This moment was bound to happen. It’s been approaching steadily for years, of course, and its tread has been especially audible in the last few months. But lots of other reading gets in the way, and the torrent of books never lessens, and it was easy to get distracted.
But then the moment comes: the first issue of the New York Review of Books with somebody other than Bob Silvers as Editor. The man in charge now is Ian Buruma, and his first full issue arrived in the mail as quietly and unassumingly as Buruma himself. I didn’t even think about it at first as I settled in with the issue; in the back of my mind, I was just reflexively thinking about “waiting periods” and “transition times,” and then as I was turning pages it hit me: no, the transition is over. This is an issue of the NYRB with neither Barbara Epstein nor Bob Silvers.
The first thing I noticed was the thing that felt most disloyal: had I not known, I would never have known. That same NYRB indispensable magic was right there on every page. The great Anne Applebaum writing about regressive European politics; Jenny Uglow writing about 18th century history (in this case a new book about the thoroughly odious Hans Sloane); James Fenton, here writing about an art exhibit; Luc Sante writing a fantastic piece on the late John Ashbery. There were other names – Francine Prose, Tim Parks, John Gray, Darryl Pinckney (at one remove: a reprint of the fine introductory essay he provided for the new NYRB volume reprinting the collected criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick), Diane Johnson – and there will be more names, in upcoming months. Each piece on the Table of Contents had that same marvelous NYRB quality of being a little world unto itself.
There’s a distinct element of magic to a quality like that, and magic is the most perishable of the arts. I’ve been an editor for a long time, and a part of me was just always assuming that, depute the enormous talent-pool of the NYRB, despite the store of literary good will it’s amassed over the decades, such magic was an editorial creation. I’d been assuming that Bob Silvers was creating and sustaining it, that it was a vision more than a Standard Operating Procedure … and that, inevitably, it would die with him.
And yet here it was, in this new issue. Classics professor Hayden Pelliccia does a fantastic job reviewing two new translations of the Iliad. China specialist Andrew
Nathan reviews three new books on China’s complicated and growing role on the 21st century’s international stage. Larry Wolff reviews a new production of Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse writes a searing piece on women’s rights. And the generally reserved historian Max Hastings writes a review of Michael Korda’s new book Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory and Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk that bristles with sadness and anger over Brexit:
After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
Even after I realized that I was reading the first Ian Buruma issue of the NYRB, I just kept reading, the slow, silent shock of it building but not intruding. I jumped around from article to article as my interest took me, and it wasn’t until I circled back to Benjamin Friedman’s review of a new book on the idea of universal basic income that I reached a little grace note I could no longer ignore. Friedman is a Harvard economics professor with a deep expertise on his subject, and I learned a lot from his review. Then I got to its final footnote:
This essay was suggested by my long-time friend Bob Silvers. I am sad that he is no longer here to give it the benefit of his wisdom and incisive editing. I miss him.
That’s when I stopped. That simple line, “I miss him,” stopped me completely. It made me identify the sadness that had been building as I read: it wasn’t that the NYRB had either radically improved or radically worsened with this issue, with “Bob Silvers,” a tireless caretaker who lived and breathed the magazine, now somehow reduced to a few words of fine print at the bottom of a couple of pages (seeing his name down there on the masthead next to Barbara Epstein’s, each one now with the two sets of dates, very nearly broke my heart). Instead, it was that the NYRB hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still varied, it’s still incredibly smart, it’s still a full meal of a reading experience.
It makes sense. After all, Ian Buruma treasured the old NYRB as much as anybody. No doubt his own imprint, his own kind of magic, will become evident as the issues go by, but for now, here’s the New York Review of Books, being its same old excellent and woolly and challenging and fascinating self. It turns out all that was possible without Bob Silvers ensconced behind a pile of galley copies in his office at one in the morning willing it all into existence. That should be a note of hope. In time it’ll certainly feel that way. But I finished this issue very nearly in tears.
Some Penguin Classics serve as enjoyable reminders that more things in Heaven and Earth fall under the heading of “classic” than the usual lineup of Dickens and Austen. Penguin has always been good about this, and in the last twenty years or so they’ve improved even on their own track record, sometimes with questionable results (Wellington’s military dispatches? The Domesday Book?), and sometimes with cheering ones (never too soon for the complete back-catalogue of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance), but the latest example feels long overdue for the American Penguin catalogue: it’s Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.
This book surely holds the record for the sheer number of different editions accumulated before its canonical black-spine Penguin Classics debut. Since its first appearance, it’s been a hit with readers – a success that was only amplified by the 1975 Peter Weir movie adaptation (a still from which serves as this edition’s cover illustration). An entire generation of Australian readers grew up with this novel, which is set on a hot, bright summer day in the year 1900. Some young women from Appleyard College for Young Ladies are taken on a picnic, driving some distance to wild, secluded Hanging Rock. “Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool,” the text laconically tells us, “they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon.”
Three of the young ladies decide to hike up the rock. Readers have already been given ample hints by the author that this is probably not a good idea. Even while the picnic party is still on the way to its destination, the first view we get of Hanging Rock itself is wreathed in ominous language:
Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.
The three are never seen again, and that deceptively simple fact is the engine that drives the entire book: what exactly happened at Hanging Rock that day? Right from the start, readers wanted to know the answer, and they were not-so-subtly nudged in that direction by the Sphinx-like note Lindsay attached to the beginning of the book:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the character who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
Needless to say, a note like that was bound to increase exactly the kind of curiosity it pretends to want to calm. Readers trekked out to Hanging Rock, and they pored through all available old newspapers in search of some hint of a genuine disappearance around which Lindsay might have built her story. It’s pretty clear from even a single reading of the book that this was exactly the reaction its author wanted to inspire, a slow-boil confusion of reality and fantasy exactly mirroring the strange events of that picnic day. The move gives the whole story a delicious element of folk-tale: Three Young Women Disappear – The End.
After a lifetime of doing other things, Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in her sixties, and she wrote it at a dash, finishing the manuscript in a matter of weeks. And she herself was endlessly quizzed by readers about possible real-life resolutions to her story, including questions put to her by perhaps her highest-profile reader, as we’re told in the brief Introduction written by novelist Maile Meloy:
The mystery of what happened goes unsolved in the novel, and Lindsay remained elusive about the possibility that it was a true story. When director Peter Weir asked her for the film rights to make his 1975 movie adaptation, he was warned not to ask if there had been a real disappearance, but he did anyway. Lady Lindsay – her husband, Daryl, had been knighted for services to the arts – said she hoped he wouldn’t ask again. So Weir asked instead if the question of what happened to the girls was open-ended. Could they have fallen down a hole or been abducted by aliens? She said yes, it could have been any of the above.
(Meloy includes the detail that Lindsay’s original manuscript actually included a final-chapter explanation, which the manuscript’s editor cut – perhaps on grounds of its excessive loopiness, although there’s also no denying that the book is much stronger without a solution regardless of what that solution is).
It was a bit sobering to encounter Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in a 2017 American-edition Penguin Classic, but that’s exactly what I did, and I loved both the book itself and the experience of for once being squarely in the recipient-zone for Penguin’s great mission of spreading the word. It was both exciting and oddly humbling to know I was reading for the first time a book that had already been read, re-read, and loved by thousands and thousands of people, a book that’s a canonical classic in a country I’ve never visited and will never see. It’s been the highlight of my recent Penguin-reading experience.
Our book today is a sweet bit of sweaty, skate-boarding adolescent relief: Alex Rider: Never Say Die, which represents the long-awaited return of writer Anthony Horowitz to writing the adventures of his signature creation, “the world’s greatest teen spy,” Alex Rider – who, we’re told, is 14, 5 foot nine inches in height, brown-eyed, and British. Left unstipulated by nonetheless obvious: cool. Alex Rider is cool – he’s unflappable, low-key stylish, and far more capable in a tight spot than most punk shrimp 14-year-olds tend to be. Even at his tender age, he’d been recruited by MI6 and trained in all manner of action-hero skills, and in Horowitz’s hands he’d gone through one after another over-the-top adventures, beginning with 2000’s Stormbreaker and running all the way to 2013’s Russian Roulette, a prequel that was the last that Alex Rider’s millions of devoted fans saw of him.
Horowitz went on to other things, writing novels for the adult-readership market (including really very good The Magpie Murders), and the Alex Rider novels were at a classic Reichenbach Falls moment: our young hero, pushed past his limits, had been forced by dastardly operatives of the evil organization known as SCORPIA to watch the apparent murder of Jack Starbright, the woman who had all but raised him and been his mentor in All Things Super-Spy:
Alex was tied to a chair, unable to take his eyes off the television screen in front of him. Wires had been attached to different parts of his body: his neck, his fingers, his forehead, his naked chest. He could feel the chill of the air-conditioning against his skin. But there was something even colder in the room. It was his own terror. Razim and Julius Grief were about the murder the person he most loved, and they were forcing him to watch.
Alex survived, of course, but he was completely burned out on the spy business. He left the ranks, enfolded himself in anonymity, and became just your ordinary everyday student at Elmer E. Robinson High School in San Francisco, intent on being a normal teenager for the first time in his life. His host family, his friends, his teachers – none of them has any idea about his superhero past, and he preferred it that way.
It seemed like a neat ending, and at the time, I liked it: the dream of this young hero who’d fought such outrageous comic book villains all across the planet and in space, this super-cool but self-effacing operative escaping from hairy death-traps and succeeding where far more experienced agents had failed – it made a neat kind of sense that the thing he’d want most would be the very thing his fellow teenagers take for granted: their ordinary, everyday lives.
But as much as I might have agreed with the symmetry of the thing (and its potential for out-of-sequence additions to the series, as Russian Roulette was), I missed the series. And now Horowitz, praise be, has at last decided that he’s not quite done with the character, and so, thanks to the folks at Philomel Books, not only are all the original novels being re-issued with eye-catching new covers by the great Larry Rostant (one of the biggest mysteries of the original printing of this series, a mystery even sharp-as-a-tack Alex Rider couldn’t solve, was why the covers were so Gawd-awful boring), but a new novel, Never Say Die, actually continues the series – our young hero is called out of his very, very early retirement by pretty much the only thing that could do it: the possibility that Jack Starbright isn’t dead after all (if Alex were much of a reader of spy thrillers, he’d have been impatiently waiting for this plot twist rather than surprised by it).
At once, readers are plunged back into this frenetic world Horowitz has created, a world of cutting-edge science, snappy dialogue, sudden reversals of fortune – and, of course, all new super-villains, including one who quite literally just fell off the turnip truck:
The woman’s real name was Dragana Novak. She was forty-six years old, and until recently she had been a lieutenant colonel in the Serbian air force; a highflier in every sense of the word. Her career had ended following a drunken fight with another pilot. He had been twice her size, but even so, she had put him into the hospital. In fact he was still there. Inevitably, there had been a court-martial, and she had been looking forward to an uncertain future – perhaps a return to the turnip farm where she had been brought up. That was when she had received the telephone call. There was a unique job opportunity. It would pay two hundred thousand dollars a day for two days’ work. Was she interested?
Dragana is of course very interested, and soon an advanced new helicopter is stolen in broad daylight, the hordes of SCORPIA are on the rise, the clues about Jack Starbright get more and more pointed, and maybe, just a little, Alex Rider realizes that normal, everyday life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The result is worth cheering about: the return of one of action-fictions best good guys, now a ripe old fifteen.
Our book today is the kind of lavish surprise that occasionally rewards the faithful: a big, heavy, ornate new 75th-anniversary edition from Black Dog & Leventhal of Edith Hamilton’s rock-solid, endurably reprinted classic Mythology. Subtitled “Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes,” the book retails all the most famous stories from Greek and Roman mythology (with a sprinkling of Norse myths as a cool dessert at the end of the book). Everything is here, from biographical sketches of the Olympian gods to renditions of the quest for the Golden Fleece, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, the Trojan War, and of course the Labors of Hercules, which Hamilton guides readers through with her customary pithy clarity:
Story after story is told of his adventures He fought the river-god Achelous because Achelous was in love with the girl Hercules now wanted to marry. Like everyone else by this time, Achelous had no desire to fight him and he tried to reason with him. But that never worked with Hercules. It only made him more angry. He said, “My hand is better than my tongue. Let me win fighting and you may win talking.” Achelous took the form of a bull and attacked him fiercely, but Hercules was used to subduing bulls.
She introduces every story with a concise appraisal of where it comes from, which classical sources she’s using as the basis for her accounts. “This story is told only by Apuleius, a Latin writer of the second century A.D.,” she writes about the story of Cupid and Psyche, for example, “It is a prettily told tale, after the manner of Ovid. The writer is entertained by what he writes; he believes none of it.”
This lovely new anniversary edition features both half-tone spot-illustrations and full-page full-color pictures by Jim Tierney, and as delightful as many of this artwork is, the sight of it will flatly halt all long-time fans of Hamilton’s classic book – gone is the austere, glorious black-and-white illustrations of Steele Savage, illustrations that have fired the imaginations of generations of Hamilton’s readers. As for Hamilton herself, she sums up her own task: “After all, when one takes up a book like this, one does not ask how entertainingly the author has retold the stories, but how close he has brought the reader to the original.” As usual, she was being too strict; readers will indeed ask how entertainingly the author has retold these stories … and as this new hardcover reminds us, this author never fails, even after 75 years.
Our book today is exactly as advertised: Treat!, a collection of incredible photos by Christian Vieler of dozens of dogs, each caught in the act moment of lunging for a thrown treat. It’s an inspired idea along the lines of Seth Casteel’s best-selling Underwater Dogs, and its inspiration rests on the same elements: not only spontaneity but vulnerability. Vieler’s Introduction does what introductions do by hysterically overselling the goods on display, but his heart’s in the right place:
After developing more than 500 snapshots, I now know these photos that some people think are ugly actually bring these dogs closer to our hearts. In that momentary shot we are able to experience our best friends as we seldom do in real life. We recognize their panic, joy, fear of loss, sheer desire, and the very pinnacle of enjoyment – something we only experience from other human beings. The dog reveals a human side while nevertheless remaining a dog.
This is mysterious, to say the least – anyone who’s ever spent any time around almost any kind of animal from a parakeet to a pig to a dog to a horse has experienced panic or joy or fear or loss or sheer desire or enjoyment in them at some point; it’s hardly a thing that’s only experienced in other people. And likewise to say the least, dog owners have encountered their dogs in these exact moments many, many times – who hasn’t tossed their dog a treat solely to watch their ecstatic attempt to snatch it out of the air?
But that doesn’t diminish the sheer, infectious wonder of these beautiful photos, which are made all the more glorious by the fact that they aren’t by any means all success stories – we get clean catches, near misses, and catastrophic failures, and all in such unguarded earnestness that Treat accidentally serves as antidote the squeaky-clean too-perfect dog books that fill the bookstores at this time of year. On page after page, these are the dogs we all know and love: dorky, needy, and of course constantly hungry.
Our book today is certainly a visual treat: it’s the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens with deckle edges, French flaps, and an eye-catching wrap-around cover by Tom Haugomat, who faithfully signposts the novel’s most famous imagery: a boy in a graveyard, figures in a boat, sooty London, etc. This edition opens with an Introduction by English professor and Victorianist Tanya Agathocleous, who does her best and yet still sounds fairly exhausted:
At once haunting, moving, and hilarious, Great Expectations is a novel not easily forgotten. Along with its doomed romances and dramatic revelations, the novel is also memorable for its engagement with pressing social issues of the day, such as the transportation of convicts to Australia, the alienating nature of urban life, and the harshness and corruption of the justice system.
And is it any wonder? Not only has Great Expectations been reprinted 40,000 times in 40,000 editions since it first started appearing in serialized installments in 1860, but it was exhausting even before those editions, Dickens pumping away at full, shameless volume in order to boost the circulation of his magazine, All the Year Round. He had every reason to write purple prose at speed and without even the serious thought of reflection or revision; he knew exactly the kind of hyperventilating caricature-prose his readers would line up to buy, and in Great Expectations he delivers it in great slopping buckets.
A caustic old American critic half a century ago, having managed to reach early middle age without having read Great Expectations and then finally buckling down to it (for a paid piece on the book’s 100th anniversary, naturally), was for years fond of quipping, “I know novelists love to be Dickensian, but honestly.” But hard-core fans – this author has always had them and always will – will love ogling this new edition.
Our book today is a romance novel revolving around the US football season and so by rights ought to feel like an autumn book. But Jaci Burton’s The Final Score, one of Burton’s “Play-by-Play” sports romances, features a Claudio Marinesco cover and enough hot-and-heavy bedroom action to make it a last-day-of-summer reading experience.
The basic template of the book’s plot will be familiar to anybody who’s read any of Burton’s dozens of earlier novels: a strong-willed man, usually a sports star of some kind, and a strong-willed woman, usually striking out on a new entrepreneurial chapter in her life, are powerfully drawn to each other and fight against it on purely rational grounds, knowing that they’re wrong for each other – until their attraction overcomes their reservations. At first The Final Score seems to be slotting itself directly into that pattern: Mia Cassidy has started a new career as the founder of a sports management company, and it’s brought her into contact once again with San Francisco Sabers star Nathan Riley. Mia and Nathan have been friends for a long time, and years ago in college they indulged in a bit of the aforementioned hot-and-heavy bedroom action. That aberration was never repeated; instead, Mia and Nathan became close, supportive friends.
But Burton is very good at digging into her romances and veering them off their expected tracks, and this starts happening right away in The Final Score. Romance novels in which the lead characters talk about not wanting to endanger their friendship by adding sex aren’t exactly rare in any publishing season, and they tend to share the same flaw: from the first page, you can practically hear the writer impatiently drumming her fingers, eager to shred that flimsy friendship facade and get to the pawing and mawing. Burton herself has been guilty of this in earlier novels, including earlier “Play-by-Play” books. But this time, she makes the friendship between Nathan and Mia so believable that the tried-and-true romance-reader’s instincts will be jolted a bit off balance: they’ll be rooting for the friendship and worried about the pawing and mawing.
A large part of the book’s magic derives from this happy inversion, and Burton makes it feel concrete by having Mia and Nathan believe in each other even more than they desire each other. In one scene, with no motivation other than purely being supportive, Nathan rushes to banish Mia’s doubts:
“Mia, I’ve never known anyone as loaded with self-confidence and drive as you. While other people our age were content with living off their parents or staying in school for as long as possible, you’ve been determined to forge a career for yourself. You came up with this amazing idea, and despite how daunting it was, you ran like hell with it. And not only did you run like hell with it, you spent a year putting it all together. So you didn’t rush into anything.”
Mia’s just as supportive in return, although her scenes tend allow more of Burton’s signature oddly snappy dialogue:
Nathan’s gaze was hot as he looked at her, from her face to her body and back again.
“It’s been three years since that night, Mia, and you know what? I’ve never forgotten a minute of it.”
“We were drunk that night.”
He undid the buttons of his shirt, then shrugged out of it. “Yeah, we were. I still remember all of it. How beautiful you were. You’re even more beautiful now.”
So was he. He’d always been lean and muscular, but he’d added some weight and more muscle. He was taller, more imposing. But she’d never felt threatened or powerless when she was with Nathan. He always made her feel safe and cared for.
She reached out and spanned her hands over his wide chest. “You’re beautiful, too.”
One corner of his mouth lifted. “You’re supposed to say I’m strong and muscular.”
“Yes, that, too. But there’s a beauty in the way you’re sculpted. You work so hard to achieve this strength. I admire it.”
When two main characters support and admire each other so fulsomely, you’d be within your rights to expect that the balance of the book would be fairly boring, but Burton hasn’t forgotten the deal implicit in that Marinesco cover: when Mia and Nathan finally decide to find out whether their rock-solid friendship can withstand the addition of bedroom romping, they throw themselves into the project with the skill and tenacity of the Army Corps of Engineers. But the best thing about The Final Score is that most readers will actually be very satisfied long before the lights go out.
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noticed on rare occasions in the past, are quietly awe-inspiring, and this certainly applies to a new addition to the line, The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, edited by Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, who also write the volume’s introductory essay. The Penguin Portables are always highlights of any reprint season, but this one is outstanding even by the series’ own standards: it collects dozens of writings from fifty-two black women whose life stories encompass the whole spectrum of ways they overcame the most formidable obstacles their era could erect. As Robbins and Gates point out in their Introduction (the Introduction comes across as decidedly drab, but then, alongside the rhetorical fire being thrown by the women in this anthology, almost any contemporary writing would come across as drab), all these writers had one central motivation – to make their own voices heard:
The fifty-two writers who appear in this anthology demonstrate a will to engage intellectually, in print, with the world, with other women generally, and with each other individually. These women writers looked at the world around them, before and after Emancipation, and resolved to speak out, to grapple with the political and social fact of their existence, and to begin to articulate the foundations of black feminist thought, wide ranging and far seeing.
The selections range from fiction to polemic to poetry to drama, and the authors range from illiterate slaves to wealthy freeborn sophisticates, from well-known names like Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth to obscure figures, some of whom are only just recently being brought to light after a century of living in footnotes. And the timing of the excerpts likewise varies, with writings from fugitive writers, Reconstruction writers, and writings from the heart of the American Civil War, as in the case of Charlotte Grimké, who published a ringing series of dispatches in 1864 in the Atlantic about her time teaching newly freed slaves on the Sea Islands of South Carolina:
Daily the long-oppressed people of these islands are demonstrating their capacity for improvement in learning and labor. What they have accomplished in one short year exceeds our utmost expectations. Still the sky is dark; but through the darkness we can discern a brighter future. We cannot but feel that the day of final and entire deliverance, so long and often so hopelessly prayed for, has at length begun to dawn upon this much-enduring race.
These women wrote their way into a new world; indeed, they largely wrote that new world into existence. Fannie Barrier Williams, the first black woman to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now the State University of New York at Brockport), wrote “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Woman of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation” in 1893 speaking directly to the need for such a world:
No organization of far-reaching influence for their special advancement, no conventions of women to take note of their progress, and no special literature reciting the incidents, the events, and all things interesting and instructive concerning them are to be found among the agencies directing their career. There has been no special interest in their peculiar condition as native-born American women. Their power to affect the social life of America, either for good or for ill, has excited not even a speculative interest.
The prose throughout this volume is powerfully evocative in ways that even some of the best Penguin reprint anthologies can seldom match – for obvious reasons: these women were pitting their rhetorical talents in many cases against the triple disenfranchisement gender, race, and iron shackles, and they all know it. As beloved school principal Edmonia Goodelle Highgate writes at one point: “I don’t believe in world-saving – but I do in self-making … Create something. Aspire to leave something immortal behind you.”
Our book today has a front cover positively festooned with possible titles, and no referee standing close at hand to declare one the winner. There’s a banner at the top that says “Earth Before Us.” Then right in the center in big green letters there’s Dinosaur Empire! And down at the bottom there’s a label-looking circle saying “Journey through the Mesozoic Era.” All things being equal, I’m thinking most readers will plop for that very dramatic Dinosaur Empire! – that’s what I’ll do, just so it doesn’t sound like I’m talking about an entire mini-library of books (I repeat once again: my book-titling services are available to the publishing industry at any time of the day or night, free of charge).
Dinosaur Empire is a treat from the folks at Amulet Books. It’s written and drawn by the great Boston cartoonist Abby Howard, and Amulet’s classification of it as suitable for ages 8 to 12 years old is grimly hilarious – when I read the book and then circled back and read that age grouping, I seriously wanted to ask the people at Amulet when – or if – they’ve ever talked science with an American. Dinosaur Empire is written with tremendous energy and approachability, but my own estimate is that roughly 95% of its contents would come as a complete surprise to the first 50 fully-grown adults anybody from Amulet might encounter on the street. This is a dinosaur book you can confidently hand to anybody.
The story stars a little girl named Ronnie, who’s just received a big fat zero on a school quiz about dinosaurs. She has a chance to re-take the quiz, and she faces the prospect of a great deal of cramming. Then her eccentric neighbor Miss Lernin invites Ronnie to take a trip into her recycling bin – which turns out to be a portal to the past. Protected by “science magic,” the two take a grand tour of prehistoric life, starting 200 million years ago in the Late Triassic!
Patiently and without the smallest trace of condescension, Miss Lernin takes little Ronnie through hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth, explaining along the way all the key concepts of paleontology, ideas like convergent evolution and ecological niches, to a girl who really wants what any sensible person would want: to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Howard is an excellent guide to all the information Miss Lernin is imparting – there’s a tremendous amount of information packed into very little space in this book. Ronnie’s oddball teacher has a ready answer to every question:
“What’s an archosaur?”
“It’s the group name for basically all the creatures we just met, including dinosaurs! They all evolved from a common ancestor and they have traits in common, though they are pretty distinct from one another. There were a lot of niches left empty at the beginning of the Triassic, and when there’s an empty niche, animals evolve to fill it.”
And wonderfully, in the midst of all this learning, Howard doesn’t forget to stir in some humor. Miss Lernin is the kind of over-earnest nerd most nerds can only ever dream of becoming some day, and the book embraces the silly side of that as well as the serious side. When the incredible journey is over and Ronnie – won over to learning almost despite herself – wonders if they’ll ever have another such adventure, Miss Lernin assures her: “Never fear, when next you need to unravel the mysteries of the past, I’ll be here” … before remembering to add: “Except on Saturday afternoons, that’s when I have book club.”
Of course, younger readers of Dinosaur Empire will be rooting the whole time for Ronnie to finally meet her T. rex. And when she does, the results will be all but unthinkable to any true-blue dinosaur fan, regardless of how scientifically accurate those results may be. There’s one word that perfectly describes the monstrous killer dinosaur those young readers have been rooting for. And – shudder – that word rymes with ‘root.’
Our book today is Ancient History by M. I. Finley, and in addition to its own merits, it also had for me in this re-reading the charm of serendipity. I spend my life these days reading books and book reviews, so the book-driven serendipity to which I’d like to think I’ve always been observant now surrounds me on all sides every day: a Vanity Fair column, while talking about an upcoming deluxe coffee table production number, will offhandedly mention some obscure book, and lo, that obscure book will spring into my path at some charity shop only a week later, or some friend or colleague will allude to a nettlesome author who’s recently made their life miserable even though said nettlesome author died centuries ago, and sure enough, mere days later a sample of that nettlesome author’s long-forgotten work will turn up at a Goodwill otherwise known for its coffee-stained copies of Trevanian (I make a mental note never to tell the colleague that I’m consorting with the enemy, but I admit, that often gives the reading an extra pinch of pleasure), or – by far the most common instance, predictably so – I’ll read the name of one author in the book of another, and by whatever mnemonic arithmetic is responsible for such things, the name will stick with me, nagging just off-stage, until I chance upon a book by that author at the Brattle Bookshop and feel almost obligated, I recently found some cover designs by Damonza that I am so excited to start using on my books.
My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of the Finley book came about in just such a way. I’d been reading Barbara McManus’s utterly winning new book from the Ohio State University Press, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, all about the trailblazing life and sharp mind (and tongue) of the great classical scholar Grace Harriet Macurdy, and since the book included some fairly juicy (by academic press standards) anecdotes about the rows she had with the Grand Old Men of her profession, Finley’s name came up.
He was for a good long time one of the grandest of Grand Old Men in the classics world, who got his BA from Syracuse University at the ripe old age of 15 and taught the Greek classics in England and America (with one rather notable brief Red Scare-induced interruption) for many decades. He was on the go-to name-index for half a dozen harried editors who might need somebody to expound on Callimachus without making an ass of himself, and that generated a fairly good amount of occasional deadline prose, some of which constitutes Ancient History.
Re-reading the book, which came out in 1986, I was reminded on every page how much I like Finley’s punchy, no-nonsense writing about the discipline to which he devoted his whole life. Pieces like “Documents” or “How it really was” feel every bit as fresh now as they did when I first read them a quarter-century ago, and the best piece in this collection, “The Ancient Historian and his Sources,” still strikes an invigorating tone of stern disbelief about a recurring problem-subject:
The insufficiency of primary literary sources is a continuing curse. If it looms largest in the study of the archaic, more or less preliterary, periods of Greek and Roman history, this is only because those are the periods for which archeological evidence is currently dominating the learned discussions. In fact, the lack of primary literary sources bedevils Greek history altogether after the death of Xenophon in the mid-fourth century BC, the whole world of the Hellenistic East, important periods of the history of the Roman Republic and the Principate, including most of the history of the Roman provinces. For example, for the long reign of Augustus the only primary sources, other than documents, are half a book of naive, superficial history by Velleius Paterculus, some letters and speeches of Cicero for the early years, Augustus’ own account of his stewardship, the Res gestae, a model of disingenuousness, and the Augustan poets.
It was a pleasure, in other words, to spend time in his written company again, regardless of what train of associations brought me to that point.
It’s of course a perfect example of the kind of casual sexist-preference that Macurdy so often railed against that Finley had more book contracts dangled in front of him, enjoyed greater renown in his own lifetime, and still has books that can be found on the Brattle’s sale-carts on an overcast summer morning. And his success was no accident of privilege; re-reading Ancient History was a wonderful reminder of just how good a writer and teacher he could be. And if I ever feel a little guilty at once again getting that pinch of pleasure by consorting with the enemy, I can remind myself with a smile: Moses Finley has never had a biography, much less one as smart and entertaining as The Drunken Duchess of Vassar.