours.”
“There’s an ancient saying, Tuf. Came out of Old Earth. Power corrupts, it went, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“The dream of the Ark had already begun to corrupt my world. What the hell would the reality of possession have done to us? I didn’t want to find out.”
In the end, Tuf wields near absolute power. Tolly possibly thinks it's better if he gets corrupted, or maybe he's naive and harmless enough not to...or maybe he's an incorruptible man? We'll see in five years when his first loan payment is due.
Five years later we're on story #4, "Second Helpings." Tuf returns with his psychic bioengineered cat Dax, who operates as a warning system when someone's going to lie to or harm him. He shows up in disguise (uh-HUH) and finds out that not only did Tolly Mune not go to jail, she had a vid made of their...love affair? Hey, it made for a good story, and Tolly tells him she needed to come up with one to get herself out of treason charges. She destroyed the First Councilor, she made herself a heroine, all of his planting worked, and the estimated time of self-destruction is now... 18 years because people are breeding even faster.
Tuf goes to work again, this time insisting on doing a live television presentation of his findings. He comes up with more creatures that will postpone famine to 109 years from now...oh yeah, and you people should REALLY USE BIRTH CONTROL. They end up having to run for it. Tuf leaves Tolly a few parting gifts--two cats, a ship to store them on and five years of cat food--as pets/hostages until he returns. The cats are named Doubt and Ingratitude. Ahem.
And then finally we have the last story, five years later, "Manna from Heaven." S'uthlam is now at war with every other planet in its vicinity, and Tuf has been tried and convicted of being a criminal, heretic, and enemy of the people in absentia. Mostly so now they have a legal excuse to steal the ship...says his old sorta-pal Tolly Mune, now First Councilor because they go through a lot of those.
Tolly has gotten her own psychic cat made, Blackjack, and she claims he's been augmented to be particularly dangerous. Dax and Blackjack don't get along, forcing Tuf to leave Dax behind...heh heh heh. Or uh-oh. Then again, Tuf has his own cat in heat to unleash to attract Blackjack's interest. Tolly also now has a shit-ton of secret cats because Tuf didn't spay and neuter--there's a hint...
The population keeps increasing, and the new estimated time to famine is now 12 years. Crime is up 200%, murder is up 500%, suicide is up 2000% (sounds like people are trying to take themselves out), cannibal gangs are eating the fetuses of pregnant women...EW. They're all obsessed with death, and the government thinks the Ark is their last hope to make enough food.
But Tuf's been thinking about this for five years, and he's engineered the perfect food: manna! Delicious, addictive, fast growing. He'll even give it to you for free (note: watch out for when Tuf offers a freebie), even though everyone is threatening him. He's going to impose peace on these people, dammit. and who does he think he is?
“I am Haviland Tuf, and I have run out of patience with S’uthlam and the S’uthlamese, madam.”
As I've said before: watch out for what Tuf doesn't say. He tells Tolly alone: the manna, once seeded, can't be eradicated. Eating it will sap libido and fertility in all but a very tiny fraction of the population that's immune. Deferred genocide.
Tolly may be secretly for population control, but she's horrified at this idea of taking away everyone's right to choose, and who gave Tuf that authority? Who made him God and gave him godlike powers? The Ark, he says. The crisis was such that a solution could only work through godlike intervention. Which option is worse? He leaves it to Tolly to decide whether or not she'll tattle on him to her government.
The final line is: "Her name was Tolly Mune, but in the stories they call her all sorts of things."
Holy shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit, this story. The debates about being a god. The ethical dilemmas. The rocks and hard places and hard decisions. The personalities involved. What would you do in that situation?