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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 13, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Austen and the SATs, Lies, Histories, and a Rainmaker

When you realize that Andy Riley, the author of Great Lies to Tell Small Kids, also created Bunny Suicides, you already know something about the tone of what's in the book.

I bought the book because I opened it in the middle and read a few pages and was delighted.

If I had read the first "joke" I would have set it back down on the bookstore shelf in disdain.

There are also a few pages that are so British that American readers will barely understand them -- or, if they understand, won't laugh.

But if you can get past a couple of offensive and a handful of unfunny pages, much of this book is worth reading aloud to another adult who thinks it's cute to tease children with extravagant falsehoods.

"It's unlucky not to name every ant you see ... for your whole life."

"When you leave the room, cooked spaghetti tries to wriggle back home to Italy."

"Milk feels pain."

I'm sorry, but that is precisely my sense of humor when talking to children I like. Fortunately, all the children I know are smart enough not to believe me. (Unfortunately, they also don't believe me when I tell them the truth.)

*

Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs by Paula Marantz Cohen is a delightful example of the recent spate of books that frankly steal from Jane Austen.

Drawing on Austen's Persuasion for a plot, Cohen does far more than echo the story of a young woman who gave up the impoverished young man she loved because her wealthy family persuaded her that they could not be happy together.

Her main character, Anne Ehrlich, has since become a guidance counselor in an upscale public school, where the frantic parents of college-bound students go through astonishing shenanigans to try to get their scions into the college that they have decided represents the holy grail.

This is also true to the spirit of Jane Austen, who satirized her own society's obsession with obtaining the tokens of "success." In her day, it was all about money that you didn't earn yourself; in our day, it's about getting into the right college.

The result is a novel that functions as dead-on social satire, a kind of cross between Persuasion and Up the Down Staircase. I found myself caring about many of Erhlich's students almost as much as I cared about her own love story.

But for those who love Austen's original (which includes me), I can also promise you that Cohen writes the heroine's family with every bit as much delicious cruelty as Austen.

Since American book sales are largely driven by women's book clubs, I can promise you: This book will be a hit, at least with everybody in your group that isn't actually doing the insane things these parents do to get their kids into the school-of-choice. And maybe, for some of them, it will be a wake-up call.

*

Speaking of colleges as status symbols, for what it's worth, I have never found a link between a particular college or level of education and intelligence, drive, creativity, decency, ethics, or achievement. So I really don't understand what all the fuss is about with college admissions, at least outside the sciences.

A good student can get a good education anywhere that has a decent library and a handful of good teachers -- which is the most you ever get in the Ivy League or other high-reputation schools.

And given the politically correct bushwa that passes for "teaching" in the soft-subject courses at most of these high-level schools today, half the time kids would be better off putting in their time at an ordinary state college while living at home. Get the degree, and take care of your actual education by reading books of your own choosing.

Kids who do that start life without a huge burden of college debt. If they go on to grad school, they already have the habit of reading and thinking for themselves. This is America. If your kids, as 40-year-olds, still have to point to where they went to college in order to win other people's respect, then I would guess they haven't accomplished very much.

*

Why do rental car companies insist on giving us all the keys to the car, tied together with uncuttable cable? Even if you have two drivers registered for the car, you can't separate the keys. So you have to carry around a huge jingling wad in your pocket or purse. Why can't they attach just one key to the remote door opener and their rental car tag, and keep the others on file back at the office? Why do they have to use us as portable storage for the extra keys?

*

As a fiction writer, history is the lifeblood of my work. The only way I can escape the trap of writing the cliche characters drawn from other people's fiction is to go back to reality as my source. To know what this character I'm writing might do, I need to know what many other people have done in similar situations. History gives me a menu for life.

It also gives me a menu of cultures and societies -- the jobs people do, the way societies fit together, the beliefs and customs that arise, the artifacts that humans make and use. I learn how power and kinship and friendship intertwine in governments, households, nomadic tribes, colonies, aristocracies, universities, monasteries, armies, ships, among shepherds and seamstresses, waiters and chimneysweeps.

This is the raw material from which fiction is made.

Young writers often ask me what they should do in college to prepare to write. My answer is always the same: "First, why are you only preparing to write? Why aren't you writing? What are you waiting for?

"Second, use college to get a meal ticket punched -- get a degree that will qualify you to do a decent-paying job that does not use up the part of you that creates stories, so you can support yourself and your family until your writing sells, and yet your day job won't exhaust your mind so you can't write anything after work.

"Third, if you insist on majoring in something related to writing, for heaven's sake don't make it English. You're not a student of literature, you're a maker of it. You don't need to hear the official opinions of what good writing is -- good writing is what you say it is. You are not the disciple of the "great writers," you are a peer of all writers.

"So steal the graduate student reading list from the English department, read everything on it, but read nothing about those works; form your own judgments. And while you're at it, read samples of every other kind of literature, especially the kinds you think you hate, so you can understand what's going on and learn to use their tools.

"Then use your time in college to learn everything except literature. The best major is liberal arts -- pure general education, with classes from every subject -- because writers have to spend their lives learning everything about everything. You never arrive, but the journey is what prepares you to write something worthwhile for your readers.

"Finally, if you absolutely have to major in something, make it history. Not because you need classes to teach you actual history -- you can read that on your own, just as you can read literature on your own. Instead, you need the classes to help you learn to think critically about history, to evaluate sources, to get an idea of how to see past the written history and into the relationship between the culture of the historian and the culture he's writing about."

Yes, I really do say all those things. I'm not a short-answer kind of guy.

My point (yes, I have one) is that I not only consume history, I consume it differently from most people. I'm not just looking for stories (though I still enjoy well-written history), I'm looking for two particular kinds of history:

1. Daily life. This isn't a matter of linear accounts. Instead, it's the way people at every level of society spent their time. One of the best histories I ever read was The Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, which is practically the bible for writers of stories set in medieval cultures.

Hartley goes through a year of life in a medieval village; by the end, I realized that compared to an ordinary medieval farmer, I am grossly uneducated and unskilled. All I can do is read and write and talk; the medieval farmer had to be master of hundreds of difficult skills and lores, and his life depended on getting it right.

Another great one was Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which touched on almost every aspect of life in the century when the Black Death decimated Europe and transformed the power relationships of society.

2. Analytical history. I love it when the historian shows me his sources and explains why he trusts one more than another, leading him to reach this conclusion and not that one. This means, though, that we keep leaving the pure narrative and talk about the process of history -- which is precisely the kind of thing that makes most readers say, "This is so dry! This is so dull!"

I have to explain all this to you because, when I review history books, I will sometimes have favorites -- books I greatly admire and deeply enjoy -- that would feel like the fifth circle of hell to most readers.

I try very hard to draw the distinction, to let you know what the reading experience is likely to be. But I've often been surprised by other readers' reactions to books I loved. It's like the book I recommended was a hairball -- they can't swallow it and they can't get it back up. They look at me with hurt eyes, as if they can't understand why I did this to them.

Yet to me the book was a joy, fascinating every moment.

So when I tell you about Michael Grant's The Rise of the Greeks, I can tell you right now, you're going to hate this book. But it was a wonderful experience for me.

Everybody knows the Greek history of Periclean Athens and beyond -- the Greece of the Peloponnesian War, of Socrates and Plato, of Demosthenes' Philippics. We also know the "Greece" of the Iliad, though of course that story is not about Greeks at all.

What Grant writes about is the scraps of information we have about Greece on the rise -- after the Hellenes invaded and threw down the Mycenaean civilization, and how they worked their way through aristocracies and monarchies and oligarchies and democracies, how the culture was invented and transformed, in all the different city-states of Hellenic civilization.

And I mean all. By the time you're through with this book, you wonder if there was so much as a village of peasant farmers that was overlooked.

But for me, Grant lifted a corner of the tarpaulin hiding the real story of Greek civilization -- not the blooming or the seeds, but the first germination, the growth of stems and leaves.

I warn you, though. This book is not a linear history. He treats the history geographically, going from city to city. So it's quite episodic and disjointed. And all the names are Greek.

I think most readers will be equally bored by Christopher Kelly's marvelous Ruling the Later Roman Empire. The Romans didn't invent bureaucracy -- it certainly existed in earlier empires, and it became an entire way of life in China. But there's a reason why completely nonsensical, twisted, impossible convolutions of decision-making and power are called "Byzantine."

Kelly writes about the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire in the post-Constantine age, when the center of power had moved east to Constantinople (Byzantium) and the bureaucracy was essential to keeping the empire funded and functioning.

At the same time, bureaucracies generally consist of careerists who really don't care that much about their actual jobs -- they only care about whether doing their job will advance their own career. (This is what free market theorists call "intelligent self-interest.")

The result is that the emperor and his top minions have vast bureaucracies supposedly devoted to carrying out the emperor's will -- except that when he pushes to try to make something happen, as often as not it's like pushing on fog. Nothing resists your pressure, and yet nothing happens, either.

What Kelly examines is the mechanisms created to make things happen anyway -- and the way that at least some bureaucrats were not careerists, and truly worked to make the empire function well, either according to the emperor's will or to accomplish whatever was necessary to save the empire from the many dangers that beset it.

Emperors, like Presidents, come and go; the bureaucracy, for all its obstructions and ineptitudes, is what gives continuity to government.

A fascinating (to me) utterly boring (to most) book.

Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bedoyere, is a synthetic book: It brings together written history and archaeological history.

Technically, archaeology doesn't result in "history" at all, since history is by definition written, and archaeologists piece together an account of cultures and conquests and transformations using only the artifacts that humans left behind.

The trouble is, it's hard to tell from the artifacts what actually happened. A certain kind of pottery becomes widespread. Does this mean that the people who make the pottery conquered or migrated into the area? Or only that people liked it and adopted it and made their own?

Some questions can be answered -- for instance, analysis of the pottery can identify whether all the pots of a certain kind came from only one clay deposit, implying that the pots were traded, or whether the same design was used to make pots from clay found in many widespread locations, meaning that the style was copied.

But that still doesn't tell you who first made it, or what the style meant to the people using it; was it the style itself, or the fact that the design of it came from a high-prestige culture, that made it attractive? Was it a status symbol? A sign of devotion to a particular deity? Did it accompany religious conversion? Was it spread by conquest?

The great events of history -- wars and rulers, conquests and migrations -- leave surprisingly little evidence, or at least little explanation of the evidence.

Archaeologists are only recently studying artifacts left by people in historical times (including the field of urban archaeology, in which very recent sites are studied). They have the advantage of knowing pretty much everything about the context of the sites they're studying.

But in a some places, like Roman Britain, we have a sketchy idea of the history but not a detailed one. Romans wrote the history they were interested in -- which means they wrote about themselves, and how odd people were who were unfortunate enough not to be Romans. Often their work was remarkably accurate and illuminating; but just as often, it was ludicrously wrong.

Above all, they simply ignored many things that were uninteresting to them, and try as we might, we can't tease much out of their written history information about things that they didn't even notice.

Roman Britain is therefore a synthesis, a bringing together of the known history and the unknown story of what was going on in exactly the same time and place. Just how much did the Roman conquest of Britain transform the society of the Britons? Was Roman culture a mere veneer?

I was fascinated not only by the conclusions that archaeologists and historians have reached, but also by the process of combining information from such different kinds of sources.

Plus there are lots of pictures.

Jane McIntosh's book, Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe, was written for me. Her purpose is to do for prehistoric Europe what Hartley did for the Medieval period. By definition there is almost no history here, though McIntosh does draw on the few cryptic accounts by Greek and Roman travelers that touch on the "barbarians" whose artifacts the archaeologists discover and interpret.

There's a lot of Europe, and a lot of prehistory. Where archaeology and history do overlap, we see how the culture of artifacts tells us very little, or outright misleads us about political divisions and social organization.

Yet it tells us many things that history ignores, about the life of the people and how little it is changed by political events, and how much it can be transformed without making the slightest ripple in the history of great events.

Look at our own time. Suddenly in the 1980s vinyl records were completely replaced by CDs, and big-holed 45 rpm records disappeared entirely. Even before that, sheet music virtually disappeared -- why? How could the archaeological record explain that transistor radios and hi-fidelity records killed an aspect of our culture -- the custom of talented locals providing amateur entertainment at parties and gatherings?

The transition from sheet music to radio, records to cds, film cameras to digital -- these did not mark any kind of conquest or revolution. They just spread as people adopted them.

The same with t-shirts. All of a sudden they appear and are everywhere. There's writing on many of them, and around the world it tends to be in English. But if you look closely, you'll find that outside the English-speaking countries, the t-shirts' messages are often incoherent; the wearer has little or no idea what the words actually mean. Unguided by written records, a future archaeologist would only be guessing about what this all meant, as t-shirts are found right among loin-cloths in jungle villages.

Of course, t-shirts aren't found; fabrics are rarely preserved long enough for archaeologists to find them. Ditto with most artifacts. For all we know, humans were weaving baskets long before we began to shape stone into tools worth keeping. But the stone survives; the baskets are gone.

So archaeologists are always forced to work from extremely limited information. The results, however, are still fascinating and valuable. To me, anyway.

Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World from the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome is, in a way, a ridiculous project -- it simply can't be accomplished. Yet this is a worthy attempt to put in one volume an account of the major events, people, and movements of ancient peoples who kept written records (or had significant encounters with people who did).

She skips from place to place and time to time quite deftly; she organizes the account so that it's easy to keep track of who is doing what at the same time that someone else is doing something else.

Naturally, the history of each people and nation has to be sketchy, a mere synopsis of a summary. Wherever she wrote about a time and place I happen to have studied, it became painfully clear just how cursory and superficial her accounts all must be.

Yet she is rarely inaccurate. If your first introduction to a particular ancient nation is this book's version of their history, and then you read in-depth books, you will certainly learn and understand far more than she could possibly have offered, but you won't have to unlearn much of what she told you.

The Desk Encyclopedia of World History, from Oxford University Press, is meant to be a resource. Its scope is even broader than Bauer's, but it does not try to offer linear history at all. Rather it's a resource that allows you to look up people and events that are referred to in something you read; you will then get a smattering of information, the bare bones.

When a particular king ruled, and where he ruled, and maybe a single important thing he did. Nothing much at all.

At the same time, if you allow the book to free associate for you -- if you look up an entry, and then look up something referred to in that entry, and then look up something mentioned in that one -- you can give yourself an astonishing that skips around the world and throughout time.

A good party game for history wonks. If you can get enough history wonks together to have a party.

*

The last history book I read in the past few weeks (and by far the most expensive) is The Albanians: An Ethnic History from Prehistoric Times to the Present, by Edwin E. Jacques. It's expensive because it's so thick and because so few copies were printed -- not many people, it seems, are terribly interested in Albanian history.

In fact, I found out about this book because an Albanian-American wrote to me after I made a passing comment in a World Watch column about how Kosovo was populated by "Albanian immigrants." This was the impression I had gotten from the news coverage about the Kosovo crisis, but it was wrong.

"Albanians aren't immigrants in Kosovo or anywhere else in the Balkans," my correspondent told me -- a bit huffily at first, until he learned that I had sinned out of simple ignorance and not any particular malice toward the Albanian people.

"The Albanians are the original people," he said. "They were there before the Greeks." The Serbs were the immigrants -- all the Slavic people. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Albanians mostly converted to Islam during the centuries of Turkish occupation of the Balkans -- but that conversion makes sense for political as well as religious reasons, since the Albanians have specialized for a long time in keeping their heads down.

It might also have been a bit of a gesture of defiance -- to the Albanians, the Turks may actually have been liberators from the oppression of Serbs!

I bought The Albanians on this correspondent's recommendation, and the result was fascinating. The Albanians are, in fact, Illyrians -- the name "Albanian" derives from one group of Illyrians. They're an Indo-European people, but they reached the Balkans and the Aegean area centuries before the Greeks.

Just as Albanians were a subgroup of the Illyrians, the Illyrians were a subgroup of a larger group called "Pelasgians," whom the Greeks recorded as being the "original inhabitants" of Greek lands. ("Original" simply means "they conquered it before we did," since the original Indo-European language did not originate in Europe, at least not west of the Steppe.)

What fascinated me is that the names of the Greek gods have no meaning in Greek -- they're just names. But the names are clearly identifiable as being related to actual words in Albanian. This strongly suggests that the Greek religion -- the gods found in Homer -- were the gods of the people before the Dorians and Ionians conquered the Aegean.

Combining what I read in Grant's The Rise of the Greeks with what I learned from Jacques's The Albanians, it seems obvious that what Homer wrote in The Iliad and The Odyssey was not an account of Greeks at all. Both Trojans and the Danaian/Mycenaean invaders spoke the same language, and it was a Pelasgian tongue; they worshiped the same gods, and they had Pelasgian names.

Grant's book makes it clear that all over the Aegean, the Greek invaders had to deal with a strong, self-aware group of previous inhabitants. In some places, like Sparta, they were treated as a permanent underclass -- serfs who could never achieve citizenship. In other cities, though, they eventually rose to become identified as one of the legal "tribes" of the Greeks.

It makes sense. The Mycenaeans had a much higher culture than the conquering Greeks. They were ruled by the invaders, but the invaders adopted much of their culture -- including their gods.

Thus Homer, perhaps of Pelasgian ancestry himself, was writing, in the Greek language, a translation of a story that had been passed down among the Pelasgians of the islands of the Aegean. The Greeks adopted it as a national epic -- but it never was their story. It was the story of the people who came before.

Which makes the Albanians closer kin -- linguistically, anyway -- to Homer's heroes than any Greek.

Which gives Albanians a history both deep and rich.

The trouble is, Jacques is not a reliable historian. He clearly believes anything and everything that will make Albanians look important. His book reads like Ian Frazer's The Golden Bough or the writings of Joseph Campbell -- he's all over the map, and whatever he thinks of must be true, or at least truish. The wild speculation of one paragraph becomes the settled fact of the next, so that new speculations can be based on it.

I knew Jacques was unreliable when he actually asserted that the "wise men" of the New Testament might be Pelasgians. What in the world is nonsense like that doing in a purported history? Apparently Jacques was oblivious to the fact that this wrecked his credibility.

It's as if Jacques were writing from an older tradition of history -- that of Herodotus. Yes, he tells the truth; but he also tells whatever story seems too cool to pass up. And he makes no effort to distinguish between the two kinds of "history."

Still, I loved reading the book, and on most points Jacques's information is verifiable or at least makes sense in the light of what I've read from other historians. As long as we keep Pelasgians out of Bethlehem, there's much to be gained from the book. It's not as if we have a lot of other Albanian histories to choose from.

And my friend certainly achieved his purpose: I no longer think of Albanians as the mysterious isolationist peasants who creep around in Slavic territory that we get told about in the press. Now I know that they are the most ancient people still living in the Balkans, that once they ruled a much larger territory and their kings played an important part in history; they were close kin, linguistically at least, with the original Macedonians; and their culture was a high civilization, quite possibly the first such in Europe.

And if I withhold judgment on Jacques's assertion that Etruscans were also Pelasgians, I certainly take it seriously enough that I'll try to find out the truth of the matter.

Meanwhile, I'm using what I learned from this book in a novel I'm writing about the Indo-European gods. Because when I read history, I'm entertaining myself, yes, but I'm also working.

*

In Richard Nash's play The Rainmaker, a con man named Starbuck promises to bring rain to an Oklahoma town stricken by drought in the dust-bowl 1930s. In the process of swindling them, he changes the lives of the Curry family -- particularly spinster Lizzie Curry, who is torn between Starbuck's extravagant dreams and her own longing for a stable home and a loving marriage.

Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster starred in a good film adaptation of the play. But that's not the best way to experience this story.

Back in the 1960s, the team of Jones and Schmidt (The Fantasticks) adapted The Rainmaker into the musical 110 in the Shade. Because the play had the misfortune of opening during a newspaper strike in New York, it was not widely reviewed -- yet it still had a good run on Broadway.

One reason it isn't often performed is that the music is hard to sing. The demands on the actress playing Lizzie are extraordinary -- and the actor playing Starbuck better be in the best physical condition of his life, since he has two of the most athletic musical numbers in Broadway history ("The Rain Song" and "Melisande").

So you'll be happy to know that our little theatre company, the Summit Players, is presenting Ashlea Ross (Meg in our production of Brigadoon), whose soaring voice and powerful acting bring Lizzie Curry to life on our little stage.

She's joined by an extraordinarily strong company of actors who bring her family -- and a whole town -- to life. My guess is you won't see a funnier musical this year -- or a more moving one. Its unwavering affirmation of marriage is a realistic one, recognizing how hard it can be.

Our production is offered this weekend, Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, at seven p.m., in the cultural hall of the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop (across from Claxton Elementary). As always, admission is free.

Our facility is a bit primitive -- folding chairs, rented floodlights, a piano instead of an orchestra, minimal set. But that's the great thing about theatre: A bare stage becomes whatever you say it is, and as long as the story and the actors are excellent, you won't mind how hard the chair is.

Because we restrict our evening performances to people eight years of age and older, we have decided to add a matinee at noon on Saturday. Children of any age will be admitted, with their parents.

(This is not particularly a children's show, but we want to make it possible for parents of young children to attend without struggling to find a babysitter. We do ask that you keep your children in their seats and reasonably quiet.)


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