I declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was publI declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was published. For a set of “weird” or horror tales, the reader does not even get the catharsis of seeing the thieving and/or murderous villains get their just deserts. I believe this is because Cory does not understand that his villains are villains, but believes they are heroes. One potent example will suffice.
In the completely despicable and blessedly short story “The Voodoo Idol”, the protagonist, an American named Jones, languishes from a regrettably non-lethal gunshot wound in a hotel room in Haiti, a group of “natives” having tried to kill him. Jones explains to the American consul, who we understand is assisting Jones to escape Haiti intact, how he came to be in this terrifying position.
He stole some shit that wasn’t his. From people he describes this way:
“[A]s savage and bloodthirsty as any Central African tribe. Most of the inhabitants [of Haiti] are descendants of negroes brought from the Gold Coast many years ago. They have reverted to their original wild state, keeping up many of the ancient customs. Mixing as they have with the Indians of the interior, the present race is even worse than their ancestors. From Toussant l'Overture in 1804, when he first ruled, to Hyppolite Florvil and Salomon, the island has been the scene of continuous insurrection, intrigue, and murder.”
This retrograde group of people, nevertheless had created an idol that captivated Jones when he saw it. And he felt perfectly justified in stealing it simply because he wanted it.
There’s a moment toward the end of the story when Jones awakens to find a “native” assassin peering at him from an open patio door. The man has a knife in his hands and, for a split second I believed perhaps Jones was going to get some sort of comeuppance for his thievery and bitter racism. But instead Jones kills the man and escapes to America the Beautiful. The End.
Part of me wishes to enumerate all that is culturally and historically inaccurate about this story, to pick apart the foul illogic upon which Cory’s racism rests. A more significant part of me does not want to dignify it with reasoned criticism. I am, for once, glad that my taste in musty old writing is obscure. Hopefully this wretched book will continue to fade into obscurity. ...more
I began with book 2 of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories because I was given it as a gift. Jumping into the middle of the saga did not dampen my experiI began with book 2 of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories because I was given it as a gift. Jumping into the middle of the saga did not dampen my experience as a reader in the least. Although if you are not relatively familiar with early medieval English history (post-Roman/pre-Norman invasion), you may want to scan a Wikipedia page or two, like this one, before beginning.
Cornwell clearly did loads of research, from period naming conventions to technology, people and events of the period. Most appealingly, he gives a really respectable stab at crawling into a particular mindspace modern westerners seldom inhabit: that of a person engaged in hand-to-hand combat. I have a deep aversion to the glorification of violence and a related antipathy to military history, but Cornwell glorifyies nothing. He describes one major battle of Alfred the Great's reign and many individual moments of violence in the novel, accentuating the terror and anxiousness, adrenaline and ego bound up in these acts. He makes their perpetrators - men, women, professional warriors, farmers answering their king's summons - completely legible in these moments of extreme violence and you even root for them occasionally, but he does not glorify what it means to murder or maim another human being.
Another aspect of early medieval Britain that Cornwell excels in depicting is its relative diversity. From our position in an increasingly global world, we might be tempted to imagine medieval Britain as just a bunch of Christian white guys and, since the decline of the Roman Empire, pretty isolated from the rest of Europe. But Cornwell's medieval England is carved up into very different linguistic and religious groups: its native Britons and the conquering Germanic Saxons, each largely but not universally Christian; and the pagan, invading and colonizing Danes. Moreover, this contested set of islands was in frequent contact with Rome and what would become France. Additionally, though Cornwell does not demonstrate it expressly, via the Danes and overland trade routes through Russia, England was probably also seeing trade goods from the Balkans and the near east during this period.
Overall, Cornwell has succeeded in drawing a very vivid, believable image of this time and place, its people and concerns. I can easily see why this set of books is as popular as I understand them to be, and I will definitely be spending some time with books 1 and 3....more
George MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a differGeorge MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a different sort of character is Gerard from Conan Doyle’s more famous creation, who need not be named. Gerard is French, not English; an interesting choice for a good Victorian imperialist such as Conan Doyle. And Gerard’s stories are set earlier; the conceit is that he is an old man telling tales about his time as a Hussar in Napoleon’s army. Gerard is as arrogant as literary “brother”, but sweeter as well, chivalrous, loyal, romantic, brave and incredibly, comically dense.
Gerard’s obliviousness is one of the primary charms of the character and chief amusements of these collected stories. He constantly mistakes the derision of others for approbation. Anything that does not conform with his own high opinion of himself gets contorted by his perception so that he remains the hero, not just of his own, but of everyone’s story.
[SPOILER ALERT] In one hilarious instance, Gerard is meant to be performing undercover recognizance and ends up participating merrily in a fox hunt with English soldiers. He gets so carried away with the pursuit that he speeds ahead of everyone, even the dogs, and slices the fox in two with his sword. Gerard clearly misunderstands the whole endeavor and imagines he has “won” the hunt. Moreover, when he sees the English soldiers erupt in histrionic shouting, he perceives this as enthusiastic congratulations instead of the enraged decrying it was.
This, incidentally, was probably my very favorite moment in the entire set of stories. As he outpaces the dogs, feeling quite self-congratulatory indeed, he shouts at the fox: “Aha, we have you now then, assassin!” He has so completely given himself to the hunt that he has forgotten his recognizance mission (only for the moment) and single-mindedly focused on his new “foe” whom he is about to dispatch tidily. And that is quite characteristic of Gerard. Comically myopic, absurdly confident of his every move, of his own rightness, and – for all his ridiculousness - actually quite a good soldier and sport. He is dog-like, in the best sense of that comparison. You like Gerard even while you laugh at him. And you can always trust him to be himself.
I am not much for adventure stories, generally preferring a good mystery, but the Brigadier Gerard stories are vividly detailed and very very funny. I am also growing increasingly interested in the Napoleonic era as a predecessor to the “world” conflicts at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is intriguing to read an Englishman’s sympathetic take on a Frenchman during this period. In any event, these stories deserve to be better known than they are. And, for my money and time, I’d much rather spend an afternoon hanging out with Gerard than with that other fellow concocted Conan Doyle. ...more
Published in 1869, Monsieur Lecoq predates A Study in Scarlet by 18 years and is acknowledged as an influence on Arthur Conan Doyle specifically, butPublished in 1869, Monsieur Lecoq predates A Study in Scarlet by 18 years and is acknowledged as an influence on Arthur Conan Doyle specifically, but also on the development of detective fiction in general. This entertaining novel has two parts. The first begins with a crime and follows the Parisian detective, Monsieur Lecoq, as he tries to unravel its intricacies. The second begins decades earlier, tracing the somewhat melodramatic affairs of some country folks and landed aristocracy whose turmoils eventually lead to the crime committed at the beginning of the first book. In other words, the entire novel in two parts ends where it begins. Although I enjoyed the first part with its focus on crime detection immensely more than the second melodramatic part, taken as a whole it has a very satisfying narrative construction. Gaboriau had a distinct flair for character and plot construction. I would happily read another Monsieur Lecoq adventure....more
I'm not sure whether "making of the modern world" was Random House's decision - works of history do so much better carrying "sexy" titles - or Jack WeI'm not sure whether "making of the modern world" was Random House's decision - works of history do so much better carrying "sexy" titles - or Jack Weatherford's. I'd be interested to know primarily because the book's content leans heavily toward pure biography and actually contains extremely little analysis regarding the Mongolian Empire's influence on the rest of the world.
Not that I doubt for a moment that Mongolian imperial expansion did, in fact, have a transformative impact upon old world cultures. I happen to believe it probably even influenced the development of western nations' imperial and colonial tendencies when they encountered the new world. Nevertheless, Weatherford - whose source material for Genghis Khan's life and steppe culture is so rich - offers far less actual evidence for his intermittent and casual claims about how Mongolian culture, imperial practices and standardization of trade across Asia during the 12th and 13th centuries actually transformed the globe into something more recognizably "modern" by the 15th and 16th centuries.
I am wary of intuitive history; even though we all practice it. When the relationship between specific historical phenomena seems causal that is precisely when it's important to really examine available primary sources. Causality is hard to "prove" historically, but I admit I hoped Weatherford would discuss more analytically and overtly the relationship implied by his book's flashy title.
Instead it is a detailed and enthralling biography of Genghis Khan and his next few heirs. Weatherford had access to places, documents and native collaborators few western historians have possessed when studying Genghis Khan. My criticisms do not implicate the very interesting and solid work Weatherford did on the life of the Great Khan, his family and how they translated the Mongolian hunting and herding steppe culture into a surprisingly adaptive and inclusive vision of empire. It is also very readable, something more in-depth analysis of giant historical processes usually precludes....more