Tag Archive for fiction

Manuscripts don’t burn

Last week, I was the final speaker in our department’s grad student association speaker series (which also marked the last day of classes for AY 2015-2016, hooray!), called “Rough Cut” – designed to expose current grad students to research-in-progress. I had signed up much earlier in the semester, and as the date drew closer, I wondered: did the grad students really want to hear about my interventions into PRC history and the cultural history of 20th c. China? Sure, listening to how fully (or semi-fully) fledged scholars are working through projects-in-process is useful – but most of me was saying ‘This has very little overlap with what most of our grad students do, and they will listen politely and ultimately leave not having learned a whole hell of a lot of useful stuff.’ They’re a very nice bunch, but subjecting people I like to 20 or 30 minutes of talk on something they have little background in seemed … selfish, to say the least. So I decided to do something a little different – instead of talking through the intricacies of my research in process, I’d walk them through how I got from a 2nd year research paper, to a dissertation, to a manuscript in progress. At the very least, I might be able to drop a few pieces of advice that might prove useful – even to people doing work that’s radically different than mine, in area and in emphasis. It was quite possibly just as useless as talking about my research, and only my research; but the intent was, at the very least, to be a bit broader and more useful.

It went OK. Luckily, I was the only speaker on the agenda, because I blathered on for 40 minutes (the ‘ideal’ time was 15 or 20 – I’m usually much better at reining myself in, although I did know I’d be the only speaker). While chewing my nails and worrying at a colleague afterwards, she said: ‘You managed to sum up your entire grad career in 40 minutes, which is pretty good!’ I did gallop through quite a lot, both in terms of explaining my own research and (the more important bit) talking about process and what I wish I’d known when I started writing a dissertation.

Preparing the talk provided a nice bit of reflection and perspective, which I badly needed at the end of a semester (academic year, at that) that left me feeling pretty demoralized and defeated. I’ve been in pretty bad headspace since last fall & have been making concerted efforts to get myself out (not the easiest thing, but I’m glad some healthy habits are starting to stick!), and it’s easy to get trapped in those negative feelings. So throwing together a PowerPoint on my grad school career helped refocus me on my mss (and this is the ‘Summer of the Book,’ since the mss needs to be done & ready to go out by August), and think about all the good stuff I’ve done since I got to grad school in 2007.

In any case, amongst all the other stuff I talked about – the need to be strategic, the need to think about how you’ll sell your project to scholars in a variety of fields, the necessity of getting critical (and sometimes painful) feedback – I talked about having talismans for your work. Things you can brush up against while in the thick of things, that have meaning for you, but not necessarily for the work as a whole. This may not be a necessity for many people, but it’s necessary for me. My talismans, as I explained to the seminar room, are literary: I showed them the epigraphs from my dissertation, which include a line about archives from a not-terribly-distinguished book on the murder of the Russian imperial family in 1918, a line from the terribly distinguished Lantingjixu by Wang Xizhi, and a good clip of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets (I’ve written a bit about the latter – well, hell, the other two, as well – at various points in this blog). I don’t think talismans need to be literary, but mine are – they help me recenter myself when I’m lost in the chaos of research, writing, and editing.

poster.behemoth.art_.zoom_I ended the whole presentation with another, newer talisman – one of the most famous quotes from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” At the end of my first year at MSU, a colleague recommended the novel to me – I’d never read it, and in truth, have shied away from fiction for years (that goes for films, too). Documentaries, non-fiction, non-Chinese-history-monographs and the like, fine – I have consumed a lot of those since I started grad school, but my affection for fiction had really waned. The Master and Margarita was one of the first novels I’d read in years, and I loved it. Part of it was the description of life in the Soviet socialist literary system: the first few chapters were so on point! I recognized all of it. I remember sending an email at 3 AM – having been up a good chunk of the evening and wee hours reading – to the colleague who had recommended it, saying how fabulous it was. The rest of the novel was just magical, and absurd, and utterly wonderful. I recently passed it off to a friend who just finished her dissertation a few weeks ago – she said she was overwhelmed with choices of novels to read now that she had time, and so I handed over my copy of Bulgakov’s masterpiece.

In any case, since “Manuscripts don’t burn” is such a famous line, it feels trite to pick it as a talisman, and yet – it’s oh-so-appropriate. I use it to remind myself that as much as I love my wonderful intellectuals, they wrote and said and did things that (whether I agree with it or not) ran afoul of powerful elements of the CCP. Those “manuscripts” don’t burn. I owe it to them to tell their stories, warts and all; you can’t expunge the flip side of the ‘brave intellectuals standing up in the face of Mao’s vision run amok,’ which is, ‘Oh my god, what were they thinking, criticizing the ’emperor.” Often when I’m writing through the 1960s, I find myself cringing as one does when watching a horror film: ‘Oh no, don’t do that, don’t say that, oh god.’ Obviously I come down on one side of that particular history, but their story is more compelling by the fact that they must have known what they were saying and doing. To render Meng Chao’s ultimate fate evidence of nothing more than the capriciousness of Mao et al. is ultimately, I think, a disservice to someone who wrote and published (in multiple versions!) lines like:

My worry is for the bitterness of refugees of disasters,
My worry is for the resentment of those forced to wander.
The lakeside scene glitters,
But the howling of the people of Lin’an is more desperate than the howling of ghosts.
Under the hand of Jia Sidao,
Even after death, it’s difficult to find peace!

Even if we’re going to play the whole ‘Oh, they were talking about the prime minister, not the emperor, ergo weren’t talking about Mao himself!’ game, putting into public writing (and performance!) – even just a few lines - worrying about starving people who are in desperate situations while government officials take pleasure in partying at West Lake is pretty provocative in the early 1960s, during and after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward & resulting famine.

So that manuscript doesn’t burn. None of them do. That’s not a bad thing.

However, I didn’t end my talk on that morose note; I ended it on a slightly more upbeat, worthy-of-a-bad-motivational-poster, yet still melancholy note. Our manuscripts don’t burn, and that’s also not a bad thing. It’s worth reflecting on failures, and remembering that every misstep along the way to a journal article, dissertation, or mss (or job entirely out of the academy) has something to offer. I have spent so much time writing things that wound up shuffled into a file somewhere; so much time reading sources that didn’t pan out (bad enough in English; triply painful in Chinese, at least for me); so much time roughing out projects that don’t pan out as you anticipate. Time spent building courses that don’t work. Time picking out readings that don’t work for courses that kinda do. Etc. etc. etc ….

Every academic career is, in some measure, a history of failure. Some more so than others – often, as has been frequently discussed, due to nothing other than the vagaries of the market. But a Princeton professor’s recent “CV of failures” made some traction on my lists in various places, and it is potentially useful to meditate on, I think (of course, as a follow-up oped in the same paper pointed out, “Only successful people can afford failures” – which is also true, and deserves as much rumination. It’s a lot easier to publicize your failures when safely ensconced in a tenure-track position (having come from a position of relative Privilege) at an elite university – or a non-elite one, for that matter). But ultimately, few people come out of the gate and have no stumbles, in any career. As much as I feel like a bad motivational poster for saying so, I have learned a lot from my failures, big and little. I have been blessed in my career since starting grad school, but I’ve fallen flat on my face plenty. The successes I’ve had have generally felt like completely bizarre, totally unexpected bright spots in the midst of disaster. And that’s not just my anxiety speaking: there were several times when senior people expressed some measure of surprise of ‘Oh, that worked out for you!’ at critical points in my career.

But. Manuscripts don’t burn. The history of my career doesn’t burn, the mistakes I made haven’t, and ultimately – while I don’t think they’ve made me the historian I am, they made me the Chinese historian I am.

It’s finals week, so I’ve been catching up on grading, getting a lot of work done, and also tried to wind down from a far0-039stressful year by watching documentaries and other things that make me happy. There’s a wonderful line in the documentary Elusive Muse (the subject of which is Suzanne Farrell, the last great Balanchine muse – I’ve written about that a bit here, too), which I watched a few days ago while zoning out on the couch. The choreographer Maurice Béjart, who took Farrell and her husband in after they left the New York City Ballet, had this to say on why Farrell was one of the great dancers of the 20th century (and probably ever):

She was different … and she was even different from the Balanchine girls … she was completely different, and – I was very surprised – she had a freedom of movement, with a very clear technical power. But you never felt the technical, you felt the freedom and the musicality. I mean, she’s like – she’s like a violin, I mean, the music comes out from her body.

I’ve heard Béjart utter those lines – and they are memorable ones, I’ve quoted them (badly) to people at several points – any number of times, but something clicked for me in the past two weeks. I want to be technically skilled; but I don’t want people to see it necessarily, because I want to weave a great story. I want it to come out from my writing; I want to be an instrument of a sort – I want the story to come out, which relies on the technical power, while rendering that relatively invisible.

Talismans: they’re important, no matter what you do. And … manuscripts don’t burn. Farrell was great partially because she simply – after a point – wasn’t afraid of making mistakes, which made her highest highs (which were supreme!) possible. A useful lesson, hard as it is to remember when tenure and the judgment of various people (the vast majority of whom aren’t in your field & want to know what you’re not doing XYZ to contribute in ABC ways) are breathing down your neck.

Every bad movie is bad in its own way

AnnaKarenina2012PosterI try very hard (and think I largely succeed) in not being that kind of historian: you know, the one that can’t let historical “fact” go enough to enjoy what’s supposed to be entertainment. Yes, I look askance at random insertions of historical events in films or games – I haven’t (nor will I ever) played Bioshock Infinite, but my eyebrow arched when I came across references to its treatment of the “Boxer Rebellion.” If nothing else, it seemed that no one had read Joe Esherick on the Boxer Uprising (though perhaps someone on the team had, at some point – who knows). In any case, other than a slightly irritated tweet that seeing references to the “Boxer Rebellion” makes me twitchy – which it does – I don’t have much to say about even wild liberties taken with historical events. I always nurture some sort of hope that coming across scattered references will encourage at least a portion of the audience to go searching for more. After all, one of my colleagues – a wonderfully talented scholar – once admitted that his interest in China was partially ignited by playing a Romance of the Three Kingdoms themed game on SNES. Maybe one of the great China scholars of generations to come will find themselves going down the rabbit hole of late Qing history courtesy a game that largely disappointed the game criticism blogosphere? Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

There are some things I am less sanguine about, however, and that includes my favorite literature. Often, seeing novels translated to the big screen is a depressing experience – how can you compress the complexities in many great works down to two hours and change? Frequently, you can’t. Rarely, I like things better on the big screen than in written form, like The Last of the Mohicans (I would much rather be forced to watch the film on loop for an eternity than have to read James Fenimore Cooper’s snoozefest one more time, great American literature or no – the Deerslayer, I might waffle on. Mohicans, certainly not). But I usually avoid cinematic versions of my favorite works, though curiosity occasionally gets the better of me.

My touchstone novel (or one of them), one I come back to over and over again, is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. One of the first moments of serious outrage about the downfall of American culture, as viewed through popular culture, I remember having is when it showed up on Oprah’s book club. “Christ almighty,” I ranted to my mother, “it’s Tolstoy. TOLSTOY! One of the great novels of the nineteenth century! Do people really need OPRAH and a sexed up cover to tell them to read the damn book?” (probably so, is the answer). I’ve been reading it since I was 12 or 13, and I come back to it almost every year. And even when I put off the annual reading, at the very least, my very battered copy has accompanied me all over the world. That Penguin translation – inherited from my mum – is better traveled than most people. It’s an embarrassing record of nearly two decades of reading – coming face to face with what my 15 year old self thought was important enough to highlight can be positively humiliating – but an important book. I’ve read it in English and French, and I think I have a copy floating around in Chinese. I had a vague idea as an undergraduate that I might like to study Russian history, since that would mean having to learn Russian, and that would mean being able to read Tolstoy (and Pushkin and and) in their originals. Maybe I will get around to learning Russian someday, if only to commune with Anna Karenina in the original, and Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries besides.

It’s a big book. It’s a daunting book. Not only is it long (it is Tolstoy, after all), you have two relatively separate plots that come together here and there. Despite these things (or perhaps because of them), it has also proved positively irresistible for film directors. I try not to watch the cinematic versions. I have a 1967 Russian version flittering around that I’m scared to watch, although it’s been in my possession since 2006, and while I actually rather liked the 1997 version starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, I first watched it under duress. I’d been studiously avoiding the 2012 film with Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson. The initial reason for my reluctance was perhaps extremely superficial, but as it turned out, I wasn’t entirely wrong.

This is what is on the cover of my copy of Anna Karenina, the Penguin edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds:


Ivan Kramskoi’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1883). It’s a beautiful painting (and one with an interesting history), one that supposedly ‘inspired’ Tolstoy’s descriptions of Anna, though that’s clearly impossible based on timing. And yet, perhaps because it’s emblazoned on my trusty copy, when I imagine Anna Karenina, fictional character, I imagine something close to this unknown woman with her blue silk-edged muff.

Here is Tolstoy’s description of Anna at the important ball, one of those scenes that I come back to again and again when I think of my imaginary Anna:

Flushed, Kitty lifted her train off Krivin’s knees and, slightly giddy, looked round in search of Anna. Anna was standing in the middle of a group of ladies and gentlemen all talking together. She was not wearing lilac, the colour which Kitty was so sure she ought to have worn, but a low-necked black velvet gown which displayed her full shoulders and bosom, that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with their delicate tiny wrists. Her dress was richly trimmed with Venetian lace. In her black hair, which was all her own, she wore a little wreath of pansies, and there were more pansies on the black ribbon winding through the white lace at her waist. Except for the wilful little curls that always escaped at her temples and on the nape of her neck, adding to her beauty, there was nothing remarkable about her coiffure. She wore a string of pearls round her firmly-modelled neck. (93)

Balanchine & FarrellThat description – of a beautiful, well-shaped woman who is clearly not waifish (I think here of Suzanne Farrell, and Arlene Croce’s comments about her 1960s, pre-Béjart shape and the “plush” and “plump quality” of her movement  – for all the ranting about Balanchine’s encouragement of the anorexic dancer form, none of his great ballerinas could be remotely described as bony sticks. The young Farrell is tall and long and slender, but also round in many respects) – is one reason I managed to stay away from Joe Wright’s Anna. There was just such a fundamental disconnect between the Anna in my head and Keira Knightley that I doubted could be overcome.

I hadn’t thought of the movie in ages, but one of the nice things about being back in an academic fold again is having all sorts of interesting people to talk to, including – for the first time ever in my academic career! – having people (well, one person, at least) who really have studied Russian history (formally, and they do in fact teach it – unlike my amateur interest/bathtime reading combined with the purely practical brushing up against Lenin and Stalin one must do when one studies post-1949 Chinese history) to answer all my pressing questions about late imperial Russian history (e.g., ‘When WAS the point of no return for the Romanov dynasty?’ One answer, in case you were dying to know like I was, is 1905). Anyways, we had a nice chat about Tolstoy & his wife, and Anna Karenina; I admitted I actually liked the 1997 version, but expressed skepticism on the more recent Western remake. My fellow historian hadn’t seen it.

As it happened, my mum was in town recently & in the course of sipping our wine & talking history & attempting to figure out what to do with the evening, we decided to take a chance on the most recent cinematic version of Tolstoy’s epic. And it was true: I found Keira Knightley’s mere form so antithetical to what I have imagined Anna Karenina to be like for over half my life that I never could comfortably slip into the film. It is admittedly a pretty film, and a stylized one – and Knightley’s physical presence is a nice shorthand for the bigger stylistic problems of the film, its conceits. It’s a weirdly stripped down and ahistorical portrayal of a particular period. And while it’s lush, it’s lush in a way that never quite gels.

Maybe I expect period films to be too period. But the latter half of 19th century Russia (at least among the aristocracy) seems so luxurious – so plush, like a late ’60s Farrell arabesque! - it seems a shame to dismantle it and attempt to build it back up again. The novel is so rich that it seems silly to layer on a conceit like “this is all taking place on a stage!” Yes, yes, we get it: the artificiality of society! It’s practically as if late imperial Russian society were proceeding according to a rigid set of conventions that they’re performing – like a play! (Being inspired by Orlando Figes is one thing, turning literal the idea of ‘acting’ is another: really? Did we have to be so literal?) There are clever bits here and there, but when it comes down to it, Tolstoy doesn’t need clever bits. There were striking bits of imagery – as when Anna is in the nursery of Stiva & Dolly’s house, and is seated in the children’s elegant playhouse – but flashes here and there aren’t enough. It’s a film, not a painting.

And then there are the arms. It sounds positively ridiculous – among so many other problems, décolletage and the roundness of arms are going to leap out? But when I think of the great many descriptions tucked into the novel, that description of Anna at the ball – looking even more glamorous than naïve Kitty could’ve dreamed – with her rounded arms, tiny wrists, and ‘firmly-modelled’ neck (here is where I would like to know what the Russian says, and implies: not that I distrust Edmonds, but I always wonder what I’m missing) – it’s that bit of prose I come back to (not the epigraph, and not the famous first line). Whatever the Russian says exactly, we are not dealing with a fragile, willowy beauty.

Even ignoring the fact that Wright has Anna in dress that ‘full shoulders and bosom’ would come falling out of, the horrors, and Knightley’s collarbones could cut a steak – she’s beautiful, to be sure, but Anna Karenina? This becomes more obvious when everything is in motion; she just can’t quite pull off the ever-so-slight bloom off the roseness needed; her Vronsky doesn’t help in these matters, seeming like an escapee from the Corps des Pages, not an officer. They don’t seem to inhabit the roles, instead just putting on the (somewhat off kilter and nowhere near as effective as sumptuous period costumes) clothing. The Levin and Kitty thread (lifted from Tolstoy & Sophia) – often my favorite parts of the novel – show up in random sequences here and there. The contrast is never expounded upon, and while Levin may look delightful rhythmically cutting wheat with his peasants, it’s an excuse to show rippling golden wheat – not actually develop anything.

Perhaps this is nitpicking over costuming and decisions about what part of an admittedly lengthy book a director chooses to trim. On the other hand: I think the arms are my convenient scapegoat for the fact that some versions of Anna Karenina are believable, and some are not. I suspect that even if Sophie Marceau’s arms had been a little less round, her shoulders and décolletage a little less full, she still would’ve been believable as Anna in a way Knightley just isn’t. Sean Bean is more convincing as the dashing Vronsky; the more current version looks as though he’s playing dress up out of a not terribly good costume closet (the women’s clothing – jarring as it is if you’re expecting some semblance of 19th century clothing – is at least luscious in fabric selection; the men get saddled with uniforms that look like they ran out of money before finishing them properly). She gave up everything for him? Really?

There are bones of the story that must be gotten right for everything else to work. Even seemingly minor details keep undercutting the (dare I say) authenticity of the whole project. Vronsky’s mount for the disastrous steeplechase is described in the novel as a dark bay English thoroughbred, ‘not entirely free from reproach’ but generally lovely to look upon (like Anna, then: Tolstoy never describes her as an overwhelming beauty, and she, too, would not be entirely free from reproach – but the general effect is so lovely, one hardly notices the faults). That she has been imagined in the film as a rather heavy, Iberian-looking grey horse would perhaps be forgivable if the interlude rang true (though really, how hard it is to find a bay horse); but the episode is never developed, beyond Anna’s reaction to the fall. Isn’t it more powerful if we see the parallels between the relationship that is about to overtake Vronsky and Anna and this lovely, spirited bay mare who meets a bad end? So too with the Levin-Kitty plot, left mostly untouched except for mucking up the proposal scene and random flashes here and there: doesn’t it make the titular woman’s story that much more powerful?

AK ball 97AK ball 2012

But perhaps my indignant response to some adaptations of Tolstoy’s wonderful novel explains my more tolerant attitude towards historical detritus sprinkled here and there. A film I love, though it’s certainly not a good film, is Le Pacte des loups (2001), which despite being a silly romp in many ways does strike some chords regarding 18th century French history. The story is preposterous, but it can feel spot on even while you’re rolling your eyes about yet another martial arts sequence. No one can recreate a period in its entirety, not even the most conscientious and obsessive historian – details are bound to be lost. We could say the same thing about recreating a novel and moving it to a new medium; what matters is not so much if every detail is correct, but if it rings true. (This isn’t to say that historians should play fast and loose with details – just that, when you’re writing a history of whatever it is you’re writing a history about, you simply can’t write everything) If I, in writing my history, haven’t managed to evoke anything about the period, if it rings false – I haven’t really done a good job of things. It may be solid history, but it’s missing something essential (of course, not all historians do work on topics or periods or themes that lend themselves to being “evocative,” and that’s fine – it’s just not the sort of history I happen to do). Perhaps this is where the most recent version of Anna Karenina fell down for me: the bones were wrong, and the silks were wrong, too.

One of the things I love most about the stories I study is that they have lived many, many lives; there are few sacred cows in the Chinese operatic tradition, and there are many examples of tinkering and adding and subtracting in the literary canon. I like it when my thoroughly Marxist intellectuals declare themselves – in highly literary Chinese – to be heirs of a great tradition, which means changing and playing and not letting it just die. It’s a testament to the resiliency of culture, and how even very old things can be reinvented over and over to remain relevant to different audiences, in different periods, in different places. I’m not adverse to beloved characters putting on new clothes, as it were – it’s fun to see, and fascinating to track. But it needs to ring true. Does Tolstoy’s novel really need flashy camera work and theatrical conceits to be made relevant? Did it really need a sexed up cover? Maybe it did – but I would like to think, if traipsing through a literary and intellectual history of socialist China has taught me anything, that literary works are remarkably resilient creatures, and many themes and stories (even old, old ones – much older than the late 19th century) don’t need much tinkering to make them resonate with the present, whenever that is. Li Huiniang wears many different clothes, but as long as her bones – the barest, stripped down essence of that Song dynasty concubine – remain solid, the adaptations work. But there are limits.

I’ve often joked – though not really joking, for if you look at my work and what I really enjoy doing and teaching, it’s really the truth – that I would’ve been happy as a clam in an EALC department as opposed to history (if we could magically subtract the considerable language chops I would’ve had to develop simply to pass my quals). I always point to the fact that Mao makes the rare appearance in my dissertation (this, despite the fact that I am a “PRC historian”), as I am much more interested in meditating on my beloved intellectuals and their literary output. But perhaps my reaction to Anna Karenina (almost all of them) illustrates that as much, if not more: I can tolerate an amazing amount of “play” with historical events, but keep your hands off my well-loved literary figures unless you’re prepared to do them justice.

Recharging the batteries

How I clean up my laptop desktop

So I’ve had the occasion – thanks to a visit from family – to completely set aside work for about two and a half weeks & just relax.  One thing I’ve found since starting grad school, lo those many years ago, is that “relaxation” is sort of a misnomer for what’s going on when you’re not working.  I tend to be tightly wound and neurotic (several doctors at the clinic on campus have noted with some wonder how tight my shoulder muscles are!), and saddled with a Type A personality with a streak of laziness (a Type A-, perhaps?) – which compounds the neuroses.  In a conversation with an undergraduate contemplating grad school, I opined that separation and compartmentalization can be hard to achieve; work comes home with you, never stays where it’s supposed to, and you can never quite turn off the nagging voice in the back of your head telling you to start working and stop watching TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras marathon.

In any case, I always have a very long to-do list & this has only gotten worse since I’ve been set loose with only a vaguely defined agenda: “research dissertation” is quite different than, say, “write historiography paper that’s due in two weeks” or “research X topic for the next 10 weeks while updating seminar on progress weekly.”  I will be trekking up to Beijing at the beginning of April for a two week business-pleasure trip: the pleasure part is seeing good friends I haven’t seen in months and months (or longer), the business part being seeing one of my advisors.  I am actually quite relieved at the prospect of being able to have a talk – and having a very real, very definite deadline coming up soon has definitely helped my thinking on what work I have gotten done and where I hope to go.

But I haven’t been thinking about that for the past two weeks, no.  I’ve been mellowing out in a happy cocoon of family and pleasure reading.  One thing I have been taking a lot more time for since crossing the qualifying hump is reading for me, not for my research.  My first three years of grad school were stuffed full of a lot of books (of course), but precious few were for my own pleasure.  Those that were could generally be tied in some way, shape, or form back to research or teaching (I had a six month spate of using late Meiji and Taisho era Japanese fiction as my “bath time fluff” – one never knows when one might be called upon to teach a course and need those kinds of materials!  I like to be prepared for most reasonable eventualities).  For once, I haven’t had the overwhelming guilt of “But I should be doing something else!!!”; I’m hoping that this lengthy pause to regroup and rest up will mean better,  more productive weeks ahead – I really needed a break, and I’m finally getting to the point of being able to take one with only a little guilt.

Last summer, I bought a Kindle on a half asleep, 7 AM whim. It actually turned out to be an excellent purchase – I don’t have to worry about access to English language books in China & I don’t have to worry about storage anywhere.  It’s actually made me more inclined towards pleasure reading, since I don’t have to go through the checklist of: Do I actually want to own a physical copy of this book?  Do I need a physical copy?  And finally, would I be embarrassed to have this sharing shelf space with the rest of my books (an important question, to be sure)?  OK, the last bit is an exaggeration – but as I find myself acquiring ever more (academic, research-related) books, space is at a premium & my “light reading” is the first to get pushed out in favor of Serious Secondary Sources.

Looking over what I’ve read in the past few weeks, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, particularly – it’s just not “serious” (as in, having a direct relationship to my research or field of study).  A lot of it is still historical & the vast majority is non-fiction – but I always find it interesting to compare with friends what we consider “fluff,” since it tends to vary wildly.  I have just moved on from a six month sojourn with Tudor history (mostly pretty serious history books; but again, it’s not my field & I can just turn off and enjoy in a way I can’t when I read Chinese history books), where I read good stuff, bad stuff, and in between stuff (and still have a few volumes I need to finish off for good measure).  I’ve been tending towards the slightly more eclectic of late, though still sticking to some favored genres.  Anyways, a couple of highlights:

George Catlin, Sioux Indians hunting buffalo, 1835

Two books on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (here is where e-books drive me crazy: what I really wanted was Evan S. Connell’s seminal – utterly wonderful – Son of the Morning Star, which of course was not available).  First up was A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn – the Last Great Battle of the American West by James Donovan (2009), then Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010).  I read these in quick succession, which was good for comparative purposes.  The Little Bighorn, like the Civil War, has a terribly devoted fanbase and has basically been done to death – which isn’t to say there isn’t anything “new” to say, just that an awful lot of books seem to crib unabashedly off forerunners (you can feel Connell’s influence on both newer volumes – Son of the Morning Star has aged exquisitely).  Still, it’s one of those subjects I like to come back to, as my mother likes to claim that a trip as a 4 year old to Crow Fair – including a sidetrip to march around the battlefield – was a formative event for me as a youngster.  She’s possibly right; I do know that when I read accounts, I find myself wanting to go back (it’s on the list for next year or the year after, I hope).  In any case, while neither book was particularly enlightening, they were solid introductions and reasonably researched popular histories (Philbrick was in desperate need of a better editor).  I’m still hoping Connell’s magnificent narrative will show up in digital format sooner rather than later ….

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra and Caesar

I read two biographies, drawn from wildly different perspectives: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life (2010) and Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath’s Rival and Ted Hughes’ Doomed Love by Yehuda Korean & Eilat Negev (2008).  Not simply divided by time & subject matter, the books were on opposite ends of the spectrum, quality-wise.  Schiff’s take on Cleopatra was surprisingly good – considering the dearth of sources we have, and the fact that Schiff is not a classicist, really good.  I came across it on the hunt for Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (also not available in digital format – sigh), and while it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to sink into, it was a nice diversion for an afternoon.  The author also spent a fair amount of time considering how history has come to be, at least insofar as it reflects on the telling of Cleopatra’s life.  Parts of it felt like coming home & I’ve already downloaded a copy of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico to flit through for fun at a later date, since I’ve been feeling renewed interest in at least sort of returning to well-loved Latin tomes of yesteryear.  I got the impression from Amazon many people were expecting a much “beachier” read – it wasn’t taxing, but I did find it quite satisfying and well written.  It wasn’t mindless fluff to be wandered through without thinking, though I guess the cover image deceived a number of people.

The biography of Assia Wevill, on the other hand, was one of the less satisfying books I’ve read recently – actually, it was just plain bad. I imagine some of the difficulty came from the fact that no one in the story comes off as very likable – Wevill is constantly in odd triangular relationships with a husband and a lover, Plath is, well, Plath & prone to depression and rages, and Hughes comes off as an insensitive jerk, albeit a very talented one.  But the authors didn’t seem clear on how they wanted to package Wevill – thus the narrative came off as confused, and red herrings were tossed into the text with little explanation (does a later feminist poet’s view that Hughes “murdered” Wevill really matter when thinking of what led to the event?  Would it not be better to put that into the, say, section reflecting on her legacy or lack thereof?).  It’s a bit unfortunate, because Wevill comes up only tangentially in biographies of Plath, or of Hughes, or of Plath & Hughes, so the promise of a biography centered on “the other woman” was intriguing.  In the end, though, the only one I felt sorry for was the young daughter of Wevill & Hughes, Shura, who wound up dead on the floor of the kitchen alongside her mother.

I read some other assorted things – a book on the Donner party, two books on Anabaptists in the US – which were consumed in much the same way I consume TV: they just sort of were.  However, I’m currently trotting through a very fun history book that involves one of my very favorite genres of non-fiction – namely, high-altitude climbing tales.  Now, I am not a climber.  I will never be a climber; I will certainly never be a high-altitude climber.  I’m not even sure when I developed a taste for climbing literature. I do remember being totally fascinated when they found George Mallory’s beautifully preserved body on Everest a few years back, and I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a few years after it came out.  Other than my inborn hillbilly love of mountains – and the Himalaya and other high ranges are certainly impressive ones – there’s really no rhyme or reason for my affection for non-fiction stories centered on climbing this or that crazily high point.  Maybe it’s simply that it’s so out of the realm of possibility for my life – I can’t even fathom wanting to do something like climbing Everest or K2 – that it goes from non-fiction to high fantasy.  There is something otherworldly about the high mountain scenes captured by talented photographers.

In any case, while I’ll usually read (guiltily, in the bath, ravenously) memoirs and accounts of varying quality as my most favored of fluff reading, Amazon – for once – had a good suggestion for me in Maurice Isserman & Stewart Weaver’s Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (2010).  It is possibly telling that my favorite book of the past few months was published by a university press.  In any case, unlike most climbing literature which (at least these days) takes the form of memoir or disaster narrative, this is a delightful, juicy history that puts climbing in the Himalaya into context & situates it in larger forces.  It’s really fun and really interesting – and quite a change from my usual guilty pleasure climbing reading. The authors have less interest in obsessively documenting the details of specific expeditions (probably wise, since a great many books exist with only the subject of this or that expedition); rather, they sketch the outlines of what happened while devoting the bulk of their efforts to detailing why this all matters in a bigger picture.  I’m finding it engrossing, but good enough that I’m trying to spin out the reading experience as long as possible – thus only reading in chunks here or there.  Luckily, it’s a pretty “weighty” tome (or would be, if I had a paper copy), so there’s plenty of pages left to be spun out.

I suspect it’s the sort of thing that would bore anyone looking for a quick, light, inspirational (or cautionary) tale to tears, but it’s the sort of “fluff” I love best: serious history that has no bearing on the stuff that I do.  Or at least, if I don’t take notes, I don’t feel bad.  Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t read the footnotes!  I’m looking forward to getting back to my realm of expertise, but a few weeks of diversion has been restful & good for me – I’m feeling more energized than ever to delve back into Meng Chengshun, Meng Chao, opera, and various other projects.

Vittorio Sella, Camp Below the West Face of K2, Karakoram, June, 1909