Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

My New Poetry Pamphlet: ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’

Big announcement today, my friends: I’m delighted to introduce you to my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press on July 2nd, 2020!!

For those who might be new to the blog, HELLO! I’m happy you’re here. I’m Carly, an author, spoken word poet and academic. Here on this blog, I mostly write about random historical tidbits (like the history of ketchup or 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race), review books and occasionally muse about the writing process. But TODAY I wanted to tell you a little bit about my new poetry pamphlet, which has been four years in the making…

So, what’s this book about?

Here’s the description of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror from the Stewed Rhubarb website:

This pamphlet from Scottish Slam Poetry champion Carly Brown explores acts of looking out of and in to oneself. The heroine of an erotic novel stares at her own reflection and doesn’t recognise herself. Scottish painters look for inspiration in fin-de-siècle Paris, and a girl in 17th-century America goes looking for trouble and inadvertently kicks off the Salem Witch Trials.

In these lyrical and witty poems, Carly Brown deftly mixes personal histories, introspection and political truths, bringing new, surprising and necessary images into sharp focus.

If you’re curious to see a sample poem or two, you can read three of the poems from the collection here in the Glasgow Review of Books. Or you can check out this spoken word poetry video for my poem ‘Reading Fifty Shades of Grey’ which is the first poem in the pamphlet (the pamphlet title is actually taken from a line in this poem).

Basically, this is a pamphlet jam-packed with topics that I love – poems about early American history and Scottish history, about sex, about literature – all brought together in a gorgeous package. I can’t thank Stewed Rhubarb enough for the beautiful design. Just take a gander at the cover!

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Here are some really lovely things that people have said about my poetry in the past:

Brian Donaldson, The Scotsman: Wit, warmth and wisdom aplenty [] The future health of spoken word seems safe in their hands.

Haley Jenkins, Selcouth Station: With each poem there is a refreshing comedic integrity but also a brilliant truth that both enlightens and terrifies.

Maria Sledmere, US Studies OnlineHer poems delivered sass and wit, while using lush imagery and spirited accents to render themes of identity, politics and belonging […] Brown’s performance gave a sense of reaching across discourses, time, and space to invite empathy, understanding, and productive cultural exchange.

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Me performing at the Scottish Storytelling Center at the Loud Poets Fringe Show, August 2019. Photo by Perry Jonsson.

What exactly is a poetry ‘pamphlet’?

In the USA, pamphlets are also referred to as ‘chapbooks’. This means a short poetry collection, usually under 30 pages, rather than a full length collection, which are more like 50-100 pages. It’s common for new poets to release a pamphlet or two before putting out a debut full-length collection (More about the distinction between pamphlets and collections here if you’re curious).

This is actually my second pamphlet. My first one – Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone – was published back in 2014. That book was a collaboration between myself and American artist Lydia Cruz. It sold out its first edition, but copies of the second edition are still available online in the Loud Poets’ Etsy shop here.

Who is publishing it?

Stewed Rhubarb is a spoken-word and literary publisher based in Edinburgh.

I wanted this pamphlet to be published by them, because I’d been reading and admiring their books for years. They’ve published Jo Clifford, Harry Josephine Giles, Hannah Lavery, Rachel McCrum and many other brilliant writers. I love that Stewed Rhubarb is Scotland based (like me), that they champion spoken word (many of their writers perform live in some capacity), that their list is diverse, and also (quite frankly) that they make very beautiful books.

How am I feeling about the fact that soon Anastasia will be out in the world?

In a word: excited! Of course, it’s strange to be launching this book during a pandemic. There was meant to be a launch party here in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow, next month to celebrate but of course that can’t happen. But I’m still looking forward to sharing this book with you – even if I can’t do that in person, just yet!

I also want to take this time here to thank my diligent and creative editor Katie Ailes, as well as James Harding and Charlie Roy at Stewed Rhubarb. I’d also like to sincerely thank everyone who joined ‘The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb‘, the successful crowdfunding campaign that Stewed Rhubarb ran last year to help cover the costs of publishing my pamphlet as well as three others. If you supported that, I can’t thank you enough.

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing a few different blog posts here about the historical research and inspiration behind the book, as well as the editing and publication process. So be sure that you’re following the blog to receive those! And do let me know if there’s a particular aspect of the book, or the poetry writing process, that you’re curious about and I’ll see if I can do a post on that too. In the meantime…

You can pre-order the book now: Link HERE

Avid readers and writers will know that pre-ordering is a great way to support authors, because it shows publishers that there is a demand for their book. So if the book sounds like your cup of tea and you’d like a copy, now would be a perfect time to grab one! 🙂

Thanks and happy reading xx

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PS The Featured Image for this post is a painting entitled ‘Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen’ by Peder Severin Krøyer c. 1888

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Many of America’s most famous poets lived during the 19th century: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example. But there was already a literary tradition beginning to blossom in America in the 18th century as well and one of the literary darlings of colonial America, celebrated both nationally and internationally, was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Phillis Wheatley rose to prominence as a popular poet in early America, despite the fact that she was a woman, an African-American and a slave. Phillis Wheatley had a remarkable and in many ways quite a tragic life. She’s not a figure that I know a lot about, but I’ve always been curious to learn more, especially since I saw a first edition of one of her books at the Museum of the American Revolution last year. So, in honor of her upcoming birthday – May 8, 1753 – I’ve done a little bit of research into her life and writings, so that I could introduce you (or perhaps re-introduce you!) to this important figure in American literature.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. I took this photo during a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last autumn.

Who was she?

Born in 1753, Wheatley was kidnaped from her home in West Africa at a young age, brought to America and sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys, noticing that she was very bright, taught her to read and write. Sondra A. O’Neale of Emory University writes, in her short biography of Phillis Wheatley on The Poetry Foundation’s website, about Phillis’ classical education at the Wheatley house:

Soon (Phillis Wheatley) was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (…) and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid , Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

She wrote an elegy for a reverend, George Whitefield, which brought her first national acclaim (as it was published in Boston, Newport and Phildelphia) and then international acclaim, as it was published in London too.

Shortly after that, she travelled to London, where she was welcomed by prominent artists and dignitaries. Her book was published soon after: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American.

What did she write about?

Her poetry is very 18th century in its style, for sure. She writes in rhyming couples mostly, with a lot of allusions to classical themes and literature. A lot of her poems were celebratory of America and America’s victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, and he replied with an invitation to visit him (he was in Massachusetts at the time), saying that he would be ‘happy to see a person so favored by the muses.’

She also comments on slavery from a Christian perspective in her poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. In the same article by Sondra A. O’Neale I quoted from above, O’Neale talks about Wheatley’s influence on fledgling abolitionist movements of the 18th century: ‘Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual (…) her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.’

What happened to Wheatley?

She was eventually freed from slavery in the mid 1770’s.

She was so incredibly young when she became famous and unfortunately some difficult years lay ahead of her, despite her connections to the rich and famous of her time. She married a free black man who ran a grocery store and experienced years of poverty during the Revolutionary War. She had been struggling with poor health all her life and died at the age of just 31.

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So had you heard of Phillis Wheatley before? If you grew up in the USA, did you study her in schools? I never did, which seems a shame because she was one of the country’s earliest poets and has such a unique personal history.

As an American poet myself and someone who loves 18th century history, it was fascinating for me to learn a bit more about who she was and I hope you found it interesting too! I definitely plan on reading more about her in the future.

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Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is by Edward Colyer, ‘Still Life’ ca. 1696, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Stay in and Read: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

‘People usually start their lives with being born. Not me, though. That’s to say, I don’t know how I came into the world (…) I could have emerged from the foam on the crest of a wave or developed inside a seashell, like a pearl. Then again, I might have fallen from the sky like a shooting star.’ – from The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Several weeks ago, when this quarantine began, I promised to post some recommendations here for fun and immersive books to read during this period of isolation. I’m here today with another one of those recommendations! I just finished reading The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.

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It’s a fantasy adventure story for children about the adventures of a blue bear as he travels through an extraordinary land, filled with giants, trolls, hobgoblins, tiny pirates and giant evil spiders! Bluebear recounts his adventures of getting trapped inside a tornado, crossing a desert made of sugar, and even traveling to other dimensions. If that sounds ludicrous, it’s because this book is ludicrous. It’s an epic adventure story that manages to be both exciting and a satire on adventure stories. Take, for instance, when Bluebear is about to die and he is rescued at the last moment by a flying reptilian creature named ‘Deus X. Machina’ or ‘Mac’, for short. (Deus ex machina is the literary term for when a plot problem is suddenly solved by an unlikely occurrence).

The humor in this book actually reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s smart, zany and often satirical, usually poking fun at literary tropes (like deus ex machina). But it’s also so incredibly light-hearted and silly, so it manages to work as a simply a fun tall-tale! I loved meeting all the wacky characters that Bluebear encounters.

But what really makes the book special is all the artwork. The author, Walter Moers, is also a cartoonist, and it really shows because these drawings are alive with emotions and sometimes take up an entire page spread – like this one, when Bluebear is trapped inside a giant’s brain!

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The Featured Image for this post is of a marvelous map, at the start of the book.

And you also get to see illustrations of many of the wacky characters Bluebear meets. Here’s an illustration of his friend Fredda, a hairy imp:

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By now you’ve hopefully gotten a good sense of what this book is like and if it’s up your alley or not! I will say that it’s very episodic, and doesn’t have much of a ‘plot’. It’s a series of tales and adventures, although it is loosely structured as an autobiography of Bluebear himself, as he recounts his first 13 lives (Blue bears have exactly 27 lives, of course!).

I would recommend this one if you enjoy witty adventure stories, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even The Hobbit, or if you’re looking for a fun and unusual children’s book, although I’d say this is for slightly older children, not really little kids, because it does have some scarier bits. It’s a similar scariness level to The Hobbit, I think. So if you’re looking for a fun, smart, and zany adventure story – then Bluebear is your man. Or, rather, your bear.

Moers is actually a German writer and, from what I’ve gathered, this is a famous book in Germany. But growing up in the US, I never heard of it! Which is a shame because I would have loved it as a kid. Ah well, it’s never too late!

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If you enjoyed this recommendation, you might want to stick around and check out the other great books I’ve suggested for this period of quarantine: Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Girls by Emma Cline and a series of spoken word poetry videos!

And let me know what you think of BluebearDoes it seem like your cup of tea? Have you read it already? Is it really famous but I’m just now finding out about it (possible)? 

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episode 1)

‘You could argue that the British empire slowly built the man who would destroy them from the inside out.’ – Alexis Coe in Washington

This month The History Channel released a new miniseries about the life of America’s first President: George Washington. It was titled, quite simply: WASHINGTON. To be honest, I went into this series with low expectations. The History Channel screens some pretty questionable and often hilarious content (see: Ancient Aliens). Growing up, whenever I turned on this channel there was always some show about conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the Freemasons. So I was fairly shocked to discover that this miniseries was pretty darn good!

Thus far I’ve only seen Episode 1 (‘Loyal Subject’) which follows Washington’s early life and military career, but here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of the show – which may help you decide if you want to give it a watch too.

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Washington released by The History Channel last month (February 2020)

Okay, let’s focus on the positives first!

1 – They interview tons of big name historians, biographers and politicians

I was surprised to see lots of famous early American historians interviewed here (Annette Gordon-Reed! Joseph J. Ellis!), in addition to people like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The whole series is actually produced by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is fascinating to see all of these big name politicians and historians reflecting on Washington, and they bring so much knowledge, gravitas and, frankly, legitimacy to the whole thing. These people are the experts in their fields and I’m inherently curious about what they have to say. Well done, History Channel.

2 – Production value of reenactments

The interview clips are interspersed with short re-enactments of Washington’s life, featuring actors in period costume. So it’s almost like a little biopic film mixed with historical commentary. That could have been quite a cheesy format, but I think the balance works pretty well and keeps the whole thing quite engaging.

These reenactment scenes can get surprisingly violent (we see a Native American guy scalping someone and later there is a hanging), which is something to be aware of. The acting is passable, but I was overall impressed with the costumes and the scale of these reenactments. I can’t wait to see more of them actually!

3 – It doesn’t sugarcoat his life too much

The series isn’t overly reverential. It delves into how, early on in his career, Washington made a lot of mistakes. He makes tactical blunders, signs documents he doesn’t understand because they are in French (lol!), and misrepresents some of his military deeds in newspapers of the time. He’s human and this show is quick to point that out.

It also discusses how he was a slave owner. I especially liked the discussion of this from Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University. She said: ‘I believe he knew that slavery was wrong but it was also crucial to his financial success.’ YES. I’m so glad they included this quote from Dunbar because there’s a big misconception that people back then didn’t think slavery was wrong, because their morals were just so different from our own. But honestly – lots of them did know it was cruel and wrong, it was just the economic system that they lived under at the time and they didn’t seen an alternative. That’s a crucial thing for modern audiences to comprehend and I like that the show addressed it.

4 – There’s a focus on his character/personality

I took some notes for this post while I was watching the show and I wrote down: ‘he was tall and women were into it’. I also wrote: ‘self-control but with fire crackling inside.’ The historians interviewed talk about contemporary accounts of Washington (who was really tall for the time, like 6’2”) and by all accounts had a very restrained but commanding presence. He was also apparently very disciplined with his men and very quietly ambitious. It was his feelings of being snubbed by the British army early in his career that, the series argues, sets him on the path to becoming a Revolutionary. So we really get to know the guy a bit through the series: his temperament, his personal goals etc.

Washington_at_Verplanck's_Point_by_John_Trumbull

Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull (1790)

Now, for the cons:

1 – Not a great introduction to the entire Revolutionary War

Because of the limited scope of the show, they have to gloss over a lot of stuff. So everything apart from Washington’s life feels really rushed. We hop from the Boston Massacre to Lexington and Concord, with very little explanation for what those things are or how they impacted the colonies. So this isn’t the best thing to watch for a general introduction to the revolutionary war.

2 – The actor who plays Washington

I’m sorry to say that Nicholas Rowe, the actor who plays Washington in the reenactments, doesn’t really exhibit some of the gravitas and personal magnetism that the historians are saying that the real Washington had. There’s a somewhat unintentionally funny bit where the interviewees are quoting from period accounts of how charming Washington was, how he had a fire behind his eyes etc., and it cuts to Rowe dancing with some ladies with just a mildly engaged look on his face. He isn’t really bringing that gravitas to the table.

This stuff wouldn’t usually bother me – after all, this is a documentary and not a feature film! These scenes are just to dramatize what the interviewees are talking about. BUT since they go on and on about how much unusual gravitas Washington had, I think most actors would fail to live up to that build-up. Most people don’t have that kind of quiet charisma – that was part of what made Washington special! But Rowe overall does an okay job and I’m curious to see how he does as the older Washington.

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All in all, I’d recommend the show so far! Definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this time period, if only to see the all-star historians and biographers line-up. Also, at a time of such great political division in the USA, I do think it’s important to focus on our shared history, which is so unique.

Have you seen Washington? If so, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! I’m looking forward to Episodes 2 and 3.

PS Two pieces of poetry news!

Last week I was at StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, introducing and chairing some poetry events. I’ve been volunteering for this festival for almost 9 years (!) and for several years have served as their in-house Festival blogger. This year, I was mainly introducing events, but they asked me to do one blog post as well. You can read my post, ‘Moonlight and Mermaids’, here if you’re interested in learning about StAnza (the biggest poetry festival in the UK), which takes place every year in a little Scottish town by the sea. The post also features some discussion of late 18th century gothic women poets.

Also, I have a poem in the Scottish Writers Centre’s new chapbook ‘Island and Sea’, published last week. If you happen to be Scotland-based (I know that some ‘Madeira Mondays’ readers are!), the chapbook is launching tomorrow (March 10th) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Several poets from the book will be reading on the night. I’m hoping to make it through to read. If that sounds like your cup of tea, here’s the event page!

(Today’s featured image is of, you guessed it, George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons. It is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington.)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!