Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

luciaI have the terrible wonderful habit of browsing the books for sale whenever I’m in a thrift store or library; I like inviting serendipity. I don’t remember where or when I found this biography, but it was definitely serendipity; my taste for personal histories, especially of women, would have been enough to pick it up, but the ability to justify it as a possible source for research – and, better still, a source for the sort of details of everyday life in historic Europe that are so hard to come by – made it an easy sale.

Any reservations I had came from the fact that Andrea di Robilant is Lucia’s descendant. On the one hand, there’s romance in the “long-lost story discovered in family archives,” but on the other – mightn’t it be vanity publishing, making a book out of nothing very much? It was, however, cool that the portrait on the cover is indeed of her – a portrait that was deemed lost until he tracked it down. (This would be a bit too much National Treasure if it did not become apparent in the telling of the story that, because it was not a major work, nobody had ever bothered to go looking before.)

But, anyhow, I bought it and read it and enjoyed every minute of it, and it vastly exceeded anything I hoped it would be. I also found myself confronting a number of common myths about the past and even discovering a few surprising facts we don’t often consider at all. Here are a few: Continue reading “Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon”

Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”

With Liberty and Justice For All

I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom. Continue reading “With Liberty and Justice For All”

The Lobster Mafia

“Don’t ever hoard buoys like that,” Allyson says as we hurtle down a country road. “The lobster mafia is real.”

I barely catch a glimpse of what she points at, but I know what she means. Every so often I’ve seen small houses almost completely covered by buoys in every combination of colors. Naïve urban outsider that I am, I had assumed they were meaningless kitschy decorations, like those old metal Coca-Cola signs you can buy at a certain type of antique store. Continue reading “The Lobster Mafia”

November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later and form the basis of photography, among other things. This was a woman I needed to know more about.

The book is an easy and compelling read and good for a general overview of two remarkable and intersecting lives, but ultimately disappointing. Bodanis mentions in the preface that Voltaire and Emilie were together for ten years but that the relationship ended unsatisfactorily, leading to her early death and a certain bitterness in his later work. I would say that is a highly overdramatized way of summarizing the story as recorded in the main text, but my enjoyment of much of the book was spoiled as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

More disappointingly, however, the book seems superficial. In the preface Bodanis contends that the pair, who corresponded with nearly every major thinker in Europe, were at the center of developing the up-and-coming Enlightenment. Yet in the main text their correspondences are referred to only passingly.

Even looking at it only as a story of their love, I have read biographies of entire lives (this skips most of Emilie’s growing-up years and picks up Voltaire intermittently from age 23, when he was already well-known, ending by quickly summarizing his last years) that aren’t much longer than this yet seem much more thorough. There are certainly books where this is unavoidable because the detail simply isn’t available. In this case, that isn’t true.

Du Chatelet had been an inveterate letter writer, sometimes sending four or five messages a day, and Voltaire wrote constantly too, so what I found about key events was often as dense as an email trail today. Thousands of those letters have survived, as have du Chatelet’s own half-dozen books and unprinted manuscripts (including beautiful, private autobiographical reflections). There are also letters from houseguests and neighbors and purchasing agents and scientists, as well as a vast thicket of police reports, complemented by a small layering of servants’ memories… The detail was so great that when, for example, I describe Voltaire smiling after being asked a question by a particular police spy in May 1717, his smiling is not a random guess, but appears in a report the spy wrote that very evening.

So why isn’t more of this included in the book?

There are certainly interesting passages. I had never realized that many of the things we take for granted today – like personalized signatures on letters, or the fact that we can never truly understand another person’s inner thoughts – were revolutionary at the time. Even the advent of cushioned armchairs was a result of a change in philosophical outlook. And I would never have guessed that it was Voltaire who – based on an interview with one of Newton’s relatives – first circulated the story about the apple falling from the tree.

(Of less general interest, but fascinating to me, was the fact that Voltaire and his friend Richelieu – nephew of the infamous Cardinal – were responsible for putting Jeanne Poisson into Louis XV’s bed, thus launching the career of Madame du Pompadour, who was another very smart cookie and about whom I wrote in In the Face of a Royal Pain.)

I’m glad I read the book, but mostly because it has pointed me to a couple of other biographies of Emilie that might actually give a full picture of the heroine.

October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Why did soldiers in the 1800s fire rounds into their canned food?

Which British monarch was so fat he or she could not go down stairs, but had to be lowered through a trapdoor with a pulley?

Why was the aspidistra the indoor plant of choice in Victorian times?

I confess this was not originally intended as this month’s reviewed book; looking for something entertaining, and misled by the word “short,” I checked it out as my fluff book. However, it being both more serious and considerably longer than Bill Bryson’s other books (it is, in fact, 9 times longer than his “African Diary,” which I highly recommend, and which, at 49 pamphlet-sized pages, was only one evening’s reading for me), here we are.

Bryson is known chiefly as a humorist, and the origin of the book is explained with a comedian’s typical curiosity:

Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two…. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.

What he found, to his “great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world – whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over – eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house.” The result is that one receives the impression that, having found the subject far more immense than he supposed, the book became both rushed and crammed and, at times, not as focused or organized as it might have been.

Fortunately, for the most part this has little effect on the reader’s enjoyment. Bryson’s humor, though relatively subdued, shines through on every page in his entertaining digressions and delight in the absurdities and improbabilities of life, expressed with his usual gift for a good turn of phrase.

There is his exuberant declaration that “Nothing – really, absolutely nothing – says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century’s most daring and iconic building [the Crystal Palace] was entrusted to a gardener.”

After relating how horrified famous diarist Samuel Pepys was to find, in 1662, that his fish dinner “had within it ‘many little worms creeping,’” Bryson assures us that “finding one’s food in an advanced state of animation was not common even in Pepys’ day.”

Or, perhaps my favorite tidbit out of the whole book:

Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey, meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.

One theme that appeared throughout and struck me with a kind of understanding sadness was how, in the days before professional certifications, anyone could be anything:

Even after architecture became a recognized profession, most practitioners came from other backgrounds. Inigo Jones was a designer of theatrical productions, Christopher Wren an astronomer, Robert Hooke a scientist, Vanbrugh a soldier and playwright.

Of course, there was a downside to this. “In one decade in America [in the mid-1800s], more than four hundred theaters burned down. Over the nineteenth century as a whole, nearly ten thousand people were killed in theater fires in Britain” – because there were no safety standards, and theaters used wildly unstable lighting developed by amateurs. I understand why the way it is now is “better,” and is the way it must be. But, as Bryson says, the old way contained much capacity for greatness.

The book is in turns shocking-funny:

Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it until their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn’t turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show everyone how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were

shocking-tragic:

Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically, scurvy killed about half the crew on any long voyage [but although experiments in the 1760s pointed to the cure] the British navy… procrastinated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine

and shockingly coincidental: one man of no significance to history, James Chiswick, single-handedly connects the sewage of London, the beginnings of professional baseball, the discovery of the atom, and the French Revolution, just because he happened to have gifted children, students, and roommates.

Unfortunately, after about 350 pages of this, the endless factoids and digressions start to get wearing, and just at that point the book reaches the bedroom and takes a decidedly darker and more depressing turn.

Nothing upsets me more than the lack of legal rights for women throughout history, and Bryson manages not only to find the worst examples (one woman, after finding out that her husband was slowly poisoning her, applied for a divorce. After listening to the arguments the judge counseled her to go home and “try to be more patient”), but to follow them with other equally disturbing subjects, such as including a detailed account of one woman’s 17-and-a-half-minute mastectomy, written by the woman herself – because, of course, this was in the days before anesthesia and so she was awake for the whole thing. This is followed up by such everyday horrors in the nursery as are not worth repeating.

Which leaves me in another unexpected place: giving this book, which was mostly very entertaining and by an author I like, a negative review. The casual reader may enjoy reading the odd chapter; the student of history and trivia certainly will. I’m glad to know the 2% of the facts the book contains that I will remember. But as a whole – if I got bored by this kind of Britain-centered trivia, then most people will.

By the way, if you’re still curious about the questions posed at the beginning, the answers are:

  1. Because early tin cans were welded shut, and it was the only way to open them
  2. Queen Anne
  3. Because the fumes of gas lamps were fatal to most other house-plants.

December Book Review: The Prince

The Prince has been on my reading list for the better part of fifteen years and I borrowed it over a year ago, so it is a bit ironic that my first reaction on finally cracking it open and reading the first few pages was, “Wow, this is so useful! I should have read it years ago!” That reaction fluxed and changed over the course of the book, and this is the story of how that happened.

Of course, The Prince is often spoken of in shocked terms as being an amoral book, and certainly, as the introduction to this edition readily admits, “Machiavelli’s chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral consideration.”

True, Machiavelli does not insist upon morality if that will lessen power. But neither does he completely ignore moral considerations:

Still it cannot be called virtue to slay one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion. By such methods one may win dominion but not glory.

His savage and inhuman cruelty and his many acts of wickedness do not permit him to be celebrated among men of unusual excellence.

His philosophy seems to be summed up by his remark that

The way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.

You cannot criticize his honesty; someone who shares his opinion that the acquisition and maintenance of political power is an end in itself would probably do well to take his advice. Yet it is still possible for someone who seeks or accepts power for altruistic motives to study his analysis of the underlying situations and universal pitfalls and combine that analysis with their own value system to arrive at a completely different set of tactics.

It is important to remember that one may be innocent as a dove while still being wise as a serpent.

For example, consider these statements and their applicability to everyday life:

It must be realized that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more dangerous to manage than the establishment of a new order of government; for he who introduces it makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order and finds but lukewarm defenders among those who stand to gain from the new one.

Someone attempting to impose a new order – in a family, at work or in a larger sense – would do well to remember this.

Or

Men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future. (Yeah, we’re talking to you, Wall Street!)

Or

You offend [your subjects, your employees or your friends] by showing them that, either from cowardliness or from lack of faith, you distrust them; and either conclusion will induce them to hate you.

Or

One should never allow a disorder to persist in order to avoid a war, for war is not avoided thereby but merely deferred to one’s own disadvantage.

Think of the manager who allows a seditious and troublesome employee to continue their bad behavior unchecked because the manager dislikes “conflict.” This is bad on several levels. As Machiavelli illustrates in chapter 20, “divisions are never tolerated in a strong state” because such dissention among the citizens can lead to a city’s lessened productivity and ultimate downfall. The manager who follows this course, having inflicted suffering on their department, is likely to ultimately lose it. Better to deal with the matter swiftly and move on.

Or

Every wise prince should… never submit to idleness in time of peace, but rather endeavor to turn such time to advantage so as to profit from it in adversity.

Or

Having set an example once or twice, he may thereafter act far more mercifully than the princes who, through excessive kindness, allow disorders to arise from which murder and rapine [the seizure of property by force] ensue.

The teacher who can establish order on the first day of school may afterwards have fun with the students, but the teacher who is too soft on the first day will never have their respect and so will be much less effective at both teaching and guiding them – or will be forced to resort to much stricter punishments throughout the year to re-establish order.

Or

When you see a man who thinks more about his own interests than about yours, who seeks his own advantage in everything he does, then you may be sure that such a man will never be a good minister, and you will never be able to trust him.

I think most people would agree that these are true, which leads me to the opinion that never have I read anything in which the good and bad were so thoroughly, even ironically, mixed.

The quote about never submitting to idleness is immediately preceded by the instruction that “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war.” This may or may not have been good advice in Machiavelli’s time and place – he recounts countless wars and armed conflicts just in Italy in the 50 years preceding his book – but it is unequivocally bad advice now that politics and daily life have taken a less dangerous turn.

Even if one amends “war” to “politics” or “how to maintain power,” I think few would agree that that should be one’s only focus. There are many other things a prince should learn: how to maintain peace in his domain, how to improve the prosperity of his people, how to discern and practice justice.

The principle I have applied to teachers comes from a chapter titled “Concerning Cruelty: Whether it is better to be loved or feared.” It is surprising how often Machiavelli does use the word “cruelty” – so often that I began to wonder if it was an accurate translation – but, in fact, the word he uses throughout, “crudele,” seems to be universally translated as “cruelty”.

Certainly, in many situations discipline is necessary, or a show of strength is called for. But must that be cruel? In a classroom, certainly not!

Surprisingly, for one of his era and ruthlessness, he applies the word “cruelty” to the execution of people who will otherwise never stop making trouble. Some modern readers will agree with this; others will find such executions to be not only justified, but in some cases, merciful. So there is still a lot of room for each person to decide what they consider cruel and whether there is any other way to accomplish the desired result.

Finally, considering that Machiavelli approved the judicious use of cruelty and deception (“If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them.”), it is clear that his warning about a man who is completely self-absorbed is intended to help those who are completely self-absorbed and seek their own advantage in everything!

In the end, I resorted to a little Googling to help make sense of it all.

The abortive fate of The Prince [after all, it failed in its stated goals of launching a new school of political thought, “saving” Italy from invaders, and winning Machiavelli a political post] makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world. – Rosina Pierrotti

If Machiavelli were as purely evil as he has often been painted, it would perhaps be easier to separate the good from the bad in his book. The danger of it is that, as he condones cruelty and trickery only as a last resort, a reader may find this to be reasonable, and may come to believe that there are situations that can be handled no other way. Whether or not it is true that there are political situations that can be won no other way, there is always another course of action.

The reader must decide whether they wish for power without glory, whether their own desires are so important to them that they will contribute to the evils of the world to attain them – or whether they wish to be “celebrated among men of unusual excellence.” The latter course may, in the end, be more effective anyway.

A couple of references, for those who are curious:
http://qn.som.yale.edu/content/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli (The source of the Rosina Pierrotti quote)
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/polybius-hannibal.asp Not quoted in the blog, but this text by Polybius from the 2nd century BCE interestingly shows that not all of Machiavelli’s ideas are as original as he gets credit for!

(Although writing this review was somewhat delayed by my computer dying, I assure you I did read the book in December, per my resolution! I also read my November book – review coming shortly.)

Book Review: One Perfect Day – the selling of the American wedding

Growing up, I never believed I’d be one of those adults who “didn’t have time to read.” Couldn’t comprehend it. And yet… it’s funny how that works. So, to enforce my new goal of reading at least one educational book each month, I present Part One of a new monthly series of non-fiction book reviews.

Having spent our entire courtship and engagement fighting the consumeristic, wedding-industry fueled ideas of what you “must have” to make your wedding what it “should” be, when I ran across another review of this book not long after our wedding I thought it would make for an interesting read. It does. In fact, the hardest part of writing this review was choosing the right number of relevant quotations. The author, Rebecca Mead, has a refreshing ability to get at the heart of the issue, and I found at least one priceless line or paragraph on each page. For instance:

Young women today often refer to bridal magazines as “wedding porn,” and the analogy – with its suggestion that the contents of bridal magazines are somewhat illicit, eminently compulsive, and pathologically fantastical – is a good one. Bridal magazines offer an invitation into a fantasy world, but the editorial tone they strike is one of the utmost practicality, as if there were nothing the least bit extraordinary about [their excesses].

or,

The bride, [Peter K. Hunsinger, Conde Nast executive] told a newspaper interviewer, is “kind of the ultimate consumer, the drunken sailor. Everyone is trying to get to her.”

Flattering, isn’t it? Puts the whole wedding industry’s perspective into perspective. Unfortunately, brides are buying in to the need to buy everything the wedding industry tells them to, whether it makes sense or not:

The Brooklyn [wedding] planner told me that her friends felt they had to give their guests wedding favors because they didn’t want their guests to think they couldn’t afford to do so. The fact that they couldn’t afford to do so was an unfortunate reality that would be felt after the party was over, when the next rent check or grocery bill was due.

As Mead continues, she examines the role of tradition, religion, and the American consumer experience in general:

The idea that couples can invent tradition on a personal level is a much shakier proposition… for on what level can anything be said to be traditional if it neither has been observed in the past nor is certain to be observed in the future?… Tradition is one of those words, like homeland or motherhood, that is most frequently invoked when what it represents is under threat, or is in abeyance…

The notion… is a familiar one in the contemporary culture of weddings: that a wedding ceremony, like a wedding reception, ought to be an expression of the character of the couple who are getting married, rather than an expression of the character of the institution marrying them.

I wish I’d read this book before planning our wedding, as several of the viewpoints she pointed out as slightly ridiculous were ones we had fallen foul of in spite of our best efforts to be different: for instance, that “A good set of wedding photographs can be called upon to justify all the expense that preceded them; and the anticipation of acquiring a good set of photographs can also encourage that expense in the first place,” (both sides of which thought I remember having) and that it is important for a wedding to be “not only a warm celebration among family and friends but also a spectacular and original event” (which is a sentiment I particularly remember my fiance voicing).

Yet after all these small insights, Mead’s conclusion is sadly unsatisfying: she has no conclusion. Viewing a wedding as a purely material opportunity to express one’s sense of style clearly leaves something to be desired, but what should it be? Two final quotes:

What is a wedding for? That sounds like a question to which there ought to be an obvious answer, but when I posed it to a group of soon-to-be brides and recently-married women… the room fell momentarily silent, and then everyone broke into slightly embarrassed laughter…. They had become accustomed to thinking about the event in terms of floral decisions or styles of photography, with the larger purpose of the wedding a distraction from the more pressing questions of logistics…. All wanted their wedding to be significant… but there was no consensus on where that significance lay.

The Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel offers the following proposition: that if a wedding ceremony does not have the meaning that most of the time we unthinkingly expect of it – if it does not initiate a couple’s intimacy, if it does not amount to a transition to maturity, if it does not indicate an intention to start a family, if it does not require the sanction of a religious authority, if it need not be witnessed by the couple’s community, and if it does not necessarily commit them to a life-long union – then it might as well be a lark as anything else.

Declarations and So On

Happy Independence Week.

While the Fourth of July is not my all-time favorite holiday, it is the most exciting one. The details of the story of how this nation came to be, and the characters that formed it, never get old. So on the appointed day this week, between BBQ and fireworks, I spent a few moments trying to imagine what it must have been like to be among the founders on the day they founded the United States.

Only, of course, it’s hard to say exactly what day that was. Adams thought July 2 would be the day in the history books, and there’s some thought the ceremony of signing the Declaration wasn’t until August. The war was won in 1781. Legally the colonies did not become a country until 1783. The Confederation didn’t give way to the Constitution – and the presidency of George Washington – until 1788.

So easy to think, as we troop down to the nearest open space to watch some fireworks, that the country burst forth in a similar blaze of glory on July 4, 1776. Nothing wrong with picking a day to mark the occasion, so long as we don’t forget that the real story doesn’t end with the Declaration of an intent to act. Just as with everything else, the work and the story that matters came after that.