White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves
(History) by Giles Milton, 2004
Say you're a kid living in a Cornish fishing village, innocently doing your kid thing. One day you're at church with all
the other villagers. A bunch of pirates from North Africa swoops down with swords drawn, clamps all of you in chains
and drags you off to their waiting ships. This being the 1700s, you can't bell Tony Blair on your cell to ask him to send
in the helicopters. Off you go to North Africa to spend the rest of your (probably short) life as a slave.
Sounds a bit fantastical, doesn't it? Apparently, this kind of thing was going on all the time from the mid 16th to the
mid 18th century. It's estimated that a million or more Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary corsairs. (Guess I was away
the day they covered this in history class.) Not only were villagers all along the coast of Europe at risk, but European vessels
were often overpowered and their entire crews enslaved. Of course, all Europe was pretty pissed-off about the situation but
meanwhile the brisk trade in black slaves (15 million, all told) from Guinea was doing very nicely for lots of
white profiteers. The irony seemed lost on most Europeans.
This book concentrates on the Europeans who ended up in the clutches of Sultan Moulay Ismail who held sway over Morocco.
Talk about a despot, he makes Idi Amin look like St. Nicholas. When he wasn't personally slaughtering anybody who looked the
wrong way at him (he was a real DIY kind of guy), Moulay was supervising the construction (by slaves) of his vast network
of palaces stretching so many miles and with such grandiosity that it put Versailles in the low end of the real estate market
in terms of royal digs.
For most of the book, we're following the story of Thomas Pellow, a bright lad who shipped off to sea in 1715 at age 11
with his uncle. Their ship was captured on the return voyage from Genoa. Captain and crew were presented to Sultan Moulay
as the latest additions to his slave population. Luckily, the sultan noticed the boy's potential and he was rapidly
promoted, becoming a trusted slave with special privileges. To me, his story sounds suspiciously like the biblical account
of Joseph and his brothers (sans brothers). In fact, when The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Bellow
was published in England in 1740, many thought the tale as much imaginary as real. Mr. Milton insists, however, that
the purported facts of young Pellow's story match all the research on the experience of the white slaves in North Africa.
The focus on the boy's fate kept me reading but there wasn't a lot of pleasure in literary terms. Mr. Milton's journalistic
boiler-plate bristles with the likes of, "Such and such was the usual case, and this was no exception." A corpse unearthed
must needs be a "ghastly" discovery. The information is well organized but, after a while, one day of slavery sounds
pretty much like another; the details of the lavish palaces blur with repetition.
Of course, the whole point of reading such a book is to figure out how you would fare in similar circs. I'm not sure
how I would have born up under the torture and the 15-hour work days in the hot sun. The trick, see, was to get yourself promoted
out of the rank-and-file slave status. Munitions expert? Not me. Skilled horseman? Not very likely. I'd have been willing
to volunteer for stud duty when the sultan wanted white slaves to produce half-breeds with his African women. But even that
might have strained my stamina after a while.
My best bet would have been translator. If you could act as go-between for the various European diplomats who were negotiating
hopelessly with the wily sultan in their attempt to free the slaves, you found yourself in a powerful position. So now I know
how to get ready just in case. Everybody says I have a knack for languages. I'm heading down to Coles right now to get
a bunch of foreign language grammars. Let's see, what ones should I get? Any suggestions?
Love Is The Devil (DVD)
The story is now legendary in art circles. A burglar, trying to break into a flat, fell through the skylight and landed
in a heap below. Francis Bacon, the flat's owner, greeted him with the words, "Take off your clothes and get into bed and
you can have whatever you want."
So begins this movie about the tortured relationship between Francis Bacon, the celebrated artist, and George
Dyer, the hoodlum who became his lover. Having seen this movie when it was first released in theatres, I wanted another look to
see if it was as good as it first seemed. It's better.
Derek Jacobi does a wonderfully campy turn as Bacon and David Craig is very believable as the tormented younger man. Not
that you ever get to feel that you understand their bizarre relationship. That may be because the younger man is virtually
inarticulate and the older one never opens his mouth without spouting sarcasm. Bacon's thoughts, however, delivered in
voice-over poems, do provide some depth and emotional context.
For me, the main virtue of the movie is the superb, somewhat surrealist style. When we first see the denizens of the club
where Bacon consorts with his friends/enemies, we get their faces mostly as distorted reflections on the polished surfaces
around the bar, and the sound is wonky. Amazing how well this conveys the bitchy, vituperative world of Bacon and his cronies.
Among other neat effects, Dyer's nightmare image of a bleeding naked body keeps intruding on everyday proceedings.
It's all quite hellish, not the look at culture that you want your art appreciation class exposed to. Nor is it recommended
for viewers who would be put off by grungy homosexuality. But it can't be beat if you’re looking for a movie that’s
both stylish and thought-provoking. Left me wondering whether the world of the artist egomaniac can ever lead to anything
Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Biography) by Stephen Greenblatt, 2004
Here's the latest attempt at a biography of one of the most intriguing human beings who ever lived. I say "attempt" because
there is so little to go on. The biographical details that we know for certain about Shakespeare would fill two pages at most.
So the would-be biographer has to fill out the picture with a lot of conjecture and surmise based on what we know about the
era and the hints we can glean from the plays.
Stephen Greenblatt does an especially good job of making the times and the circumstances of Shakespeare's life and his
writing come alive. It strikes me that probably not much of the information here is published here for the first time (although
I don't have the expertise to say for sure) but the range and the quantity of it, the way it's all massed together to create
a compelling picture, is impressive.
Take the vignette of little Will standing between his dad's knees to watch the morality plays that came to Stratford. Mr.
Greenblatt reasonably assumes that the boy would have had such experience because his dad, John Shakespeare, was the town
official who granted licences to the strolling players. The description of how young Will would have enjoyed the rustic
celebrations, the harvest festivals and so on, and how these would have influenced his playwriting is also very convincing.
And the rough-and-tumble, cut-throat world of London theatre is vividly conveyed. (Shades of the movie Shakespeare
In Love, a project on which Mr. Greenblatt was a consultant in the early stages.)
Unexpectedly -- but not surprisingly in retrospect -- this book gave me a new appreciation of Shakespeare's writing. When
you see that so many of his best barbs are directed at his rivals or at certain political trends, the writing suddenly becomes
as fresh as if we're reading the Steve Martin of his day. I think Mr. Greenblatt also does a good job of probing the mystery
of the Sonnet collection. Many scholars have insisted that the passionate language of the first 126 sonnets, obviously addressed
to a young man, was an expression of purely platonic, courtly flattery. While Mr. Greenblatt warns us of the impossibility
of trying to build a biography on the poems -- no answers to the questions of who? when? where? how often? -- he does
argue quite convincingly that Shakespeare quite clearly knew sexual attraction to a beautiful young male (or males). There
are simply too many very explicit sexual references (often puns not immediately noticed) to pass these sonnets off as high-flown
praise. Granted, the sublime erotic fulfillment imagined in these poems contrasts starkly with the self-loathing lust for
the dark lady of the final 27 sonnets.
One of the strangest (to me) claims that Mr. Greenblatt makes for the later plays is that Shakespeare's great leap forward
was to add opacity to the main characters' motives. In the original plays whose plots Shakespeare lifted almost holus-bolus,
the motives of Hamlet, Lear and Iago, for example, are explained clearly and unambiguously. Shakespeare clouded the issue
considerably. Just what is Hamlet's madness all about? Why does Lear put his loving daughter to such a stupid test? What's
with Iago? In Mr. Greenblatt's view, apparently, these ambiguities make the characters richer, more imaginatively human, more
Much has been made in reviews of Mr. Greenblatt's re-construction of Shakespeare's presumed Catholic connections. About
100 years after his father's death, a document hidden in the rafters of John Shakespeare's home was found to be a Catholic
last will and testament. The document professed that the signatory, regardless of all outward appearances, truly believed
the Catholic faith and wished to be prayed for in the Catholic manner after death. Mr. Greenblatt argues that, assuming the
signature of John Shakespeare on the document is authentic, this would mean that the playwright's father remained a devout
Catholic in spite of the outward Protestantism required by his official position in Stratford.
Mr. Greenblatt suggest that the great creative revolution in Hamlet was the result of Shakespeare's religious
crisis over the death of his son Hamnet and the impending death of his father. In the new regime, it was forbidden to pray
for the dead in the Catholic style with masses, rosaries and so on. Funeral rites were much curtailed. None of the supports
of the old religion were available to console the bereaved. Mr. Greenblatt proposed that Shakespeare, like many of the
populace caught in this transition period, may have had great misgivings about his duties to his dead son and his dying father.
Thus the obsession in Hamlet with the reappearance of the dead as ghosts and the question of one's responsibility
In the end, though, it is that enigmatic personality behind the famous mask-like face that looms largest over this biography.
I've always felt that, given the choice of meeting one of the two greatest creative geniuses the world has ever produced --
Shakespeare or Mozart -- I'd choose Shakespeare. Much as I love the divine Mozart's music, I feel he would be too skittish
to have a nice chat with. Given that I wouldn't be able to engage him in musical discussion that would be erudite enough for
him, he'd be wanting to get back to his card game, his gambling, his partying. Shakespeare, I've always assumed, would be
more thoughtful, more willing to enter into discussion on almost any topic, given his wide reading and his knowledge of almost
But now I'm not so sure. Mr. Greenblatt paints him as a character who was very cagey. He didn't let himself be sucked into
the riotous lifestyle of his rival playwrights. Which, of course, is why he survived all of them. And there's the point. Shakespeare
was essentially a survivor, a man who watched his step very carefully, who managed his money with canny skill, steadily building
up the small fortune that would enable him to retire and live the life of the small town gentleman. As far as we can tell
from the scant documentation, he spent his retirement years in banal real estate deals and financial affairs, in the end drawing
up a calculating and shrewd will. While he could express the most passionate human longing in the most beautiful language,
he wanted the life of a secure, dull bourgeois. If I came knocking on his door in Stratford and asked to see the king of English
literature, the response might very well be, "Sorry, the king is in his counting house, counting out his money."
Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women (Biography) by Lydia Flem, translated by Catherine Temerson,
Can't remember how this book found its way onto my list. It may have appeared in one of the Globe and Mail's round-ups
of books on some topical subject. Perhaps the hook in this case was Bill Clinton's memoirs. As I've never known much
about the original Casanova, it seemed a good idea to take a look at this book. Not that the curiosity was purely intellectual.
What guy can't help wondering: what was it really like?
Turns out Giacomo Casanova (1725 - 1798) was accomplished in more ways than one (you know the one I mean). He was a philosopher,
mathematician, musician, physician, writer, cabalist and an expert linguist, self-taught in most of these areas. Several of
his play translations got big productions. There are strong indications that he had a hand in writing at least one scene of
the libretto of Mozart's Don Giovanni. He could converse with monarchs and scientists on any subject as readily as he could
charm a chambermaid.
Clearly, his brain was a match for any other part of his anatomy. Some of his observations strike a remarkably
fresh and contemporary note: "Some things become real that previously existed only in the imagination, and therefore some
effects attributed to faith may not always be miraculous. They are miraculous for people who attribute limitless power to
faith." On being a tourist, he notes the inevitable disappointment when one finally sees a famous site one has read about.
He acknowledges that women become irritable in connection with their monthly cycles, but to say "that this influences the
source of their faculty for thought is no more credible than that sperm influences the nature of the soul." As a child, he
suggested to his mother and some of her arty friends that perhaps it is not the sun that moves, but the earth that moves around
the sun. They blew him off.
As for his main claim to fame, Ms. Flem presents him as a feminist 250 years ahead of his time. He wanted women to be his
equals in love-making. There was never any hint of coercion on his part. He hoped his women would enjoy unbridled pleasure
as much as he did. Although he could pursue a women indefatigably, when it came to the actual deed, there was something almost
passive about him. He considered women omnipotent godesses; men were, in his world view, mostly ineffectual and inconsequential.
He usually parted with his lovers on the best of terms, trying to help them financially and socially, and remaining friends
with them for life.
This man begins to look like the patron saint for any decent guy who wants to make the most of himself and his opportunities.
But the writing of this book is so muddled that I can never get a clear picture of the man. Here's one particularly vexing
example of the self-contradictory aspect of the work. We're told that, to avoid giving women the fatal "plumpness", he scrupulously
made use of a certain eight-inch [sic!] sheath tied with a pink ribbon. Then how come he was always running into his illegitimate
sons and daughters in his travels?
Ms. Flem bases her writing almost entirely on Casanova's published memoirs. Not once is there any questioning of whether
he's telling the truth. Never is there any adequate explanation of circumstances and context. Take that business of his torrid
affair with the nun who admired him in church and sent him a come-hither letter. Their trysts took place in a sumptuous apartment
provided by the nun's regular lover, a wealthy nobleman. Excuse me for being naive, but how does that work?
And then there's the time when he has finally decided to marry a very beautiful young woman. Just before the wedding, in
a great coup de theatre, he finds that her her mother is one of his former lovers. So his proposed bride is actually
his daughter. Years later, when the young woman's elderly husband can't impregnate her, our Casanova is perfectly willing
to oblige. Thus he becomes both the father and the grandfather of the baby produced. Are we to believe this story? Is any
of this credible?
Not for Ms. Flem to raise such questions. She has written a book that is not so much a biography as an effusive riff on
various themes in Casanova's life. The book circles repetitively around various events, with no regard for chronolgy. It's
not for Ms. Flem to question anything or to attempt coherence or clarity. It's all about showing how cleverly she writes,
what amazing theories she can spin about the great man, regardless of facts. Dealing with his last years, when he was writing
his memoirs in seclusion, Ms. Flem quotes a passage where Casanova remembers how bummed he felt about his physical decline
at the age of 47. "If such were my reflections twenty-six years ago, it is easy to imagine the ones that obsess me today when
I am alone," he writes. Ms. Flem says, "When he formulates this sentence, he is a man of seventy-three with only a few months
to live, yet he feels young in spirit and writing diverts him from boredom and melancholy. At the end of his life, Casanova
remains free and happy." Really???? Either written words don't mean to Ms. Flem what they mean to me or she just doesn't give
a damn. (To give her some benefit of doubt, it's possible that the English translation hasn't done her justice. Several sentences
don't feel quite right. In one instance, someone is described as having done something "melancholically".)
The aspiring young man who wants to emulate the great one will have to look elsewhere for instruction. Wasn't there a Fellini
movie years ago? Didn't it star Donald Sutherland?
The Good Priest's Son (Novel) by Reynolds Price, 2005
What a pleasure, after a couple of crappy mysteries, to sink into a book where nothing
is contrived, where the people are real, where their problems are interesting, and the characters' ways of expressing
themselves are intelligent and unique. The writing is so quietly understated that I was well into the book before noticing
the amazing number of narrative hooks that had been planted in the first few pages.
Mabry Kincaid, a middle-aged art restorer, is returning from Paris on Sepetmber 11,
2001. His home in Manhattan may or may not have been destroyed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Symptoms he
has been experiencing may signal the onset of a fatal disease. He is bringing back a painting from Paris that may or may not
have an important connection to Vincent Van Gogh. He has just spent five months looking after his estranged wife as she died
of cancer. His daughter doesn't seem to have much use for him. A strange woman appears to be living with his father in North
Sorry to say, this book didn't turn out to be the satisfying read that I was expecting.
Some of the above-mentioned issued get resolved, more or less; some are left open-ended. That's life, I suppose, but you hope
for a little more closure from a novel. Anger flares up occasionally in a character and we don't know why. There is apparently
some hostility between the father and the son but it never feels quite real in terms of its causes or its manifestations.
Mabry keeps falling asleep unexpectedly. Those unplanned naps are about the most spontaneous aspect of the novel.
The main problem is the crawling pace. People are always stopping several seconds
before replying to someone. While the courtly, lyrical speech of the North Carolinian characters has a certain charm, it begins
to grate after a while. Their lines feel as if they're written primarily for their rhythm -- which would be ok except that
they're sometimes impenetrable in terms of meaning.
Mr. Price's books have given me enormous pleasure over the years. He is only in his
early 70s, but this one feels like his Tempest: a wistful reflection on human folly from the vantage point of
autumnal wisdom. The message seems to be forgiveness and reconciliation. No argument there. But, like the ruminations of some
elderly people, it's meandering, soft and lacking in narrative drive. Viagra anyone?
By the way if you're thinking the title hints at some salacious secrets about the
life of the Catholic clergy, sorry to disappoint. We're dealing with Episcopolians here.
Have Mercy On Us All (Mystery) By Fred Vargas, English
translation by David Bellos, 2003
This is the first book I've read by one of France's hot new crime writers. The premise
works well: somebody is trying to create the impression that the bubonic plague has returned to Paris. The public is beginning
to panic. Lots of interesting historical information and good detail about current life in Paris and its intriguing neighbourhoods.
It irks me when I’ve read all the way through a mystery and the explanation
turns out to be some complicated business buried in events of years ago. It strikes me as too easy for a writer to come up
with some such falderol. Guess I prefer the closed-set Agatha Chrisie type of mystery.
But that’s just a minor cavil about this book. My main problems with it stem
from matters of translation -- in the literal sense and possibly in the broader sense. First and most importantly, the dialogue
sounds awful, especially among the low-lifes. They come off like some corney attempt at 1950s cockney criminals. Could Ms.
Vargas' original dialogue be that bad or has the translator not found a suitable contemporary idiom?
Then there are the flaws that may have to do with a transition from one culture to
another. A central aspect of the story features a town-crier who shouts announcements people have paid him to proclaim. This
never sounds quite credible to me. Maybe it's just that I don't know Paris well enough. And what's with this psychiatrist
who clears up all the detective's doubts about a case in one easy session? Are psychiatrists in France credited with magical
powers? And then a simple matter of wardrobe: our detective, a rather unkempt fellow at the best of times, shows up one day
in sandals, having lost his shoes while rescuing a drowning man. The way everybody goes on about this slight sartorial slip,
you'd think we're talking about the the fashion capital of the world or something.
I hate to be picky about little things but when the implausibilities begin to pile
up, my suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.