May 23rd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Power and the Glory!


power and the glory dust jacketSome Penguin Classics have been reprinted so many times in so many formats and years and fads that no further possible textual justification can ever be found for doing it again – instead, publishers have to think outside the book, have to look for nuances of presentation if they want to create something that feels a bit new. And if this is true for classics like Pride and Prejudice or fan favorites like Dracula – books that exists in billions of copies around the world and so, technically speaking, require no further reprinting – how much more true must it be for the millionth new edition of a flaccid and mordantly overpraised book like Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which has seen hundreds of different paperback reprint editions over the last eighty years while managing to deserve none of them?

It’s a tribute to book-designer Paul Buckley that he can make such an old familiar chestnut look so fresh and inviting. This latest Penguin Classics reprint of The Power and the Glory harks back to some of the very earliest Penguins by having an actual dust jacket, in this case one that overlays a vaguely ecclesiastical gilt-work over a black-and-white cover photo of a soldier squinting to take aim with his pistol – an apt combination of images, given that Greene’s novel is set in Mexico of the 1930s, when the government was using the military to hunt and persecute Catholics in the rough outlying districts where the story unfolds.

That story, as will be well-known to the legions of high school students who’ve had this thing inflicted on them when they could otherwise have been reading Starship Troopers, features an unnamed “whisky priest” who wanders through the aforementioned unnamed provinces in a seedy, alcoholic stupor, hunted by the authorities, suspected by the inhabitants, distrustful of his own faith. In more talented hands, such a plot might have been woven into a great novel (indeed, it largely was – and a free book to the first of you who can identify the resulting huge book, one of the greatest unsung novels in Mexico’s literary history). In Greene’s hands, it’s just another talky, disjointed dish rag of a melodrama, mainly propelled by brevity and snappy place-descriptions – in other words, it’s a thinly-disguised piece of travel-writing.

Greene, always balky at doing anything creative and hence always ready to recycle old material, had in fact already written just such a piece of travel-writing about the brief time he spent in Mexico, a 1939 book called Another Mexico. But according to John Updike, in his 1990 Introduction reprinted with this new edition, Greene, far from recycling Another Mexico (Updike persists in calling it Another Country, and as with so much of the swill he churned out in his career, he wasn’t edited), transformed it into art with a capital “A”:

The tone, too, is transformed: in Another Country Greene is very much the exasperated tourist, hating Mexican food, manners, hotels, rats, mosquitoes, mule rides, souvenirs, and ruins. He even inveighs against the ‘hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes.’ In the novel, as it shows a Mexican moving among Mexicans, and these generally the most lowly and impoverished, all querulousness has vanished, swallowed by matters of life and death and beyond.

Thus prepared for a transcendent novel in which “querulousness” has been purged away, readers will perhaps be surprised to find our man very much still in Havana:

The squad of police made their way back to the station. They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes. The little plaza on the hill-top was lighted with globes strung together in threes and joined by trailing overhead wires. The Treasury, the Presidencia, a dentist’s, the prison – a low white colonnaded building which dated back three hundred years – and then the steep street down past the back wall of a ruined church: whichever way you went you came ultimately to water and to river.

Maybe Updike – from his Montauk vantage point – could discern a meaningfullucy sniffs greene difference between ‘hideous inexpressive brown eyes’ and ‘black secret Indian eyes,’ but I sure don’t, and this kind of offhand garbage is waist-deep in so much of Greene’s boring, one-note fiction, including here in what Updike refers to as his “masterpiece.”

But, thanks to Paul Buckley, this is the prettiest paperback edition of that “masterpiece” you’re likely to find.

May 23rd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: the Holland Herodotus!


penguin herodotusSome Penguin Classics mark a melancholy succession, and works in translation are particularly vulnerable to this. The old cherished translations of great works – the Rosemary Edmonds War and Peace, the E. V. Rieu Homer, the Dorothy Sayers Divine Comedy, and so on – begin to feel almost imperceptibly dated around the edges. If they’re particularly beloved, the editors might attempt a facelift, bringing in some scholar to write a new Introduction and revise the old translation, maybe providing new notes. But such things are delaying actions only; generally speaking, every age tends to demand its own translations of the canon.

Which is an entirely healthy process, even I must grudgingly admit, but the ‘melancholy’ part comes in when the outgoing translation in question has been an old friend. And what older Penguin Classics friend do I have than the 1954 Aubrey de Selincourt translation of the Histories of Herodotus? As I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, I’ve lived and traveled with the de Selincourt Herodotus to such an enormous extent that the book feels like a part of me. Seeing it dropped from the Penguin Classic lineup can’t help but be shocking, even if it’s being replaced with something very good.

Luckily, in this case it’s being replaced with something very good. Something better, in fact, than I originally thought. When Tom Holland came out with his translation of Herodotus a couple of years ago, the thought that it might one day replace my Herodotus in the Penguin line perhaps made me a bit defensive. But I’ve had a chance to live with the Holland translation since then, revisiting it in part or in whole as a conscious schooling decision whenever my hand just automatically reached for the de Selincourt.

It’s grown on me, this Holland translation. I like it’s straightforward conversational style, which starts immediately in the Translator’s Preface:

Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians. Indeed, he is as entertaining as anyone who has ever written – historian or not. He has been my constant companion since I was twelve, and never once have I grown tired of him. His great work is many things – the first example of nonfiction, the text that underlies the entire discipline of history, the most important source of information we have for a vital episode in human affairs – but it is above all a treasure-trove of wonders.

And I like the way Holland’s dialogue (and Herodotus is simply crammed with dialogue – more, percentage-wise, than we get in War and Peace) is often more natural and less arch than the stuff de Selincourt so often produced in pages from memory. Take the poignant moment when Croesus, the beaten king of Lydia, gives the lucy reads the holland herodotusravenous Persian King Cyrus some ironic insight:

Then he turned, watching as the Persians devastated the Lydian capital, and opened his mouth at last. ‘O King, should I say what has been on my mind, or is this not an appropriate time to speak?’ Cyrus told him not to be afraid, and to say whatever he wished. Croesus responded with a second question. ‘What are they doing, all these rampaging hordes?’ ‘Why,’ said Cyrus,’ they are tearing your city to pieces, and carting off your treasures.’ But Croesus turned this statement upon its head. ‘It is not my city they are tearing to pieces, not my treasures. None of it belongs to me any more. It is you who is being robbed.’

And if I needed any extra convincing, I certainly got it in the form of his gorgeous new Penguin Classics “Deluxe Edition” paperback designed by John-Patrick Thomas. Its pages, its binding, its lovely black and burnt orange color set … de Selincourt never looked this good. It seems a little too pretty to take along on travels, but those days are over too, so I don’t mind.

May 22nd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Magna Carta!


penguin magna cartaSome Penguin Classics are legitimate scholarly landmarks. Not as many as you might expect, and for the clear reason that the overriding purpose of any classics-reprint line is actually the opposite of originality: a new Introduction here, a pretty new cover there, but the heart of Dover, Signet, Bantam, Penguin and all other reprint lines is mainly to present the familiar, not the new.

Penguin excels in this, of course. Their editions of classics both well-known and, shall we say, speculative, are lovely, handy, and efficient; when I want to re-read a canonical work of which I have half a dozen editions (*sigh* – don’t get me started), I almost invariably reach first for a Penguin Classics. But typically, if I want a scholarly, critical edition of a canonical work, I hunt down some other edition – the Norton Critical War and Peace, for instance, or the John Shawcross edition of Milton’s poetry, and so on.

There’ve been exceptions: the recent three-volume edition of the Arabian Nights, for instance, or the recent David Norton edition of the King James Bible. And to that short, distinguished list must now be added Penguin’s meaty new edition of the Magna Carta, the famous charter King John’s barons wrung out of him in June of 1215 on a field at Runnymede. Magna Carta itself winds down in well under 4000 words, but this new edition, edited by David Carpenter, is nearly 600 pages long, and such a staggering discrepancy would seem to defy justification. But as Carpenter points out early and often, the elaborate extent of the critical attention is well warranted by the sheer bombshell importance of the document itself:

The Charter’s impact in the thirteenth century was actually very great. Its arrival does mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in English history. For a start, the efforts at publication and enforcements meant that the fact of the Charter was enormously well known. Even for those who knew merely the fact and not the details, the fact was massive, for it embodied the basic principle of the Charter. The king was now subject to the law. This idea had, of course, a long pedigree, but now its truth was proved in a document of unimpeachable authority and overwhelming fame.

Carpenter’s edition of Magna Carta is a stunning scholarly performance from start to finish. The document is presented in all its sniveling glory, with English-Latin facing pages, but the glory of Carpenter’s endeavor is its consummate contextualizing. After the presentation of the text (copiously annotated), Carpenter writes what amounts to a political and social biography of King John and his times. We get wonderfully readable discussions of Magna Carta and the poor, Magna Carta and women, Magna Carta and English law, Magna Carta and the monarchy, Magna Carta and subsequent ages, and a dozen other historical permutations.

All this great surging current of scholarly support works to present the entire world and significance of Magna Carta in one elegant paperback volume, so it’s perfect for students coming to the subject for the first time, but it also digs as deeply as a great many works of specialist scholarship, so it’s perfect for readers who come to the volume already knowing something about the subject. That’s no mean feat of scholarship, and Carpenter makes it look easy. And occasionally, there are even some lucy reads the magna cartavery faint hints of skepticism about holy worth of Magna Carta itself:

The Charter has indeed become one of the most famous documents in world constitutional history, regarded as a fundamental protection against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. In some ways, this illustrious history is as undeserved as it was unintended. Magna Carta, as originally conceived, certainly did not offer equal protection to all the king’s subjects. It was, in many ways, a selfish document in which the baronial elite looked after its own interests.

That hint – that the substitution of twenty, thirty, a hundred armed and mercenary tyrants for one single tyrant might not have been a purely good thing in “constitutional history” – isn’t extensively pursued, since the aforementioned illustrious history isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But Carpenter’s towering achievement in this volume is the best thing on Magna Carta to appear in this 800th anniversary year of King John’s capitulation to his subjects.

May 21st, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Centurions!


penguin centurionsSome Penguin Classics maintain a gruesome kind of relevance, which is surely part of what’s behind the publisher’s decision to bring Jean Larteguy’s 1960 French bestseller Les Centurions back into print, here ushering the book into the Classics line with the Xan Fielding translation (as The Centurions) and a Foreward by Balkan Ghosts author Robert Kaplan, who’s also something of a go-to expert in the deadly rag-tag counter-insurgency methods and mind frames highlighted throughout the novel. Given 2015’s 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon – and given the wars of insurgency currently embroiling half of Africa and half of the Middle East – that gruesome relevance couldn’t be more evident.

The Centurions taps into the seeping disillusionments of the French experience in Indochina by setting up a very satisfying straw man scenario in which stereotypically valiant 20th century soldiers – here epitomized by heroic French Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, who survives a brutal Viet Minh POW camp and thereby learns first-hand the brutal efficiency of unstructured guerrilla tactics – first hate and then embrace a new kind of warfare made up of irregular fighting, improvised tactics, and unsparing ruthlessness.

The tension between conventional and guerrilla warfare was never as simply reduced as that, and Larteguy – the pen-name for a soldier who served in both Korea and North Africa – knew that quite well. In his sprawling, seedy, violent novel, he plays a very sophisticated game of shifting illusions, as his core cast of French paratroopers taken prisoner in Vietnam learn and unlearn everything they thought they knew about their profession. And Kaplan, after his Foreward’s bumpy start (in which he writes, “Conventional modern war, which Napoleon did so much to define and institutionalize, with its formalized set-piece battles and vertical chains of command, has mainly been with us for little more than two centuries” – a statement that would have bewildered professional warriors from Alexander the Great through William the Conqueror and right up to Field Marshal Montgomery), targets the novel’s appeal:

Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half measures, fought against an enemy that respected no limits. More than any writer I know, Larteguy communicates the intensity of such frustrations, which, in turn, create the psychological gulf that separates warriors from both a conscript army and a civilian home front.

Some of Larteguy’s warriors fancy themselves directly connected to their illustrious past, as when idealistic Captain Philippe Esclavier, escaping the drunken revelry of his colleagues, refreshes himself in the cool desert night of North Africa while leaning against an old Roman Legion landmark and dreaming of the past. “The centurion Philippe Esclavier of the 10th Parachute Regiment tried to think why he, too, had lit bonfires in order to contain the barbarians and save the West,” Larteguy writes. “’We centurions,’ he reflected, ‘are the last defenders of man’s innocence against all those who want to enslave it in the name of original sin …’”

Less noble and cinematic but far truer to the book’s essentially ugly ethos are the nighttime ravings of Lieutenant Lescure after the defeat of the French army at Dien-Bien-Phu, when in his madness he glimpses the new reality in which he and hislucy and the centurions comrades find themselves:

It was a great procession of the damned who were making their way to the seat of the Last Judgement; angels had lit their torches so that no one should escape in the dark. Enthroned high above them sat the god with the huge belly and eyes as round as millstones. In his claw-like hands he grabbed the humans up by the fistful and tore them apart in his teeth, the just and the unjust, the pure and impure, the believers and the unbelievers alike. All were acceptable to him, for he hungered after flesh and blood. Every now and then he gave a solemn belch and the angels applauded with a shout: “Long live President Ho!” But he was still ravenous so he also devoured them; and even as he snapped their bones between his teeth, they kept on shouting: “Long may he live!”

Kaplan points out in his Foreward that The Centurions has been a cult classic of serving military men since its initial appearance, and it’s not hard to see why, although the knowledge is intensely uncomfortable. It’s a dubious thing, being a classic of war-fiction.

May 20th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The River Between!


penguin river betweenSome Penguin Classics look so darn elegant in their special anniversary editions, which certainly applies to the 50th anniversary reprint of The River Between, the lean and powerful 1965 debut novel by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, here presented with a new Introduction by Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala and sporting a gorgeous cover photo by Nigel Pavitt, with the whole production opening with a “message” from Chinua Achebe welcoming the reader to the Penguin African Writers Series. This is the fourth of this author’s novels to join the Series (although it’s probably still to early for the induction of his 2006 masterpiece Wizard of the Crow).

Iweala’s Introduction is earnestly passionate, although reading offers the same kind of uphill struggle the reader faces on virtually every page of Beasts of No Nation: namely, it can be a trial to be lectured quite so sententiously by somebody who’s young enough to be my grandson (if a quick mental calculation is correct, our revered authority has only just crept out of his twenties). Penguin ran into this same problem a few years ago when they commissioned a teenager to write the Foreward to a John Steinbeck book, and things are only a little better here, with Iweala assuring us that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer who’s “profoundly allergic to the simple” and lapsing quite often into lines like this:

It is not an easy text, primarily because it advocates abandoning many assumptions that the postcolonial African (which is to say every living African) has about the struggle for freedom and the institutions that structure everyday life.

I believe the native Kenyan term for that kind of stuff is twaddle, but even twaddle is preferable to thinly-disguised self-promotion. “Writers,” Iweala intones at one point, “have never been an easy lot. More than anyone – except perhaps soldiers or mercenaries – they thrive on conflict, viewing it as an integral part of any society.” Apart from the fact that a good fifteen occupations spring instantly to mind that “thrive on conflict” more than book-writing, there’s also the convenient fact that the main character in Beasts of No Nation is a mercenary. Wouldn’t want to be undercutting our own PR, now would we?

In fact, it’s a jarring jump to move from this Introduction written by a young man to the novel itself, which was written by an even younger man and yet never indulges in either bloat or self-congratulation. Re-reading The River Between is every bit as knife-edge uncomfortable now as it was the first time I read it, right around the time Uzodinma Iweala’s father was teething. This is a novel of only about 150 pages (a lifetime ago, such things were called novellas, according to the rule of a cherished and now long-gone Harvard fixture, who maintained that a short story was a work you could read in one sitting and that a novella was a novel you could read in one sitting “provided there’s tea”), but the London Guardian was right (though a trifle condescending) to say it “sometimes touches the grandeur of tap-root simplicity.”

The river of the title, the Honia, flows between two ridges in Kenya, and the ridges are occupied by two very different villages of the Gikuyu tribe, Kameno and Makuyu. The dividing issue is the newly-introduced Christianity, which will eventually come to divide the villagers, some wanting to embrace the new faith, others wanting to stick with their ancient tribal customs.

Caught in the middle is the book’s main character, a noble young man named Waiyaki, the rising star of the Gikuyu tribe. Waiyaki is on the brink of manhood, a time when “the hidden things of the hills were being revealed to him,” and, after a stint away from home in a prestigious secondary school, he returns ready to undergo his “second birth” in the tribe’s ritual of circumcision, a harrowing scene that’s presented with crystalline lucy reads between two riversbrevity:

All his life Waiyaki had waited for this day, for this very opportunity to reveal his courage like a man. This had been the secret ambition of his youth. Ye, now that the time had come, he felt afraid. He did not, however, show it. He just stared into space, fear giving him courage. His eyes never moved. He was actually seeing nothing. The knife produced a thin, sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering. Around him women where shouting and praising him. The son of Chege had proved himself. Such praises were lavished only on the brave.

The plot tangles further with the introduction of both family tensions (the relationship between Waiyaki and Chege is still, for my money, the most memorable part of the novel) and the forbidden love of the wrong young woman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o plays it all very expertly against the impassive backdrop of the great ridges of the land itself (“they just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator”). It’s a moving, brittle performance, just about as impressive a start to any literary career as could be imagined – and it’s great to have it in the Penguin Classics line at last.

May 19th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Enchanted April!


penguin enchanted aprilSome Penguin Classics have perfect timing, and this neat new reprint of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s beloved 1922 bestseller The Enchanted April is a great example. If it had actually reached me in the month of April here in Boston, with the skies still black, the days still freezing, and the streets and parks still piled ten feet high in snow, I’d have come down on the slim little thing like ton of proverbial bricks, and I’d have started off with a deeply sarcastic “Some enchantment” or perhaps even “I’ve got your Enchanted April right here.”

But instead, it reaches me in late May, when Boston is turning green again at last, when the nights are still five-blanket freezing cold, but the days are increasingly bright and sunny and souls withered to apple cores by the worst winter in recorded New England history can start to take some comfort from the pages of this perennial charmer.

A perennial charmer with a new Introduction by Brenda Bowen, author of Enchanted August, a contemporary re-imagining of the book. Bowen is a true believer in the book, obviously, and she’s a very spirited cheerleader in her dozen pages:

It’s a confection, it’s a dream, it’s a fleeting April romance, but oh, how hard to get this story out of your head. Who doesn’t long to find a place where one can shine like the sunlight? A place filled with lilacs and local wine and truest love, where we can all at last turn into the best versions of ourselves? Such a place is The Enchanted April’s San Salvatore, where mischievous Puck, with his midsummer violet love potion, would not have been out of place. Lovers come together and part and come together again. Scales fall from eyes. Sunlight and moonlight play tricks. All is forgiven. No one can come away from this April without thinking, even for just a moment, that the course of true love, unsmooth as it may run, is certainly worth taking.

The novel’s story is disarmingly simple: two women taking refuge in a reading room on a filthy London afternoon spot an alluring advertisement in the paper:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April.

They’re both of fairly straightened means, but with the unexpected teamwork of two other women – likewise total strangers, to each other and the rest – they actually take the chance and take the castle, and in the chapters that follow they slowly, gradually loosen themselves and learn about each other. Our author manages these congenial little transformations with such wonderful skill that the whole performance looks effortless, and her technique varies perfectly from crisp dialogue to swooping character

late-night reading
late-night reading

analysis and back:

‘It’s a good thing, of course,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot a little hesitatingly, ‘to be independent, and to know exactly what one wants.’

‘Yes, it saves trouble,’ agreed Lady Caroline.

‘But one shouldn’t be so independent,’ said Mrs Wilkins, ‘as to leave no opportunity for other people to exercise their benevolences on one.’

Lady Caroline, who had been looking at Mrs Arbuthnot, now looked at Mrs Wilkins. That day at that queer club she had had merely a blurred impression of Mrs Wilkins, for it was the other one who did all the talking, and her impression had been of somebody so shy, so awkward that it was best to take no notice of her. She had not even been able to say goodbye properly, doing it in an agony, turning red, turning damp. Therefore she now looked at her in some surprise; and she was still more surprised when Mrs Wilkins added, gazing at her with the most obvious sincere admiration, speaking indeed with a conviction that refused to remain unuttered, ‘I didn’t realize you were so pretty.’

Brenda Bowen is right to cheerlead this warm, inviting book, and it’s a joy that Penguin has inducted it into the Classics line.

May 18th, 2015

Mystery Monday: Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls!

mystery monday header

Our book today is actually a re-read, though you’d never guess to look at it! Just recently at a library book sale (about which more soon) I came across a paperback called Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by R. S. Downie. The author’s name sounded vaguely familiar (as familiar as it possibly could to somebody as bad with author names as I am), but it was irrelevant anyway, since one of the many rules of library book sales is that something called Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls must always be bought. So I added it to my pile and eventually lugged it all the way back to Hyde Cottage, where it was soon churned through the combine of my book-intake process, where every new books is handled, submitted to the dogs for inspection-licks, inscribed in pencil with a small sigil so that I can tell at a glance that a certain book was once mine (the greatest extent to which this has ever worked was when I was browsing a used book stall in Paris and found a book I’d originally bought used in Hermosa Beach, California – the journeys books take utterly fascinate me), noted in the utterly useless and never-consulted written inventory I keep, and then released into the animal sanctuary that is my personal library, never to be seen again.

It was during this process that I read through the first few chapters of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls and immediately knew that I’d read it before (author names might be trouble for me, but I try never forget content). This is Medicus, which I actually wrote about here on Mystery Monday last year! Same book, different, much, much, much better title.

This is the UK edition of the book, whose title makes it sound much more like the involving adventure story it is, rather than the American title, which makes it sound like the pimply-faced younger brother of Quo Vadis.

And the humor of the thing doesn’t stop with the different title: right there on the front cover is a simulation wax stamp bearing a tempting offer for all those browsers in the Julian Forum: “As Good as Lindsey Davis … Or Your Sestercii Back”! The puckish publisher elaborates:

If you genuinely disagree that Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls is not as good or better than any scroll (or book) published by Lindsey Davis then please send a wax tablet (or letter) inscribing the reasons for your dissatisfaction along with your copy of the book to … etc. …. The Purchaser is responsible for all messenger trials and tribulations (postage and packaging costs) incurred in sending the book.

That had me chuckling even before I decided to re-read the book itself, and it also had luso reads rosome reflecting on the differences between the American and the British markets, since some friendly palaver like that would be utterly impossible in hyper-litigious America. It wouldn’t be out in the marketplace ten seconds before some American was suing the publisher not for his money back but for payment in actual Roman sestercii, claiming emotional damages in the range of four million dollars and promptly putting the publisher out of business. Needless to say, boring old Medicus came with no such offer.

And as unscientific as it no doubt is, I enjoyed the book better this second time around because it had a better title. Go figure.

May 16th, 2015

Romance Roundup: May 2015!

romance roundup

Our books today take the standard elements of romance novels – the he, the she, the chemistry, the complications, etc. – and add in just about the last ingredient you’d think any romance novel would need: the supernatural. I realize that supernatural romance is still (and possibly forever?) all the rage, but it’s always seemed to me that simple ordinary everyday romance itself is plenty complicated and confusing enough, without werewolves and pixies popping out of the woodwork to spoil those tentative first-date plans.

pather prowlingStill, the gambit is unaccountably popular, as the first of our new romances today amply demonstrates. Panther Prowling by Yasmine Galenorn (Jove) is seventeenth installment in this author’s “Otherworld” series, in which our everyday world of bed & breakfast & Botox & blowj- er, bonding is laid over a mystical realm called Y’Eirialiastar, or Otherworld, a place inhabited by dozens of varieties of supernatural beings. It’s the home of our heroine in this latest outing, a were-cat named Delilah D’Artigo, who’s also the head of a private investigation firm and heavily involved in her sister Menolly’s renovation and rebranding of her new supernatural hangout, the Wayfarer Bar & Grill, which has been redone with plenty of touches of home:

Despite all the Earthside trappings, everywhere I looked, I could see touches from Otherworld, giving the Wayfarer an exotic feel. Star crystals from the mines of the Nebulveori Mountains. Woven lattice tapestries from the shores of Terial, the Eastern Port on the Mirami Ocean. And sand-cast urns holding dried flowers, potted from the dunes of the Sandwhistle Desert. The Wayfarer Bar & Grill had become a beautiful hybrid between the two worlds.

Menolly is also a vampire who’s married to a were-puma, and this is exactly what I’m talking about: any single one of these things could keep a novel busy, but in Panther Prowling, we get twenty on every page. Maybe my disorientation was increased a bit by the fact that I haven’t read an Otherworld novel in years (not since Shadow Rising back in 2012, I think), but this time around even Galenorn’s snappy dialogue couldn’t keep me from longing for a few more FBH (that’s full-blooded humans to you).

That’s much less of a problem with our next book, Rising Fire by Terri Brisbin rising fire cover(Signet Eclipse) for two reasons: first, despite the occasional mystic eccentricity, the book is almost exclusively populated with full-blooded humans living in the real world – in this case, 13th century Scotland, and second, it’s the first book in a new series, so there’s none of the frantic sidelong catching-up that poor Jasmine Galenorn needs to do on every page. Instead, we can get straight into the book’s plot, in which a young woman named Brienne of Yester is living with a an unnatural empathy for fire:

The flames flared higher before her and she could not resist the urge to look deeper into them. Brienne tried to fight their call, tried to fight the strength of it, but lost the battle. She inhaled slowly, trying now to control the fear that simmered in her belly while she moved closer to the fire’s heat. As it called to her, icy tendrils slid along her skin in spite of the heat of the smithy. Shivering and sweating at the same time, she lifted trembling hands from her side and held them out.

It naturally gets her talked about, especially when it blossoms into full-blown pyrokinesis. This prompts the nearest king to assign his best chain-mailed super-hottie, William de Brus, to go and investigate – which, in Brisbin’s confident handling, not only opens the way to romance but also sends the plot into some grippingly dramatic – and yes, supernatural – twists and turns. It’s good cheesy stuff, coming to you without baggage.

binding ties coverThe same can’t be said for our final book today, the promisingly-titled Binding Ties by Shannon K. Butcher (Signet), the ninth of this author’s “Sentinel Wars” novels (following last year’s Willing Sacrifice). The book continues her long-running saga of the war between the heroic Theronai and the, um, sinister Synestryn, with Slayers and demons thrown in for good measure and ordinary FBH practically an afterthought.

This latest chapter features (in addition to a sword on the cover – they’ve all got swords on the covers!)(and gerunds! They’ve all got gerunds in their titles!) the prickly, almost-doomed romance between a Slayer named Lyka Phelan and the Theronai leader Joseph, who’s drawn to her despite having quite a bit else on his supernatural plate:

The grinding pain behind his eyes – his constant companion – grew worse with each problem heaped on the pile. He wasn’t even halfway through his twenty-year term as leader of his people, and th strain was already tearing at him. He bowed under the weight of all the lives that depended on him to be smarter, stronger and deadlier than their enemy. Of all the hundreds of things he needed to accomplish, dealing with a petty human squabble over a children’s class should have been so far down on his list of priorities that he couldn’t even see it … and yet, here he was, drawn into it – not by a sense of duty to the human parents, but instead by the idea of seeing the female Slayer who took up far too much space in his thoughts.

Like Galenorn, Butcher is an old hand at juggling all the details of her extended universe, although she’d need to be an octopus to juggle so much baggage with 100 percent efficiency: despite her best efforts, Binding Ties is really for SFO (Sentinel Fans Only, duh)

May 14th, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Petty in the Penny Press!


Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, tls1and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:

Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.

That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:

Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.

And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:

British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.

And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:

At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.

There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.

If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.

Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:

Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.

Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fanstls2 and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …

It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:

Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.

The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.

Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.

May 12th, 2015

The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday

the vanished pomps of yesterdayOur book today goes by the quintessential Steve-book name of The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, an utterly delightful 1920 “diplomatic memoir” by Lord Frederic Hamilton, a minor younger son of the Duke of Abercorn who could expect little in the way of any inheritance and so entered the British diplomatic corps and duly shuttled around the world from legation to legation, having a great many adventures that are polished in these pages by Hamilton’s enormous storytelling skills.

And he starts off his reminiscences by looking back wistfully on some legations that have vanished in the harsh light of the modern world:

The tremendous series of events which has changed the face of Europe since 1914 is so vast in its future possibilities, that certain minor consequence of the great upheaval have received but scant notice. Amongst these minor consequences must be included the disappearance of the Courts of the three Empires of Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, and Austria, with all their glitter and pageantry, their pomp and brilliant mise-en-scene. I will hazard no opinion as to whether the world is the better for their loss or not; I cannot, though, help experiencing a feeling of regret that this prosaic, drab-coloured twentieth century should have definitely lost so strong an element of the picturesque, and should have permanently severed a link which bound it to the traditions of the medieval days of chivalry and romance, with their glowing colour, their splendid spectacular displays, and the feeling of continuity with a vanished past which they inspired.

“A tweed suit and a bowler hat are doubtless more piratical for everyday wear than a doublet and trunk-hose,” he writes. “They are, however, possibly less picturesque.”

Tweed suit or no, Lord Frederic manages to find quite a few picturesque situations as he travels from England to Russia to Berlin to Vienna to Tokyo to Lisbon. He’s caught in “the attire of Adam” in a legation in Brazil; he encounters shoals of pirahna; he attends bullfights and tiger hunts (and a Russian choral performance with Arthur Sullivan), and he sees the busy people of Russia setting up temporary taverns and tea houses on the frozen Neva once the ice was thick enough – and reflects on the oddness of the sight:

A stranger from another planet might have imagined that these buildings were permanent, that the fir trees were really growing, and that wall the life on the frozen river would last indefinitely. Everyone knew, though, with absolute certainty that by the middle of April the ice would break up, and that these little houses, if not removed in time, would be carried away and engulfed in the liberated stream. By May the river would be running again as freely as though these temporary edifices had never been built on it.

We sit down with him while he eats all the exotic meals of the day; we suffer with him when he’s swarmed by mosquitoes; he shudder alongside him at the sight of enormous alligators lolling in the shallows – indeed, when he declares simply that the three things he hates are “sharks, snakes, and earthquakes,” who can argue? What traveler hasn’t felt the same?

Like in his other books (this author really deserves to be back in print – he scarcely knows how to write a dull sentence), Lord Frederic routinely breaks into broader observations that are always interesting, grounded on experiences that were exceptional even for his fellow world-travelers of the day. His summings-up are a lucy reads hamilton 2particular favorite of mine:

I have seen most of the surface of this globe, and I say deliberately, without any fear of contradiction, that nowhere is there anything approaching Rio in beauty. The glorious bay, two hundred miles in circumference, dotted with islands, and surrounded by mountains of almost grotesquely fantastic outlines, the whole clothed with exuberantly luxurious tropical vegetation, makes the most lovely picture that can be conceived.

Lord Frederic frames his book explicitly with a mild lament for a vanished world, little guessing how much of the tweed suit and bowler hat world he looked upon when he wrote this book would likewise vanish, particularly after a war that would dwarf the “tremendous series of events” so fresh in his mind. Reading through these wonderful pages, I couldn’t help but reflect that diplomatic memoirs like this one have likewise almost disappeared from the world. Maybe not vanished pomps, but vanished all the same.