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REVIEWING

When All the World Is Old: Poems

By John Rybicki

Lookout Books | 2011 | 103 pages | $16.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

john rybicki

Ecstatic Grace

I’ve read other collections of poetry about death.  In fact, I’ve read other poetry collections about a poet/husband who memorializes his fellow wife/poet after death in a series of elegies.  One of the most famous of this mini-genre are the poems written by former poet laureate Donald Hall about his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who succumbed to leukemia at the age of 47.

His collection Without is heart wrenching.  Raw, precise, and confessional, the poems are narratives of grief.  I read the book and tears streamed down my face.  For him.  For her.  For their dog, Gus.  Coincidentally enough, a dog (but he seems to be a spunkier sort of dog) also appears in When All the World Is Old, a new collection by John Rybicki about the death of his wife, the poet Julie Moulds. 

And even though by topic the collections have similarities, the poems themselves are quite different.  Like Without, the poems contain domestic scenes and hard-to-witness hospital stays, but the poems are ecstatic and highly charged, as if the prospect of death makes living all the more precariously glorious.

“When you are in danger, the adrenaline quickens; your senses are heightened.  You realize, I am not dead yet, but I could be soon.  And each day means more than it ever has…”— this is from the journal of Julie Moulds.  Her journal entries are presented throughout the book as an accompaniment to her husband’s poems.  In fact, we see this journal entry first, before any of the poems.  They give, along with his poetry, an indication of how they lived. 

One gets the sense that the couple was giddily, happily in love.  In the poem “Julie the Valiant,” Rybicki recalls their wedding day:  “Julie with her legs wide behind me/ So her pedals spun freely.  We’re posing on that hillside afterward,/ with the “Just Married” signs/painted on cardboard and hanging from each set of handlebars…My lass in her vintage wedding dress.”  In another poem, he writes about Julie vigorously waving good-bye out a car window, yelling, “I love you, Dude, I love you, Dude,” her voice/ always softer the second time with distance.” 

Some say a poem is an extravagant riddle/ puzzle pieces in a white box…”  This is from Rybicki’s poem, “A Mother Is a Living Blossom.”  I have waited for someone to describe poetry in just this way.  Indeed the best poems are riddles — designs of words that can be interpreted a number of ways.  Although I enjoy poems that are immediately accessible and do not like poems which seem to confront me with an annoying “poetry elitism,” my favorite poems are the ones which I understand the first time I read them, but which take on more meaning with subsequent readings. 

Rybicki’s poems are of this sort.  Poems about a wife dying of cancer could be reduced to an anemic combination of melodrama and mundanity.  Instead, these poems are strangely beautiful.  They dangle before the reader — loose threads (an image that reappears in this collection) barely tangible, ready to float away before the reader even grasps what is going on.  But I need to backtrack here.  The poems often do begin with Moulds’ cancer and the sheer horror of chemotherapy, hospital stays, etc. However, as the poems continue they lift and divide, creating a duality between heaven and earth, health and sickness, hunger and weakness.  As the poems continue, they implore for the impossible — for attachment, for Rybicki and his wife to somehow become one being. 

He writes “…Can I catch my love on my tongue/ after she is gone…” and “I would bloom/and take Julie inside me, keep her/ safe…” Rather than succumbing to fate, Rybicki rails against his wife’s dying.  When the nurses gently suggest that Rybicki should encourage his wife to let go, he cannot get to that point.  He wants her to stay with such a ferocious love, an eagerness that is both understandable and poignant. 

In his urgency, his poetry brings to mind the famous Thomas Dylan poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”  Rather than leaving this earth, Rybicki asks a mysterious God for more time, for his “lass” to stay regardless of her condition, regardless of the fact that time is running out.  He knows that time is running out, yet he doesn’t want to know this.  He clings to his girl, wanting to protect her from the unknown and even when she is gone, he believes that she survives somehow in the very air, in the echo of her breath.

The “God” in Rybicki’s poetry is uniquely Rybicki’s own and God is mentioned a lot.  God is spoken of as if he’s a curious, yet almost “regular” bystander.  So Rybicki chides God for not having a heart as in the poem “One Wish,” a six-line poem which ends with, “in the night sky over her head,/ where God’s heart should be.”  In another poem he mentions a “flask close to God’s hip,” and in another he refers to God as the “great head clopper.” 

Rather than pushing God farther away by imbuing him with human foibles, in Rybicki’s poems God feels very present, as a sort of staggering watchman who fails just as we fail.  Religious imagery abounds in When All the World is Old.  There are actual church scenes such as in the slyly humorous “We’re in Church the Day Before Her Bone Marrow Transplant,” which recounts a moment when Julie’s straw hat topples over and a young child scurries to fetch it and there are allusions to Julie’s religiousness when Rybicki describes the Virgin Mary pictures that Julie keeps. 

But just as the poems about a hospital might morph into a strange tableau mixing real and imagined images, the poems about religion also have an underlying macabre feel. 

Some of the poems become trippy, but in a good way.  At one point, Julie begins hallucinating.  In Rybicki’s poem, he recounts it this way: Julie says, “It’s the morphine, Dude.  I keep seeing things that aren’t there. / Yesterday there was a river of blood rushing in the hallway.”   In another poem Rybicki imagines their bones layered together in a casket.  Bones, muscle, the swell of the ribcage all coalesce and converge in these poems, dissecting the body and then releasing the soul in an ecstatic play of words and images. In one poem Rybicki even imagines they are actors in a violent movie. 

Jane Kenyon’s pet name for her husband was Perkins; Moulds called her poet/lover/husband “Dude.”  I love that.  The poems are infused with Dude-isms, bringing the sometimes other-wordliness of the poems right back down to earth.  Just as Kenyon implored Perkins to be with her when she died, Moulds wrote a love letter to Rybicki: “Dude, if you’re reading this and I’m gone, you are my world.”  Raymond Carver wrote a similar poem to his wife, the poet and fiction writer, Tess Gallagher.  I go back to Rybicki’s line: “Some say a poem is an extravagant riddle…”  I would slightly torque that phrase:  Some say love is an extravagant riddle.


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REVIEWING

The Obamas

By Jodi Kantor

Little Brown and Company | 2012 | 360 pages | $29.99

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

jodi cantor

News junkies, particularly those afflicted with Obamamania, will be very disappointed in Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas.   On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Six Pack or ordinary Americans who love the kind of good gossip that obtains in People magazine, for example, will love how Kantor dishes the dirt, airs the White House dirty laundry, and discloses the day-to-day happenings that early on disillusioned Barack and Michelle about being the most powerful Black man and Black woman in the world.

Long before the book hit the shelves, a number of reviewers had chewed on and stewed over Kantor’s conclusions, and most of them settled on the turmoil between Michelle and her husband’s chief advisors.

The nasty spats and rancor between her and the now departed press secretary Robert Gibbs and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, he too having fled the West Wing for the Windy City, was easy game for journalists seeking to get their readers attention and to point out the sundry reasons Michelle had to avoid at every step from becoming “an angry Black woman.”

Some two or three hundred words into the book, Kantor evokes a theme that is persistent from chapter to chapter—Michelle’s difficulty adjusting to D.C., the White House, and the strict code of conduct that kept her from being the person she had been for many years.

“I still don’t know what we’re doing,” she remarked, seemingly to no one in particular, clearly expressing her exasperation with her first lady status and missing what she had grown accustomed to in Chicago.

For several chapters, Kantor lays on this narrative thread, citing Michelle’s slow orientation to this new phase where she had to watch every little thing she said and did.  She was chastised for speaking out without consulting with Obama’s team; assailed for dressing inappropriately, and verbally lacerated for deviating from protocol.

Her adjustment was almost as challenging as her husband’s fight to quit smoking.

One of the most rewarding things about The Obamas is Kantor’s way of providing, at least on some occasions, the emotional details behind important decisions.  She is like a fly on the wall as she explains the president’s thinking as he mulled over the health care measure, and how he finally made the decision to take down Osama bin Laden.

But even most of these moments are second hand because Steve Kroft, on the killing of bin Laden, had scooped most of the journalists with his interview with Obama on “60 Minutes.”  Even so, Kantor does a good job recounting the risky encounter and the anxiety the President experienced, knowing that the crap would hit the fan if the attempt failed.

There are times when you wish Kantor would have extended her historical discussions, especially about the White House and its servants.  Many readers will be surprised to learn that the White House was built by slaves, who fired and molded the bricks. 

Or, that it was only after a visitation from Booker T. Washington in 1901, after being invited to dinner by President Teddy Roosevelt that he changed the name of the building from the Executive Mansion to the White House, “the multiple meanings clear,” Kantor adds.  She also notes that this piece of information “the president and first lady never publicly discussed.”

It was interesting to learn, as well, that until the Kennedy years there were no Black secret service agents.  “Even by 2009, only five of the four hundred and fifty or so artworks in the White House collection were by African American artists, and there were only a few nonwhite faces among the portraits and busts,” Kantor relates.

The book would have been substantially enriched with more tidbits of background material such as these rather than the clamor and intrigue fomented by the Obama team, with each member doing his or her best to gain the president’s ear.

Since Kantor had to rely on a few dated interviews she had with the Obamas, there is a deficit of pillow talk between the couple.  And what little dispute arose between them was private.  Michelle struggled to tamp down her disgust with her husband’s obsession with the health care bill. 

“The health care situation epitomized everything she disliked about politics,” Kantor writes, “everything she had been arguing about with her husband for going on two decades: her skepticism about whether true change could be accomplished through the legislative process.” 

Of course, in the end, Barack was able to get some satisfaction from this relative victory.

Kantor does provide some interesting insight into the relationship between Barack and Michelle, especially when contrasted with Obama’s ever-assertive staff. “The first lady’s complaints about the President’s team in the White House,” Kantor opines, “tended to sound a lot like Michelle’s personal complaints about her husband over the years.”

Another pressing matter for Michelle was her determination not to be compared with the previous first ladies, most notably Hillary Clinton.  As Kantor notes, she wasn’t like Nancy Reagan or Clinton, who were intimately involved in the daily business of the West Wing.  In effect, Michelle had her husband’s back and Barack depended on “her idealism, exactitude and her unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted.”

After three years in the White House, Kantor concludes, the Obamas had learned to live together in this unforgiving political fish bowl, and each apparently bolstered by the others changing dispositions. “After all Michelle’s protests about politics, all the suspense during those first few months in the White House about whether she would find her way,” Kantor asserts, “she was going to emerge from the presidency stronger and more at peace, aides predicted.”

It’s almost safe to predict, too, that both will improve if given an extended lease at the White House because by then they will have overcome some of the qualms and apprehensions that consumed far too much of their time.  No more bickering, no more worries about demeanor and behavior at various functions, all of that will be bygones and the two will govern as a first family with no concern about who has the rudder.      

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REVIEWING

Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan

By Ahmed Rashid

Viking | 2012 | 212 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

ahmed rashid

Pakistan on the Brink is a book that bills itself as being about the future fate of two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, when all is said and done, it is really an interesting, and sometimes scary account of some of the inner workings of present day Pakistan.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist based in Lapore, presents “a litany of problems” facing Pakistan; most famously, the failure since the partition with India in 1947, to establish a “coherent national identity. Is it not a democracy as envisioned by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah? Are its people Muslim first, Sindhis or Punjabis second, and Pakistanis third? Or are they Pakistanis first and foremost?“ Rashid asks, without giving us an answer, and leaving us to wonder that maybe they are all of the above.

That, for me, more than anything, is a good reason for Rashid to focus his main attention on that troubled country. The Pakistan that the world has come to know, and now fears deeply, was discovered to be a hodge-podge of competing tribes, poverty, corruption, violent Islamic militants, clueless leaders, and a country with ”close to one hundred nuclear weapons.”

Yet, as Rashid points out, this did not have to be.

…”Pakistan’s location gives it enormous geostrategic potential. It borders Central, South, and West Asia, is a gateway to the sea for China, and is situated at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf; no other country in the world has such potential to become a hub for trade and business or the transcontinental transport of energy.”

***

So the question is, why has Pakistan spiraled into disarray, while its neighbors, China and India, have emerged as world leaders in economic growth, and major innovators in many important fields including technology and science?

Rashid places much of the blame on the powerful military: “The military defines Pakistan national identity defensively, in terms of the country’s vulnerability, as a national security state, with a permanent mistrust of India. The politicians in power have never seriously tried to challenge this isolating self-definition by offering alternative policies, such as promoting good neighborliness, ending support for Islamic extremism, fostering economic development, and providing education.”

He also points a finger at the West, and in particular, the United States, for not fully engaging itself in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is, however, little doubt in his mind that Pakistan is a major problem facing the world.

“The core issue is what happens in Pakistan. Its geostrategic location, its nuclear weapons, its large population, its terrorist camps, and enfeebled economy and polity make it more important—and more vulnerable--than even Afghanistan. And yet Pakistan’s plans for its national security consist almost entirely of resisting Indian hegemony, protecting and developing its nuclear program, promoting the Kashmiri cause, and ensuring the presence of a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.”

***

Rashid’s insights into the thinking in this part of the world are well taken. One thing I finding missing in this book is a hard look at Islam itself. For example, is a Caliphate necessarily a bad idea? Catholics have the Pope. Maybe Muslims need their own kind of living, spiritual leader.

At least there would be a return address for every bomb that went off. These days, it seems that all over the Muslim world, from South of Sahara Africa, North Africa, The Middle East and South Asia, we see bombing, bombings and more bombings, on a daily basis.

Young men seem to be eager to strap on a suicide vest and try to kill as many men, women and children as they can, more often than not, fellow Muslims.

The figures in Pakistan on the Brink say that since the war on terror began in 2001, over 225,000 people have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. But what would the numbers be if we factored in those 40 people killed daily in Africa, and the 30 - 50 killed elsewhere, all in the name of Islam?

These are some hard questions. Maybe author Rashid will address them in his next book.

If he dares.

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REVIEWING

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

By A. S. Byatt

Canongate | 2011 | 177 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

a.s.  byatt

When the novelist Philip Hensher interviewed A. S. Byatt for the Paris Review a little more than a decade ago, he asked her opinion of the idea that the personal is the political. Given that this feminist doctrine gave women a way to justify the value of their own experiences to their male peers, and led to an explosion of woman-authored, and woman-centric literature, Byatt might have been expected to embrace it wholeheartedly.

But the distinguished English author, ever the free thinker, did not.

“The personal is not the political,” she responded “…The kitchen is not a paradigm for everything.”

It is a refreshing sentiment, particularly in light of the conventions that still dominate women’s literature (whatever that actually means) today. In the “kitchen paradigm,” because the personal is the political, there is no reason to discuss the traditionally political. As a result, the public has been confronted with a deluge of novels about women who appear to live in a vacuum, assuming no place within the social fabric and showing no concern for the currents of the world beyond their doorstep.

We need fear no such thing from Byatt, whose newest work, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, completely turns its back on the kitchen paradigm. In this masterful retelling of the Norse Armageddon myth, Byatt digs beneath the surface of “quotidian” concerns to get at the most basic themes of existence. Beginning with the creation of Yggdrasil, the World Ash that holds the earth together, the narrative rushes on inexorably to the final clash of the gods when all is annihilated and the world reduced to a “flat surface of black liquid.”

In between these points march a parade of stories unfamiliar to many today: the binding of the giant wolf Fenris, the growth of the enormous snake Jormungandr, the slaying of Baldur the Beautiful, and many more.

Like all myths, the scale of Ragnarok is enormous, seeming to encompass the whole world in its broad strokes. Byatt writes with both tremendous economy and the kind of refinement that is only produced by a lifetime of discipline. Even in an enumeration of the fish of the sea, or the beasts of the land, not a word is wasted

In an effort that may be intended to ease readers into the unfamiliar landscape, A. S.

 Byatt nests her narrative in the story of a little girl who has been evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. This “thin child”—undoubtedly Byatt herself—has been given the book Asgard and the Gods, an account of the Norse myths, and her journey through the book parallel the reader’s own journey. It is a clever framework that drives home the endurance and universality of the stories.

Armageddon may seem an abstract concept in a world of paying bills and running errands, but it assumes a heightened importance in the context of world war

Byatt accompanies the conclusion of her story with a fascinating discussion of myth itself that notes that “gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities in the way people in novels do.” It is a keen observation that underscores the unconventionality of the narrative for Western readers accustomed to a Christian worldview.

Christianity offers a god who shares certain human aspects and qualities, replacing the deity who is the ultimate embodiment of Justice or Force, with a deity who is a participant in the human struggle. Contrast Jesus in Gethsemane with Thor and Odin on the cusp of Armageddon.

Jesus wavers; the gods do not. They, too, are subject to fate, forced onward to do “what they knew how to do.” In this way, Ragnarok is a stark deviation from the norm to which we are accustomed, and its effect on a reader is that of being thrown into a very cold stream—it both shocks and exhilarates.

***

Ragnarok may not be a book for a dark night or tough times—but then again, it might. Sometimes the act of confronting a hard truth brings relief. When the thin child recounts her classmates’ trouble in talking about death, and then later claims that “what she needed was…the dark water over everything,” her words resonate powerfully.

“This is how myths work,” Byatt proclaims. “They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind.”

If this is the hallmark of a myth, then Byatt has achieved great success in recasting this ancient story in a new mold and losing none of its original purity. Such a muscular and dense book will not be easily found on the shelves today.

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REVIEWING

The Darlings

By Cristina Alger

Viking | 2012 | 338 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

cristina alger

A Little Birdie Told Me

This funny looking bird in Central Park the other day landed in the lunch spread in my lap and proceeded to hint strongly that The Darlings is a roman a clef!  (The bird was wearing a small beret and had baguette crumbs around his mouth and on his chest.)

Not moving in the legal, financial or socialite circles so lovingly described in this book, I could not verify this one way or another, but it may provide an extra tingle to those more in the know and inclined to reach for this very topical thriller.

Cristina Alger gives us a gripping tale of Masters of the Universe (and their lawyers) on top of the world one minute and sliding precipitously down a one-way chute the next.  Only a few pages into the text and you’re whispering to yourself, Bernie Madoff, Bernie Madoff.

Yes, it’s a Ponzi scheme, up close and personal.

What’s interesting here is that Alger focuses on the families of the perpetrators rather than their victims.  They are ensconced in their Upper East Side mansions and Easthampton hideaways, living in a bubble about to burst wide open in a most humiliating and irreversible way.

Paul, married to Merrill (!) Darling, has joined the family hedge fund as General Counsel just a few months before the book opens up, and it looks bad for him because he signed off on a transaction that didn’t smell right, but had his father-in-law’s blessing.  Merrill, though a lawyer, is mostly Daddy’s girl, and spends most of the book crying and whimpering.      

Her sister and brother-in-law are typical private school issue; her mother Ines is a Brazilian beauty, a perfectionist, and concerned with surface appearances.  Daddy Carter is a loving father and perhaps unsuspecting businessman, but the kind that sells you down the river to maintain the status quo.

 His status quo.

Other key characters are the Darlings’ lawyer and master negotiator, Sol, his devoted wife, Marion, his loyal, long-suffering secretary, Yvonne; Duncan and his assistant, Marina, representing The Press, and finally, Morty Reis, who originated the Ponzi scheme and has thrown himself off the Tappan Zee Bridge (maybe).  The action is carefully plotted, we follow the characters day to day as the scandal develops and they scamper to control the damage and deflect attention away from questions of their own culpability.

Interestingly, there is nary a word of compassion for the trusting investors in the Darlings’ fund.

Victims of Madoff and others affected by the recent financial crises may not be overly interested in the plights of the con artists and schemers, but for the general public (like me), this book gives us some insight into how these things happen, how even the people at the top may not really know what is going on or choose not to inquire too deeply.  

It’s also clear that Values do not exist in this world, especially when your own skin is on the line, though people never stop intoning, “X was so good to me; I owe him a lot” or “Family is precious, I’ve always done everything for my family, I would never hurt you. “        Don’t put that in the bank!

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REVIEWING

Golden Empire—Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America

By Hugh Thomas

Random House | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

hugh thomas

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade (in Billings, Montana) I became excited when the teacher charted on a map of the world Columbus’s voyages to the New World beginning in 1492, Cortez’s defeat of Montezuma and conquest of Mexico, Pizarro’s of Peru, and Magellan’s voyage around the world. Ponce de Leon and Coronado were names that were music to my ears as I envisioned what it must have been like to be a Conquistador!

Many years later when I was in Spain it occurred to me that the Spanish have had a huge impact on the world—its customs, language, architecture, and religion spread throughout Mexico and South America. Its influence is rivaled only by that of the British.

My love of history is, I suppose, born out of a lifetime curiosity about the world, its peoples and their stories. But sometimes my knowledge is very simplistic—I only know the outline of what occurred. Such was the case with the Spanish conquest of the new world.

Hugh Thomas is a consummate British historian who specializes in this area. He wrote two previous volumes: Rivers of Gold—the Rise of the Spanish Empire and Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the fall of Old Mexico. The Golden Empire picks up where the previous two left off, in 1521 following Cortéz’s conquest and the rebuilding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (Mexico City today), and stretching until 1558 and the death of the Spanish Emperor, Charles V, (which, incidentally, was also the year when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England.)

Four books are listed in its contents. Book I is entitled “Valladolid and Rome,” Book II, “Peru,” Book III, “Counter Reformation, Counter Renaissance,” and Book IV, “The Indian Soul.” Of these four books I found Book II on the conquest of Peru of the greatest interest.

I think it worth commenting on the character of the Spanish conquistadors, for they were intrepid adventurers and stalwart explorers who occupied a male-dominated world, as few women accompanied them on their conquests. A resilient, hardy, and courageous breed, they were also intensely pious men, who as much as conquering were intent on evangelizing the Indians and converting them to Christianity.

During the 16th Century the Inquisition was in full throttle and anyone suspected of secretly practicing Judaism or Islam was hideously tortured. (Jews and Moors were restricted from going to the New World.)

They, the conquistadores, were unwaveringly loyal to the Spanish crown, which received 20% of whatever riches they seized. The galleons, which returned to Spain, were heavy-laden with gold and silver, riches that Charles used to finance his wars against Turkey, France, and the forces of the Reformation.

The conquistadors were ruthless and at times brutal to their Indian subjects. Having conquered it was incumbent for them to govern, and in this they proved to be able administrators. They imported their love of pageantry from Spain. In contrast to the British, who rarely married Indians, the Spanish intermarried to such a high degree as to create a new race of people—the Mexicans, Hispanic Americans or Latinos.

This book constantly amazed me.

For example, there were a lot more Indians and tribes in the New World than I previously thought. The Aztecs and Incas were but two tribes of hundreds that lived in the Americas. My ignorance here is partly justified because so much of the native Indian culture in North America has been all but erased.

The Spanish conquests were much more extensive than I realized, and took place throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and into what is now the southern United States. These conquests continued throughout the first half of the 16th Century.

One of the most remarkable battles ever fought was fought by Pizarro: On November 15, 1532, having travelled along the west coast from Panama to Peru, the Pizarros (there were four brothers) with 168 men, of whom 62 were horsemen, defeated the Atahualpa, the Inca king’s army of 40,000 soldiers.

In Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs & Steel, he argues that advanced weaponry was responsible for the victories the European forces achieved during these times. Pizarro’s men carried harquebuses, heavy portable matchlock guns we now consider primitive, but then they were lethal against Indian fighters using mostly bows and arrows.

Nevertheless, the Indians would not have lost this important battle had it not been for a loss of faith on their part. As was the case with Cortez and the Aztecs, the Incas readily capitulated to the culture imposed upon them by the Spaniards. In a subsequent battle, the Spaniards conquered Cuzco, the Incan capital, and seized enormous amounts of gold and silver that had been used to build their temples. Soon this bounty was on its way back to Spain, and Christian cathedrals were built atop the temples.

Included in this book is Valdivia’s conquest of Chili. So many stories were told that I can only skim the surface of this dense account, in which some of the battles fought were with Spanish rivals. I often marveled at the hardiness and resolve of these men, so far away from the motherland and yet determined to civilize the natives and bring honor to the crown. Had it not been so, the course of history would have been very different.

Fortunately, some of these men left records of their adventures, and in doing so preserved the memory of such adventures as Orellana’s trip down the Amazon River.

In late 1540, Francisco Pizarro named his young brother, the charming and valiant Gonzalo, governor of Quito (in Peru). He devoted himself to arranging an expedition whose aim was the search for cinnamon on the eastern side of the great Andes. His forces were joined by those of Francisco de Orellana’s.

High in the Andes, Orellana took a group of men and went in search of food, but he never returned, much to Pizarro’s chagrin. Orellana and his men unknowingly found the headwaters of the Amazon and before they knew it their canoes were being carried rapidly downstream, where they were assaulted again and again by hostile Indians who shot poisonous darts at them. (Here the text reads like something out of Indiana Jones.) Eventually they reached the mouth of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean, having survived one the most harrowing adventures of any of the conquistadores.

Another ill-fated adventure recounted was that of Coronado into what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Imagine these men’s amazement as they peered into the Grand Canyon, the first white men ever to see it. The year was 1541.

Back in Spain at the court of Charles V and in the Council of Indies, how Indian subjects should be treated was argued. One Dominican monk wrote, “Indians are not stable persons to whom one can entrust the preaching of the Holy Gospel. They do have the ability to understand correctly and fully the Christian faith nor is their language sufficient and copious enough to be able to express our faith without great improprieties, which can easily result in great errors.” Of course, history proved this chauvinistic monk quite wrong.

The last several chapters deal with the death of the Emperor Charles in 1558, who for forty years had overseen with diligence and fastidiousness the affairs attenuating the conquest and development of the Indies.

Great sums of silver and gold from Mexico and Peru had come to Spain aboard galleons. “Between 1551 and 1555, the Spanish Crown imported from the Indies more than three and a half million pesos and private people imported more than 6 million. Charles, the mirror of chivalry and the inheritor of the great Burgundian traditions, spent hours puzzling over these figures and sums.”

Charles never visited New Spain and his other American protectorates. At his death he left his empire in Europe restored. In 1559 an elaborate funeral was held for him in the new cathedral in Mexico. An empty sarcophagus covered in black cloth and a cushion on which a crown rested was placed before a procession of all the Spanish dignitaries, monks, and members of the indigenous population, all of whom prayed for the soul of the conquering emperor Charles.

Now, here we are nearly four hundred years later. Spain is one of the least important of European countries, with a high rate of unemployment, Mexico is a populous, poor country with a high homicide rate due to the infighting among drug cartels, the lands conquered by Spain in the 16th Century are still very much Catholic, Peru, Chili and Argentina struggle economically, and the mighty United States is faltering with high unemployment and a middle class that is rapidly losing ground.

The descendants of the conquistadors and Indians have so multiplied that they are the most rapidly growing ethnic group in North America today, a poetic justice of sorts. The machismo of Spanish American men is a remnant from their conquistador forbearers.

This ambitious book is a treasure house of information. We owe Hugh Thomas a debt of gratitude for having written it and for his other books on the history of Spanish America.

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REVIEWING

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton | 2011 | 356 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

stephen greenblatt

The history of the intellectual growth of humankind has not always been a calm, steady, and progressive one. There have been golden ages, dark ages and renaissances. It has been a thoughtful melodrama full of heroes, villains, and cliffhangers; deep thoughts, knee-jerk reactions, creative insights, and destructive willfulness. If you don't know this story, then you don't know much about humankind at all

An important chapter in this story has been beautifully written by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. The hero of this chapter is Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century book hunter; apostolic secretary to eight popes (many of them corrupt and less than truly holy); a scribe whose script, or penmanship, was an art as well as a craft.

A devout Christian, a participant in chatter and jokes, often obscene, a critic of the papal court and even the popes themselves; a lover who fathered many children, first with a mistress (14), and later with a wife (6), Poggio was most of all a humanist. 

A 15th century humanist was not what we would call a humanist today, but all of today’s humanists are intellectual descendants of the humanists that Poggio was numbered among, including Petrarch, a generation older than Poggio.

Petrarch found the world he lived in to be a sordid time, “...a time of coarseness, ignorance, and triviality.” Although it was the early Renaissance, Petrarch’s world was still shadowed by a thousand years of civilization’s descent into darkness and middling times of a head-bowed and humbled acquiescence to authority and revealed knowledge that drove out — and, indeed, made a sin of — the basic, commendable and most human quality of curiosity.

In response, “Petrarch made the recovery of the cultural heritage of classical Rome a collective obsession.” 

A 15th century humanist, then, was an individual who tried to escape the dark by trying to recover the Greco-Roman past, which humanists saw as a source of light and beauty in art, architecture, and — for many of them and certainly for Poggio — in the language and literature of the classical world. The finding and discovering of the finely written Latin of Cicero and Virgil, among others, allowed a glimpsing into their ancient world, led to the most important bout of nostalgia for a time before one's birth that the world has ever seen.

Poggio made it his personal quest to find rare copies of ancient texts that had not so much been hidden, as forgotten on the shelves of many monasteries for the previous half-millennia.  Poggio’s most important discovery was his finding, in 1417, in a monastery in Germany of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (c. 94 – c. 55 BCE), a 7400-line poem that espoused Epicureanism -- the worldview, indeed the universal view, of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE).  It was, as the title suggests, a completely naturalistic view, giving no place in existence for the spiritual or the supernatural.

Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, and the author of the New York Times bestseller as well as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, has beautifully structured The Swerve. Although this chapter in the history of human intellectual progress is concerned with a particular man at a specific time, Greenblatt puts him and it into context by portraying individuals who preceded and followed Poggio.

He tells the reader, of course, of Lucretius and of the content and quality of his poem, De rerum natura, and “...of its rich verbal texture, its subtle rhythms, and the cunning precision and poignancy of its imagery.”  And he informs you of the thinkers following Poggio — Machiavelli, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Newton, and Thomas Jefferson (who owned at least five Latin editions of the work) — whose minds were opened by On the Nature of Things.  Greenblatt also gives a good sketch of the history of the Book as a delivery device of content, from papyrus scrolls and their hardy long lives (but not long enough to last 1500 years), and the ancient libraries they were collected in, to the codex, the first book form that we would be familiar with, with its bound text conveniently paginated and indexed, its pages made from the skin of animals — parchment.

He ends the sketch with the innovation of Gutenberg, bound pages of paper printed with movable type. In the chapter “The Teeth of Time,” Greenblatt talks about the creation of the public library in ancient Rome, and tells the reader of the original bookworm — not a lover of books, but an ingesting insect that loved papyrus, parchment, and paper. He seems to enjoy revealing that if the group of early Renaissance humanists were a brotherhood, they were a dysfunctional one, as they spent much of their time hurling libels, “...at one another like punch-drunk pugilists.”

Possibly the best part of the book is Greenblatt’s portrayal of Poggio himself. A complex man of integrity — at least when he was young when integrity seems most important — he would not take the easy, and far more lucrative, career route in the Church of becoming a priest or monk because he lacked “...the calling that might have led him to take religious orders.”

His spirit, Greenblatt says, “...was emphatically secular and his desires were in and of this world.”  Such a non-religious spirit did not stop plenty of others from taking orders for personal and financial gain, but it stopped Poggio. Nonetheless, for an ambitious, well-educated young man, with an excellent command of classical Latin and exquisite handwriting, the “Big Apple” of the early 15th century was, of course, the Roman curia (the administrative apparatus of the Holy See), and so Poggio gained a position there as an apostolic scriptor — a skilled writer of official documents.

He spent many years, both before and after his discovery of On the Nature of Things, serving many popes, eventually rising to the coveted position of secretarius domesticus, or the pope’s “private or intimate secretary.”  He was superb at his job and loyal in his service, but he was never naive enough to assume that the curia was a particularly fine example of all things Holy.

It was, indeed, a place, as his younger humanist contemporary, the Florentine Lapo da Castiglionchio wrote, “‘in which crime, moral outrage, fraud, and deceit take the name of virtue and are held in high esteem...What can be more alien to religion than the curia?’”

Poggio became a cynic, possibly so he could survive in the job, and to more than survive in life he became a lover of Rome. Not, “...the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing of a lost world.”

Despite this, Poggio was no less a devout Christian who -- although he was thrilled to have found Lucretius’ poem because he had read in other ancient texts mentions of it and its beauty, and knew that it had been lost for hundreds of years -- was, it is assumed, shocked by the content of the work. On the Nature of Things is deeply anti-religion, and yet Poggio, understanding the beauty of it, saved it from obscurity, and thus helped set in motion an intellectual flowering that would challenge the religion he loved.

The only place where I think Greenblatt fails the reader is in explaining why On the Nature of Things made the world modern.  He gives a good account of the poem and the philosophy of Lucretius, detailing its materialistic view of the universe, and how all things — stars and planets; animals and men — were but different combinations of “atoms” (although Lucretius did not use that Greek word, but rather “seeds” or “particles”) that are “immutable, indivisible, invisible, and infinite in number.” 

This being the case, there is no room in the Epicurean view for anything supernatural.  Thus everything, including the mind and the soul, are material, and are made up of different shapes and sizes of atoms. The atoms themselves are eternal, but the objects made from them are not, thus everything dies and decomposes (including the soul) back down to the immutable atoms to become the “stuff” of other objects.

The universe, then, has no creator or designer, and yet nature is constantly creating — “All living beings, from plants and insects to the higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error” -- in a process we now call evolution through natural selection.  If all things are material and all things shall die, Lucretius says in his poem, then death should mean nothing to man and he should not be afraid of it.

The Epicureans felt that religions that traded on the fear of death, the fear of nonexistence, through the promise of reward, or the threat of punishment, were cruel and should not be tolerated.  This and much more in On the Nature of Things, explains why Poggio could not accept the content of the poem, even though he loved the beauty of it, and it explains why the Church would consider it a dangerous document. 

And you can certainly see where the poem provided some “seeds” for the thinking of Bruno and Galileo and Newton and so many others. But all this is just the the body of the poem. What Greenblatt does not reveal is what lies underneath the body, the — if I may called this — "soul" of the poem or, better yet, the "mind" of the poem. Maybe this is because Greenblatt is a professor of Humanities and not a scientist. And yet, it is because On the Nature of Things is a poem of literary value, and not just a dry rendition of atomism, evolution, and other material facts as seen by Lucretius, that the “mind” is there to inspire.

What the poem so beautifully conveys is how Epicurus and his followers came to their philosophy by showing the exciting process of observation, and the conclusions reasoned from those observations that occur in minds set free from the constraints of religion’s easy answer to all questions: Why is this so? Because God or the gods make it so. 

With such an answer in hand, what more is there to think?  But when you dispense with such an easy answer you observe closer, and when you observe closer, your human mind must question and apply reason until it comes to a conclusion you are comfortable with. It is the art of Lucretius that he was able to poetically display the human reasoning that took his fellow Epicureans from observation to conclusion.

On the Nature of Things was rediscovered at a time when people of a certain level of intelligence had a great yearning to observe and ask questions despite the Church’s point of view that curiosity not only killed the cat, but condemned the soul.  On the Nature of Things clearly and intimately displays what became the beginning of the scientific method: observation to a conclusion, or what we now call a hypothesis. Inspired and thrilled by this, it was inevitable that great minds would develop the rest of the scientific method: testable theories and experimentation leading to proofs. It is this intellectual endeavor, continually progressive for the last five hundred years or so, that has made the world modern.

The Swerve is an important book and a pleasure to read. But to compliment it — and to compliment Stephen Greenblatt — one should add to the pleasure by reading Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.       

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REVIEWING

Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans

By Judith Kelleher Schafer

Louisiana State University Press | 2010

Reviewed by Owen Brown

judith Schafer

Erica Jong, an American author and feminist, is credited with writing “Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.”  While the veracity of Jong’s statement is unquestionable, the reasons for its longevity and relevancy to Western Civilization, in general, and its applicability to antebellum New Orleans, in particular, are inextricably linked to the financial profits associated with the sins of the flesh.

Dr. Judith Kelleher Schafer’s book titled Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans invites its readers into a world peopled by public women---a.k.a prostitutes---who illustrate the enduring relevance of Jong’s statement. Historically, the tenacious staying power of this reality, captured by Jong’s statement and their resistance to transcending it, may be attributable to the attitudes/proclivities of men and our collective inability to give up an advantage, in spite of the fact that it truncates the potential of their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters. 

Schafer’s book represents an intriguing attempt to capture the consequences of this truncated potential by recreating the lives of the prostitutes that worked the streets of New Orleans during the antebellum period of American history. 

Schafer is an historian who specializes in teaching American legal history at Tulane University. As such, her approach to researching and writing Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women reflects her legal training and informs the methodology she utilizes to bring her subject matter to life. Her subject matter explores the life experiences that dominated sex workers in the Crescent City. While the author restricts her subject matter to heterosexual female prostitutes, this decision is not a reaction springing from some inherent bias on Schafer’s part; it is primarily a function of the fact that the First District Court of New Orleans’ records do not contain cases dealing with male, lesbian, or homosexual prostitutes. However, the records are populated with cases where writers from the New Orleans Daily Picayune termed the behaviors of female prostitutes “lewd and abandoned” for the period under investigation.

The chronological boundaries of Schafer’s book are from roughly 1721 to the start of the Civil War. However, her exposition emphasizes the period from the 1840s to 1862. The narrative is neatly packaged in nine chapters that sport descriptive titles such as “Selling Sex and the Law,” “Infamous Public Women,” “Larceny and Robbery among Prostitutes,” “Murder of a Lewd and Abandoned Woman: State of Louisiana v. Abraham Parker,” and “Violent Lives,” to name a few. 

Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women does a wonderful job of capturing the short, violent lives of prostitutes. Specifically, while prostitutes constituted a vital and irreplaceable element in the Crescent City, crowned the prostitution capital of the United States in the 1850s, the women whose bodies made the industry’s business model a success benefitted least from the sale of their flesh.  This unsavory fact can be gleaned from the trial transcripts stored in the archives that housed the official records of the First District Court of New Orleans and newspaper articles from the New Orleans Daily Picayune

These two secondary sources provided the author with the raw materials that gave birth to this book, which graphically details how depravity and powerlessness were constant features that characterized the lives of women enmeshed in a trade that transformed them into nocturnal Venuses

For those of us who learned about the hardships of prostitution from the pen of Robert Beck (a.k.a. Iceberg Slim) and by watching movies like The Mack and Superfly, Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women provides us with an exceedingly complex portrayal of New Orleans’ sex workers, which diverges qualitatively from the aforementioned products of the Blaxploitation era. 

Historically, from its inception as a colonial outpost of France, the roots of the founding fathers and mothers of the Crescent City can be traced back to an act by the Sun King aimed at building France’s overseas possessions in America. Specifically, Louis XIV emptied La Salpêtriêre prison in order to populate the French colony of New Orleans. Thus, Schafer writes, “In February 1721, eighty-eight former convicts, including a large number of prostitutes, disembarked in New Orleans.” This marked the inglorious beginnings of prostitution in the Crescent City, which earned its well-deserved reputation during the antebellum era as being a “wicked and vice ridden city” that led an observer to christen it “a perfect Sodom.” 

Would you be surprised to learn that the city was renowned for “desecrating the Sabbath by holding bullfights and cockfights on that day, as well as scheduling Sunday planning meetings attended by the mayor, other city officials, and prominent citizens in order to plan a series of masked balls?” 

Would you be shocked to discover that excessive drinking and carousing were common- place and enabled the Crescent City’s nocturnal Venuses to seduce men into participating regularly in depraved sexual encounters? In this sexual caldron, the morality of the women, landlords, and merchants that profited from this trade was shaped by influences that inevitably ended with its disciples and their acolytes’ descent into Dante’s Inferno. 

Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women reveals many truths about the sex industry in the Crescent City that would challenge many of our contemporary beliefs about race relations during this time in American history.  That is, today we believe there was a strict separation between the races and that slaves were not allowed to run businesses or direct the actions of white employees.  Schafer’s research demonstrates that there were ample exceptions to this rule.

Specifically, she introduces us to Eliza Turner and Louisa, who were slaves that managed brothels. Thus, according to Schafer, while Louisiana State’s statutes and local ordinances prohibited slaves from managing businesses and “the Black Code prohibited slaves from selling any commodity whatsoever, … Turner sold coffee and perhaps liquor in the front room of the brothel” that she managed at 211 Gravier Street.  Ms. Turner also directed the sexual activities of white sex workers who practiced their trade at 211 Gravier Street.  As such, while the majority of prostitutes were white immigrant women, their ranks were nevertheless peppered with free and enslaved black women.  Hence, Schafer captures this reality that runs contrary to our contemporary understanding of racial interactions in the antebellum South when she writes,

“Although Louisiana law prohibited slaves from owning anything or having money, slaves were often accepted as customers at brothels and had money to purchase the sexual services of women, white and black, free and slaves.  Often free men of color, white men, and slaves all patronized the same brothels on any given night.  This amount of racial integration in brothels was unknown in other southern cities.”

In short, while the laws of the State of Louisiana were clear when it came to restricting the day-to-day mobility and rights of African Americans, free or slaves, when it came to cardinal lusting of the flesh, its mandates and dictates were often ignored.

While it is clear that women managed the majority of brothels in New Orleans, this did not mean that they benefited the most from the financial benefits, particularly in this industry grounded in pleasure.  That is, while the sex trade in pre-Civil War New Orleans generated an enormous amount of money, second only to the City’s port, the vast sum of these monies went to the wealthiest and most prominent landlords, merchants, politically connected elected officials, and lawyers. These individuals included Sumpter Turner, owner of the brothel operated by Eliza Turner, John McDonogh, a wealthy merchant and plantation owner who became infamous for renting houses to prostitutes in respectable neighborhoods, and Col. A.P. Field, a leading defense attorney who provided many prostitutes with his legal services.  He would later serve Louisiana as its Attorney General after the Civil War.   

While the women who worked in these brothels were mostly immigrants whose shelf-lives were approximately four years after entering into the sex trade, sadly many of their lives were characterized by violence, instability, and STDs.  Ironically, despite the fact that they were responsible for transforming the sex trade into a lucrative industry, poverty and desperation were pervasive elements in their lives.  The profits generated by their services were expropriated by wealthy men who monopolized the land, houses, political resources, and the legal system which served to reinforce their interests at the expense of the women who were often victimized by their customers, police officers, and other prostitutes.

Overall, although Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women achieves its goal of shedding light on vice, sex, and prostitution in New Orleans, it nevertheless suffers from several deficiencies.  First, Schafer fails to provide an organizational outlining, which informs the reader of salient issues, major themes, and subplots as the narrative moves from chapter to chapter.  As such, each chapter stands alone, and she is frequently guilty of delineating the same points in different chapters of her book. Second, I failed to understand her preoccupation with interracial couples because it deviates from her focus.  Black and white couples living together and having sexual relations with one another does not fall into the realm of prostitution.

As she states, “The Louisiana Civil Code, though it prohibited marriages between free people of any color and slaves and between whites and African Americans, it did not forbid interracial sex.” Given the latter stated observation, Schafer’s preoccupation with chronicling court cases involving interracial couples, while interesting, falls outside the purview of her study.  Third, although the book is filled with countless examples of prostitutes being arrested and prosecuted by the New Orleans’ legal system, she fails to provide a comprehensive analysis that would help the reader understand the system that allowed the landlords and merchants to expropriate the wealth produced by these women, with little to no resistance on the part of the latter.  

Notwithstanding these minor shortcomings, Schafer accomplishes her mission of presenting the myriad challenges faced by prostitutes in the Crescent City. She skillfully captures with her pen the violence, instability, and powerlessness that permeated the lives of prostitutes in antebellum New Orleans. 

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REVIEWING

The Thirteen Hallows

By Michael Scott and Colette Freedman

Read by Kate Reading

Macmillan Audio | 2011 | Running time: 11 hours | 9 CDs | $39.95

Reviewed by Michael Carey

michael scott

Picture this: an authority on Celtic folklore and best-selling author meets an internationally produced and up-and-coming playwright. What do you get? Besides the start of a terrible joke, the result would be, and is in fact, the new novel and the first book in a new saga, The Thirteen Hallows, by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman.

The story, which takes place in the UK, starts with a brutal murder. This crime sets the stage for an adventure, which joins the commonplace Sarah Miller with the attractive American, Owen Walker, as they try to stop the release of a great and ancient evil. Sarah starts out as a bystander observing what she thinks is a simple mugging. When she decides to intervene and rescue the old lady, Judith Walker, from an assault by a skinhead and his partner, she puts everyone she has ever known at risk. The dark forces rising will stop at nothing to get a hold of Judith and her prized possession, one of the thirteen hallows.

colette freedman

Sarah is hurtled into this adventure for being a Good Samaritan, which makes her an interesting protagonist. The old woman turns out to have an American nephew, Owen Walker, her next of kin. She charges Sarah with delivering an old, rusty broken sword to him. With the cops on their tail and the bad guys closing in, the pair begin to unravel the mysteries surrounding the sword, England’s history, and the dangers they face.

Scott and Freedman have started their new saga with an enjoyable, approachable, and absorbing mythical adventure. The violent nature of the stories’ villains is disturbing, but surprisingly engaging and I found the violence and gore drew me in, rather than repulsed me. I was astounded by the extent to which these “sickos” would go to achieve their ends, making the heroes’ quest all the more critical and dangerous.

The Thirteen Hallows is an example of how a little imagination and skill can inject a thoroughly modern flavor into mythology and history. The novel idea at the heart of this adventure is unveiled slowly, allowing us to digest any disenchanting, or ridiculous, aspects of the back-story that, had it been thrown in our face, might cause us to pause. It is a masterful display of timing and storytelling. Kate Reading does a great job in the reading, accent and all, creating the final touch on an engaging audio book that is worth a listen, especially if this genre of literature is your cup of tea.

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