Tag Archives: non-fiction

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mental asylums, so how could I pass up Thomas Doherty’s non fiction book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum? I came to the book knowing nothing about the subject–just what the blurb promised. The author first learned about the Wisconsin Insane Asylum back in 1972, but it had long disappeared by that time and been replaced by “utilitarian 1950s era brick buildings.” Doherty was fascinated enough by the tale of the now vanished “palatial stone” asylum to return and research the “early hospital casebooks,” the minutes of the trustee meetings, and the annual reports from the asylum’s superintendents. The intro sealed my interest in the book:

From all that accumulated mustiness emerged an endless stream of lost souls, such as a young woman devastated by the deaths of her brothers in a Confederate prison camp: “Conceives she can feed the portraits of her brothers … by crumbling up bread and trying to make them eat it.”

While the book is a portrait of an age and its attitudes towards insanity, it’s also a portrait of post civil war America with its detritus of human tragedy.  The post civil war period saw an incredible upswing in insanity as a result of broken, bereaved families, unassailable grief, and the aftermath of an incredibly savage war.

Widows, wives tormented by returned veterans, mothers convinced that the draft was a death machine stalking their sons, fathers and mothers whose grief had driven them berserk or sucked all the vitality from them and there were the soldiers themselves.

This was an era of “the hospital Movement” with the medically held opinion that “insanity was not a curse but a curable disease,”  and with a national attempt underway to standardize the management of public insane hospitals. While the book is partially an examination of a particular insane asylum, even more than this, the book is a character study of Dr. Abraham van Norstrand, a man who served as a doctor during the civil war, a banker and an entrepreneur, who later became the Wisconsin asylum’s most notorious superintendent. According to the author, the asylum’s 1868 annual report was “as thick as a Russian novel,” thanks to testimony about van Norstrand and “months of dramatic hearings.”

Best Specimen of a TyrantThe book opens with van Norstrand firmly in place as the superintendent when a new, young patient is admitted, Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg (known as RO). Kellogg suffering from exhaustion, and had already experienced breakdowns when he was brought to the asylum by his brother Amherst. Just the week before, RO preached a thunderous sermon from the pulpit which didn’t end when he left the church. He lapsed into insomnia, ranted through “frenzied marathons” of preaching, and these episodes would end in exhaustion, with RO complaining of pains in his head and paranoid fantasies of “enemies [who] lurked in the house.” RO’s wife Caroline coped with the situation, but RO’s behaviour spread out to a local man, and the result was that RO was admitted to the Wisconsin Insane Asylum with the opinion of a local doctor that he would make a “speedy recovery”  from a condition labeled as Theomania. 36 hours later, Kellogg was dead. This death, called a ‘suicide’ by van Norstrand, led to a scandal and, eventually, to an unraveling of the superintendent’s life and ambitions.

From this point, the book goes back into a catalogue of cases–damaged people many scarred for life as result of the Civil War–and we understand why Kellogg’s case (and death) was so different from the norm. Then the book delves into van Norstrand’s past, his pre-Wisconsin Insane Asylum days, and we see a young ambitious man carving out a medical career and learning the benefits of Quinine. A considerable portion of the book is spent following van Norstrand’s army career as a Union doctor with the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, and while all this may seem a distraction from the death of Kellogg, this information allows the reader to very effectively get a sense of just who van Norstrand was, his character and his motivations, before he became the superintendent at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum.

There were just a couple of annoying intrusions when the author speculates fancifully about situations:

From time to time, in the comfort of his family’s elegant quarters on the second story of the central building, he night have stood at one of the towering windows overlooking Lake Mendota, his gaze fixed on the skyline of the distant city, and brooded upon his fate should some eminent figure rise out of that feverish undercurrent of rumor and resentment to point an accusing finger at him.

But this is just an unfortunate lapse; the book is much better than that, and reveals some remarkable facts about van Norstrand’s life–through his hardships as a doctor, as a politician behind a smear campaign, and as an entrepreneur and a banker during some very dicey times. His civil war experiences were horrendous, and the conditions the soldiers endured were shocking (thinking of the misery of Ship Island and that’s even before they fought the enemy), but even in the midst of war, van Norstrand managed to engage in some strange speculations involving whiskey.  It wasn’t all death and dying:

Like Flashman he had a gift for attaching himself to local gentry on both sides of the conflict and basking in their flattery. He delighted in recalling many a feast laid out for his pleasure and many a bottle of aged brandy or claret urged upon him in one white-pillared mansion or another. As head of the biggest hospital in the Department of the Gulf, he saw Fourth Wisconsin comrades die lingering deaths and was himself worn down by illness and exhaustion, to say nothing of the frustration of being locked into middling rank. But again and again those lavish encounters with the privileged–slave owners or not–and every favor and deference granted him as surgeon, officer, man of the world, energized him. And finally that old seductress, easy money, caught his eye.

We also see van Norstrand at his best during the Civil War. He held firm ideas about good diet as essential for health, and Doherty, mining van Norstrand’s memoirs shows him arguing with commanding officers and going “beyond government channels and local pharmacists, paying planters and other private citizens up to five dollars an ounce, often from his own pocket” for precious supplies of Quinine. Thomas Doherty does a fine job of re-creating the times and conveying the impression that van Norstrand was really an incredibly energetic and enterprising man–yet his flaws, his energy, his ego and that entrepreneurial spirit are the very things that led to his downfall in the end. The marvelously detailed section regarding the 1868 hearings make for fascinating reading, and we see how van Norstrand’s mammoth task to ‘cure’ the insane was fraught with difficulties in a chemical-less age when physical restraint and punishment seemed a viable option. Van Norstrand was battling against the odds before RO Kellogg appeared at the asylum, and this young man’s appearance and his reaction to morphine created the ‘perfect storm’ for disaster. While Doherty opens a window into a specific time and a specific incident, the book extends beyond even the study of one character into human nature itself. We see disgruntled employees given a venue for their discontent and yet ultimately, van Norstrand’s speculations and business ventures sealed his fate and underscore the argument that once one arena of unethical behaviour is uncovered, the door is open to all other accusations and suspicions. In crossing swords with Samuel Hastings, the man who led the attack against van Norstrand, the superintendent met his match and hence his downfall. Sometimes, it’s the corners of history that prove to be the most interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Wisconsin or asylum history.

review copy.


Filed under Doherty Thomas, Non Fiction

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

Reading Curzio Malaparte’s insidiously explosive book, The Skin is rather like watching the aftermath of some horrific apocalypse; we almost can’t believe the ugliness of what we are seeing and yet there’s a fascination that renders us powerless to turn from the sight.

Malaparte, a play on Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but he ran foul of Mussolini, was arrested multiple times and spent a short time in prison for “publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup d’Etat.” Malaparte, as a liaison officer to the American forces, narrates the book, and as a narrator, he’s a tricky character. Slippery and never to be taken at face value, Malaparte’s ironic, often malicious narration examines life in Naples after the arrival of allied troops and mines the gap between reality and the high moral ground seized by the victors. In twelve amazing chapters, Malaparte describes scenes of life as he accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and various other officers in and around Naples, and his mostly light tone belies the human tragedy that surrounds them; death, disease, cruelty and starvation are in stark contrast to the high moral ideals and deliberate blindness exhibited by the victors and their idea of ‘liberation,’ and while Malaparte seems intent on exposing hypocrisy, his sympathies are for the broken human race brought to their knees by desperation.

The SkinIt’s Naples 1942, and the narrator of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte bemoans the state of Naples since the “conquerors” arrived. To Malaparte, Naples has become a toxic, moral wasteland with almost every female up for sale to the allied forces–anything is possible for a soldier who has money in his pockets and food to barter for sex.

We were clean, tidy, and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob–squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled, and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics, and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers on to the heads of the conquerors.

That quote captures the irony, the hopelessness, and the poignancy of this extraordinary book. It’s a rare and special book that stands as an eyewitness testament to tragic moments of human history, and while Malaparte’s book gives us an eyewitness account, this isn’t a matter of a straight forward narration; rather this is a document that forces the reader to confront some uncomfortable realities of war and the degradation of the human spirit while challenging our notions of ‘victory’ and ‘liberation.’

Malaparte’s personality seeps through these pages. He’s an extraordinary narrator, malicious and crafty, and yet it’s those very characteristics that expose the hypocrisy of both the Neapolitans and the conquering American forces. While some of the scenes of women, starving young men and children who sell themselves on the streets for a crust of bread are heartbreakingly sad, there are also moments of some really nasty humour as Malaparte, as a liaison officer, accompanies his favorite American, Colonel Hamilton, through the ravaged streets of Naples.  Hamilton is the kind of man, Malaparte argues, “that seems to hail from Ivy League America as conceived by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums surrounded by wet towels.” 

Malaparte feels “incredibly ridiculous” in his British uniform. “The uniforms of the Italian corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms handed over by British command.” These uniforms, and even shoes, have been stripped from the dead of Al Alamein and Tobruk, and Malaparte speculates that they been “dyed dark green, the color of a lizard” in order to hide the bloodstains and the bullet holes. Malaparte seems to be the only one who recognizes the bitter irony of wearing the uniforms of the dead former enemies–a fact which seems as deeply insulting to those who wear these uniforms as it is to those who died wearing them. And yet the very interchangeableness of the wearer of the uniform underscores the absurdity of uniforms in the first place and the anonymous dead: strip the uniforms from the dead, dye them, and recycle them to your former enemy:

There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It could not have ended better. Our amore proper as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the allied soldiers whom we had killed.

Malaparte can never be taken at face value, and he’s perhaps at his most delightful, wickedly malicious and most duplicitous self when he’s accompanying Americans through Naples, and at these times Malaparte and whichever American is by his side engage in a mutual baiting game–almost as if the battles between nations continue, at a combative but less violent level. Malaparte seems unable to resist piercing that tight membrane of righteousness to reach the conscious discomfort of the conquering American who’s conveniently blind to his role in the moral corruption brought forth by circumstance. Here’s Malaparte goading Jack on the subject of “this fall in the price of human flesh,” cleverly comparing the price of children against the price of lamb:

Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated cheeks plastered with rouge–a dreadful and piteous sight–loitered at the corners of the alleys, offering to passer-bys their sorry merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom the soldiers–Moroccans, Indians, Algerians, Madagascans–caressed with their fingers, slipping their hands between the buttons of their short trousers or lifting their dresses. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” shouted the women.

“Tell me frankly–would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

“After all, it’s not much, three dollars for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here–isn’t that so, Jack?”

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire , in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

 Malaparte’s conversations with Americans seem to frequently end with him being told to ‘shut up’ as he makes observations about life, sometimes tweaking consciences, sometimes exposing hypocrisy. Malaparte likes Jack “because he alone, among all my American friends felt guilty, ashamed and miserable before the cruel, inhuman beauty of that sky, that that sea, those islands far away on the horizon. He alone realized that this Nature is not Christian, that it lies outside the frontiers of Christianity.” Other Americans “despised” Naples and saw it as a corrupted citynot as a city of people brought to their knees and desperate to survive, no matter the cost.

Captain Jimmy Wren is an American who sees Naples as a polluted city and does not see that degradation or deprivation combined with Yankee dollars has created a market in which everything is for sale, and here’s another comment not to be taken at face value–although part of Malaparte seems to envy the Americans’ simplistic view towards morality:

Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed  amoral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral causes reasons for their existence. What could he have done to try and alleviate the appalling physical sufferings of the people of Naples, of the people of Europe? All that Jimmy could do was take upon himself the part of the moral responsibility for their sufferings, not as an American, but as a Christian. Perhaps it would be better to say not only as a  Christian but also as an American. And that is the real reason why I love the Americans, why I am profoundly grateful  to the Americans, and regard them as the most generous, the purest, the best and the most disinterested people on the earth–a wonderful people.  

There’s one great section in which Malaparte goads both Jack and Jimmy on the subject of Neapolitan dwarf women who’ve turned to prostitution and have a brisk trade with American servicemen, and in another section Malaparte describes crafty, desperate Neapolitans engaged in the “purchase and resale of Negroes on the flying market,” –a process in which black servicemen are passed around as a resource through various hands, with each participant shaving off from “the lavishness and recklessness of his expenditure.” Ultimately Naples is seen as a fire sale marketplace in which everything and everybody is degraded and up for bid. Whether Malaparte is commenting on the last virgin in Naples, the epidemic of venereal disease, pubic hairpieces, the piles of bloated corpses in the streets, the brutal execution of young fascists, or friends lost in the chaos, he’s a darkly glittering marvel–duplicitous, dangerously intelligent, always the outsider watching and recording hypocrisy through the roles played by both the conqueror and the defeated in the moral degradation that results from war.

Translated by David Moore

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction

The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J Meyer

I found the Borgias fascinating long before it was fashionable to do so–I refer of course to the current Borgia mania fueled by Showtime’s mini-series, which, incidentally, I haven’t seen. G.J Meyer’s book The Borgias: The Hidden History is a highly readable revisionist look at one of the most notoriously rotten families in history–we’ve heard the stories of the orgies, the incest and the poisonings, and Meyer’s fascinating book takes an intense, fascinating look at the Borgias while arguing that they weren’t so bad after all….

Author G. J. Meyer (The Tudors) begins by saying that “this is not the book I set out to write,” and that his research led to an “entirely new understanding of who the Borgias were.” Meyer makes a strong argument for his case stating that the Borgia “myth” is largely built on “the acceptance as true … of accusations of the darkest kind” made by “discredited” historians and Borgia enemies. It’s an interesting premise, and while Meyer makes a cogent argument, there were times that the pendulum swung too far towards an image make-over. More of that later.

The BorgiasIn spite of a few problems I had with Meyer’s thesis, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s richly detailed and reads very well. In my limited knowledge of the Borgias, I knew only of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his infamous illegitimate children which included Cesare and Lucrezia. The book takes us back farther into Borgia history with Alonso Borgia, the “dark-horse candidate,” elected as pope Calixtus III more or less because he was so elderly and not expected to hold the office for too long. This, of course, opened the door to Borgia power. The book delves deeply into Alonso’s career–including his long, significant employment as Alfonso V’s secretary. This background information is invaluable as it illustrates Alonso’s intelligence and diplomacy, but we also see the weaved network of friendships, wars, and obligations that became so critical in matters of succession–specifically just who was the heir to the throne of Naples. Alonso’s reign as pope was complicated by a constant threat from the Turks even as he tried to “regain control” of the Papal states. With the Orsini and the Colonna families as bitter enemies, Alonso’s goal of uniting the Papal states was not easy. Alonso understood that alliances were of paramount importance, and so it’s with this Borgia, we see Rodrigo begin to rise in power within the church. According to Meyer, Alonso/Calixtus III’s approach to regaining control of the papal states was “novel” as other popes had simply thrown in their support with either the Orsini or the Colonna against whichever clan was left out of favour.

The result was an endlessly repeating pattern in which, as pope succeeded pope, the fortunes of the Orsini and the Colonna became like two pistons in a reciprocating machine, with one side up whenever the other side was down.

I had always known that these were wild times, of course, but the book brings those times to life with relevant details:

In Rome itself, disorder and danger became chronic, the Orsini turning the parts of the city that they controlled into killing zones. They showed no reluctance to shut down the highways leading to the city’s gates and so cut off its supplies of food, fuel, and other essentials whenever it served their purposes to do so.

Nepotism, according to the author, was the modus operandi of the times–not something that just the Borgias were ‘guilty’ of, and that makes perfect sense, so it comes as no surprise to see Alonso’s nephew, Rodrigo climbing to the top of the church hierarchy, and it’s with Rodrigo that Meyer first addresses the “accusations of greed.”  Meyer argues that while Rodrigo’s wealth rose to “stunning levels,” this was absorbed by his growing expenses and responsibilities. Rodrigo eventually became pope after being passed over several times, and the book details the various election processes. One delightful scene recounts how one cardinal “stationed himself in the latrine,” ambushing other cardinals as he desperately lobbied for votes.

Close to the 40% mark of the book (on my kindle edition), Cesare and Lucretia finally appear–but not as Rodrigo’s illegitimate children but rather as his grand-niece and grand-nephew. The author presents his arguments for this complete with scholarly backup, and after all these years, who knows the truth? I’m not about to argue with Meyer’s research or his scholasticism–I’ll leave that for the experts. My biggest issue with the image makeover of the Borgias came in the details regarding some of the scandals, rumours and gossip. Clearly the wickedness of the Borgias became legendary as the years passed, and there’s no argument from this reader that some of the stories are grossly exaggerated. However, and here’s one instance–at one point, there’s a discussion of a letter dated August 10 to the papal court regarding Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was ill, and the letter includes the line “the physician who saw him first says that he has little hope for him, principally because he had, shortly before, not slept alone in bed.” The author notes that this was “interpreted as meaning that Rodrigo had been indulging in sexual adventures” and was dying as a result.

As for the cardinal’s not sleeping alone, as recently as the nineteenth century it was not uncommon even for men of importance to share beds, and it may very well have been necessary for senior members of the pope’s entourage to do so in the grossly overcrowded conditions of Ancona that summer.

The author is an apologist for the Borgias and at times provides a weak defense of this notorious family. We don’t know, for example, and we will never know, who was in Rodrigo’s bed when the physician showed up, but to argue that it was another member of the pope’s entourage is belaboring the point. The question of whether or not Rodrigo kept his vows of celibacy seemed petty, but then of course, this later leads into the argument that all of Rodrigo’s mistresses weren’t his mistresses after all. There are many points the author makes that seem very valid when questioning some of the more outlandish accusations against the family, but at other times, the defense of the Borgias goes a little too far with the result that they seem vastly morally superior when weighed against their contemporaries. On the other hand, the depiction of many other vile characters, including Ferdinand I of Naples and the impressively vengeful, strong-willed Caterina Sforza did a great deal more towards convincing me of the relative ‘normalcy’ of the Borgias than some of the claims of their total innocence. By detailing the actions of the Borgias in the context of their turbulent troubled times, in effect, this is revisionist in itself, and niggling over some of the details which really cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt one way or another seems unnecessary.

That complaint aside, The Borgias really is a wonderful book, very readable, and a book in which many characters come to life and are not just faded images in century-old portraits.  These were incredible people living in incredible times. The author clearly loves his subject and it shows in every line, every explanation of time and place. The book includes a family tree, maps and a timeline.

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction

The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

I’m going to throw a question out there… Would you want your life to be defined by history? In my mind, the question is accompanied by images of Ulysses S. Grant,  Mannerheim, and Makhno–men who happened to be born at a crucial time in history and whose lives were swept up in war. But cast these images aside, and let’s start looking at something a little less famous, a lot less stature, and this brings me to The Black Russian, a non-fiction book by Vladimir Alexandrov–an incredible tale of how one man’s life was ripped apart by history and the dominant, brutal attitudes to race and class.

The Black RussianThis book tells the remarkable story of the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas who was born in 1872 to former slaves who were farmers in Mississippi. Just looking at the date of the date of Frederick’s birth tells us that he was born to a whole new Southern world, but a society that was still in a great deal of post-Civil War turmoil. Frederick’s parents must have been remarkable people as they managed to amass, at one point, 625 acres of land which they successfully farmed. But their very prosperity led to a powerful local, white landowner tricking them out of their land with a “multilayered trap” which included false threats and manufactured debts. Basically run off their land penniless, Frederick’s family fought back seeking legal redress, but after Frederick’s father was brutally murdered, the family sank into poverty once again.

Frederick set out in the world on his own and always seemed to make very concise intelligent decisions, and even though the choices he could make in his work world were very limited due to his race, nonetheless, a clear pattern emerges which “prefigures his future life and career.” Frederick quickly attached himself to those who could afford luxuries. He didn’t get stuck working in a back water dump of motel but always lived in large cities which attracted the wealthy who had money to spend.

he [had] entered an elegant service industry, one that existed for the benefit of people with money and social standing. No matter how lowly or demanding Frederick’s own labours might have been, he was nevertheless involved in providing adornments for those who could afford to pay for such luxuries.

Frederick worked as a waiter, but again, only in the most expensive restaurants and then after a successful career in Chicago and New York, in 1894, he sailed for London. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Frederick thought of England, but there are many quotes included from white Americans visiting London during the same time period who expressed a range of views–some outraged and some delighted–at the way “American negro[s]” “can go into the finest restaurants and be served just like a white man.” Frederick ran a boarding house in Leicester Square but it was a short lived endeavor, and then off to Paris where he worked for a few years and quickly learned French. But he was still restless and moved onto Brussels and the Riviera. It’s as though he auditioned countries to find his next home, and then, rather surprisingly, he finally settled in Moscow, married, started a family, and became one of the most successful variety theatre & restaurant owners in Russia. His theatres attracted the curious and those with money to throw away, and in one of his establishments, Maxim’s, he introduced the “theme space” which appears to foreshadow the outrageous hotels of Vegas.  With Frederick as an affluent millionaire, bribing local officials to look the other way for the risqué acts he searched the globe for, this should have ended as a happy story, but 1917 rolled around and a penniless 47-year-old Frederick, with his second wife and children found himself fleeing from the Bolsheviks and boarding a ship in 1919 full of American refugees. Good thing the American consul had no idea that Frederick had become a Russian citizen in 1915 under special dispensation from the Czar.

The Black Russian tells a tale of courage, ingenuity, dizzying success, flight, and then disaster. Frederick’s incredible life was bookended by racism and class-hatred, and what a tragic roller-coaster ride. He fled a country in which his class held him to the lowest, domestic positions, then, with his own unique talent and nose for business, he reinvented himself and was a phenomenal success in Russia, of all places, only to have it ripped from him by the Bolsheviks who saw him primarily as upper class and not as a black man who’d succeeded against the odds. This is one of those stories that if it were fiction, the average reader who toss aside after a few chapters thinking that the story was too implausible.  The Black Russian begins as  a gripping adventure story as Frederick’s family flees a panic-stricken Odessa, and then the book segues back into Frederick’s beginnings, his search for success, his dramatic failures in Constantinople and his ignominious end. The book also provides a backdrop of the society of the times, and while this is, at times, essential, the information is sometimes anticlimactic when compared to the main story.

At the peak of his success, Frederick was worth “about $10 million in today’s currency.”  While The Black Russian is the tale of one man’s rise and fall, the book also shows that Frederick, once liberated from the racial attitudes that held him to menial domestic positions in America, soared in a society in which his colour was no impediment. Intelligent, forward-thinking and unleashed in a country in which his colour was not an issue, Frederick showed just how successful he could be. It’s impossible not to read his story and consider how Frederick’s life would have been contained and limited if he’d stayed in America. Not only do we see  Frederick’s intelligence and strategic planning, we also see his sense of humor and how he loved to play with the American tourists who came his way, acting out–somewhat outrageously–their lowest expectations of a “semiliterate” subservient American black domestic–even though quite obviously diamond-flashing Frederick did not fit their stereotypical racist ideas and was, in fact, at the height of his success, a cosmopolitan figure, a successful, worldly millionaire who carved a fortune with his intelligence and adaptability.

Review copy


Filed under Alexandrov Vladimir, Non Fiction

The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke’s non-fiction book, The Damnation of John Donellan, a who-dunnit of sorts, examines the intricacies of an 18th century case involving the mysterious, sudden death of the dissolute heir of the Warwickshire Boughton family.  In 1780, future baronet Theodosius Boughton was just twenty years old when he died, most violently, after taking a dose of medicine, a “purging draught” prescribed by the local apothecary for a case of venereal disease. The draught, which supposedly contained jalop, rhubarb, and lavender mixed with syrup and nutmeg water, smelled, according to Theodosius’s mother like “bitter almonds.” Within ten minutes, Theodosius was groaning in agony, frothing at the mouth and “heaving.” A few minutes later, he was dead.

What follows, with painstakingly careful detail, is the story of what happened after Theodosius’s death, the various versions of events, and how the death of this syphilitic young heir ended in one of the most notorious murder trials to take place in Georgian England. Was he murdered by his mother–a woman described as phenomenally stupid by some of the males in her social circle, and a woman whose emotional responses to the death of her son may seem a little odd, (and then there’s the issue of her husband meeting a similar end)?  Or was Theodosius murdered by his scheming brother-in-law, John Donellan–a man who already had three strikes against him (he was Irish, a bastard, and had a shady past). Then again was it possible that Theodosius was simply a victim of his own, often secret, attempts to cure his new case of venereal disease with mercury. He contracted his first case at age 15, and at the time of his death, was attempting to overcome a fresh infection.

The Damnation of John Donellan, a book which should appeal to the fans of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, not only examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Theodosius Boughton but also gives us a unique glimpse into Georgian life and values. There were a couple of points that emphasise that the medical field is one step ahead of medieval times. No one wants to open up the corpse because it’s thought that the odours escaping from the body could be harmful (the autopsy was finally conducted outdoors), and then slaughtered pigeons were put at the feet of the “invalid” in order to “draw the bad vapours from the body.” All this amidst John Donellan claiming to use a still with lime water in order to kill fleas in his children’s bedrooms. And there are also minute, fascinating details pertaining to Georgian law:, so we see the crime placed in its complex social context:

Despite the reforming politician William Eden arguing for fewer capital crimes in his principles of Penal Punishment in 1771, no less than 240 offences carried the death penalty. This had been enforced by the Waltham Black Act of 1723, which had added fifty new capital offences; and in 1781, a man, woman or child could be hanged for offences ranging from murder and highway robbery to the seemingly absurd ‘being in the company of gypsies for more than a month’, writing a threatening letter, or, in the cases of children aged seven to fourteen, simply having ‘evidence of malice’.

Elizabeth Cooke shows that the death of Theodosius Boughton was a case that, in a sense, was too big for its time–both forensically and legally.

But in 1780 neither a surgeon nor a doctor of medicine–no matter how lurid or famous their cases–were as we would recognise them today. The practice of medicine was largely uncontrolled by any official body–it was not until the Medical Act of 1858 that a register of qualified practitioners nationally and even of those named then, only 4 percent had a medical degree from an English university.

Author Elizabeth Cooke doesn’t try to provide the definitive answer to the death of Theodosius Boughton, the heir of Lawford Hall, but instead she provides the facts behind the death, the autopsy details, the problematic legal case, and the testimony of those involved. There are even some  early day-to-day hypothetical details added which flesh out the life of the Boughton family, and these worked surprisingly well. The book bogs down in the details surrounding the various versions of events, but this is inevitable with this sort of work. After concluding the novel, I chewed over the case, and came to my own conclusion about what happened, but of course, I can’t give that away.

There were a few elements to the case that were included but not examined, and I found myself going back over some of the statements made by major players and putting this into the context of what happened. Luckily the book is well indexed so it’s easy to go back over certain aspects of the case. There are also a couple of handy family trees that help keep track of who’s who. Above all there’s a strong sense of time and place–particularly when it comes to some of the more infamous courtesans and mistresses of the day–including the mysterious Mrs. H who granted her favours to John Donellan.

Into the Boughtons’ world stepped Captain John Donellan, Master of Ceremonies at the fashionable Pantheon Assembly Rooms in Oxford Street. He was a man of the world who had returned from soldiering in India with a reputation for both bravery and fortune-hunting. He was about to use both attributes to devastating effect.

For those who enjoy reading these historic crimes, there’s a lot of rich detail relating to Georgian society, attitudes and values. We sense Donellan’s desperation as the finger points in his direction, and his Defence makes for some interesting reading. Was Donellan an adventurer who simply messed with the wrong people or was he a suitable scapegoat?

Review copy


Filed under Cooke Elizabeth, Non Fiction

Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag

Shantytown Kid (Le Gone du Chaâba) from Azouz Begag is the final selection Emma made for our virtual Xmas gift exchange. I’m going to begin by saying that this was not a book I would have bought without Emma’s nudge. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even if I had, I doubt that I would have bought it as I do not usually enjoy books written through the eyes of a child. Lest I seem too inflexible, there are, of course, a few exceptions to that, but experience has taught me to generally avoid books with either a child protagonist or narrator. So that preamble brings me back to Shantytown Kid, an “autobiographical novel” that follows Azouz, who was born in 1957, picking up his story sometime in the early sixties and ending in 1968. So not many years in the life of a child, and of course the story is told by a now adult Begag. Azouz Begag’s parents were illiterate Algerian immigrants who came to France in 1949. They settled in Lyon, and Azouz was born in a Lyon shantytown. These days, the author, who has a doctorate in Economics,  is a politician and a writer.

The story begins, as the title suggests in Le Chaâba, a shantytown in Lyon, a place without electricity and no running water. That also means no toilets, but more of that later. While the shantytown lacks facilities, it doesn’t lack a strong sense of community, and we see this facet of Le Chaâba repeatedly through the book. One example is the way the women squabble over the water pump by day, but bury their arguments when the men come home, and in another instance (which is hilarious, by the way), the women and children combine forces–forming an ad hoc and combative neighbourhood watch assault team to discourage the lively prostitution trade that flourishes right outside of their territory.  

Begag relates the pivotal classroom incidents and friendships which shaped his life and his decision to “prove that I was capable of being like them.” ‘Them‘ in this case being the French schoolchildren who laugh at Azouz’s use of Arabic vocabulary. Of course, mixing with French children who live in houses and not shacks serves to highlight the differences between Azouz’s life and the expectations of French children.

I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba. He was not the sort to enjoy rummaging in the garbage dumped on the embankment, or hanging onto the sides of the garbage truck, or getting involved in extorting money from the hookers and the homos. Besides, did he even know what homo meant?

On the down side, detailed here is a nighttime excursion to the outhouse and a genital exhibition between children. Minor asides, but what’s so interesting is the clear impact of education on Azouz. At times the lessons seem designed to illuminate differences between the French children and the Arab children–this isn’t true, of course, the lessons are culturally based in subjects such as manners, etiquette, and hygiene. But the result is that the Arabic children are effectively alienated even further–unless they’re like Azouz and set out to impress the teacher–even at the cost of alienating their fellow Arabic classmates.

Rather than a cohesive narrative, the book is basically a series of incidents that take place in the shantytown, in Azouz’s schools and in the home his family later moves to. One of the best scenes takes place when rubbish is dumped next to the shantytown and the residents go hunting for anything of value. Throughout these scenes runs a strong thread examining identity and solidarity, and the  inevitable tug-of-war that occurs between one culture’s values when confronted with an adopted country. Some parents who bring their children to another country (or whose children are born in an adopted country) seem horrified when the children begin to integrate, but isn’t that a healthy development? Ideally two cultures should be meshed equally, but when one  of those cultures is considered to be a so-called prestige culture, while another is not, just how does a child accept or filter out cultural values when subjected to peer pressure, family expectations and the desire to belong? Shantytown Kid sensitively illustrates all these difficulties faced by Azouz as he makes some irrevocable decisions at a crucial early age. In one scene, he’s even held up by the teacher as an example against his own race, and in another a pied-noir teacher condescendingly corrects  Azouz on all matters Algerian.

He was really modest, my teacher. There he was, explaining my origins to me demonstrating how little I knew of Arab culture, and he dared tell me that he spoke Arabic nearly as well as I did!

As crass as the teacher is at times, he still appreciates Algerian culture–a rare thing at the time with anti-Algerian sentiment boiling away and culminating in France in October 17, 1961. As Azouz tries to navigate both worlds, he inevitably and consciously makes a decision to be “french,” and that decision comes at a cost. For me, however, the most touching parts of the book are not the episodes of Azouz’s life, but the struggles of Azouz’s father who despairs when families leave the shantytown and move to flats. While he expresses this despair as disloyalty in the departing families, Azouz’s father distress is founded in the threat to culture and loss of community, and as the families disperse, his anguish seems based in doubt about the future and fear of lost values.

So thanks Emma for pointing me towards a book I’d never heard of and one I enjoyed. Strangely enough I related to it in some ways.


Filed under Begag Azouz, Fiction

The Accidental Feminist by M. G. Lord

“The man is a husband and a father and something else, say a doctor. The woman is a wife and mother and … nothing. And it’s the nothing that kills her.” Elizabeth Taylor as Laura Reynolds in The Sandpiper.

I admit that I decided to read M. G.  Lord’s non-fiction book, The Accidental Feminist because I was curious to read the author’s argument that Elizabeth Taylor is a feminist icon. The book’s overly long, but self-explanatory secondary title is: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, and this secondary title goes a long way in explaining the book’s direction. First the disclaimer: I like Elizabeth Taylor. I think she is a seriously underrated actress, and I tend to enjoy the films that are a little off-beat. The Driver’s Seat, for example. Butterfield 8 is another one, but in spite of my admiration, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist icon. There again I am fascinated by the idea that Taylor, who had many of the hallmarks for tragedy that destroyed other female stars (child stardom, tabloid sensationalism, multiple marriages, illness, and a noticeable appetite for gems), managed to live to a ripe old age and die fabulously wealthy. In other words, unlike let’s say Barbara Payton, Marilyn Monroe, and Linda Darnell (just to name a few from an endless list), Elizabeth Taylor managed to survive the demands of Hollywood and unlike many glamorous female stars before her, she didn’t die in oblivion. Apart from the fact that I like Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, I also admire her early stance of support for AIDS–especially when many other famous people, who might have brought attention to the issue in those critical early days, opted instead to hide from the topic.  

The Accidental Feminist is not a biography of Taylor. Instead it’s primarily film criticism with an emphasis on how her roles challenged censorship and social mores of the time. The author states that feminism is “a tricky thing to define,” and after quoting various definitions, argues that many of Taylor’s films had a definite “feminist context– “accidental or deliberate–text or subtext.” Most of us have heard of the Hays Code with its explicit lists of dos and don’ts, and what’s so interesting here is Lord’s intense exploration of how the Hays Code not only censored many of Taylor’s films but tried to creatively shape the messages of several films. This sort of information is a valuable read for any film buffs. Films examined include:

National Velvet (“A sly critique of gender discrimination in sports.”)

A Place in the Sun

Giant (“The feminization of the American West.”)

Suddenly, Last Summer (“The callousness of the male medical establishment towards women patients.”)

Butterfield 8 (“A woman’s right to control her sexuality.”)


The Sandpiper (“goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (“What happens to a woman when the only way that society permits her to express herself is through her husband’s career and children.”)

Ash Wednesday

The Little Foxes

The slight biographical information in these pages is restricted to the bare outlines of Taylor’s life and how these details impacted her career. At one point the book unobtrusively lines up the tragedies Elizabeth Taylor dealt with effectively, including the death of James Dean, Montgomery Clift’s car accident, and the death of husband, Michael Todd in 1958 (they’d been married for just over a year).

The characters she played were women to be reckoned with. And many of her roles–the great and the not-so-great–surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty. While I know that writers and directors create movies, stars create a brand. And the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes: a woman may not control her sexuality; she may not have an abortion; she may not play with the boys; she may not choose to live without a man; she must obey her husband; and should she speak of unpleasantness, she will be silenced.

There were points at which I felt myself arguing with the premise of the book–after all these were roles that Taylor, the actress played, and that’s a separate thing from Elizabeth Taylor, the person. In spite of the risky film roles, Taylor played so well, her life, covered vividly by the tabloids also had a message. But at the same time, the author makes a powerful argument (depending on a person’s notion of what constitutes feminism), about Elizabeth Taylor’s bravery in allowing herself to be photographed bald prior to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, her box-office power when it came to a female audience, and her early support for AIDS research. I’d also argue that the really risky role in A Place in the Sun went to Shelley Winters–not Taylor. And then there are those hilarious sexed-up ads for Taylor’s early films which de-emphasized her acting and instead accentuated her physical attributes. Giant, for example was sold to audiences as a “steamy love triangle.” Here’s a marvellously astute passage:

The ad then shows Dean, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, oozing intensity, and Taylor on her knees before him. Although they are technically chaste, their positions hint at an act that would violate the Production Code. The caption: “Jett Rink, the outsider–and Leslie, wealthy and beautiful.”

The last frame shows Dean leering at Taylor as if she were a hamburger and he had missed lunch. The caption: “Jett Rink’s shack. No one has ever set foot in it–and then suddenly, Leslie.” The last picture is the most distorted. Far from depicting a sweaty libidinous tryst, the actual scene is prim and tender. To show Leslie that he is not a brute, Jett struggles to get everything right as he makes her a cup of tea. His actions are a perfect metaphor for the feminization of the West.

 At the same time, I bristled at a few statements. Taylor and third husband, Michael Todd led a lavish lifestyle, and at one point, we’re told that after Todd’s premature death in a plane crash, he left a “mere 250,000 in the bank.” Taylor picked up and went back to work. What else could she do since there were bills to pay and three children to support, but there’s something grating about that “mere $250,000″ wording…I went to http://www.dollartimes.com/ to check the value of 1958 money compared to today, and according to that website, $250,000 in 1958 terms was worth around $1,929,392.61 in 2011. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard to put Taylor in the same boat with other single mothers  who live on state support or meagre child support payments. That’s not to say that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t suffer at the death of her spouse, but let’s face it, the woman had advantages…. Another point of disagreement with the author occurs over The Taming of the Shrew, a film I love btw, but whose final scene can be construed as the “shrew,” a very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor advocating blind obedience to one’s spouse–even if his demands are insane.

One of my favourite anecdotes in the book must be included:

As a young woman Taylor, too, played the duplicity game. But in 1962, after two men in sequence very publicly ditched their wives for her, she stopped hiding. And far from suffering at the box office, she became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Not even the vatican could hold her back. When its weekly newspaper, L’Osservatore della Domenica, accused her of “erotic vagrancy,” she blithely quipped, “Can I sue the pope?”

Love that  term “erotic vagrancy.” Ultimately this is a highly readable book that made me think–and while I didn’t agree with every statement, the book did bring a richer appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor. And isn’t that the point?

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the kindle.


Filed under Lord M. G., Non Fiction

Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters by Robert Maier

Although film is an important part of my life, I’ve never nursed a secret desire to be involved in film-making at any level. I’ve always thought that while films are great to watch, making them would be hard work. That thought was recently endorsed by reading Robert Maier’s entertaining memoir, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters. The title is a slight misnomer as while the author did indeed work with John Waters, the so-called Pope of Trash for a number of years, he also worked on other low-budget films, and the book covers Maier’s long involvement with film-making both pre and post John Waters. Robert Maier currently teaches film at Gaston College in North Carolina so that should give a hint about the direction the book takes. 

Maier began working with John Waters in 1973 when he was 23 years old and this was the beginning of a “hair-raising eighteen-year ride through the world of low-budget, underground filmmaking.” He worked on Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray and Crybabymoving from soundman to line producer.” He also directed a 30 minute homage to Edith Massey (the egg-lady) called Love Letter to Edie. Maier has a long list of film credits to his name–too many to mention with the exception of the cult classic slasher film, The House on Sorority Row. Just reading the salient facts of Maier’s career was enough to convince me that I wanted to read the memoir.

Robert Maier began working with John Waters for the film Female Trouble (my second favourite John Waters film next to Polyester). Waters had just completed his infamous film Pink Flamingos, and Maier was working at the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) film department. John Waters was “hungry to find people who would help make his next movie,” and Robert Maier worked in the department with all the equipment. But their relationship went beyond being in the right place at the right time. John Waters, Divine (Glenn Milstead) and Robert Maier all “grew up in the Towson, Maryland area” and “even had a few friends in common.” So it was only natural that Waters and Maier developed both a personal and a working relationship.

The memoir gives the reader some brilliant behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making-of some of John Waters’ films. My personal favourites come from the filming of Female Trouble:

Dealing  with the public on Female Trouble was always exciting. There was no such thing as a film permit in Baltimore. Except for John’s films, no one could remember when a film had shot in Baltimore. Everyone thought it was way too ugly for glamorous movies. Being on the guerilla film crew, watching the shocked, bewildered bystanders was a hoot. One memorable shot was Divine “modeling” on a busy Baltimore street. He was in full drag wearing a shimmering blue sequined gown, with a big hairdo and Van Clarabelle make-up. We filmed him from the window of a slowly-moving car, so bystanders on the street were clueless. Their reactions were as if Divine had been dropped from a flying saucer and was having an epileptic fit. Not a soul would think it was a scene from a movie.

And if you’ve seen the film, that scene of Divine happily tripping along the streets of Baltimore, is one of my all-time favourite film sequences. It really has to be seen to be believed. Half the fun is Divine, and as Maier points out, the other half is watching the reactions of bystanders. 

In another section, Maier describes an earlier scene from Female Trouble:

The Christmas tree scene, where Divine beats up his parents, topples the tree, stomps on his presents, and then runs away because he didn’t get cha-cha heels, was a memorable location shot. The runaway setup required our small crew to perch behind a bush outside the house. We had a very small profile, so the neighbours had no idea a movie was being shot in their quiet neighbourhood on that cool Sunday morning.

When Divine burst out the front door, howling at the top of his lungs, in his sheer neon-green nightie, we saw neighbors peeking out their front windows, wondering what the hell was going on. The next set-up was even better when Dawn’s father flew out the door screaming, “Dawn Davenport come back here! You’re going straight to a home for girls. I’m calling the juvenile authorities right now!”

Well with those sorts of descriptions, it’s easy to imagine what happened on a formerly quiet Baltimore street in the wee morning hours.

Low Budget Hell is full of these sorts of hilarious memories and details, but there are some reminiscences that aren’t so funny. Maier describes John Waters unflatteringly as a harsh taskmaster, driving the non-union film crew all day long with no lunch break and with the mantra “dollar, dollar, dollar.” Maier comments on Waters’ film style and more than once compares him to Ed Wood while acknowledging that he was “fascinated with how John worked.” Maier recounts grueling schedules and the incredible personal sacrifices made along the way. As his career shifted from working with John Waters, he  shares rich memories of Jean-Michel Basquait and the Coen Brothers who slept on the floor of his editing offices while they made Blood Simple

I’ve read almost all of John Waters’ book (I have a few autographed copies) and I’ve also read two books about Divine: Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay and My Son Divine by his mother Frances Milstead, so I wasn’t too surprised that while John Waters made bigger budget films (through New Line Cinema), Robert Maier didn’t make a smooth transition to the more lucrative big-time. A few sentences have a bitter edge, and that’s perhaps inevitable. After finishing the book, I stopped and asked myself how I’d feel if I’d had the same experiences and I concluded that I’d feel about the same.

This is a lively, unique memoir for fans of low-budget cinema or for those who want a behind-the scenes look. The memoir shows film-making as a hard, sometimes cut-throat field where those willing to step on others or shift the shit to someone else thrive, and while the book doesn’t directly ask: ‘just how much are you willing to sacrifice to join the ranks of the extremely wealthy and fabulously famous?’ the question is there, nonetheless, on every page.

Review copy read on the kindle.


Filed under Maier Robert, Non Fiction

Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

“Parties always end in pandemonium in houses where the valets have more style than the masters.”

As a Balzac fan, I was really interested to read Balzac’s Omelette from Anka Muhlstein (original title Garçon, un cent d’huîtres, Balzac er la Table). My copy came courtesy of the American publisher Other Press and is translated by Adriana Hunter. In this small volume, author Anka Muhlstein examines the way food, and all things related to food, appears in Balzac’s work. I’m going to admit that I never gave the subject a single thought before I read the book, but in the next Balzac novel, I know I’ll notice every mention of a bit of bread or a glass of wine. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, this is not a scholarly work, but if you are interested in 19th century French culture, Balzac or the history of restaurants in general, then this is an invaluable, fun romp and a very entertaining read. It probably helps if you know something about French literature of the period as there are frequent allusions to the novels of Balzac, Zola, Maupassant and Flaubert. To me, Balzac has always been about character, but in a marvellously fluid passage, Muhlstein argues that Balzac gives us another glimpse of his characters if we carefully examine how he implements the use of food in his novels: 

His preoccupation with all things gastronomic is first and foremost social, and this is endorsed by the fact that his characters spend hours on end in dining rooms, that his cooks’ habits are described in detail, and that he gives the addresses of his best suppliers. And yet he is not concerned with how things taste. If you want to imagine savouring an oyster as it melts on your tongue, read Maupassant; if you dream of jugs filled with yellow cream, try Flaubert; and if the thought of beef in aspic tickles you, turn to Proust. But if you are interested not so much in the taste of the oyster as in the way a young man orders it, less the cool sweetness of the cream than how much it costs, and less the melting quality of the aspic than what it reveals about how the household is run, then read Balzac.

 The author illustrates how Balzac, Zola, and Maupassant use food and drink to describe their characters–Balzac’s Duke of Hérouville is “a good wine, but so tightly corked up that you break your corkscrew.” Delphine de Nucingen is “such a washed-out creature with her white eyelashes [she’s] compared to a Cox’s pippin, an apple with blotchy markings like a frog while the wicked Marquise d’Espard is a delicious little apple that warrants biting into.” With all these descriptions of food worming their way into Balzac’s characterisations, naturally the thought emerges that perhaps Balzac was obsessed with food. If you’ve ever seen drawings of Balzac, you notice that he’s a large man. Being portrayed by Depardieu in the film Balzac furthered that impression, so if you’d asked me off the cuff  how I imagined Balzac’s eating habits, I would have proffered a guess that he was a man of gargantuan appetites. Muhlstein set me straight:

Paradoxically, this man, who is so keenly aware of the importance of food, was not a great food lover but the most eccentric of eaters. He barely ate anything for weeks on end during periods of intensive writing, then celebrated sending off the manuscript by abandoning himself to vast excesses of wine, oysters, meat and poultry.

To address and “reconcile these contradictions,” the chapter Balzac at Mealtimes surveys Balzac’s personal life and eating habits.  While he slogged his heart out writing eighteen hours a day, he drank water, coffee (a true addict!) and “sustained himself on fruit.” But then came the monstrous excesses, the orgies of food once a book was finished:

Once the proofs were passed for press, he sped to a restaurant, downed a hundred oysters as a starter, washing them down with four bottles of white wine, then ordered the rest of the meal: twelve salt meadow lamb cutlets with no sauce, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole, not to mention extravagances like dessert and special fruit such as Cornice pears, which he ate by the dozen. Once sated, he usually sent the bill to the publishers.

There’s one great description of a prison banquet held when Balzac was arrested for evading a period in the National Guard. It’s 1836,  and armed with borrowed money courtesy of his publisher, Balzac ordered a sumptuous feast from one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris: Véfour. The food orgy continued during Balzac’s stay:

His work table, his bed, his only chair, the entire floor of his room, everything was covered, everything was piled high, groaning with patés, stuffed poultry, glazed game, jams, baskets of different wines and every sort of liqueur [from] Chevet.

One of the most intriguing areas of the book is an exploration of the development of restaurants, and there’s some astonishing information here. Tracing how “the Revolution transformed the gastronomic landscape of Paris,” the author argues that the armies of unemployed chefs and pastry cooks of the aristocracy sparked a surge in the restaurant business. There were only “four or five restaurants in Paris before 1789,” but that number exploded to 2,000 by 1802 and 3,000 by the Restoration. Given that this sort of public eating was then, a fairly new phenomenon, the variety and competitiveness of restaurants must have been fascinating, and fortunately the book devotes some considerable space to exploring some of the most famous restaurants of Balzac’s time.  

The author argues that an examination of restaurants in La Comédie Humaine is essential as Balzac uses “restaurants to move his plots forward.” The information on the various restaurants is not delivered in isolation, however, and the author traces some of the characters Balzac ‘sends’ to restaurants. Muhlstein tallies the number of restaurants mentioned in La Comédie Humaine:

Balzac takes us all over Paris, on the right bank as much as the left, sending his characters off into the most refined establishments and the most lowly, and through his succession of novels gives us a real social and gastronomic report on the capital. Some forty restaurants are referred to in The Human Comedy, because he is not satisfied with mentioning only the biggest names. Whether discussing the most spectacular or the most modest, Balzac lingers over the menu. As is always the case with him, he is also interested in the cost. His work, therefore, amounts to a guide, one that discerns the stars but does not neglect the bill.

Restaurants described, along with mention of which characters ate where, and often why specifically Balzac ‘sent’ his characters to that particular restaurant include: Véry, Le Rocher de Cancale, Frères- Provençaux (“where he sends unsympathetic characters“), the Café des Anglais and its private rooms (which come in handy), the Café Riche, the Cadran Bleu, and the Cheval Rouge.  Including information regarding various restaurants creates a backdrop for the stories and characters–for example, to our modern sensibilities, it makes a great deal of difference whether the characters have an assignation in a rotgut fast food take-out, a steak house, or a 5 star restaurant that boasts a cordon bleu chef. Restaurants are not the only ‘real’ element to appear in Balzac’s fiction, he also wasn’t shy about including the very real Monsieur Chevet in his pages, and Balzac made him the “incomparable purveyor of all celebratory occasions.” The author notes that Chevet “seems to have been very grateful for the publicity.”

With literary examples, the author also argues:

Another rule–which Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola respected–dictate that any substantial function held in a house ‘where the traditions of grandeur had not descended through many generations’ should end in disarray.

On a final note, there’s mention of a restaurant with shit service where people “go to be insulted,” and while I read this I remembered many comedy skits involving the stock character of the snotty French waiter. According to Balzac and Muhlstein, that image is rooted in fact.  I don’t think I’d fancy the Katcomb where the food was basic and the ambience, well it left a lot to be desired:

The tablecloths were changed only once a day, but each table had a brush with which customers could clear away crumbs.

Wonder what the bathrooms were like…..


Filed under Muhlstein Anka, Non Fiction

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King

The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was perfectly natural:

 “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.”

“Then morality does not exist?”

“No,” Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.”

A few years ago, I came across the French film Doctor Petiot. I’d never heard of this man before, but after watching the film, I knew I’d never forget him. I also vowed that one day I’d read a non-fiction account of Petiot and his crimes. Well ‘one day’ arrived recently with the publication of David King’s well-researched book, Death in the City of Light.

Death in the City of Light begins on March 11, 1944 with a fire at a house located at 21 Rue Le Soeur. To the numerous bystanders it appeared as though the house’s chimney was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene, broke in and discovered a slaughter house with dismembered body parts strewn about the floor. But this was nothing compared to the contents of the basement: personal items which clearly belonged to dozens of people, jars filled with human genitals, a lime pit which contained even more body parts, and an ad-hoc surgery area for dismemberment, scalping, and the removal of internal organs. Obviously French police had a serial killer on their hands. Or did they?

Although it seems fairly clear-cut that the human remains found at the house at La Rue de Soeur were the result of a maniac, things immediately became murky. The house belonged to French physician, Marcel Petiot, a collector of fine art, a very wealthy man who also had a reputation for helping the poor and drug addicts. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the case (for Simenon fans, Massu served as inspiration for Inspector Maigret), and initially he suspected that the police had stumbled on a house used by the Gestapo. The La Soeur house was just around the corner from a Gestapo building and this combined with the flagrant brutality and sheer number of the victims made Gestapo involvement likely:

A swastika had flown over the building across from Petiot’s property. The garage at No. 22 had been appropriated by Albert Speer’s Organization Todt, a vast supply company that supervised German construction projects in Occupied Europe.

If the murders at Petiot’s house had indeed been committed by the Gestapo, this created a very delicate situation for Massu since “the French police, of course, had no authority over the Gestapo or any of its activities.” I’ve often thought that wartime creates a fertile opportunity to mask other crimes, and the possibilities expands exponentially with the idea of an occupation. The author takes the time to clarify both Massu’s uncertainty and the chaos of the times–people were disappearing daily. Some were swallowed up by prison, others were tortured and tossed out dead somewhere, and still others were shipped off to concentration camps. Massu’s initial feeling that Petiot’s building was a Gestapo torture house did not pan out, however, for a couple of reasons. Massu was not warned off of the investigation by the Gestapo, and there were no Gestapo personnel on site when the grisly discovery was made. Moreover, shortly after the fire began, a mystery man appeared on a bicycle. Grabbing the attention of the patrolmen, the mystery man said that the corpses inside the house “are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.” 

As Massu tries to capture Petiot and identify some of the remains in the La Soeur house, the question of whether or not Petiot was indeed an agent of the Gestapo or a member of the Resistance emerges repeatedly. Author David King takes both possible scenarios and deconstructs the myths which surround both stories. Tracing Petiot’s chequered career, a portrait of Petiot begins to emerge–a troubled childhood, “signs of imbalance,” various stays in mental asylums, a political career fraught with scandal, kleptomania and corruption, and also various charges that he supplied a legion of drug addicts with a steady supply. And then there are the many instances of people disappearing when they stood in Petiot’s way….

Author David King follows Massu’s investigation as he tries to discover just who Petiot really was, and the investigation, naturally, in the absence of the culprit, expands into the identity of the victims. Evidence mounts that Petiot claimed to run an underground railroad for wealthy Jews who were attempting to escape the Nazis, but the bones in the basement argue that these travellers arrived at Petiot’s home but did not leave. The case was further complicated by the fact that Petiot had been arrested and held by the Gestapo for a considerable number of months, and also by the fact that the Gestapo had tried to infiltrate the underground escape route by sending a young Jewish man, whose freedom had been bought by his family through bribes, into Petiot’s operation. Naturally he disappeared. King also throughly investigates Petiot’s possible ties to the Gestapo and also his relationship with the Carlingue. It’s quite a task to unravel all the possibilities here, but King does his job masterfully–tying in Petiot with the darkest segments of the Paris underworld.

While I throughly enjoyed the visually stunning film Dr. Petiot, the complexities of this case were largely absent, and the film portrayed Petiot as a maniac, who treated his patients for free, while luring wealthy Jews to their doom. Death in the City of Light makes it clear that Petiot, a dangerous chameleon, did not have a philanthropic bone in his sick little body, and that so-called free treatment was just a way of embezzling the state. Furthermore, the book explores the intricacies of Petiot’s relationship with Henri Lafont and the Carlingue, and this link certainly explains just why Petiot operated so freely for so long.  A large portion of the book concentrates on Petiot’s trial, and at this point, Petiot, who’d managed to hide some of his egomaniacal tendencies, went wild in the spotlight–even making anti-semitic slips at some points. The trial turned into a media and social event with many spectators enjoying Petiot’s performance, and the testimony was spiced up considerably by the appearance of Rudolphina Kahan who “looked like a spy on the Orient Express.” Petiot seemed to nurse a crush on this woman who served as one of his many scouts. Petiot’s show-off performance was reminiscent of the trial of Lacenaire, and there are indeed some similarities between the two men–although Petiot’s murderous rampage far exceeded Lacenaire’s.

The film portayed Petiot as a ghoulish figure who rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris at night, and physically the dark rings under Petiot’s eyes reminded me of Cesare from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was delighted to see this same connection made in the book by a journalist who attended the trial. Death in the City of Light includes many photographs, and Petiot really looks like a nut-job.

There are several names in the book: Adrian the Basque, Jo the Boxer, Henri Lafont, Pierre Bony, Francois the Corsican, Zé. I’m still looking for a book (in English) on the subject of the Carlingue, so if anyone knows a source, please let me know.

(my copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my kindle)


Filed under King David, Non Fiction