The memoir of a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down, badly burned, had his face and hands reconstructed, and then somehow managed to finagle his way back into being a pilot, where he was promptly killed in a training accident (I really hope not because he was, in fact, no longer fit to fly); this book came out three months before his death, so at least he got to see it published.

The excerpt I copied in my last post exemplifies the best parts of the book, which are the chapters on flying, pilot training, and recovery. (There's less on the culture surrounding his recovery (The Guinea Pig Club) than I'd hoped, possibly because he wasn't in the hospital anywhere near as long as many people were.) A lot of the memoir is devoted to philosophical conversations and musings which I found less interesting, chronicling how Hillary went from seeing war and life as something purely a matter of individual striving and enjoyment to also having a moral dimension, and from seeing himself as something of a detached observer to being connected with all humankind. The last chapter, in which he has an encounter with a woman he digs out of a collapsed house, brings together the perfectly observed details of the chapters on flying and fighting with larger issues.

Hillary was a sharp observer with a great prose style and an understated/dark sense of humor. He wasn't a pilot who wrote one book because he had an extraordinary experience he wanted to record, he was a writer who was also a pilot. I wonder if he'd have gone on to be a noted writer if he'd survived, or a minor writer whose books a handful of people really like. If the latter, I would very probably have been in that handful.

An unhappy Amazon reviewer remarks, "Too English," and it is indeed incredibly English in a very specific way, but I grew up reading books like that and for all the flaws inherent in that very specific (colonialist, among other things) outlook, I love the style.

A number of writers (J. R. R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman, just off the top of my head) have imagined that artists continue their work in the afterlife, creating great libraries of books unwritten in life. It's the heaven I'd most like to have actually exist.

99 cent ebook on Amazon: The Last Enemy
From the first chapter of the memoir of a WWII fighter pilot; he has just gone down in flames, and is floating in the ocean, badly burned and alone:

There can be few more futile pastimes than yelling for help alone in the North Sea, with a solitary seagull for company, yet it gave me a certain melancholy satisfaction, for I had once written a short story in which the hero (falling from a liner) had done just this. It was rejected.

99 cent ebook on Amazon: The Last Enemy
Nonfiction about a brief but fateful encounter between a German ace fighter pilot and an American bomber crew, in mid-air; forty years later, the two pilots met up again. The book started out as a magazine article, and I bet it was a terrific one. It’s a great story and unlike many WWII stories, this one is about people’s best behavior rather than their worst.

As you may guess from the summary, the actual incident, though amazing, lasted about twenty minutes and is recounted in about ten pages. So most of the book is the story of the German fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, plus a much smaller amount about the American crew. (Stigler was not a Nazi and in fact came from an anti-Nazi family. I know that it would have been convenient for him to claim to have been secretly anti-Nazi after the fact, but given what he was witnessed to have done, I believe it.)

The book is is interesting if you have an interest in the subject matter, but doesn't really rise above that. The best parts, apart from the encounter itself, were the early sections on the culture and training of the German pilots. One detail that struck me (not just that it happened, but that Stigler actually told someone about it), which was that dogfighting was so terrifying that pilots regularly landed with wet pants. I'd heard that about the first time, but not that it wasn't just the first time. Just imagine doing that for months on end. And knowing that you're not likely to do it for years on end because the lifespan of a fighter pilot is probably not that long.

If you just want to know what happened in mid-air over Germany, in December, 1943, click on the cut. Read more... )

Does anyone have any recommendations for other books on pilots, fighters or otherwise, historical or otherwise? I've read Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and really enjoyed the combination of desperate survival narrative with odes to the joy of flight. I think I'd be more interested in memoirs by pilots than biographies about them.

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
I’m afraid I did not like this at all. In fact, it was the first FMK book that I didn’t finish—I ditched it at about the halfway mark. And it’s a very short book, too: 133 pages.

Gabriel is a mason’s apprentice in medieval England. The mason is cruel, so when a troupe of traveling Mystery players comes to town, Gabriel is delighted to briefly escape his wretched life by watching the play. Then, when the mason sadistically tries to chop off his giant mop of beautiful blonde curls that Gabriel’s lost mother told him to never cut, Gabriel flees and is taken in by the players, who whisk him away and cast him as an angel.

Gabriel assumes the man playing God is wonderful and the man playing Lucifer is terrible. But no! Garvey, who plays God, uses Gabriel to create fake, exploitative “healing” miracles which he convinces Gabriel are real. Lucie (Lucifer) is unhappy about this, but that only makes Gabriel think he must be bad.

I have no idea how old Gabriel was supposed to be. At the beginning I assumed he was around twelve, but later I decided he must be closer to ten because he was so stupid and naïve. Then he got even stupider and I wondered if he could possibly be seven or eight, or if that was way too young to be an apprentice mason. Not that young children are stupid, but the less you know about the world, the more likely you are to take everything at 100% face value, as Gabriel does.

In a totally unsurprising turn of events, Gabriel is eventually shocked to learn that people are different from the roles they play. This is exactly as anvillicious as it sounds. And while I often love books in which the reader knows more than the characters, I like it when the reason is that the characters are not privy to information or context that the reader knows, not because the characters are too stupid to pick up on incredibly obvious stuff. I don’t mean to call characters with cognitive disabilities stupid, as “intellectually disabled character fails to understand what’s going on” is a well-populated subgenre. (Which I also dislike.) I’m referring to non-disabled characters who are oblivious because they just are.

It's not that I think a child has to be stupid to be tricked by adults. Even a very bright child (or adult) could be fooled into thinking they're a miracle-worker by a clever con man. It's that the way it's written, from Gabriel's POV, makes him seem like a total idiot.

However, that’s not why I gave up on the book. The reason was the incredibly unpleasant emotional atmosphere: Gabriel smugly stupid, Garvey and the mason smugly awful, Lucie and his daughter sadly suffering (with a side of smugness, because they know the real deal.) I disliked the lot of them and did not want to be around any of them. Which is too bad, because I liked the backdrop of medieval Mystery players a lot.

The prose was good, but not good enough to make me keep reading. However, it won the Whitbread award, so my opinion may be very much in the minority.

A Little Lower Than the Angels
The blurb writer was confused; this is not a Gothic, but a regency. However, it does briefly turn into a Gothic for about ten pages toward the end, so I see how that could happen. I too struggled to categorize it, as, unsurprisingly considering the author, it's hard to categorize. It has the plot but not the substance of a romance; the heroine only displays brief flickers of romantic feelings for the hero, and they don't interact much. It's mostly a comedy with a lunatic excess of plot, about half of which is crammed into the last twenty pages.

The time is 1815. The heroine is Philadelphia "Delphie" Carteret, music teacher and caretaker for her sick and periodically delusional mother. The plot begins when she goes to some long-lost relatives to hit them up for money to take care of her mom, accompanied by her madcap neighbor Jenny. The relatives own a castle with a moat, into which Jenny cunningly flings herself and pretends to be drowning so the hero, Gareth Penistone, will (reluctantly) rescue her and ensconce her and Delphie at the castle, over the objections of cousin Mordred. Once ensconced, Delphie is astounded to find that the family thinks she's an imposter, because someone named Elaine has been claiming to be the Carteret daughter for the last twenty years.

This lunatic farrago of wackiness plus semi-random Arthurian references (there is also a notorious and deceased ancestor named Lancelot, and ten peppy children who all have Arthurian names) is completely typical of Joan Aiken. So are the funny names. I do not for a second believe that she was unaware of the implications of a hero named Penistone (yes, I know it's a village in Yorkshire), especially given this line of dialogue: "I don't like these angry voices and all this talk of Bollington and Penistone!"

Though a series of ridiculous events, Delphie fake-marries Gareth Penistone; needless to say, the fake marriage turns out to be real, to everyone's dismay. The ten Arthurian kids tend to a languid poet in debtor's prison, the hero poisons a sick mouse he's supposed to be nursing back to health, Mordred lives up to his name (name a kid Mordred, and you deserve what you get), and the last chapter consists of long blocks of text in which characters madly explain who secretly married who and why the impersonation-- all of which was so convoluted that I did not even try to follow it.

Funny, fluffy, utterly absurd. If it sounds fun, you will enjoy it. Some animals are collateral damage of villainous plotting.

Only $3.99 for the ebook on Amazon: The Five-Minute Marriage

Amazon has a number of similarly priced Aiken books on Kindle. Grab 'em if you want 'em!

If any of the people who wanted this book from me would rather have it in hard copy, I'll send my copy to the first who comments for Paypaled postage.
On the excellent rec of [personal profile] egelantier, who has a better (non-spoilery) intro with photos., I recently watched a 54-episode Chinese historical drama, Nirvana in Fire (Lang Ya Bang). It was awesome.

The plot is very complex, but it's basically the wuxia version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Twelve years before the story begins, the crown prince, his general, and the general's military genius teenage prodigy son, Lin Shu, went to fight on the emperor's behalf. Something went horribly wrong, and they were falsely accused of starting a rebellion. The paranoid emperor had them all killed, along with their 70,000-man army. Now it's a completely taboo topic which no one even dares to mention to the emperor.

But Lin Shu is not dead! Exactly. Due to a near-death experience, he survived at the cost of his martial arts skills, his physical strength and health, and his entire previous body and face. No longer the strong warrior he was, he is now completely unrecognizable, an extremely beautiful but physically weak strategist dying of magical consumption. Going by the name of Mei Changsu (also Mr. Su), he returns to the capital to clear the name of the supposed rebels, bring down the two princes currently maneuvering for the throne, institute his own former best friend (the disfavored Prince Jing) as the crown prince, and restore justice, set up good rule, and get revenge.

He does this by means of incredibly intricate plotting and the power of the sarcastic eyebrow lift. Here is a typical moment: Mei Changsu is smarter than you.

Mei Changsu/Lin Shu is a fascinating character whose motivations are slowly revealed over the course of the story. I don't want to spoil what's going on with him other than what I already said (and some of it is a matter of interpretation) but in addition to being really fun to watch (his body language is amazing), there's a lot more to him than the perfect genius who immediately meets the eye. If you're interested in issues of identity, I'll just say that there's a lot to enjoy in that direction. His refusal to tell almost anybody - including his former best friend - who he really is, even if they guess and confront him, starts out seeming to have legit plot reasons, but ends up clearly being much more about his psychology. It's frustrating to watch at times, but also really interesting and uncompromising.

On a less elevated level, his illness provides an immense amount of satisfying hurt-comfort carried to sometimes hilarious extremes, as literally everyone in his vicinity gets sucked into worrying about his health, helping him walk, providing him with fur cloaks and fluffy blankets because as apparently everyone knows and is very very concerned about, his health is very delicate and he cannot take the cold. (At one point he actually has an enemy providing him with fluffy blankets.) Also, he has really beautiful hands and a great array of sarcastic/cranky/smug glances.

But this is really an ensemble story, and it has a huge array of fascinating characters, all with their own motivations and stories. Just a few of my favorites were Consort Jing, Prince Jing's 50-something mother, who has spent nearly her entire life locked in the palace but slowly reveals a talent for intrigue which is the match of Mei Changsu's own and probably better in some ways; a pair of very different warrior women, one a general and one a sort of ninja detective, who served together in the army and whom I shipped; Mei Changsu's teenage bodyguard Fei Liu, who is developmentally disabled but great at kung fu, and has a really sweet relatationship with Mei Changsu which gets more and more heartbreaking as his death gets more imminent and Fei Liu can't accept or even really understand it; the antagonist Prince Yu, who is not a nice guy at all but has understandable motivations and solid, loving relationships with his equally scheming mother and concubine/strategic advisor; Mei Changsu's kung fu doctor buddy who turns up in the last five episodes and completely steals the show.

I could go on and on. I had to stop myself or I'd name twenty favorites. In general, I liked the large number of badass middle-aged moms and the multiple interesting and important mother-son relationships, which made a nice change from western media's ubiquitous daddy issues. Though there are also a lot of daddy issues. The emperor is terrible but a really great character and gave one of my favorite performances. He's responsible for all his own woes and a lot of everyone else's too, but if I had to sit there and watch all that scheming, I'd probably start throwing paperweights too.

The story is structured as a lot of careful set-up and dramatic or funny character bits (punctuated by kung fu battles - I swear, there must have been some contractual thing saying that no more than five episodes could go by without an attack by flying ninjas) building to spectacular pay-offs; the pay-offs are sprinkled throughout the story, but more frequent in the second half. I thought it got better and better as it went along, so if you're potentially interested, I would keep going for a while even if it's confusing/slow at first.

I think everyone who might possibly have any interest should watch it so I can talk about some spoilery aspects. The first episode was really confusing and the series picked up a lot as it went along and I started figuring out who everyone was (and stopped thinking stuff like, "Is that the favored prince, the disfavored prince, or the non-prince dude whose status I'm uncertain of, and is he talking to his girlfriend, his advisor, or his sister?" It doesn't help that a lot of people have multiple names.

Maybe you could start with episode two. I think most of what happens in episode one just sets up some stuff. Skip this paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled, read it if you might skip episode one. There are two contenders for the throne, the Crown Prince (a total tool) and Prince Yu, and that younger Prince Jing is not considered a contender. Mei Changsu is associated with Langya Hall (a sort of martial arts and strategy consulting firm)which puts out the Langya List (a sort of Forbes List of great martial artists, strategists, and rich people), and comes to the capital under the easily broken identity of "Mr. Su." (Most people investigate him, quickly find that he's really Mei Changsu, the brilliant strategist ("The Divine Talent"), and don't think to look farther.) As Lin Shu (aka Xiao Shu), he was engaged to the general and princess Nihuang, and was best friends with Prince Jing (Jingyan).

The only person who knows that Mr. Su/Mei Changsu is actually Lin Shu is General Meng, who helps him find an appropriate mansion and build a secret passageway so Mei Changsu can meet with Prince Jing (aka Jingyan). This leads to this hilarious exchange:

General Meng: "The passage is ready. Now you may have your secret midnight rendezvous with Prince Jing."

Mei Changsu: "Could you try phrasing that differently?"

(If you legit ship them, there is plenty to support that and it's really angsty and epic. I had what seems to be a minority ship, which was Mei Changsu/Lin Chen, the late-appearing doctor buddy who is the one person who actually calls him on all his asshole behavior and is the only person other than Fei Liu who ever gets him to smile. I liked his relationship with Nihuang, his ex-fiancee, but I couldn't ship it because even though she does extract a few hugs from him, they are hilariously awkward. He pats her on the back like he has no idea what he's supposed to do in such a bizarre situation. That had to be deliberate, because he otherwise uses his hands so beautifully that they sometimes distracted me from reading the subtitles. And while I'm on shipping, Nihuang and Xia Dong would do a lot better with each other.)

If I have sold you on starting, I suggest using the handy photographic character guide and some patience. The show is really rewarding once you get your bearings.

Watch on Viki

Watch on Youtube

Character guide with photos.

Has anyone seen this? I would love to discuss some spoilery aspects, but only if you've seen the whole thing.
By the author of National Velvet, which if you’ve never read it is a quite unusual book with a distinctive prose style and atmosphere that I find quite lovely, especially at the beginning. It doesn’t read at all like your typical girls-and-horses book, though it is that as well.

A Diary Without Dates is Bagnold’s memoir of nursing soldiers during WWI. It’s also written in an unusual, distinctive style, with an unusual, distinctive atmosphere, both gritty and impressionistic. She captures fleeting moments of beauty or horror or unexpected humor, and the sense of how fleeting those moments are, in a way that reminds me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto, of all the unlikely comparisons. I’ve read a number of memoirs by WWI nurses, and this is by far the most interesting on the level of literature. It’s not so much a diary as a record of memorable moments, thoughts, and feelings.

Though it’s not about therapy, it’s one of the books that comes closest to capturing what doing therapy feels like for me. Bagnold delicately and precisely observes the odd mixture of intimacy and distance between nurse and patient, in an institutional setting with inhuman rules against which intensely human dramas are played out, and how you can share a person’s greatest agony one hour, and then walk outside and be moved by the beauty of a flower or annoyed by the next nurse over, and have all those moments be equally real and deeply felt, though some seem trivial and some profound. But to Bagnold, they're all profound because they're all real moments of life, and life itself is profound. A few other works that have that feeling to me are the Tove Janssen's The Summer Book and Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden, and the WWII movie Hope and Glory.

Though it’s not particularly an expose, Bagnold writes rather unflatteringly about some of her bosses and some of the rules at the hospital where she worked. As a result, she was fired when the book came out. So she went to London and became an ambulance driver. I think she must have been quite an interesting person, and reading her diary, I wished that I could have known her. I think we might have had a lot in common and a lot to talk about.

Note: Contains some of-the-period racism and other isms. Not a lot and it’s typical of books written in that period by white people (as opposed to being more racist than usual), but there’s at least one instance though I have now forgotten the details.

A Diary Without Dates (Free on Kindle; the print version almost certainly has better formatting, though the free version is readable.)
[Rachel: But first, a little set-up.]

July 30, 1809. Went to my lodgings; all asleep and fast locked; tried at d'Aries's; ditto; knocked hard at each; no movement; resolving not to lay in the street. The old man came down in some trepidation, got light, and my bed was ready. Not a mouthful of bread or milk or anything eatable or drinkable to be had save pure water. Having dined on fillib [Bixby: His favorite filbunke] and walked at least ten miles, a supper would have been welcome.

Attacked by epinaises. [Bixby: For funaises. Bedbugs] Fought hard till 4, slaying thousands, but the number of the enemy increasing, resolved on a retreat. The sun had risen; began by taking the sheets, coverlid, and pillows out doors, beating and shaking them well; then stripped and changed my clothes, and laid me on the floor. Got a sound nap of five hours.

[This happened to me too, only it was ants. I had a cough, so I left a cough drop near my bed. Woke up coughing, stuffed it in my mouth, registered that it was acrid… and crawling… and so was I… I spat it out, leaped out of bed, and turned on the lights. Ants EVERYWHERE. I proceeded to enact exactly what Burr did, only with the additional aid of a water bottle. The ants won.]

August 29, 1809. I did go to bed at 10, promising myself a rich sleep. Lay two hours vigil; that cursed one single dish of tea! Note: My bed had undergone a thorough ablution and there were no bugs or insects. Got up and attempted to light candle, but in vain; had flint and matches but only some shreds of punk which would not catch. Recollected a gun which I had had on my late journey; filled the pan with powder and was just going to flash it when it occurred that though I had not loaded it someone else might; tried and found in it a very heavy charge! What a fine alarm it would have made if I had fired! Then poured out some powder on a piece of paper, put the shreds of punk with it and after fifty essays succeeded in firing the powder; but it being dark, had put more powder than intended; my shirt caught fire, the papers on my table caught fire, burnt my fingers to a blister (the left hand, fortunately); it seemed like a general conflagration. Succeeded, however, in lighting my candle and passed the night till 5 this morning in smoking, reading, and writing this.

[Rachel: Any story containing the phrase “And then I remembered that I had a gun” never ends well. It’s right up there with “Hey guys, watch this!”

I can’t decide what is most hilarious about this story. I mean other than everything. But just to start with, that does eventually occur to him to make sure the gun isn’t loaded but literally nothing else he does involves the slightest particle of “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” that in however long it took him to make fifty tries at lighting the gunpowder it never occurs to him that there is a reason nobody lights candles with gunpowder, that despite being a combat veteran and a duelist he still hasn’t figured out what happens when you set gunpowder on fire, that he blames the completely predictable result on the amount rather than the fact of the gunpowder, that the candle actually did get lit, or that, once the candle was lit, he proceeded to use the light to immortalize his idiocy for posterity.

A legacy, what’s a legacy? In Burr’s case, it appears to be making himself surprisingly relatable to everyone who has ever accidentally set themselves on fire by doing something that was, in retrospect, guaranteed to do exactly that. The other thing I can’t decide is if this is more or less gloriously stupid than the time I set my pants on fire while I was naked and dripping wet. On the one hand, naked and dripping wet. On the other hand, his initial idea was to light the candle by shooting at it. This is why I don’t own a gun.]
[Rachel: But of course, Burr’s luck does not last for long.]

Burr: 21. Quarrel with the blancbisseur [1], who carried off *** and refused to deliver them till I had given some handkerchiefs of another person which I never saw or had; so I must either lose my clothes, enter into a lawsuit or pay for things I never saw.

[Rachel: Or he could challenge them to a duel. No, wait, that didn’t go so well last time.]

[1] Bixby: The launderer; possibly meant for the laundress. If so, it should be blanchisseuse. The text is partially undecipherable. We should be glad to know what the launderer carried off!]

[Rachel: Burr’s clothes, obviously. Bixby’s efforts to understand Burr’s hellish scrawls in phonetic Swedish and bad French are clearly getting to him.

Meanwhile, I am dying of laughter at Burr getting his laundry held hostage until he returns handkerchiefs belonging to someone he never heard of. It could only happen to Aaron Burr. Or me. I once had my apartment manager hold my laundry hostage. When he finally returned it (upon threat of calling the police) I found that he had vengefully cut a scary clown face into one of my undies. Possibly the laundress also did this to Burr and Bixby just couldn’t read the entry that said so. He has several footnotes that just say, “indecipherable.”]

Burr: At 7 walked to Liston Hill (Wennerquiest's) to take supper and a bed in conformity with his several warm invitations. Found no one at home but a servant, who said he could give me nothing to drink but small beer and nothing to eat but the bro bru; so left a note for him on his table and walked home.

[Bixby: Burr, who spelled all Swedish words phonetically, was very uncertain about the word brad. Here in despair he writes two incorrect forms.]

Burr: 21. Rose at 6 for the first time in six months. Dreamed engaged to marry a huge ugly beast; name unknown; reflections; Mary A.; deliberated whether to blow out brains or perform engagement; waked by the striking of 6.

Do remind me to give you a dissertation on locking doors. Every person of every sex and grade comes in without knocking; plump into your bedroom! They do not seem at all embarrassed, nor think of apologizing at finding you in bed or dressing or doing — no matter what — but go right on and tell their story as if it were all right. If the door be locked and the key outside (they use altogether spring locks here), no matter, they unlock the door and in they come. It is vain to desire them to knock; they do not comprehend you and if they do, pay no manner of attention to it. It took me six weeks to teach my old Anna not to come in without knocking and leave and finally it was only by appearing to get into a most violent passion and threatening to blow out her brains, which she had not the least doubt I would do without ceremony. I engage she is the only servant in all Sweden who ever knocks.

[Rachel: I know that Burr actually did kill someone, and yet I seriously doubt that Anna actually believed in his threat. He seems singularly incapable of intimidating anyone. Which possibly explains why Hamilton refused to back down. If so, that is really sad. Anyway, it sounds more like Burr going ballistic on Anna just made her take pity on him and knock as a favor. See below for more support for this theory:]

Burr: Notwithstanding all my caution I have been almost every day disturbed in this way, and once last week was surprised in the most awkward situation imaginable.

[Rachel: Naked? Using the chamber pot? Having sex? Masturbating? Masturbating while murmuring “Alexander”? Goddammit, Burr, you usually have no problem with oversharing, so why be coy now?]
[Rachel: It is truly amazing how much his bad travel luck sounds like mine. Substitute planes for ships and trains for coaches, and this could be my diary. The hotel problems don’t even need any substitution.]

3. Had very carefully put Mr. Achaud's letter, my handkerchiefs, and other small articles in the pockets of the coat I intended to wear. Anna had put my room in order before I got down. After being two hours on the way, missed my handkerchiefs, and, upon quiet examination, discovered that I had taken the wrong coat. What a curse to have two coats at a time!

[Rachel: I once arrived in New York City during a record snowstorm with no coat. When I opened my suitcase to see if I had accidentally packed rather than wearing it, I discovered that I still had no coat but had brought two bottles of red nail polish. No idea why; no recollection of packing them or need for even one, let alone two. I was visiting colleges to see which I might want to apply to and decided I didn't want to live anywhere that gets snowstorms, so the trip definitely helped me make up my mind on that. Anyway, I completely identify with Burr’s coat and handkerchief predicament.]

27. Spent two hours in hunting for some bank bills, my whole stock, and finally gave them up as lost. Found them when and where least expected.

[Rachel: This too is my life.]

29. Caught in the rain, having yesterday left my umbrella at Brentford — no doubt lost.

[Rachel: Same umbrella he borrowed/stole from a friend? Given that this is Aaron Burr, I can’t tell if the answer is “yes, of course,” or “No, because he lost that one earlier and this is a new one.”]

Read out the review of the "Life of Washington" by Marshall and Ramsay. The review is full as stupid, and as illy written, as either of the books. Came down to bring up your journal since Saturday, the 7th, lest such important incidents should not be recorded. I know you will rave like a little Juno if you are not told what I do, and where I go every day. I could write six or eight very amusing pages of the incidents of the last three days, but they must be said and not written. (My journal is four days in arrear. Half will be forgotten. This is Saturday evening. I will try to recollect.)

[Rachel: I will give Burr this: he sounds like a pretty good Dad. He and Theodosia (“you”) obviously have a great relationship. For that matter, he also seems to have been an excellent husband to Theodosia senior (now deceased.)]

7. Went to the stage-house in Piccadilly to inquire for my umbrella, but with little hope. It was there, brought by the coachman; 1 shilling 6 pence. How very honest people are here, and yet I am cheated most impudently every hour!

Sunday. Took leave of B., and sent for hack to transport me and my trunk, being, as you will see by your map, three good miles. No coach was to be had. Went myself — no coach; so here is Gamp [Burr], at 1 in the morning, at Queen's Square Place, writing nonsense to T.B.A. [Theodosia] having let all his fire go out and the last candle just gone. Played chess an hour with K. I have ordered Ann to wake me at 7. For what? When shall I get off?

12. Tom is to bring word of the hour of the stage going to Gaddesden, being determined to go somewhere today. Tom did not return till 1, and brought word that the stage would go at 1; so got coach and went off at a great rate. The stage had been gone 10 m. before I got there.

[Rachel: This ALWAYS happens to him. If he’s on time, his transportation is late. If he’s late, his transportation leaves without him.]

I thought I would go and hunt for some coach going any hour today or night ; but having no place to put my trunk, was obliged to keep the coach. After running about for two hours and spending 9 shillings in coach hire, I discovered, what at any stage-house they might have told me, that no coach would go to Gaddesden till 1 P. M. to-morrow.

[Rachel: Burr gives up and gets a room at a hotel. Needless to say…]

A bed with very dirty sheets, to which I objected; but the maid assured me, upon her honour, that they were very clean, and that she put them on herself. So I am bound to think them clean; but shall, nevertheless, not undress.

[Rachel: Wise of him.]

Since beginning the preceding page, the servants have been three different times in my room to inquire whether they should put out my candles. To the first message I replied very distinctly that I always put out my own candles, and desired that I might not be again interrupted. This did not defend me against the two subsequent intrusions. The object of this affected civility is to save one inch of tallow. This very rigid calculation is universal.

[Rachel: Never not funny how the man who was a distinguished commander in the American Revolution, nearly became President, and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel is invariably bullied, blackmailed, defied, disobeyed, ignored, snubbed, ripped off, and ditched by maids, coachmen, laundresses, bootmakers, and random passengers. Check him out attempting to extract a piece of soap from the maid at his fleabag hotel:]

13. Rose at 9. At the tavern. No soap. Asked for a piece to wash hands. The maid said
soap was so dear that she could not give it without leave, but she would go and ask her mistress, which I forbid, but gave her 1 shillings to go and buy me a piece. She "would tell the footman" — every one in their department! A cake of soap was brought for 15 pence, which will probably last me three months, which is at the rate of 1 penny a week, and at this rate, if there should be twelve lodgers in the house, the value of the soap used by the whole would be 1 shilling 3 pence per week and about 3 guineas per annum!

14. Having made half a dinner at Queen's Square Place, drove off furiously to the White Horse, Piccadilly, to be in time for the Oxford stage. Having waited half an hour and the coach not come, the weather cool, went in to warm. Having warmed half an hour, and wondering at the delay, went out to see. The coach had been gone twenty minutes. My honest coachman, as well to be sheltered from the storm as for repose, had got inside and was sound asleep.

Oxford, December 22. Was called at 6, to be ready for the coach at 7. Gave my baggage to a porter, but, being stopped a minute to make change, he got out of my sight. I missed the way, and when I got to the Bolt Inn the coach had gone.

[Rachel: Of course it had.

What I want to know, since there don’t seem to be any pre-duel diaries, was whether this is just what Burr’s life was always like, or if Hamilton’s ghost was hanging out to make sure that nothing ever went right for him. I lean toward the former, possibly with some additional assistance from the latter: Burr seems more resigned than surprised by his endless catastrophes, and also this is the guy who eventually deals with the candle issue by trying to light it with gunpowder from a pistol he happened to have lying around. This is a man to whom catastrophes don’t merely happen, but are invited with open arms.]

My passage having been paid in the evening, there was no inducement to wait for me. Pursued and had the good fortune to overtake the coach. Found in it one man. Having preserved perfect silence for a few minutes by way of experiment, I remarked that the day was very mild, which he flatly denied, and in a tone and manner as if he would have bit me.

[Rachel: Burr does eventually manage to get a conversation going. He is then joined by a pretty young woman, who initially is friendly, but then…]

After various fruitless essays, and at first without suspecting the cause, finding it impossible to provoke anything beyond a cold monosyllable, I composed myself to sleep, and slept soundly about eight hours. (There must be something narcotic in the air of this island. I have slept more during my six months' residence in Great Britain than in any preceding three years of my life since the age of 14.)

[Rachel: Given the multiple entries to come that begin with “Hungover” or “hungover again” or “took hangover remedy immediately upon waking,” I would not be so quick to blame the air.]

12 o'clock. Still at Birmingham. Full of contrition and remorse. Lost my passage. Lost or spent 28 shillings and a pair of gloves. Every bed in the house engaged. No hope of getting on but by the mail at 7 tomorrow morning. The office shut, and no passage to betaken tonight. What business had I to go sauntering about the streets of a strange place, alone and unarmed, on a Christmas eve? Truly, I want a guardian more than at 15.

[Rachel: Yes. Yes, you are definitely in desperate need of a minder.]
This edition was edited and footnoted by William Bixby in 1903. Bixby’s introduction fills in the events preceding Burr's journal (the duel), taking great pains to explain that this was a different time and dueling was acceptable, and also Burr was pretty awesome and everyone with taste thought so:

Bixby: After a short tour through the South, where he [Burr] was received by the best society, Colonel Burr returned to Washington to resume his duties as Vice President of the United States. He presided over the Senate during the trial of Judge Chase of Maryland " with the dignity and impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a demon," and the day after the trial closed, his term being about to expire, delivered a farewell address to the Senate, which was so full of eloquence and pathos that most of the Senators were in tears when he concluded.

Rachel: I would you to keep this and everything you think you know about Aaron Burr, fictional versions included, as you read the excerpts from his actual diaries. Also, that he was considered to be extremely handsome.

One of my absolute favorite things about this edition is watching Bixby slowly lose his mind in footnotes as his admiration from Burr is swamped by his annoyance at Burr’s illegible handwriting and tendency to use words in languages which he doesn’t speak and can’t spell:

Bixby’s Introduction: Burr used French when referring to his discreditable adventures, ("accidents," he called them), but he used it very frequently for other purposes. He shows, indeed, throughout the entire Journal a singular fondness for using words from languages other than his own. This is childish at times. In Sweden he learned the words brod and mjolk, and then used them almost exclusively for three years thereafter, instead of the English words, bread and milk. He seemed immensely pleased when he could draw upon several languages to form a single sentence. For example, he wrote: "Bro. and cas. for din." Here we have four languages represented in a sentence of five words! Bro. is an abbreviation of the Swedish word brod, bread ; cas. is probably Burr's attempt to write the German word Kdse, cheese, and din. is his abbreviation of the French word diner, dinner.

Rachel: These excerpts are in chronological order, and start very soon after the beginning. He’s staying with or near Jeremy Bentham. This sets a deceptively elevated tone which will rarely be seen again.

The Journal of Aaron Burr

October 1, 1808. Bootmaker — a great liar; boots not done.

4. Rose at 6. Sent porter for trunk and boots. Neither done. Clothes not come from wash. Stage for Gaddesden to start at 12, and nothing ready; bought two shirts. Clothes and trunk came at 11. Packed up tout suite and drove comme diable [Bixby: like the Devil] to stage-house, Oxford street. Discovered that the hour of departure was one and not twelve o'clock.

[Rachel: Burr is living my life.]

9. Breakfast at M'Carthy's at 10, having agreed to ride with him to see the place of the Earl of Bute, said to have the best collection of pictures in England. Nobody was there.

12. Rose at 5. Got in stage at 6, intending to take post-chaise from Hamel Hemstead to St. Albans to visit Lord Grimstone; but no chaise was to be had, so came into town, where arrived at 10 o'clock. To Faleur; not content with his work. Impertinence of his goldsmith, whom I ordered out of the room for obtruding his opinions. F. is to mend his work, and I am to call to-morrow — thence to S. Swartwout. It was fortunate that I came to town, for yesterday he received orders to go on to Liverpool forthwith.

Received letter from D. M. Randolph; very melancholy. Speaks of the death of a most valued friend in America, which must be particularly afflicting to me. Who can he mean? I have heard of no death of the least consequence to anybody.

[Rachel: And here comes the Tale of the Nose. I have cut some stuff that’s incomprehensible, not that interesting, or just for length. But don't worry, I did not miss a single word of nose.]

23. On returning home, called at Turnevelli's, the statuary, and engaged to give him a sitting to-morrow at 11.

24. Rose at 9. Wrote to Sir Mark not to call till 1. Went to Turnevelli's. He would have a mask. I consented, because Bentham, et al had. A very unpleasant ceremony. To Sir Mark's; he was sitting down to breakfast. Walked together. Called at Herries and Farquar's, St. James's street, agents of the late Colonel Charles Williamson, to see for letters from T. [Rachel: Theodosia?] None! none!!

Found a note from Baron Norton, requesting an interview. No doubt some law business. Wrote him to call at 12 tomorrow. Sir Mark had engaged me to call on Signora B. Just as we were going out, casting my eyes in the mirror I observed a great purple mark on my nose. Went up and washed it and rubbed it — all to no purpose. It was indelible. That cursed mask business has occasioned it. I believe the fellow used quicklime instead of plaster of Paris, for I felt a very unpleasant degree of heat during the operation. I sent Sir Mark off, resolved to see no Signora till the proboscis be in order.

[Rachel: I think this might be my favorite line of the entire nose story.]

Wrote Ons. [Bixby: Madame Onslow], with whom I had engaged to pass the evening, apologizing. […] I have been applying a dozen different applications to the nose, which have only inflamed it. How many curses have I heaped on that Italian! Read to B. review of Leckie's work, which took till 9. K. came in, and we finished Thierry. I shall go early to bed (say 12), in hopes to sleep off my nasology.

25. Did not get to bed till 1. Rose at 9. Nose the same.

[Rachel: Is this reminding anyone else of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13 ¾? Also, I so understand the "shall go early to bed/oops, stayed up reading LJ till 3:00 AM issue."]

At 11, went to Turnevelli's to sit. Relieved myself by cursing him for the nose disaster. He bore it like one conscious, and endeavored to console me by stating that the same thing happened to Lord Melville and to several others, and that the appearance passed off in a few days.

[Rachel: I can’t imagine that statement was in the least consoling!]

Took a hack, not liking to walk and exhibit my nose. Stayed two hours with Turnevelli. He will make a most hideous, frightful thing, but much like the original. After leaving Tur., being unfit for any reasonable thing, rode to Madame O.'s to apprise her that if she were disengaged I would call after dinner and play chess. It was agreed. Rode to F's to give him a written mem. pointing out the defects and containing precise directions. […] Chez moi [Bixby: my home] where I do nothing but muse for two hours.

[Rachel: I assume on his proboscis.]

26. Rose at 9. Went to Turnevelli's at 11; nose a little improved. Sat one hour. The thing grows more hideous at every touch. […] Roved about two or three hours hunting a chess table, or stand with chess board inlaid; did not find one to please me. Home at 3 to dress for dinner, being engaged to General Picton at the Tower Coffee-house. Went there, the nose notwithstanding, at 2.

26. I am out of all patience at being detained in town, and am in danger of wearying out my great and good friend Bentham. From Reeves's walked on to visit the Donna; but,
recollecting my nose, walked home.

[Rachel: That is the closest he comes to referring to the duel – the reason he’s detained is that he’s wanted for murder. But what’s he actually worried about? Well...]

28. Rose at 9. Nose a little improved.

Sent Tom to Graves for the laws of New York, and to Miller, bootmaker. It is now five weeks since I put into Miller's hands some of Bellamy's leather for a pair of boots. One pair which I could not get on, were sent and were returned. Since that I have had daily promises, but no boots. The shoes, which cost 17 shillings, I could not wear, and have given them away. Thus it is with every mechanic I have employed in London except my tailor, Beck, who lies a little, but far less than any other.

Waited till 1 for Tom's return, and then went to Turnevelli's. Sat one hour. Worse and worse! This was meant to please you; but if I had suspected that I had become so infernally ugly, I would sooner have.

[Rachel: I think the "you" is his daughter Theodosia, to whom he meant to send his journals. Bixby was so horrified by the thought of a lady reading about her father's sexual exploits and general TMI that he had a highly unconvincing note in the introduction saying that Burr undoubtedly meant to censor the hell out of them first. I doubt that very much.]

Roved about for two hours, ruminating on this sort of non-existence and on you. E.A., too, often accompanies me. Got home safe at 4. Mr. Elkton Hammond, merchant, to dine with us. A very intelligent young man; admiring the works of B. Has two sisters; one studies legislation, the other chymistry. The chymist said to be pretty. I am to dine there with B. on Thursday, when you shall hear more of them.

29. Rose at 9. I don't recollect to have told you that on my return from Weybridge, I had determined to set off immediately for Scotland. Six weeks have elapsed, and I am apparently (what hellish scrawls [1]; I must try to do better, or this precious mem. will be lost to you and to the world), apparently no nearer departure than on the day of my return.

[1. Bixby: The description is perfect!]

30. Wrote Madame Prevost and am now going to bed. The nose improves apace; hope it will be exhibitable to-morrow, and be fit for inspection of the legislatrix and the chymistress. Bon soir!

London, December 1, 1808. To Turnevelli's ; abroad. Glad of it, for I would give 5 guineas that the thing were demolished!

24. Sent trunks to get better locks. So much plague as I had to get trunks, and the locks are naught. To Turnevelli's, who had been to hunt me. Sat only twenty minutes. He is determined to go through with it ; tries to encourage me; finds it wonderfully like Voltaire; but all won't do. It is a horrid piece of deformity.

To Falieri; not ready. To Miss Mallet. The most rational being I have seen. Staid a whole hour, and greatly pleased with her. Good breeding and social talents in a degree very rare. Why don't I go there oftener? Because I do nothing that I wish or intend.

[Rachel: Oh, Burr.]

30. To Turnevelli's ; not at home; shall never be done with that fellow, and yet he tries his best; but the strange irregularities and deformities of the face defy all art.

10 To Turnevelli's at 2. I wish I had never begun with him.
Burr is a historical novel with two interwoven timelines and two first-person narrators. In 1833, Charles Schuyler (not related to the Schuyler sisters), a journalist and aspiring lawyer, befriends the elderly Burr and coaxes him to tell his side of the story. It’s election time, and Schuyler has secretly been hired to get proof that Presidential candidate Martin van Buren is Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son, in the hopes of discrediting his candidacy. But as Burr tells his life story, Schuyler gets seriously mixed feelings.

I was given this book in high school by one of my uncles (I forget which; it would have been in character for either) because he thought it was well-written and I’d appreciate the prose. Despite a near total lack of knowledge and interest in the time period, I not only enjoyed it a lot (the prose is indeed excellent), but got curious about the duel and spent about a month reading primary sources in the library (this was pre-internet) to figure out exactly what was up with it and who shot first. Once I had satisfactory theories for that, I reverted to my previous lack of interest in the period for the next 25 years.

Then came Hamilton. So I re-read Burr. Vidal’s afterword says that apart from inventing Charlie Schuyler and much of the 1833 - 1840 storyline, and moving characters around in a few minor ways, it’s as historically accurate as he could make it in terms of facts and even dialogue as recorded at the time. The opinions, of course, are the characters’.

This is probably true (it’s definitely more historically accurate than Hamilton in terms of what happened to whom when), and yet even apart from opinions, when one writes fiction rather than biography— actually, even in all but the most exhaustive and objective biographies— you still choose which facts to include and which to leave out. (And even those biographies must choose how to phrase their statements of fact, and thus leave different impressions on readers. Simply writing an exhaustive biography makes the statement, “This person was important. Their life deserves to be recorded in excruciating detail.) No story of a real person, whether fictionalized or true, will recreate that person as they really were. Gather them all together, and you get a sort of pointillist painting, a thousand different stories making up a portrait of a man. Look closer, and they fragment again.

Miranda’s Burr and Vidal’s Burr are clearly derived from aspects of the real man, but are very different people. Vidal’s Burr is both more cynical and more playful, charismatic but misanthropic; he flat-out hates Hamilton and is only sorry he killed him, if he is sorry, because it ruined Burr too. Miranda’s Burr is a potentially great man with a fatal flaw, who the misfortune to be inspired by, provoked by, and finally destroy and be destroyed by his opposite and mirror image, a great man with his own fatal flaw. Miranda’s Burr regrets; Vidal’s Burr blames.

Neither of those guys sounds remotely like the deeply weird person who comes across if you read a summary of Burr’s life that includes the stuff that can’t be proven or remains mysterious (supposedly fondled a marble bust of Hamilton post-duel and said, “There was the poetry;” allegedly attempted to secede from the US and make himself Emperor) or excerpts from his diary (in which he accidentally sets himself on fire and attacks someone with an umbrella that has a knife in the handle.)

Vidal’s book has two somewhat unreliable narrators, but the third somewhat unreliable narrator is Vidal himself. Like anyone writing historical fiction and, to some inevitable extent, history, he chooses the events that support a cohesive character of his own imagining, and leaves out or downplays the ones that don’t. And that’s completely apart from the made-up episodes, like his theory on what Hamilton said (or Burr was told that he said) that provoked the duel. (I can see where Vidal got the idea, but there doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for it ever having been said at all, let alone that Hamilton said it.)

Not one of the Founding Fathers comes across well from Burr’s perspective: Washington is lumbering and incompetent in battle, Jefferson is canny but a snake in the grass and nowhere near the genius he’s portrayed, Madison well-meaning but pathetic, and Hamilton brilliant but vicious and hypocritical. The more Burr insists that Hamilton keeps projecting his own worst qualities on to him, and the more he blames everyone else for all the bad things he supposedly did, the more the reader gets the impression that there’s projecting going on, all right, but at least fifty percent of it is coming from Burr.

In an early scene, an actor pulls a friend away from a fight and misquotes Iago, saying, “You know what you know.” (I think at that period actors sometimes modernized Shakespeare’s dialogue, so that may be a nod to that rather than an error. Iago’s actual lines are “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”) This scene does not initially seem to have much to do with anything (it does set up some later stuff) and but mostly seems to be there to get readers thinking about Othello. (Vidal explicitly identifies the quote.)

Miranda’s Burr sings in the closing lines of the song “We know,” “We both know what we know.”

Those are both common phrases, so Miranda’s use may not be meant to echo either Vidal or Iago… but on the other hand, the Iago line is extremely famous and Miranda certainly would know it from Othello even if he wasn’t also inspired by Burr. (I would guess that he has read Burr; it’s pretty famous.) It’s the moment when you realize that Iago’s stated motives (way too many stated motives) were probably all lies or rationalizations, leaving the audience with a mystery never to be solved. What we know, we know… and we still have no idea why Iago destroyed Othello and, in doing so, destroyed himself. Remind you of anyone?

More subtly, it reminds us of a major theme of Vidal’s book, which is the unreliable narrator and the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what really happened in the past. We know what we know… but is it true? Who told us what we know? Should we believe it? Did they have a hidden motive, like Schuyler coaxing Burr to tell his stories, Burr hoping to vindicate himself, Schuyler hoping for the dirt on Martin van Buren, and both lonely men unwilling to admit that they want a friend? Who wrote our history books, and what did they think we should believe? Vidal and Miranda’s Burrs both know that they’ve been painted as villains, and try to tell their side of the story. And both Vidal and Miranda consciously re-tell history to hold a mirror to the politics of their own times.

Back to Othello letters are very important in the play. They also are in the real-life story of Burr and Hamilton, and furthermore play more of a role in both Burr and Hamilton than is required to just tell the story. The duel letters are obvious, but letters to Theodosia are important in both works (in very different contexts) and there’s also the letter-burning in “Burn.” (Which also involves infidelity, which of course is a huge plot point in Othello, though there the accusations are false.) The Othello motif is for sure intentional in Burr; not sure about Hamilton, but it’s interesting to consider.

There’s much more of Iago in Vidal’s Burr than in Miranda’s, but Miranda’s Burr is certainly acting in a Machiavellian manner in “We know.” Finally, though obviously concepts of race were different then, Iago is white and Othello is black, and that is important in the play. While Vidal’s Hamilton is white, “Creole bastard” comes up, just as it does in Miranda’s play; Hamilton wasn’t a racial minority as we think of it now, but people did have issues with where he came from. In Hamilton, of course, the most significant use of race is actors of color playing white people; Othello was often played by a white actor in blackface up until relatively recent times.

The characters in Hamilton are, by and large, infinitely nicer, better, more idealistic, and more likable people than in Burr… but then again, Vidal’s Burr has a vested interest in making everyone else look bad to make himself look good in comparison. Miranda’s Burr states his own case, but also narrates Hamilton’s story with honest admiration when that’s what he feels, even if he hates feeling it.

Othello aside, it’s fun to see where Vidal and Miranda were drawing inspiration or even lines from the same historical source, but did completely different things with it. For instance, you can see that they both thought the historic Jefferson was a giant racist and decided to take him down a peg or hundred.

Vidal’s Burr is charming even in decay— you can tell that you’d like him if you met him— but beneath that still-sparkling surface, human feeling is reserved for only a precious few. Everyone else is held in witty contempt. However, there is real feeling between Burr and Schuyler (much to Schuyler’s angst, given what he’s supposed to be doing), which keeps the book from feeling too grim or depressing. It’s cynical and sometimes quite dark (and contains period-accurate racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) but also well-plotted, gripping, and witty.

Burr
Johns was one of those British men of a certain era with a biography that sounds that it can’t possibly be true, featuring more heroics, odd incidents, narrow escapes, and prolific writing than one would expect from any twelve reasonably adventurous people. He was a fighter pilot in WWI, where he had a number of exciting incidents, including accidentally shooting off his own propeller, culminating in being shot down and taken prisoner. He then became an RAF recruiting officer, and rejected T. E. Lawrence for giving a false name. Mostly after this, he wrote 160 books, including 100 about ace pilot Biggles. (I cribbed this from his Wiki article, which is well worth reading.)

These books were hugely popular in the UK for while, and are probably still easier to find there. They were also reasonably popular in India when I was there. I virtually never see them in the US, and had I known this I would have obtained some before leaving India. They weren’t huge favorites of mine, but I did enjoy them and they are excellent for researching early aviation and fighting tactics, such as they were; Johns notes that WWI pilots were not formally taught to fight, but had to learn on the job. Casualty rates were high.

Biggles Learns to Fly is a solid, if episodic, adventure story; the interest is in the very realistic details. It takes new pilots time to learn to spot enemy aircraft while flying, even when a more experienced gunner is screaming that they’re on top of him, because they’re not used to scanning in three dimensions. It fascinated me to read the details of such early, primitive aircraft and aerial warfare. Pilots communicated with hand-signals, and Biggles was sent on his first combat mission after something like ten hours of solo flying.

Here’s an excerpt from the very last page, after yet another heroic action. Major Mullen shot a glance at Biggles, noting his white face and trembling hands. He had seen the signs. He had seen them too often not to recognize them. The pitcher can go too often to the well, and, as he knew from grim experience, the best of nerves cannot indefinitely stand the strain of air combat. The Major sends him off for a week’s rest.

This is what we would now call combat stress (acute stress in civilians), which may or may not be a precursor to PTSD. (It becomes PTSD if it doesn't go away.) I found it interesting because of how matter-of-fact and sympathetic Johns is, depicting it as something that happens to everyone and doesn’t reflect badly on Biggles. Some other writing from WWI sees it as a sign of cowardice or mental/moral deficiency. Possibly he would not have been so sympathetic if Biggles wasn’t back in reasonably good shape after his rest. Or possibly the RAF had a different attitude. Then again, the book was written in 1935. Benefit of hindsight?

That's also a good example of the tone in general; emotions are noted but not dwelled upon. We only get enough of anyone's interior life to make their actions make sense.
Slavery shaped Benjamin January’s life; he and his sister Olympe were born slaves, before his mother was purchased as a mistress. It’s been a prominent part of the background of previous books. But it takes center stage here, when the man Ben least wants to meet again— Fourchet, his cruel previous owner— offers to hire him to go undercover as a slave on his plantation, to investigate a murder and possible brewing slave rebellion.

It’s the last thing Ben wants to do. But he needs the money. More importantly, if he doesn’t do it, the slaves may well end up suffering even more. (A major theme of the book is that even people who are living in horrible conditions often still have a lot left to lose, and desperately cling to what little they have.) And so Ben ends up back on the plantation, thirty years after he left. Though his act of (largely) altruism is intended to make sure the status quo doesn’t get even worse rather than to literally rescue anyone, it reminded me of Harriet Tubman returning to the scene of her worst nightmares to take others to freedom.

Hambly doesn’t stint on the physical horror of slavery, but focuses more on the psychological aspects— families ripped apart, human beings treated as non-human, and the pervasive terror coming from the knowledge that one’s master can do absolutely anything to you or your loved ones at any time. It’s also one of the best depictions I’ve come across of how people work to keep their humanity, maintain loving relationships, and find moments of happiness and humor in the absolute worst imaginable circumstances.

While I hesitated to recommend Fever Season, I would definitely recommend this if you can cope with the setting. The overall mood is way less depressing, because the story is more action-based, Ben has more inner strength and hope, and there’s more emphasis on relationships. Not to mention a way more uplifting ending. And a fair amount of secret banter between Ben and Hannibal, who is impersonating his owner. The action climax is a bit incongruous given the relentless realism of the plantation life that makes up most of the book, but as an action climax, it’s spectacular. Abishag Shaw has a smallish but absolutely wonderful part in this; sadly, Rose is barely in it. Hopefully she’ll be more prominent in the next book.

This is a very dark book (due to inherent qualities of the subject matter, not due to cement truck plot twists), but also one where the bright spots shine very brightly by contrast. It has the most moving and happiest ending of any of the books so far. Where many novels are fantasies of empowerment, in some ways this is a fantasy of justice. It’s explicitly stated to be limited to the characters we meet (and not all of them), not to mention being fictional. But it’s satisfying nonetheless. In real life, some slaves did escape, and some masters did meet well-deserved bitter ends. That was the exception rather than the rule, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to read about the exceptions. When you’re dealing with devastating injustice, both now and then, you need hope as well as rage.

Sold Down the River (Benjamin January, Book 4)
Benjamin January # 3! This one was way less grim than Fever Season. I realize that's easy to say, so I will give it an independent grimness rating.

Grimness of content: Medium. Racism and other isms, slavery, murder; child abuse is discussed but not shown.

Grimness of tone: Low. The subtitle is "a novel of suspense" and that accurately describes the tone. It's a very atmospheric mystery with some excellent action and really great characters. I loved everyone in this book, except for the villains and racists, obviously. Also, it contains a number of fun tropes, including hurt-comfort, creepy pottery, courtroom drama, spirit possession, and dodging alligators in the bayou. Plus Marie Laveau. The plot is very well-constructed and entertaining. And there's some very funny banter, plus a number of dramatic, alarming, and/or hilarious courtroom scenes.

Benjamin January is a devout Catholic and regularly prays for the soul of his sister Olympe, a voodoo practitioner. When Olympe is railroaded into jail for poisoning a man, mostly due to prejudice against voodoo, Ben gets on the case.

I really enjoyed the portrayal of voodoo. Hambly has an afterword discussing her research (she's a historian) and interviews with current practitioners where she gives a sense of how varied the practice and history is-- as is the case in any religion. From Ben's outsider/insider perspective, it's simultaneously alien and disturbing, familiar and enticing. It was a great way to convey how any religion is sustaining and ordinary for its followers, and exotic and weird to outsiders who don't understand it. Marie Laveau is one of my favorite characters in the series, and she naturally has a big part in this.

For the first time, supernatural forces appear as a (possibly) real force. The vivid scenes of spirit possession can be interpreted as simply the power of belief, but they make more sense if the Loa are objectively real. I liked the delicate balance of deniability at play through the whole book.

Since my favorite thing about this series is the characters, I'll do a check-in. Augustus Mayerling, the sword master who was one of my favorites from the first book, re-appears. Poor Hannibal is so sick with consumption that it was a relief to know while reading that he's still alive ten books later-- he spends most of the book either in bed or helping Ben with various tasks while trying not to pass out. (Someone said he's based on George Alec Effinger? Can you enlarge on that?) Rose makes some satisfying appearances, though I wish she was in the story more. Ben's awful mother Livia is still hilariously, deliciously catty. Olympe and her family have nice big roles-- I really like her, her husband, and her son Gabriel. And Ben has a really satisfying character arc.

Graveyard Dust
Benjamin January is working at a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and due to being endemic in Africa, many people from Africa have some level of immunity. The characters in the book are aware of the latter fact but not the former, and have no useful treatment even if they did know the cause.) Meanwhile, both free people of color and slaves are mysteriously vanishing. In more cheerful news— well, cheerful for a while— Ben meets Rose, a free woman of color running a school for girls. Rose is a great character, and their slow burn romance is lovely.

That being said, the book as a whole was awesomely depressing. Not only was it set in a yellow fever epidemic, not only did it contain a brief but absolutely horrifying torture sequence, but both the epidemic and the horrifying torture were actual historic events, ie, they really happened to real people. Also, dead children. Truly grimdark, though not gratuitously given that it’s real history. Not even Ben and Rose’s charming courtship and politicly crude policeman Abishag Shaw’s delightful way with words ("But I do think I should point out to you that even if Miss Chouteau gets cleared of Borgialatin the soup herself, it ain't gonna win her freedom,") can lift the general gloom.

I have been told that this and Sold Down the River are the darkest books in the whole series. However, I already started Graveyard Dust, and it looks like Hambly is careful to get new readers up to speed on events, so Fever Season is probably skippable if you like the characters but want to miss the awesome depressingness.

Fever Season

Spoilers: Read more... )
Barbara Hambly has written some of my very favorite fantasy novels. She’s also famous for the Benjamin January series, about a free black man who solves mysteries in 1830s New Orleans.

I never got around to reading these, despite hearing very positive things, because American historical racism— particularly in the slavery era— is something I find crushingly depressing. Just to be clear: contemporary racism is also depressing. However, there’s certain topics which I personally find really hard to handle, either from over-exposure or just because. Slavery in America is in the top five, along with the Holocaust. I am also a very hard sell on books set in concentration camps.

However, several fans pointed out to me that the Benjamin January series is not solely about racism, and that later books in the series focus more on adventuring. Also that there’s dueling, hurt-comfort, and pirates, and that really the series is about found family and community.

I give you this preface in case you’ve also been avoiding the series for fear of crushing depressingness. This book is not crushingly depressing! I really enjoyed it. Also, for those of you who like worldbuilding, it creates an engrossing, vivid, complex, and, as far as I’m aware, extremely historically accurate milieu. Lots of suspense! Great female characters. Also great male characters. Even very minor characters, who appear only for a scene or two, often suggest an entire novel’s worth of backstory.

I am horrible at following the plots of mysteries and basically read them for the characters and the setting. So I will avoid a close description of the plot. I will just say that Benjamin January was born a slave and freed as a child, became a surgeon in Paris but couldn’t make a living because he was black, and recently moved back to New Orleans after his wife died because everything in Paris reminded him of her.

New Orleans is both familiar and foreign to him after his long absence, which makes him a perfect narrator: he knows everything the reader needs to know, and notices everything because it’s all slightly alien to him. He’s a believably honorable and decent person who tries his best to do the right thing, even in circumstances that make that seem like the worst possible option.

A woman is murdered at a ball, and he’s sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. The mystery is cleverly constructed, but it’s also an excuse to introduce the society, the characters, and their complex relationships. January is intensely conscious of everyone’s place in society, including his own; the scenes which I did find hard to read were the ones where he’s forced to abase himself to white people in order to survive. Like noir, the murder investigation inevitably uncovers the rot and injustice in society; unlike noir, people who take care of each other and try to do the right thing may well triumph.

I found the novel interesting but slow going for about the first two thirds. There are a lot of characters, some of whom have several names, and I kept losing track of the minor ones. But at that two-thirds mark, January leaves New Orleans to investigate, and the book becomes incredibly suspenseful from that point on. Also, a certain favorite thing of mine makes a delightful surprise appearance that I won't spoil.

I will definitely read more of this. Especially now that I’ve figured out who everyone is and how they’re related. I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking that Minou and Dominique were two different people rather than one person with a nickname.

(I also did this in the Lymond chronicles, which had a character named something like Edmund, Earl of Sandwich, who was alternately called Edmund and Sandwich. It took me two books to figure out that they were the same guy. You’d think I’d have less trouble with movies, but I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers.)

In short: if you want to read a meticulously researched historical novel in which intersectionality is essential to the story, this book is it. But if that’s all you’ve previously heard about it, I wanted to point out that it’s also surprisingly fun. Daring escapes and dramatic battles figure prominently in the last third.

A Free Man of Color
I got a teeny bit of time off before finals week, so naturally I thought the most relaxing possible thing to do would be to settle down with a completely random book found on the library free giveaway shelf.

I really do find that relaxing; there is something exciting about dipping into a complete unknown. You might find a gem! Or something awesomely bad. Or just something really bizarre.

This was a gem. A slashy gem.

Published in 1929, it’s a delicious melodrama about an English soldier, Keith Windham, and a Highlander, Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, who become best friends or possibly more despite being on opposite sides of the Jacobite rebellion. And when I say “or more,” what I mean is that the only way this novel could have had more gay subtext would have been if it had… actually, I don’t think more subtext was possible. It would have had to go straight (as it were) to gay text.

It was strange, it was alarming, to feel, as by this time he did, how strongly their intimacy had progressed in two months of absence and, on his side, of deliberate abstention from communication – like the roots of two trees growing secretly towards each other in darkness.

“Love across battle lines” is one of my very favorite tropes, and this squeezes every bit of angsty juice out of it. To give more of a taste of how this goes, I’ll summarize the first fifth or so.

Ewen Cameron is admiring his beloved loch when he sees his loyal but not too bright foster-brother Lachlan trying to kill a heron. Ewen stops him, and Lachlan reveals that his father, who has second sight, has predicted that a heron will bring about a meeting between Ewen and a man. They will meet five times, and it will end in grief.

Then Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives, and the war soon begins. Keith Windham, a lonely woobie English soldier whose father is dead, whose mother didn’t love him, and whose girlfriend cheated on him, gets caught in an ambush. His cowardly new recruits flee, and a heron startles his horse. He’s thrown, and gets a concussion and a sprained ankle.

Ewen finds him and attempts to take him prisoner. From Keith’s POV, Ewen is a magnificent specimen of young manhood, as the soldier could not help admitting. Also, Splendidly built as this young Highlander was….

Keith refuses to surrender, and they have a swordfight. Ewen defeats him and, weakened by his wounds and exhaustion, Keith passes out. He wakes up cradled in Ewen’s arms. And so begins a friendship, or possibly “friendship,” which becomes the most important thing in Keith’s life and second only in Ewen’s life to his beloved Scotland.

I won’t spoil the rest, but there is lots of fleeing across the moors, fighting, capture, misunderstandings, “my love or my loyalty” conflicts, admiring each other's bodies and courage, and being cradled in each other’s arms. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing…

The novel is a bit prolix, even for 1929, and contains a lot of annoying, borderline incomprehensible dialect. Broster uses “pe” instead of “be” for rustic Scottish characters, resulting in more than one sentence in which some earthy fellow says, “I peed…”

But the scenes between Keith and Ewen are great, and make up the majority of the book. (Thankfully, neither of them speak in phonetic dialect.) This would be a good Yuletide fandom if anyone could figure out where to wedge in extra scenes, given the premise that the men only meet five times. Maybe it could go AU.

Cheap used copies here: Flight of the Heron.
Fascinating, unsettling story of three young Jewish partisans-- two women and a man-- who escaped the destruction of the Vilna ghetto and fought the Nazis from their forest hiding place. (Vilna is where my family is from. Had my ancestors not fled earlier anti-Semitic persecution, that's where I would have been during WWII. About 40,000 Jews were forced into the Vilna ghetto; a couple hundred survived.)

The heroism of women and Jews is often ignored or disbelieved, so I particularly appreciated this extensive documentation of jaw-dropping acts of courage performed as a matter of course, over a course of years, by a gentle-looking Jewish scholar and two tiny teenage Jewish girls.

While much of what the partisans did during the war was completely justified, and more falls into the "who am I to judge" category," the book continues past the war, as Abba and his allies plot what I can only describe as a horrific act of terrorism. Read more... )

Who am I to judge, given what they went through and witnessed? Who am I to not judge, given their intent?

Abba, the man, and Vitka and Ruzka, the women, were extremely strongly implied to have been a romantic threesome during the war; afterward, Abba and Vitka married, and lived next door to Ruzka and her husband in Israel for the rest of their lives. I can't help being glad that they got their happily-enough ever after ending.

The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

In Madeleine Robins' alternate Regency mysteries, Sarah Tolerance became a Fallen Woman when, as a teenager, she ran off with her fencing master. When the series opens, she is a young widow who has created a new role for herself as an investigative agent, solving mysteries with the help of her wits, her knowledge of society... and her awesome swordfighting skills.

This witty, clever, immersive, and sometimes quite angsty set of novels is one of those series that could have been a huge mainstream hit, but wasn't. Perhaps it was because of the horrific cover of the first book, Point of Honour, in which Sarah Tolerance appears to be either a vampire or a zombie. Perhaps marketing was lacking, or wrongly focused. Or perhaps it was chance. Whatever the reason, they got a small cadre of devoted fans, then fell out of print.

However, the series has been re-launched with a new novel (print only, from a different publisher) and Kindle editions of the old ones. They don't have to be read in sequence, but I'd recommend it. In order, they are Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and the new one, The Sleeping Partner.

The Sleeping Partner has less suspense and swordfighting than the previous two, and focuses more on Sarah Tolerance's past and her present relationships, and on the place of women in society. It's absorbing and thoughtful, and has a nice surprise!historical figure cameo near the end. If you liked the previous novels, you will like it.

Can someone who knows the period and has read the books explain to me the differences in Robins' alt-Regency and the real one? I get that the actual regent is different, but I don't know enough to be able to tell how that affected the society and how that enables Sarah to do what she does.

Robins has also released several regular Regencies on Kindle. I haven't read any of those.
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