"The Most Charming of Despots": Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters, by Philip Eade

Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom, by Philip Eade (Picador, June 2014), 362 pp.

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(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Books section, June 30, 2014)

Sylvia Brett (1885-1971) and her siblings were born to an aristocratic English family, the kind whose parents who were so consumed with their own social lives that when her father Reggie Brett encountered three children waving at him in the park, he was confused until a friend suggested, “Perhaps they are yours.” [1] It’s an apt beginning to the biography of Sylvia Brett. Unloved and overlooked as a child, Sylvia was determined to “live flamingly and electrify the world” as an adult. [21] And after marrying Vyner Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, in 1912 she acquired a nation of subjects whom she would neglect in turn.

This is a tale of British colonialism in its waning days. Sarawak, a region in the northwest section of the island of Borneo (now part of Malaysia), fell into the hands of Vyner Brooke’s ancestor James Brooke (1803-1868), who instituted a monarchy in a mild version of the classic British colonial style: three parts paternalism mixed with one part railroad-building and a liberal splash of gin to keep its British administrators cheerful. Luckily for the Brookes, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful place that required little political oversight.

A narcissistic, dramatic young woman, Sylvia was called “a female Iago” [95] by her own brother and marrying the scion of the Sarawak dynasty proved to be an ideal golden ticket. She was described by one Sarawak official as “one of the most superficial people I have met… with a firm eye on the main chance.” [158] Had she remained in England she may have remained just another foolish debutante obsessed with lunch dates and nightclubs, but thanks to her status as the Ranee she became, in one American newspaper’s words, “the most charming of despots.” [151]

While Vyner busied himself with matters of state, including keeping the peace with the infamous local Dayak headhunters who give the book its title, Sylvia wrote novels based on her childhood, played tennis, drank gin slings, and received visitors. Although she seemed to be genuinely touched by the beauty of Sarawak and the kindness of its people, the notion that she should make any personal sacrifice in her service as their queen never occurred to her. Sylvia (and Vyner to a lesser extent) spent more than half of every year away from Sarawak during her nearly thirty-year rule, going “home” to England or on trips to the USA the rest of the time (she adored Hollywood).

And the Brookes chose to leave Sarawak when it really counted. In the autumn of 1941, threat of war with Japan in the Pacific was imminent and it was at this point that both Sylvia and Vyner decided to go on vacation. [226] At least one Sarawak official balked at the Rajah’s departure, writing that it suggested a lack of a “sense of duty toward [his country] that would have been expected from a ruler really interested in the welfare of his people.” [226] Vyner had left his chief secretary Cyril Le Gros Clark in charge of things while he was away; during the war Clark was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed by the Japanese. [273]

What effect this news had on Sylvia and Vyner, Eade doesn’t say, but they were certainly sad to give up their royal status when the war ended and Sarawak was ceded to Great Britain, “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors,” as Sylvia wrote. [285]

There is undoubtedly an important story to be told about the Brookes and their kingdom of Sarawak: How did the native population of Sarawak really feel about the Brookes, one wonders? What was the daily life of a Sarawak citizen like? As a biographer, Eade focuses solely on Sylvia, and since Sylvia focused solely on herself, a deeper understanding of the people, culture, and history of Sarawak is not to be found in these pages. Perhaps it’s not fair to ask for more about the common folk in a book devoted to their queen. But had her life been more connected to the lives of her citizens, her biography and her legacy would be more worthy of remembrance.

The Goldfinch and the Griping

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (New York: Little, Brown, 2013). 784 pages.

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so many words.

You've heard about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's big blockbuster of a novel, her third. Yes, I heard about it, too. People were digging it, they were loving it, they were staying up all night to read it. I wasn't sure I was ready to commit. BECAUSE IT'S 784 PAGES LONG, PEOPLE. But then one day I noticed it was only $2.99 for the Kindle version (and even 784 pages can't add more than a few Kindle ounces, I figured) so I took the plunge.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, a boy in Manhattan whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he is 13. "Things would have turned out better if she had lived," Theo tells us right up front. And he's right: the novel tells the story of all the bad choices, bad luck, and some good luck, he finds in the decade or so after her death. Sheltered by strangers, some kind and some odd; exploited by his ne'er-do-well father; befriended by freaks and hustlers, Theo somehow manages to keep his head just above water and survive the storm that takes over his life after his mother dies. Just barely.

There's a lot to like and even love in The Goldfinch. Tartt is a meticulous observer of detail, from the way paint covers a canvas to the subtle interior monologues we have with ourselves, minute by minute each day. "Was it wrong," Theo wonders, "wanting to sleep late with the covers over my head and wander around a peaceful house with old seashells in drawers and wicker baskets of folded upholstery fabric stored under the parlor secretary, sunset falling in drastic coral spokes through the fanlight over the front door?" Those "drastic coral spikes:" those are so nice.

But the interested reader has heard what's great about The Goldfinch already: it's a ripping yarn; it's a Dickensian tale of morality for our time; it pulls you into its own special world. Fine, if it does that for you. At times, it did for me. But the more I read of The Goldfinch, the longer my list of questions and grievances grew. I didn't even know I had a list at first, but looking back over my notes, question marks, and increasingly agitated exlamations, I realized I had some Goldfinch Gripes. They boil down to three things: Why Are They Talking Like That?; Snobs; Plot vs. Action.

1. Why Are They Talking Like That?

Tartt is terrific at getting visual details right but not so great at the aural. This is especially the case with the way her characters speak. Theo... Theo's fine. It's Theo's friends who drove me crazy.

Boris, for instance. It makes sense that Theo's Russian friend Boris would named in honor of the mustache-twirling bad guy of "Bullwinkle" fame, Boris Badenov, because that's exactly how he talks. "Allow me to introducing myself. I am Boris Badenov, world's greatest no-goodnik." This is not a quote from The Goldfinch (it's from Rocky and Bullwinkle) but that's what I heard every time Boris opened his mouth. "Likely you will end up in jail, Potter," is a typical Boris comment. "Loose morals, slave to the economy. Very bad citizen, you." Pottsylvania is not named as one of the dozen countries in which Boris had lived, but I wouldn't be surprised; all the Badenovs come from there.

Then there's Hobie. I can't tell you how many times I stopped while reading his dialogue and asked myself (and the book): Wait, did Tartt say Hobie's from upstate New York? She did, didn't she? She did. And yet everything Hobie says sounds like something my favorite Leeds-born, London-living writer Alan Bennett would say. "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it," Hobie tells Theo. I have no idea what that means, not being British myself, but then again NEITHER IS HOBIE.

Nor, for that matter, are the Barbours, the wealthy family that shelters Theo after his mother's death. Are they supposed to be some 21st-century version of Salinger's Glass family? I guess not, because the Glass family did not say thing like: “Well, you know, I slightly think she’s out there playing golf today.” (Kitsey Barbour) or "We none of us drink it—Daddy always ordered this kind” (Kitsey again). Keep in mind, Kitsey is supposed to be a twentysomething young woman born sometime during the  Clinton administration and raised in New York City, not in an interwar British girls' school run by Lord Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear. “You seem in a really dire mood," Kitsey says. YES, IT'S BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU'RE TALKING, KITSEY.

2. Snobs.

Kitsey's a nice lead-in to the next issue: snobs and snobbishness. When Theo, who is from a lower middle-class family, is orphaned and then taken in by the Barbours, he's stunned by their wealth. The huge antique-filled apartment on the Upper East Side, the art, the chauffers, the staff... it's as much of an aesthetic thrill for him as the painting of the goldfinch. Tartt is terrific at describing the textures of life with the ultra-WASPs. But try as she might, she can't quite make them into the bad guys they really are. At first I thought this was Theo's issue and it made sense: they did take him in when his mother died, after all. Then they coldly cast him aside as we always suspected they would. Later, he's brought back into the fold, but only because it suits their purposes and eases their guilt. They're not good people and yet Theo -- and more importantly, Tartt -- can't bring themselves to walk away from the Barbours and their money, their glamor, and most importantly, their status. THE BARBOURS ARE A**HOLES, OK? They're snobs. But somehow we're supposed to like them, or if not like them, forgive them, or if not forgive them, find them fascinating?

Meanwhile the poorest people in the novel, Theo's deadbeat dad and his girlfriend, a stripper named Xandra, are simply pathetic; every aspect of Xandra, from her profession to her self-styled name (it's really Sandra) to the fact that she hails from Florida are neon signs flashing "CHEAP" and attached to characters about whom we're not expected to care. Xandra in particular is immediately recognizable as the kind of bimbo usually only seen in Woody Allen movies (think Mighty Aphrodite). We're supposed to think she's lame. But a working-class girl from Florida who decides to juice up her name by adding an X to it is light years less phony than someone like Kitsey Barbour--or any of the cold-blooded social-climbing Barbours. An adult woman (Kitsey) who refers to high heels as "Hurty-hurty shoes!" and calls her boyfriend "Meanypants" is not a glamorous ditz. She's not even a manic pixie dream girl (that honor goes to Pippa--but let's not even go there). She's just a fake. While eventually even Theo manages to escape her thrall, one senses that Tartt is never fully out of love with the Barbours. Xandra can be tossed out with yesterday's newspapers but the Barbours somehow deserve a better fate."I was only one step away from some trailer park loner," thinks Theo, musing about his obsession with Pippa, "stalking a girl he’d spotted in the mall." No, not a trailer park! Not a... a... mall! The horror, folks. The horror.

Moving on.

3. Plot vs. Action

No question, a lot of stuff happens in The Goldfinch; that's the "ripping" part of the yarn. But action is not the same as plot. And this novel's plot is beside the point. There's one MacGuffin that emerges in the beginning of the novel and is never satisfactorily resolved: Theo's possession of the stolen Goldfinch painting. Yes, he took the painting from the Metropolitan Museum in the aftermath of the explosion. And yes, it would require some explaining on his part to make the authorities understand why a teenaged boy has this masterpiece stored in a pillowcase, but HE COULD JUST RETURN THE PAINTING TO THE AUTHORITIES AT ANY POINT WITHOUT ANY REAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. They're not going to throw him in jail or torture him or.. anything! They'll just be happy to get the painting back. So when, after 780 (!!) pages HE DOES EXACTLY THIS I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room. But as I mentioned, I was reading it on a Kindle and I didn't want to dent the precious gadget.

With only 5 pages to go, I finished the novel. There's a lot to admire in this book. But it would have been much better had it been edited more carefully and its length cut by, say, 40 perecent. That would have cut lines like this description of people in Amsterdam: "rosy housewives with armloads of flowers, tobacco-stained hippies in wire-rimmed glasses"-- what, no flaxen-braided milkmaids wearing wooden clogs in this Dutch cartoon?--or this internal monologue of Theo's: "I wanted to say goodbye to Pippa but she was nowhere in sight. Where was she? The library? The loo?" Again: NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE BRITISH. Sigh.

A 315-page Goldfinch? Yes, pelase. As Hobie says, it might have been a "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it."

 

I'll Never Be a Final Girl; or, On Not Reading Justin Cronin's Excellent Novel, The Passage.

Justin Cronin,  The Passage (Ballantine: 2010), 784 pages.

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Jamie Lee Curtis, as "final girl" Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).

 

 

I just couldn't do it. But I did try. I'd heard great things about The Passage, the 700+ page thriller by Justin Cronin. I checked the ebook out from my local public library and downloaded it to my Kindle and began tearing through it like a death-row inmate infected by a terrifyingly aggressive Amazonian bat virus... YIKES.

I've had this problem before, in fact I've had it all my life: I'm too squeamish for horror. The only scary movie I truly love is The Shining, which is less a horror movie than a Kubrick movie. All his movies are scary in some way (though The Shining is much less scary when recut as a family-friendly comedy, as seen here). The only reason I got any enjoyment out of Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter movie, was because I was able to watch it on a meta-level, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the classic "final girl", the victim who overcomes her torturers, thanks to Carol Clover's fantastic book, Men, Women & Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. (Alert: BEST BOOK TITLE EVER).

I tried to read Stephen King's The Stand and quit once it got too... horrific. But I had high hopes for The Passage, perhaps because I thought it would be more of a dystopian fantasy along the lines of The Hunger Games (a novel about children killing each other - is there anything more horrifying?), which I was able to appreciate, if not enjoy.

The Passage begins with a classic Hubris of Man setup: American scientists hacking through the South American jungle in search of a miracle virus that will cure cancer and, possibly, death. Where are the bioethicists when you need them? Not in this scene, unfortunately, and thus a killer virus begins its journey from hidden bat cave to the rest of the planet. We then cut to various character setups: the early life of young Amy Bellafonte, the girl who will save the world; Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who will save Amy; etc. We see the initial stages of disaster unfolding faster than the general public realizes or could even imagine and it's thrilling, as a thriller should be. The writing is perfect: fast but not cheap. A young cop is described as "a fresh recruit with a face pink as a slice of ham" and storm clouds are "a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video."

This was all good. Exciting, fun, great language. But then it got scary. I'm not even going to get into it, because if you like this kind of thing you will read it for yourself and if you don't it will just sound icky. It is icky, but more than that, it's actually frightening. Cronin succeeds in describing an apocalypse that will make you worry not just about bats but about future natural disasters and what happens when the things that keep society glued together break down, from communication pathways (Wolgast realizes things are getting really bad when USA Today is reduced to two short pages) to electrical power plants to food production systems. And VAMPIRES! There, I said it.

I always enjoy the setups more than the outcomes, whether it's Harry Potter first encountering Diagon Alley to buy his wizardry supplies or walking through Dignan's 75-year plan for success in Wes Anderson's first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), but in the case of horror it turns out it's the only part I am capable of enjoying. The decision to not finish it, however, did allow me the pleasure of spoiling the entire series (The Passage is the first of three novels, two of which have been published so far) by reading its Wikipedia page, something I also do on a guilt-free basis when the Game of Thrones books bog down. I recommend it.

So I apologize, Justin Cronin. You've written a terrific horror novel. It's just too scary to read.

Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home: John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars"

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Not many authors can sell out Carnegie Hall. So when I heard that someone named John Green (never heard of him), the author of the YA novel The Fault in Our Stars (never heard of it) had done so in January of 2013, I was curious. It also reminded me of just how big our country/world/reading public is and how many ways there are to be successful without ever appearing at the top of my Google News page, but that's another topic altogether.

I was late to the party, obviously: The Fault in Our Stars was published in 2012 and was an instant bestseller. I finally read it - it's only $3.99 for the Kindle version, for Pete's sake - and I now understand all the fuss. If you think you wouldn't enjoy reading a novel about two smart-alecky teenagers who meet in a cancer support group, you're probably wrong. Yes, they're smart-alecky (Augustus, the Romeo to Hazel's Juliet, insists on calling her "Hazel Grace," which made me roll my eyes every time) and yes, the idea of young people - heck, any people - battling cancer makes me sad, but Green makes it work.

How?

I think he does it by endowing his protagonist, Hazel, with enough skepticism and humor to make the cancer parts bearable, but with a sweetness that reminds us how vulnerable she - and all of us - are. At one point Hazel posts a For Sale ad on a Craigslist-type site and the passage is a nice example of how this book can be funny and charming and emotional but not maudlin, all at once:

Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home

One swing set, well worn but structurally sound, seeks new home. Make memories with your kid or kids so that someday he or she or they will look into the backyard and feel the ache of sentimentality as desperately as I did this afternoon. It's all fragile and fleeting, dear reader, but with this swing set, your child(ren) will be introduced to the ups and downs of human life gently and safely, and may also learn the most important lesson of all: No matter how hard you kick, no matter how high you get, you can't go all the way around.

Yes, it's a sad story: I cried at the end. But as Hazel says, "You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice." According to my Kindle, 2,214 other Kindle readers have highlighted that same passage. That fact, and the popularity of this lovely novel, are good signs for humanity, I think.