Bag Girl Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.

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Sarah Vowell is an American historian and author known for her snarky and irreverent writing style and unconventional way of handling non-fiction prose. My father is an admirer of her and her work and that is how I am aware of it. When I decided to write my term paper on the Marquis de Lafayette and the beginnings of America’s relationship with France, I was reminded of this book and chose to use it as one of my sources. Vowell’s writing is unique among history books in that they have a much less formal and pedantic tone than is typically associated with the genre. Her books read more like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than the history texts students are made to read in school. The structure of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is based around Vowell’s trips to sites associated with her subjects and she often goes into descriptions of the people and places she encounters on her excursions. As someone with a penchant for history related vacations, I find this format enjoyable.

Vowell begins the book with the question “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” The most fascinating question to ponder about this unlikeliest of founding fathers is why and how did a teenage French aristocrat end up becoming an important figure in the cause of American independence and wholeheartedly embraced, and was embraced by, a country so different from his own. Vowell’s central theme is what Lafayette, as one of America’s first national celebrities, was one of the few unifying figures in American history, which is riddled with social and political division.

During the research period for this book, Vowell visited a number of Lafayette related sites such as the Chateau de Chavaniac in the Auvergne region of France, Lafayette’s childhood home and the Brandywine Battle Site, where Lafayette fought his first battle as a general in the Continental Congress, and the sites of other battles where Lafayette fought such as Monmouth and Yorktown. Because Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is as much a travel narrative as a historical one, Vowell finds ways of incorporating these experiences into the narrative she is telling. Vowell describes her approach to history as thus “Having studied art history, as opposed to political history, I tend to incorporate found objects into my books,” she writes. “Just as Pablo Picasso glued a fragment of furniture onto the canvas of ‘Still Life With Chair Caning,’ I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past — traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bibs and bobs I learn from looking out bus windows or chatting up the people I bump into on the road.” The final product is a hodgepodge of historical fact and amusing anecdote.

Vowell explores Lafayette as both a person and as symbol for both the Americans and the French of a relationship that was tense and complex from the beginning. Lafayette managed to form an alliance between two vastly different countries (the curmudgeonly and puritanical Americans and the haughty and effete French) which lasted over the centuries. He tried to use his revolutionary credentials to cool the worst excesses of the French Revolution but barely managed to get out of it with his head intact. In 1824, the sixty-seven year old Lafayette visited the now United States and was met with a superstar’s welcome. The 1824 American tour elicited the equivalent of a modern day media frenzy with crowds of thousands appearing to see the elderly Lafayette wherever he went. Entrepreneurs profited from the Lafayette mania through the very American phenomenon of commemorative souvenirs.

The title Vowell chose for her book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States refers to the main theme of the text, that Americans have been traditionally a divided people, broken up into a number of social, political, religious, and racial factions, and unwilling to cooperate and agree amongst themselves and other countries but Lafayette was one of the few things that united the American people and united them with France. Lafayette embraced America wholeheartedly and the feelings were mutual as the Lafayette mania of 1824 shows.

Almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on North American soil, they began to squabble pettily with one another and their relationship with the outside world was marred by misunderstanding and outright xenophobia. The decision to break away from Europe and form their own society was much easier than coming to a consensus as to who should run that society and how it should be run. In today’s socio-political climate, the growing pains of the New United States feel familiar, relevant, and perhaps comforting. Viciousness, pettiness, and conflict are far from anything new in American political life and the country has gone through some nasty periods of strife but always come through it. One of the few things that can bring its diverse peoples with their diverse values together is a shared reverence for its founding fathers.

One of the things I find fascinating about studying the founding fathers, and I get the impression that Sarah Vowell does too, is that once you get past the image of wise and infallible sages that posterity created for them, you find that they are relatably flawed. Vowell enjoys affectionately taking her subjects down a peg. Washington and Lafayette were great men but even they had their shortcomings. Lafayette’s disobedience to the orders of the French government and departure for the Americas was the ultimate act of teenage petulance and rebellion and Washington was saddled with a position that no mere mortal could possibly handle without a lot of strain. We find stories of their outbursts and petty infighting interesting and amusing because such behavior is understandable and relatable. Who has not talked smack about someone they do not like.  

As much as I love history, I struggle with reading history books as do many people. The genre has a not totally undeserved reputation for being dry, intimidating, and unapproachable. This is why Sarah Vowell’s books come as a breath of fresh air. Her snarky, rambling prose filled with slang and pop culture references is the exact opposite of the textbooks I had to slog through for my history classes. I am also reading W.E Woodward’s biography of Lafayette as research for the term paper I am writing and saying that getting through the book is a chore to get through is putting it mildly. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an ideal book for people with an interest in history but struggle with five hundred page biographies filled with footnotes, annotations, and other appendices.

Vowell’s informal and irreverent writing style makes the book more accessible than those of her peers but does not feel dumbed down. Her prose has the feeling of a casual conversation with an intelligent, interesting, and eccentric person. The road trip format of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States I find enjoyable as someone who loves to travel and whose childhood family trips were to historic sites such as Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg. The text is cobbled together from both the highbrow discourse of historians and conversations with the random people one encounters during a road trip. This style is effective because it shows how history relates to the world outside of academia. Vowell enjoys taking digs at America’s intertwined reverence and ignorance of its own history. She is tackling a well known but not understood subject. Most people have a vague knowledge of the American Revolution or the Civil War but have little interest in studying deeper into the subjects.  Yet we trot out our god-like adoration of the founding generation each Fourth of July and the Civil War still evokes violent feelings even today. Historic sites are popular and lucrative tourist destinations yet no one seems to want to pay tax money for their upkeep.

I would recommend Lafayette in the Somewhat United States especially if you are interested in the Revolutionary War Era and or Franco-American relations.

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Bag Girl Halloween Special: A Review of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and An Evening in Salem

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During November and December of 2010, I spent a good amount of time in Boston for follow up doctor’s appointments after being released from Children’s Hospital following my second and third heart surgeries. Near Children’s Hospital is a Barnes and Noble, where my mom poked around while waiting for the next doctor’s appointment. Barnes and Noble sells composite volumes of the works of a number of authors with elaborate leather bound covers ( I received one which contains the novels of Jane Austen that Christmas) one of which is called The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I purchased during one of the many Barnes and Noble gift cards I received as get-well-soon presents. In honor of Halloween, I decided to pull out this book and read through its highlights.

The Raven and Annabel Lee are Poe’s best-known poems and both deal with lost love and untimely death. Deceased loved ones show up a lot in Poe’s work and are a case of art imitating life since Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died young. He is quoted as saying “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.” The narrator of The Raven is sunk in grief and depression following the death of his sweetheart/wife Lenore. The name Lenore is frequently used to rhyme with “Nevermore” the raven’s reply to each of the narrator’s questions about God and life after death, and the repetitious use of these two words is used to show how the narrator is constantly reminded that Lenore is “Nevermore” or dead. The poem’s frequent use of onomonopias such as “knock” and “croak” make it a poem meant to be read aloud and perfect for a dramatic reading.  Premature death to illness (most frequently tuberculosis) was all too familiar to Poe and his nineteenth-century contemporaries who were passionate mourners. Annabel Lee epitomizes the almost necrophilic reverence with which deceased women are treated in Poe’s writing. Its narrator sees their dead sweetheart as an angelic and heavenly figure and treats her seaside tomb as a shrine. Lenore in The Raven is characterized as a seraphimal presence in a similar way that Annabel Lee is. Women appear in the Poe oeuvre as distant, celestial, forever young and beautiful objects to be pined for and worshipped almost as a saint. Death does not separate a lover from the object of their affection but rather increases his ardor for her.

The Tell-Tale Heart is another of Poe’s works that desire an aloud reading for the reader to get its full effect. It is similar in structure to The Raven: the narrator of both pieces is haunted by an event in the past (the death of Lenore; the murder of the old man) and both rely heavily on sound (the knocking and croaking of the raven; the beating of the old man’s heart). The ending of The Tell-Tale Heart masterfully builds up to its climax at a tempo which resembles an accelerating pulse as the narrator is driven to confess their crime. Like the raven symbolizes grief and lost love, the beating heart represents the narrator’s insanity (is the sound there or is it all in their head?) and guilt (the narrator cannot bear this guilt any longer and releases this burden by confessing to their crime).

Untimely death from disease was an unfortunate and inescapable reality of nineteenth-century life. In The Masque of the Red Death, a prince and his courtiers try to escape from a plague by secluding themselves inside the prince’s lavish mountain castle, where they try to forget about the horrors going on in the outside world by partying. The castle contains a loud, booming clock which startles and dumbfounds the guests whenever it marks the hours. When the clock strikes midnight, a red shrouded figure wearing with a skull face appears, representing the disease which the partygoers seek to avoid and are later killed by. Death appears in Poe’s writing as an unavoidable and inevitable part of life. It will get you in the end, no matter how rich and privileged you are, and it’s only a matter of time.

The themes found throughout Poe’s work such as madness, the inevitability of death and decay come into place in The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s narrator is called to visit his childhood friend Roderick Usher at his dilapidated ancestral mansion. Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their family line and Roderick is deeply depressed because Madeline is wasting away from a chronic illness and becomes more and more paranoid and insane until he has a mental breakdown and believes that the recently deceased Madeline was buried alive. The title The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: the Usher family ancestral mansion collapses in on itself at the end of the story and with the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, the Usher family bloodline is extinct. We are given the impression that it is the corruption of Usher family (Madeline is sickly and Roderick is insane) has eaten away at the family legacy and its collapse is inevitable.

Jasmine and I took the three o’clock shuttle into downtown Salem and walked to Salem Cinema. Downtown was crowded and alive with people dressed up in a variety of costumes. At four o’clock, Jasmine and I attended a screening of a documentary called The History of Halloween. The documentary was interesting but I found it a bit silly and pandering. Jasmine was upset by the fact that people in the middle ages used to cull black cats because they thought they were bad luck. This is one of the factors which led to the outbreak of the bubonic plague. After the movie, we watched to look in these Wiccan shops that Jasmine likes but Coven’s Cottage was closed and there was a line to get into Hex. Walking through the downtown area, we saw someone dressed up as Pennywise from It, a man playing Tom Petty songs on his guitar, and what Jasmine refers to as “religious freaks” who were berating people for their sinful ways. Jasmine and I wanted to end our evening by getting drinks at Rockefeller’s but the wait there was forty-five minute to an hour long wait, so we ended up being home by six when most people were starting to go out for the evening.

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I finished up the evening by watching the 1964 film version of The Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price.

Bag Girl Reviews: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

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I was first exposed to the Outlander series because my mom and my neighbor Michelle watched Starz television adaptation, a ritual to which I was cordially not invited. For this reason, I jokingly called Outlander their “mummy porn.”  Last summer I began renting episodes of season one through YouTube and was quickly hooked, so much so that I had my mom buy me the first two books, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber.  The third in the series, Voyager, was among the books I received for Christmas and I had planned on reading it while I was on my Bermuda cruise, but was prevented to because Mom would not allow me to bring my tablet, which contains the audiobook I listen along with. So I continued reading it when I returned.

Voyager begins in 1968, twenty years after the end of Dragonfly in Amber. Surgeon Claire Randall travels to Scotland with her grown daughter Brianna and enlists the help of the young historian Roger Wakefield to find out what happened to Jamie Fraser, an eighteenth century Jacobite believed to have died at the battle of Culloden. Claire has spent the last twenty years with her reserved and scholarly previous husband Frank, now dead, but longs for Jamie, the man she married after a mysterious force drew her back in time two hundred years to eighteenth century Scotland and who is Brianna’s real father. With the help of Brianna and Roger, Claire is able to travel through the magical stone circle of Craigh Na Dun and return to her beloved Jamie but finds that her journey has only begun. After Jamie’s nephew, Ian is kidnapped by white slavers, the saga of Claire and Jamie brings us to the exotic and brutal world of colonial Jamaica.

Each of the Outlander novels are ambitious and expansive and Voyager is the most so, running in at over a thousand pages but is a page turner of the first class. Despite now being middle aged, Claire and Jamie still have their sizzling chemistry. The book is an enjoyable adventure, perfect for a voyage of your own.

Bag Girl Reviews: The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

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In the wake of the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton, several historical fiction novels have come out which tell the story of the revolutionary it couple Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, a long overlooked founding mother now reinvented as the ultimate romantic heroine. The first of such books was The Hamilton Affair by author and historian Elizabeth Cobbs.

The story of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler has all the ingredients for the perfect period romance: an unlikely couple including a dashing and ambitious hero clawing his way up from the bottom and a beautiful and spirited heroine from a wealthy family, a whirlwind wartime romance, and plenty of scandal and appearances from well known historical figures. But I admit that I could not get into The Hamilton Affair.  Many of the elements of the plot have their basis in historical fact but I did not enjoy them from a storytelling point of view.

My first problem with the story is the portrayal of Eliza and her sister Angelica. Eliza starts off as an outdoorsy tomboy who is uninterested in what is expected of an upper-class eighteenth-century girl. Her real life counterpart was said to be something of a tomboy and enjoyed being outdoors but was also skilled in everything a colonial woman was supposed to know such as sewing and housekeeping.  I have no problem with a girl being a tomboy but it’s a cheap and cliched way of making a female character from a different time period seem down to earth and relatable to modern audiences. In contrast, her older sister Angelica is portrayed as a vain and pretentious ninny who is only interested in finding a husband. Eliza is jealous of her beauty and charm and is dismissive of her. Angelica is used as a foil to Eliza in both The Hamilton Affair and Hamilton. While Eliza in Hamilton is gentle and demure, Angelica is feisty and outspoken. While Eliza in The Hamilton Affair is sensible and down-to-earth, Angelica is vain and flighty. Although both sisters were very different in real-life (Eliza was domestic and unpretentious and Angelica was a glamorous social butterfly) they were very close all their lives. One of the things that I appreciate about Hamilton is that though Angelica and Eliza are presented as foils and both love the same man, they are not pitted against each other; Angelica chooses her relationship with her sister over her feelings for Alexander. Angelica is not my favorite of the Schuyler sisters (I think her character in Hamilton is overrated and find Eliza more interesting), I think she deserves better than she gets in The Hamilton Affair.

The second problem is that I know and do like what is going to happen. Those who are familiar with Hamilton will know that the title character cheats on his wife with the younger, hotter Maria Reynolds. This is a part of the story I usually like to skip over because I am rooting for Alexander and Eliza as a couple. I am not interested in Alexander’s so called moral dilemma and do not feel sorry for him one bit when his life falls apart because of it.

And finally, I do not like how easily Alexander is let off for what he did. The Hamilton Affair excuses his infidelity with the old “he’s only human” justification. Eliza eventually gets over it, though she is tempted by an Iroquois Indian man she had a crush on as a teenager,  and it’s framed as she needs to be the better person and forgive rather than he needs to do something to earn her forgiveness. The book buys into the idea that men cannot control their baser urges and women should be “the better person” and forgive them when they err and god forbid they give the cheating son of a bitch a taste of his own medicine . That may have been how people in this time period though but it annoys me from a modern perspective. For a woman like Eliza, sticking with her husband and patching things up with him would have been her best and most realistic option but I imagine that doing so isn’t easy. Forgiving and moving on is not as easy as simply getting over it.  While in Hamilton, Eliza symbolically cuts her philandering husband out of her life by burning the letters she wrote to him, thus erasing all the proof of her feelings for him. When their son, Philip, dies in a duel, this shared tragedy brings them back together. Alexander has to suffer to earn his wife’s forgiveness, which is more satisfying from a narrative standpoint.

I imagine that some people might enjoy The Hamilton Affair if they are not as puritanical and judgmental as I am when it comes to adultery but I think that it pales in comparison to the musical it is riding on the coattails of.

Bag Girl Reviews: Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Without a Country by Kathyrn Lasky

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Growing up, Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country was an entry in the Royal Diaries series that I always wanted to read but never got a chance to. When I reread Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles last fall, I decided to purchase Queen Without a Country off of Amazon. 

Eleven-year-old Mary Stuart believes that she is destined to rule three countries. By birth, she is Queen of Scotland and she is arranged to marry the heir to the French throne, the frail but good natured Francis. Those around her say that she has a better claim to the English throne than its current occupant. But being a beautiful young royal growing up in the renaissance French court is not the fairy tale one might imagine. Mary and her loyal clique of ladies in waiting, all named Mary (this gets a little confusing at times, I can understand why Reign changed this but did they have to give them such preposterous names as Lola, Greer, Kenna, and Aylee) have to deal with spies and political intrigue, a pedophilic music teacher, and Mary’s treacherous and prickly mother-in-law to be, Catherine de Medici.

I always get a kick out of when I find surprisingly adult elements in books intended for children, such as Signor Marcellini, the music master who comes onto Mary Fleming, the real life counterpart to Reign’s Lola. One needs to keep in mind that Mary and her ladies are supposed to around eleven or twelve and girls in the sixteenth century were considered sexually mature around that age so that by the standards of the time, Signor Marcellini would not be considered a pedophile.  

Like I said with Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, this book is meant for elementary and middle school aged readers and comes across as somewhat juvenile to me at this point in my life, but I probably would have enjoyed when I was younger. The setting of the highly refined sixteenth-century French court is fascinating and like with Reign, it is meant to be escapism. Many young girls enjoyed fantasizing about being a beautiful princess, wearing gorgeous clothes, and having exciting things happen to you, I know I did. And if there is a historical setting, all the better.