When I first opened “Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past”, the images of balloons carrying people through the skies made me think of a moment my mother and I shared in Kenya. Our lodge in the Masai Mara offered a hot air balloon safari, the chance to fly over the herds of zebras and wildebeests dancing the ballet of the Great Migration. But Mum was hesitant to be ballooned up into the sky, and so we chose to skip the opportunity, something that Mum came to regret as we watched the balloons taking off, carrying those braver than us to a forever memory.
Thankfully, your book gave me another chance to fly. We soared through the barriers of time and sky. I felt welcomed by the lyricism of “Float, Cleave” and “And Now Brightness Falls From the Air…” which lifted me up into the world and history of hot-air ballooning, with the same wonder, fear, and excitement that must have colored the mind of Elisabeth Thible, whom I learned to be the first woman ever to fly in an untethered hot air balloon. I was fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, and by the minds of southern Civil-War soldiers, who came from a world where, “it was dangerous to put a balloon down…[where] they’d hang you sure as shit for Yankee bedevilment and espionage.”
But the purest magic of the book truly took form as we began to see how you were able to connect the terrestrial and oneiric by weaving in the personal narratives of those who took these vaunted flights, or even just the ants they would see beneath them. The woman who feigned birthing rabbits or a gentle son who, “reminds us all that it’s pretending to think he’ll live forever,” all of them reveal to us why these tall tales, rumors, astonishments, and wonders carry such deep and intimate meaning for any person who reads them.
I love history deeply and grow excited at even passing mentions of eras like the French Revolution or moments like Marie Antoinette stepping on the foot of her executioner. I found such a true magic in the way that you were able to bring history to life; to make it intriguing and dynamic and mystical, something far more accessible than the textbook-like spiels people often expect from history buffs. But while, “[your] husband is not interested in reading about Marie Antoinette’s hair,” there was no detail that you included that seemed esoteric or extraneous, and I truly found myself enthralled with each individual epic or national ripple.
Reading the book reminded me of a podcast that I once listened to during my nightly gym session at an LA Fitness in the Alhambra neighborhood of Los Angeles. The podcast is entitled, simply, Revolutions, and their third season rounded to roughly 50 episodes on the French Revolution, some of the most history rich lessons I had ever experienced. Reading your book added that lyrical flare that turns an otherwise dry description of the Palace at Versailles into descriptions like, “the candelabra are dolphins, as are the mantle clocks.” There are a myriad of brilliant lines and gorgeous vocabs words throughout, but certainly one of my favorite sentences had to be, “the loom performs its apoplexies with a nutmeg grater.” I feel as though, like Marie supposedly told me to, I am eating a cake of language, one as rich and grand as the pre-revolution calking of Versailles.
I would recommend the book to both the niche grouping of French Revolution nerds with propensities towards balloons, as well as a wider swath of humanity that adores learning and adventure, language and lyrics, and the lively humanity that beats the heart of any true, human drama. Thank you for your teachings, your boundlessly fun lyrics, and the ethereal aplomb with which these otherwise disparate things are brought together.