Two Books And Some Living History

We just got back from a mid-week vacation to Colonial Williamsburg. Verdict: meh. The buildings and the grounds were nice enough, but for all the fuss I’ve seen it get over the years, I would have thought the place was much bigger, and much more active. We were there mid-week of course, and maybe also off-season, and that may have been all that was really going on, but it did seem somehow smaller than its reputation. (It didn’t help that the surrounding area was a sort of corporate/suburban strip-mall hell, with not particularly walkable streets — biking wasn’t much better, despite the faux “bicycle friendly” sharrows in the gutters — and a dearth of decent, non-chain restaurants.)

There was also a fairly strong whiff of self-congratulatory propaganda throughout the historic district, of the “we have inherited the virtues of our all-wise WASP ancestors” sort, which had to also contend with more modern understandings of Colonial history — slavery and the African American experience, Native Americans and genocide, and so on. This led to a Disneyfied narrative, with much use of the passive voice, and a defensive tone to gloss over the tough parts: “The colonists did this-and-that, and were welcomed by the Indians. But then war came… Did you know, a slave could buy his freedom? Also, slavery was OK in Africa…”

This may have just been the result of our off-peak visit, so that we were interacting with newer or less skillful guides. But then, we also visited the nearby Jamestown Settlement, which was basically an indoor-outdoor museum, with permanent exhibits, and the place was actually worse — it fairly dripped with that self-congratulatory/defensive tone.

Reading #1: Annihilation

I had Annihilation (by Jeff VanderMeer) on hold at the library, and it arrived in time for our trip. This book was much better than the recent movie, and so creepy and suspenseful it gave me — well, not nightmares exactly, but some very strange dreams… The story is a little more complicated, and a little more well-built than the movie (this parallels my experience with Altered Carbon), and there is more suspense (and less action/horror) than in the movie, but the plots pretty much follow the same outline: a group of women, on an expedition to a mysterious abandoned region in the southern US, are slowly overwhelmed by the weird phenomena they encounter. Great book, first in award-winning trilogy, and I am going to get the second book from the library today.

Reading #2: The Big Sleep

This was the first of Raymond Chandler’s “Phillip Marlowe” detective novels; I have it in an anthology that I bought around 1992. I’ve read it many times over the years, the last time being probably more than a decade ago: it has not aged well in that last decade. The novel is still a pretty good read, and because of the quality of the writing it’s a cut above your typical detective story, but the basic plot, the basic behavior of the characters, is outlandish by modern standards: blackmail and killings are involved as secondary crimes, but the primary criminalities are pornography and homosexuality. It’s almost quaint, and the underlying “of course it’s evil, he’s a fag!” tough-guy moralizing grates, and comes across — especially knowing something about the author, who was a bit of a mama’s boy — as a sort of Walter Mitty overcompensation. Looking back now, the most criminal activity (other than the shoot-em-ups) is all the drunk driving done by the protagonist. As Anne said — and this could apply as well to Williamsburg, reconstructed around the same time that The Big Sleep was written: different times, different mores.

Comments are closed.