The Road Not Taken: Finding American in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong–David Orr

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I adore Robert Frost.  As salutatorian of my high school class, I chose “The Road Not Taken” as the jumping off point for my speech at graduation.  I was scholarly and deep.  And, according to David Orr, I was in a huge crowd of high school graduates who have used the poem for such an occasion and in a huge crowd of those who have misunderstood the poem.  Frost, Orr happily tells us, may come across as a straighforward poet due to his plain everyman language, but that language masks the complexity of his poetry.

Orr gives an overview of Frost’s biography, which concludes with his biographers’ treatment of him as a person and a poet.  Frost did not find success as a poet until middle age after he took a huge leap and moved to England, where he met Edward Thomas.  Thomas and Frost’s walks in the woods, and Thomas’ indecision about the path, led to “The Road Not Taken,” which even Thomas did not read as Frost intended.  The narrator is not making a bold individualist’s choice.  He is agonizing over two paths worn about the same.

Orr dives into the American psyche and our individualist culture.  He examines “the choice” and uses philosophy and neuroscience to challenge the American ideal of rugged individuals making choices that matter, that add up to success.  Orr questions whether we even have choices and dives into the way in which our brains fill in gaps in our reasoning to explain our choices.  This was my favorite chapter.

With “The Chooser,” what had been an interesting use of Frost to explore and critique American individualism becomes tortured and drawn out.  The arguments overlap and repeat and the chapters begin to seem like dissertation chapters or separate articles mashed together rather than book chapters that build carefully on one another.  Orr critiques self-help authors for pushing us to the brink of acknowledging there are no real choices and then pulling back at the last minute to empower us to change our lives through choice, but he himself follows this model.  Having argued that we misunderstood Frost, that our culture is built on a false assumption of individual choice, that we cannot even trust ourselves about our reasons for the choices we make, having taken us to the dark side, Orr concludes with a reflection on the Statue of Liberty and its poem and these lines:  “Those who pass through those doors will one day lift their own small light in a yellow wood, where two roads diverge.  And it will make all the difference.”  What?  Immigrants, who come from cultures which see society as playing a larger role in our choices, once in the United States suddenly gain the ability to make individual choices and make a difference?

Orr is a lawyer and poet who writes on poetry as a journalist.  This particular project might have been better served as a feature article for a publication like The Atlantic rather than stretched too far to become a short book.  That decision made a big difference.

Finished 1/25/16

Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine–Michael R. Evans

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Writing the history of women, especially premodern women, challenges most of the rules of historical writing.  Historians need written sources as the backbone of their research.  What happens when there are few of those?  And what is a historian to do when, despite those few sources, a rich tradition and mythology has grown up around a historical figure?  Where does that all come from?

Those are the types of questions with which Michael Evans engages in Inventing Eleanor.  He presupposes knowledge of Eleanor’s story, but does offer a quick sketch of the basic outline.  He begins by questioning the idea of Eleanor as an exceptional woman and pushes readers to see her as within the spectrum of power available to women of her social class in the twelfth century.  Then he turns to the earliest myths about her, which he terms the Black Legend, and which involve her alleged adulterous and scandalous behavior.  Evans examines the historical evidence for these myths, then turns to the earliest historiography, from her own time or just after.  This chapter (chapter two) powerfully challenges the conception of history as received knowledge.  Evans methodically explicates the various historical turns taken in Eleanor’s image through various ‘historians,’ who often rely on supposition supported by circulation citation to create the image of Eleanor that still persists today.

Evans then turns to sub-themes of the Eleanor image: first, the idea that she was a ‘southern’ queen married to ‘northern’ kings (like most other pieces of her image, he deconstructs this); then the development of Eleanor’s image on the stage pre-twentieth century; then Eleanor in the twentieth century, with the addition of film and television; then historical fiction and the visual arts.  Throughout the book, Evans is careful and precise, but he maintains a swift pace and does not become too bogged down in the details, although I struggled a bit with the chapter on pre-twentieth century stage portrayals because my prior knowledge here was weakest.

Evans’ conclusion asks us to consider the ways in which history and popular culture interact and shape one another.  He does not shame us for preferring popular history or historical fiction.  Rather, he pushes us to think about the construction of both genres as well as academic history, to be critical consumers of whatever we are reading.  He ends with two lovely sentences:  “A better understanding of Eleanor, not as proto-modern exception but in the context of other authoritative and cultured medieval women, can help illuminate a world still too-often stigmatized in popular culture as the ‘Dark Ages,’ and maybe encourage us to view our own age, in which women’s voices are too often excluded, with a little more self-awareness and humility.  It’s 2014 and we’re all barbarians.”

Evan’s look at Eleanor reminded me of Susan Bardo’s popular work, The Creation of Anne Boleyn.  Evans is a trained historian while Bordo is a feminist philosopher who writes in the field of cultural studies.  Having argued for the importance of popular culture in creating historical understanding, I wonder why Evans chose a scholarly press with rather high prices for his work rather than writing for a popular history audience.  His message is important and needs to be read by more than the handful of scholars who may encounter it in this format from Bloomsbury.  A popular press may also have supported the inclusion of images, particularly important for the chapter on the history of Eleanor and the visual arts.  At the very least, those interested in history, popular culture, the Middle Ages, queens, gender, and Eleanor of Aquitaine should pick up this book.  I would love to see those teaching historiography to undergraduates assigning it, also.

Finished 1/17/16

In a Dark, Dark Wood–Ruth Ware

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Some plots are more equal than others and the plot to Ruth Ware’s debut novel is one.  Nora (Leonora) writes crime novels and lives alone in London.  She works from home and interacts with others primarily through email and text–and she prefers it.  She ventures outside several times a week to run, which she enjoys because of the sense of escape, of running away.  Ok, we got it.  She has issues, but what are they?

Ware begins with a familiar plot device–starting near the end.  Nora is in a hospital with wounds she cannot remember receiving.  Rather than wondering what happened to her, Nora’s first impulse is to wonder what she has done.  Curiosity piqued.

We get our first peek at Nora’s issues when Ware goes back to the near beginning.  Nora receives an email invitation to a hen party in Northumberland and wonders, why am I invited?  The hen is a woman she has not seen in ten years, since she was sixteen and left her hometown of Reading.  A quick email to a childhood friend who also lives in London, Nina, and a pact and, boom, they are both rsvp’ing to the hen party.

On the drive to the party, we find out that Nora fled Reading and her mother now lives in Australia with Nora’s stepfather, whom Nora does not seem to like much.  Nina is a tall, spiked-tongued, bronzed doctor with a Brazilian father.  Both Nora and Nina have mixed feelings about the hen, Clare, but are curious about the invite.  The party is in a modern glass-walled house in a deserted wood down a nearly unnavigable drive. The other guests include Clare’s university friends, Melanie, Tom (gay), and Flo (the maid of honor and hostess of the hen party).  Melanie is leaving her six-month-old for the first time.  Tom is a playwright.  Flo is too enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm continues to reveal itself suggesting mental instability supported by Melanie’s divulging that Flo had a breakdown at university and never finished.  Whatever her state, Flo is utterly devoted to Clare and pledged to give her the best hen party ever for the best hen ever.

Nora, claustrophobic almost on arriving, takes a run in the near-dark and encounters Clare as she comes back up the drive.  This gives Clare an opportunity to tell Nora that she is not invited to the wedding, at which Clare will wed Nora’s childhood sweetheart, James.  That is just the beginning of the weird.  There is no cell service at the house, which becomes creepier as dark falls and the inhabitants realize they are on view to whatever lurks in the woods. The guests take the edge off with tequila and begin to reveal bits of their stories and personalities.

Ware continues to move between the hospital, where Nora’s memory slowly returns, and the events of the hen party, which becomes creepier and creepier and includes a shotgun hung over the fireplace, a trip to the shooting range, and a night with a Ouija board.  Finally we learn that the party ended with the shooting of a midnight visitor.

I read the first half of the novel before bed and was seriously concerned that I would suffer nightmares as a consequence.  It was that good.  I finished in the morning, unable to put it down from waking until the last page.  As with other really good crime novels, I was uncertain whodunit until the end.  It was so good, I am considering re-reading it as an audible book to savor the drama enhanced by a good reader.

Finished 1/3/16