Category Archives: Bio/Autobio/Memoir

A Legend in His Own Time

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Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. He maintained that dealing with belligerent Native Americans, whether via combat or negotiation, was for the most part a matter of luck and instinct. His rescue by Simon Kenton was evidence of the former, his quick thinking on the Licking River, the latter. He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism. Now, it was as if the patience he had honed over a lifetime of stalking game through the deep woods was in anticipation of this moment. He would need that gift in the coming months.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite possessions was a bona fide, official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. No actual raccoons suffered to create that bit of headgear. Disney had made several live-action films in the 1950s (TV mini-series’ really) celebrating Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett may have actually worn one that wild creatures suffered to provide. Daniel Boone preferred beaver hats. Although Crockett and Boone were born a half-century apart their deaths were separated by a mere sixteen years. But to young TV viewers in the 1950s the two seemed inseparable, played on the screen by the same actor, Fess Parker, wearing pretty much the same costumes, no doubt saving Disney some wardrobe expenses.

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Fess Parker – image from the California Wine Club

The memories I retain of the shows are much-faded, but I doubt much has been lost. Civilized American good guy frontiersmen (Crockett) or pioneer (Boone) doing battle with hostile indigenous residents, and battling corruption among his own people. Standard TV fodder of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the usual doses of humble wisdom, and little mention made of the genocide that was being foisted on sundry North American native peoples.

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Bob Drury – image from Macmillan

It was the chance to fill that cavernous memory hole with some actual information, on at least one of Fess Parker’s greatest roles, that drew me to Blood and Treasure. On finishing the book, it was possible to drop a coin into that chasm and hear it hit bottom, after a reasonable wait, much better then hearing nothing prior.

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Tom Clavin – image from The Southampton Press

There is history and there is Boone. It is the information on both that is of great value here. Those of my generation at least know the name Daniel Boone, even if our image of him may have been the product of Disneyfication. I expect there are many, born later, to whom the name Boone is likelier to summon images of a baseball figure, a town or city by that name, or a brand of sickly alcoholic beverage. He was a fascinating real-world character, whatever hat he chose to wear. The authors report in the C-Span interview that, unlike Parker’s cinema-friendly 6’5”, Daniel Boone was actually 5’7” or 5’8,” a typical height for a man of his times. He had several cousins, however who were over six feet and Boone was concerned that a raccoon skin cap would make him look even smaller. He favored a felt hunter’s hat that was made of beaver.

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A child’s “Davy Crockett” hat – image from the Smithsonian

The character himself is fascinating, presenting both as a man of his era, and a person with some 21st century sensibilities. Daniel Boone was born in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the 6th of eleven children, to Quaker immigrants from England and Wales. The family ran afoul of local public opinion when one of their children married outside the religion, while visibly pregnant. When another, Boone’s brother, Israel, also married outside the faith, and dad stood by him, Pop was excommunicated. Daniel stayed away from the church after that. Three years later the family moved to North Carolina. While Boone carried a bible with him on his long hunts, considered himself a Christian and had all his children baptized, he was not exactly a bible thumper. He was open to other ways of viewing the world. This willingness to learn would serve him well. Boone was fascinated by and respectful of Indian ways as a kid. He spent considerable time with Native Americans, studying their culture, and learning their woodland hunting, tracking, and survival skills. He learned the birdsongs of local avian life, studied the use of plants for medicinal purposes, learned Indian crafts. He was a proficient enough hunter that by age twelve he was providing game meat for his family. His gift for frontier life was clear very early on. In a way he was a frontiersman savant, like those 7-year-olds who play Rachmaninoff as if it’s no big deal. By fifteen he was considered the finest hunter in the area.

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Daniel Boone by Alonzo Chappel – circa 1861 – From the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia

He had considerable respect for his wife, Rebecca, maintaining impressive wisdom about their relationship. After he had been away on a long hunt, for a year, for example, he returned home to be presented with a new daughter. He could count high enough to figure that the child was not his. Rebecca told him that she had thought he was dead (not an unlikely excuse at the time) and had fallen for someone who looked very much like Daniel, his younger brother. Daniel coped, noting with an impressive sense of humor that he had married a full-blooded woman, not a portrait of a saint, raised the girl as his own, and was grateful that Rebecca had at least kept it in the family.

He confronts many personal challenges over the years, losing several children (he and Rebecca had ten) to illness or Indian attacks. The book opens with the torture and murder of his teenage son, James. He is called on time and time again to work with militia or government military units. He served with the British in their conflict with their French rivals for North American influence. He was a part of many of the conflicts that took part in the western colonial lands in the late 18th century. I had not heard of any of these. Drury and Clavin point out their often very surprising significance.

Boone was not initially cast to star in this novel. Drury and Clavin, with more than a few history book pelts in their saddlebags, had written about the wars waged on the plains Indians, many of whom had been pushed west by the advancing white invaders, and wanted to trace that process back. The book covers, roughly, the period from the 1730s,when Boone was born, to 1799, when he moved his family west to Missouri. The book was supposed to be about how the Indians had been driven out of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In doing their research, however, Boone kept turning up, a Zelig-like character, involved in many of the seminal events of his time. Served with a British regiment? Check. Served with George Washington? Check. Developed the primary trail through the Cumberland Gap? You betcha. He even established a town that would be named after him, Boonesborough, and led the defense of a western fort, the loss of which might have changed the outcome of the American Revolution. The man really was a legend in his own time. A natural leader, he partook of many of the important battles that occurred between settlers, through their militias and their English backers, and both the native people they were attempting to displace and their French allies. He functioned as a diplomat as well, respected by many of the Indians and seen as a man of his word, not a common attribute at the time. And so he became the narrative thread that pulled together a large number of related, but disconnected parts.

The frontier in the 18th century was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wild, Wild West was the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The English had entered into treaties with Indian tribes that basically drew a line there. We will allow our colonists to advance only so far, and no farther. The colonists, however, were more than happy to roll their eyes, mutter a “whatever” or the 18th century equivalent, and continue pushing westward, making life difficult for just about everyone. I was reminded of contemporary settlers, eager to occupy land outside their legal realm. At least some of this westward movement was driven by land speculation, including by some founding father sorts. I know it is tough to believe that real-estate developers might be anything other than sober, law-abiding capitalists, but, like the poor, it appears that we will always have them with us.

Drury and Clavin offer a look at the diverse tribes that occupied the areas in conflict, showing differences among them. One particularly horrifying episode involved a group of Indians who had converted to the Moravian faith, a sect of Christianity. They were pacifists, took up no arms, but were slaughtered anyway by a group of American Rangers in what became known as the Moravian Massacre, a shameful episode, widely talked about at the time. We also see leaders of one tribe, in negotiations, willingly ceding land to their white counterparts, when they, in fact, had no hold over that land at all. I was reminded of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan, among other places, where tribal allegiances easily trump larger national demands. Many of the most effective, and memorable of Indian leaders are shown, impressive in their tactical leadership, creativity, and tenacity.

The American Revolution was more an eastern than western conflict, but there were times when battles on the western frontier might have determined a different outcome to the colonial attempt to separate from the motherland. These were mostly, no, they were entirely, news to me.

It is in learning about so many of these turning points that the value of the book is most manifest. If, like me, your knowledge of American history has been shaped primarily by what we learned in grade school, high school, and college, and absorbed from popular culture, you will get a very strong sense of just how much we do not know, and had never suspected. In a way, it was like opening up the back of a mechanical watch and seeing all the intricate gears at work, impacting each other to produce the simple result of indicating the time of day. Getting there is not so simple. Nor is truly appreciating how 21st century America came to be what it is today. This book offers an up-close look at some of those gears.

My reading experience of this book was wildly divergent. I found it to be a very difficult read for the first half, at least, dragging myself through anywhere from ten to thirty pages a day for what seemed forever. Even then, I recognized that there was a lot of valuable information to be absorbed, so stuck with it. It is true that there are a lot of characters passing through these pages, a bounty of place names, a plethora of battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that were significant and interesting. But it felt so overwhelming that the TMI sirens were blaring repeatedly.

But at a certain point, some of the characters, through repeated appearance, became recognizable. Oh, yeah, I remember him now. Wasn’t he the one who…? Yep, that’s the guy. At a certain point it was not a duty to return to the book, fulfilling a felt obligation, trying to learn something, but a joy. Quite a switch, I know. But as I read the latter half of the book, it became clear that this was not just a rich history book, but quite an amazing adventure story, a saga, filled with deeds heroic and dastardly. There are many compelling characters in these pages, and so many ripping yarns that reading this became like sailing through something by George R. R. Martin. Taking the analogy to the next step, I have zero doubt that, with the many compelling narratives at play in this book, it would make a fantastic GoT-level TV series. It certainly has the blood and gore to play at that level, the territorial rivalries, the vanity, backstabbing, the double-dealing, the battles, sieges, murders, tortures and war crimes, but also the underlying content to give it all a lot more heft. This is how nations are created. This is how they grow. These are the people who paid the price for that creation. These are the decisions that were made, the promises broken and kept, the lies told, the excuses offered. Sorry, no dragons, or other mythical beasts, but there is, at the core, a bona fide legend. (James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohican was inspired by Boone rescuing his kidnapped daughter, Jemima) Thankfully, it will require no blood for you to check this one out, and only a modest amount of treasure.

Like the Cherokee, the tribes north of the Ohio River strongly suspected that America’s War for Independence was being fought over Indian land despite high-minded slogans about taxation without representation. It was the Shawnee who recognized the earliest that this internecine conflict among the whites could only end badly for the tribe should the rapacious colonists prevail. Native American support of the Crown, in essence, was the lesser of two evils. It was not the British, after all, who had begun desecrating Kanta-ke with cabins and cornfields.

Review posted – May 21, 2021

Publication date – April 20, 2021

I received this book as an e-pub from St Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for a fair review. No raccoons, beavers, or other wildlife were harmed providing headgear used during the writing of this review.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Drury’ personal site, and to Tom Clavin’s personal and FB pages

Items of Interest
—–C-Span – Interview with Drury and Clavin – video – 50:08 – This one is all you will need
—–Gulliver’s Travels – Boone’s favorite book
—–National Museum of American History – The saga of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap
—–Wiki on the Moravian Massacre
—–Wiki for Last of the Mohican
—–Gutenberg – full text of Last of the Mohicans

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Reviews

Digging for Truth

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I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

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Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Settle in for a story that is appalling and entertaining, hopeful and disappointing, reflective and sometimes ephemeral.

Life is disappointing? Forget it.

It is a good thing that this advice was not followed. Remembering seems more the thing.

We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.

Ummm, not so much. And now, Meine Damen und Herren, Mes Dames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ich bin eur confrencier, je suis votre compere…I am your host.

the star of our show:

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Cumming in the 1998 production – from Wmagazine.com – Photo by Joan Marcus.

“You need a haircut, boy!”

My father had only glanced at me across the kitchen table as he spoke but I had already seen in his eyes the coming storm.

I tried to speak but the fear that now engulfed me made it hard to swallow, and all that came out was a little gasping sound that hurt my throat even more. And I knew speaking would only make things worse, make him despise me more, make him pounce sooner. That was the worst bit, the waiting. I never knew exactly when it would come, and that, I know, was his favorite part.

Alan Cumming, star of stage and screen, notable Cabaret emcee, introducer of Masterpiece Mystery, bluish X-man, Smurf voice, and political operative Eli Gold on The Good Wife, among many other memorable characters, was raised on a large estate in Scotland. His father, Alex, was the head groundskeeper. He was also a mercurial and often cruel and violent parent to both Alan and his older brother Tom, offering ambiguous instructions to the boys and almost always finding the resulting work unsatisfactory, an excuse to justify the punishment that usually followed. Cumming’s experience as a battered child, coming to terms as an adult with some of the reasons for his harsh upbringing, and attempting to finally, decades later, move past it, is the core of the story in Not My Father’s Son. But this is not just a story of the father he knew. It is also about the grandfather he had never met.

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Mary Darling and Alex Cumming – wedding day – from the NY Times

In 2010, Cumming, having attained a certain level of celebrity, was invited by the British show Who Do You Think you Are (now in the USA as well) to be a subject for their weekly genealogy quest program. The research that was intrinsic to this process would cast light on a black hole in his family history. As awful as his father was, Mary Darling, Alan’s mother, was his angel, always supporting and nurturing him. Within limits, of course. She did not seem to do a very good job of preventing her husband from tormenting their sons. She had last seen her own father, Tommie Darling, when she was eight years old. He had supposedly died in a gun accident in Malaysia in 1951. The family knew very little about him, and had few remnants of his existence. The TV show would follow that trail and find out what had happened to Tommie. (There is a link to the entire program in the EXTRA STUFF section below) Just before this process began, Alan’s father, long estranged, got in touch, passing along a disturbing piece of information.

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As Eli Gold and Nightcrawler – from NothingButMemory.net

One part of this memoir is travelling along and peeling back the layers of the mystery that was Tommie Darling. (Peter Pan was not involved) As researchers for the program unearth more and more information about Tommie, Alan learns more and more about not only his family, but sees in his ancestor traits he recognizes in himself.

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Masterpiece Mystery host – from the Boston Herald

Chapters alternate, more or less, between now (2010) and then, the years of Alan’s childhood, the new work prodding recollections of the past. However, it is not all childhood and now. Cumming also tells of his breakdown at age 28 when he was starring in a London production of Hamlet, rehearsing for his breakthrough role as the emcee in the London revival of Cabaret and planning to have a child with his wife. There is some detail here. Later he tells of meeting his current mate when he was 39. He seems to have packs of friends, who remain mostly nameless, in both London and New York, and who function as scenery, for the most part. He offers a few tales from his acting life.

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite Cumming’s elfishness, there is not much comedy in the book. Although Cumming the performer does indeed present a pixie-ish facade, the only real laugh, at least for me, was when he talked about Patti Smith and a particular vile habit of hers. A story about attempting to film against the incessant noise in South Africa during a particularly noisy World Cup is another light moment. A youthful masturbatory scene that one thinks might be queasily amusing turns in another, far more substantive direction.

The two parts of this story now seem so clearly connected, mirroring each other perfectly. I had lost a father but found a grandfather. One of them had never sought the truth and lived a life based on a lie; the other’s truth was hidden from us because society deemed it unsuitable. Both caused strife, and sadness. But now, both combined to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth: there is never shame in being open and honest. It was shame that prevented us from knowing what a great man Tommy Darling was. And it was shame that made my father treat me and Tom and my mum the way he did.

Not My Father’s Son is a moving and fascinating tale, and probably would not have been told had Cumming not been world famous. TV programs do not seek out the likes of you or me to give them permission to travel the world looking into our backgrounds. Most of us do not have the resources to delve into our family history so richly. It remains to be seen if the book would have been written had the TV program not been made. Cumming had indeed been thinking about his childhood for some time, but it was the show that prompted him to move ahead with it. What Cumming’s talent did was give him a way to get out of a bad situation. A lesser light might have dimmed if left in that place. One thing the book might do is prompt a bit of reflection. Surely there are leafless branches on all our family trees and Cumming’s tale of looking into his might encourage some of us to consider looking into some of ours. And maybe to look a bit closer at even our known history for a bit of help in explaining how we became the people we are.

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Tom, Mary and Alan at Tommie’s grave

I have admired Alan Cumming as a performer ever since seeing him in the New York revival of Cabaret back in 1998. I now admire him as a writer as well. He has written a moving memoir of a father lost and a grandfather gained. It is rich with reflection, insight, pain, and healing. Any decent father would be bursting with pride to have a son capable of writing such a book.

Review posted – 10/17/14

Publication date – 10/7/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

He is not on Facebook. Some miscreants have posed as him, but those pages have been taken down

Definitely check out his site. It is a cornucopia of info.

NY Times article on Alan

Here is the full Who Do You Think You Are episode from September 2010

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

book cover Scott Stossel has a problem, anxiety. Big-time. Had it all his life. Think decades of therapy of the talk and chemical varieties. But, he has also had a successful career as a journalist, and is currently the editor of the Atlantic magazine.

Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating. (from the Bookpage Interview)

Just what is anxiety? What causes it? What are its effects on individuals and society? How has it been viewed historically? What might be done about it? Stossel sets out to look at these and other questions. The wrinkle here is that he uses his personal lifelong battle with anxiety as a lens through which to examine the various understandings that have been put forth about this condition and the treatments that have been tried over time. The historical and analytical elements are fascinating reading, but relating the information to his personal struggle makes Stossel’s a very human approach.

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Scott Stossel

If getting definitive answers to questions is important to you, and not getting such answers makes you uncomfortable, anxious even, you probably should pass on reading My Age of Anxiety. If, however, you enjoy the mental stimulation of seeing the history of how medical science and society at large has viewed what we, today, call “anxiety”, then this significant work should offer you the palliation you require.

So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s response reminded me of Tevye’s, in Fiddler on the Roof, to the question of why the Jewish people maintain certain traditions. “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Stossel does not break out into song, but offers a comparable explanation, at least to begin.

If Freud himself, anxiety’s patron saint, couldn’t define the concept, how am I supposed to?

Even contemporary investigations with the highest of tech have not been able to pin it down definitively. There are even different schools of thought over where the primary cause of anxiety lies. Is it in the electromagnetic functioning of the brain, or in the swath of chemicals that also make up our biology. Charmingly, these two camps are referred to as “Sparks” and “Soups.”

Is anxiety genetically determined? There really is a thing that researchers call the Woody Allen gene.

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From Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

Anxiety has offered fodder for cinematic investigation, both serious and satirical, an area that did not receive much attention here. But one could be forgiven for believing that Hollywood product seems to exist, in large measure, in order to instill fear in the population. book cover “Be afraid. Be very afraid.“ The release of Jaws certainly gave many an unwarranted fear of being slurped down by a mega-fishy. There is both the Hitchcockian treatment of acrophobia and Mel Brooks’ somewhat lighter take, depending on whether you prefer your anxiety high or low. And of course newspapers do all they can to flog fear as a means of pushing product. book coverThere are enough cop, medical, serial killer and zombie programs on the tube to provide plenty of fodder for nurturing our nervousness. Maybe it is the minority of us who are immune to this constant barrage of market-driven promotion of paranoia. Is it any wonder people are so afraid of so many things?

Do drugs and the ad campaigns of big pharma create more anxiety? Stossel looks into this possibility. Despite the real benefits of some of the products made by large pharmaceutical companies, maybe big pharma is something we should be frightened of.

Lest one think Stossel has written a completely dry, scientific, or at least reportorial investigation, you should know that in talking about one of his primary personal miseries, emetophobia, or fear of vomiting, he does seem to take on a bit of a Mary Roach persona while describing some very painful and embarrassing personal experiences. My scatologically-inclined inner twelve-year-old was giddy at times.

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An out of body experience

When Stossel writes of shyness and stage fright, I was whisked back to my early youth, kindergarten or first grade. A school performance. I stood at center stage and recited, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater…” I got through the words, but by the time I walked off stage, my trousers had acquired considerable extra moisture. It got better. I had battles with anxiety over the years as an adult as well. Not nearly to the degree that Stossel did. There was a time when I was so burdened with anxiety that my armpits would become viciously inflamed. Not exactly something that might land one in a hospital, for sure. But pain-enforced arms akimbo is not a normal way to present oneself to the world this side of a workout vid. It jars when one is in a suit and tie. It does not matter what caused this somatization. No one turned me into a newt. It did get better. This pales before the travails endured by the author, nearly bolting from his own wedding out of terror that he would boot his lunch, throwing sports matches just to get off the court and stop worrying that he might toss his cookies in public. His anxieties did not make for a happy adolescence in the already terrifying world of dating. (There is plenty more. Read the book to find out just how fortunate you really are.) But I do understand at least a bit, on a very personal level, how anxiety can be physically debilitating. So the book held definite appeal. I imagine that many of us have suffered from anxiety of one sort or another, in varying intensities. It can’t hurt to learn a bit more about where this particular form (or more properly, range of forms) of misery originates.

One of the treatments Stossel looks at (and experienced himself) is a thing called exposure therapy. Basically one must confront the thing one fears most over and over until one internalizes the fact that the thing one fears will not do the damage one imagines. It is Mary Roach territory again when he writes of his own exposure therapy treatment, and its effect on those treating him. I can imagine, however that this might not be a particularly helpful approach were one’s fear something like, say, emasculation, or being hit by a car.

He writes of the fascinating connection between the brain and the stomach. Those who suffer from anxiety also have issued with control-freakishness. It was news to learn that there is even a standardized scale for measuring this. That it is called Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale does not give one great confidence in the intent of its designer.

There is a wonderful section on blushing. Those of us who are always on the lookout for Darwinian understandings of human behavior will definitely perk up at this. And speaking of Darwin, his is one of many household names Stossel cites as prolonged and acute anxiety sufferers. There is also an enlightening passage on how we get the word panic from the Greek god Pan. You will learn a bunch of nifty new words, well, probably new to you. I know a lot were new to me.

Fox News troll John Stossel is Scott’s uncle, so it is clear that there is definitely something sinister swimming about in the family gene pool. At least that particular strain does not seem to have afflicted Scott. His younger sister, Sage, an artist, not only suffers considerably from anxiety, she also just published in December a book that deals with it, Starling. Thanksgiving must be interesting at Stossel family gatherings.

I have one particular gripe about the book and it has to do with physical format. The volume I read was an ARE, so formatting may be different in the final, hard cover edition. But in the volume I read, the page count comes in at 337. No big whoop, even if it is a dense read, and it can be. But the sheer volume of footnotes at the bottom of pages is such that it felt much, much longer. (Maybe call them feetnotes?) There are pages that consist of three lines of actual primary text and what seemed vast, unending streams of subsidiary material in print that seemed to call for an electron microscope. I became almost phobic about turning the page. God knows how much more footnote was lurking there, determined to triple the time it would normally take me to completely read a page. And it should be pretty clear that one of my personal tics is a need to read all the footnotes. And they are definitely worth reading. What I wish though, is that the author had found a way to incorporate that very interesting material into the text of the book itself, at a human-friendly font-size, and let us know up front how long the book really is. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, stuffing so much material in through that particular back door. If it is really a five or six hundred page book, fine, I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But don’t tell me it’s 337, then cram in another 200 pps of material. Grrrrr. That said, if you do not share my footnote-reading compulsion, it will be a much quicker read for you, but you will miss out on a lot of fascinating stuff. So maybe the solution here is to just tell yourself that the book is maybe 50% longer than the page number indicates and adjust your expectations accordingly.

It took a lot of work and a lot of guts for Stossel to expose his personal struggles to public view. Reading My Age of Anxiety may not do anything to remove your particular fears, phobias, neuroses or anxieties, but it may at least offer some comfort from the knowledge that one’s difficulty is unlikely to be unique, that anxiety, like death, taxes, corruption and bloody-minded stupidity has ever been with us, that one suffers in the company of some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, that there is likely some relief to be had chemically, and that there can be real personal and social benefit from having at least some anxiety. Unless your fears have to do with reading very informative looks at widespread human problems, works in which the reportage incorporates the personal to illuminate the universal, you might want to risk taking a peek at My Age of Anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of.

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times article about Scott and sister Sage publishing books at the same time, about the same subject, although very differently

Bookpage interview

This was named one of Oprah’s 17 books to pick up in January

Stossel on Colbert, a fun interview.

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January 20, 2014 · 10:37 am

3500 by Ron Mills

book coverBenjamin Mills was born in December 1993. His body seemed to be developing normally over the next year, but all was not right. Soon after his first birthday, he was diagnosed with autism. Ron Mills and his wife, Sara, had been handed a parenting burden far in excess of that which most of us must contend with, and far greater than most could handle. Their marriage, strained further by Ron’s depression at the death of his father, and no doubt by chronic sleep deprivation and financial woes, failed. But one thing that did not fail was the love Ron and Sara had for their son, and their dedication to do whatever they could to help him.

When Ben was five, he developed a particular affection for a Sorcerer Mickey Mouse doll and a corresponding fondness for Disney films, well, parts of them anyway. It was the beginning of what would become a lifelong relationship for Ben. He even managed to learn how to use the VCR in order to play his favorite parts, over and over and over and over. His first sort-of words were neither “Mama”, “Dada”, “More”, or even “No”. They were fill-ins to omitted words in the song The Bare Necessities that Ron would sing to him. Later, Ben listened to Disney music through his headphones as a way to drown out the overwhelmingness of his surroundings. Given his love for things Disney, Ron and Sara wondered how he might fare with a trip to Disneyworld. It turned out to be, for Ben, the happiest place on earth. Not all black and white. There were a few bumps. But, Ben came alive there as he had nowhere else.

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Ron Mills – from his website

Months later, after enduring all sorts of disruption from Ben:

I would think about his maddening behaviors, and then think about the Ben that I had seen skipping his way through the Magic Kingdom, and I began to wonder if he actually belonged there.

Ron and Sara considered a drastic measure.

Kinda tough to give your kid the Disney experience if you are living in Seattle and the park is located diagonally across the continent. It may be a small world, but it’s not that small. Despite being divorced, despite the strains of having to find two new places to live, and two new jobs, and despite there being no guarantee that the magic of his Disney experience would not vanish in a puff of theatrical smoke, Ron and Sara decided to take one more trip, just to make certain, and after that worked out, they moved to Orlando.

I have my issues with the Disney corporation. All is not magical in the Magic Kingdom. But there is a place and a time, and this will not be the place or time where I discuss some of the more maleficent leanings of the Monstro-size Disney corporation. For today, and for the gaze we cast on 3500 we will put that aside and go all hakuna matata. Don’t worry. I haven’t gone entirely soft. But for now we will accentuate the positive.

Ben became a regular at Walt Disney World, with a particular attachment to Snow White’s Scary Adventure ride. Not an attachment like you or I might indulge in, but a serious, and repetitive attachment. He rode the ride several times every time he went to the park, and his parents took him there very often.

Bring Ben to WDW was a form of immersive therapy for Ben, and his behavior took a definite turn for the better. The WDW staff came to recognize him and supported him in diverse ways. There are some particularly moving episodes Mills relates in which the “cast member” employees and management go out of their way to make Ben’s experience a magical one. Snow White held a special place in his heart and when the “cast member” in the role engaged him in person, he was agog.

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Ben as a teen, with Snow – from the author’s site

Ron Mills’ story is a straight ahead narrative, this, then that, and then the other. He has a fluid style and is very easy to read. You will zip-a-dee-doo-dah through 3500 quickly. Telling the story was the goal here, and it has been accomplished. I enjoyed the book. It is a moving chronicle. If I have a gripe about 3500 (you knew there had to be at least one, right?) it is that the volume of information offered on autism, per se, and not just Ben’s experience, is about as thin as Cruella Deville. I do understand that Mills is writing as a caring parent and not as a scientist, but one would think that Ben’s story would have offered an excellent opportunity to teach the rest of us something more about this challenging condition. I wondered, for example, about what the latest theories might be as to causation, what treatment modalities were considered. Are there any research projects afoot that might hold a key to understanding cases and treatment?

While Walt Disney World, the Disney corporation and many of the exceptionally kind and caring people who work in the Disney organization went out of their way to help Benjamin Mills, it shines through that the real Magic Kingdom here was the one constructed by Ben’s parents and caregivers. Really, would you move across the country, alongside your ex, on such an enterprise? Love continues long after the theme park rides end, and the gates close. Love and patience, in Jumbo-sized quantities, are what it takes to help an autistic child cope in a world that is not nearly understanding enough. Have some tissues at the ready, particularly when Ben is the last rider on Snow White’s Scary Adventure, before the ride is closed forever. You will most definitely be moved by this magical tale.

I received this book via GR’s First Reads program

Review posted on GR – January 7, 2014

===============================EXTRA STUFF
You can find more information on Ron’s experience with Ben on the web site that he and his wife run, the unfortunately named Shmoolok.com Definitely check out the Good Day Sacramento video interview on the media page there.

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy

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In the 2002 ML baseball draft, Matt McCarthy, a Yale lefty with a fastball that had occasional familiarity with 90+mph was drafted in the 26th round by the Anaheim Angels. He was urged by friends and relations to keep a journal of his experiences, and those journals form the basis of this 2009 story of his single season in the sun of professional baseball.

When the book came out, there was a bit of a firestorm. McCarthy got some of his names, dates, and possibly facts wrong enough that the New York Times highlighted them in two articles. (The links are at the bottom of this review.) It does sound to me that he got a few things wrong. It is even possible that his characterization of this player or that might cause those people some harm. I have no way of knowing the truthfulness of McCarthy’s writing. But I am familiar with how difficult it can be to reconstruct events several years after the events, based on handwritten notes, so am inclined to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, and ascribe no malice to his writing. I expect that mistakes which do appear in the book are simply off the plate and are not intentional beanballs. In several instances, I expect that people are simply embarrassed at some of the revelations and it is easier to deny them than to take responsibility.

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Matt McCarthy

There are some items in the book that might be troublesome for some of the players. McCarthy describes behavior between players that indicates a gay inclination. And that is a barrier that MLB has not yet faced up to. McCarthy also reports on his Rookie League manager’s antics. These include directing his pitcher to hit an opposing batter in retaliation for Provo players having been hit, some mood-swinging, and a remarkable and humorous substitute for the team’s rally monkey. Some players are reported to be milking their disabled list status to avoid playing, and the ethnic separation of players is distinctive, with all Hispanic players, of whatever national origin, designated as “Dominicans” and all others as “Americans.”

So what’s the big deal? Frankly, I do not think there is one. I have read my share of baseball books, and I did not find this one to be exceptional. There were some bits of information that were not at all surprising, such as the use of steroids, (The only surprise might be that there were players who were not using) and the horrors of massive bus rides, the low-wage life that most of these players endure, and the mix of fresh blood on the way up and older players on the way down, high draft picks being handled with kid gloves, and lower draft picks being treated with far less kindness. Class as defined by draft rank may be different from class as defined by wealth or race, but the results are similar. The eagerness of some families in Provo to take in players for a season was a bit of news for me. Aside from a laugh here or there it was mostly pedestrian material, IMHO. That the coach was a character offered some spice. And a ballpark visit by Larry King, his much younger trophy wife and a vile offspring was amusing in a horrifying way.

While McCarthy writes in a very readable, breezy style, there are plenty of baseball books that offer more substance. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four remains the standard beaver-shoot-and-tell example if you are looking for player shenanigans. Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game is another that offers a look at the minors, although for a much more defined moment in time. Slouching Toward Fargo by Neal Karlen gives the reader some sense of the non-ML minors.

McCarthy, realistic about his pro-ball prospects, always kept a hand in his other career option, and continued working and studying towards a life in medicine, no, not sports medicine, but infectious diseases. He is now a practicing physician.

Odd Man Out is neither a grand slam nor a strikeout, but more of a seeing eye single ahead of a stolen base.

Posted October 15, 2013

======================================= EXTRA STUFF

Two articles noted above, from the New York Times, both by Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz, both published March 2, 2009
Errors Cast Doubt on a Baseball Memoir
and
Excerpts From a Disputed Baseball Memoir

And a more respectful interview – Matt McCarthy, author of ‘Odd Man Out,’ talks with USA TODAY by Dan Friedell

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Filed under Baseball, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

The Lady and her Monsters

book cover I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Chapter 5 – Frankenstein)

Roseanne Montillo has dug up information about diverse real-world elements that influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of her seminal novel Frankenstein, joined the parts into a cohesive whole and energized them with intelligence, insight and wit, breathing new life into our appreciation of that great tale. She shows also the monster-rich environment that influenced MS, a world that was very well populated with mad scientists, mythical beasts, grave robbers, an actual evil stepmother, and people close to her who had monstrous leanings of their own, long before she added her creation to the list.

Your first experience of Frankenstein probably looked like this.
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Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the never-named “wretched creature” of the novel, gave him literal baby-steps and a child-like yearning for love and acceptance. Dramatizations of the character that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote rarely show him possessing the sort of intellectual curiosity and power with which she imbued him. Hollywood is definitely good at keeping things simple and it did so here. Most people think of Frankenstein’s monster as a big, inarticulate lug, who got a raw deal out of life the second time around and succumbed to an angry, pitchfork and torch-wielding mob, like two guys carrying a gay-pride banner at a Tea Party convention. It was not quite that way in the book.

I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

The monster’s plea to his creator shows him to be something other than the grunting fiend of cinema, more of an articulate fiend.

I heartily recommend reading the core material here, before, during or after you take on Montillo’s exposition. In a way, it is like putting on special glasses and seeing the 3d contours of an image when all that one had perceived previously was strictly two dimensional. Or watching a pop-up videos version of a familiar song. You will learn a lot reading Montillo’s book.

The book tells two tales. The first is Mary Shelley’s personal history. The second is a portrait of the world in which she grew up, the external influences on her, and how they contributed elements to her novel. There is, obviously, overlap.

2010 painting of the young Mary by Esao Andrews

Mary Godwin was the daughter of William Godwin, a leading writer and philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an early manifesto on gender equality. Clearly Mary got pretty high-end brain DNA from both parents. Unfortunately, Mary’s mother died ten days after introducing her to the world.

Mary’s makers

Mary grew up in an intellectually lively environment. As dad was a big cheese in the intellectual world, gatherings at the Godwin manse tended toward the illustrious. Thomas Paine read from his famous work in her home, as did many luminaries of the time, including a well-opiated Coleridge, who read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner while young Mary secretly listened in. This piece of that poem found its way into that little girl’s book.

Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Dad remarried four years after his wife died, to Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary’s new stepmother was straight from central casting for any of several tales by the Brothers Grimm. One result of this, some years on, was an attempt to keep Mary away from her father after she hit adolescence, and was a threat to absorb too much of daddy’s attention. MJ saw to it that Mary was banished for a stretch to a distant seaport, residing with a family that was only barely among Godwin’s friends. Mary had opportunities while there to hear many a fish story from local seamen.

Her relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley began when she was in her mid-teens. Shelley was married at the time, which was awkward, but that did not prevent the young couple from cementing their relationship. Shelley found Mary to be a true intellectual equal, which more than made up for her average looks. Scandal pursued them, but the young couple seemed not to care. A circle formed, Mary, Shelley, Mary’s half-sister Claire, who was smitten with PBS, and later, Lord Byron. It got complicated. There are bits from Mary’s relationships that contributed material to the book.

Shelley and Byron

As was common at the time, artists and scientists were not the divided clans they tend to be today. The greatest scientists of the age wrote poetry. And Shelley was renowned at his college for the many dangerous experiments he had running in his room. Shelley taught Mary, who had been home-schooled, a lot about science. They had several children together, only one of whom survived. It may be that one element in her story was a desire to bring back a dead child.

Montillo take us through the travels of the pair, and later the group, showing the places they stayed, the routes they took, their stops along the way and the stories Mary is likely to have accumulated at various locations on their journey. Yes, there really was a guy named Frankenstein. Another local alchemist sort had been pursued by angry townspeople after some imagined outrage.

Professor Montillo also offers considerable history and color of the time. The era in which Mary Godwin grew up was the Enlightenment. Science, unchained from the restrictions of superstition, was on the move.

The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. (from Chapter 3 of Frankenstein)

Resurrectionists
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Daring scientific experiments were being performed across Europe. There were things in the air at that time that had never been wafting about before. For example, there was a fellow named Galvani, who not only developed a particularly useful battery, but wanted to use his invention to re-animate the newly dead. In fact there was a lot of medical training at the time that required a steady supply of fresh material. As England restricted access to the needed product to the newly executed, that created a considerable market for materials from other sources, giving rise to the growth of so-called Resurrectionists, although flesh-miners might have been a more fitting term. Competition became pretty steep among gangs of grave robbers. The trade was so lucrative that some of the nearly departed were sped on their way by greedy practitioners.

Dissections were often open to the public

Also a lot of this medical work for which the sack-‘em-up-men labored so lustily was done in public fora. Popular entertainment was different in form from what we have today, but I expect the content is particularly consistent. Anatomists vivisected bodies in front of audiences of medical students and the public. Think of it as a monstrous live theater version of CSI. Public hangings were major social events, attended by large throngs ever eager to revel in the misfortune of others, or an early version of reality TV. And of course there is always room to amp up the excitement level, particularly when some of the edgier medical sorts had LARGE ambitions. Giovanni Aldini, nephew to Galvani, performed a particularly gruesome re-animation attempt so shocking that Galvani ultimately had to find some other way of making a living. It does, however, bear remembering that every time the paddles are applied and a doctor yells “Clear” we have mad scientists like Aldini to thank for the many cardiac patients who have been, literally, reanimated by the application of electricity. It’s enough to make you want to scream “It’s Alive!

Montillo also goes into some of the history of alchemy, as Mary makes plentiful reference to practitioners of that art in her book. There is a particularly curious description of how to create a homunculus. (no mention of blond hair and a tan ) Montillo also brings in the obvious connection between Mary’s creation and folkloric notions of golems.

One of the fun bits in the book is a description of a London emporium that sought to capitalize on the growing popular interest in the possible uses of electricity. The Celestial Bed and the Temple of Health was begun by a medical quack interested in the potential benefits of electric stimulation. But the place cloaked its true nature under the guise of providing medical care. I suppose The Celestial Bed did offer plenty of sparks, but the heavenly electricity generated within its walls was produced at least as much by its patrons as by galvanic devices.

The greatest benefit of The Lady and her Monsters is that it lays out many of the elements that Mary was or might have been exposed to in her few years on earth before she took pen in hand to write her contribution to a group ghost-story contest. There is indeed some interesting material offered on Mary’s life after the 1818 publication, most particularly her decision, when revising some years later, to alter Victor’s mode from Promethean arrogance to tool of the gods, reflecting her own denial of responsibility for the events of her life. But other material having to do with the time after publication was not as interesting as that concerning events that inspired the book. Her subsequent life was not a happy one, and I am not sure how much we gain by learning that.

Nevertheless, The Lady and her Monsters is a delightful book, both informative and entertaining. It does a high-voltage job of bringing the story of how Mary made her monster to life.

========================================EXTRA PARTS

This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.

A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?

Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Posted – April 2013

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