The Improbable Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger

How is it we don’t know who Beaumarchais is? He is most famous, these days anyways, for being the author of the plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro — he created that iconic character. Before that, as an apprentice to his dad in his clockmaker’s shop, he invented the wrist watch, the first watch that could be comfortably worn on the wrist, and made custom watches for the king and queen of France. He became an international businessman, amassing a fortune. He is the embodiment of the rags-to-riches story. But, perhaps most importantly, he, almost single-handedly, saved the American Revolution.

Beaumarchais was born Pierre-Augustin Caron in Paris, in the same year that George Washington was born (he would also die in the same year Washington died). He later gained the title Beaumarchais through his connections and his ability to buy a title. From the beginning, he displayed great and varied talents, from singing and music, to engineering. Being the only son in the family, it ultimately fell on him to take care of his sisters and parents. After a brief interlude as a teen when he was out carousing with friends too much for his father’s taste, and his father kicked him out of the house, he became a responsible head of household, ultimately taking care of the entire family.

Harlow Giles Unger’s portrayal of Beaumarchais, The Improbable Patriot, reads almost like a spy thriller. In the background, you have the world-shattering events of the American Revolution and the precarious state it was in. Washington had a relatively small number of raw recruits, little-to-no equipment, and a Congress that didn’t have the power to help. At the same time, France was ruled by despotic kings and similar-minded nobility, who could not stand that a commoner such as Beaumarchais could rise up in the world. More than once, Beaumarchais was imprisoned simply because he pissed of the wrong nobleman. This came with a loss of citizenship and the rights that went with it.

All the while, there is Beaumarchais himself, seemingly master of any task he put his mind to. By the time of the American Revolution, Beaumarchais was already a well known playwright, with The Barber of Seville already a smashing hit. His character, Figaro, embodied much of the revolutionary sentiment, and may have inspired, at least in part, the French Revolution (“A tiny gust that extinguishes a candle, Figaro reminds his audience, can ignite an inferno.”). He had also become a very successful businessman, tutored by the French magnate Paris-Duverney. But, Beaumarchais already had many enemies when he proposed to the French foreign minister that France absolutely had to help the Americans in their fight against the British, that they would lose without such help. He sold it as a way for France to regain the possessions she lost after the Seven Year’s War. Beaumarchais proposed an elaborate scheme to set up a shell company, giving it a Spanish origin, and using it to sell French arms and equipment to the Americans in exchange for goods. To do this, he got a massive loan from the French government, which would in principle be repaid by his selling American products on the European market. Unfortunately, because of American political backstabbing, he never really got his due from the American government. However, his shipments to America made a significant, perhaps pivotal, difference in the fight with Britain.

Though Beaumarchais didn’t play a significant role in the French Revolution — though he had humble beginnings, he was wealthy and conspicuous with that wealth at the time of the storming of the Bastille — he lived in an age of enlightened thought against the ways of despotic power. Voltaire, not exactly a contemporary, was still alive during Beaumarchais’ time and even asked the man to publish his complete works. Beaumarchais had been inspired by the works of Frenchmen such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who had strong views on the origin of power and the current state of the world — “The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of class society.” In some sense, Frenchmen like Beaumarchais viewed America as the embodiment of the ideal society that French revolutionary thinkers discussed. He was ultimately disillusioned when political squabbling led to his debts being unsettled with the Americans.

At the same time, the French Revolution went further than the American Revolution, leading to mass riots and the Terror that saw large numbers of French put to death and the imposition of a new kind of dictatorship. While Beaumarchais certainly wanted change, he felt this had gone too far: “In trying to straighten our tree, we have made it bend in the opposite direction.” He came to see that people of all classes were similar. As Unger says, “The aristocracy had violated him early in his life for rising above his station to champion commoner rights; now the commoners whose rights he had championed had violated him, and he realized that commoners were as capable of injustice, cruelty, and arrogance as the aristocrats they despised — no better, no worse. Power rendered them all the same.”

Beaumarchais seemed to have an attitude toward life that was live it to its fullest. After being imprisoned in a miserable French prison, on the very day he was released he held a party, and chose not to dwell in his injustice: “Why should I lose the time I have with you, my friend, reliving things which only make us miserable.”

Beaumarchais was inspired by the social reform ideas of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, but maybe had a bigger hand in diffusing their ideas. His character Figaro embodied that spirit and spread those ideas in a way that philosophical treatises could never do. Figaro railed against the nobility: “Nobility, wealth, rank, position — it all makes you so proud. And what did you do to earn so many rewards? You took the time to be born — nothing else. Apart from that, you’re quite an ordinary man! while I, by God, lost in the faceless crowd, had to apply more knowledge and skills merely to survive than it took to govern the entire Spanish Empire for the last one hundred years.” If this doesn’t encapsulate the idea of the American Dream, I don’t know what does. That we seem to have lost the admiration for the self-made man seems, to me, unfortunate.

The story of Beaumarchais is replete with spies and international espionage — more than once he is sent on behalf of the king to stop spies from harming the monarchy — the drama of a internationally-reknown playwright, and ups and downs of dealing with petty nobility, and his own family dramas — his father seems to have been a sex-starved old man who was always looking for companionship — all of this in the backdrop of two revolutions. That we don’t learn about Beaumarchais in history classes is truly a shame. History comes alive when you learn about the individuals and their stories, about how decisions that change the world rely on the capriciousness of people, and about how all of us have remarkable stories to tell.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Allan Karlsson is turning one hundred years old. The mayor is coming to help him celebrate in his retirement home. But, Allan doesn’t want a celebration. He wants to escape. And, so he does, by simply climbing out the window before the party starts.

Karlsson is a Swedish Forrest Gump, of sorts, but with more wits about him. His story, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, follows both Karlsson’s adventure after his escape from the retirement home as well as his past, when he rubbed shoulders with the most powerful people in the world and had a hand in changing world events. He even makes a fateful appearance at Los Alamos, making a suggestion to the most eminent physicists in the world that makes all the difference in their quest to beat the Germans to the bomb.

I won’t give away too much of the plot, as the joy of the novel is to discover who Karlsson is going to cross paths with next and what those interactions will lead to. Suffice it to say that Karlsson’s adventures take him all over the world and his wits and expertise with explosives save his butt on many occasions. While Karlsson is clearly a clever guy, he is as apolitical as they come, and doesn’t give a whit about the ideologies of those he comes across. As long as they have a stiff drink ready and can make some use of his explosives expertise, he is a happy man. Given that these two conditions are met most of the time, Karlsson is happy most of the time.

As with any grand adventure of this type, there are a lot of coincidences that move the plot along. Maybe these are deus ex machina type plot devices, but given the almost ridiculous nature of Karlsson’s adventures, they actually work well here. Karlsson’s story is bigger than life, and the events that propel it forward are as well. In lesser hands, this story could have easily derailed into the absurd but Jonasson juggles the events deftly and keeps things moving apace in a way that both keeps one engaged and is reasonably reasonable, given the absurd role Karlsson plays in the events of world history. A highly entertaining read with cameos from some of the 20th century’s most famous and infamous figures.

The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean


In The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean takes us on a tour of how we have learned about the genes that define us and the implications of some of discoveries behind that science. I admit that biology is not my favorite branch of science, but Kean does an excellent job of telling an engaging story about the people, their world, and their discoveries that have led to our current understanding of how our genes impact everything from our behavior to our talents to our interactions with the rest of nature. For anyone with even a passing interest in our genes and DNA, what makes us tick biologically, and how we’ve learned what we learned, this is a great book.

Kean’s focus is on DNA, the science that, over many years, led to our discovery and subsequent understanding of what DNA does, and the people behind that discovery. As he guides us through the history of DNA science, he also takes us on interesting detours, introducing us to non-scientists whose lives demonstrate the point he is trying to make. These are people with either less common genes or mutations that gave them some benefit, such as more flexible hands for playing, for example, a violin, but often also made them rather sickly and not long for the world.

There are simply too many interesting tidbits in this book to really give them justice. But, I highlight a few that particularly piqued my interest:

  • Ultraviolet light can cause kinks in certain places in DNA. Nearly all animals and plants have enzymes that can fix these kinks. Mammals don’t. That is why mammals sunburn.
  • Women were typically not admitted into the science club. One exception were Catholic nuns, who were unmarried and had the financial support and independence from the church-run convents to pursue science.
  • Polar bears survive on eating seals. Seals have a high abundance of vitamin A, which allows them to survive in the cold, promoting growth of fat cells. Polar bears have adapted to this, and can tolerate high levels of vitamin A, which is stored in their liver. However, the concentrations of vitamin A in their liver is toxic to most all other animals, even other polar bears if they ate another polar bear liver: “As little as one ounce of polar bear liver can kill an adult human, and in a ghastly way.”
  • Our DNA isn’t entirely “human” – about 8 percent is ancient virus DNA, that was introduced as viruses attacked our ancient ancestors.
  • Toxoplasma gondil (Toxo) is a parasite that exists and thrives in the guts of cats. Rats who are infected with it are attracted to cat urine, making them easy prey for cats, and thus spreading the parasite to more cats. “Overall it infects one-third of people worldwide,” settling in our brains. There is evidence that it makes infected people less risk adverse: it can make dopamine and “Some emergency room doctors report that motorcycle crash victims often have unusually high numbers of Toxo cysts in their brains.
  • Viruses probably created the mammalian placenta, the interface between mother and child that allows us to give birth to live young and enables us to nuture our young.”
  • Every known ethnic group worldwide has one of two genetic signatures that help our bodies fight off certain diseases that cannibals catch, especially mad-cow-like diseases that come from eating each other’s brains. This defensive DNA almost certainly wouldn’t have become fixed worldwide if it hadn’t once been all too necessary.”
  • Trauma we experience can be passed down to our children and, even more amazingly, to their children. Women with PTSD from the 9/11 attacks who had kids, particularly those who were in their third trimester at the time, have kids with higher levels of anxiety and acute distress than others in some situations.
  • Possibly the most amazing fact is that a child’s health is more directly related to the father’s diet during his so-called slow growth period, about 9-12 years old: “Even more strangely, the child got a health boost only if the father faced starvation. If the father gorged himself, his children lived shorter lives with more diseases.

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

All those stories about cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws? Most of them occurred here, in the American Southwest. The people behind them have become legends, glamorized by Hollywood, stretched and exaggerated until they are hardly recognizable. Good guys never do no wrong and the bad guys are truly evil. Life is never so black and white and Mary Doria Russell tries to put some human perspective on one of the most famous events of the old West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Once the smoke had settled, three men had been killed. The Earp brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday, at most suffered relatively superficial wounds. However, the controversy over who drew first, whether the dead men had even been armed, and the bad blood between the Earps and the so-called Cow Boys that boiled over led to the shooting of two of the Earps, one who died, and a vendetta ride by Wyatt Earp that cemented his place in American history.

Epitaph is a novelization of the history of the gunfight. It begins in a seemingly unlikely place, with the childhood of Josie Marcus, who became Wyatt Earp’s wife and outlived them all. If there is a common thread that pulls the narrative together, it is Josie’s, but Russell does an excellent job of juggling a huge cast of characters and, more importantly, providing them with a voice. Even the most despicable of the so-called villains has his time on the page. Events are given view through the eyes of characters not directly involved in the gunfight, such as the wives of the various Earp brothers. Russell doesn’t lay blame for the gunfight at the foot of any one character. Rather, she tries to provide context for the events as they unfold and maybe some rationale for those events.

Being a novelization, Russell certainly takes liberties. There are quiet moments where she fills in the blanks. There are events where we don’t know enough to be certain what really happened — Russell adds her own details. And there are contradictory accounts, for example, how Josie originally left her family and found herself in Tombstone, Arizona. Russell chooses one of those stories, the one told by Josie herself, and uses it as if it were canon. One of the Earp brothers, Warren, never makes an appearance. I’m not enough of a historian to really judge the historical accuracy of the events as Russell conveys them. However, it seems she has a solid skeleton based on history and her details add the flesh that lead to a great story.

Maybe I learned something from this book about the history of the American Southwest. Certainly, names and places that dot our collective consciousness are given meaning: Doc Holliday, Albuquerque, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp. And new details arise that pique my interest, such as the fact that Earp spent some time in Idaho, in Eagle City. Other characters emerge as important players in the drama of Tombstone, including the other Earp brothers and John Behan, a would-be political mover and shaker whose life is very much intertwined with those of Wyatt and Josie.

Even though Russell may have taken liberties with some of the details, the story moves along and keeps you engaged. I’m keen to read more about the men and women of the American Southwest and that is as great a testament to a book like Epitaph as I can make.

#heyjohnkelly

My dad came to this country without a high school education, having stopped going to school when he was about 14. When he arrived, he didn’t know a word of English. He died having never become a citizen of the United States. He came with a drive for a better life, to improve his lot. He brought a tremendous work ethic that was second-to-none. He instilled this work ethic in his three boys, who all obtained college degrees and have had very successful careers in highly technical fields — engineering, environmental science, and physics. How is my dad not the type of immigrant we want in this country?

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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