Books from the stack
This week, the Critical Eye gets to do some serious reading.
Of course, we read every day, but the stack of books which have been read and not yet reviewed has been growing relentlessly, while events with particular time schedules have forced us to put their artistry ahead of the writers.
But now, as the snows and the expectation of snows have done some growing of their own, we get to take a few books from the stack and share our thoughts with you. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.
There is a very specific audience for the book “Niagara Digressions” by E.R. Baxter III, and I’m one of them.
The title is exactly correct. The author grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and taught on the faculty of Niagara County Community College, where he’s now professor emeritus. He knows the Niagara Frontier very well, and he weaves tales of the area with legends, tales from the nations of Indians who live or deal with the area, historical and biological facts, and what Mark Twain used to call “a few stretchers” for color. It isn’t a novel, because so much of it is actually true, but it has the structure and the flow of a good novel. It isn’t just a grim recounting of facts and statistics. The author will begin a topic, which will remind him of some, seemingly unrelated event or account, and after a number of digressions, he ties the whole collection together as neatly as though he had used a ribbon.
It takes a while for the reader to “get into” the book. The author accounts how he used to have part of a deer’s skeleton affixed to a fence post, near his home. From time to time he adds a bit more to the tale about how it came to be there, how he had painted it with gold paint, and it isn’t until nearly two-thirds of the way through that he begins to conjecture about what might have happened to the bones, because they are definitely no longer there.
One of his guesses is that the late artist Georgia O’Keefe might have taken it to appear in one of her many paintings of “found items,” for which she was known. Probably not the case, but as the ads for the New York State Lottery state, “Hey, you never know.”
Certain themes are common throughout the book. The human race’s wasteful cruelty – to one another and to the nature on which we depend for our living – is one of them.
He writes of working in a factory, for example, where the boss’ son, who is enrolled in college with all of his expenses paid, sometimes lounges around to enjoy watching the less fortunate doing the work that supports his lifestyle.
When the reckless youth resorts to picking up a staple gun and stapling the workers’ wallets to their trouser pocket, while they need their jobs too much to take any action, it gives a vivid image of the forces, which finally resulted in the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde, in a way which probably never resonated so soundly before.
He writes of the burying of industrial wastes near Niagara Falls, which is most remembered as the Love Canal Situation, and how much pressure was brought on those who tried to prevent the sickening and destroying of the area by people who insisted change was good, and anyone who opposed this change was out of step with the times and ought to be silenced.
Probably the most frequently used set of images is the reference to the killing off of whole species by Americans, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He recounts the familiar stories of transcontinental trains slowing as they crossed the prairies, so passengers could take their rifles and shoot as many of the giant buffalo as possible, which were then left to rot, where they died, as the shooters had no use for them.
Then, he goes on to relate images of animals, more than six feet tall at the shoulders, lying side by side, skinned, so that someone could walk for 5 miles on dead flesh without ever touching the ground. It creates an understanding of the situation, which one truly never had before.
Baxter frequently includes well-known authors into his narrative. He discusses D.H. Lawrence’s poem about killing a porcupine, blends it with an account of his own grandmother having killed a porcupine with a stick, and seasons both tales with tales of how porcupines used to gnaw on the lower boards of outhouses in the area, because they craved the salt in the splashes of urine which marked the boards.
Lest I give the impression that the book maintains the grim atmosphere of a “brush your teeth” pamphlet, there are a wide variety of tales, some light to the point of frivolous, some beautiful in their appreciation and their close analysis of nature, and all casually and seemingly accidentally setting up and highlighting the powerful tales that are the centerpiece of the narrative. There is even the famed “aha” moment, when that use of the digressions of which the title speaks, happens often enough that the reader understands what’s happening and why it is.
I have greatly enjoyed my two rambles through “Niagara Digressions.” I enthusiastically recommend it to you if you hunger for the sort of mind-to-mind communication which it offers. If you’re wondering, “But, what is it about?” perhaps it’s not for you.
The book was published in 2012 by Starcherone Books. In paperbound edition, it has 296 pages, and it’s marked for sale at $20. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-9837405-2-0.
ME AND SHAKESPEARE
Another ramble through well-known literary material, a bit more formally organized than the Baxter book, is “Me and Shakespeare,” by Herman Gollob.
After a long and successful career as a book editor, Gollob attended a performance on Broadway of the play “Hamlet,” which starred Ralph Fiennes. The brilliance of the writing and the performance so electrified him that he began a long and astonishingly deep study of Shakespeare and his writing. Soon, he felt he had learned so much about the subject that he began to teach a course on Shakespeare to senior citizens at a local community college.
Using his contacts from his years in publishing, Gollob eventually got an opportunity to study Shakespeare at Oxford University in England. He even managed to acquire credentials to study at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
He discusses his theories and discoveries with a number of famous actors, directors and Shakespearean scholars, and doesn’t hesitate to include rejections and negative comments about himself and his work, along with praise and agreement.
His discoveries about the great writer are interesting, though not Earth-shattering, but his enthusiasm and his persistence and the depth of his study are most impressive. The book is entertaining and informative, without becoming pedantic. Occasionally, the author’s self-appreciation becomes a bit annoying, but if you’re a frequent reader I think you’ll emerge wishing you could study in Gollob’s course, especially if you could do so for the purpose of learning, rather than satisfying some testmaker, hundreds of miles away.
It probably won’t change your life, but it can provide some interesting evenings of reading and learning.
“Me and Shakespeare” was published in 2002 by Doubleday Books. It has 340 pages in hard-bound edition. Many Internet booksellers are no longer selling it new, but you can pick up a used copy for less than $5. Find it with ISBN number 0-385-49817-9.
MARTYRS & MURDERERS
There is something about human nature which is foreign to the idea of freedom. Consider the truth behind these statements: “I believe in freedom, and if you don’t, you need to be silenced, one way or another.”
How about “God is Love, and if you don’t think so, we’ll kill you.”
I have discussed those statements with people who didn’t understand they were ironic. I’ll explain shortly.
I very much enjoyed reading “Martyrs & Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe,” by Stuart Carroll. It concerns the family that is commonly given the last name of Guise in English-speaking histories, although they were what is called a “cadet branch” of the House of Lorraine. Lorraine is presently part of France, but lies at the eastern edge of France, bordering Germany. It has been independent, part of Germany, part of France, and a variety of other statuses, throughout history. A cadet branch is a family that is descended from a younger son of a political leader. Since members of both houses are of the same family, one or both is typically given a different family name, so they can be told apart.
The family was wealthy and powerful, especially in France, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Much of their power came from their close ties to the Roman Catholic Church. In each generation, the oldest son was expected to become a successful soldier, and to marry and continue the family line by having children, especially sons. The next son was expected to become a priest, and eventually to ascend to such powerful roles as archbishops and cardinals. The women of the family were given by their families in marriage to men in places of political power, especially Marie or Mary of Guise, who was married to King James V of Scotland. When her husband was killed in battle at about the same time she gave birth to their only child, Marie became the de facto ruler of Scotland and her daughter, known as Mary, Queen of Scots, would be a substantial threat to Henry VIII of England, and his daughter, Elizabeth I.
Even brilliant thinkers sometimes have difficulty accepting that nearly everyone is a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad. For many writers, members of the Guise family have become super villains. In fact, while they spent their lives plotting to advance their family’s wealth and power at the expense of the people around them, they were as much plotted against as they were plotters.
Since their plans to become rulers didn’t work out, they have become convenient villains. One thinks of the bumper sticker wisdom of, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
The period in which the Guises came to power was at the height of what is commonly called the “Protestant Reformation.” In countries such as England, much of Northern Germany and the Netherlands, supporting the Roman Catholic Church could get you tortured to death or even burned alive. Meanwhile, in France, Spain, Italy and Southern Germany, supporting a protestant church could get you similar treatment.
It is a cruel irony that wars are rarely fought for the reasons that are given why they are being fought. If a leader announced, “Come, leave your families without a source of support and risk death and dismemberment, so that my family and I can be richer and even more comfortable,” there would be very few armies.
Instead, leaders find ways to shape and manipulate scripture, the preaching of charismatic clergy, the visions of angels and saints by nuns and similar events, to convince the poor farmer or blacksmith that God wants him to leave his home and family and risk destruction, while killing and raping and robbing other people, who are much like themselves. The Guise family found that French fear of the protestant churches would serve to get them the services of armies, and so they used those facts. So did nearly everyone else in the political arena at their time.
As a result, the family name is prominent on the Catholic side of the wars of religion, and in horrible, bloody events such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This book is especially important for those who have read only histories that have been colored by the traditional English prejudice in favor of protestants and opposed to Roman Catholics.
In many of my studies, for example, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was a mass killing of protestants who were sitting around minding their own business, while the Catholics hated them and wanted them dead. In fact, the protestants in France had performed any number of rebellions against the government, murders of Catholic supporters and clergy, and other activities that made them something very different from innocents minding their own business.
Just in case someone thinks I’m being prejudiced, I should explain that Roman Catholic is capitalized because it is a proper noun, meaning a single organization, while protestant is not capitalized because it is a general noun describing organizations that consider themselves Christian, but which may believe in a wide variety of different beliefs.
To enjoy “Martyrs & Murderers,” you have to want to know. If you want to know, reading the book will add to your understanding. It isn’t holy writ, but it is well documented and factually accurate. If you don’t care about how the world has become as it is, it will just be a collection of words.
The book has 301 pages in paperbound edition, plus an impressive collection of maps, charts and an extensive index. It was published in 2009 by Oxford University Press and is marked for sale at $19.95. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-19-959679-9. It isn’t a novel, painted bold with passionate interpretations. Rather, it is a history: an accurate explanation of events which made the world as it is today.