Sunday, December 31, 2023

Packing my library

From Austen to Casanova on my "Authors before 1900" shelves. Storing books on top of other books can cause damage—please don't try this at home.

Every year around this time I confront an inviolable law of physics: my books take up more room than the space available on my shelves. This becomes inescapably apparent when the tottering stacks of books on practically every horizontal surface above floor level reach the point of critical instability, and I am compelled to find more permanent places for the new books I've acquired during the past twelve months through gifts from others and (far more numerous) myself.

Painful decisions are forced on me: which of my treasured volumes will have to be boxed up (and how will I remember that I have them, and where to find them)? Which will be sold back to my favorite used book shops? (This is hardly a solution, as I inevitably ask for trade credit, which I then use to bring home more books.) And which will be donated to my local library sales? (Again, not a solution, as when I drop off the donations I browse the new arrivals and find additional treasures.) Inevitably, sooner or later I regret the loss of the books I've sent away; I have even been known, after the agonizing process of deciding to give them up, to turn around and buy them back.

The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay entitled "Unpacking My Library," which is included in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt's selection of his essays. In it Benjamin describes opening the crates of his books after rescuing them from storage, taking time to renew his acquaintance with each and relive the memory of its acquisition:

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. . .Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open. . .to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness. (p. 59)

I must invite you to join me among piles of books and open boxes, but for a process that reverses Benjamin's. Some of these books must enter the darkness, for who knows how long; others will be placed in sturdy bags for transportation to new homes (but will their new owners be deserving?).

Benjamin wrote that "for a collector—I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relation one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them" (p. 67). I am hardly a book collector in Benjamin's sense, certainly not one as I "ought to be." I do see books as objects that are intrinsically beautiful, but also useful and pleasurable, and they can be desirable for any or all of those reasons.

From The Viking/New Penguin Opera Guide (Amanda Holden, editor) to Mozart's Operas (Daniel Heartz) on my music books shelves.

I remember the circumstances of acquisition of some of my books: the volumes received as gifts from my partner, relatives, or good friends, or the electric discovery of a radically underpriced rarity on a bookshop's shelves. And books picked up while traveling recall memories not only of the books, but of the journey. As Benjamin notes, "I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. . .How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!" (p. 63). Some of the London neighborhoods most familiar to me are those in which Oxfam book shops happen to be located.

Also memorable, in a more painful way, are the books I didn't buy on trips because the prospect of lugging them home along with all my other acquisitions was too daunting. Jenny Uglow's 700-page biography in letters Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories will just have to await another opportunity.

But mainly for each book I remember the excitement of the first time I read them. Most of the books that have found places on my shelves have done so because they have been especially important to me, and trace a process of exploration and discovery of new writers and new subjects of interest. And yes, unlike some book addicts collectors I've read about, I've actually read the vast majority of the books on my shelves.

The books in piles everywhere tend to fall into three categories: books that await their turn in my reading queue; books that I'm currently reading (and yes, at any time there are usually multiple titles in this category); and books that I've read and want to keep. But which of the books already on my shelves should they displace, if any?

As a troublesome case in point, one of the books I have to make a decision on today is a three-volume edition of Samuel Pepys' complete diary, edited with notes by Henry B. Wheatley. The diary is a key document of that tumultuous time in British history from just before the restoration of King Charles II in 1660 until a few years after the Great Fire of London in 1666; these years also saw the Great Plague of 1665-66, and the Dutch raids on the English coast and up the Thames during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

This edition is in handsome navy blue cloth (how appropriate, since Pepys was a naval administrator—no doubt that's the explanation of the decorative knotwork on the spines as well), letterpress-printed on bright, crisp India paper in a small but readable font, and with dimensions that fit nicely in the hand (about 7.5 inches tall by about 4.75 inches wide).

Since acquiring this edition over a decade ago I have regularly made a resolution to read it. I have considered several general plans for tackling the diary's several thousand entries:

  • Beginning with Pepys' first entry for 1 January 1659 (Old Style; 1660 New Style), read the entry corresponding to the day of the year. So I'd read the entries for 1660 a day at a time in 2024, those for 1661 in 2025, and so on. This is the method adopted by Phil Guyford's site The Diary of Samuel Pepys (which is a year ahead of me). The advantage of this plan is that reading one entry per day (even with dense footnoting) seems pretty doable. The obvious disadvantage of this plan is that I wouldn't finish until 31 May 2033.
  • Trying to complete the entire diary in a year. Pepys was a regular diarist, and so this would require reading roughly ten entries per day, every day. This also presents the question of whether the diary should be read chronologically, or whether every entry for a particular day (1 January, say) should be read on the corresponding day. The entries are not generally lengthy, and some are only a paragraph or two. Still, the daily task is daunting. When I've tried this in the past, inevitably I've had to skip a day or two, and then catching up became too difficult.
  • Giving up the idea of reading the complete diary and picking up a one-volume selection instead, such as The Shorter Pepys (Robert Latham, editor). For someone who has read Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, this seems an ignominious admission of defeat.

Or, does this set go into a box to present a future quandary? Or should it find another, more dedicated home? These are the judgments—read immediately, or later (and if so, when?); shelve, or box; keep, or recirculate—that have to be made dozens of times as I try to bring some order to the chaotic jumble of my unshelved books. Librarian, organize thyself.

Monday, December 25, 2023

A Christmas wish

On Christmas, the mournful Coventry Carol for a mournful year:

Voces8 performing Philip Stopford's setting of "Lully, Lulla, Lullay" in St Stephen's Walbrook Church, London:

In the coming year, may we have fewer reasons to mourn and more opportunities to celebrate peace and joy.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Books - Our year of Byron

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), p. 32. Image source: The Beat, the blog of comics culture

For the final Favorites of 2023 post, I offer my favorite books first read in 2023 that were not written by Agatha Christie. (If you are curious about her exclusion, she has her own post: Our year of Agatha Christie.)


Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), pp. 30–317.

In 2009 over a beer at a pub, animator Sydney Padua was commissioned by Suw Charman-Anderson, who was planning the first annual Ada Lovelace Day, to produce a short web comic on Ada's life. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Milbanke; she was a mathematical prodigy who wrote what has been called the first computer program for Cambridge professor Charles Babbage's calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. She has become an icon for girls and women who code. But she was only 36 when she died of cancer.

In the preface to Thrilling Adventures Padua writes, "Lovelace died young. Babbage died a miserable old man. There never was a gigantic steam-powered computer. This seemed an awfully grim ending for my little comic. And so I threw in a couple of drawings at the end, imagining for them another, better, more thrilling comic-book universe to live on in" (p. 7).

Those "couple of drawings" grew into the 300-page Thrilling Adventures. Each adventure takes place in a steampunk alternate universe in which a full-scale Analytical Engine has been built. Over the course of Thrilling Adventures Lovelace and Babbage encounter the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Queen Victoria, the novelist George Eliot, the logician George Boole, and the world of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories.

Padua's Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is an exhilaratingly witty and imaginative journey through computer history and the Victorian scientific, political, and literary worlds. For my full-length post, please see The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
Ellen Wood: East Lynne (Oxford World's Classics, 2008, originally published 1861)

Like half a dozen Victorian novels in one, East Lynne offers a dizzying array of narrative incident: unrequited love, false identities, mismatched marriage, murder, adultery, self-sacrifice, and two wrenching deathbed scenes. A hugely influential bestseller in the last half of the 19th century and for decades afterwards—Tolstoy had a copy of East Lynne in his library and drew inspiration from it for Anna Karenina (1878), and it was adapted as both silent and sound films—in the past half-century Wood's novel has fallen into relative obscurity. As I wrote in "My sin was great, but my suffering was greater," "East Lynne deserves a contemporary readership for its compelling story (including a jaw-dropping plot twist two-thirds of the way through) and its multilayered characters. They, like ourselves, act out of a mixture of motives, and discover that actions taken in the heat of an impulsive moment can bring lasting regret."

Honorable mention

Madame de Staël: Corinne, or Italy (Oxford World's Classics, originally published 1807)

Lord Oswald Nelvil, a young man traveling in Europe to try to distract himself from deep grief, meets Corinne, a woman who dazzles the literary and social world of Rome with her poetic improvisations. The two fall in love, but both are wary of emotional attachment: Oswald because a previous love affair ended badly, and Corinne because she fears Oswald will want her to give up her life as an artist.

This story of impossible love is just the sort that appeals to me. But Corinne, or Italy earns honorable mention rather than favorite status due to its heroine's many discussions of national and regional character, which are inevitably filled with stereotypical generalizations. In these we hear the voice of the author, herself a leading figure in Romanticism and in the liberal opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte. But these lengthy digressions—while undoubtedly reflecting conversations taking place in salons around Europe—have not worn well with the passage of time, and slow the momentum of its central love story.

Byron, who met de Staël for the first time after this novel was published, wrote that she was "sometimes right and often wrong about Italy and England—but almost always true in delineating the heart, which is of but one nation of no country, or rather, of all." If only she had given less attention in Corinne to outlining in broad strokes the differences between the Italians and the English, or between Tuscans and Neopolitans, and more attention to delineating the heart.


Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), pp. 1–29.

No, you are not having an episode of déjà vu. The final 290 or so pages of Padua's book are a steampunk fantasy of the Victorian era, and thus won a place in my Favorites of 2023: Fiction. But the first 30 pages are a straightforward biography of Ada Lovelace and her intellectual collaborations with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference and Analytical Engines.

Ada was 17 years old in 1833 when she met middle-aged Cambridge math professor Charles Babbage. It was intellectual sympathy at first sight. Babbage was demonstrating his Difference Engine calculating machine, and Ada immediately grasped its principles. Babbage went on to design the even more sophisticated Analytical Engine, which used punchcards to govern its operations (the idea was derived from mechanical Jacquard looms). Ada, now Lady Lovelace, translated a French-language article on the Analytical Engine based on a lecture Babbage gave. To the 25-page article she appended 41 pages of her own notes, in which she included a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers using the Engine. Her algorithm has been called the first computer program.

Lovelace may have become addicted to the opium prescribed to help her breathing difficulties (probably due to the smothering London "fog" of coal and wood smoke). Opium lowers inhibitions, and this may have been the reason she spent so many years trying to perfect a system for gambling on horse races (which, of course, failed, and caused her to lose huge sums).

In 1852 at age 36 Ada was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died two weeks before her 37th birthday. After her death Babbage made little further progress on the Analytical Engine. Never able to raise sufficient funds to construct it, he spent much of his time writing splenetic letters to London newspapers trying to whip up public campaigns against noisy street musicians and children rolling hoops on cobblestones. Babbage survived Ada by 19 years.

Padua tells Ada's story with economy and graphic verve. Ada was a mathematician at a time when women were not considered by many men to possess sufficiently logical brains to comprehend the subject. She anticipated computer programming and its application to areas beyond algebraic calculations a century in advance of the development of the technology. It's a striking and too-little-known story, earning Padua's Thrilling Adventures a place among my nonfiction favorites too.
Jenny Diski: Why Didn't You Just Do What You Were Told? (Bloomsbury, 2020)

One of the chief pleasures of reading the London Review of Books over the past three decades was finding a Jenny Diski essay inside. She started writing for the LRB in May 1992, and continued until February 2016, two months before her far-too-young death at 68. Altogether she wrote something like 215 pieces for the magazine (145 articles, 65 blog posts, and 5 letters); one appeared roughly every third issue over that span. But somehow her contributions felt rarer than that, more unexpected. They were always a special delight, generally read first, or saved for the last before starting all over again.

She was bluntly honest, outspoken, and at times shockingly self-revealing. She did not mince words or suffer fools. She asked uncomfortable questions, of herself and us, and often found uncomfortable answers. She could also be very funny, in a dark and sometimes acerbic sort of way.

Why Didn't You Just Do What You Were Told? is a selection of 33 of her pieces, chosen by her longtime LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. They range from her very first article for the LRB, "Moving Day," to the piece she wrote in September 2014, "A Diagnosis," on learning of the cancer that would kill her 19 months later. (The Diski essays that follow "A Diagnosis" that are both "another fucking cancer diary" and an ambivalent memoir of being taken in as a troubled adolescent by the writer Doris Lessing were collected in another essential volume, In Gratitude (Bloomsbury, 2017)—a nicely double-edged Diskian title.)

Here's a characteristically observant excerpt from "Moving Day," a Diary piece about about moving her ex-Live-in-Lover out of her apartment:

There was only one moment of open disharmony in the whole event. It echoed the tension there had been all along. There was always an inequality of certainty about the project of us living together. He spoke easily about forever. I did not consider the week after next a safe bet. In recognition of our different styles I bought him an ironic bottle of wine when he moved in, chosen to be ready to drink in 1997, on my 50th birthday. It was partly a small gesture of risk, but mostly I expected to be doing exactly what I was doing with it today: popping it into one of the card-board boxes of his belongings, well before 1997. We stood in the doorway looking at the bottle in the box on the floor. He said he didn’t want it. I said it wasn’t mine, and neither did I. The stalemate was broken when I took the bottle by its neck from the box, and swung it (I like to think with some elegance) against the stone step by the drain in the front yard. A storm cloud accompanied the crash of breaking glass, and darkened the day with the threat of sudden, electric rage from each of us. It took a dangerous moment to pass over: but it did, and the milder breeziness returned. 'Nice one,' he said. 'Thank you,' I smiled, with a warm inner glow of satisfaction at the unlaunching of us. No sense crying over spilt claret.

The image of unlaunching her relationship by the spontaneous smashing an unwanted bottle of wine is a brilliant Diskian inspiration.

This first piece also talks about an absent daughter off on holiday castrating sheep (sometimes the ready-made symbolism of real life is so obvious that you need do nothing more to emphasize it); a sick cat at the vet's requiring a major operation; a visit to orangutans at the zoo as research for a novel in progress (Monkey's Uncle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994, in which an orangutan character named Jenny, who wears a tea dress and high heels, has an independent existence in the imagination of the main character); and her overwhelming desire to be by herself and write:

This is it, then. Me in my space. Me and my melancholy.

I do nothing. I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write.

It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or: doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing. Or: doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.

It's no wonder Diski became a regular contributor after this piece. It was a high standard to live up to—her own—but her subsequent work was always readable and usually much more. Inevitably some of the articles included in this collection have outlived the occasion for which they were written, but even her reviews of forgotten books are often entertaining—probably more entertaining than the books themselves.

One recommendation: I found that my first impulse was to binge-read her essays, because so many of them are so good ("Moving Day" as Exhibit A). But I found that it was best to ration them to just one essay at a sitting. Like glasses of good wine, they are meant to be savored, not gulped down, and too many in a row diminishes, rather than enhances, their effect.
Iris Origo, War in Val d'Orcia (New York Review Books, 2018, originally published 1947).

In the years leading up to World War II, Iris Origo—a wealthy Anglo-American born in Britain and raised in Italy—and her Italian husband Antonio lived on the estate of La Foce in Tuscany's bucolic Val d'Orcia. They had married in 1924, just a year and a half after Mussolini seized power and Italy became a fascist state. But their wealth largely insulated them from uncomfortable encounters with the fascisti, and they spent the 1930s restoring their historic manor.

The world of dictatorship and war could not be held at bay indefinitely, though, as the events of 1943–44 proved. In July 1943 Allied armies invaded Sicily, and Mussolini was dismissed and arrested. By early September the new Italian government had negotiated an armistice, and an Allied invasion of the southern Italian mainland had begun. To many it seemed as though the war in Italy was about to end.

Instead, the German army seized control, freed Mussolini and occupied Rome. The new government fled. The Allied advance up the boot of Italy was hindered by terrain, German defenses, and bitter winter weather. It wasn't until June 1944 that the U.S. Fifth Army entered Rome. The German army made a fighting retreat northward from Rome, and for several days Val d'Orcia became a fierce battleground.

Origo's recounting of the events of these tumultuous twelve months—subsisting on rumors of Allied victories; traveling on roads strafed by Allied planes; providing food, clothing and medical care to partisans, deserters, and escaped prisoners (activities which could have led, had they been caught, to the Origos' summary execution); and huddling in the basement for shelter with the children under their care while shells and bombs fall around them—is riveting.

No matter what perils she, her family, and the communities surrounding La Foce are facing, Origo relates them in spare, clear, dispassionate prose. It's a truly remarkable display of coolness under almost unimaginable circumstances. Her avoidance of emotionally heightened descriptions actually increases the reader's sense of tension. And as I read of her experiences eighty years ago as a civilian trying to protect herself and her loved ones in the midst of industrialized warfare, the news was filled with the destruction of Gaza and with drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. The horrors Origo experienced are still with us.
Iris Origo: The Last Attachment (Pushkin Press, 2017, originally published 1949)

We did not start out purposely with this object in mind, but in retrospect, both in fiction and nonfiction, this was our year of Lord Byron. He was the father of Ada Lovelace, an intimate of Madame de Staël (but no, not that intimate, so far as we know), and the subject of Iris Origo's The Last Attachment, the first publication of his letters to his married Italian lover Teresa Guiccioli.

Byron met the 18-year-old Teresa at a Venice conversazione in April 1819. It was just a year after her marriage to Count Alessandro Guiccioli, a man forty years her senior; Teresa was his third wife. The marriage had been contracted, as was the custom, by Teresa's father to help further his political ambitions. Byron was 31 and a notorious seducer of married women. One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, had famously said of him that he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

So it proved. Teresa's meeting with Byron was love at first sight, at least for her. The night after that first meeting she waited until her husband was taking his post-dinner nap, then stepped into a gondola sent by Byron. In her later confession to her husband, Teresa wrote, "I was strong enough to resist at that first encounter, but was so imprudent as to repeat it the next day, when my strength gave way— for B. was not a man to confine himself to sentiment. And, the first step taken, there was no further obstacle in the following days."

But this turned out not to be a two-week, or two-month, affair. In his first letter to Teresa after their temporary separation three weeks later Byron wrote, "You sometimes tell me that I have been your first real Love — and I assure you that you shall be my last Passion." Their connection lasted until he sailed for Greece in July 1823 to join its independence struggle; there, of course, he met his premature death in April 1824.

Origo's cool, analytical style serves this sometimes overheated material well. Her focus is on the development of Byron's relationship with Teresa, rather than on extended analysis of Byron's published writing. (At the height of his affair with Teresa, and while living in her husband's house, he was composing Cantos III, IV and, after a pause of six months, V of his great poem Don Juan; there are some suggestive parallels.) Origo, unlike many others who have written about this period in Byron's life before and since, takes his relationship with Teresa as worthy of sustained attention, and proves it through her detailed readings of his letters to her. Many thanks to the friend who gave us both of the Origo volumes, rightly guessing that they would be of great interest.
Katherine Rundell: Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber, 2022)

Katherine Rundell is perhaps the anti-Iris Origo. Instead of cool dispassion, she offers vividly expressed enthusiasm. If you want to know why you should read the poems of Donne, an Elizabethan soldier and Jacobean cleric, Super-Infinite will give you ample reason—Rundell's lively style and high-spirited advocacy are utterly infectious.

If you are already familiar with Donne's poetry, Rundell does not generally provide lengthy analyses of individual works. Instead she aims to evoke in the reader the sensations that encountering Donne's poetry for the first time can inspire. Some of her descriptions can be over-fanciful or obscure, but most convey an excitement that at times borders on disbelief that a poet writing 400 years ago can speak to us so directly. Rundell also teases out some of the elaborate paradoxes that Donne constructed, and frames the work with resonant biographical and historical detail. There may be more in-depth and analytical studies of Donne, but none I'm aware of that is so readable.
Katherine Rundell, The Golden Mole (Faber, 2022).

In February 2018 Katherine Rundell, adventurous spirit and scholar of 16th- and 17th-century British poetry, wrote a short essay for the London Review of Books entitled "Consider the Pangolin." Her vivid writing style combined with her unusual subject to compelling effect:

The pangolin is known as a scaly anteater, because of its diet, and because it's the only mammal entirely covered in scales, but the description does not acknowledge the fact that the scales are the same shade of grey-green as the sea in winter, and the face that of an unusually polite academic. The tongue of a pangolin is longer than its body, and it keeps it tidily furled in an interior pouch near its hip. The name comes from the Malay word penggulung, meaning 'roller'; when threatened they curl into a near-impenetrable ball.

Their defence mechanism has made them easy prey to humans; they effectively render themselves portable. Pangolins are currently the most trafficked animals in the world, their scales used in traditional Chinese medicines and their flesh eaten as a delicacy. . .Beijing customs have seized more than a tonne of scales being shipped into China; each tonne the equivalent of 1660 animals. It is a fact so exhausting, so dreary and grotesque, that it's difficult to fathom. We consume beautiful things.

That essay was followed by eleven more over the next three years, about animals such as the lemur, the wombat, the narwhal, and the Golden Mole—as wonder-inspiring, and as threatened with extinction, as the pangolin. Those essays and ten more have been brought together in The Golden Mole, beautifully enhanced by the illustrations of Talya Baldwin. It's a book that everyone from a precocious child to a great-grandparent will enjoy and treasure, and the essays are the perfect length for reading aloud. Amazingly, it has no U.S. publisher, but copies are plentifully available from the bookshops of the London Review of Books and the Guardian, and you can also listen to an interview with the author at the London Review Bookshop.

Honorable mention

Hua Hsu: Stay True (Doubleday, 2022)

College is a time of heightened experience. The tastes and aversions developed there, the late-night conversations held there, and the relationships formed there can be the most intense of our lives, and can powerfully affect us for decades to come.

In Stay True, Hua Hsu writes about an unlikely friendship he forged at Berkeley in the mid-1990s with his dorm-mate Ken. Hua, the son of first-generation Taiwanese immigrants, cultivated an identity as an outsider: he wore thrift-store clothes, avoided parties and drinking, and listened to little-known bands whose records he discovered during hours spent trolling through used record stores. "I saw coolness as a quality primarily expressed through erudite discernment, and I defined who I was by what I rejected," he writes; he viewed "a bad CD collection as evidence of moral weakness."

Ken's Japanese-American family had lived in the U.S. far longer, and he embraced mainstream culture without self-consciousness: he was "flagrantly handsome," wore Abercrombie & Fitch, belonged to a frat, had a blond girlfriend, and listened to the Dave Matthews Band. "The first time I met Ken, I hated him," Hua confesses. But, attracted despite himself by Ken's social ease, Hua begins to lower his guard, and over time their friendship blossoms. They develop their own rituals, codes, catchphrases, even a shared email sign-off: "Stay true."

Stay True is a meditation on the meaning of their friendship and Hua's deep grief and sense of guilt at its irretrievable loss. Ken seems to have had a special gift for friendship, and existed as the gravitational center of a whirling social galaxy. No diminishment of Hua's feelings is intended when I find myself wondering whether he had the same place in Ken's life as Ken did in his.

As a longtime Berkeley denizen I felt a special frisson whenever a student landmark like the South Side Top Dog or Tower Records was mentioned, and I may even have unknowingly encountered Hua in the 1990s while browsing record bins or used-book shelves on Telegraph Avenue. And I had many moments of rueful recognition at Hua's account of using his "erudite discernment" and alienation as means of keeping emotional distance from all but a select few—but also at his discovery of the way that, on the cusp of adulthood, we can so quickly form profound, life-altering connections. Ultimately, though, those transformative experiences are both universal and incommensurable. It was difficult not to agree with Hua when he concludes, "you simply had to be there."
Venetia Murray: An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England (Viking, 1999)

In my full-length review, I wrote that Murray's book "could be subtitled 'Aristocrats Behaving Badly.' The upper classes of late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain ate and drank to prodigious excess, took drugs (snuff and laudanum), wore revealing clothes (tight pants and diaphanous gowns), spent outrageous sums pursuing the latest fashions, loved parties and disreputable pastimes (such as opera and theater, particularly if the actresses playing male 'breeches roles' wore tights that revealed their shapely legs), slept around, and were stupendous snobs. With material like this, Murray's An Elegant Madness is nothing if not diverting."

However, I also wrote that "Murray is an entertaining writer, but not a careful one." There are occasional misstatements, as well as odd pronouncements such as "Gambling and politics were yet to be condemned as mutually exclusive occupations" (when did that happen?) or "living in debt was not only normal, but somehow rather chic. . .This attitude to money, so alien to the twentieth century, needs to be seen in the context of its time" (an attitude alien to a twentieth century that saw median U.S. household debt exceed $50,000?). Perhaps these are just examples of dry humor; if so, it's perhaps revealing of both Murray and this reader that it was impossible to tell.

My post concluded,

An Elegant Madness does not offer in-depth discussions of Regency politics, economics, fashion, arts, food, or sex. But despite its limitations, it is enjoyable, not least for its black-and-white reproductions of caricatures by Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and others. I recommend reading it as background to the novels of the period, or for entertainment. After all, we're not the ones the upper classes of England forced off the land, threw out of work, maimed or killed in their factories and wars, and left to starve. The passage of time provides a safe buffer for our amusement.
David Grann: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder (Doubleday, 2023)

As I wrote in my full-length review, navigation during the Age of Sail was an approximate, error-prone, and perilous business. So it proved for the crew of HMS Wager, which was separated from its fleet and shipwrecked off the western coast of South America during the 18th-century British trade dispute with Spain known as "The War of Jenkins' Ear." What follows is a gripping narrative of almost unfathomable endurance, fortitude and skill, but also of poor judgment, pointless conflict, needless violence and deliberate cruelty.

Grann is an engaging writer with a compelling story to tell, but he is not above reporting both direct speech and the unvoiced thoughts of his subjects (both, of course, his own surmises or inventions). He also has trouble keeping track of exactly how many men have survived at each point, a failing I found more distracting than it probably warranted.

The Wager has a fascinating coda, though. One of the few survivors of the shipwreck was a teenaged midshipman. Amazingly, after this shattering experience he went back to sea, this time as a captain of his own ship, and ultimately rose to the rank of Vice Admiral. His name was John Byron; one of his children was the profligate "Mad Jack" Byron, who became the father of both Augusta Byron and of her half-brother and lover George Gordon Byron, the famous poet. In Canto II of his narrative poem Don Juan, Byron drew on his grandfather's experiences to heighten the realism of a shipwreck scene involving his anti-hero. Thus history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second as satire.

Posts in this series:

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Books - Our year of Agatha Christie

Cover of the first US edition of Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley

Image source: Simon & Schuster

For my partner's birthday last year I bought her Lucy Worsley's biography of Agatha Christie (Pegasus Crime, 2022)—more because of the biography's author (delightful star of multiple BBC history shows) than its subject. Of course, I knew Agatha Christie as the most popular British author since Shakespeare (sales of over a billion books in English alone, and another billion or so in translation), and also the writer of the longest-running play in London theatre history, The Mousetrap (1952 and counting; when we were in London this spring we saw performance number 29,146).

And, of course, like (almost) everyone I had read a few of Agatha Christie's mysteries when I was a teenager: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), recommended to me by my mother and still my favorite of Christie's novels (in 2013 it was named by the British Crime Writers' Association as the best crime novel ever written); her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which introduces a Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot; And Then There Were None (to give it its U.S. title, 1939), in which a group of weekend guests invited to a remote island estate are murdered one by one; and the short story "The Witness for the Prosecution" (1925), later adapted by Christie into a play that became the basis of writer-director Billy Wilder's 1957 movie. [1]

Cover of the first UK edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Cover illustration by Ellen Edwards of the first UK edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Image source: El Blog de la BLO

Inspired by Worsley's biography, and after reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at my recommendation, my partner embarked on a quest to read, in order of publication, all 33 novels and 51 short stories in which Hercule Poirot appears. And after a brief and pointless struggle with myself—I had last read a Christie novel many years ago, and I wondered whether I would find enjoyment in them so many years later—I began reading them along with her. Together with our trip to London, during which we saw both The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution, this reading project turned 2023 into our year of Agatha Christie.

My (quickly overcome) hesitations about Christie's novels were based on my preference, which you may already have discerned in this blog, for lengthy 18th- and 19th-century novels filled with memorable characters and their richly detailed interior lives. Critic John Lanchester points out that Christie's novels operate quite differently; her prose can resemble Hemingway's in its spareness and efficiency.

Edmund Wilson wrote of Christie's novels in his essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?":

. . .you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader's suspicion. . .she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. [2]

This is unfair. Christie was a keen observer, and could limn a character's essential attributes in a few lines. However, it is true that the most fully realized character in the Poirot novels is, of course, Poirot himself. Over the course of thirty-odd novels the "odd little man" with the egg-shaped head, the well-tended moustaches, the "green flash" in his eyes when he spots a clue, the impeccably-tailored suits and ever-present patent leather shoes becomes more than a collection of vivid idiosyncrasies and develops into a rather endearing presence. 

Christie herself came to regret creating Poirot, or rather, inspiring an insatiable desire in readers for new mysteries featuring him. In the novel Third Girl (1966), the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (who is both a comic figure and an occasional stand-in for Christie herself) bewails a similar success with her fictional Finnish detective: "'. . .people say things to me—you know—how much they like my books. . .And they say how much they love my awful detective Sven Hjerson. If they knew how I hated him! But my publisher always says I'm not to say so.'" The person to whom she directs these complaints is none other than Poirot himself. [3]

Cover of the first US edition of Third Girl

Image source: AbeBooks

There are a few other irregularly recurring characters in the Poirot novels, of which the most significant is Poirot's Watson-like companion and narrator, Captain Hastings, who appears in eight novels (Ariadne Oliver appears in six). It's true that Christie's characters can sometimes fall into types. Her books are peopled with ingénues who—especially when they are pretty, auburn-haired, and catch Hastings' eye—are sometimes not as innocent as they seem; older women, who are often unpleasant and not infrequently the murder victim; and actors and actresses who are always vain, never trustworthy, and frequently mixed up in the murder. (Christie, who adapted her own work for the theatre as early as 1930, must have had some disillusioning offstage experiences.)

But it has been argued, by Lanchester for one, that Christie did not focus her energies on creating memorable characters (her detective and a few others excepted), but instead on the mystery genre's formal challenges. Christie displays almost unflagging ingenuity in handling a set of self-imposed rules that are as constraining as those of any Oulipian novel. Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading Christie is seeing how she will take familiar mystery-novel elements (some of which she herself originated) and give them an unexpected twist.

A typical Poirot mystery takes place in a tightly bounded space among a small group of people, most of whom will turn out to have both a motive and the opportunity to murder the victim. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the space is a country manor, a setting that will reappear in different guises in (to name a few) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Peril at End House (1932), Three Act Tragedy (1935), Dumb Witness (1937), The Hollow (1946), and Dead Man's Folly (1956). In Evil Under the Sun (1941), the murders take place among an isolated group of people on an island. In Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), a murder takes place at a girls' boarding school; in Hickory Dickory Dock (1955), in a student boarding house. As the titles suggest, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) take place onboard trains; Death in the Clouds (1935) on a passenger plane in flight; and Death on the Nile (1937) on a riverboat in transit. In Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Appointment with Death (1938), the murders occur on archaeological digs; Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan, on a dig in Iraq and accompanied him on later expeditions.

Image source: The Paperback Palette

The victims are eclectic, but their deaths (at least those of the primary targets) are rarely crimes of impulse: they are meticulously planned by the killers, even if they don't reckon with the "little grey cells" of Poirot. Christie's favorite murder weapon is poison—as a young woman she had volunteered as a nurse in WWI and had learned about them during her work in a dispensary—but sometimes cruder methods are used: knives, guns, bludgeoning, strangulation, a strategic shove from a high place. As Lanchester writes,

Christie’s great talent for fictional murder is to do with her understanding of, and complete belief in, human malignity. She knew that people could hate each other, and act on their hate. Her plots are complicated, designedly so, and the backstories and red herrings involved are often ornate, but in the end, the reason one person murders another in her work comes down to avarice and/or hate. [4]

There are many clues, only some of which are significant, and victims who are not always what they seem. Suicides are made to look like murders, murders like suicides, identities are concealed, and alibis are not as solid as they first appear. It's like a puzzle or a game, and she ensures that you can almost never guess the outcome before Poirot gathers all the suspects into another bounded space (generally a parlor) to review the case and name the murderer.

In her New Yorker article "Queen of Crime," Joan Acoccella itemizes the strategies Christie uses to keep us guessing. Among them are the red herring (a clue that seems significant but which, after reading a few Christie novels, we learn is too obvious to actually be important), the double bluff (where a clue that seems to be a red herring turns out to point to the real murderer), and the triple bluff (where a clue that seems at first to be a red herring, then to point to the real murderer, turns out to be a red herring after all).

But in many of Christie's mysteries, the identity of the killer is unguessable. As Acoccella notes,

. . .in truth, the guessing that we are asked to do is almost fruitless, because the solution to the mystery typically involves a fantastic amount of background material that we're not privy to until the end of the book, when the detective shares it with us. Christie's novels crawl with impostors. . .The investigator digs up this material but doesn't tell anyone till the end. [5]

I wouldn't say that such solutions are necessarily typical, but they (or other solutions that rely on information that Poirot only reveals at the last moment) are rather frequent. This would seem to be a violation of the first rule of detective stories, at least as formulated by mystery writer S.S. Van Dine, which is that the reader should be supplied with all the clues necessary to solve the murder along with the detective. Poirot's ratiocinations in Murder On the Orient Express so infuriated Raymond Chandler that he snarled, "Only a halfwit could guess it." [6]

"Plan of the Calais Coach" from Murder on the Calais Coach [Murder on the Orient Express], Pocket Books, 1965. Image source: The Paperback Palette

But Christie's plots are often so intriguing and unexpected that their very intricacy and unlikelihood becomes a source of pleasure. When they fail, which is not often, they can seem overly contrived (I would nominate Death in the Clouds in that category, although it's intriguing as a mystery set in a plane at the dawn of commercial aviation). When they succeed, which is most of the time, they delight us in spite of their "unfairness." And every so often Christie provides just enough information to enable us to solve the mystery, if only we were alert and clever enough. We aren't.

Posts in this series:

  1. A word about spoilers: since the unexpected twist is such a major part of the pleasure of Christie's mysteries, if you're planning to read her I recommend trying to avoid too much knowledge about her plots. Unfortunately, many articles and TV programs can't resist showing how ingenious she was by revealing the intricacies of her murder plots. Culprits include her Wikipedia pages; Joan Acoccella's, John Lanchester's, and Edmund Wilson's essays quoted in this post; and even Lucy Worsley's three-hour BBC TV series on Agatha Christie's life and work being broadcast on P.B.S. right now. These revelations are damaging to the enjoyment of all of her books, but particularly The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I recommend approaching her work, as it were, without a clue.
  2. Quoted in Lanchester, "The Case of Agatha Christie." London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No. 24, 20 December 2018. (warning: this link is included for scholarly completeness, but it leads to spoilers)
  3. Agatha Christie, Third Girl, HarperCollins, 1967, pp. 15-16. In another novel (Hickory Dickory Dock?), Ariadne Oliver fantasizes about appearing as a character in one of her own novels and killing off her detective.
  4. Quoted in Lanchester, "The Case of Agatha Christie." I would add another primal emotion, fear, to Lanchester's list of motives.
  5. Joan Acoccella, "Queen of Crime: How Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery," The New Yorker, 16 & 23 August 2010. (warning: this link is included for scholarly completeness, but it leads to spoilers)
  6. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," in Howard Haycraft, ed., The Art of the Mystery Story, Simon and Schuster, 1946. (warning: this link is included for scholarly completeness, but it leads to spoilers). In this essay Chandler calls S.S. Van Dine's detective Philo Vance "probably the most asinine character in detective fiction."

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Movies and television

Jack Lowden as Steven Morrissey in England is Mine (2017). Image source:

In the last Favorites of 2023 post I discussed the films we watched in our year of Alec Guinness. We did watch a few movies and TV shows last year that for some reason didn't feature Guinness, and of those first seen in 2023, a few stood out as particular favorites:

Drive My Car (2021), starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, and Toko Miura; based on the short stories "Drive My Car" and "Scherezade" by Haruki Murakami; written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his driver Misaki (Toko Miura) in Drive My Car. Image source: Japan Society Film Club

Apart from one misjudged scene added by writer-director Hamaguchi, this quiet and visually striking adaptation of two Haruki Murakami short stories enriches its source material. A meditation on loss, grief, storytelling, performance, and the bonds that—welcome or not—connect us with one another, Drive My Car was one of the most memorable films we watched this year. For my full-length post please see Haruki Murakami part 5: Drive My Car.

England is Mine (2017), starring Jack Lowden (Steven Morrissey), Jessica Brown Findlay (Linder Sterling), Adam Lawrence (Billy Duffy), and Laurie Kynaston (Johnny Marr); written by Mark Gill and William Thacker; directed by Mark Gill.

England Is Mine DVD cover

Image source:

A warning: this movie won't be for everyone. Any ordinary person will wonder why they are spending the length of a feature film with a teenager who tries to mask his crippling shyness with aloofness, disdain and arrogance; whose fear of disappointment prevents him from taking emotional risks or exposing himself to ridicule; and who constructs an insular world defined by his highly specific tastes. These include pop music (David Bowie, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Sparks, early 60s pop, girl groups and Motown, French chanteuses such as Françoise Hardy and Juliette Greco), movie stars (James Dean, Alain Delon, Jean Marais), and eclectic (and sometimes lurid) reading.

The movie is subtitled "On Becoming Morrissey," and as you may have already guessed, that awkward, introverted Manchester teenager went on to become the lead singer and lyricist of The Smiths. As I wrote of Morrissey's Autobiography (2013):

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'. . . .I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve." (p. 116)

The dingy palette of hazy browns and dull greens chosen by Gill and cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland to depict 1970s Manchester is the objective correlative of a mood of hopelessness and despair resulting from the city's slow-motion economic collapse. Colors drained of vibrancy are as effective as the black-and-white images of another excellent film set in 1970s Manchester, Anton Corbijn's Control, in representing the bleak post-industrial cityscape.

Steven meets a kindred spirit, the brash art student Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay).

From SheShe, a series of photographs of Linder Sterling by Christina Birrer with words by Linder, 1981. Photo credit: Christina Birrer. Image source:

It's Linder's drive and determination that finally galvanize Steven to risk failure by meeting up with the guitarist Billy (Adam Lawrence), whose notice seeking musical collaborators he'd spotted in a record store. One of the first songs they write together is entitled "I Think I'm Ready for the Electric Chair."

Billy Duffy ca. 1980. Image source:

Like Sam Riley's portrayal of Joy Division's lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis in Control, Jack Lowden in England is Mine inhabits, rather than impersonates, his real-life character to an uncanny degree. From England is Mine, Steven's onstage debut with Billy and The Nosebleeds on 15 April 1978, doing a cover of the Shangri-Las' "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (and unlike his heroes the New York Dolls, Steven doesn't change the gender of the singer's crush).

And here's the Shangri-Las original.

But when Billy leaves The Nosebleeds to join another band and Linder departs for London, Steven is left bereft and directionless—until Johnny (Laurie Kynaston), a guitarist friend of Billy's looking for a singer, knocks on his front door. It's no spoiler to say that we know how this story will continue. As I wrote about Autobiography, the music of The Smiths "gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics." The album Hatful of Hollow remains on my record shelf, despite what Morrissey has become.

If you're curious, a home recording was made in 1982 of Morrissey and Marr performing The Cookies' "I Want A Boy For My Birthday." They gave the tape to their first bass player, Dale Hibbert, so he could learn the song. He has posted it to YouTube, and it's brief sample of what their first musical collaborations sounded like:

And here is The Cookies original.

A reviewer for The Guardian called England Is Mine "generic." It is anything but, being filled with references to Morrissey's formative discoveries in music and books, and with visuals and dialogue that point to his later use of the materials of his life in his lyrics. [1]

Other reviewers have unfairly complained that the movie soundtrack contains no Smiths songs, even though the entire film takes place before The Smiths are formed. The soundtrack is great; Morrissey's lyrics to The Smiths' song "Rubber Ring" mention "the songs that saved your life," and several of his favorites are featured. [2]

Fortunately there are also some more thoughtful critical engagements with this movie and with Morrissey and The Smiths. Gill's film is obviously a labor of love and of close attention to telling details. It is not perfect, of course. Curiously, we don't see (or hear) Linder fronting her postpunk art-noise band Ludus, whose gigs Morrissey would surely have attended. We also don't see any of the other Manchester bands that were born around the same time: The Buzzcocks (a Linder collage is on the cover of their "Orgasm Addict" single), Magazine (she designed the cover of their first album Real Life), The Fall (though we do see a record-store poster), Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, and many others. 

And apart from a single letter from Steven that gets printed in the New Musical Express, there's no hint of why the rock journalist and scenester Paul Morley would have called Morrissey "minor local legend Steven Morrison" [sic] in a 1978 NME review of one of his few appearances with The Nosebleeds. 

It's also true that the film is not attempting to be a documentary, and is more concerned with evoking a state of mind than with strict verisimilitude. The film rearranges chronology, omits events (Morrissey published a book on the New York Dolls in 1981, a time when the film presents Steven as isolated, lost, and deeply sunk in depression), eliminates real people (Steve Pomfret, for example, who showed up on Morrissey's doorstep with Johnny Marr in 1982) and invents fictional characters. But the film's narrow focus heightens its intensity, and I thought that, one scene excepted, it was brilliantly conceived and executed. I can't guarantee that you'll feel the same way.


Moonage Daydream (2022). Produced, written, edited and directed by Brett Morgen.

Speaking of labors of love and of close attention to detail, Brett Morgen's impressionistic montage of David Bowie's ever-changing image and music (as well as other artistic endeavors) is mesmerizing. Many pop stars would have tried to build an entire career around just one of Bowie's many musical personae. Bowie, as Keith Jarrett once said of Miles Davis, would rather risk producing bad music than repeat himself endlessly. Amazingly, he produced music worth hearing at virtually every stage of his life.

Morgen's two-hour documentary does not attempt to be comprehensive; to do so would require spanning more than 50 years of Bowie's music, art, and self-fashioning. But what he does include, primarily the period from "Space Oddity" (1969) through Let's Dance (1983), is compelling not only for its inherently interesting subject, but for the associative way that it is presented.

"Life on Mars?" from Bowie's album Hunky Dory (1971), filmed by Mick Rock in 1973:


Our Flag Means Death, first season (2022). Starring Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate), Taika Waititi (Edward Teach/Blackbeard), Con O'Neill (Izzy Hands, Blackbeard's first mate), Rory Kinnear (Royal Navy officers Captain Nigel Badminton and Admiral Chauncey Badminton), and many others. Created by David Jenkins. Produced by HBO Max.

Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet), Taika Waitiki (Blackbeard), and Rory Kinnear (Captain Nigel Badminton) in Our Flag Means Death. Image source: Markham Froggatt & Irwin

A dear friend thought we would enjoy this series, and he couldn't have been more right. Of course, pirates (and their flamboyant outfits and square-rigged sailing ships that were floating socialist communities) have an inherent appeal. But that appeal is multiplied when the pirate captain is played by Rhys Darby. The role of the incompetent manager in Flight of the Conchords was clearly excellent preparation for playing the incompetent Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet.

In the show (and in history) Stede feels stifled by his life as a wealthy Barbados plantation owner and decides to become a pirate, even though he has no sailing experience. As you might guess, he encounters a steep learning curve, a skeptical crew of misfits, and near-disaster when the first ship they try to capture turns out to be a pirate-hunting Royal Navy man-of-war. More hairbreadth escapes and a meeting with the fearsome Blackbeard (the excellent Taika Waitiki) shortly follow. The two pirate captains decide to join forces; as they spend time together, each realizes that the other possesses qualities that they themselves lack, and a bond begins to form.

Our Flag Means Death is unusually casual about same-sex affection and gender nonconformity (as, apparently, historical pirates could also be). It's also extremely funny. Season 2 has just been released, and will feature the appearance of the historical women pirates Zheng Yi Sao, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. We're looking forward to the further adventures of Stede, Blackbeard, and their crews. [3]

Posts in this series:

  1. We see Steven with a book on the Moors Murders, for example; one of The Smith's earliest songs, "Suffer Little Children," was about the killings, and contains the line "Oh Manchester, so much to answer for." Also on Steven's bookshelf is the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, a gift from his librarian mother; in "Cemetry Gates" (Morrissey's spelling) he sings "Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose. . .Wilde is on mine." A scene in England is Mine set at a fun fair recalls The Smiths' "Rusholme Ruffians," where fairs are depicted as places where sex and violence lurk: "A boy is stabbed and his money is grabbed / And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine. . .Then someone falls in love, then someone's beaten up / And the senses being dulled are mine." A more passionate fan of The Smiths than I am could probably find many other instances.
  2. The soundtrack sent me to YouTube to explore early 60s pop stars I'd either never heard of, or never (knowingly) heard: The Cookies, Diana Dors, Vince Eager, Billy Fury, Johnny Tillotson. I should have known The Cookies, though: they sang "Don't Say Nothin' Bad (About My Baby)," "Chains" (later covered by The Beatles), and backup on Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion."
  3. Irrelevant historical note: While Anne Bonny and Mary Read were active around the same time as Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, Zheng Yi Sao lived almost a century later.