Our book today is one of those modern classics every reader should read: Annie Dillard’s great Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975. In these pages – part memoir, part natural history, part crackpot seat-of-the-pants philosophy – she muses on the natural world of her surroundings in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, an infernal region infested with biting blackflies and countless slithering poisonous vipers, but a region in which she nevertheless manages to find beauty and even poetry in almost every square inch.
In fact, sometimes quite literally in every square inch, as in the nifty moment when she takes a cup of duck-pond water (which looks “like seething broth”) and puts it under a microscope to see all the tiny creatures living in that universe. Like any sensible person, she finds these glimpses into that universe deeply, almost physically unsettling, but out of a sheer sense of wonder, she makes herself do it anyway:
Somewhere, I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it, I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I lift my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye.
This vertiginous hunger for perspective is one of the many things that makes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek such a perennially satisfying reading experience. Like Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall – “…if I could understand/What you are, root and all, and all in all,/I should know what God and man is” – Dillard’s little patch of the Blue Ridge yields an infinity of perspectives under her patient interrogation. No matter how many times I read this wonderful book (and I’ve read it and recommended it and handed it to people many, many times), I’m always impressed not only by Dillard’s rhetorical abilities but also by this willingness of hers to observe the entire universe unfolding around her, even when all she’s doing is sitting at the kitchen table:
A rosy, complex light fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days. From an explosion on a nearby star eight minutes ago, the light zips through space, particle-wave, strikes the planet, angles on the continent, and filters through a mesh of land dust: clay bits, sod bits, tiny wind-borne insects, bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, gravel dust, grits of carbon, and dried cells of grass, bark, and leaves. Reddened, the light inclines into this valley over green western mountains; it sifts between pine needles on norther slopes, and through all the mountain blackjack oak and haw, whose leaves are unclenching, one by one, and making an intricate, toothed and lobed haze. The light crosses the valley, threads through the screen on my open kitchen window, and gilds the painted wall. A plank of brightness bends from the wall and extends over the goldfish bowl on the table where I sit.
Chances are good that no matter where you live, there’s a used bookshop near you with a copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – if you’ve seen that copy (or the ones at the library) and wondered if you should read it, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Our book today is Elizabeth Bowen’s winsome 1960 glory of place-writing, A Time in Rome, in which she blends history and travelogue and memoir in an entirely successful attempt to capture in words what the Rome and its environs had meant to her for half a century.
As with everything else she wrote, whether it was smart, razor-sharp novels like The Heat of the Day, or The House in Paris or studied, intensely personal works of nonfiction (the best of which, Bowen’s Court, easily stands comparison Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles) – and of course the standard pile of uncollected, unremembered deadline book reviews that sparkle with offhand brilliance – as with all of it, A Time in Rome is virtually note-perfect despite having been written almost cold, and almost entirely for money.
In it, she doesn’t so much drag in chunks of history in order to fill out her own personal memories (a vice belonging to far to many travel-writers, in her own day and ours) as she personalizes the history, turning even long-dead eras into half-memories complete with vivid details drawn more from dreams than from the pages of Guicciardini. Who would have thought, for instance, that such a wicked old stick as Pope Sixtus V could have elicited such prose as she lavishes on him and his works:
God is praised in His works, praised in the instrumentality He has given man. Sixtus V brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful. Art harmonizes. His piazzei add wonder and size to daylight by containing it – so do lakes to water – and in the joy set up one’s spirit dances like David before the Lord. Nor was this all; he re-erected obelisks, bestowing them where the Rome reincarnating itself beneath his eyes came to require that they should be, and arriving, under God, each time and in whichever place (Piazza San Pietro, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, or where you will) at miraculous rightness in the relation between the height reached and the space dominated. (The nerve-cracking tensity of the operation, the actual getting into the perpendicular of the huge thing, hauled to the spot, recumbently waiting, death to be the penalty for the onlooker who so much as caught a breath or whispered a word, the sailor’s irrepressible cry of warning, the wetted ropes …)
The book is full of pressed memories, lost and largely silent moments in which Bowen’s narrator-self is neither musing on history nor brandishing her guide-book but simply turning over the pages of her fond memories. These are always my favorite moments in books like this, and it’s always irritating to think of cost-conscious publishers over the decades being impatient with this kind of passage. Bowen was fortunate in her publishers, so she was encouraged to woolgather whenever she felt like it:
I re-live an afternoon more than twenty years ago, when so much of the Palatine had not yet been excavated and stretches of it were bedded with blue irises. It was April. The idle yet intense air smelled of honey; Rome shimmered below with hardly a stir, and bluer than the sky were the Alban hills. There was a harmony between the distances. I was sitting on a broken ridge, reading and sometimes not reading a book. Low but clear voices, coming across the irises, told me that a couple who had been wandering had set down behind me – students, but their serious young tones; friendly lovers or loving friends, familiar with one another as with the Palatine.
I’ve spent what you might call a great deal of time in Rome myself, but the City never worked any magic on me comparable to what suffuses the pages of A Time in Rome – which is a big part of the reason I keep returning to this book. And even those two chosen quotes give a hint as to the allure the place had for Bowen: harmony is mentioned in both passages and many more besides, and I believe that’s what she thought she was getting from the combination of dirty old monuments and dirty young people that she found in Rome (plus her coinage went a lot further there, never a small consideration for an Irishwoman away from home). But however the book came about, A Time in Rome is strong enough and beautiful enough to go on the same shelf as Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days. It’s a shame that Bowen is now completely forgotten while some of her far less talented contemporaries are remembered and reprinted and anthologized and taught. But if ever a city prepares us for sic transit gloria mundi, it’s the Eternal City.
The latest issue of Vanity Fair had an amusing little one-page squib that managed to provoke in me an old and often-provoked reaction. The piece, called “Unsung Superheroes,” is written by Scott Jacobson, Mike Sacks, and Ted Travelstead (don’t ask me why – the thing is 300 not particularly taxing words long; I have no idea why it required even one credited stoned author, let alone three credited stoned authors), with an accompanying illustration by the great Zohar Lazar, and it presents readers with a lineup of D-rate superheroes to complement the A-list teams those readers have been seeing in movie theaters for a decade now.
There are characters like “The Bean Counter,” “Pop-Uppity,” “Mud-Slinger,” and, a hero who could have come in handy elsewhere in this issue, “Grammar Girl”:
Swoops in to save the day whenever frightened townsfolk desperately need to know who vs whom, that vs which, and just plain right vs wrong. Her modifiers never dangle and her voice is never passive. She has just the right effect. Or affect. She’ll tell you.
And why, you might ask, would a space-filling trifle such as this provoke any kind of reaction in me? Well, it’s a long story – nearly 25 years long, in fact – and I feel this same reaction whenever I see a D-list team of losers trotted out into the spotlight: I flash back to 1993.
Specifically, to Legion of Super-Heroes #49, written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum and drawn by Stuart Immonen. In that issue, stalwart Legionnaire Tenzil Kem, code-named Matter-Eater Lad (that’s his superpower, for those of you not up on your bits of Legion lore: he can eat anything), is on the planet Tartarus and preparing to face the dictator Evillo with a hastily-recruited band of local D-list superheroes, including Policy Pam, whose superpower is the ability to sell insurance to anybody, at any time, Echo-Chamber Chet, who loudly echoes everything that’s said to him, and my personal favorite, Spaceopoly Lad, who’s superpower is the ability to finish every game of Spaceopoly he starts.
And what reaction does all this provoke in me, you might ask? Not nostalgia, surprisingly – back in 1993, DC Comics still had sense enough to publish new Legion of Super-Heroes comics every month, something they haven’t done now in three long years. So you might be expecting the chain of associations to go something like this: Vanity Fair‘s “Unsung Superheroes” – Legion of Super-Heroes #49 – bring back the Legion!
But no – not only do I think for a second that there’s any chance of such a thing happening, but I’m not sure I’d want it to happen in the current DC continuity. No, my reaction is a far more straightforward capitalist whining: how the sprock can a quarter-century have elapsed without DC Comics dusting off and reprinting the entirety of the Keith Giffen-T&M Bierbaum era of the title, one of the best runs in the team’s entire 50-year history? Why are readers wanting to experience that run forced to grub through the single-issue boxes in the basement of their local Android’s Dungeon? Nice solid deluxe reprint volumes of these issues would sell – and they’d introduce a whole new generation of readers to the glories of one of comicdom’s grandest traditions.
I’m always pleased when one of my beloved lad-mags pauses from its barrage of plugs for $50,000 wristwatches and full-page ads for cigarettes in order to talk about books; it’s slightly encouraging to me, that the editors of these magazines sometimes think that in addition to grotesquely expensive status-symbol gimcracks and incipient lung cancer, young men should aspire to feed their largely empty minds with some good writing.
And it’s extra-satisfying when the writing those editors single out actually is good, as was the case in the latest issue of Men’s Journal, which devotes two pages to an interview by Darren Reidy with a mighty fine writer of both fiction and nonfiction, British expat Lawrence Osborne, author of a bunch of really good books, including The Ballad of a Small Player, The Wet and the Dry, and his terrific new book Hunters in the Dark. Lawrence Osborne lives on the outskirts of Bangkok, and his instant summary of the place when Reidy asks him about it aligns perfectly with my own memories of the place:
Well, it’s fucking hot. It’s 95 into the night, so I usually work after dark. It’s cooler, and you have the beautiful sounds of frogs and cicadas. I’m in a very jungly area here – mango trees, wild peacocks. It’s not the bright lights side of Bangkok, although all of that is very close by. So I work until around 2 am, and then I go down into the seething masses and get some street food, beers. Also, it’s very feminine here. At midnight, women outnumber men three to one on the street.
I could listen to Lawrence Osborne natter on about pretty much anything, but Reidy seems to zero in on his best subject right away – drinking – and asks him about drinking in Muslim countries, getting a typically blunt response:
Absolutely, and in all Muslim countries. Go to Bahrain on the weekend, when all the Saudis drive over. It’s like Caligula’s Rome. You can spend a weekend in a five-star hotel and listen to the Arab guys trashing their rooms. It makes Vegas look like a Salvation Army hospital. And then they all have to drive back on a Sunday night. Most of them are shitfaced, and they have to wait until they’re sober. Pakistan is like that as well. There’s absolutely no moderation in the consumption of alcohol.
It’s only with the final question that the interview made me grimace a bit. Reidy follows up that great revelation about hard-drinking Saudis by … well, I’m still not sure where this twist comes from:
Why the hypocrisy?
Clearly alcohol is a symbolic thing, because 40 years ago you could drink anywhere in the Middle East, no big deal. It’s some crisis in a world dominated by seemingly Western values. But why hasn’t that same crisis happened in Japan and Thailand? In the Far East, these cultures have been able to absorb Western influence without any neurotic fallout. They feel a level of security in their own culture, or they’re indifferent. But that’s just my opinion. I’m just someone who likes to drink.
Dominated by Western values? Why hasn’t the same crisis happened in Japan? This was all pretty confusing – it’s as if neither Reidy nor Osborne is even aware of the Iranian Revolution spearheaded by illiterate sociopath Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which one maniac and a small cadre of zealots managed to drag a modern-day country back to the 8th century, managed it mainly because the men who found themselves every day in those early weeks within arm’s reach of Khomeini – men who just a month before had been enjoying their weekly New Yorker, their I Love Lucy reruns on TV, and yes, their freedom to drink – didn’t simply kill the vicious old lunatic and hope his glassy-eyed followers then came to their senses. The fact that Saudi businessmen have to travel across state lines in order to enjoy themselves has nothing to do with the “hypocrisy” Reidy mentions, and certainly nothing to do with Osborne’s vague invocation “Western values.” It’s purely because of modernity-rejecting religious fundamentalism.
But you should all still read Hunters in the Dark. No Lawrence Osborne book, in fact, should be missed.
The latestNew York Review of Books, in addition to its usual spread of great reviews of books I haven’t read – the standout this time probably being Jacob Weisberg’s “We Are Hopelessly Hooked,” a review of a spate of new books on digital media that was full of great quotes (my two favorite: “We can’t just deal with the emotional toll of brutality on the Web by toughening up. We need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity” and “Even teenagers who don’t remember a time before social media express nostalgia for life without it,” neither of which is true but both of which are well-put) – had a mini-plethora of that peculiar phenomenon of the reviewing life: pieces about books I, too, have reviewed.
I’ve mentioned these echoes before here on Stevereads; they perennially fascinate me. In 2015 I reviewed a large number of books for a large number of venues, and my pace hasn’t been too shabby in 2016 either. But encountering a review by somebody else of a book I’ve reviewed myself is nevertheless always a strange feeling, a weird cross-current of confidence and doubt. The confidence comes naturally (a little too naturally, some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues might say) – I bring to every book I read every other book I’ve read, and I’ve midwifed enough books into existence to feel no reverence for them that they don’t earn. And the doubt comes from simple realism: I’ve been lucky enough in my life to know many better readers than myself – better readers, more subtle and sensitive readers. Hell, just in the present moment, look at my OLM colleagues, as strong a collection of readers as can be found at any literary journal in the world. Such reading company teaches the value of perspective.
You encounter another critic reviewing book you yourself have already reviewed, and you just naturally ask, “Did I miss something important? Was more going on there than I knew?” And of course you also quickly assess for tactical differences: does the critic in question have more space than you did? Is he an expert on the one key subject involved? And finally, most uncomfortably, you have to ask yourself: is this just a better review than mine?
I had several such encounters in this issue of the NYRB, although some were, to put it mildly, easier than others. When Tamsin Shaw, for example, reviewed a bunch of books on human psychology and not only included Steven Pinker’s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature but called it “extremely influential,” I can just instantly give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s never actually read the book, in which Pinker tortures enough statistics to come with a straight face to the conclusion that mankind is getting less violent as time goes on. I was first flabbergasted and then enraged by this book (it featured prominently on my Year’s Worst list that year), and I’d be dismayed to think it was having any influence on anything. I’m going to hope Shaw is wrong about that.
Equally easy was the quick mention Elizabeth Drew made of Jonathan Waldman’s Rust: The Longest War in an omnibus review she did of a slew of books on America’s crumbling infrastructure. She calls Waldman’s book “very readable,” and I concur: I liked it and would gladly re-read it this week if my copy hadn’t, you guessed it, disappeared.
It was also enjoyable to watch Eliot Weinberger grapple with two very different translations of the I Ching in his review of the recent translations by David Hinton and John Minford. I reviewed both of those translations and spent chunks of time in each case genuinely trying to understand even the smallest aspect of the venerable masterwork itself. In neither case did I undertake what Weinberger does so effectively here, a fast-paced tour of the work’s history in English-language translation, so this was a case of enjoying somebody else’s take on the books in question – or mostly enjoying it, since Weinberger breaks with his usual form by occasionally throwing up real clunkers. He says that the two translations “couldn’t be more unalike,” which is a distractingly donnish way to say they couldn’t be more different, and when he writes the line, “It is not difficult to recuperate how thrilling the arrival of the I Ching was both to the avant-gardists, who were emphasizing process over product in art, and to the anti-authoritarian counter-culturalists,” you stop listening to his historical points as soon as you hit that erroneous and downright weird use of “recuperate.” Which makes me wonder about the NYRB’s legendary cadre of copy editors.
A purer enjoyment came from reading Neal Ascherson on Their Promised Land, Ian Buruma’s gentle and glowing tribute to his grandparents. Ascherson is a terrific writer, and his opening gambit of drawing parallels between the story of Buruma’s grandparents and the family of Anne Frank never even occurred to me when I was writing my own review, and he moves his discussion very smoothly to the book itself:
It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read.
And of course it’s dicer – although not necessarily less enjoyable – when a reviewer goes easy on a book I walloped, as happens in this issue when Joseph Lelyveld reviews Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, a deeply flawed hagiography that Lelyveld calls “affectionate, sometimes gushy.” He writes quite correctly, “Not infrequently [Meacham’s] authorial distance from his subject shrinks to the vanishing point.” Which is a mighty polite way of saying Meacham lies in his book, often and enthusiastically. Lelyveld doesn’t quite accuse him of that, but for me, he makes up for his forbearance with some wonderful insights into the whole Bush clan:
More recently, the promise of yet another Bush, a prospective Bush 45, quickly flashed and then even more quickly dimmed. The latest chip off the old dynasty – George W.’s younger brother Jeb (sometimes spelled Jeb!) – hasn’t been able to keep up with the dark currents churning the party he seeks to calm and lead. There’s a spiral here. The way George W made the progenitor look good, Jeb’s campaign misfortunes have reminded some Republicans that for all his failings in office, George W was a winner.
Also in this issue were a few examples of a slightly different phenomenon, the circumstance where some other reviewer finds a way to wring an entire piece out of a book that left me flat-out uninterested. For instance, Arlene Croce does it superbly in her review of What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert’s recent history of tap-dancing – but that’s a subject for another ramble!
Just the other day, I happened to come across a disparaging comment about Fanny Burney (these are the kinds of circles I frequent, alas), and it’s stuck with me. The writer of the comment had no use for poor Fanny, remarking that the world would have been better all around if she’d never put pen to paper but had instead, as the commentator charmingly continued, busied herself at home with her chores.
The comment stuck with me in part because it could easily have been written in 1776. When Frances Burney, daughter of the noted author and musicologist Charles Burney, was born in 1752 in Norfolk, the idea that a woman could be a successful novelist was still almost entirely beyond the pale in the world of letters. And if there was going to be a trailblazer, young Frances certainly didn’t seem like a probable candidate. Not only was she shy and soft-spoken, but as was the custom at the time, she received virtually nothing in the way of an education.
But she had the run of her father’s library, and she was that most alluring of all things, a precocious autodidact. And somewhere along that private development, a storytelling fire was kindled inside her; she began to write. In a pattern that would later become familiar with female writers (right up until – and right after – Virginia Woolf imperiously calling for such women to have a little money and a room of their own), young Frances stole her composition time whenever she could, crafting a big, complex, and utterly fantastic novel in the nooks and crannies of her everyday life.
That novel eventually became Evelina, which was published anonymously in 1778. As Judy Simons writes, its humble origins gave no hint of its future:
So Fanny Burney had written Evelina furtively in her bedroom, in the afternoons when her domestic tasks were completed and in the early hours of the morning when no-one could accuse her of neglecting other responsibilities. She had begun the book while still in her teens and in collusion with her brothers and sisters had arranged for it to be printed as a prank, never thinking for a moment that its readership would extend beyond a few giggling schoolgirls in a circulating library.
Of course that didn’t happen; Evelina became a runaway bestseller and the talk of the town. It was followed in 1782 by what I consider Burney’s masterpiece, the irrepressible 900-page Cecilia, the first novel in thirty years to match the range, wit, and brilliance of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. It’s amazing to me how jam-packed this big novel is; it so ripples with shot and incident and sparkles with its author’s sardonic insight into human nature. Every paragraph is a joy:
Mr. Monckton, who was the younger son of a noble family, was a man of parts, information and sagacity; to great native strength of mind he added a penetrating knowledge of the world, and to faculties the most skilful of investigating the character of every other, a dissimulation the most profound in concealing his own. In the bloom of his youth, impatient for wealth and ambitious of power, he had tied himself to a rich dowager of quality, whose age, though sixty-seven, was but among the smaller species of her evil properties, her disposition being far more repulsive than her wrinkles. An inequality of years so considerable had led him to expect that the fortune he had thus acquired would speedily be released from the burthen to which it was at present incumbered; but his expectations proved as vain as they were mercenary, and his lady was not more the dupe of his protestations than he was himself of his own purposes.
She became second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte and entered thoroughly into the Court life. This was a plum advancement, and Queen Charlotte and King George III were quick to perceive the wonderful sharp humor and perception of this young woman in their midst. Technically, Fanny answered to a certain Mrs. Schwellenberg, a controlling little termagant with a territorial streak a mile wide. And throughout the experience, Burney kept a journal that’s every bit as energetic and quirky as her novels. She spares a sly smile for the Court’s punctilious etiquette:
In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke – but not cough.
In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have a vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if your nose membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel – but not sneeze.
And when she finally steels herself to leave the royal service, she tries to circumvent the dreaded Schwellenberg and break the bad news directly to the Queen in 1790 – to no avail:
The next morning, Friday, when again I was alone with the Queen, she named the subject, and told me she would rather I should give the paper to the Schwellenberg, who had been lamenting to her my want of confidence in her, and saying I confided and told everything to the Queen.
I now desired an audience with Mrs. Schwellenberg. With what trembling agitation did I deliver her my paper, requesting her to have the goodness to lay it at the feet of the Queen before her Majesty left town!
Mrs. Schwellenberg took it and promised me her services, but desired to know its contents. I begged vainly to be excused speaking them. She persisted, and I then was compelled to own they contained my resignation.
How aghast she looked! How inflamed with wrath! How petrified with astonishment! It was a truly dreadful moment for me.
She wrote two other novels, 1796’s Camilla and 1814’s The Wanderer, each brilliant in its own way, and all four novels were eagerly consumed by the widest possible reading public, from those originally-envisioned giggling schoolgirls to Edward Gibbon, who bragged to his friends about how avidly he read her. She was likewise read and admired by Jane Austen, the concept of whose career she made possible in the first place.
It would be vain to protest that Jane Austen’s fame eclipses that of Fanny Burney, since with the possible exception of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s fame eclipses that of everybody else. But what has always mystified me is the fact that virtually everybody’s fame eclipses that of Fanny Burney. Oxford World’s Classics, bless their bookish hearts, has produced some elegantly-done recent paperback reprints, but I’ve scarcely met a well-read person in my life who’s even read one Fanny Burney novel (I’ve long since stopped even asking about her journals). Most readers I meet have never even heard this author’s name, no matter how easily they can name the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and George Eliot.
And yet her books are wonderful! I, for one, am immensely relieved she didn’t pack up her writing things and get back to her housework.
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).