Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Joy of Reading A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, by Deborah Harkness

Once in a great while, you come across a book that you want to read as slowly as possible.  You fight the urge to speed along, though you want desperately to know what happens next.  Instead, you turn the page slowly, reading some sentences twice or three times, out of sheer delight.  So it is with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.
Harkness is a prize-winning historian of magic and science in early modern Europe.  As a historian myself, I reveled in her command of people and places and times, and in her palpable joy in showing us how much fun it is to sit quietly in a great library, poring over dusty manuscripts in the hope of getting a big surprise.  Thus there is much of the author in Harkness’s protagonist, historian Diana Bishop, who comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  Every historian hopes to find something in the archives that will change the world forever.  Diana does, but she gets a whole lot more than any of us bargain for.  It happens that she’s a witch, the last in a distinguished family line that traces back to the first woman executed for witchcraft in Salem.  But Diana’s made a life’s work out of denying her powers.  Suddenly she’s surrounded by a host of supernatural creatures—the witches, daemons, and vampires who live alongside humans in our world—including a very sexy 1500 year-old vampire, the physician and geneticist, Matthew Clairmont.  Pretending she’s not a witch, it seems, is no longer an option.
Matthew and Diana are a terrific pair.  Theirs is a union not only of great hearts and nice bodies, but also of magnificent minds.  Watching them match wits and compare notes, you have the sensation that you’re witnessing the birth of one of the greatest couples since Hepburn and Tracy.  She’s impulsive but thoughtful and thorough; he’s patient and loyal, but has a hair-trigger temper.   They share a love of fine wines and old books, of practicing yoga and solving really complicated puzzles.  And they are in danger from the moment they meet.
Matthew and Diana have to fight the world-shaking forces that seek to keep them apart, not only to claim their love, but to avert global disaster.  They’ll need some help, obviously, and along the way we meet a wonderful cast of creatures, including members of Matthew’s vampire family and Diana’s witch kin.  I have been casting the movie as I read (always a good sign), and see parts for Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Daniel Craig. . .you get the picture.  Lots of juice in these characters.
While Harkness spins a corking good yarn, there are deeper purposes at work in her tale.  This is a book about overcoming the fear of what’s inside you, about owning who you are and what you can become.  Matthew will have to stop being afraid to love, and Diana will have to come to terms with her prodigious magical powers.  I am a novelist as well as a historian, and watching Diana learn how to command the magic inside her reminded me of the process of learning to write a novel.  Each creative act requires discipline, patience, a watchful relaxation of the narrowing power of reason, and a willful opening of emotion and imagination.  When it’s going well, writing a novel feels like making magic, as you meet the characters who say and do things you’d never expected, as scenes fly out of your fingers and onto the page and you shake yourself, hours later, wondering, “Where the heck did that come from?”  By the end of A Discovery of Witches, Diana has just begun to find her power as a witch, but Harkness has shown us, from page one, her formidable power as a storyteller.
Lucky for all of us, this is just the first book in a projected trilogy.  Alas, we will have to wait patiently (there’s that word again), for the second.  But readers will be grateful and glad to encounter a book that entertains hugely, and that urges us to know, to grow, to love bravely, and to let the magic come.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chautauqua Lessons, Going on Thirty Years Later: What’s at Stake

            Since the last time I posted, I’ve been in four cities, given five book talks, and spoken to radio hosts in Savannah, GA, Washington, DC, Gettysburg, PA, Athens, GA, and New Haven, CT.  Not quite half through the fall book tour, and already I know that this has been the most illuminating picaresque since I did twelve weeks on the NEH Chautauqua “glee bus” in 1981.  That tour took me and a sometimes merry band of public humanities scholars through the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana, along with semi-truck loaded with a circus tent that blew down, busting tent poles and shattering tent stakes, all over the windy West. 
            Three years of traveling with Chautauqua taught me something I have taken to heart ever since:  when you go out on the road to preach the humanities, you always learn more than you teach.  You’re as likely to meet remarkable intellectuals, hilarious comedians, and gifted artists in Powell, Wyoming or Hazen, North Dakota or Athens, Georgia as you are in New York.   And you’re no less likely to meet highly evolved spirits and models of generosity in New York or D.C. than you are in, well, less hectic places.  You have to be ready to be surprised, and if you stay open, you’ll discover along the way why doing what you do, matters.
            And this time, speaking to people across the country,  I’ve learned that it really is time to give up the illusion that Thomas Jefferson lived in a well-ordered world of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant people, the proper subjects of American history.  That version of our national past is, or ought to be, over. 
Here’s one moment that made me see the urgency of the history I write.  I told the story of Jefferson’s double family to a marvelously engaged women’s club lunch group, in a beautiful room in a beautiful building in one of the country’s great cities.  The attending club members, a lively bunch who listened to every word and asked great questions and bought lots of books, impressed me with their commitment to community and their delight in one another, and honored me by appreciating what I had to say about Jefferson and the varied women he loved.
            But here’s where I learned what’s at stake.  Something impressed me even more.  I spoke as they ate their lunches, a nice plated meal of crabcakes and salad, with chocolate mousse to follow.  The diners were, from appearances anyway, all white, and well-to-do.  The people who served their lunches were, again from appearances, all African American.  The servers moved effortlessly and quietly among round tables crowded together, setting and removing plates, refilling glasses, bringing coffee and attending to special requests.  Their work was done before my talk was, and my expectation would have been that they’d have headed back to the kitchen, finished with that part of their work.
            But they didn’t.  For the last ten minutes of my talk, the servers stood in the back of the room, exchanging the occasional glance at one another, and listening very closely.   In this section of the talk, I ask what we lose by giving up the illusion that American history is about white people, living in a separate world?  And make the point that we gain much more by owning our mixed, messy, mutual history of crossing boundaries and living together.  Why should Jefferson’s story be less complicated than our own?  Doesn’t seeing his life whole make him a Founding Father who belongs not to the few, but to all of us?
            The lunching ladies applauded the point.  And the servers, standing in the back, looked at me, and at each other, and nodded.  Then they went back to work.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

And the Pursuit of Happiness

For those of you who are feeling downhearted today, I recommend the best possible medicine.  Get yourself to a boostore, a real bookstore, and buy a real book.  I recommend Maira Kalman's AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, a warm, tough, witty, insightful, simply luminous graphic reflection on American history, democracy, and things of beauty.  The things of beauty include the Supreme Court, Monticello, Susan B. Anthony and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  If you like Matisse, you will love Kalman's illustrations.  Every page brims with wisdom and vivacity.  The biggest problem with this book is that with every page you read, you'll never get to read that page again.

But then, I am reading AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS very very slowly.  And when I get done, I think I'll read it again.

Be strong, everybody.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Quarter Acre Farm: What do Thomas Jefferson, New Mexico, Wyoming, and...

The Quarter Acre Farm: What do Thomas Jefferson, New Mexico, Wyoming, and...: "Virginia Scharff's new book, The Women Jefferson Loved is out! Yes, you can buy it and be edified, entertained, elucidated, and elevated by..."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Of Roasted Peppers and Founding Fathers

It's one of those mornings when I reflect on Thomas Jefferson's ability to multitask.  The cold, gorgeous weather in Albuquerque means we had a harvest weekend, pulling in the peppers and the herbs and the argula in anticipation of a frost.  Chris made a quiche with pimentos, poblanos and serranos that I roasted.  So fabulous was this quiche, that it won first prize in the savory category at the annual Conservation Voters of New Mexico Pie Contest!  Hats off to the Pie Man.

Meanwhile, THE WOMEN JEFFERSON LOVED went on sale yesterday.  I had the great blessing of a wonderful book talk and signing at Bookworks in Albuquerque.  Thanks to the Yale Club, especially Dora Wang and Alex Hanna, and Flying Star for the reception before, to all the friends, family, colleagues, Jefferson lovers and students (!) who turned out.  Of course, before the book was even released, my friend Carolyn Gonzales, UNM Public Affairs officer, had an angry email responding to her "tweet" of the event, denouncing my "inaccurate book," and its lies about the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson family (no family at all, this person contends).   I'll soon have a link to the podcast of my talk:  you be the judge.

And it turns out that New Mexico is a perfect place to reflect on the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  Is there any place in the country that more fully embraces the complicated, mixed, and carefully nurtured family life that Jefferson and his kin lived?   Looking out at everyone last night, I saw the progeny of a Founding Father worthy of us all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Brave New World

            The idea of a woman casting a ballot would have horrified Thomas Jefferson.  “Our ladies are too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics,” he told a surprisingly assertive Anne Willing Bingham, wishing that pretty lady would care more about her complexion and less about her rights.  Because of guys like him, it took women a century and a third to win the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

Woman suffrage was a hard-earned victory.  But it was no guarantee that women would be any wiser or better at voting than men.  Of course, I’m the kind of feminist who believes that women and men were created equally capable of behaving like idiots. 

            I’m also the kind of historian who believes that history matters.  I don’t like it when people engage in the Big Lie, when they throw the past down the memory hole.  Thus this morning’s post, apropos of Virginia Thomas’s recent email to Anita Hill.

            For those who don’t know, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is the wife of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  While Justice Thomas assents in decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, unleashing a flood of anonymous corporate money on the election process, his wife heads up a political action group, Liberty Central, which uses a giant pile of that mystery money to target some candidates for defeat, and to promote others more friendly to their lobbying agenda. My own excellent Congressman, Martin Heinrich, is a thoughtful and hardworking person who makes me believe politics isn’t just for knaves and thieves.  Liberty Central wants him gone.

            If you think it’s a touch unseemly for Ms. Thomas to engage in big money political manipulation while married to one of the Nine, it gets worse.  According to this morning’s newspapers, Virginia Thomas recently left a voicemail message for one Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, suggesting that Professor Hill apologize for testifying against Mr. Thomas at his confirmation hearings, twenty years ago.  Say what????

            Twenty years ago, Anita Hill defined “speaking truth to power” by braving an onslaught of hostile questions from “moderate” Republican Senators including John Danforth of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.  Hill dared to testify that during her tenure as a staff member at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, her boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her.  In those days, harassment was ubiquitous, and taken for granted.  Women who complained could expect to lose their jobs and have their reputations destroyed.  Anita Hill had nothing to gain from testifying, everything to lose.

            The Senate confirmation committee gave Hill what harassed women could expect—more ugliness, more grief.  Thomas was confirmed, but many, many women were inspired by Anita Hill’s bravery, swearing that they would not put up with this crap any more.

            And now Ginni Thomas has decided she’s raised enough from corporate sources to put their money where her mouth is, and ask Anita Hill to apologize.  Apologize?  For speaking out against sexual harassment?  Ms. Thomas insists that she’s offering Hill “an olive branch.”  Hill rightly says she’s insulted by the renewed attack on her credibility.  If that’s an olive branch, I’m Clarence Thomas.

            You can’t change history, Ms. Thomas.  Neither can your husband, powerful as he is.  We can’t recall Clarence Thomas from a life term on the Supreme Court, and we can’t stop Ginni Thomas from flinging around dirty money and spewing oleaginous lies.  But we can take a look at Liberty Central’s list of “targets” like Martin Heinrich.  And then we can go write a check, hit the phones and knock on doors, using the power of the ballot box in the name of knowing and learning from history.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Apropos of Historical Fundamentalism

I have been reading Jill Lepore’s learned, witty, sensible book, The Whites of Their Eyes:  The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.  Those of you who teach American history will find it useful (yes, we will all crib stories to try to grab the attention of the guy in the third row who’s looking at a YouTube video of dancing hamsters).   But the thing I like most about the book is Lepore’s concept of “historical fundamentalism.”  People who claim to want to return to the world of the Founding Fathers, who claim that Washington and Adams and Jefferson walk among us, boiling with rage at the idea that the federal government ought to do something about health care, says Lepore, are historical fundamentalists who willfully ignore the reality of both the past and the present.  We should do as the Founding Fathers did, say the historical fundamentalists, with really no idea at all what they did, or even who these guys were. 
            Of course, anyone who wants to go back to the good old days should give a thought or two to cholera, flogging, and such everyday matters as death in childbirth.  Or more narrowly, if you’re just talking about wanting to stick strictly to politics, and to embalming the Constitution as a divinely inspired, unchangeable contract, I confess I am not with you.  I am against slavery and for woman suffrage.
So when I ask, “What would Jefferson eat?” I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that we must eat only as he did.  Or that we can.  Jefferson was, for example, fond of “tongues and sounds,” delicate bits of Atlantic cod that had spent enough time in salt that they needed to be boiled for twelve hours to make them palatable.  For those of you who are imagining something delicious like Spanish bacalao, I’m afraid we have to consider what our species has done to the great fisheries of the North Atlantic.  It’s been a couple of centuries since Jefferson sent to Boston for his fancies.  You might want your crispy cod croquettes now, but you might not get them much longer.
            In the matter of eating, and anything else, we MAY want to follow Jefferson’s lead, or not.  I think it’s pretty interesting to know what he ate and desired and said and thought and did.  I would like to contemplate the words and deeds of this inquisitive and gifted and complicated (and compromised) man as a springboard to our own invention.  It’s a little like knowing all of Jerry Garcia’s guitar riffs, or Charlie Parker’s most famous solo flights, or the songs of the Beatles—none of those fellows were angels either.  We could, of course, engage in musical fundamentalism, ignore their excesses and errors, and try to play the brilliant passages note for note, inflection for inflection, distortion for distortion.  But that kind of stuff is for tribute bands, not people who live to make their own music.