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Thomas Chatterton Williams: Wrestling with Race and Culture Part Two

Part Two: Self-Portrait in Black and White



Yesterday, after a somewhat defensive introduction dealing with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday and my Black History Month reading, I offered some thoughts on Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

Now, obviously, the world is a very different place in 2021 than in 2010. And I am not really in a position to engage in the arguments about hip-hop and black culture. But for me, the beauty was the love between a son and a father and the determination of that father to mold his son despite some very powerful countervailing pressures in the wider world.

Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wrestling with Race and Culture

With this as background, I want to move on to Self-Portrait in Black and White, which is a very different book.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jego and Denis Lepee

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jego and Denis Lepee is an intriguing look at the time of Louis XIV of France.

Here is a brief summary of the book:

Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister who has governed throughout King Louis’ early years, lies dying. As a fierce power struggle develops to succeed him, a religious brotherhood, guardian of a centuries-old secret, also sees its chance to influence events.

Gabriel de Pontbriand, an aspiring actor employed as secretary to Moliere, becomes unwittingly involved when documents stolen from Mazarin’s palace fall into his hands. The coded papers will alter Gabriel’s life forever, and their explosive contents have the power to change the course of history for France and the rising Sun King himself.

Most European monarchies were rife with conspiracies and intrigue – between courtiers, ministers, and the monarchy. The authors capture this perfectly in the court of King Louis XIV. The backstabbing between Minister of Finace Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Mazarin’s protege) and Superintendent of Finance Nicolas Fouquet is believable and stunning. Alliances shift with the political winds.

The authors set the story with great descriptions of Paris and the royal palaces. They also capture the mood of the era with all of the anxiety and political intrigue.

Gabriel is the hero who seems to stumble from one thing to the next until his stumbling leads him to a great discovery. His interactions with the powerful and the less so are relatable (he comes from an educated, but middle-income family).

Although the plot plods along a bit (especially in the middle), it picks up and ends with a bang. There are a few unexpected twists.

The Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune by John Merriman

Somewhere my former European and World History teachers are rolling their eyes because I did not remember learning about the Paris uprising of 1871. John Merriman in The Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune does a superb job of describing the events surrounding the uprising.

Here is a brief summary from the publisher’s website:

The Paris Commune lasted for only 64 days in 1871, but during that short time it gave rise to some of the grandest political dreams of the nineteenth century—before culminating in horrific violence.

Following the disastrous French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, hungry and politically disenchanted Parisians took up arms against their government in the name of a more just society. They expelled loyalists and soldiers and erected barricades in the streets. In Massacre, John Merriman introduces a cast of inimitable Communards—from les pétroleuses (female incendiaries) to the painter Gustave Courbet—whose idealism fueled a revolution. And he vividly recreates the Commune’s chaotic and bloody end when 30,000 troops stormed the city, burning half of Paris and executing captured Communards en masse.

Many would argue that the Communards (or Communists in modern lingo) were wrong for taking over the city. However, Merriman makes a convincing argument that no matter if the Communards were wrong, they did not deserve the slaughter they received from the French national government. The government response was a bit much – using artillery against French civilians is excessive.

Merriman’s account is focused more on the Communards than the French national government. I wish that he spent more time discussing the weaknesses and strengths of the government’s reasons for attacking the Communards. I understand that it was a hectic time (especially with parts of France occupied by the Prussians after the Franco-Prussian War), but I do not think that it was proper to slaughter Parisian civilians – possibly in the thousands.

The book also is an excellent example of how quickly fighting can become barbarous. Merriman discusses the various abuses on both sides. Once atrocities started, neither side gave quarter to the other. I am not one to judge soldiers in combat, but I also do not condone the slaughter of people who have surrendered.

The Massacre is a well-written book on a subject that is not universally known.

Fairy Tale (Mont Saint Michel)

Fairy Tale by İlhan Eroglu on 500px.com

Another gorgeous photo by İlhan Eroglu.

Paris, City of Light

LOVE by İlhan Eroglu on 500px.com

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