Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The French Foreign Legion

Hello all,

In 1924 Percival C. Wren wrote Beau Geste the first book in his trilogy of novels about three brothers who joined the French Foreign legion. Good Gestes is a collection of short stories about these three brothers and the other legionnaires they've encountered during their time in service with the French Foreign Legion (FFL.) I'm enjoying this book much more than I expected and it really got me interested in the FFL. So today I'm going to share a little information with you about the FFL that I researched.

For those who've never heard of it, the FFL is a branch of the French military service that was established in 1831. Before the legion was created in 1831, France spent the previous year in a revolution which forced king Charles X to abdicate and replaced him with Louis-Philippe. According to Tony Geraghty, who wrote March or Die: A New History of the French Foreign Legion, the legion was started as a way to deal soldiers sympathetic to Charles X, unemployed soldiers from the Napoleonic wars, and to take care of mobs of displaced dissidents in Paris. The FFL saw service in France, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Indo-China, China, Taiwan, Madagascar, Dahomey, Crimea, Serbia, Gallipoli, Syria, Russia, Norway, Lebanon, Eritrea, Germany, West Africa, and many other countries. The FFL was mainly an agent of colonialism. By the end of the Napoleonic wars France had lost a lot of territory such as Canada and Louisiana. To that end the FFL spent a lot of time in places like North Africa, fighting for French control.

Although the French Foreign Legion is a military group that spent a lot of time out of the country, the legion was not primarily made up of french men. Actually if you were French and joined the legion, you were considered relatively disreputable and unsuitable for marriage. In fact the army, and the legion itself, were relatively out of favor for large periods of time, the 1870s - Franco-Prussian War, 1917 - WWI troops mutiny and threaten Paris, 1920s-1934, 1950s and 1960s - the Post Colonial Wars. (Actually in 1961 the legion actually attempted a coup against DeGaulle which was not popular and almost led to their entire disbandment.) As well as being unfavorable, the FFL was in a large part made up of foreign troops.

Many men, like the ones in Good Gestes, used the legion to escape pasts they didn't want to remember. "If the regiment's identification with the overseas empire was on long historical shadow cast by its origins, then another was the sanctuary it provided, of a sort, for able-bodied outcasts." People from other nations joined for a number of reasons including, economic hardship or stateless men, created by wars, seeking new places to belong. However, even with all of the foreigners in the legion, it was very clearly led by the French who made up the commanding class.

One thing I wondered while reading Good Gestes, is if the men in the FFL really took on completely new names an persona as they did in the book. Every single man in the stories of Good Gestes has a name in the foreign legion that is not their own. And as it happens in the first story, sometimes they die with the name never revealed and are buried under their nom-de-guerre. According to Geraghty, this is absolutely something that happened within the FFL. In many ways the nom-de-guerre helped tie together groups of men who could only speak halting french and in many cases were illiterate in their own language. It would be interested to look at the psychological impact of choosing a new identity. (Geraghty states that it is a psychological imperative for them.) But for the most part the practice appears to be laid more in the romantic tradition. Even with Wren speaks about the practice in Good Gestes he discusses it with a romantic overtone, however it does seem to help the men pull together in their multicultural environment.

I could go on further about the legion but I think to really get a the heart of the subject I'd have to add another book to the current literature. Especially considering how tied up the history of the legion is with the rest of European history. So I will end here with a little about the period of time that the Geste brothers are in the legion. The Geste books are written in the 1920s, during a period of unpopularity for the legion. At the time that the books are written, the legion was currently taking part in the Rif War against Berber tribesmen in Morocco. It has been suggested by some that the popularity of the legion rose because of the popularity of the Geste books. Since they were adapted into several movies, this is probably the case. But enough about the legion, I'll tell you all about the actual book in my next post.

Till next time fellow readers.

*Tony Geraghty, March or Die: A New History of the French Foreign Legion, (New York: Facts on File, 1987.)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Valley of the Dolls

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the late posting. I had a ton of life stuff happen, like I'm now married, I'm pregnant, and I'll finally be graduating this year! So posts should remain as varied as they already were. Here's one I actually wrote half of a few months ago and am finally posting now.

Okay, so the Valley of the Dolls. Well to be honest before it showed up on my list of books my great grandfather owned, I had never heard of it. Which, if you ask me shows some lack of education on my part because the book was such an important one, it was bestseller in 1966 and has sold over 30 million copies. Valley of the Dolls is a well written novel about the inner lives of actresses and the effects of rampant pill usage among them.

 In general the subject of the book is a bit depressing but Jacqueline Susann does such a great job at the writing and at getting inside the heads of her characters that you find yourself eating the book in large chunks. Or I did. I think I consumed this book in a four day period, which is a little fast even for me. But it was so good! I literally could not put this book down. The book follows three friends through their lives as they make their careers in film and modeling. Anne, is an uptight New England girl who escapes to New York to find herself. Neely is an aspiring actress who shows real talent and as soon as its recognized turns into a kind of horrible person. Jennifer is an aspiring actress who has the looks but not the talent and struggles to constantly battle against her failing career.

I fell in love with these characters in a way that is rare for a book. I accepted them as friends and took them into my heart. So when Neely turned into such a horrible person and went against Anne, I won't spoil it if you haven't read it, I felt really conflicted over her betrayal. On the one hand I knew what Neely had been like at the beginning and the things that had changed her. I couldn't fully hate her the way I could a character I didn't really feel a relationship with. And Jennifer pretty much broke my heart, I cried for quite a while over her.

I seriously loved this book but when I was done, I could not imagine my Great Grandfather reading this. It just really didn't seem like his kind of book. I complained to my mother, asking why did he own this book when he probably never read it. I admit I had a bit of a dumb moment. Obviously just as we inherited his books, he inherited some from his family. This book actually came out in 1966, before my Great Great Grandmother died, so there was a good chance that she was the one who read the book. Or of course, and this is where I was being dumb, my Great Grandmother could have read it. Perhaps they even shared the book with each other and both read it. Which is a super cool thought. And I wondered about what either of their reactions to this book could have been. Did Carmen, my great great grandmother, perhaps enjoy this book? Did she recommend it to Dot? Or was Dot the one who enjoyed it and recommending it to Carmen? Did either of them recommend it to my Grandmother? Who knows, I could be wrong and Great Grandpa really did read it. But I seriously doubt that's the case.

'Til next time fellow readers, and if you haven't I strongly suggest you pick up Valley of the Dolls. It was fantastic!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Not Completely Convinced in Survival After Death

Definitely not convinced.

One Hundred Cases for Survival after Death was a sometimes interesting, mostly dry book. Admittedly going into it, I thought it would be more entertaining but Baird proved to be very committed to presenting the facts so that the reader would make up their own minds. Which, as a book making the case for survival after death, is really the way the book should be written.

Despite its dryness I did finish it and I did learn several things. The SPR was serious about their paranormal research. They did extensive work with mediums in particular. In fact, three quarters of the book was taken up with mediums. Speaking of mediums and researchers, I will note that there is a bit of controversy surrounding one member of the SPR that Baird strongly believed in. Harry Price was a member of the SPR in the 1920s who debunked several mediums. He tested one medium, Rudi Schneider, who claimed he could do levitation and found he was a fraud. However, fellow members in the SPR tested Rudi behind Price's back and claimed that Rudi was authentic. After his death the SPR claimed that Price's work with the Borley Rectory, actually used in Baird's book as proof of a haunting with suggestions to read Price's report of the paranormal events there, was faked and that Price was a fraud himself. Since only a few people backed up Price after his death I suspect Baird was a friend or a friend of a friend.

Something else I learned was that there was a lot of nonsense tests that the SPR put mediums through. For example, there used to be, I don't know if anyone still does it, something called Cross Correspondence where two mediums supposedly channel a spirit and when their automatic writing is compared it makes sense. Except that it really doesn't and in the few cases Baird used to prove the process the meaning between the two messages often had to be inferred. It rarely ever made actual sense when placed side by side. Most of the cross correspondence and automatic writing was a little too far for me to believe.

What's funny is that I actually do believe in survival after death, although perhaps not in the form that Baird thought it had. And some of his cases were very convincing, a couple made me shiver because of how convincing they were. For example, there was this one book test where a woman was told to look for a book in her house. She was told two passages because the medium's guide was a little confused as to the number of the page but both were very similar when she went home and found them.

I wouldn't suggest this book to anyone who does not have a strong interest in the paranormal. Many, many times I fell asleep reading because of how dryly the cases were presented. That said it was a good read. I don't know if my Great Grandfather read this book or if perhaps one of his parents had been interested in the subject. It's awesome that someone in my family line had an interest in this subject too. I only hope this book didn't bore them to sleep.

My next book will be Valley of the Dolls so until next time fellow readers.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Survival After Death?

When I saw this book with my Great Grandfather's things I should have realized I had more in common with my Great Grandparents than I thought. I have always been interested in ghost stories and whether or not life continues after death. I mean when I was 11 or 12 I was spending time with my friend watching haunted histories of buildings around the United States. I was the one who forced my family to watch that show where a family got locked into a haunted castle to see if it was actually haunted. So I was looking forward to reading this book. And at about 25 cases into it, it has not been much of a disappointment.

One Hundred Cases for Survival After Death is a little known book edited by Alex T. Baird which contains one hundred accounts of experiences with haunted houses, automatic writing, and materialization and the like. Most of the cases are quick synopses and excerpts from cases recorded by the SPR. For those of you who don't know, the SPR is the Society for Psychical Research. The original SPR started in 1882 and was the first, "organization established to examine allegedly paranormal phenomena using scientific principles."1 Basically these people attempted to explain paranormal phenomena using science, i.e. a ghostly sound is easily explained as a door swinging because it is loose. Basically these guys are the precursors to TV shows like Ghost Hunters. But anyway, back to the SPR, which published a scholarly journal where they discussed the research they conducted methodologically. To the paranormal field, the SPR was huge and for the most part helped debunk many of the fake mediums and other paranormal phenomenon that popped up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Although every case selected by Baird does not come from the SPR, or the ASPR (American Society for Psychical Research), a large number of them are from their journals and research. In fact it was the complaint I found in the only review on this book I could locate (with a quick search, a more exhaustive one could potentially net more.) You can read the review here and get a pretty good idea as to what the book is about from the review.

I am 58 pages into the book and its really interesting. Baird states the cases very dryly and succinctly, and while some seem a bit ridiculous others are intriguing. Especially the one out of North Carolina that was used in court. I really want to see those court documents. I particularly like the style of this book because Baird is clearly not out to scare people. He has chosen several phenomena that exist and then used these cases to back up his theory that these phenomena are real. However, as he says in his forward, the reader should use their own judgement in deciding whether there is a case for life after death, "I think that all the writing in the world will not convince anyone so thoroughly as evidence found for oneself." (Baird, 8.)

I look forward to discussing the book and cases more in depth with you next time fellow readers.

1. For more information on the SPR you can check out their website here. Or the ASPR here

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

She is...

Well, definitely She is a product of its time. I probably would have thrown the book at the wall if there had been one more mention of the rarity of the gloomy African. Or about how fantastic Ayesha was and how much in love Holly was with her.

To be honest, I will probably not read another Henry Rider Haggard Novel. Not because of the misogyny or the racism, both of which definitely existed, but because this book read very similar to Queen Sheba's Ring and the novelty is lost. Basically Haggard's novels follow the same plot line, a group of people go adventure in Africa, they find some lost civilization or the remains of a dying one, they're amazed by the people and the technology, they fall in love with a female character, they escape after pissing all of the native people off. Now granted in She, the escape was after the death of Ayesha, the female character they fell in love with, who murdered Ustane, the other female character they were in love with. And personally I still feel like Job didn't have to die. I feel like as a writer, Haggard only threw in that premonition to make extra pages and then following through on the most obvious piece of foreshadowing, he killed him. And then to kill him from fright, come on! I might as well add that Haggard is also classist since Job was apparently so lowborn that his feeble brain could not comprehend anything more than fear.

Despite my issues with the book, Haggard is a rather enjoyable writer. He does a very good job painting a picture in only a few words, mostly avoiding purple prose. (There were one or two moments where Holly dove off into the purple prose field.) The action is also relatively well placed and I went through the book quickly, when I wasn't working on my Thesis.

Now part of my complaints come from the fact that She was originally produced as a serial. She is one of Haggard's most popular novels and, as late as 1965, the book has been published in over 44 different languages. She is also a foundational work of fantasy literature, which considering the powers that Ayesha wields is understandable. This may be why I love and hate the book so much because the whole concept of who Ayesha was and the whole civilization of Kor were so fascinating. Really I wanted more of that and instead I got Holly's misogyny.

I guess I leave She with mixed feelings. On the one hand I enjoy Haggard's descriptive writing. Reading his book is like finding a dwarven ruin I haven't explored in Skyrim. As an adventure novel the book works. Although the characters aren't particularly likeable, you can't help but care for them anyway. Except Ayesha, she is a monster and I am still mad at her for what she did to Ustane. But the very fact that I feel that anger at Ayesha proves how good a writer Haggard is. On the other hand the book is definitely a product of its time and all the prejudice that came out of that period of history. (Which as a nineteenth and early twentieth century historian I can say is a lot. A LOT.)

Given the subject matter I can see why my Great Grandfather had this book on his shelf. I imagine he read it as a boy or, if he read it as an adult, with perhaps some of the enjoyment he would have felt as a boy. That said, reading the same books my Great Grandparents read is starting to make clear to me where my own love of Sci-fi and Fantasy comes from. Nine times out of ten I will reach for a fantasy novel over say a mystery. I wonder if my own choice in books comes from a preference passed down through the generations of my family - either genetically or culturally. 

For my next book I think I'm going to look at one that is Non-fiction, or kinda close. That's right! I'm going to read One Hundred Cases for Life After Death.

Till next time, fellow readers.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Henry Rider Haggard's She

Hello all!

I know, I know. Originally I said I would read Ramona by Helen H. Jackson and I did start it but the book was so dry that I decided to put it off till later. So now I am reading Henry Rider Haggard's novel, She. Which is, so far, a more interesting read, especially following Roots.

Let me spend this post giving you a little background on the novel. Originally published in 1887 She is fundamentally a gothic romance with a spice of adventure. The novel followed Haggard's intensely popular King Solomon's Mines. She was published as a serial and is written as if it actually happened. The fantastic story was supposedly written by the guardian of a handsome young man who could trace his ancestry to before the fall of the Pharaohs of Egypt. This style, according to the introduction of the book I'm reading, is similar to the style he employed in King Solomon's Mines. She is one of Haggard's best known, and best read novels and according to some literary experts is supposedly his best work.

Now I have read Henry Rider Haggard before. A few years ago I cracked open Queen Sheba's Ring which I really enjoyed. So going into She I already knew that Haggard is completely racist. I will chuck this up to the period in which he lived, but it is important to note. Since my last novel discussed racism a little, mainly involving the work and its place in modern times, I am kind of going to gloss over the racism in She. I do want to say that, and I've done a little research on this in college, I understand that as a British citizen, Haggard's racism is steeped in colonial concepts. So the racism present is different from what you will find in an American novel of the same time-period. For example, Haggard's characters respect, to a degree, the people of Amhaggar. However, they do turn out to be cannibals, and the party of adventurers are surprised to see any aspects of civilized behavior among them.

But enough about that. As I said earlier, I have read one other book of Haggard's and so I was looking forward to reading She. The last book I read by him took a while, because I dropped off in reading it for about half a year, but generally the book was enjoyable. Haggard is a magnificent author, and his word play is fantastic. I particularly like, in She, his ability to bring humor into what is altogether a rather dark tale. I hope to have She finished in the next few weeks and move on to the next book. Which will NOT be Ramona, yet.

Til next time fellow readers.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The end of the Roots, There May Be Spoilers

Hello everyone!

After an almost year long hiatus, I am here to discuss Roots with you for the fourth and final time. In case you were wondering, I am still writing my thesis. But in an attempt to avoid writing, said Thesis, I managed to consume Roots. Actually a little too fast to please me in the avoiding Thesis department. But this book was so good!

Let me just say that I learned so much from this book, not just about humanity but about so many things. Like did you know that President Polk, actually my favorite president, died just a few weeks after leaving office because he had Cholera? I always thought he just served one term for fun, I didn't know he never had a chance to serve a second! And this is something that I learned with the slaves through the grapevine of information presented in the book.

The last time I wrote a post I was still following Kunta Kinte's path as a slave. By the time I got to his daughter Kizzy and her progeny, I couldn't put the book down. I read over 500 pages in 3 days. Despite the slow beginning, which really can we blame the guy that Haley reportedly plagiarized, the book was excellently written. What Haley accomplishes is a glimpse into the past as it must have been experienced by these slaves. And while he may not be completely historically accurate, he manages to give readers insight into the mind frame of the men and women who lived through slavery.

You may remember from my last post, but then its been a little under a year so you may not, that there was a great deal of controversy involving this book. Many people believe it isn't worth reading because of the controversy over Alex Haley plagiarizing this book. In fact when I told people I wanted to read the book, only one or two people were supportive. Most people questioned my decision to read it, and derided me. Yet, it was a book that my Great Grandfather owned and that he must have read.

After reading it, I got it. I understood why people didn't want to read the book. Personally I think that those people must have read it wrong. Instead of reading Roots as a glimpse into the mindset of the slave experience, these people must have approached it with a sense of white guilt. It's no secret that slaves suffered. How could anyone who is bound, not free, not suffer to some degree. But the degrees of suffering were different or everyone, which is something that Haley pointed out in his book. Kizzy's grandson Tom has a much different experience than his great-grandfather Kunta does. And I realize as I'm writing this now that as a Portuguese-American whose parent's immigrated to this country, my Great Grandfather didn't need to feel a sense of white guilt. He didn't share in the history of that part of the nation because his family came over long after slavery in the 1920s.

So I wonder if instead he shared some of what I felt when I read the book. A sense of wonder that a family was orally able to preserve their lineage in a time when they could have been separated by anything. Certainly my own knowledge of my legacy is extensive, but its not enriched by the stories that Haley must have been told by his own grandmother which enabled him to travel all the way to Africa to find his family's origin.

So at the end of this, I would argue that everyone should really read this book. Roots is worth the read and I promise you, you will laugh and cry with the characters. And at the end you may come away with a shifted world view. Which is, ultimately I think, what Haley desires out of his readers. Not to come away with a sense of guilt but to come away enriched with an understanding of what his family experienced as slaves. And if you're not sure as to his goals, read the last chapter first where he explains how he started on the whole trail that led to the book. You may think twice and find it worth the read too.

Since it is time for something that is not 500 pages or more, the next book I'll be reading will be Ramona.

See you later fellow readers!