Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan

I am a massive history nerd.  I love the stuff.  I can’t get enough of it.  I loved the time I got to spend immersed in it in University, and I still enjoy dabbling in history with the books that I read.  However, making a (traditional) career out of it isn’t for me; to live with History as a profession, I’d need to get a doctorate in it, and the process and the end results aren’t for me.  To start off with, I’m good with being done with School; I think six years was enough.  But the main problems for me are what being a professional, academic historian would mean: first, the ‘publish or die’ mentality isn’t one I can work with – I hate looking at a blank pages, knowing I have to fill them.  Second, professional historians (from what I saw) have a hard time distinguishing between the professional and the personal – professional criticism is taken as personal insult, and animosities emerge and follow careers for years.  No thanks.  On both counts. 

But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t keep my eye on the profession to see what the major trends and thought are.  In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how professional and academic history interacts with the public sphere.  The dream for any professional historian is that they’ll become a popular historian, that is, that the general reading public will be so interested in what they have to say that they’ll buy their books.  Authors like Pierre Burton are often viewed with envy (though he stumbles on respecting the academic historical conventions), but in recent years, historians like Margaret MacMillan have found a way to publish for the public while still holding to their professional rules.  

Now, back when I was delusional and thought that a PhD was an option for me, I was shopping around for potential supervisors and was considering studying at the University of Toronto.  One of the luminaries at U of T that has a focus on British imperial history is MacMillan, so I knew about her and her work before my latest read, The Uses and Abuses of History, but I hadn’t read much of her work.  However, The Uses and Abuses of History convinces me that I need to read more from her.

MacMillan’s work is a collection of lectures/essays on how history is understood and used by the general public.  She touches on how we use history to construct our personal understandings of self, how politicians use it to further their own ends, and how it influences our daily lives in the most innocuous of ways.  With a series of well reasoned arguments, MacMillan tries to get her readers to consider how it is they interact with history, how it is forced upon them by external sources, and how it pervades every aspect of their daily life.  

For a quasi-professional historian, it was interesting to see how an expert like MacMillan views the pervasive nature of history in everything we do.  At multiple points, I saw my own thesis reflected back at me (both in support and in condemnation), and I was able to conceptualize how much history impacts my daily life often without my conscious knowledge.  I would imagine that, for a non-historian, this books would be equally informative on how much of their daily life is wrapped up in historical forces without their knowledge.  

I think MacMillan’s take-away message from this work is to be critical – everyone should always consider the why and wherefores when their heart-stings are tugged at; critically examine why it is your emotions have become involved in a situation, and odds are you’ll find that there is some sort of historical basis for it, and with a little extra examination, you’ll often find that history is repeating, or will repeat, itself.

So, final verdict?  I’d say you should read this book.  As MacMillan points out repeatedly, politicians are frequent users/abusers of history; if for no other reason that to see how and why we should critically examine why we feel the way we do in response to politicians, this is a valuable read.  But on a more personal level, this book opens a door into the reader’s subconscious (if you’ll allow it) that illustrates why we behave the way we do, and why we think the way we think.  It’s a stunning set of revelations that benefit all readers, not just the historians and academics out there.

The Millennium Trilogy, by Stieg Larsson

So, if this blog has shown anything, it’s that I’m really into connecting with the zeitgeist.  I’m a big TV watcher because it contributes to our modern imagined community (and yes, I just referenced Benedict Anderson in a blog intro) and in a similar vein, I enjoy reading books that are generating a lot of buzz.  The one exception to that rule was, for the longest time, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.  I bought the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I could not for the life of me get into it.  I chalk that up to two things: trying to read it on an eReader (and being unable to easily flip back and look up foreign-sounding names), and the material (Swedish economics is not a barn-burner to me).  Regardless, the draw of being part of the zeitgeist was strong, so I borrowed the trilogy from a friend, and was finally able to power through and finish them.  So, here are my thoughts on them.

To begin with, we’re talking about three books.  The first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two plots,  both of which revolve around one of Larsson’s main characters, Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist and founding member of the financial magazine, Millennium.  TGWTT begins after Blomkvist’s public disgrace after having been found guilty of liable against a major Swedish industrialist; having to find a place to hide out until the pressure dies down, Blomkvist finds himself wrapped up in an investigation centered a woman who went missing from her family home 20 years earlier.  Through this investigation, Blomkvist meets Larsson’s second main character, Lisbeth Salandar, a young woman with a troubled past, and exceptional research/computer skills.  

The second and third books of the Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, read like one book, and tell the story of Lisbeth and her personal history.  TGWPWF begins with a sub-plot on sex-trafficking in Sweden, but it all contributes to the larger plot of understanding Salandar’s personal history.  TGWKTHN is just a flat-up resolution of Salandar’s past, and picks up right where the second book leaves off – you might as well plan on just reading it continuously.

I am torn about my impressions on these books.  My first impression is that they’re not worth it.  Larsson buries his plots in (what reads like) unending discussions of Swedish economics and politics.  I realize that part of the problem is that I just don’t have a basic understanding of Swedish political history, nor do I care about the Swedish economy.  So, I’m at point non-plus with that – some people that have those interests will likely enjoy reading about them because they’re well presented.  

Buried in all that are some interesting plots.  This is just my uneducated North American perceptions, but I always thought of the Swedes as the Canadians of the Scandinavian Countries; for the most part harmless, and far too polite for their own good.  But, then again, they are humans and humans have an unbelievable capacity to hurt each other.  Larsson’s plots revolve around serial killers, sexual sadists, sex trafficking, and spies.  Good Lord – what more can you ask for!?  But all those interesting bits are buried in the descriptions of Swedish politics and economics.  Again, we find ourselves at point non-plus. 

What about the characters?  Yes, the characters are a definite plus in these books.  Blomkvist is at once one of the most stable and yet messed-up characters I can remember reading about; Salandar looks like one of the most messed-up characters I can remember reading about, but that’s just the surface – the reality is far more complex and engaging; and the cast of supporting characters are all equally interesting and well written.  However, there are a lot of characters, and it can often become confusing to assess whose arc you’re reading about (especially with the foreign-names), so I found myself flipping backwards in the books trying to remember who was who.  So, point non-plus again.

As for the writing style, there are more than a few situations where a thought or some dialogue is lost in translation.  The translators obviously tried to make the language conform to the flow and complexity of the English language, and sometimes it just falls flat.  A turn of phrase that might work in Swedish is just awkward when converted to English.  But that’s window dressing – what about the substance?  As mentioned above, there’s a lot of information thrown at the reader about Swedish politics and economics; these books could have benefited from a slash and burn-style edit; they are all probably 100-200 pages longer than they need to be.  

Part of that problem may be that the author died after delivering the manuscripts to the publisher; I don’t know if he submitted all three at once, or if there had been discussions with the publisher before Larsson died, or what, exactly, the situation was.  If I had to guess though, I’d say the first book was edited by the publisher before Larsson’s death, some work had been undertaken on editing the second before he died, and publisher allowed the third to ride as was because Larsson died before publication.  If anyone knows the truth, let me know, but there does seem to be a declining involvement of a plot editor as the books progress.

So, final verdict?  I don’t know…. As in the past, I would say read these books because they are part of the modern literary zeitgeist; these books were (and are) incredibly popular.  But there are a lot of detractions in these books that make them hard to get into, then hard to keep up with; I found that if I sat for long periods of time, I could enjoy them – if I came and went from them, I had a hard time remembering where I was with each of the characters’ stories and where the main plot was.  I guess at the end of the day, you should read these books if for no other reason than to develop your own impressions, and maybe to tell me (if you like them), what it was that I missed.  I think the Millennium Trilogy is going to go on my bookshelves, and I’ll reexamine it in a few years.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

4:50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie

Part of my recent trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, was two days spent on the train (both there and back).  It was a wonderfully relaxing time for self-reflection, and for reading.  Of course, when trying to plan your reading for a two-day long train trip, as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one author you can go to – Agatha Christie!  As I’d already read Murder on the Orient Express, I was looking for another train-inspired work, and found 4:50 from Paddington, which is a Miss Marple mystery.

Now, I’m still getting to know Christie as an author.  I’ve read several of her works, and found them all to be enjoyable, but this was the first Miss Marple book that I had read, and I think it’s one of the later books in the series.  Miss Marple, for those like me who didn’t know much about her, is an elderly lady who has skills and a world-view that helps her to solve mysteries.  

In 4:50 from Paddington, Miss Marple is visited by a friend who recently witnessed a murder on a train that was passing her own.  Oddly enough, no body is reported as being found on the train, nor dumped nearby, so Miss Marple puts her considerable talents to trying to figure out where the body ended up, and who done it.  By enlisting the help of Miss Lucy Eyelesbarrow, an extremely intelligent young woman who is a domestic for hire, Miss Marple is able to observe the family she suspects of being involved, which eventual leads to the unmasking of the villain who killed the young woman.

4:50 from Paddington has everything you need for a mystery – a victim that’s difficult to identify, a cast of characters who all have their own reasons for being potential murders, and an intrepid investigator who is bound and determined to get to the bottom of things.  While it’s an interesting read, with a great ending, I found it to be a little ho-hum.  I wasn’t able to guess what the dénouement would be, and maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for reading at the time, but I didn’t find the book that riveting.  

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, I’ve found they’re either hit or miss with me – there’s no in-between, and this one was a miss.  So, final verdict?  If you’re a big Miss Marple fan, I assume you’ll enjoy this one; if you just like good old-fashioned mysteries, I’m sure you’d like it too.  But, for my money, I’m not in a hurry to read more or Miss Marple. 

Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada, by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc

During a graduate class discussion one semester, we got to talking about family histories and immigration to Canada.  My own family’s history in Canada can be traced back to a land-grant for service rendered during the Peninsular War (paternal) and to New France (maternal), so I’ve always just identified myself as Canadian, and I did the same for anyone else that didn’t speak with an accent or whose parents didn’t speak with an accent.  In listening to my fellow classmates however, I realized that this was an incredibly naïve world view – many of my friends were three or four generations removed from their own family’s immigration history, but still considered themselves to be British-Canadians, Italian-Canadians, or Baltic-Canadians.  Because my own family’s immigration history is so far in the past, I’ve never identified with a ‘mother-land,’ but for those who had grandparents who came across the Atlantic, that country of origin was very much a part of their daily-lives and personal truths.  

Now, for my birthday this year, my dad and aunt gave me a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  While there, I hit all the places you’d expect a historian to go to – the Citadel, the public gardens, the water-front with the Historic Properties, and Pier 21 (Canada’s national museum on immigration), which had been used for decades at the main landing point for passenger ships putting into Canada with immigrants from Europe.  I knew a little bit about the immigration process, but not a great deal, and I had never thought to connect it with my own family’s history (the boats we came over on were wooden sailing vessels, after all).  Realizing I had no concrete knowledge about this important part of Canada’s history, on my way out of the museum, I picked up the book Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada, by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc.

Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada tells three stories.  The first is of the history of Pier 21 itself, and it covers everything from the Pier’s opening, to the upkeep of the building, to who managed it.  The second story this book tells is of Canada’s immigration history, specifically the changing tides that Pier 21 witnessed – from Eastern-Europeans looking for a future on Canada’s parries, to the war-brides coming home following the war, to the urban-bound peoples of Europe following the war-years.  The final story this work tells is of the immigrants themselves; what they experienced on the ships, what they experienced at Pier 21, and what they experienced during their integration into Canada’s culture.  The interesting thing, however, is that these three stories are so closely weaved together that Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc don’t even try to tease them apart, but rather they weave them all together, and present them as a whole.

While Pier 21 tells these larger stories, it also tells a whole host of smaller, more personal stories.  The reader is introduced to individuals as well as larger groups, and this helps add an extra layer of truth and reality to this work; one might not be able to emphasize with the ‘passengers’ of the Scythia, but you can surely feel for Jacqueline and her mother, Doris Kendell Whalen, who were coming to Canada to meet up with Jacqueline’s father, who had never see his child, but was to be reunited with his family as part of the war-bride movement.  

What I also like about this book is the authors’ no-nonsense position on the St. Louis affair – this ship was turned away from Pier 21 in 1938, even though it was carrying more than 900 Jews; when it was forced to return to Europe, Canadian Immigration Officials were in effect signing the death-warrants of those aboard – they were being sent home to Nazi extermination policies.  It’s a dark and shameful part of Canada’s history, and Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc don’t hide from it, and in fact, they call out the Canadian Government for their decision. 

Another aspect of this work that I liked was the authors’ ability to straddle the academic and the popular writing style; while this book is clearly based on a wealth of research (both document- and interview-based), it is also accessible to non-academic readers who want to learn more about the importance of immigration to Canada and the impact of the Pier 21.  I devoured this book in one sitting, and found it to be both engaging and incredible informative.

So, final verdict?  If you can find it, read it.  It’s a wonderful testament to a crucial part of Canada’s history, and it’s an accessible and interesting read.  While I came to my own realization that Canada’s population history is more dynamic than I had though in the past, this book helped me in reinforcing my understanding of what new Canadians go through when the set out from their homes to come to a strange land.  I’m a firm believer in doing for yourself and working hard to succeed, and I have the utmost respect for those who embrace that mentality, and my visit to Pier 21, and reading Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc’s work highlighted for me that immigrants to Canada live that principal to the utmost.  Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada is an homage to past, present and future immigrants to Canada, and should be read by everyone.  

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

I often get caught by surprised by my purchases at Chapters.  I’ll pick up a book from a shelf, think to myself ‘hun, that sounds like an interesting plot,’ and it’s not until I get home that I realize it’s a work of non-fiction.  That’s exactly what happened with my latest read, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale.  But, just like the last time I did this (with The Witness House), I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the work, even though I was expecting something completely different.

As a non-fiction, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher recounts the events surrounding the brutal murder of three year-old Saville Kent in rural England in 1860.  Saville was apparently taken from his bed in the middle of the night, murdered, and his body dropped into the servant’s out-house.  The crime, committed in Victorian England, was shocking for its brutality, but more so for the fall-out.  The local police, at a loss to figure out what happened, appealed to Scotland Yard to send out a detective to undertake an independent investigation in hopes of leading to the murdered.  Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher.

As Summerscale points out, while the crime itself was shocking, perhaps the most upsetting part of the whole fiasco for the general public was the way in which the private life and the sanctity of the English country-gentleman’s home was destroyed in the following investigation.  Whicher’s arrival on-scene led to a lot of uncomfortable questions for the family.  As it turns out, Mr. Kent was married to the second Mrs. Kent, who was Saville’s mother.  The first Mrs. Kent’s children were still living in the home with their father, step-mother and half-siblings, but they were doing so in serious discord, almost as if there were second-class family members.  As Whicher begins unraveling the relationships and history of everyone involved, several ugly truths come to light which make it clear that the Kents were not living the ideal Victorian family-life everyone had believed.  

The problem with Whicher’s investigation is that it was hampered by the same Victorian ideals that the Kents tried to portray; the local police had made assumptions about the family dynamics, they were uncomfortable asking ‘delicate’ questions of the women in the household, and they trusted in the gentlemanliness of Mr. Kent.  When Whicher arrived on scene, he was forced to re-trace the steps of the local police (while dealing with their hostility) during which he recognized multiple gaps and problems that the original investigation had created.  While Whicher, a long time (and highly talented) detective formulated a theory on the crime, there was no way of proving it, and the case went ‘cold’ for many years.  Summerscale does, in the end, reveal what happened to young Saville Kent (who is almost forgotten in the rat’s nest of truth and lies that Whicher uncovers), but I still found it hard to believe the case’s outcome – and I think Summerscale does too.  And no, I’m not going to tell you who done it.

If the murder reads like a who done it to you, that’s because, as Summerscale points out, it was the inspiration for the modern detective story.  The drama surrounding the Kent family was widely reported in the press, and many aspects of the crime ended up a plot points or character-basis for works by the likes of Dickens and Collins.  In fact, Dickens was a contemporary and something of a friend of Whicher.  While I found the parallels that Summerscale drew to the literary detectives and plots interesting, I only found it interesting the first time; I think it’s a major flaw in this work that Summerscale repeatedly goes back to pointing out how some aspect of the case influenced some author’s plot.  It takes away from the flow of the story and become repetitive very quickly.

While Summerscale does beat the literary connection to death (that seems to be bordering on a bad pun – apologies), the other aspect she touches on is the dynamic of the Victorian family and household.  I was familiar with the concept through my own studies, but it was interesting to see how the ideal of the private sphere was viewed by the population when it was suddenly thrust into the public sphere, as it was for the Kents through the ‘media’s’ fascination with the case.  It seems to me that Summerscale could have spent more time investigating this dynamic, and less time rehashing her assertions that the Kent case served as literary fodder in order to strengthen the work.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  Summerscale’s writing style and the manner in which she presents the facts of the Saville Kent case is fast-paced and well written.  While it may be non-fiction, it reads like a good old-fashioned who done it that will have you trying to guess at the motives of the suspects, and all the while you’ll be trying to determine who the real culprits and the real victims are.  Summerscale took a topic that was interesting and engaging enough to be a fictional work, but presented it in a non-fiction format that bridged the gap; I don’t for a minute regret picking this work up, and I encourage everyone to give it a read.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

I often wonder where authors get their inspiration.  With some historical fiction, it’s obviously related directly to a person, place or time; with contemporary fiction, it’s often in response to something in our modern world – again, a person, place or time; sometimes, though, a book is so out of left field that the inspiration isn’t quite as plain to see, and one can marvel at the creativity of the author.  And then there are authors like Ransom Riggs; his inspiration for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was quite obviously old-fashion ‘curiosity’ photos, and yet I’m still entirely in awe of his creativity.  

These ‘curiosity’ photos (I don’t know what else you’d call them) were done in the age of magnesium flares and longer exposure times, and the examples he’s pulled together are odd and creepy.  I’ve heard of people who haunt flea markets and swap meets looking for just such examples of this old fashion hobby/art, and Riggs apparently found his inspiration in these pieces.  What is so interesting is that Riggs pulled from the collections of various people a set of photos so odd and un-related, and then weaved them into a plot, a set of characters, and a landscape entirely new and dynamic.  Riggs is to be commended for his efforts and abilities.

It’s odd that I don’t start with a summary of the plot, but in this case, the plot (and characters) as so dependent on the images presented in the work, and I had to start there.  The plot, however, is just as interesting as the inspiration.  In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, we’re introduced to the main character Jacob and his grandfather right away, and this relationship provides the impetus for the rest of the story.  As a child, Jacob’s grandfather tells him about the years he spent growing up in an orphanage during the Second World War; peppered through these stories is enough information to make the reader (and Jacob) think that Jacob’s grandfather has constructed an elaborate worldview in order to hide from the horror of the Nazi regime.  When Jacob’s grandfather is killed in unusual circumstances, however, Jacob begins to question just how much of his grandfather’s stories were real.  The rest of the book is given over to Jacob’s quest to find the truth, and his response to the reality he finds himself in.

On a whole, Riggs has created a dynamic and engaging character in Jacob.  He’s funny, clever and witty.  However, he’s only supposed to be 16.  The Jacob that Riggs has crafted reads more like a world-weary 21 year old that has already had the reality shock of having to buy toilet paper for himself.  There’s a disconnect between the supposed age of the character and his actions; if, however, one chooses to put this fact to the back of their mind, then Jacob is a treat to read about and makes for one hell of an interesting and engaging main character.  The rest of the supporting cast of characters are equally engaging and dynamic; from villain to love interest, all the characters bring something important and interesting to the tale.

It’s very clear from the final chapter that Riggs has set himself up for a series of books on Miss Peregrine’s world (which, I find I can’t write about – the reader should really experience it for themselves; I was so caught off-guard by the reality that Riggs created that I would hate to ruin that reveal for others).  In fact, my copy of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children includes the first chapter of the next book: Hollow City.  I’m really looking forward to continuing with these books – Riggs’ writing style is fast-paced and interesting, and coupled with his unique ability to be inspired by ‘curiosity’ photos, I’m looking forward to seeing what else he can come up with in the future.

So, final verdict?  I’d say read this book.  It’s something new and different that I haven’t seen before, and it’s so well executed that it’s definitely worth checking out.  Riggs’ inspiration of the curiosity photos, and his inclusion of so many peppered through the text, make for a quick-paced and interesting read.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything else Riggs publishes in the future, and I’ll definitely be snapping up the sequel(s?) to this book.