Monday, December 3, 2012

a little history, and a little winter

It is the most wonderful time of the year! Yesterday I had to visit a store which shares a parking lot with a Christmas Tree Shop. I would rather tackle the Donner Pass in a stagecoach than do that again; presumably the Donners had fewer offensive bumper stickers.

But I do love the Christmas season. We even got a little snow on December 1st, and I set up my hilarious little fake tree and listened to carols and stockpiled some crack tea and pondered whether I want to make my annual egg nog purchase, of which I always take one sip, make a noise of delighted disgust that goes like, "Bllleeeayyyeah," and then leave the container in the fridge until March.

What have I read lately?

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss, which popped up on a library search and I didn't even realize it was by the same guy who wrote The Orientalist, which I really like. This was also very, very good. It's a biography of General Alex Dumas, the half-black father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, and it's also a portrait of a rapidly changing racial society. I had no idea that the ideals of the French Revolution incorporated radical racial equality, or that even before the Revolution eighteenth-century France was an almost race-blind world. Dumas rose to military success at a time when in any other country he would probably not even have been allowed in the army, and in fact when his regiment arrives in a little French village and he falls in love with the innkeeper's daughter, her father's only condition for their marrying is that Dumas obtain a higher rank than his current one. That blew my mind. It's 1789, and everyone is fine with an interracial marriage. Apparently that's just how France was, although at the time the country also owned more colonies dependent on slave labor than any other nation. Reiss mentions this repeatedly; apparently the idea of "French soil", on which any man could be free, and the economic reality of colonization, were able to exist simultaneously.

Anyway, Dumas became a general and trounced France's enemies and was eventually captured in Naples and imprisoned under horrible conditions for two years (his son would use this as fodder for The Count of Monte Cristo). While he was imprisoned Napoleon rose to power and racial equality in France went down the tubes fast. Upon his return, Dumas could not get his pension, and he died young and left his family in poverty. It's a sad story but a fascinating one; I learned a great deal and Reiss' style is exuberant and intelligent. Highly recommended.

Of course I started re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo after this. I'd forgotten how slowly it starts, so I'm puttering through a chapter at a time while I read other stuff, but I'm looking forward to it getting fun.

Then I fluffed through another Ruth Rendell, Not in the Flesh. It was fine; not particularly challenging and I figured out the solution before the characters did, which is always a little bit irritating. But it's got a thoughtful subplot about race and immigration in England and I enjoyed reading it for the most part.

Nearly done with a semi-trashy biography of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (no, I don't really understand this choice of mine either, but there it is). The snow has all melted. Things aren't bad.


  1. I spotted soy eggnog in the store recently. I can't remember if I liked it (I think I've had it), but I'm excited for it anyway.