Geographica: Utah’s Dinosaurs!

nat geo coverIt’s a sad commentary on our relevance-obsessed and overcrowded society that the editorial Powers That Be at the National Geographic magazine probably didn’t hesitate for a moment before choosing the cover story for their May issue: the looming ecological crisis of mass-produced food supply. That article, by Jonathan Foley, is both fascinating and alarming … and of course it’s important, vitally important.

But once upon a time, in an earlier and more innocent age, those same Powers That Be would have chosen a different article in this issue to go on the cover: of course that article would be “Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs” by Peter Miller, a classic National Geographic wonder-fest about giant dinosaurs that once roamed the area of what is now the western United States, 77 million years ago when that region of the country was isolated by a huge shallow inland sea. That isolated land-mass is now called Laramidia, and as Miller writes, “During the 20 million years or so that it existed, Laramidia seems to have been a runaway dinosaur factory, cranking out large and small dinosaurs in a surprising diversity of species.”

The article describes some of the expeditions into Utah’s desert badlands undertaken by Scott ceratops headSampson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, expeditions that stumble across pristine dinosaur fossils ten times before lunch. The members of Sampson’s expedition sit by the fire at night and try to imagine that lost world of Laramidia, which was hot, humid, and profusely tropical. And in the face of the profusion of fossils they encounter, they also try to figure out the reasons for the vast variation among the specimens they find:

Something had isolated the dinosaurs of southern Laramidia from their relatives up north, the researchers figured. Left to itself, each community of animals had evolved differently, just as Darwin’s famous finches had done in the Galapagos, where they’d become new species after populating different islands. But Sampson and his colleagues were skeptical of the idea that a physical barrier, such as a mountain range or a large river, had kept the animals apart. Mountains may block the path of some animals, he said, but others are known to walk right over them: “They do it all the time.” As for rivers, “it’s hard to imagine that a river could last for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years,” Sampson said. “Sooner or later there will be periods of drought when rivers dry up.”

The stunning painting accompanying the article – a beautiful composition of textured greens by the great Raul Martin, showing both enormous exotic dinosaurs and the old familiar faces of turtles and crocodiles – would certainly have sealed the deal in those more innocent days; this article on the wonders of the loud and teeming swampland that was once America’s western end.

A grimmer and more responsible world, these days  – how can big horned dinosaurs seem anything but whimsical alongside the specter of planet-wide food shortages?

Still, it’s a wonderful piece.

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A Dark Song of Blood!

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Our book today is Ben Pastor’s A Dark Song of Blood, her third murder mystery starring Nazi Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora (the first two were Lumen and Liar Moon). The book is out now in a very sturdy paperback from Bitter Lemon Press, and it makes for a very absorbing – although very dark – reading experience.

It’s a tour through Dante’s Hell, only with no Virgil as a guide and every anguished soul a suspect in the death of every other anguished soul. The setting is a dark song of bloodRome in the early months of 1944, with Nazi control over the city slipping a bit more every day, with Italian partisan attacks growing in scope and effectiveness, and it’s into this tense and attenuated atmosphere the we follow our hero, the aristocratic Bora, wounded and doubting everything, as he begins to investigate the death of German Embassy Secretary Magda Reiner. The case brings the grim and taciturn Martin Bora into an uneasy alliance with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi, and as suspicions start to swirl around Fascist official Ras Merlo, both men are dragged into a case that’s being watched with deeply conflicted interest by all the powers in the city, most certainly including the Church, which has always had a problematic relationship with their Fascist overlords. A conversation Bora has with crusty old Cardinal Borromeo shows Pastor’s extremely honed ability to let spikey tensions ripple underneath the surface:

“I believe I’m telling the cardinal nothing new [Bora says] if I assure him that the German Army is not pleased with any interim government.”

“You’d rather have the city to yourselves?”

“We’d rather have no interference from PAI and what else remains of Fascist police units.”

“That’s neither here nor there. We expect you to curb the zeal of the Blackshirts left in town – even though I’m a Fascist of sorts myself. The Church was Fascist long before Il Duce planned his ‘March on Rome’. We marched on it in AD 64 with Peter and Paul at the lead.” Borromeo rang a bell on his desk. At the timid appearance of a cleric on the threshold, he merely gestured. Shortly thereafter, a tray with a coffee urn and cups was brought in. “I don’t trust people who don’t like espresso.” He ensured that Bora should accept the drink. “Your ambassador gets along with us – why shouldn’t the army?”

“The army is not involved in politics, Cardinal.”

“But the SS is. The Gestapo is. What you’re telling me is that you Germans will not curb any excesses by our police forces, or yours.”

One of the pleasures of mystery fiction is the interplay of investigation and authority (indeed, an old friend of mine, a dedicated mystery reader, often used to say the most interesting part of any murder investigation was “the fellow who can call it off”), and that pleasure is at its strongest in these Martin Bora mysteries, since the authority backing him is not only corrupt itself but hated by him – and in this latest volume, even that dark authority is frittering away. Bora and Guildi must doggedly pursue their complicating murder investigation against the indifference of all parties involved – after all, how important could a single murder be when weighed against whole societies trembling on the brink of destruction? It serves to bring the whole question of sleuthing into almost bitter relief.

Pastor’s novels are all so leanly intelligent that they’re a joy to re-read (she knows exactly how to temper the bleak drive of her narratives with quieter moments; “By the cessation of quick clouds in front of Bora’s face, he might be holding his breath,” she tells us at one point, “In fact, he said nothing whatever. Guidi looked down the dark, wide emptiness of the street. He smelled the night air, bitter and already green”), and a good deal of that joy in this case comes from the fact that our hero is much more alone than he himself would like to be. The implied comforts of the police procedural are absent from these books – the institutional powers are too worried about their own tomorrow to care very much about any single murder victim’s yesterday, which sharpens all the more our appreciation of the man who does worry. I don’t know much about Bitter Lemon Press, but I can’t recommend these books strongly enough.



Journey to the Land of the Flies!

journey to the land of the flies coverOur book today is Aldo Buzzi’s 1996 composite travel book Cechov a Sondrio e altri viaggi, brought out by Random House in a very good translation by Ann Goldstein and titled Journey to the Land of the Flies (poor Chekhov gets the heave-ho). Buzzi’s formal training was as an architect, but for most of his life he made his living as a deadline hack. He generated an enormous heap of literary journalism – columns, book reviews, interviews, and the like. And somewhere along the way, he discovered that for a lucky few writers, there are editors out there who’ll pay good money to send a person on vacation. It’s a golden Elysium entered by only a handful of writers, and Buzzi knew a good thing when it happened to him. He took his notebook and toothbrush, he kept his receipts, and over the course of half a century, he wrote a small body of some of the most wry and almost dreamlike travel writing of the 20th century.

In the little pamphlets reprinted here, we follow our author to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Palermo, Jakarta, London, Milan, and lots of much smaller and more interesting places in between, like a little town in Sicily, not far from Messina, where Buzzi uses so many specific details you’d think they’d crush the delicate beauty of the scene he’s painting, and yet they don’t:

After dinner we went to sit in front of the house, chatting, smoking, dozing, meditating on the more extraordinary dishes brought that day to the table, as they do in Sicilian nobles’ clubs. The sun shown gently on the lion-colored earth of the flower beds an among the hundred different greens of the plants, all evergreen: cedars of Lebanon, palms, eucalyptus, pines, silver firs, figs, a pepper tree (false pepper) attacked by ivy, olives, carob trees, holm oaks; and myrtle, rosemary, asparagus, bamboo, oleander, mimosa, hibiscus, jasmine, and capers, which are flowers, like jasmine, or, more precisely, edible flowers, like cauliflower and artichokes.

At the heart of Buzzi’s knack for atmosphere-creating, I think, is his talent for indirection  – and he knows it. So often in these books he eases up to his subjects lazily and obliquely, and the descriptions are usually the more memorable for it. And at a couple of points, he actually talks about the approach:

I return for a moment to what I was saying about the beautiful girl of Crescenzabo – that is, to the best way of describing a person. The meticulous enumeration of physical characteristics, used so much in bad novels, serves no purpose. Every new characteristic, rather than blending with the preceding ones and little by little completing the portrait, cancels them, so to speak, and increases the fog that forms between the page and the reader. On the other hand: when Gide says of Claudel, “As a young man he had the look of a nail; now he seems a lucy reads aldo buzzipestle,” Claudel is immediately present, vivid, even though we do not know if he is tall or short, or what color his eyes are.

Buzzi’s also an indelibly Italian writer, happy to revel in sensory details, happy to inventory food and drink, and, shall we say, prone to enthusiastic appreciations of the women he encounters – or, in a couple of instances, in classic dirty-old-lecher style, specifically their feet:

… rounder than any solid revolution or any circle traced by a compass – and because of its inscrutable mixture of the human and divine, can be considered one of the most convincing proofs of the existence of God, certainly more convincing than the ontological arguments of Saint Anselm.

I recently found this Journey to the Land of the Flies paperback as part of the wonderful old “Steerforth Italia” series with the little postage-stamp pictures in the center of their covers. And it was a lazily joyful experience, giving an hour to Aldo Buzzi again after all this time. It made me inclined to fish out more travel-writing from my bookshelves, and who knows? I just might.



An April Book-Haul!

trollope - a commentaryAs a reader who’s deeply interested in what other people – and especially young people – are reading and why, how could I not be fascinated by the teeming subset of YouTube known as BookTube? That’s the sprawling (and constantly growing) community of channels on YouTube devoted entirely to books – book reviews, book discussions, bookshelf tours, book-related ‘tags’ (in which somebody comes up with a challenge or theme for a particular video and then ‘tags’ other BookTubers to make videos on that same theme), and dozens of other fun things.

BookTube is an extremely welcoming place – every week, new BookTubers open channels of their own and step out onto the public stage with one or two videos and no subscribers, and the BookTube community enthusiastically embraces them. The most established BookTubers are not a bit less enthusiastic and approachable than the rawest newcomers. It’s very warming to see.

Of course, it’s not all chocolates and chardonnay. If you watch enough BookTube – and I watch a lot of it – you’ll quickly notice some of its annoying traits. Some of these annoying traits are common to vast swaths of YouTube in general: plenty of amateurs don’t put enough planning into their videos – they fumble with dates and facts and then decide, for utterly mysterious reasons, to leave the fumbling intact in the editing; plenty of people – experts and amateurs alike – don’t pay enough attention to the shape and substance of what they’re saying; people start with high hopes and then fall into long silent months of laziness.

But BookTube also has some annoying traits peculiar to itself! Some are superficial – the foremost being the weird, necrotic three tales from the sketch-bookpreponderance of Young Adult fiction. 99 percent of all BookTubers are adults, and yet 99 percent of the books they all talk about are YA titles written for children (and John Green is the god they all worship – let’s not even get started on that). It’s just such a leaden feeling, opening a new BookTuber video and watching the host say, “Guys! I just finished a book that was SO GOOD, I can’t wait to tell you about it” – and then they hold up a copy of Divergent. You click on a new BookTuber channel and there they are looking fresh and happy – and behind them, lovingly ordered on their bookshelves, are all the Harry Potter books in hardcover, all the “Hunger Games” books in hardcover – in other words, all the same books, all neatly arranged in hardcover. It’s such a lockstep environment that it becomes genuinely startling to see somebody talking about a book written for adults (more power, then, to channels like Eagle’s Books or The Bibliophile or Jason Purcell at The Heavy Blanks or Emma Gorowski at the catchily-titled Emma Gorowski )

And actually, there’s an aspect of that lockstep environment that bothers me even more than the odd spectacle of so many adults enthusing so energetically about books written for children, and it’s the broader idea that everybody reads in the same way. There are unspoken but fairly rigid taxonomic fences all around BookTube – there’s a workaday, slightly grumbling adherence to an identical conception of what readers do and what they are. They all spend too much samuel johnson - bate -covermoney on books; they all have a corseted agreement as to what books are good and what books are bad; they’re all resolutely monoglot; they all have something called a TBR list – a list, a pile, of books “to be read.” They’re all dutiful grinders-away on Goodreads, keeping track of the number of books they read, the pages they’re on, etc. In short, there’s a clubbishness to it all that strikes me as the exact opposite of what real reading is.

Although maybe not what it should be. Maybe that’s the allure of BookTube for me: it dramatizes a version of the reading life that’s bright, happy, friendly, tame … welcoming, in precisely the way that the anarchic Wild West of reading almost never is, welcoming in the way that so many self-taught readers in their solitary bedrooms don’t associate with the life. I look at the landscape of BookTube and see all these happy, including people creating a uniform reading-world, and I wonder if I’d have come to reading much sooner than I did if such a reading-world had ever existed in reality.

I think the two most signature demonstrations of that welcoming world are first the aforementioned bookshelf-tours (what reader doesn’t love to snoop – clandestinely or otherwise – at the book collections of penguin the king's wartheir friends?) and second the prevalence of something called the ‘book haul.’ These videos – always a popular choice for BookTubers – feature the host plopping in front of the camera the latest pile of books they’ve acquired and talking about how excited they are about them all, why they bought them, and so on.

I love watching book-haul videos. I understand that electric excitement, the infectious ‘look what I just got’ burst of happiness. I feel it myself every time I get back home bent double under a load of new books – I don’t just want to read the books (although I do, and I do – I’m a stranger to the very idea of a “TBR” pile), I want to share the joy of acquiring them, especially with like-minded book-acquirers. If had a BookTube channel, I think I’d do a lot of ‘book haul’ videos.

I don’t have a BookTube channel, mainly because I lack even the rudimentary technical skills necessary to record, edit, and upload videos (but also because I don’t, let’s say, have the BookTube aesthetic  – they’re almost universally young and good-looking)(vloggers like Mickeleh being exceedingly rare). But I thought just this once I’d try my hand at doing a book haul, if only the written, Stevereads version!

book-haul early april 2014Unlike most BookTubers, I get a lot of books – an average of ten a day on normal weekdays, either at the various used-book venues of Boston or through the mail from publishers. This is one of those days – a haul from April 2014 consisting of 16 books, half of them new releases (in this case, delightfully, a batch of romance titles) and half of them used books from the aforementioned used-item venues. The romance novels are bright and colorful, of course, and the used books in this case are some choice ‘finds’ – a slim and well-illustrated volume of the three most famous stories from Washington Irving’s Sketch-book, a squat, handy paperback of Bate’s fantastic biography of Samuel Johnson, and – in a happy coincidence – a very pretty new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, plus a meaty-looking commentary on the writing of Anthony Trollope, a Penguin Classic of Shen Fu’s bleakly intelligent Six Records of a Floating Life, and lucy and the book haul - april 2014Michael Behe’s controversial creationist tract, Darwin’s Black Box. And there’s the highlight of this particular haul, a lovely two-volume Penguin edition of C. V. Wedgwood’s fantastic companion volumes about the English Revolution, The King’s Peace and The King’s War. I’ve had those two books (and their much-shorter coda, A Coffin for King Charles). It’s not often that the used-book section of any ‘book haul’ of mine feels so full of spot-in discoveries, books I’m certainly I’ll be keeping as opposed to cycling through rather quickly. It’s a great feeling, especially since as much as I’m enjoying all those romances, I knew from the start that I probably wouldn’t be keeping any of them.

Needless to say, I heartily recommend all those used books! That’s another thing they do all the time over on BookTube.

Mystery Monday: Death of the Duchess!

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Our book today is 1991’s Death of the Duchess by Elizabeth Eyre, which is a pseudonym for the London writing team of Jill Staynes and Magaret Storey (both of which sound more like pseudonyms than “Elizabeth Eyre,” but then, what would I know of pseudonyms?). death of the duchess coverDeath of the Duchess is a murder mystery set in an Italian Renaissance city called Rocca, which is presided over by a remote and choleric Duke and which is rent by the Romeo & Juliet-style rivalry between the noble houses of de Torre and Bandini. To heal the feud, a marriage is proposed between the two families, and the novel plunges us right into the action when the bride is abducted from her father’s house.

The resulting commotion draws the Duke’s private agent, a tall, bald, powerfully-built mystery man named Sigismondo, who has a piercing gaze, a vaguely foreign accent, and a quiet way of commanding the respect of everybody he meets. In the novel’s opening pages, Sigismondo, who goes everywhere on foot and has no servants because they gossip, finds himself accompanied by a simple, good-hearted peasant named Benno, and it’s through this handy plot device that we the readers are allowed to come to know our enigmatic detective a little better. It’s also a convenient way for our authors to paint their rich portrait of Renaissance life, from the dung-heaps of the city center to the halls of the mighty:

Sigismondo commandeered a blanket from the inn where they had hired the horse and rode on up to the Palace, where he asked for a private audience of the Duke. That he was at once granted it made Benno’s jaw drop once more. He trotted after his master, turning his head constantly to admire painted columns, friezes, statues and tapestries, and coming up suddenly against Sigismondo’s back when they stopped at a door. While his master was admitted, Benno gaped at the marble door-casing and, it being suggested forcefully by the guard that he should remove his person somewhat, he stood back.

As Sigismondo digs deeper into the mystery, “Elizabeth Eyre” relishes bringing him into contact with all the different social strata of the city. Sigismondo cannot be intimidated (he stresses a couple of times that he’s only the Duke’s temporary agent); in fact, since he’s a match for any physical situation, he bddhimself is usually the one doing the intimidating:

Poggio flung out his arms again. “I’ve told you everything. I’ve given you all the money, everything! Count it!”

Poggio’s mother enveloped him again, tearful, and howled, “Don’t take him to his death! He’s told you everything! You have the money!”

Sigismondo made a small dismissive movement with the sword and hummed a derogatory arpeggio. “If he had – but as it is –“ In that hum, at least one of his listeners heard the well-oiled levers of the rack.

It’s not every fictional sleuth who can casually hum a derogatory arpeggio, and the ones who can are worth following. If memory serves, half a dozen Sigismondo mysteries followed Death of a Duchess, and whatever the final number (before the whole series stopped and was heard from no more), they were all every bit as immensely enjoyable as this first one. Should you come across one at the Boston Public Library, you should consider yourself gently nudged to give it a try.

The Three Edwards!

the three edwardsOur book today is Thomas Costain’s magnificent 1958 volume The Three Edwards, the third in his “Pageant of England” series, this one centering on the reigns of Kings Edward I, II, and III and thus covering some of the most dramatic and vibrant years in English history. Costain – an old newspaperman from Canada who unexpectedly discovered late in life that he had a knack for writing the kinds of primary-color rollicking-good historical fiction that the Hollywood of his day really liked. So many of his novels were adapted into successful movies that he was able retire from journalism in style and with nary a backward glance.

He wrote with the head-down no-nonsense work ethic of a bricklayer, but his books are uniformly, sparklingly readable – most certainly including The Three Edwards, even though the review-jobbing professional medievalists of the day predictably carped at the corners Costain was cutting to tell his rattling good yarns.

There are of course rattling good yarns aplenty amidst this material, but Costain’s main saving graves as a popularizer is that he isn’t only that: he’s also thought a great deal about his subject, and some of the observations he comes up with are worthy of Will and Ariel Durant. About his first monarch, for instance, he remarks that “the strength of Edward was not in innovation but in his genius for adaptation and his appreciation of the need to define and codify” (he adds: “he would in the years ahead of him earn the title of the English Justinian”).

Costain was an unapologetic romantic at heart (this is one of the main reasons, probably, that his novels will never enjoy a revival in an era tawdry enough to venerate “Breaking Bad”), and even in his nonfiction narratives, he never misses an opportunity to put a human face on the proceedings, even if he risks anachronisms along the way. His account of the illicit passion Edward II’s Queen Isabella felt for the strapping traitor Roger Mortimer, for instance, would scarcely be out of place in a Phyllis Whitney novel (don’t ask – Stevereads will get to her in due time):

It is not difficult to believe that the queen, her emotions aroused by the fine dark eyes of the prisoner, had communicated with him, had in fact made occasion to see him. It is easy enough, too, when served by loyal gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting, to have a cell door opened and a corridor kept clear and thus to receive a guest when the silence of night has settled over the dark Tower. It would be risky but possible to carry on a liaison under the eyes of the court. It is easy to imagine also that the sub-lieutenant could have been won over if pressure of the right kind had been brought to bear on him.

Naturally, it’s not just love but death that fills these pages, including the biggest mortality of modern times, the Black Death of 1346. Costain paints a thrillingly dramatic picture of the plague’s inexorable march across the Continent toward England, which waited fearfully and grasped at every rumor:

When the plague reached France, the people of England became aware for the first time that it was universal. Word of strange and fearful things came over the water to the island. At Avignon the churchyards could not hold the dead and the Pope consecrated the Rhone so that bodies might be committed to the waters. The French people were said to be adopting strange methods to escape contagion. Some were wearing small lions carved out of gold. The gates of Paris were erupting with people seeking escape. Only in houses with windows opening to the north could there be safety. The doctors, who were completely in the dark, were advising people to avoid the sun and warm winds. Stay inside, they were saying, and fill the air with the scent of burning juniper and ash and young oak.

But it’s at the level of the individual that Costain consistently excels, especially when the historical character he’s describing is one he’s come to like. And since, for good or ill, it’s virtually impossible to read about Edward III without coming to like him, his chapters in The Three Edwards are the book’s most effective – culminating in the enfeebled warrior-king’s notoriously unsentimental end in 1377, lucy reading costainalthough even there our author saves the scene with a fine flourish at the end:

The end came suddenly. His sight had not been good for a long time and then, on June 21, his voice deserted him entirely. He was too weak to do more than raise a feeble hand to indicate his wants. Soon even that effort proved too much and he sank into a condition almost of a coma. None of his children were with him, not even the duke who had made a point of attending him closely. The household officials, having been convinced long before of the imminence of death and seeing nothing to be gained now, were paying small attention. Alice Perrers remained in the room and a small knot of household servants and courtiers kept watchful eyes on her. She had never thought it necessary to win the favor of the staff and had been repaid by a general suspicion and dislike.

The king’s confessor was in the room, hovering tensely over the royal couch. When the dying monarch recovered enough strength to mutter the words Jesu Miserere, the priest placed a crucifix in his hands. The royal lips were pressed to the cross. The breathing became less and less perceptible and finally ceased.

Thus died the most brilliant and colorful of the English kings. He had lived to the ripe age of sixty-five years and had been king for fifty of them.

Everything that Thomas Costain wrote is worth reading, but to my mind, his popular histories are the pinnacle of his maudlin, purple-lipped art. “The Pageant of England” was a staple of book clubs and special-edition vendors for decades, so who knows how many basements and cellars still have cobwebbed copies tucked away in some corner? I recently found a hardcover with a pretty dust jacket (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) and spent a wonderful afternoon re-living the pomp and splendor. I strongly recommend the experience.





Body dysmorphia – pro and con – in the Penny Press!


My favorite ironic, unintentional, sexist contrast of the month comes from the latest issue of GQ: quite by the random chance of advertising space, we get these two pictures side-by-side. On the one side, there’s a young woman who’s dementedly devoted to re-shaping her body into a living simulacrum of a Barbie doll, a self-mutilation GQ‘s editors clearly want their readers to find revolting:

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And on the other side, an ad for a men’s clothing line featuring a young model who’s anatomically an adult male but who weighs 85 pounds and subsists entirely on tobacco, having eschewed both solid food and water since childhood:

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The creators of that ad – and by extension those same GQ editors – are hoping for the exact opposite reaction here, even though both pictures are equally revolting. There’s a moral there somewhere – perhaps in plain view?

Leonardo Da Vinci!

penguin leonardoOur book today is Kenneth Clark’s slim 1939 monograph Leonardo Da Vinci, here presented in the very pretty 1989 Penguin reprint in an extra-sized paperback with loads of illustrations. The old Pelican mass market paperback of the book also had loads of illustrations, mind you, but for binding reasons they were all lumped together in the middle of the volume rather than scattered through the text popping up as they’re being discussed. I’ve mentioned before how much I like these larger, illustrated paperbacks when they’re done well, and this Penguin volume is done really well – until a holographic version comes along in which readers can feel like they’re walking around looking at these masterpieces while having Lord Clark’s narrative read to them by John Glover (extra points to anybody who can trace the labyrinth of that Steve-connection correctly), this will probably stand as the best presentation possible of this little book.

Of course, the little book would be equally good even if there were no illustrations at all. Clark was a great explainer, a fine, lively writer on his chosen subject of art and art history. He comes to one of the pinnacles of art and art history, the always-problematic legacy of Leonardo Da Vinci, with a formidably bristling amount of learning at his fingertips, and even his most casual-seeming observations therefore get the leetle grey cells working – as when he thinks for a moment why Leonardo wasn’t more highly prized by the most famous art patron of his day:

Nor is there anything surprising in the fact that Lorenzo de’ Medici allowed him to leave Florence, for, although an enlightened patron of literature, Lorenzo took small interest in art, and cannot be given credit for commissioning any of the great paintings of his day. It is, perhaps, surprising that later, when Leonardo’s real greatness was established, Lorenzo made no effort to bring him back to Florence. And this, I think, can only be due to the lack of sympathy which existed between Leonardo and the Medicean circle. He was essentially a scientist and mathematician; the Mediceans were of course Platonists to an almost religious ardour.

He then starts quoting Latin, God help us all, but he soon settles himself down and resumes talking about the artist and his work, and it’s the acute lady with erminediscussions of individual works that I find myself re-reading the most in this book. I love how pointed and fresh Clark manages to be, especially when dealing with the much-vexed Da Vincean question of attribution. When it comes to the “Portrait of Cecelia Gallerani,” for example (the “lady with the ermine” to us groundlings), he finds the proof to be in the rodent:

The hand shows an understanding of anatomical structure and a power of particularization none of Leonardo’s pupils possessed. But most convincing of all is the beast. The modelling of its head is a miracle; we can feel the structure of the skull, the quality of the skin, the lie of the fur. None but Leonardo could have conveyed its stoatish character, sleek, predatory, alert, yet with a kind of heraldic dignity.

Actually, the sheer familiarity of so many of Leonardo’s small array of surviving works presents a problem in itself for the docent and explicator, and Clark sums it up well when he comes to discuss “The Last Supper”:

How can we criticize a work which we have all known from childhood? We have come to regard Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ more as a work of nature than a work of man, and we no more think of questioning its shape than we should question the shape of the British Isles on the map. Before such a picture the difficulty is not so much to analyze our feelings as to have any feelings at all.

mona lisaThat’s extremely well put, and Clark gets around it by delving immediately into the specifics of composition and workmanship that were always his first love. And if over-familiarity was a problem with “The Last Supper,” we can just imagine how much bigger a problem it is for the single most famous painting ever made, what Clark refers to as “the submarine goddess of the Louvre” – the Mona Lisa, whose likeness and parodies are known everywhere, to everybody, and have been for centuries? Clark quotes the tantalizing passage where Vasari describes seeing the work back when it was just an astonishing painting, and here our guide, no doubt thinking of bulletproof plate-glass and harsh, antiseptic ceiling lights, gets a bit wistful:

How exquisitely lovely the Mona Lisa must have been when Vasari saw her; for of course his description of her fresh rosy colouring must be perfectly accurate. She is beautiful enough even now, heaven knows, if we could see her properly. Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing the Mona Lisa taken down, out of the deep well in which she hangs, and carried to the light will remember the wonderful transformation that takes place. The presence that rises before one, so much larger and more majestical than one had imagined, is no longer a diver in deep seas. In the sunshine something of the warm life which Vasari admired comes back to her, and tinges her cheeks and lips, and we lucy reading leonardocan understand how he saw her as being primarily a masterpiece of naturalism.

I’ve actually seen the Mona Lisa outside of its “deep well” – in fact, I’ve seen it in the bright, direct sunlight, and I can attest to the near-miraculous transformation Clark describes here: it becomes almost a different painting.

But something of that perspective-shift happens all throughout this book even while you’re sitting on your reading-couch: you start to see these great and familiar works a bit differently, and it’s a very nice experience. Great explainers have that gift; they can take something you thought you knew – or thought you didn’t care to know – and make it vital and immediate. Many dozens of Leonardo Da Vinci books have appeared since this one, but I don’t know many of them that can manage even for a few paragraphs what Lord Clark does so effortlessly throughout the whole thing. And this bigger, more ornate paperback (a recent find at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course!) seems more fitting somehow to so visual a subject. It was a joy to read it again.

Mystery Monday: Dead People!

mystery monday logo

Our book today is Scottish author Ewart Hutton’s Dead People, the follow-up to his debut Good People (the latter’s staid title was given a private edge by the book’s plot; this current book provides no such edge, so its title is the equivalent of Murder Mystery, alas), and its basic premise will be familiar to mystery readers: a good cop is exiled by his resentful superiors to some far-distant outpost where his detective skills immediately begin solving local crimes amidst his new exotic setting. This is the situation in which half-Welsh, half-Italian Detective Sergeant Glyn Capaldi finds himself when he’s dispatched by his boss Jack Galbraith from the comparative sophistication of Cardiff to the wilds of rural “Pig Wales,” specifically the primitive hamlet of Dinas.

dead people coverIt’s a kind of unspoken tenet of murder mysteries that the familiarity of basic premises must not be held against them, and all experienced readers know why: we’ve all seen the most hoary premise elevated into something genuinely enjoyable by a writer’s talent or industry. We don’t look at a new example of fish-out-of-water-cop and think “No way – not that again.” Instead, we look at such a thing and think, “OK – show me what you’re going to do with it.”

Hutton does quite a lot. His novels are narrated from DS Capaldi’s point of view, so we’re sitting right beside his sharp perceptions of the grudging locals all around him, most of whom consider him a sinister interloper. In Dead People, he’s hard at work tracking a mysterious ram-castrator when he gets a more urgent call: a human body has been found at the construction ground of a new wind-turbine farm. The body at first strikes Capaldi as “the thorax of giant crayfish” because it lacks both hands and head.

Other bodies are soon found similarly mutilated, and the answer seems obvious: some criminal – a gangster, a drug-kingpin – is killed people elsewhere and dumping their bodies at the work-site minus the parts that facilitate identification. This is the working theory Galbraith himself instantly comes to, and it’s shared by Detective Chief Inspector Kevin Fletcher, Capaldi’s professional nemesis, who’s been loaned to the crime from Cardiff and temporarily installed as field officer on the case.

Capaldi, of course, doesn’t believe it (we wouldn’t have much of a novel if he did, would we?). The first-person narration gives us a perfect vantage point to watch Capaldi’s scrabbling, retentive thought processes and also gives us several thrilling moments when, as Hutton puts it, “the gears whirred, meshed, lucy licking dead peopleand locked home.”

The gruesome developments in the case eventually cause the gears to do just that, particularly in another staple of the genre: the shower/bathtub revelation moment:

As I towelled myself dry I realized that no one was going to buy a word of this. Because in the real world that even cops were a part of, the world of small pleasures and disappointments, boredom and television news and the belly laugh after the third beer, it still seemed incomprehensible that a person could take the life of two others, for other reason than to send an investigative train down a branch line that was going to swallow it up.

One of the main pleasures of cop-out-of-water murder mysteries is the aforementioned exotic locations, and here Hutton doesn’t disappoint: he evokes the beautiful, harsh, rain-lashed feel of rural Wales so expertly that it almost takes its place as a character in the book (he sure as Hell evokes it better than the stock photo chosen for the U.S. cover of Dead People, which depicts a sinister cabin in the middle of a landscape of a type found nowhere in Wales). And although the novel’s climax is very well-done, it, too, adheres to the strictures of the form.

In other words, poor DS Capaldi probably shouldn’t pack for Cardiff just yet.




The Demon-Haunted World!

demon-haunted world coverOur book today is Carl Sagan’s intensely personal and snarkily intelligent 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, a reasoned cry of defiance against what Sagan, approaching the end of his life, viewed as the gathering forces of intolerance and stupidity. Sagan spent his entire life waging a smiling, well-mannered, entirely humanist battle against those forces, but he usually did it through education, through eloquently conveying the wonders of science in such infectiously loving books as The Dragons of Eden and Broca’s Brain and Cosmos. In The Demon-Haunted World, he employs a more personal register, frequently acknowledging the allure of what’s characterized as “the dark”:

Sometimes I dream that I’m talking to my parents, and suddenly – still immersed in the dreamwork – I’m seized by the overpowering realization that they didn’t really die, that it’s all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death. And it’s not the least bit interested in whether there’s any sober evidence for it.

This is the kind of gesture a strong mind can make that a weak one can’t, this concession that an argument can be wrong but also powerful. Sagan would like to see his parents again, and he understands why so many countless millions of people look to concepts of such personal continuation – but he also sees clearly (and flays relentlessly) the con-men and hucksters who prey on those people. The Demon-Haunted World tilts all the time at both opportunism and credulity, devoting quite a bit of its page-count to the then-current fad of alien abduction, for instance. Sagan notes the similarity of alien abduction accounts to earlier accounts of changeling babies, or demonic possession. He can’t help but notice how similar the alien abduction stories are to each other, and the similarities depress him:

Despite this apparent variety of extraterrestrials, the UFO abduction syndrome portrays, it seems to me, a banal Universe. The form of the supposed aliens is marked by a failure of the imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. Not a single being presented in all these accounts is as astonishing as a cockatoo would be if you had never before beheld a bird. Any protozoology or bacteriology or mycology textbook is filled with wonders that far outshine them most exotic  descriptions of the alien abductionists. The believers take the common elements in their stories as tokens of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and biology.

(Virtually all the calm sense and open wonder of Sagan’s best writing is well summarized by that great line “Not a single being presented in all these accounts is as astonishing as a cockatoo would be if you had never before beheld a bird” – it’s the quintessential Sagan appeal to the glories of the world we all share)

In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan is alarmed to see the growing alliance between stupidity and official power; he sees the constant migration of hucksters into education boards and the halls of elected power. The book ends with many of these kinds of warnings against lucy reading demon-haunted worldlazily frittering away the very safeguards that protect the inquiring spirit he values so much:

Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights. Yes, in 1942, Japanese-Americans were protected by the Bill of Rights, but we locked them up anyway – after all, there was a war on. Yes, there are Constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure, but we have a war on drugs and violent crime is racing out of control. Yes, there’s freedom of speech, but we don’t want foreign authors here, spouting alien ideologies, do we? The pretexts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion – even though experience plainly shows the dangers of such a course of action.

Sagan died in the winter of 1996, and re-reading The Demon-Haunted World, it’s impossible not to think about how dark the world has often been in the decades since then. The candle-flame represented by this book seems more than ever in danger of flickering out. But the book is still here, and reading it is still a warming pleasure.


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