Sep 21, 2009

Sex & Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero

This collection of essays was gathered together from the pages of an Italian historical journal, Quaderni Storici. In the introduction, Ruggiero writes that there was a need to present little-read journals to the English world. He is right. These articles, though short by English standards and rather disjointed in their organization, are illuminating and unfailingly interesting.

The essays all address the issues of sexuality, the body, honor, and femininity in early modern Italy. Menstruation, syphilis, in-law relationships - all these things were dealt with in ways that demonstrate deeply seated cultural biases. The efforts to regain honor is a common theme throughout the collection, and we can see it in the women who came forward to confess to witchcraft and superstition and who were eager to give up other women in their communities; in the legal battles of women who had consented to sex after being promised marriage, but then been repudiated by their lovers; in the women who, for various reasons, were either forcibly entered into a convent-like institution or applied for admission themselves. All these women sought to regain an honor that had been taken from them; most of them succeeded.

Perhaps the most interesting article was that which essentially accused the Catholic Church, along with other centralized institutions, of promoting a social atmosphere that prevented peers from controlling marriage and reproduction, thereby allowing a tremendous increase in abortion, abandoned children, and rape. I wish, though, that this thesis had been presented at the beginning of the article instead of at the end, so that I could have more easily followed the path of the author's argument.

This collection does achieve what it set out to do: it has opened to me other scholarly worlds, and has shown me that more rigorous translation of scholarly works needs to occur. Important research and writing is being done all over the world, and it is a shame to limit ourselves to only one or two languages.

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

WOW. This incredible book can only be summed up in that one word. So rarely do we come across an author who can manipulate the English language as Stephenson can. Fantastic, impressive, wonderful - all these words describe Quicksilver incompletely. This is an epic tome at 916 pages, and I was incredibly sad to see it end. Luckily, there are two more 1000-page books in the series, and I cannot wait to read them!

The book is divided into three inner books. The first has at its center a certain Daniel Waterhouse, Puritan and scientist living in Cromwell's, and then Charles II's, England. Having been literally bred to be a certain age at the time of the Apocalypse (1666, according to his father, Drake, a defiant Puritan whose nose and ears had been cut off by the government long before Daniel's birth), Daniel struggles between his religious beliefs and the brand new scientific sphere that is opened to him on two fronts: his roommate, Isaac Newton, and the incipient Royal Society.

The second book follows the incomparable Jack Shaftoe, a Vagabond extraordinaire, and Eliza, rescued by Jack from the harem of the Turkish Grand Vizier, who is camped outside the gates of Vienna. Jack starts as the protagonist, but it soon becomes clear that it is Eliza's story. Recruited to be a spy at Versailles for the French ambassador in The Hague, then forced to become a double agent for William of Orange, Eliza still manages to come out on top, using her considerable intellect and the help of certain friends (Huygens, Leibniz...those kind of friends).

The third book sees the two main characters meeting, though only very briefly. Their lives intertwine hardly at all, and yet the repercussions of each persons' actions affect the other. We see the death of Charles II, the exile of James II, and the crowning of Eliza's William of Orange. Meanwhile, Daniel is dying of kidney stones.

If someone told me that Stephenson spent more than ten years researching the time period, along with an enormous amount of scientific work, I would readily believe it. The immense amount of information presented in this novel is baffling, gigantic, gargantuan. Simply put, the book is stunning. I recommend this book to anyone under the sun, but particularly those who read the so-called fiction of today and wonder where all the brilliant writers have gone. Apparently, they've all poured their talent into Neal Stephenson.