|Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in 1969. (Patti Smith archive)|
Of heroines and heroism
Fantasizing about adventures of the past - from the safety of a novel
I SOMETIMES play a popular parlor game in my mind, dreaming of other periods in history when I might have lived. My fantasies tend to come crashing down, however, when I realize I probably would have been a scullery maid or a slave in those lives, not Queen Elizabeth. Happily, books let us visit the most dramatic epochs in history - and then scurry back to the safety of our Kindles. Here is a recommended summer reading list of recent biography, memoir, and historical novels, in chronological order:
51 BC: “Cleopatra: A Life’’ by Stacy Schiff Little primary source material exists on “the harlot queen,’’ almost none of it written within a century of Cleopatra’s birth. So this biography is a triumph not just of scholarship but of imagination. Schiff gives us a Cleopatra far removed from the kohl-eyed Elizabeth Taylor so indelibly pressed in our minds: this empress is tiny, birdlike, with a prominent hooked nose and almost certainly a virgin when she meets Julius Caesar. Schiff also paints a richly detailed portrait of ancient Alexandria: opulent and erudite, with majestic libraries and palaces but also infused with an almost unimaginable level of treachery, incest, plots, and poisonings. Cleopatra - ruthless, brilliant, and only 18 when she obtains the throne - revels in it all.
1660: “Caleb’s Crossing’’ by Geraldine Brooks The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “March,’’ which imagined the life of the absent father in “Little Women,’’ now turns to the story of the first native American to graduate from Harvard: a Gay Head Wampanoag the Christian missionaries rename Caleb. Brooks over-romanticizes the pure goodness of the natives somewhat, especially in contrast to the imperious, moralizing settlers. But Caleb and the missionary’s young daughter, Bethia, are compelling guides as they navigate the two clashing cultures. Caleb endures stinging prejudice at Harvard, but in the end, race is less an impediment than gender: Bethia is forced to eavesdrop on Caleb’s lessons to get any schooling herself.
1799: “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’’ by David Mitchel l At the turn of the 19th century Japan was a “closed’’ society, distrustful of the West, but Dutch traders were allowed to settle on a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor. DeZoet is a naïve young accountant who tries to fight the corruption of his shipmates while divining the mysterious ways of the “merchants, interpreters, inspectors, servants, spies, lackeys, palanquin bearers, porters’’ and all-powerful magistrates - the Japanese. Mitchell is an astoundingly vivid writer. From the earthy dialect of the Dutch sailors to the cool clicking of the pieces in a high-stakes game of Go, his pitch is perfect.
1967: “Just Kids’’ by Patti Smith This surprising literary turn by the punk rocker (it won the National Book Award) is on one level a memoir of Smith’s relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her mentor, lover, and kindred spirit. But it is just as much a portrait of New York City in the throes of an ecstatic dance, as the innocent 1960s yield to grittier, more painful decades. Smith lovingly depicts the denizens of the Chelsea Hotel - is that Janis Joplin at the bar? - and the rock club CBGB, all the while pondering how to be an uncompromising artist who nonetheless needs to pay the rent.
1975: “In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate’’ by Nancy Gertner
Hers is a time (and place) I actually did live through, but compared to Gertner’s central role I was just peering through a cloudy window. At age 29, barely out of Yale Law School, Gertner takes on the defense of Susan Saxe, the Brandeis antiwar radical who participated in a deadly Brighton bank robbery. It is the beginning of a long career pushing the boundaries of law and society. With wit, heart, and honesty, Gertner, now a federal judge who will retire in September, looks back on the decades just after feminism’s Third Wave, when issues like abortion for poor women, shield laws for rape victims, “battered wife syndrome,’’ and the rights of lesbians to adopt children were unconventional, to say the least.
Fascinating as these eras are, the heroes (and especially the heroines) of the books all pay a price for challenging social taboos. The past is an enticing place to visit, but really, I wouldn’t want to live there.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.