Charles Flowers

Rarely can a single volume fundamentally change one's view of a major part of the planet and its complex history, but this epic account of the hundreds of states and thousands of colorful leaders who have figured in 5,000 years of turmoil and achievement on the Indian subcontinent is that invaluable exception. Not one educated, concerned, intelligent American reader in 10,000 knows a tenth of the information packed into this zesty history. That's a safe bet, and so is this: Despite the very occasional thin passage, when the historical record is bare or a succession of patricidal nawabs becomes repetitive, John Keay grabs the reader by the throat on virtually every page with another vivid portrait of an unforgettable warrior or thinker, luminous evocation of art or bejeweled pageantry, or charge of elephant troops across a blasted plain.

In short, India: A History is seductive storytelling that reveals unexpected worlds of information, beginning with fairly recent discoveries about the Harappans, who may have invented writing and the wheel well before any other culture, and continuing through a myriad of Hindu, Greek, Mongol, Moslem, and other rulers through the British Raj down to the creaky but functioning federalism of today's Indian Republic. Taking his story from Himalayas to Indian Ocean, as cultures rise and fall or destroy one another all over the subcontinent, Keay brilliantly renders tangled history into lucid narrative. Still, the 39 maps keyed to his story will be of great benefit to any reader.

Perhaps India: A History is most surprising in its introduction to Western readers of numerous personalities who clearly bestrode their times like colossi, such as the great lawgiver Ashoka of the third century or the admirable sultan Ala-ud-din a thousand years later.

Throughout his lengthy but never overlong story, Keay also illuminates religious differences, political movements and the eternal push-pull between Indian nationalism and regional aspirations. India: A History is a novelistic saga that provides Westerners with millennia of new experiences.

Charles Flowers, who lives in Purdys, New York, is writing a book about the fall of the Aztec empire.

Rarely can a single volume fundamentally change one's view of a major part of the planet and its complex history, but this epic account of the hundreds of states and thousands of colorful leaders who have figured in 5,000 years of turmoil and achievement on the Indian subcontinent is that invaluable exception. Not one educated, […]

What explains the current rage for the 17th-century Italian artist known as Caravaggio ? Is it his realistic, almost photorealistic technique of somber darkness contrasted with spotlighted rose-pink cheeks, lush limbs, and the naughty bits of teasing nudes? Is it his scandalous life a whirligig of recurring assault, debauchery, pederasty, and murder in that era fabled for hypocrisy and repression, the Counter-Reformation? Whatever the appeal, new biographies and critical studies, of man and artist have been appearing with increasing frequency, buttressed by recent discoveries in the libraries, studies, and most importantly, criminal court proceedings of Rome, Naples, Sicily, and Malta.

In a relatively brief life, which ended at age 37 or 39 by murder or disease in a place much disputed, Caravaggio certainly got around. He also dominated the Italian painting of his day, bringing ordinary humans to life as actors in the most touching, strange, and violent stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Peter Robb, an enthusiast who capably draws upon academic scholarship but brooks no constraints upon his own insights and creative inferences, has produced in M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio a lengthy, colorful, anecdotal, quirky, and totally engaging artist's biography. His puckish title sets the tone: His subject, perhaps named Michelangelo Merisi, was known by 15 different surnames, most beginning with the letter M, but is remembered as Caravaggio, the name of his hometown. In other words, though Robb hauls in numerous facts, the lives and careers of other painters, prostitutes, and cardinals, conflicts between the Spanish and French parties in the Catholic Church, politics in the papacy, and much, much more, he continually reminds us that very little is actually known about the most admired and notorious painter of his day.

Somehow amidst the turmoil, this inimitable genius created an indelibly original body of work. Robb traces his growth from heady sensuality to profound evocation of the human condition and his courage in defying the decorum mandated by the Church and enforced by the Inquisition. Sixteen pages of illustrations enhance these discussions.

A sprawling, not entirely disciplined work of ardent passion, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio could be a bit shorter and less repetitious but is a feast of art appreciation, storytelling, and witty speculation for anyone interested in Caravaggio's shadowy theater of the partly seen and the institutionalized banditry and brutality of 17th-century Europe.

Charles Flowers, who lives in Purdys, New York, is currently writing about Orientalism in American art.

What explains the current rage for the 17th-century Italian artist known as Caravaggio ? Is it his realistic, almost photorealistic technique of somber darkness contrasted with spotlighted rose-pink cheeks, lush limbs, and the naughty bits of teasing nudes? Is it his scandalous life a whirligig of recurring assault, debauchery, pederasty, and murder in that era […]

Weaving this epic novel somewhat to the lee side of the historical John Brown, Russell Banks has created in Cloudsplitter an immediate landmark in American fiction: lyricism that explores the unspoken complexities of the long history of relationships between whites and blacks, as well as storytelling that reveals the twisted truths of the ambiguous kinship of any father and son.

Although Banks writes that his masterly novel is "solely" a work of fiction, the drama in Cloudsplitter draws a fierce degree of power from the celebrated, puzzling, sometimes despised historical figure whose bloody guerrilla raids, evidently meant to incite a massive rebellion of slaves, may well have insured that the Civil War became inevitable.

The story is recollected 50 years after Brown's famous execution by one of his sons, Owen, a man who calls himself an isolato. Whether in the heat of family life, the confusion of antislavery actions or in his cabin in California, Owen has always felt himself entirely alone, in large part because he feels himself Isaac to Abraham, forever fixed in the shadow of his magnificent father. Consumed by insecurities and guilt, never able to mature past the death of his mother, Owen is the center of Cloudsplitter. His development from shy child to impassioned murderer to suicidal old man is profoundly moving, even as it leaves him always the reflective observer, ever the moralist even as he succumbs to feelings and impulses that disgust him.

Pained at several levels, not least by his sexual attraction to a youngish black man, Owen always wrestles with his own prejudices: "Race consciousness was wrong. Just as wrong as not being able to forget, whenever I found myself in the presence of a woman, that I was a man and not just a fellow being." But if Banks has created a deeply thoughtful narrator, the technique here could not be more powerfully concrete. It is no small thing, for example, to say that he has perhaps written more beautiful passages about the northeastern wilderness than anyone since James Fenimore Cooper. And, by referring to the thought of Emerson while deftly integrating ideas and tales from the Old Testament, he has confronted the immensity and cruelty of the universe with as much courage and depth as Melville.

At the same time, Cloudsplitter convinces as historicism: the harsh complete facts of farmlife in the early 19th century, the savagery of John Brown's so-called war in Kansas, the beauty of fields in the first breath of spring or the night sky at the unspoiled verge of settlement.

An important novel of ideas rather than a biographical drama, Cloudsplitter speaks beautifully to the disappointments of the American democratic ideal, the flawed moral nature of humankind, the thousand deformations of love, and the seductions of murder and death.

 

reated in Cloudsplitter an immediate landmark in American fiction: lyricism that explores the unspoken complexities of the long history of relationships between whites and blacks, as well as storytelling that reveals the twisted truths of the ambiguous kinship of any father and son.

Playwright Neil Simon's first autobiographical work, Rewrites [1996], ended with the death of his first wife Joan after 20 years of marriage. Simon recently talked to BookPage about his latest book, The Play Goes On, which continues to the present.

BookPage: Why split your life into two volumes?

Neil Simon: I really couldn't go on past Joan's death because I didn't want to trivialize it. And The Play Goes On has turned out to be a fuller, richer book on its own. Also, the first book was my first attempt at writing full-length prose. This time I knew more about the editing process, how it all works. It was easier.

BP: Easier technically or emotionally?

NS: Both. Once you've opened yourself up, it's best to go all the way. The first book was a love story about falling in love with the theater and with Joan. The second goes quite a few steps farther in talking about the price you pay for writing all those plays, for putting yourself on the line all the time before an audience.

BP: Were you surprised by which memories were the most painful, or the most pleasurable?

NS: It's always painful when you're writing memoirs because you've got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were. The most pleasure came from remembering the start of a relationship that you thought would last forever or the starting of a play, and caring for that play about as much as you care for a newborn baby in the family. Then there's the disappointment when the play or the marriage doesn't work.

BP: It seems that Joan, your second wife Marsha Mason, and other family members often inspire your plays.

NS: I've just finished my 31st play, and actually only five have been based on my marriages, like Barefoot in the Park with Joan, and maybe five on my family. The rest have come out of my mind, my own creation.

BP: Tolstoy said a writer meets all of his characters before he's 12 years old.

NS: If I'm allowed to disagree with Tolstoy . . .

BP: He just stepped out.

NS: Fine. I'll ignore him. A lot of your personality is formed before you're 12, obviously, but only a few of my plays, like Broadway Bound and Brighton Beach Memoirs, use characters from my childhood. The more mature plays are affected only by my adult experiences.

BP: What do you mean in The Play Goes On by saying you've waited all your life to write Lost in Yonkers?

NS: It is probably the most honest play I've ever written. I did the best and dug the deepest I ever did. I was making up the story, but I tried to capture the characters as I do in my semi-autobiographical plays. I spared nobody in that play.

BP: You seem to be writing all the time.

NS: I work a regular five days a week like anybody else and take vacations. I work consistently, no matter what. I admit, when I took a four-week vacation to Europe with my family this year I got up every morning at 6:00 to work on fixing The Dinner Party, a new play set to open in Los Angeles in December. I won't give away the story, but it deals with six characters at a posh dinner. It's a dissection of their marriages and divorces.

BP: Relationships are your basic theme. And your characters, who are often very specifically from New York backgrounds, play well on stages in many different countries.

NS: The Odd Couple has the universal theme of the difficulty of two people living together. Others also do well, in Europe especially, but what surprised me is that The Sunshine Boys—and I'm only going by the royalty checks—plays everywhere in the world. I thought those two aging comedians were specifically New York.

BP: Your plays often translate well from stage to movies and TV, too.

NS: Not always, and I never write a play with an eye to film. And I don't like losing the words, as you have to, when I'm asked to turn a play into a movie. It's not a matter of ego . . . I'm just better able to create the character for an audience through words rather than through actions. I much prefer writing an original movie with the screen in mind to transferring a play to the screen.

BP: You mention Chekhov as an influence.

NS: I go to see plays all the time, and whenever I see Chekhov, I'm amazed at how this Russian play strikes home to me living 100 years later in New York City. I'm drawn to him because of his way with characters and their relationships with each other.

BP: You tell many backstage stories in The Play Goes On, but you really don't talk about individual performances.

NS: I don't want to restrict the life of a play to a particular production. The original actors might leave after the first six months, and I want the play to last 30 or 40 years. You write for the character, not the actor on the stage, unlike films, where they might ask you to write a part to fit Mel Gibson or Julia Roberts even if the producer hasn't hired them! You never do that in a play.

BP: Is the germ of a new play for you a character, or the story, or the theme?

NS: All at once. I start with the characters but try to find almost simultaneously what situation they're in, what links them together. After about 25 or 30 pages, you think there's not enough stationery in the world to put down the whole story. That's the best feeling possible . . . It's still a mystery to me, how the plays come page by page, where they come from. Writers feel like a middleman, standing with pen in hand over the page. A force greater than me stands above telling me what to write. That may sound romantic, but that's how it feels.

BP: "Pen in hand"?

NS: You get attached to the way you write, and I'm attached to notebooks. That's where I really write the plays. Just two or three pages at a time, then I transfer to the typewriter and rewrite while I type . . . That's the first rewrite! I don't use computers . . . I'm someone who needs to see the page right away in my hand.

BP: Does the writing get harder?

NS: Getting plays produced is harder, but I think if you have a truly good play it's not going to disappear, even with the tougher economics of Broadway and the competition of musicals and hits from Britain.

BP: The marriage and divorce themes of the play you're revising, The Dinner Party, dovetail with the conclusion of The Play Goes On, after your third divorce.

NS: I'm a marrying man. I've never left a marriage. If Joan hadn't died, we'd still be married today. But just as human beings can be born with genetic faults, I think some marriages have a genetic flaw that can cause them to die.

BP: At age 70 you still believe in marriage, in general and for yourself?

NS: I don't like dating or just living with a woman. I like to create a relationship, a marriage. And almost all of my marriages have involved children, so I'm really a family man as well. I'm going with someone now . . . She, I hope, will be the last marriage.

BP: A new play. A new marriage. The play goes on.

NS: Yes.

Charles Flowers, a freelance writer in Purdys, New York, recently received the Stephen Crane Literary Award.

Playwright Neil Simon's first autobiographical work, Rewrites [1996], ended with the death of his first wife Joan after 20 years of marriage. Simon recently talked to BookPage about his latest book, The Play Goes On, which continues to the present. BookPage: Why split your life into two volumes? Neil Simon: I really couldn't go on […]

Challenged to find meaning in his own final years, the esteemed Jungian psychologist James Hillman discovers, creates, or imagines the reader will eventually choose one of these verbs a rational, confident acceptance of the degeneration of old age.

But The Force Of Character, as Hillman stresses almost sternly, is not about facing or understanding death. This is no guidebook to the afterlife, no sweet vision of eternity. Nor does he present cheery prescriptions for combating the aging process. He believes that it is undignified, if not downright bonkers, to invest valuable psychological resources in vainly trying to stop the body's inevitable, potentially illuminating decline. Rather than imagine 90-year-olds leaping in aerobics classes, Hillman teaches them to learn from supposed infirmities. Does short-term memory fade like the dew? Then use long-term memory to perform the important psychological work of long-term life review. When the physical senses fail and Chateaubriand tastes like cardboard, let the mind's eyes take over, sharpening perceptions of life's subtler beauties. Can't sleep? Let the long hours of the night become a rich resource for deepening wisdom.

Hillman's theme may at first seem radically contrarian: Old age uses infirmities to present a panoply of opportunities for refining character. Diminished physical faculties coupled with the active intelligence of the soul allow us to recognize and fully become a unique self.

Drawing upon a wealth of references to classical mythology, the Bible, poetry, philosophy, and rock lyrics, The Force Of Character maintains that our century foolishly disdains the historic importance of character, which Hillman distinguishes from morality or genetic inheritance.

He believes that we deny the last years, so valuable for reviewing life and making amends, for cosmological speculation and the confabulation of memories into stories, for sensory enjoyment of the world's images, and for connections with apparitions and ancestors. That quote is Hillman's prescription for imaginative, consequential aging. To the reader frantically seeking guidelines for preserving youth or promises of bliss in the hereafter, such rewards may seem too abstract and conjectural.

Of course, that is Hillman's point. To concentrate on character is to find sense and purpose in the changes that define the decades past age 60 or so. In that transcendent sense, as he writes, Character is a therapeutic idea and determines the fragile image we finally leave to the world.

Charles Flowers recently received a Washington Irving Award for his book, A Science Odyssey.

Challenged to find meaning in his own final years, the esteemed Jungian psychologist James Hillman discovers, creates, or imagines the reader will eventually choose one of these verbs a rational, confident acceptance of the degeneration of old age. But The Force Of Character, as Hillman stresses almost sternly, is not about facing or understanding death. […]

Adept in the language of corpses, forensic anthropologist Mary H. Manhein is both an academic researcher and, when called by desperate law enforcement officials in Louisiana and adjacent states to unravel mysteries of death, a teller of lost tales.

Simply put, she reads skeletons to discover the cause and probable timing of death. What does bullet wipe, the pathway taken by a projectile through a human head, reveal? How might the color of a bone provide an essential clue to the location of a murder? In The Bone Lady, Manhein artfully shares such secrets in a series of brief sketches. At her best, she recalls the engrossing details of a specific case, explains how its riddles were (or could not be) answered, and concludes with the human reverberations: a mother comforted by closure in a runaway daughter's death, a vicious murderer brought to justice days before he can kill a witness.

Whether reporting the stench, suffocating heat, or brutal sorties by biting insects in steamy bayous or smoldering sites of oil fires, Manhein is at once straightforward and appropriately droll. Her sharp ear for dialogue has recalled some very funny remarks from those puzzled or horrified by her line of work. In quite another key, she draws upon her childhood memories most movingly the death of an infant brother to ponder which combination of intellectual curiosity and psychological need drives her.

In a comparatively short book, she teaches us a great deal, often puncturing popular misconceptions. Most readers will find that they use the word skull improperly. Nor were above-ground tombs originally built in New Orleans because of the soggy ground, as the tour guides say. We learn how photosketches of missing children are aged to approximate the 15-year-old face of a child last photographed at age 5 and how the egg-laying cycles of the blowfly help investigators determine time of death of a decomposing corpse lying in a swamp. Wisely, Manhein does not philosophize about the possible meanings to be found in disintegrating mortal remains. She solves puzzles of event, not motive; of body, not spirit. This unaffected account, though not always sharply edited, is informative and amusing, leaving us to ponder for ourselves why violence or despair renders living humans into challenges for her forensic skills. ¦ Charles Flowers recently received a Washington Irving Award for his book A Science Odyssey.

Adept in the language of corpses, forensic anthropologist Mary H. Manhein is both an academic researcher and, when called by desperate law enforcement officials in Louisiana and adjacent states to unravel mysteries of death, a teller of lost tales. Simply put, she reads skeletons to discover the cause and probable timing of death. What does […]

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