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Thu, Jan. 8th, 2004, 04:14 am
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King

My review for Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King can be nothing but glowing. I was led to pick up this book by an interview on NPR with the author in which he showed such passion for and such a thorough knowledge of the time period that he made me care, and I had no previous interest in things Italian. "Making history come alive" is something of a cliché, but King actually does this, and without resorting to fictional conversations or speculation. He seeks the facts, and he finds them through Michelangelo's own letters and notes, as well as the records of close friends. What amazed me, as a reader with little familiarity with the subject matter, was how many documents of this time period still survive, and how much is known about the exact time and method of the destruction of others. Similarly amazing is that King has read them all.

His extensive knowledge of the primary documents, of letters and recorded conversations, allows King to intimately acquaint the reader with two fiery personalities - Pope Julius II and Michelangelo Buonarrotti. Their similarities are striking, and yet, perhaps because of them, they clashed constantly and sometimes violently, straining the limits of the patron/artist relationship. The less admirable traits of each man emerge alongside his accomplishments. Julius II, the patron behind much of the greatest art of the Italian Renaissance, was a megalomaniac who fancied himself the new Caesar and the new Christ, while Michelangelo's genius contrasted with his griping, paranoid, intractable and uncouth personality. Showing his facility for comprehending and describing cultural and political interaction throughout early 16th century Europe, King masterfully weaves in the visits of Erasmus and Martin Luther, the beginning of Henry VIII's reign, echoes of the Great Schism, and the creation of the Swiss Guard. For those of us who were taught about the Reformation as "Luther went to Rome, was pissed that the Church was greedy and selling indulgences, so he wrote about it", King explains, without playing the apologist, that simony and the sale of indulgences were promoted by Julius II as sources of revenue to rebuild the disintegrating St. Peter's Basilica and undertake several other massive architectural projects. Even so, the Church certainly was corrupt and Rome a disgusting, dilapidated city by the time Julius II became pope. Julius himself suffered from syphilis, had several daughters, was a renowned bon vivant more concerned with the sensual than the spiritual, personally led armies to war against other Christian cities, thrashed those who upset him, and had no qualms about cursing like a sailor. In sum, he was a violent, rude, narcissistic bastard.

Ross King excels in every sense in this book. His writing style provides a rapid, enjoyable read, while the book is so dense with content that it requires careful, thoughtful attention from the reader. He makes Renaissance history cohesive and puts the work of Michelangelo in perspective by detailing the art history surrounding it. The continuity of Renaissance art history itself is shown through the interaction of influences; we see how Michelangelo borrowed from ancient statues and from his contemporaries, how Titian borrowed from Michelangelo while the latter was still painting the Sistine Chapel, how Raphael competed with Michelangelo for recognition and contracts while trying to adopt some aspects of his style, and we even learn about a curious competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo that ended before it even began. King describes the various techniques involved in different art forms, even breaking fresco down to a series of chemical reactions. The art itself is placed in historical context as political shifts find their expression in Raphael's frescoes and the pope's family symbol is immortalized in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This book is a nerd's dream! Yet it is completely accessible - King uses no jargon without explanation, and he makes the explanations decipherable to any layperson.

The analysis on every level - personal, symbolic, religious, historical, political, scientific, and artistic - of the people and events surrounding the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel makes Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling a richly informative, fascinating, and breathtaking read. I honestly can find no flaws in this book. If I had a hat on, I'd tip it to Ross King, scholar par excellence. Bravo!

Thu, Jan. 1st, 2004, 03:33 pm
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Well then, poppets, you thought I had forgotten old Ferney, didn't you? Alas, I am a terrible breaker of routines, one who starts projects and never carries them through. Happily, with the new year I have returned with a new review - The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

For the Generic Winter Holiday, my love bought me the huge, HarperCollins hardcover edition with all seven books therein, and, for the past few nights, he has slept alone while I spend the night in Narnia. I first read these stories when I was a child, and they still retain their magic. From a more adult perspective, I now see the religious and Anglocentric themes woven into the narrative.

Everyone by now has heard that Aslan is Jesus. I was raised without religion, so this escaped me until I was told years after I read the series. What disturbed me upon rereading the books was the portrayal of Calormen, the desert land of the South. In The Horse and His Boy, Calormen is described with some balance. It is treated as a harsh land, in climate and of culture, and only a nasty place because it is an empire that desires to swallow up all the lands around it. There is a direct parallel to Muslim countries of the Middle East in culture, and I'm fairly sure that Lewis means the Ottoman Empire when he discusses the politics of Calormen - not the musty, decaying Ottoman empire of the early 20th century, but a young, fearsome one. The people of Calormen are described as dark and strong, either oppressively opulent or crushingly poor.

While the rigid class system of Calormen, ranging from the Tisroc (King) to slaves, is juxtaposed against the freedom and relative equality of the Narnians in The Horse and His Boy, this is not an actual Europe v. Middle East or Christian v. Muslim allegory. Rather, England looks rather dark and unwelcoming throughout The Chronicles, and Narnia is clearly an ideal place, one that shapes flawed people from our world into better, generous, more courageous and noble people than they would ever have been at home. Lewis makes it very clear that our world is not a good place, although it could be, and it is becoming worse as time goes on. It is no mistake that the most famous book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, takes place against the backdrop of the London air raids of WWII.

Lewis' tone changes and his symbols become heavy-handed in the last book, The Last Battle. Suddenly, Tash, the god of Calormen, is completely and irredeemably evil, and Aslan represents all that is good. In other words, all Calormenes are evil (no separation of Church and State exists in Narnia or Calormen) and all Narnians are good. Racist terms are thrown about (specifically "Darkie"), and much emphasis is placed on the white skin of the Narnians. I don't know if C.S. Lewis developed a nasty bias, or if it was always there but better concealed, but his last Narnia book is clearly about Christian and European supremacy over the Muslim world. From what I have been reading, C.S. Lewis was a tolerant Christian, but he was also a scholar of all things medieval, so perhaps he was influenced by tales of the Crusades, and, more importantly, he fought in WWI, on the side opposite the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Perhaps he never stopped thinking of Muslims as "Them".

Throughout The Chronicles of Narnia, inexperienced, petty, or bratty children learn good lessons about self-reliance, trust, love, honesty (particularly self-honesty), honor, kindness, and courage. It is only in the last book that this theme is buried under the weight of ethnic and religious stereotypes. From a feminist viewpoint, women are treated as equals in the series, although I have read some contrasting interpretations. Yes, some of the women are more gentle and sensitive than the men, and yes, the King is a big deal in Narnia, and yes, Aslan is male. However, Jill Pole becomes just as good an archer as Eustace Scrubb and a better tracker, Lucy sees Aslan far more often than anyone and is more true to herself and loyal, and Aravis is much stronger than Shasta. As for the focus on male rulers, the first reign of Narnia was an equal joint rule of King and Queen, both of whom were working class Londoners. There is no classist theme because, while the highborn Kings are noble, they're often saved by poor or middle class children. Bias in the last book aside, this series teaches the reader to love and respect all people and animals equally.

I love the way that Lewis portrays the Talking Animals of Narnia - they speak, but their animal traits manifest themselves in each word. These books are heavy on description, and it never feels like too much. My favorite in the series is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the most descriptive of the books, and it fascinates from beginning to end with tales of strange towns, odd peoples, and lonely islands. Even the final book is entirely worth reading just for the description of Aslan's country and how to get there.

Do read The Chronicles of Narnia. Ignore the bias of the last book and love it for its flawed beauty. Just like the Narnian air, these books will rejuvenate your spirit and make you wish for something better, higher, and more noble of yourself and your world. Best of all, they teach forgiveness, and that, although their decisions and attitude may be terrible, any person can change for the better if they have a bit of love somewhere in their heart. Aslan does not forgive; he teaches others to forgive themselves.

Curiously enough, the Koran also has something to say about forgiveness. C.S. Lewis would have done well to read it.

* * *

The Chronicles of Narnia were published between 1950-1956 and include:

The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle

Wed, Nov. 12th, 2003, 02:11 pm

A review of Lolita is forthcoming. I became so absorbed by it that I bought the annotated edition, and so I am still immersed in Humbert Humbert's disturbing and eloquent prose. For now I will only say that it is one of the best books I have ever read.

Wed, Oct. 29th, 2003, 11:35 am
Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

John, John, John. What happened to you, John? How did a boy like you come to write hardcore pornography? Were you rebelling against your father and his friend, Alexander Pope? Did someone molest you? Were you just obsessed with penises?

Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is, according to its cover, the first published English pornographic novel. That is quite a distinction. Sadly, it suffered without any predecessors to look up... errr... down to.

The most blatant problem with this book is repetitive sex scenes - how many times can we hear about some man's "impatient machine"? Apparently, quite a few times. To his credit, there are a few hot scenes - Fanny's "initiation", an encounter with another woman, and her love-making with her true love, Charles. Sadly, though, most of it is drivel. Then there is Cleland's enforcement of unreasonable gender standards; i.e. nearly every man in the book has an unusually large penis. Where are all the average men? If most men have unusually large penises, then humongous dicks aren't so unusual, are they? The book contains numerous incidents of a man's "natural" urges taking over despite the objections of the woman, and this rape theme is treated like an ordinary part of being human. The women themselves accept it. It's kind of creepy from a modern standpoint.

I question how repressed Cleland must have been since he shows such a fascination for homosexual, juvenile, and fetishist sex. One elaborately described scene toward the end has Fanny whipping a man until he bleeds and pieces of the switch are caught in the wounds. Another involves a man who has so debauched himself that he can only get an erection for deflowering young virgins. Still another has a girl dressed as a young boy at a masquerade being picked up by an older man, who is very disappointed to find that she is a girl, but has sex with her anyway (although from behind). The most unusual scene is of a girl having violent sex with a hugely endowed retarded boy. My favorite quote from the book is when Fanny is having sex with a sailor who starts to take an alternative route (she panics over "losing a virginity she never knew she had") and he says "Any port in a storm." Hmmm, subtlety? Well, it isn't Johnny's strong point.

Fanny Hill has a saving element in the end that may come as a surprise to the reader who has just slogged through 200 pages of "thundering machines", vividly described then hypocritically condemned sodomy, casually-treated rape, and astonishingly large genitals... feminism. No, really. Fanny starts the book as an innocent girl who is dragged by circumstances and an unscrupulous landlady into prostitution, and she becomes a self-sufficient, brave, and sensible woman who earns a fortune through kindness and honesty. In the flogging session, Cleland makes an interesting point - Fanny agrees to do it and will not back down due to her "honor". In Britain in the 18th century, a woman's honor rested upon chastity, while a man's honor rested upon courage, self-sufficiency, and keeping his word. Fanny takes on the honor of a man, the independence of a man, and the courage of a man, never sacrificing her feminine sensuality to do so. Her time as a prostitute is unavoidable, and so she is not ashamed, but she chooses a better life for herself when the choice becomes hers to make. Through this odd dash of virtue at the end of a ridiculously pornographic work, Cleland bizarrely produced one of the most compassionate literary depictions of prostitutes as victims.

I am confused. I don't know if this book is good or bad, but I am sure that it has its merit as a social commentary, if nothing else. It ultimately treats prostitutes as victims of class warfare; nearly all of the prostitutes are abandoned children under the age of seventeen, while nearly all of their customers are wealthy, young sons of aristocrats. You can imagine how well that was received in England at the time; in fact, Cleland spent time in jail for publishing Fanny Hill. Still, as much as I condemn him for his repetitive imagery and phallic obsession, I am forced to commend him for his compassion and his courage to depict Fanny Hill as an uncommonly brave woman who never lost her real virtue no matter how many times she sold her body. Kudos Johnny - you're no Alexander Pope, but I like you anyway.

Wed, Oct. 29th, 2003, 11:17 am
"And God said, 'LET THERE BE GOOGLE.'"

Previously posted in booktards

I just finished reading Al Franken's latest book, Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). It is an extremely funny, educational tour of the hypocrisy and malice of America's conservative politicians and media. I enjoy Franken's trust in his readers. When confronting a lie, he presents large excerpts from transcripts, interviews and articles, and he discusses their context, a practice of which the media and most political authors are painfully bereft thanks to our specially-engineered collective short attention span. He also examines charts and statistics used to make conservative points and renders them comprehensible and appropriate, explaining how they were made misleading. Franken clearly believes that his readers, when presented with adequate information and context, can make sensible judgments using their own intelligence. Wow. Anyway, he calmly makes right-wingers so incoherently furious that they physically threaten him, which is almost more fun than I can handle.

It's a great book, one that I would recommend to any American seeking to break free of media brainwashing, those who think that they have broken free, and to non-Americans trying to comprehend the madness happening over here. He actually does a much better job of debunking conservative myths than Bill Maher, and he has the same powers of analysis as writers in the Noam Chomsky/Howard Zinn tradition. Franken is interesting for me to read because he actually knows the people of whom he writes - he was a personal friend of Paul Wellstone, for example - and he isn't afraid to admit that he likes certain Republicans, such as McCain. I don't always agree with the man, but I've always liked him, too. What comes across most strongly throughout the book is Franken's commitment to research (most of which was done by an oft-credited group of Harvard students dubbed "Team Franken") over political posturing and opinion. He can't stand Ann Coulter, but he lets her dig her own grave through excerpts of her poorly-written and hardly-researched book, Slander. Then there is Bill O'Reilly's "put a bullet between your head" rant over a particularly splotchy photo of him on the cover of Lies. Or the same man's atrocious attempt at erotic fiction (quoted/parodied at least three times). Yuck!

However, I do think that Franken should have gone with "God's" original title for the book - Bearers of False Witness and the False Witness that they Bear. Ashcroft would have had a heart attack.