Our book today is Death at La Fenice from way back in 1992, the very first of Donna Leon’s wildly popular murder mysteries set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, her steadfast and nondescript working-stiff sleuth. Now, in 2015, Leon has been writing Venice-based novels for a quarter of a century; they’ve sold millions of copies, spawned half a dozen imitators, and given rise to their own mini cottage industry in Venice itself, where the locals, bless their black, watery hearts, have long since realized that while the hordes of fat American tourists who clump down off their cruise ships every spring and summer might never have heard of Veronese, a great many of them have read Donna Leon (including on the voyage over, since she’s featured in the onboard library of virtually every cruise ship in Christendom).
Even in this first novel, it’s fairly easy to see the appeal. From the start, the city and people of Venice are portrayed with a warmth and immediacy that had been missing from most Venetian fiction, let alone most Venetian crime fiction, in the decades running up to Leon’s debut. She hit upon the great idea of making Venice both the fantasy land usually portrayed in fiction and a very real place, almost a run-of-the-mill crime scene, although with certain key differences, as Brunetti reflects at one point:
Brunetti often mused that the crime rate in Venice was low – one of the lowest in Europe and certainly the lowest in Italy – because the criminals, and they were almost always thieves, simply didn’t know how to get away. Only a resident could navigate the spiderweb of narrow calles, could know in advance that this one was a dead end or that one ended in a canal. And the Venetians, the native population, tended to be law-abiding, if only because their tradition and history had given them an excessive respect for the rights of private property and the imperative need to see to its safekeeping. So there was very little crime, and when there was an act of violence or, much more rarely, a murder, the criminal was quickly and easily found: the husband, the neighbor, the business partner. Usually all they had to do was round up the usual suspects.
In Death at La Fenice, world-renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer is found dead backstage,
obviously the victim of cyanide-laced coffee. And when Brunetti reaches the crime scene, we get another important element in the success of this series: the canny vagueness with which its sleuth is conceived. Brunetti is tough but not very tough, shrewd but not very shrewd, and, in this case, cultured by not very cultured – perfect, in other words, for giving an intelligent but not intrusive viewpoint through which readers can watch the action unfold:
The dead man was as familiar to Brunetti as he was to most people in the Western world, if not because they had actually seen him on the podium, then because they had, for more than four decades, seen his face, with its chiseled Germanic jaw, its too-long hair that had remained raven black well into his sixties, on the covers of magazines and the front pages of newspapers. Brunetti had seen him conduct twice, years before, and he had, during the performance, found himself watching the conductor, not the orchestra. As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clutched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all signs of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.
As even these two examples make clear, Leon still had a thing or two to learn about smooth-reading prose back in the early 1990s. And the encouraging thing is that she did learn; with only two bumps that I can recall, the Brunetti mysteries got noticeably better as they appeared, giving loyal readers – and frequent cruise ship passengers – greater pleasure with every outing. The only losers? The poor inhabitants of Donna Leon’s fictional Venice! The moment Brunetti started solving crimes, the “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome” firmly took root: suddenly, bizarre and violent murders started happening all the time.
Once again I combed my few remaining hairs, donned pants, kissed my frail old dogs good-bye, and ventured out to the bi-monthly book sale hosted by the stalwart City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library, even though I need a sack of new books about as much as I need an attack of malaria. But this time, my customary route – take the creaky, eau de urine Orange Line to Back Bay, walk over the the library – contained a detour!
I instead went down to the vaguely post-apocalyptic bleak underground hangar where the commuter train from Parts West pulls in, and there I greeted my guests for the book-sale: Giselle Bradley and Chris Rhodes, each stellar Booktubers and together the stars of the Rhodes Vlog, their daily vlogging channel. They agreed to make a day of it in Boston, weather permitting – and since weather didn’t permit on Friday and weather isn’t going to permit on Monday, Saturday’s book sale seemed like a natural fit. Together, the three of us climbed the stairs to the Sargent Gallery, braced ourselves, and plunged into the extremely hot, cramped confines of the Cushman Room where the sale is now held, despite that grand old building having seven bigger, better spaces I can think of just off the top of my head. The sale in the Cushman Room is a little like participating in one of those old-fashioned fraternity stunts where all the brothers try to cram into a phone booth – only without the extra space.
Giselle and Chris are wonderful company just in general, but I always tend to forget how extra-wonderful it is to go to a big, interesting book sale with fellow book people. Once there’s some serious browsing to be done, book people simply do it – there’s no thought of keeping each other entertained, no thought of small talk, in fact no thought of talk at all. Instead, apart from quick periodic checking-in, each is off in their own world, searching for their own treasures, consulting their own mental lists, and, in the case of the Cushman Room, fending for themselves against the NBA-quality elbow-jabs of some of the less friendly natives. I took one from a 90-year-old lady that would have done credit to Bill Russell in his prime.
I filled a basket with my customary speed. Library book sales prompt the suspension of some of the rules that otherwise govern book-shopping, and I’ve long since stopped fighting this. At library book sales, whims are to be indulged to a far greater extent than elsewhere; past reading mistakes and omissions are to be generously corrected; and most of all, when the sojourn is over, minimal pruning.
As a result of such lunatic rules (as opposed to a rule like, say, “don’t go to library book sales,” which might just possibly make more sense considering how many books I get in the mail every day), I ended up with a small stack of books:
Blood Song and Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan – I first became aware of these two “Raven’s Shadow” novels a few years ago (and wrote a rave review of Tower Lord back in 2014) and have always been predictably mystified as to where my original copies went, so when I found them both in the Cushman Room’s steamy confines, I snatched them up. Too much to hope that Queen of Fire would be there as well, but maybe a kind-hearted publicist at Ace will be able to find a copy in their warehouse, if I ask nicely…
The Norton Critical Death in Venice – a necessarily slim volume, translated by Clayton Koelb with the usual generous selection of extras and critical essays in the back. I’ve of course been thinking of this novella as natural addition to my new Books … of Venice feature here at Stevereads, but even without such a feature, I just love the one-stop-shopping feel of Norton Critical editions, where you not only get a wonderfully annotated version of whichever book but also an intelligently-chosen spectrum of earlier responses to that work. It’s why I seldom pass up a Norton edition, regardless of how many other editions of the book I might have (*sigh*)
Honorable Justice – Sheldon Novick’s resoundingly good biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the perfect companion volume to Catherine Drinker Bowen’s more eloquent but less critical Yankee from Olympus. Up until just recently, I had a paperback copy of Honorable Justice – one that I never read, because a) the type was too small, and b) the binding was so cheap and tight that opening the book wide enough to write in the margins would have pulled it apart like an Oreo cookie. I got rid of that old paperback secure in the confidence that I would either find the Little, Brown hardcover some day or else somehow manage to live the rest of my life without any copy at all – but I’m happy it was the former!
The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller – Since Orbit Books was deaf to my repeated entreaties for a review copy of this book when it first appeared a couple of years ago, I never actually read it back when it was garnering a fair amount of word of mouth – so I was happy to find it in the Cushman Room for dirt cheap. It’s the first volume in Miller’s “Tarnished Crown” series, and off the top of my head I can’t recall ever seeing a second volume in the series, which might be an ominous sign. I’ll know soon enough, since another library book-sale rule I always follow is to read (or re-read) all the books I get there in fairly short order. I’ll report back here on Stevereads one of these days.
The Making of a Publisher – this industry memoir by Victor Weybright is subtitled “A Life in the 20th Century Book Revolution,” and the revolution in question is of course the paperback revolution, the new move by publishers to bring out cheap paperbacks of their titles in an effort to get far more of the American populace reading. Weybright was at the forefront of that revolution (the dust jacket of this hardcover irresistibly refers to him as “the Pepys of the paperback world”), but he was also a wonderfully gregarious wheeler-and-dealer in the book world just in general. I’ve never read this book in its entirety, just bits and pieces elsewhere, so I’m making it my special reward for finishing my next solid slab of deadline work.
The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All – For the longest time, I was of the firm belief that this big, fantastic novel would end up being one of many such big, fantastic novels that the reading world would have from Allan Gurganus – instead of what it’s turned out to be, his one and only big, fantastic book, his masterpiece, now 25 years old (it was one of the last books I reviewed prior to the start of the Donoghue Interregnum, for those of you keeping score at home). I originally read it in galley, then I read a finished copy when the whole book-world was talking about it, then I bought and read to little pieces the mass market paperback, and for the last few years I’ve been wanting to re-read it again, so this sturdy last-copy-I’ll-own hardcover showed up at just the right time.
The Line of Beauty – A contrast in opposites, this next one: when it originally came out in 2004, I was still mired in the Donoghue Interregnum – I got no advance review copy, no complimentary finished hardcover, nor did I bloviate about it anywhere in print or online. I just read it and loved it, and I’ve re-read it twice since it first appeared, which is a sure sign to me that I’m going to keep re-reading it and therefore need a nice sturdy hardcover for my shelf. I’m slowly, steadily triangulating toward a nucleus permanent fiction section in my personal library, the contemporary novels I actually like enough to keep. I figure on no more than 50 titles for that section, but these things are annoyingly fluid…
Samuel Johnson: A Biography – To put it mildly, I have plenty of books on, by, and about Samuel Johnson – including a neat thick hardcover and a neat thick paperback of Boswell’s famous Life Of. But the author of this book, Peter Martin, wrote a biography of Boswell himself that was such a marvelous combination of sympathy and scrutiny that I’ve returned to it over and over again – so I reasoned (if library book sale thinking can ever be dignified with that term) that Martin might be equally readable on Johnson as he was on Johnson’s famous biographer. This book originally appeared in 2008, so there’s no real accounting for how on Earth I missed it.
The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy – This look “inside the world’s most exclusive fraternity” came out in 2012, and I read it then and liked it very much – in fact, it made my Stevereads Year’s Best list, which you’d think would guarantee that I’d still own a copy a mere three years later … but nooooo. The instant I saw it at the BPL, I realized I no longer owned it … so I immediately plopped for it again, and with any luck this copy won’t disappear the way the last one did.
Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency by Charlie Savage – This one somehow slipped by under my radar last year, even though its general subject matter is of increasing interest to me. No idea why that happened – it’s not as though Little, Brown & I are quarreling! I must have requested a review copy at some point, and that request must have fallen between the floorboards somehow. As a result, the poor little tyke never had a chance to get on my much-coveted “Year’s Best Nonfiction” list – but that doesn’t mean I can’t make the time to read the poor neglected thing!
And there you have it! That was my BPL book sale haul for February 2016! Giselle and Chris likewise found a pile of goodies, although perhaps not so many, and all three of us quit the steam sauna that was the Cushman Room after having been there considerably less than an hour, I think. It was refreshing to step out into a bright, crisp winter day (refreshing too that none of our purchased books set off the tag-detector gates at the front door) and cool off with a little walk. You’ll never guess where I took them next. Here’s a hint: it rhymes with “rattle.”
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen before, take an earlier superb work of scholarship or translation and basically save it from obscurity by adding it to the Classics lineup. In our case today, the name of that obscurity would be Wayne State University Press, which in 2007 originally published Nancy Canepa’s translation of Giambattista Basile’s 1634 posthumous masterpiece, Lo cunto de li cunti, The Tale of Tales. That annotated translation now becomes one of the newest Penguin Classics, where it stands a greater chance of reaching the broad audience it deserves.
Basile spent all of his adult life as a Neapolitan freelancer, writing whatever the great or the powerful in the early years of the 17th century wanted to see from his pen, and the whole while he was collecting folk tales and legends, these “entertainments for little ones,” and writing them up in his tangy Naples dialect. Canepa does far more than any previous English-language translation to capture the lilt and raucous earthiness of that dialect – and she quickly dispels the notion that these stories were ever really intended for children:
That The Tale of Tales begs a sophisticated audience is quite apparent from the language in which it is written. Hyperbolic description, long-winded accolades, flamboyant metaphor, bloated word lists, endless strings of insults, and deformative citations of the most diverse authors and traditions can at times overshadow the bare storyline to the point of rendering it almost an afterthought. The way the tales are narrated is just as spectacular as what is narrated therein; episodes are memorable as much for how they are drawn as for the events they evoke.
In these pages, readers get early and vivid versions of such folk tale fixtures as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, as well as dozens of far less familiar – and more disturbing – stories, all told with gruesome, faux-pious relish and a real sense of the horrifying in narrative form. And all of Basile’s many digressions into obscurity are chased down and patiently annotated, like:
Anything immersed in the waters of the Sarno River, it was said, would turn to stone; can weeds were thought to have dangerous properties; sparrow feces was believed to cause blindness (as happened to Tobit in the Book of Tobit 2.17)
The “ash cloth” (cennerale) was used to cover laundry basins in order to contain the ash therein (which was used as a detergent); lye is also a common detergent.
I confess, I’d only read about but never read The Tale of Tales before I received this satisfyingly plump Penguin volume, and although I’ve never been a big fan of folk tales just in general, this collection kept me entertained from start to finish – mainly, I suspect, because our hard-working author was often just making stuff up and calling it ethnography (and as far as ethnography goes, it’s oddly comforting to see how little things have changed).
Our book today is from 1885: the Brief History of Rome put out in New York as part of the old Barnes’ One-Term Series that was designed to put short, affordable one-volume introductions to then-staple subjects like history, science, and language into classrooms in the state of New York (and beyond – many’s the tiny Cape Cod schoolroom, for instance, that absolutely swore by how wonderful the Barnes series were).
The series was created by A.S. Barnes & Co, and it followed a fairly standard plan: First, there’d be a general introduction to the subject – in this case, a neatly ringing one:
While Greece was winning its freedom on the field of Marathon and Plataea, and building up the best civilization the world had then seen; while Alexander was carrying the Grecian arms and culture over the East; while the Conqueror’s successors were wrangling over the prize he had won; while the Ptolemies were transplanting Grecian thought, but not Grecian freedom, to Egyptian soil; – there was slowly growing up on the banks of the Tiber a city that was to found an empire wider than Alexander’s, and molding Grecian civilization, art, and literature into new forms, preserve them long after Greece had fallen.
Then the authors picked for the volume – in this case, Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Steele (although it was Mrs. Steele who here did the enormous majority of the work) – would take readers on a brisk but conscientiously footnoted tour of their subject, a tour composed mostly of quotes from authorities arranged to form a narrative. And the whole thing would be generously illustrated, of course.
About half the authors quoted at length in this Roman History volume are ancient Roman authors – Caesar, Sallust, Livy (about whom we’re sweetly – and accurately – told: “Livy would at a glance distinguish the bold strokes of the forgotten poet [Fabius Pictor] from the dull and feeble narrative by which they were surrounded, would retouch them with delicate and powerful pencil, and would make them immortal”) and such, and the other half are historians who were contemporary to the Steeles – figures like Macaulay (but not for his histories, of course – it’s the “Lays of Ancient Rome” that get lovingly quoted), Alfred Church (who wrote a book called Roman Life in the Days of Cicero that could easily have fit in this little triptych), AJ Froude, and Philip Smith, each of whom is quoted on some aspect of Roman life, from the games to the city government to the endless wars by which Rome grew for centuries.
The quotes are uniformly well-chosen, often preserving bits and pieces of the eloquence of historians (and the occasional novelist) who are now completely forgotten, like George Taylor on that enduringly enigmatic ancient pairing, Hadrian and a certain teenage boy:
This lonely man, who remained incomprehensible even to friends and favorites, was devoted for a long time to a beautiful Bithynian youth, whom he loved as Socrates loved Alcibiades, and Caesar Brutus. This was Antinous, with whose busts and statues Hadrian had filled the world, and whose innocent features contrast strangely with the passion-seamed visage of the master, to whom he was the dearest thing in life.
This Barnes volume, like all the others, ends with pages of ads – mainly descriptions of other Barnes One-Term Series volumes the reader (or teacher) might want to purchase, on subjects ranging from architecture to Medieval history. It was a packaging and a strategy that proved very successful, especially since it embraced both the burgeoning mail-order catalog tactic of reaching previously tough-to-reach customers but also the burgeoning urban bookstore business. In fact, in the decades after 1885, A.S. Barnes & Co was able to use those combined tactics to build one of the 20th century’s biggest and most successful retail bookselling companies under a slightly different name. Which shows how much is possible if you make good, useful products and don’t talk down to your readers, possibly. Or it might have more to do with Roman-style gradual conquests of unsuspecting rivals …
Our book today takes us back once again to Ancient Rome, this time to the 1st century world of Pliny the Younger. It’s Maurice Pellison’s Roman Life in Pliny’s Time, in an 1897 English-language translation by Maud Wilkinson, with an Introduction by University of Chicago professor Frank Justus Miller, who’s pulling out all the rhetorical stops in order to entice the reader:
In a study of the national structure, it is difficult to realize that the state was built of men, and that these men had all the ordinary human interests that absorb so large a part of life in the present day. The ensuing chapters will assist in this realization as they describe the every-day life of the people. Such a study as the following chapters contain will be of value not only as it increases the reader’s store of fact, but chiefly as it leads to a clearer comprehension of the fact that all history is the history of men, and that the life of the state is the composite of the lives of all its citizens.
Still here? Good! Because once our stalwart academic has lured you in with heady promises that the book will be “of value,” you get Pellison’s lively account of life under the Antonines, a blessed period in human society during which, as Tacitus said, a man could think what he wanted and write what he thought. The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan, and social life in Rome and the cities and towns of that empire flourished. As a result, Pliny and his friends among the wealthy no longer had to fear being preyed upon by the royal family and its jumped-up thugs; it could get on with its proper business of enjoying itself.
Following the standard structure we’ve seen before, Pellison takes his readers into that day-to-day life. We see the details of life for men and women of the leisure class, we’re shown their fashions, and we’re given a tour of both their country-house getaways and their city homes. Those homes were conceived along different lines than most modern Western homes, with their front doors, doorbells, and big picture windows. This would have faintly horrified the Romans of Pliny’s day, whose houses tended to front the street with a fortress-like facade that hid the private life of the place entirely from view – an arrangement Pellison seems to like, in a way that makes me think he was often interrupted at his work:
The world enters freely into our houses, and when it does not enter, we try at least to view it through our wide-open windows. An ancient house, instead of looking toward the street, looked away from it. In short, the comparison between an ancient and a modern house is sufficient to show us that although family life among us may occupy more hours of a man’s life, it is less retired and less intimate than it was among the ancients.
As is the custom with books like this, Pellison follows his average well-off man of Pliny’s happy years out into the city, into the temples, the public baths, the crush of the markets, and of course the famous frenzy of the sporting world, where we find, to our relief, that the Hawkeyes are still and forever playing at Kinnick:
But the circus offered a more interesting sight than the spectacle, and that was the spectators. One must have been present at a bull-fight in Spain, he must have seen a whole population, as if out of their senses, now stamp with enthusiasm, now howl in anger, now applaud with all their might the bull-fighter, now fling at him a marvelous variety of insults; he must have seen the women throw their bouquets and even their jewels at the daring or skillful champion, cheer him and waft kisses to him, or hurl upon the coward or the clown the most unexpected weapons – he must have been witness of this delirium, which is so contagious, if he would form any idea of the conduct of the Romans at these games of the hippodrome.
The best part of Roman Life in Pliny’s Time, fittingly enough, are the chapters almost entirely devoted not to some idealized Roman example but to Pliny himself, with copious details drawn from his hugely engaging letters, details about every aspect of life. It’s those bits of Pellison’s book that most come alive, and when you’re done reading them, you’ll feel a distinct yearning to go and read the letters of Pliny in their entirety. I heartily endorse that yearning! He might have been a tedious apple-polisher, but he wrote some of the most interesting and entertaining letters to survive from the ancient world. In fact, a truly wonderful edition of those letters could be made by simply pouring them wholesale into the structure of Pellison’s book, while retaining all the charming illustrations. Somebody should get right on that.
Our book today hails all the way from 1925: A Day in Old Rome by William Stearns Davis, a wonderfully amiable educator and writer who brought out this book as a follow-up to his 1914 A Day in Old Athens, which surprised both its author and its publisher by actually selling briskly in bookshops. A part of this resulted from the publisher’s decision to load the volume with pictures and drawings – picking up a copy in 2015 (at the Brattle Bookshop sale lot, of course), pitted and faded with decades of sitting in somebody’s attic, hardly gives a hint of how impressive a brand-new copy looked to browsers in Boston.
But a bigger reason for the success of A Day in Old Athens and then later A Day in Old Rome is Davis himself: he had an unfailing ability to break down the distance between the past and the present, an unfailing ability to put faces and names on the dry records of history. He could beguile a dinner party for two hours at an easy stretch by invoking some incident from the past and investing it with all the energy and day-to-day believability of the present day – it’s no wonder his many students (in Minnesota, of all godforsaken places) all sang his praises.
“This book,” he writes at the beginning of A Day in Old Rome, “tries to describe what an intelligent person would have witnessed in Ancient Rome if they by some legerdemain he had been translated to the Second Christian Century, and conducted about the imperial city under competent guidance.” And in order to provide that guidance, Davis invents a well-to-do middle class couple, Calvus and Gratia, and follows them everywhere in the course of a day. We get the breakdown of hours, the mechanics of breakfast, the workings of their household, and the planning of how they’ll spend their time. We watch Gratia deal with the fashions of the day, with the drama of the household staff, with the visits of her lady-friends. And we follow Calvus out into the hurly-burly of the City – which isn’t always a pleasant experience, as Davis somberly scolds:
Another thing becomes obvious after a short scrutiny – the vast numbers of idlers. People are incessantly lounging up and down the street manifestly with nothing important to do. Hard work and common trade are, as later explained, by no means genteel; and many a Roman who possesses merely the threadbare toga has his name on the list for corn doles prefers living by his wits in busy idleness, fawning on the great, and hunting dinner invitations to doing a stroke of honest labor.
And when the day is done and the evening draws on, we watch Calvus and Gratia plan a dinner party – a formidable undertaking in any era, but with some elements that never change in their essence:
While one corps of slaves was passing about the wine, asking each guest whether “Hot?” or “Cold?” others were distributing wreaths of fragrant flowers, to put on the forehead and even round the neck (by their odor supposedly preventing drunkenness) and also little alabaster vials of choice perfumes which the guests immediately broke and poured upon their hands and hair. Then followed long conversations, grave or gay according to the mood.
Technical, specific research has superseded A Day in Old Rome just a bit here and there, but whenever I go back to it, I’m always impressed by solid the thing is: Davis imbibed his classics well at Harvard, and he built his books to last. It’s a shame his fiction is now long gone and never to return, but I’m glad enough to visit ancient Rome with him from time to time.
As many of you will know, I adore the “Booktube” neighborhood of YouTube, the chatty, clubbish neighborhood where book-nerds of all types post videos of themselves sitting in their bedrooms, talking to their cameras about the latest children’s books they’ve read.
Not all children’s books, I grudgingly admit, although the preponderance is so great it really ought to embarrass more BookTubers – virtually all of whom are voting, driving, bill-paying, hair-growing adults who should be reading Fitzgerald and Wharton and Welty instead of breathlessly summarizing the plot of Weirder’s Ink, the fourth in the Ink Empire series, and earnestly wondering whether Melissa will choose her grade school friend (and high school hottie) Tank or Prince Flariel of the Sideways Realm, who’s very stuck up but claims Melissa is the Chosen One.
But the choice of reading material notwithstanding (and there are plenty of BookTubers who sometimes choose more interesting stuff), one of the main attractions of BookTube for me is, rather unsurprisingly, the regular features of the place. BookTubers regularly make “haul” videos in which they share their most recent acquisitions; they make “wrap-up” videos in which they give a fair accounting of the books they read the previous month; they participate in “tag” videos in which they respond to a set of questions kicked into motion by some other BookTuber – and it all combines to create a very friendly, very inviting, very book-club feel, one that’s a little too dependent on the overly-mathematical frameworks of Goodreads for my tastes, but one that very refreshingly takes for granted a thorough, day-to-day engagement with books.
One of these regular features confused me for the longest time: the “TBR,” which stands for “To Be Read” and signifies the pile of books each BookTuber has on the mental equivalent of their nightstand table. BookTubers are in a perpetual, acrimonious battle with their TBRs; they hate but also love them, they create them, but they also feel tyrannized by them. And that’s the thing that originally confused me: their TBRs tend to just sit there.
I only belatedly remembered that each of these BookTubers has a life: friends, family, a job, a social life, school … they don’t simply devote their days and nights to reading. Even the strongest reader with the best of intentions, in such circumstances, will tend to carry over unread books from month to month – and even from year to year. Hence my confusion: I pretty much do devote my life to reading, and even back when I didn’t, when I worked at a big, busy bookstore, I still had the advantage of mostly keeping the company of quietly sleeping dogs – and of needing very little sleep myself. For me, a “TBR” is a “WBRRS” – a Will Be Read Real Soon pile, books to which I am lunging with a speed and directness my young BookTube friends can only simulate when they’re on vacation.
Even so! The allure of these regular features is so great that I’ve been indulging for a while now in creating the Stevereads equivalent of some of them. If I weren’t old and fat and smallpox-scarred, with a quacking New England voice and zero technical skills, I would almost certainly have tried my hand at BookTubing by now (although one young friend assures me that a) all the technology I need is on my iPhone, and b) it’s all intended for, ahem, “clueless old people”). But even without a camera and a snappy intro, I can still post a kinda-sorta TBR here on my intergalactically-famous book blog. And so: my February 2016 TBR!
Within limits, of course. Camaraderie or no camaraderie, I read roughly ten books in the time it takes most BookTubers to read one, for instance, and almost none of those books in any given month will be kids books. In the last four years, the proportions of my reading have shifted in favor of new books over old books and re-reading, so this TBR will consist entirely of new books – the happenstance of the thrift shop won’t play a part here. And of course there’s the single biggest difference between my TBR and that of my BookTube friends: I will have read every single one of these titles and many more besides by the time February ends. It’s still really a WBRRS pile.
But that nevertheless leaves a fascinating lot of books! There’s Fast into the Night, for instance, a new memoir of the Iditarod; there’s Dog Run Moon, the debut story collection by the, um, noticeably talented Callan Wink; there’s a steamy-hot Jaci Burton sports-romance; there’s a slim volume of the subversive poetry of Frederick Seidel; there’s a historical novel about poor maligned Lucrezia Borgia (a perennial fascination for me, since I’ve written Lucrezia Borgia fiction myself and know how challenging it can be); there’s the irrepressibly-titled In Bed with the Ancient Egyptians; there’s Bronte sisters pastiche fiction; there’s a book about Benjamin Franklin, a book about cave-diving, and a huge, gorgeous volume from the Belknap Press, The Annotated Lincoln. There are Penguin Classics, of course, including the juvenilia of Jane Austen and a new printing of Victory by Joseph Conrad. There are murder mysteries starring Jane Austen, Christopher Marlowe, and the city of Venice. There’s a beautiful book to accompany a new museum show of Gainsborough’s paintings. There’s John Wray’s dense, ambitious new novel, as different from his brilliant Lowboyas any novel could be.
And this being a TBR of mine, there’s naturally a phalanx of big books! A thousand-page history of the Holy Roman Empire! A thousand-page biography of Frederick the Great! A thousand-page history of the Abolitionist movement! A thousand-page analysis of capitalism and its woes! A thousand-page anthology of the writings of Goethe! These are all books I’ve read already, but they’re all due to appear in bookstores some time in February, and I’ll almost certainly re-read some of them.
Some I won’t re-read, I’m thinking. I don’t need to re-read a Wilfred Owen biography that royally irked me the first time I read it, for example, and Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar bored me so much the first time that I doubt there’ll be a second. And removing those two books from these piles doesn’t really prune much; since yesterday, when I took these photos, I’ve received sixteen more new books in the mail, a third of which have February release-dates. So these piles will be morphing and changing again tomorrow. These forty books represent a little less than half the total number of books I’ll be reading in February, but the month has just started – I expect to be collecting johnny-come-lately titles all the way to Valentine’s Day and working them in to the piles as they arrive.
But I’ll make the room for them. For every new February book I get, I’ll eliminate a gratuitous re-read from my month’s schedule. And possibly some of these pictured books will end up being too wretched to read (looking at you, Shutter Man…), which will free up yet more space in the rotation. If I were a real hardened BookTube-wannabe, I’d scrupulously record all such substitutions and replacements on some kind of Goodreads flow-chart.
As things stand, we’ll just have to see how things look on the first of March!
Our book today is A Prisoner in Malta by Phillip DePoy, out new from Minotaur books, the first in what I hope is a long series of adventures starring a young Christopher Marlowe.
Unlike so many actual historical characters who get pressed into service in whodunit novels – figures like Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, or, for Pete’s sake, Jane Austen – when it comes to Marlowe, there’s at least a very good chance that he had dramatic adventures while a teenager at Cambridge University about which we know tantalizingly little. Despite his chronic absenteeism, administrators of Cambridge were strong-armed into awarding him his degree in 1587 by Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, whose letter cited unspecified “good service” to the Queen – to put it mildly, not the sort of thing typically said about college students, then or now.
In this first adventure, DePoy wisely makes the same kind of decision Marlowe himself made when he started writing plays for the London stage: take no half measures. His Marlowe is a randy, handy dandy, a knife-wielding smart talker with a deceptively subtle imagination and a thinly hidden sensitive side. Bobbing in a vat underneath Universal Studios right at this minute is the slim-bodied wavy-haired dreamy teen actoroid who will be decanted, given a fake past in Plano, Texas, and cast to play this Marlowe two years from now if somebody makes the wise decision to adapt A Prisoner in Malta for Netflix.
In DePoy’s leanly-presented narrative, a threat to the life of Queen Elizabeth prompts her councillor Francis Walsingham to send her doctor Rodrigo Lopez to find and enlist Marlowe to investigate the case. Lopez is an old friend of Marlowe’s, and DePoy right off establishes a mentor-student Odd Couple banter between them:
“You give your thoughts too much tongue,” Lopez began as they walked in the direction of Old Court. “You give every man your voice when you should lend your ear.”
“You came here to tell me that I talk too much?” Marlowe threw his arm around Lopez.
“You’ve drawn too much attention to yourself,” Lopez said in a very confidential voice. “The way you dress, for example.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” Marlowe asked, not quite aware of his old friend’s strange behavior.
“All black. It’s too somber for a young man,” Lopez insisted.
“This from a man in a flame-red cape,” Marlowe shook his head.
“You lend your money too freely,” Lopez went on, “and you quarrel entirely too much.”
“But I always win,” Marlowe answered impatiently.
In short order, the two are on their way to Malta to save a man and perhaps thwart a wide-ranging conspiracy, and since DePoy is a seasoned pro at this sort of thing, it’s all handled smoothly, with zippy dialogue and solid amounts of research into the Tudor era woven more or less unobtrusively into the narrative, as when our heroes are crossing London Bridge:
Well over three hundred years old, not quite a thousand feet long, the bridge’s stone construction was wide enough to accommodate the coach they were riding in, and another to pass it. Supported by nineteen arches – coincidentally the same number as members of the Privy Council – the bridge felt as solid as a mountain. Still, Marlowe, roused from his sleep, had an uncomfortable, queasy feeling as the carriage jolted over the black water of the Thames.
The events at the end of the novel are clearly intended to signal those future adventures I’m hoping for. Here’s hoping they’re not long in coming.
Our book today is Venice: Birth of a City, a marvelous illustrated 1987 gem by the great Piero Ventura, whose picture books just brim with life and idiosyncratic charm. He opens his account of the earliest history of Venice with the customary hymn of praise and some basic geographic outlining:
Venice is the strangest, most fascinating and perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. It is built on an archipelago of over 110 low islets in the Lagoon of Venice. The islets are protected from the open sea, the Adriatic, by the Lido, a sandbar over 6 miles long.
Ventura starts off the old familiar story with terrified refugees seeking some kind of haven, even if they had to built one from scratch on open water:
So why was this city ever built on swampy islands in the middle of a desolate lagoon? The first Venetians were fishermen, hunters and boatmen who were skilled enough at navigating the maze of muddy banks and shallows to make a living. The real history of the city began in the fifth century. Frightened coastal dwellers fleeing barbarian hordes who poured into Italy after the downfall of the Roan Empire settled on these offshore islands. These refugees had lived in fine Roman cities. Here on the islands they started a new life, for the most part undisturbed by the Lombard invaders on the mainland. They drew close together and on the Rivo Alto (Rialto), a central lagoon township, Venice grew up.
On page after bright, inviting page (including a wonderful four-page fold-out to climax the whole tale), Ventura shows Venice during the successive intervals of her growth, from shabby wooden hovels to slightly less-shabby buildings of wood and primitive stone, to something approaching the elaborately solid and crowded city we know today, and all along the way, he fills his pictures with delightful details: children chasing each other, dogs and cats darting along streets, women gathered around fountains, and, in my favorite single shot, the city of Venice blanketed under a fresh snowfall.
He also gives us the city’s people – the artisans and craftsmen who not only made Venice habitable but made her clothes and jewels and glassware prized from London to the Ottoman Empire (we likewise see inside the intrepid sailing vessels that brought both craftworks and businessmen to all the ports of the known world). It’s an amazing feat: in just twenty pages, he manages to give as clear and comprehensive an account of the history of Venice as most other books (some of which we’ll see in future chapters!) can only barely manage in 200 pages – or more.
The format of Venice: Birth of a City automatically suggests it as a kids book, but like all the best kids books, it’s not age-restrictive in any way. Instead, it recounts a wonder in merrily transparent terms.
It’s such a satisfying feeling, to buy the new issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, slide it into the front pocket of my battered leather satchel, and know with complete certainty that I have absolutely subway-proof reading ahead of me. Each issue of Asimov’s costs $5 – and yet for that price you get, every single month, not only industry updates, book reviews, and a column by the great Robert Silverberg, but also a first-rate science fiction anthology (usually around seven stories). And thanks to the editorial team at the magazine, these quality pickings happen month after month.
I’ve never read an issue of Asimov’s while in calm repose here at Hyde Cottage. I keep it in my bag and read it exclusively while out and about the city of Boston, traveling by bus and subway, or waiting in line at the bank or post office. It’s a peripatetic periodical for me, very much in keeping with the spirit of its namesake, who in his heyday was a champion reader-on-the-go and whole lived in the New York public transit system like a genius loci (during that heyday, the most popular photo of him showed him hailing a cab with the flat-footed imperiousness of somebody who grew up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn). The result of all this occasion-prompted use is predictable: by the time I’m ready to buy the new issue, my old issue is battered all to Hell and gone. They’re read with love and gratitude, these issues.
February’s issue had plenty of good stuff in it but two unmistakable highlights. The first was the cover story, “The Charge and the Storm” by An Owomoyela. It’s about a young human woman named Petra living as an administrator on a desolate world in a community composed of both humans and their insectile alien hosts, the Su. Some of the humans in the colony are restless at what they see as their second-class relationship to the Su, and Petra is a natural object of their attention, since although she’s smart and idealistic, she’s also deep in collaboration with the Su.
The story is packed with enough complexity and human drama to fill a novel (indeed, in 2015 I read plenty of sci-fi novels that weren’t nearly as rich as these 28 pages), and it’s paced with occasional quiet moments in which Petra pauses to think:
Here in Third Cluster, there were patterns inlaid in the floor, murals, windows: all the things the human population did to make the colony habitable. There were windows through which you could see the roiling clouds – or the battered landscape, when the clouds lifted enough that the ghostly shapes of rocks and craters could be seen. Sometimes, Petra could see vast shapes moving in the distance, not quite the way the clouds moved, and wonder if they were some echo of the vanished ecosystem the Su had clambered out of.
Sometimes, Petra wondered what the hell the Su had done to this planet.
But my favorite story in this issue is “Exceptional Forces” by Sean McMullen, a lean and superbly chiseled story about an eccentric Russian astronomer who’s at a conference in order to deliver a bombshell of a paper: his findings that Earth faces imminent invasion from the conquerors of the Andromeda galaxy. When he’s invited the hotel room of a beautiful woman, the scientist is certain she’s an assassin hired by the world’s shadowy puppet-masters to prevent him from giving a talk that might alarm the general populace out of its complacency.
At first, the woman denies his accusation. But she quickly sees he’s too smart to fool and so confesses that she is, in fact, an assassin. But something about him fascinates her despite herself, and they soon start forestalling the inevitable by swapping secrets with each other, tit for tat. He tells her about the upcoming intergalactic invasion, and she tells him she routinely has sex with her victims before killing them. As their tense banter continues, McMullen does a wonderful job of shading in the growing fascination each is feeling for the other, and he keeps the surprises coming:
“My husband is impotent. It was a botched operation for a misdiagnosed prostate condition. I still want a sex life, so I only screw people I’m about to kill.”
A highly intimate secret, the sort that would only be whispered to the dead or dying, so probably true.
“You started with the prostate specialist.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bulged.
Spontaneous reaction. So it was a real secret.
“How – I mean … Who told you that?” she demanded.
“You spoke the words botched and misdiagnosed with particular venom. I am good at picking up nuances.”
She stared at me intently. It was not a glare of hate, but the stare of a master chess player who realizes her opponent is more than a talented amateur.
Surprise, mixed with intense concentration. Splendid.
“Your turn,” she said.
The two stories happily indicate the breadth of an average issue of Asimov’s – the range from intricate and sumptuously-detailed serious concept-driven science fiction to pure pulp adrenaline. My February issue is in smudgy tatters. Time for the March issue!