Review: Independence Lost

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

Kathleen DuVal

Where was this book when I was growing up? Surely an elementary teacher mentioned the existence of colonies Independence Lostbeyond the famous 13 in history class, but they apparently didn’t make much of a dent in the syllabus. Like most Americans, my founding geography is limited to the northeast.

In fact, there were another 13 or so British colonies in North America that did not partake in the revolution. Some of the most successful were along the Gulf Coast, and their history is as rich and fascinating as that of New England’s.

DuVal, an historian at the University of North Carolina, has revived their stories in this wonderful history of America’s “other” colonies. DuVal emphasizes narrative over trivia. Rather than a static recitation of dates and names, she tells the stories of nine citizens representative of the time, from Indian tribal leaders and English businessmen to soldiers and women trying to survive in the harsh environment.

In this respect, I found its structure similar to that of Dan Baum’s brilliant Nine Lives, which revisited Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of nine locals who experienced it.

The drawback to DuVal’s narrative is that, unlike Baum, she doesn’t have direct access (obviously) to the characters, and in the case of the women, it was particularly difficult to find source material.

What DuVal does with the little she has is marvelous. Through the crisscrossing lives of her characters, we encounter a vibrant South, very different from the one that emerges in the post-Revolutionary era. It is also distinct from the northeast. Rather than the us-against-them narrative of New England versus the British empire, the settlements along the Gulf Coast scrape together a tenuous coexistence with native tribes, the French, the Spanish and are more concerned with survival than revolution.

This is a fascinating look at American history forgotten, cobbled together from the disparate lives of the people surviving in the territories of East Florida and West Florida (which extended all the way to New Orleans).

You think you know your American history? Consider it incomplete if you’re just now learning about the importance of Pensacola.

And fill in the gaps with Independence Lost.

Recommended Reads: Historical Summer

What a wild month it’s been. Between politics, crime, World Cup football and my attempt to document the literary stops on my Paris trip, it’s been difficult to keep up with new releases. Here is a sampling of books you may have missed as spring turned to summer.

 

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

Steven K. Green

Oxford University Press

As America approaches its 25th decade, it’s only natural to look back and re-evaluate who we are and what we’ve done with our time in power. Inventing a Christian AmericaPerhaps it’s the mid-life crisis of empire, or just the build-up toward a presidential election, but coming out this summer is an arsenal of books regarding our nation’s founding.

I’m reading as many of them as I can, because it’s a fascinating study, and Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America is an important contribution.

His attempt is to demystify the colonial and revolutionary periods to get at the truth of the religious origins of the country. He starts by addressing two of the most common narratives of the founding: the first being that of a country chartered by religious exiles in search of freedom to practice as they pleased, the other of Founding Fathers who established the separation of church and state.

Both of which he describes as myths, in the literal sense. “In providing explanations of events not personally remembered, myths legitimize the past while they provide a unifying narrative for a distinct people.”

The truth is that colonial life was more diverse than either narrative suggests. Sure, there were religious exiles, but there were people of many beliefs, not just protestantism. And there were many folks that were there for business, adventure or a new start in life.

But when it came time to unify the disparate colonies, a common tale was in order.

Green writes: “The idea of America’s religious origins is essentially a myth created and retold for the purpose of anointing the founding, and the nation, with a higher, transcendent meaning.”

Through his historical digging, Green reveals a pluralistic society that’s difficult to pigeonhole in retrospect. What they did record in founding documents, however, was both a respect for religious practice and the separation of church and state.

Green’s work is thorough and authoritative, and is certainly a book I enjoyed and would recommend. But whereas some academic books have crossover appeal, this is not a book that will translate well to a general audience.

Which is unfortunate, because most Americans would benefit from learning more about the founding and the role of religion in early America. Especially now.

Inventing a Christian America is a great place to start.

 

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time

Jimena Canales

Princeton University PressThe Physicist and the Philosopher

This wonderful revisitation of the relativity debate was released on June 17. Or was it? Time is relative, of course, as Einstein taught us a century ago. While relativity is the rule these days, it wasn’t a slam-dunk sell in the early 20th century, and philosopher Henri Bergson appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. The notion that time can move differently for two people not in uniform motion (or that events can occur simultaneously — or not — depending on relative motion) had to sound a little like voodoo to a populace born in the 19th century.

Of course, we know that Einstein won out, and our notion of time has never been the same. Canales takes us back to when it all changed, not in the typically triumphant language that we often get from biographies of Einstein, but from the perspective of a skeptical inteligencia not yet acquainted with nuclear energy and quantum mechanics. An interesting and important read.

Littérature Francaise: Albert Camus

When I was 21, my best friend Todd lent me a copy of The Stranger, and my life’s trajectory hasn’t been the same Albert Camussince. To a self-identifying outsider, the story of Mersault, who exemplifies anomie, was a revelation.

A philosophy professor once told me, in a somewhat dismissive way, that Camus was the author for “angry young men,” and I certainly fit that description at the time. But I’ve re-read The Stranger in my 30s and 40s and have found it to be just as relevant, though speaking to me in different ways.

Ever since my first introduction, I’ve been obsessed with Camus. The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus remain two of my of top-five favorite books. The Plague and The Fall continue to haunt me, and The Rebel still confounds me.

It is no surprise, then, that my time in Paris was dominated by thoughts of Camus. In advance of the trip, I researched some of his favorite spots to compile a personal literary tour of the great existentialist (a great resource is Connect Paris’ In the Footsteps of Albert Camus).

Of course, the definitive Camus hotspot is the cluster of cafes in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres (Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore and Brasserie Lipp), which has unfortunately become much of a tourist trap. Nevertheless, this area has been home to some of the world’s finest thinkers. Prior to the Existentialists, such as Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the area hosted a collective of Enlightenment thinkers, the Encyclopedistes, led by philosopher Denis Diderot and mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Together, they compiled Encyclopedie, which featured contributions from the likes of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marcel Proust wrote about the neighborhood, Richard Baldwin hung out in it and the world’s greatest skeptic, Descartes, is entombed there.

Bona fides, indeed.

There is no shortage of literary history in Paris, but for me, the Saint Germaine is most haunted by the Algerian author who resisted the Nazis, won the Nobel Prize and commented on the absurdity of the human condition with more acuity than anyone of his generation.

While I wasn’t able to retrace his steps through the city, I am able to view his works with fresh eyes. I even bought a copy of The Plague in the original French, with the intention of learning the language (and besides, I needed a third edition of this book!).

That remains a work in progress, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on some of his English translations.

The Fall

Truly, all of Camus’ books are unsettling, in the truest sense of that word, because that’s his intent. These are not The Fallpastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about easing your conscience.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

The Fall is the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage — perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried beneath the rubble of his failings. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

The Stranger

What I remember identifying with in my two initial reads of this novel was the sense of alienation and inaction The Strangersurrounding Meursault. I thought of him as a passive character forced into action. I appreciated his indifference, his dispassionate observance of events.

Third time around, I noticed something new: Camus does not reduce Meursault to the one-dimensional figure I had considered him to be. He is not necessarily alienated or passive. He interacts with many people in the novel other than Raymond and Marie. He is not as passive as I recalled. This is significant because I think that’s why Meursault resonates so strongly more than half a century since the novel’s publication. It was my mental shortcomings (or perhaps the imposition of my own personality onto the narrator) that reduced Meursault to an idea rather than a vibrant literary figure.

Paying closer attention to Meursault’s interiority, I realized that his time in prison is hardly passive. Though physically confined, his mind is alert and active.

The point, I gather, is not action vs. inaction (which I initially thought), but rather the arbitrariness of action. Indifference is more than a passive stance. Meursault comes to represent what he refers to as “the gentle indifference of the world.” Existence is absurd and meaningless is the credo of existentialism, and so it goes with The Stranger. What is the rhyme or reason for Meursault’s murder of the Arab, a chance encounter for which he bore no bad blood? In terms of a causal relationship, we can trace the episode back to the narrator’s friendship with Raymond, his defense of him in court, the earlier melee with the Arabs, his random possession of the gun and Meursault’s naïve thought that the men wouldn’t return to fight again.

But in the larger scope of existence — “the gentle indifference of the world” — what difference does it make? The two men found themselves in that particular moment. They acted in that particular way (the Arab pulling his knife, Meursault the gun). For the narrator, the bright sunlight is as much to blame as he. He can’t even explain why he continued to shoot after the Arab was dead. He just did.

Camus is so successful in stating his case for the absurdity of existence that his masterwork has remained in print long after his death. The mark of great literature is its timelessness — the ability to revisit a beloved book again and again and to learn something new each time. So it is for me with The Stranger. Read first as an outsider, second as a philosophy student and lastly with an eye for form and technique, I realize that Meursault is a more rounded character than I first believed. Camus’ use of the interior infuses the book with an energy I felt but didn’t quite recognize on my first two reads.

I am certain I will read it again before I die, and I look forward to whatever fresh insights this, and his other books, have to offer.

Littérature Francaise: The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

In anticipation of visiting Paris, I wanted to bone up on my French philosophy. I’d devoured Camus and Sartre, but The Second Sexwas light on the third member of the Le Deux Magots triumvirate, Simone de Beauvoir. So en route to Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, I read volume I of her seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex.

It was intended to be a pleasure read, not a book to review, but then Vanity Fair published a cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner. This opened an interesting and unexpected dialogue about gender identification. If you stick to legitimate outlets, the discussion has been civil, informative and worthwhile. The New York Times, in particular, has provided engaging commentary.

I bring this up because, well, de Beauvoir was writing about gender identity nearly seventy years ago and her words remain relevant. Remarkable, really, when you consider that she wrote the first volume prior to the civil rights movement.

Disclaimer: This column is mostly a review of the book, not a commentary on Jenner, the cisgendered and transgendered communities, or the definition of a “woman.” Of course I have my opinions. I’ve had many transgendered friends, co-workers and clients, and personally, I’ll refer to you by whatever pronoun you’d like and recognize you as whatever gender you identify with.

But I believe the role of cisgendered, heterosexual men in this discussion is to listen and learn from it. The only edict I’ll deliver is that we all could benefit from reading de Beauvoir. Especially now.

In the first part of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argues that mere physiology is not enough to define gender. One of the lines that most stuck out for me was, “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life.”

Remember, this was more than half a century before cisgendered entered the layman’s lexicon.Cafe de Flore

De Beauvoir emphasizes that environment plays a profound role in gender development. Environment includes everything from external forces (de Beauvoir considers the role of psychology, religion and myth in identifying women as an “Other”) to internal feelings and expression.

“…it is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived by the subject. Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such. There are biologically essential features that are not a part of her real, experienced situation…”

The breadth of The Second Sex is astounding. De Beauvoir surveys the fields of biology, psychology, literature and religion with a thoroughness that is impressive as much as it is purposeful. She’s not lecturing as she is constantly working through her thesis in excruciating detail. De Beauvoir isn’t discussing single-cell reproduction for the hell of it. She is constructing a logical stronghold that still stands.

Yes, it can be tedious at times, but her argument was meant to transcend its time, as it has. It’s worth the struggle.

Of course, existentialist thought permeates the book, but it plays different than that of Camus and Sartre. Whereas Le Deux Magotsthose guys, awesome though they were, often deal with abstracts and ideals, de Beauvoir is working at more of a gut level. She is fighting for privileges her two comrades take for granted.

While the continued relevance of The Second Sex speaks to the brilliance and vision of de Beauvoir, it’s also an unfortunate reality. It would be preferable if this book felt more dated, but as most commentaries on Jenner reference The Second Sex, I think we have not come as far as we should have.

But the fact that we’re having this conversation is progress, and we owe a great debt to de Beauvoir’s contributions. It’s best, I think, to let her have the final word on this topic and leave it at that:

“…it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.”

Review: The Fold

The Fold

Peter Clines

Peter Clines is my new favorite author in the horror universe. His previous novel, 14, was a page-burner that flipped The Foldthe haunted house tale inside-out (quite literally). For his new book, he makes origami of the space-time continuum.

The Fold begins on the last day before summer vacation. Mike Erikson is a high-school English teacher with a special talent: he never forgets anything. This is both a blessing and a curse. He’s intellectually gifted, but suffers the burden of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. At the prodding of an old friend, he audits a secretive research project in San Diego known as the Albuquerque Door.

At first, the Door — which facilitates trans-dimensional travel via a shortcut through the multiverse — is considered a breakthrough. By a simple bend in space-time (and with the help of some Victorian-era equations), the research team is able to transport objects, animals and people from one place to another.

Erikson soon detects something off with the project, though. Despite the personal rewards and social benefit that would accompany the announcement of their world-changing discovery, the scientists (who are suspicious of his investigation) keep the Door in development for years.

Oh, and there is also that seldom-discussed matter of the researcher who went through the Door, suffered a mental breakdown upon return and has been institutionalized since.

As Erikson digs deeper, he uncovers the shady history of the project and its shortcut through the multiverse. It all comes apart when a transport goes badly. The Door opens a pathway through a nightmare dimension that could destroy all others if they can’t get it shut.

That’s when this dice-roll with the universe becomes a Frankensteinian fable.

Clines is a master at developing quirky heroes in slanted realities. He doesn’t rely on gore, violence or trauma to create a sense of unease. He terrorizes with subtlety, pointing out the off-kilter among the mundane and letting it gnaw at the reader’s mind.

There is horror that sucks you down the rabbit hole through a trap door. Not Clines. He takes you there via quicksand. The dude is merciless.

The Fold incorporates many genres, from detective fiction and literary horror, to science fiction and Lovecraftian terror. Clines’ prose sweeps you through the chapters, breathing in and out of the tension without ever losing the narrative pace. I could have easily read this in one sitting, and just may have if my plane hadn’t landed in Reykjavik before I reached the end.

Though easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, The Fold does have some flaws. Erikson, on the whole, is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and for the first 200 pages or so is entirely believable. However, as we approach the climax he becomes too powerful and loses his vulnerability. It’s easy to root for the humble, nerdy English instructor. Not as much when he’s able to score women outside his area code and fend off other-worldly monsters more skillfully than the Marines.

Despite these stretches of the imagination, The Fold, is a smart thriller that uses quantum physics as a launchpad for terror. Like Lovecraft, Clines knows that the greatest threat is not the one that seeks you, but the one you stumble upon, that stares back at you when you gaze too long into the abyss.

In any dimension, the greatest threat to mankind is, well, mankind. The greatest horrors are those of our own making.

Understanding this is what makes Clines one of the best horror writers of the moment — and makes The Fold a must-read summer thriller.

Review: The Euthanist

The Euthanist

Alex Dolan

In one of the most promising debuts since Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Alice Blanchard’s Darkness Peering, The EuthanistThe Euthanist strikes like a suckerpunch and never lets up. Seriously, this book is freakin’ relentless.

On most days, Pamela Wonnacott is a kind-hearted firefighter and EMT with a troubled past, but as Kali, she provides a different kind of public service as an end-of-life caregiver. She is attending to Leland, a terminal patient who has requested assisted euthanasia, but in the first of many twists, Leland turns out to be an undercover agent.

The opening chapter of The Euthanist left me breathless, only to be one-upped by chapter two. The pacing is spry and the narration is delightfully disorienting in the manner unique to first-person POV. There is nobody Kali can trust, and even her allies turn on her when she unwittingly brings the FBI to their door.

Dolan manages all of this well, avoiding the usual traps of first-person narration (he keeps Kali disoriented, but not clueless) and managing his twists and reveals organically. Most impressively, he doesn’t manufacture a ridiculous romantic angle or give us a cavity with overwrought sentimentality.

On the whole, this is masterful storytelling that lets the characters, and not convention, dictate their actions. There is only one scene that feels over the top, in which Kali’s costume serves a theatrical purpose rather than a practical one. Beyond that, the characters and their motivations are authentic, and the tension in this novel is intoxicating.

As Kali says, “Fear isn’t pain, but it is the expectation of it.” Except with Kali, Chekhov’s gun is replaced with a syringe.

The Euthanist is particularly relevant as right-to-die issues have gone from hushed whispers to appropriate dinner conversation. Dolan doesn’t beat us over the head with social commentary, but allows the conversation to play out between Kali and Leland.

This is an exciting debut, and I look forward to more of Alex Dolan’s writing.