VARINA–FIRST LADY REFUGEE

51ZH1EHY6JL._AC_US218_I first encountered Charles Frazier via his wonderful Cold Mountain and the equally powerful film with Renee Zellweger. For some reason I sort of lost track of him until I encountered his powerful latest–Varina.  I recognized the reference of the title immediately, since her name is one of the most memorable in American history. Yet, she seldom gets more than a passing mention as Jefferson Davis’s wife. Well, Frazier’s terrific book will I hope start to change all that.

The novel starts right where it should, with a narrator coming to interview Varina in her old age. But this narrator is not just some reporter from a major newspaper. He was one of Varina’s children, a sort of adoptee she rescued when he was a small boy being beaten on a Richmond, Virginia, sidewalk. And he bears a book compiled of mementos, press clippings, and some articles by a woman whose relationship is not given. However, in the course (seven Sundays) of checking the veracity of “the blue book” against Varina’s memory and his own, We slowly see the course of the life of this remarkable lady. From her privileged Mississippi childhood, spoiled by a drunken, profligate father, to a virtual imprisonment on a poor wilderness estate, held virtual prisoner by Jefferson Davis, or more particularly his brother, who held sway over the both of them. Her forced marriage to this much older man who lives pining for his first wife to the extent that the first stop on their honeymoon is a visit to her grave. It appears her life is destined to be an emotional graveyard, but she refused to make it so.

She’s devilish smart, gets herself educated to the extent that when Davis is elected to congress, she makes herself prominent in Washington, holding salon conversations with the wittiest and wisest of all and sundry. Through it all, Davis is too busy to pay much attention to her, and their marriage begins to take on the pattern of long and frequent separations.

When it comes time to split from the union and Davis gets elected Confederate President, of course, things start to fall apart in every way. Before long, Varina is on the road with what’s left of her household fleeing toward what they hope will be safety in Cuba. They don’t make it, of course, and Davis is captured in disgrace, trying to disguise himself as a woman. Though the rest of her life is filled with failure and disappointment, there is a sort of joyful redemption that emerges from her attitude that nothing and no one is worth adopting eternal pain as a companion. In her refuge at Saratoga Springs, she virtually adopts an emotionally damaged young lady. She communes with our narrator about the past and future. And out of the ruins she establishes hope where most of us would despair.

Combine all that happens here with Frazier’s poetic language, and you have a near-perfect book, at least for readers of historical fiction. Kudos to the man.

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HAMILTON DIDN’T DESERVE THIS

514BVljl9wL._AC_US218_What I knew of this guy was the ten-dollar bill and some vague facts about his being a money guy and being aligned with the revolution faction who wanted kings more than presidents. Not a romantic enough image to make me dig for more. And, of course, a broadway musical–particularly a rap musical– is certainly not the most scholarly way into the life of an historical figure. But I sit here today having experienced an awakening of many colors.

The tension existed in Hamilton’s personal life in that he was a real hothead who could never leave an argument alone and who felt personal slights deeply even when the slights weren’t meant personally. Chernow suggests strongly that his tarnished origins and the persecution he suffered for them made him super-sensitive. When Washington was alive and near to him, he helped temper Hamilton’s excesses. Once the great Father was gone, he wrote reams and reams in response to even trivial insults.

He influenced for good or ill every major figure in the Revolution. He drew close to some, fought with some. He was buddy-buddy, for example, with Madison when they teamed up on The Federalist Papers, then drew apart when the nation split into Federalists (Adams, Hamilton etc.)  and Republicans (Jefferson). The Federalists (in the most general terms)  were opting for a strong central government, the Republicans for more decentralization. It’s a tension that still exists, of course, and it played out in multiple ways during the early years.

He was a workaholic who married a wonderful woman (A couple of the most fetching pieces in the show have to do with her and Eliza and her sister, Angelica, with whom Hamilton may, just may, have enjoyed a menage-a-trois.) and fathered eight children. He was a handsome gent who did have an affair or two. He wrote, lawyered, soldiered, and held a number of appointed offices. And he died young. 49, the victim of his own hypersensitivity and temper.

Dueling was an important part of the culture, unfortunately. Hamilton even had a son who was killed in an “affair of honor.” Yet, he put himself into just such danger only a couple of years after his son’s death. And over nothing, not just from a modern perspective, but from that of many of his contemporaries. He made a disparaging remark or two about Aaron Burr at a dinner party. Someone who overheard it, gave Burr a distorted version. Burr demanded an apology, though he didn’t quote the remark. Hamilton demanded that he give him an exact quote so that he could confirm, deny, or apologize. Burr couldn’t/wouldn’t. Friends offered Hamilton honorable ways out. He took none of them. Rowed from New York to New Jersey and got himself killed.

Thus do our commitments to codes and creeds over good sense lead us into self-destructive paths.

Hamilton was too abrasive and too inflexible to ever be president, so he never  reached the stature of some of the other revolutionary luminaries. But he deserves higher praise than he every enjoyed. Ironically, here he is strutting before the masses 350 years later. A bit late, but not too shabby. They say he had a hell of a voice.

P.S.: A word about Thomas Jefferson. In David McCulloch’s biography of John Adams, the lord of Monticello did not come off well. Essentially, he seemed to be an asshole who wrote well. In this work, he comes off even worse. He’s a coward, a liar, and a hypocrite of the highest order. Sally Hemmings is the least of his sins.

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LEONARDO THE UNSOLVABLE

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_You would expect to find in a biography of a luminary on the scale of Da Vinci an enormous constellation of facts and insights and delights, and Walter Isaacson certainly provides those and then some. As with the two other Isaacson biographies I’ve reviewed in Carlrbrush.com–one of Benjamin Franklin (http://bit.ly/2CFj1zh) and the other of Albert Einstein (http://bit.ly/2CfgxM8)–I find Walter the most amenable of biographers. He’s not always the easiest to read, but he rewards a bit of effort more than, say, the more facile David McCulloch, whom I admit to enjoying as well.

So after exploring the intricacies of this archetypal Renaissance man’s life, what did I come away with? Perhaps the most amazing item was that he was no good at math. Never mastered long division or multiplication. It would seem as if a brain like that would find such mundane subjects–well–no-brainers. Of course, if he’d had calculus as a tool, he might have fared better, but he didn’t get around to inventing it, and Isaac Newton was still a few centuries in the future, so he did without. How? This is the most marvelous fact of all, and one I still don’t understand. When he had to solve a vexing puzzle of, say, perspective, he did it all geometrically. Same with learning to calculate the relative areas of a square and a circle, or the volumes of a sphere and a cube. Isaacson explains these operations in some detail, but read and re-read though I might, they are as beyond me as Einstein’s insights about the speed and shape of light.

Another thing. One of his most amazing paintings was in some sense a failure. He was an obsessive worker and reworker  materials and processes. So much did he insist on returning to his favorite works over and again that he couldn’t stand the thought of having to paint the fresco of The Last Supper on wet plaster and let the result stand. He painted on dry plaster, tried to find ways to make it fast. But it began to deteriorate quite soon. Thus, despite centuries of restorations, what we have is nowhere near the original.

What else? He and Michelangelo were pretty much enemies. Leonardo thought Mr. M. painted like a sculptor, all hard edges with no subtlety of line or texture. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had no respect for his elder.

So those are a few factoids to go along with what most of us know about this guy who could paint the Mona Lisa (whose smile was based on his observations about the muscles of face and lips gleaned from hours at the dissection table) with one hand (by the way, he was a southpaw) and draw fantasies of flying machines and submarines with the other, and stop along the way to give us the Vitruvian Man. One of the reasons, of course, was that he seems to have been totally ADHD, seldom able to concentrate on a single project for long at a time. So, of course, we want to beat that sort of thing out of our kids?

Go figure.

 

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WALTER ISAACSON

 

A BREATHTAKING RIDE ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

d0733422-e2eb-3165-9839-995f34e9327fI thought I knew a thing or two about the underground railroad, and I do. I didn’t, however, know that there were segments of actual rails with locomotives chugging along underground as they ferried their charges north. There are a lot of of “little known facts” scattered throughout Whitehead’s narrative, but it wouldn’t be a novel if that was all there was to it. In point of fact, there is far more than that, and far more than your conventional slave narrative in these pages. The heart of the book is Cora, raised in Georgia in the cruelest of slave conditions. The plantation owner has divided the land between his two sons, one a horrid martinet, the other a wastrel. Cora’s mother runs away, and Cora never sees her again (though we do) and she never forgives her for the abandonment. When Cora’s turn comes, she dithers, but finally goes ahead. In an old tale of cruelty masked as seductive kindness, we are treated to a Tuskegee experiment/eugenics community disguised as a betterment society for the colored. Then to a self-improvement society that allows escaped slaves and free colored to actually own and work their own land. You can probably guess how that all works out.

Thus does Cora’s journey to freedom mirror that of so many who have taken one form or another of the railroad only to find when they arrive that the station on their tickets have closed or been moved or blown up. Actually, this is not the bleak message I might make it sound like. There’s a lot of joy and hope here as well.

Furthermore, we needn’t despair, for the Orangeman has come to save us. Follow him. In his immortal words “What do you have to lose”?3289691d-3009-3ff6-8da9-6fc327abe590

 

ALL THE CLERICAL FURIES

th_id=OP.Ef8Qprt4Dw7opQ300C300&pid=21The delicious opening sentence of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is among the best I’ve read. I repeat it here without apology for those who don’t like spoilers because it bears re- and rereading:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoloeague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore. 

Actually, the priest did a bit more than denounce, he kicked Catherine Goggin in the backside a couple of times as she headed out the church door. Thus does the narrator’s mother begin her journey to Dublin, where she ends up rooming with a couple of young homosexual men, a species even more despised than unwed mothers.

It’s a yeasty opening, and the narrative doesn’t let up in tension and pathos as we follow our young story teller through the narrative. We pick up his story in his boyhood, circa early 1950’s, having been adopted by a strange couple who receive him from a humpbacked nun. He is well cared for, though not particularly loved. His adoptive mother writes novels which she shies away from publishing for fear someone will read them. His adoptive father is a financier of sorts who plays fast and loose with money, both public and private and spends much of our hero’s  life in prison. Both of them never fail to describe him and themselves as “adoptive.”

He lands a job as a civil servant and manages to make a decent living, all the while battling, mostly unsuccessfully against his innate homosexuality. It’s a battle worth fighting, hopeless though it might be, since the law prescribes prison as the penalty for it. It is hard to imagine the terror these folks must have felt every day during those decades, but Boyne makes the pain vivid indeed.

Along the way, we meet our narrator’s mother, watch him become somewhat acquainted with her. It’s a great Dickensian device, but handled with such skill here that one never feels manipulated.th