Posts from February 2011

February 25th, 2011

Queen Catherine! (no, not that one)(no, not that one either)

Our two books today are historical novels dealing with the same figure: Catherine Parr, the staid, prudish hickory stick who was the last wife of Henry VIII. Readers who have a nodding familiarity with Tudor history will likely be more familiar with any of the five wives who preceded this one – there’s the Rightful Queen, the Witch, the Mother of the Heir, the Dearest Sister, and the Slutty Girl – but by the time most people get to Catherine Parr, the whole point of keeping up with all the wives seems vitiated. What difference does it make what Catherine Parr was like, after all, if the whole gaudy show of it now moves to young Edward VI, and then on to Mary I, and then to Elizabeth I?

Blind spots like that are cat-nip to historical novelists. These writers correctly divine that often the most interesting things happen outside the bright spotlight of history – the key to effective historical fiction is to step just far enough outside that spotlight to let those interesting human details creep in but not so far outside that spotlight that you leave your readers groping around in the dark for something interesting. Set the entire story of Wolf Hall in the murky boyhood of Thomas Cromwell and you lose the background electricity of his interactions with the Tudor court. Set the climax to Gone with the Wind in the 1840s and you might have a pretty good book, but it wouldn’t glow with the light of burning Southern plantations.

So writing about Catherine Parr can be tricky. Historian Carolly Erickson takes perhaps the safer route in her 2006 novel The Last Wife of Henry VIII by using as its setting the whole of that lady’s life, the better to give us all the drama of that life’s intersection with last dying embers of Henry VIII’s insane personal life. Erickson’s book is extremely good (a bit ironic that both she and fellow historian Alison Weir have done their best recent work in fiction), and the Catherine she gives us might be a bit stiff and a bit haughty, but she ends up being all the more real for it:

“Ah, so pale,” said the sleek, moustachioed Duke of Najera as he took my hand to kiss. “I trust your majesty is not in poor health.”

“I confess that I am in indifferent health, milord duke,” was my response. …

“May we hope that this indisposition betokens the arrival of an heir?” His tone was polite and his words formal, but the question was overly bold, even rude. He presumed too much. Just because he was the emissary of the Emperor Charles V, and charged with a very important mission to our court, he imagined that he could ask me bold questions and ignore the ordinary rules of courtesy.

“Milord, you forget yourself,” said my friend and lady-in-waiting Kate Brandon, coming to my rescue. “The queen’s health is a matter of state and cannot be talked of lightly.”

A far riskier strategy is adopted by Susannah Dunn in her spectacularly good 2008 novel The Sixth Wife (not to be confused with the Jean Plaidy novel of the same title – and, um, about the same subject)(don’t even get me started on the subject of incomprehensible choices in book-titles…): in that work, Katherine (so Dunn styles her) Parr is neither in power or the teller of her own story – the latter task falls to that same Kate Brandon, here given magnificent life and voice by Dunn as the novel’s narrator. The book focuses on the stunning immediate aftermath of Henry VIII’s death, when his still-young widow stunned the court and the whole country by quickly marrying Thomas Seymour, brother to the realm’s new Lord Protector – and brother too to the mother of the realm’s new king, young Edward. Thomas Seymour had a feckless, headlong quality about him that seemed drastically at odds with Parr’s slightly beady-eyed calm; he seemed the very last person she might marry, let along marry impulsively. Again, catnip for historical novelists, most of whom (including Erickson) have assumed that the turn of events can only be explained if Seymour and Parr had been in love – and perhaps lovers – long before Henry took a liking to his prospective new queen.

Dunn (whose work I’ve praised before) skirts making such an easy, explicit explanation in favor of what is clearly one of her focal points as a novelist: the unpredictable, twisty ways of human emotions. Shortly after her Kate Parr reveals her marriage to Kate Brandon, the two of them go out riding, and when the former queen gallops away, Kate is left to wrestle with the whole mystery:

“He makes me laugh,” Kate yelled of Thomas as she thundered away from me.

I didn’t come back at her with, Yes, but my dog makes me laugh and I haven’t married him, have I.

Nor, Yes, but I make you laugh.

People underestimated Kate in one respect: kind but serious, was a lot of people’s opinion of her. Maybe it was as simple as that, it occurred to me as I trailed in her wake: maybe Thomas Seymour truly appreciates her.

Yes, but why marry him, and so soon?

Well, that was quite simple, too, in the end, it seemed. He’d asked her, she told me later. Marry me, he’d said: that’s what she told me. Marry me, marry me, marry me: he’d said it a lot. So that it seemed less and less ridiculous, presumably. Why not? he said. I’ve been away for years and you’ve been – well, you haven’t had an easy time of it for years, for your whole life, in fact, so … and then that smile of his.

Dunn’s book is the wiser book of the two emotionally, but it’s a decidedly 20th century wisdom. Erickson’s book is a more conventional historical novel (you’ll find no ‘milady’s in Dunn’s period fiction) but succumbs at times to the lure of the scenery. Many of the same characters come and go through these pages, and it’s fun to see how differently the two authors portray them – including the young Princess Elizabeth, who’s a monstrous enigma in Dunn and an enigmatic monster in Erickson. The exception seems to be Edward Seymour’s wife Anne Stanhope, who’s hated equally by both our authors – automatically making me wonder if somebody’s out there right this moment penning a Tudor historical novel in which a thoroughly sympathetic Anne stars as the oft-misunderstood heroine. I’ll keep an eye out at the Boston Public Library for The Lord Protector’s Wife.

February 24th, 2011

The Lure of the Pond!

Our book today is Wallace Kirkland’s lovely 1969 meditation The Lure of the Pond, which is sparsely but beautifully illustrated by Eugene Karlin and tells the story – in a string of twenty self-contained, poetic chapters – of Kirkland’s various encounters with a pond in Wisconsin;

A narrow, winding road led up through a forest of naked trees disrobed by frost, and out upon a clearing. The land sloped gently downward to an abandoned cabin under a large poplar tree. Beyond it was a pond, winter-locked in ice. The brilliant midday sunlight of early March sparkled on a fresh fall of snow. In the distance was a wide expanse of marsh in which were whitened trunks of trees long dead. The left bank of the pond was once a cultivated field. Sumac and wild blackberry bushes now covered it. Along the right side was a tangled growth of willow and swamp maple trees.

An opening paragraph like that one instills a feeling of sweet peace in the reader – not only because the scene described is itself peaceful, but because we can hear the author’s quiet authority, and it’s reassuring. Kirkland was a photographer for Life magazine for 25 years, and The Lure of the Pond is suffused with visual imagery. But there’s also a tempered wisdom here that comes from sitting quietly and watching the life of a pond forget you’re there and resume going about its business. We’ve explored something of the mystery and joy of ponds before here, and Kirkland’s book joins a small shelf-collection of other such titles that are the next best thing to being there.

Of course, given his job, Kirkland has been everywhere, not just to the tangled bank of his own little pond. This book is also alive with the richness of those many travels:

Another morning on the path in the abandoned field I came upon a painted turtle laying eggs. I was reminded of a night on Key Marquesas, beyond Key West, where I had seen a giant hawksbill turtle laying hers. The moon was full, the sea a sheet of yellow glass. She came in on the rising tide, her enormous head breaking the surface a few yards out from shore, and the pent-up air in her lungs was expelled in one tremendous gasp. I crouched and watched her lumber up across the white sand. The moonlight shining on her sea-encrusted shell enveloped her in a phosphorescent aura. She was like an apparition from from another world.

It’s late winter here in New England, which means, in the 21st century, that high summer is only about three weeks away (the seasons of Spring and Autumn having been officially abolished during the ‘strip-mine our national parks’ years of George W. Bush) – the three ponds to which I make regular pilgrimages will all soon be open for business again, bustling with the uncanny microcosm of all life that ponds always present to the patient observer. Kirkland’s book elegantly captures that microcosm, even if he does begrudge us his own photos. Karlin’s minimalistic line-drawings are plenty compensation enough.

February 20th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Been Down So Long!

When last we left our hero Paul, he was clearly at a crossroads in his tempestuous life and career, and perhaps he was questioning some fundamentals (well, not those fundamentals – he’s still a male model, after all!) …on the barometer of personal indecision, ‘space armor’ is only a notch or two above ‘turtleneck’ when it comes to a shamelessly shirtless exhibitionist like our Paul. So when we left him wearing jumpsuits and fighting bug-eyed monsters, we had reason to fear the worst.

And surely those fears were realized by the cover of Anton Strout’s 2008 novel Dead to Me, which features Paul once again bundled up against the cold, impersonal winds of his own imagined future: he’s wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt under a thick woolen trenchcoat, and he’s staring meaningfully off into the distance, and his grasping hands are dripping with bright viscous goo …

Actually, the goo is ectoplasmic energy (note to you kids out there: it’s doubtful that line will work with your parents … better to stick to the time-tested ‘it’s mayonaisse’ keeper), because in this book Paul is going by the name of Simon Canderous, a new member of New York City’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs, which handles all the supernatural menaces the Big Apple’s police and fire departments either don’t know about or don’t want to know about. Paul brings to this job his own supernatural ability, but in Strout’s book, that ability isn’t ‘heating up a Speedo’ but rather ‘psychometry’ – the ability to gain psychic impressions about the past of an object simply by touching it. All throughout the book, Paul is forever touching things and getting them to spill their contents all over him.

Tellingly, Paul is coming to his life of crime-fighting from a seedier past, as he relates:

I had worked hard to put my unscrupulous use of my powers behind me. Long before finding the D.E.A., I had been an impressionable, confused kid with burgeoning powers, working part time for any antique shop that would have me. Cutthroats swarmed that business like sharks being chummed, and there were plenty of sketchy opportunists more than willing to drag me into the world of big scores, petty cons, and fast money.

Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? A confessional ring, one might say. Paul uses his powers to confront the Sectarians, who are kind of an even-more-evil version of the Scientologists, and Strout keeps the proceedings popping along at such a snappy pace – and with such snappy dialogue – that readers of light fantasy will have a very entertaining time. He’s picked just the right power for his sexy protagonist to have: it’s both interesting and small-scale (it’s clearly a forerunner – right down to the cover – of a whole sub-genre of hunky-hero light sci-fi/fantasy).

The ending of Dead to Me finds Paul at a costume party dressed as Zorro, with a tight satin blouse cross-stitched across his bulging chest; readers of this series might at that moment sense something, the faintest tingle of a resurgence … after all, Paul could have dressed as Spongebob Squarepants, or Chewbacca. But no, he chose a revealing costume (which, inexplicably, isn’t the book’s cover image) – perhaps as a cry for help, or perhaps as the first distant hint that such help is no longer needed … because when Paul walked away from the Department of Extraordinary Affairs after that first adventure (he’d return for three more, and they’re all great fun and well worth some of your time), he left his identity crisis – and almost all of his clothes – behind him.

Luckily for all of us, however, he didn’t leave extraordinary affairs behind him. He moved on to London, to a loud party in the apartment of prim-and-proper freelancer writer Isobel Jameson, who spots him from across a crowded room hears that essential question that is the start of every romance: “Who is that guy?” Brainy Isobel at first affects indifference, but you and I both know it’s just plain impossible to be indifferent to our smoldering Paul, and as quick as you can say ‘rock-hard deltoids’ veteran romance author Anne Mather has the two of them tangling the sheets in night after night of torrid – and acrobatic – coupling:

As she touched him, Alejandro caught his breath, sucking air into lungs that suddenly seemed deprived of oxygen. “Cara,” he protested thickly. “Cuidado! Have a care! I have only so much control.”

Isobel’s tongue circled her lips. “But you like me to touch you?” she questioned, and he gave a strangled laugh.

Readers of passages like that one (from The Brazilian Millionaire’s Love-Child) might be forgiven for thinking that if our Paul ever really did lose his pouting mojo, he now firmly had it back again – except that shortly after he and Isobel give such repeated venting to their carnal desires, he up and leaves her … with no forwarding address and his spawn growing in her womb! In the three years that follow, she grows into a smart, determined single mother and he goes and gets himself into a car accident that leaves him crippled and – worse, far, far worse – ugly. Sure, this also means, in romance-novel terms, that he’s now worthy of her love, but so what? Who cares about worthy if you’re ugly?

Fortunately, plane tickets to exotic destinations can take the ugly out of just about anybody, and the first thing our resourceful Paul does is hop a flight to faraway Sydney, Australia and assume a guise that’s very familiar to him: the ruthless sexy businessman. In this case he’s merciless tycoon Vinn Venadicci, hero of The Venadicci Marriage Vengeance, a bastard (in every sense of the word) who was born to a maid of the once-prosperous St. Clair family and is now in a position to save that family’s finances – if only the family’s representative, buxom young Gabriella St. Clair, can swallow her, um, pride long enough go to him for aid. Author Melanie Milburne, in page after page of spirited, more-intelligent-than-it-looks prose, has these two stubbornly avoiding the schmaltz waltz in favor of a tighter tango, sparked – of course – by mutual desire:

In the nanosecond before she spoke Gabby quickly drank in his image, her heart giving a little jerk inside her chest in spite of all her efforts to control it. Even when he was seated his height was intimidating, and the black raven’s wing of his hair caught the light coming in from the windows, giving it a glossy sheen that made her fingers itch to reach out and touch it. His nose was crooked from one too many of the brawls he had been involved in during his youth, but – unlike many other high-profile businessmen, who would have sought surgical correction by now – Vinn wore his war wounds like a medal. Just like the scar that interrupted his left eyebrow, giving him a dangerous don’t-mess-with-me look that was disturbingly attractive.

This flight of fantasy (needless to say, this Venadicci bravo’s mincemeat face bears little resemblance to the sculpted perfection of Paul’s puss) is followed by many others, and the book’s conclusion is funny, diverting stuff – Milburne knows how to please (by random chance I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re equally good), and more importantly, so does her Harlequin cover artist, who gives us a small taste of the Paul we’ve been missing: mough agape, topless, and ever so slightly exaggerated in the pecs department. He seems natural somehow, munching so amorally on poor rapturized Gabby – he looks like a predator in its natural element, which is hardly the way we’ve seen him lately.

But all that is about to change! Our Paul has indeed been through some kind of refining fire – he’s been down so long, he can only go up! Our chronicle had faltered a bit, as our hero floundered and seemed destined to wander into a lackluster second-tier romance hero career with occasional moonlighting in galaxies far, far away. But sometimes, we need to hit rock bottom to know we can fall no further, and our Paul is done with that now! An unbroken string of triumphs lie ahead, all of them to be achieved by Paul finally believing in being Paul – to the fullest, every single photoshoot.

It’s a heady ride, and it begins in our next thrilling chapter!

February 18th, 2011

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The Big Screen!

In 1979 something happened that changed the nature of Star Trek fiction forever. It was something so long hoped-for and dreamed-of that many fans – myself included – had given up all real hope that it would ever happen:

In 1979 Paramount Pictures produced Star Trek: The Motion Picture, reuniting the entire core cast of the original TV show in a big-budget big-screen movie.

 

 

I went to see the movie, um, several times that winter, and long before that I thrilled just to the sight of the movie’s two posters, the first showing the new Enterprise and a row of little boxes showing our old familiar crew, and the second showing Kirk, Spock, and a mysterious woman in a shower of glinting light. I avidly soaked in every scene, every moment, every word of dialogue, the whole time in a state of happy disbelief that the experience was happening at all. I’ve of course developed many detailed opinions about that first Star Trek movie – about its merits and flaws, about its worth both as a movie and as Star Trek. But this is SteveREADS, after all, not SteveSEES, and besides: I’m perfectly willing to admit that my acumen might be fogged over a bit when it comes to seeing this particular franchise on film.

 

That’s where my blogging colleague Mr. Anderson comes in. As a special treat, I asked the devoted movie fan over at Hello Mr. Anderson to watch that first movie cold, as it were – to do his best to take it in free of the baggage any fan of the original series must inevitably bring to such a screening. He obliged, and some of his conclusions are bitter indeed for a from-the-beginning fan such as myself to read. I wish I could say the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture fared better – especially because, as noted, it functions as THE pivotal moment in the fiction of the show, the A-bomb, birth-of-Jesus thing that forever divides the sub-genre into ‘before’ and ‘after.’

 

The novel was written in draft by our old friend Alan Dean Foster, with fine-tunings by Harold Livingston, and with a main-stage polish and oversight by none other than Gene Roddenberry himself. This is the only Star Trek novel in which Roddenberry is listed as an author (indeed, in most of the paperback’s earliest printings, as the only author), and that fact underscored the thing’s canonical status.

 

Before this novel (which is doltishly titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture – as if nobody anywhere along the line realized what a nonsensical title for a book that is), all of Star Trek fiction existed in what’s known in quantum physics as a superposition. All of it, in all its manifold contradictions, might be ‘real’ – or none of it might be, or it might be both at the same time. The Romulan Commander, as we’ve seen, might have any number of fates or even names, poor Doctor M’Benga might be revealed as any number of dastardly villains, every supporting character from those first three TV seasons might be hauled into any novel, given any story arc the writer wanted, and still be fair game for the next writer to come along. In quantum physics, a particle is in superposition until some conjugating event happens to determine what it actually is – before that moment, it can be both a thing and its direct opposite (Schrodinger Cat being the most famous example), but after that moment, it IS – determined, uniform, and canon.

 

The canon of Star Trek fiction begins with Gene Roddenberry’s novel, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In these 252 pages, the fictional universe of Star Trek changes in several radical ways, and it’s Star Trek‘s creator doing the changes, so they’re real, as it were.

 

They were also, when you stop and think about it, startlingly severe. Roddenberry made the unusual decision to have his comeback story reflect a real-time gap in the lives of his characters: the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture take place almost three years after the return of the Enterprise from her original five-year mission – so, somewhere around six or seven years after the last aired episode of the cancelled series. Our stalwart heroes are no longer young – even Chekhov is now a fully seasoned adult. The central crew of the Enterprise hasn’t changed: Uhura is still at communications, Sulu is still at the helm, Chekhov has moved to the new weapons station … but our ‘big three’ have undergone radical changes since last we ‘saw’ them: Kirk has accepted a staff job and a promotion to Admiral; Spock has resigned his commission and gone into monastic retreat on Vulcan in an effort to purge all human emotion from his mind; and McCoy has resigned his commission and gone into early retirement as some kind of bearded recluse.

 

Roddenberry and his co-writers weave their story so smoothly that the reader at first simply accepts all this as the story unfolds. But re-reading the book in 2011, I realized how deeply, unpardonably out of character all three of those changes are. James T. Kirk (it’s in this novel that we’re first ‘officially’ told that the ‘T’ stands for ‘Tiberius’ … a factoid that wouldn’t be confirmed on screen for five more movies) taking a desk job? Spock, after making such strides to accept and be accepted by his human shipmates, seeking to overhaul himself into an uber-Vulcan? McCoy, the ultimate man of healing, giving up on medicine to sit on his porch? In retrospect, these seem like fairly desperate contortions made in order to produce a classic getting-the-band-back-together plot.

 

That plot will be familiar to anybody who’s seen the movie: a massive alien entity, Vejur, is headed straight for Earth, and the only starship in interception range is the newly refitted Enterprise under the command of young Captain Will Decker (unlike in the movie, in the book we learn that he’s the son of Commodore Decker from the great TV episode “The Doomsday Machine”). Admiral Kirk, chaffing at his desk duties, learns of the menace and uses it as an opportunity to force Starfleet to give him back command of the Enterprise, which he commandeers over the resentful objections of the now-demoted First Officer Decker. The ship hurriedly makes preparation to leave Earth orbit, taking on a full crew – including a brought-out-of-retirement Dr. McCoy and a new navigator, Lieutenant Ilia. Meanwhile, the alien entity has for some unknown reason made telepathic contact with Mr. Spock, who hurries to join the Enterprise as it leaves to intercept Vejur.

 

For Kirk, being back in command of the Enterprise is the consummate homecoming, and Roddenberry is urgent to point that out:

 

Kirk eased himself down into the center seat. This place was officially his now and he left himself savor the first moment, pretending to survey the bridge stations. No that he expected anyone to be deceived – but he knew they would be tolerant of a moment like this. His eyes fell on Decker, whose eyes were fixed rigidly ahead, his expression taut. Kirk felt sympathy, then reminded himself that if they survived, Decker would still have his own moment like this. But for James Tiberius Kirk to sit here again was like Lazarus stepping out into the sunlight.

As the ship leaves the solar system, we get an odd little aside from Roddenberry, a reminder not only that 2001: A Space Odyssey had begun the modern era of sci-fi but also that the many books of ErichVon Daniken were still phenomenally popular when this novel was written:

 

The moon Io had held some shocks for the first Earth scientists to land there, although not nearly as shattering as the earlier discovery that Earth’s own moon had once served as a base for space voyagers (their identity still a mystery) who had conducted genetic experiments with Earth’s early life forms a million or more years before human history had begun.

The single most interesting thing about this novel is an innovation Roddenberry adopts early and then simply abandons: the book starts off as a transcript of the whole Vejur adventure as written up by Roddenberry at the behest of … Admiral Kirk, who also pens a preface in which he complains about how exaggerated and distorted his adventures have been over the years. This very promising gambit is pursued a bit at the beginning of the novel, where footnotes often clarify the text, as when we’re told that Spock thought of Kirk in terms of the Vulcan concept of closest friendship:

Editor’s Note: The human concept of friend is most nearly duplicated in Vulcan thought by the term t’hy’la, which can also mean brother and lover. Spock’s recollections (from which this chapter has drawn) is that it was was a most difficult moment for him since he did indeed consider Kirk to have become his brother. However, because t’hy’la can be used to mean lover, and since Kirk’s and Spock’s friendship was unusually close, this has led to some speculation over whether they had actually indeed become lovers. At our request, Admiral Kirk supplied the following comment on this subject:

 

“I was never aware of this lovers rumor, although I have been told that Spock encountered it several times. Apparently he had always dismissed it with his characteristic lifting of his right eyebrow which usually connoted some combination of surprise, disbelief, and/or annoyance. As for myself, although I have no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms, I have always found my best gratification in that creature woman. Also, I would dislike being thought of as so foolish that I would select a love partner who came into sexual heat only once every seven years.”

Readers are left to dream wistfully about how fascinating this novel would be if those footnotes had continued throughout, but alas, ether Roddenberry quickly tired of the idea or his co-writers considered it too much work: the footnotes peter out after less than fifty pages and make only the briefest, most perfunctory returns throughout the rest of the book.

The rest of the book could have used something fascinating. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the book, not the movie) is a failure as a novel – it’s boring, thinly imagined, and worst of all virtually lacking in the character interplay that shines in some of the best Star Trek ficiton we’ve encountered so far. The scenes in which a tormented Mr. Spock, still trying bitterly to retain his near-emotionless state, snubs his former friends and shipmates are well-enough done but could have been truly moving in better (or fewer?) hands. And as a certain (anonymous) reviewer sagely pointed out thirty years ago, Roddenberry’s use of italics quickly slips out of his conscious control – whole passages toward the end of the book are italicized for no reason whatsoever, and the effect is extremely distracting.

The book isn’t a total loss, however: there are classic Roddenberry moments scattered throughout, sharp little reminders that this entire series, this entire concept, originated in the invincible optimism of this one man:

Kirk felt a rush of sentiment for these men and women here who had seen death strike form that cloud and had still stayed. The “ordinary” and lovely blue-white planet below them deserved protection – it had bred a sturdy and decent race, certainly a courageous one. From the beginning of time, other groups like this had gone out, handfuls of puny humans standing together against the dark night, against saber-toothed killers, against the sea, and finally into space. The shape and face of the unknown had changed during all those eons, but there had been no change in human courage.

And artistically successful or not, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – both the book and the movie – were seismic in  their implications for the franchise. The movie made lots of money for the studio, which guaranteed sequels, and the book took all of the Star Trek fictions that had come before it – all that fan fiction, all those heartfelt novels – and plopped them firmly into the category of ‘imaginary’ stories, ex cathedra fantasies that never ‘really’ happened. This forlorn property, this little show that had been kept alive by fans when nobody else cared, was now a multi-million dollar corporate cash-machine. Suddenly there was a canon; suddenly there were corporate executives imposing standards. And one more element was introduced, something that seemed inconspicuous at the time but would go on to have the biggest, most unprecedented ramifications of all: for the first time ever, time had been introduced into an ongoing adventure series.

What would Star Trek fiction do, in the wake of all these changes? Well, at first it would do what it always did: just keep being dorky. We’ll see a few choice examples, in our next chapter.

February 17th, 2011

Taran Wanderer!

Our book today is Taran Wanderer, the fourth book in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Taran Wanderer came out in 1967 and, like the rest of Alexander’s work, has gone through about a gazillion editions with a gazillion different pieces of cover-art. For some mysterious reason, the cover to the 1990 ‘Yearling’ Dell paperback has always appealed to me; it depicts Taran and his faithful forest-creature friend Gurgi (and in the background are the open-hearted blacksmith, the sternly moral farmer, and the complicated herder who all help to shape our young hero), and there’s something that appeals to me about artist Jody Lee’s decision to avoid pyrotechnics and stress instead something of the melancholy of growing up.

The book follows the adventures of young assistant pig-keeper Taran as he goes on a quest to discover his true parentage. Fans of the series will recall that by this point he’s finally avowed his love for Princess Eilonwy, and he’s necessarily feeling a bit antsy about not knowing his own background. There are two happy results of this: first, it guarantees us a nice meaty quest-narrative, which is always fun, and second, it means a book with no insufferable Eilonwy in it, which can only be accounted a good thing.

Instead, we have Taran (and Yoda-speaking Gurgi) finding their usual tally of adventures, and we have Alexander’s passionate, at times sharply good prose describing it all (at one point when Taran is sick, we’re told “Fever came, sweeping over him, a blazing forest through which he staggered endlessly”). Taran encounters our old friend King Smoit again and saves his life; Taran fights and as often as not thinks up alternatives to fighting; and in the book’s most memorable sequence, Taran confronts the evil wizard Morda (hence the aforementioned pyrotechnics), who has already turned all of Taran’s friends into animals and now threatens to do the same to Taran – and not just any animal in his case but the most lowly and wretched of them all, a blind, writing earthworm!

The wizard has scoffed contemptuously at Taran’s threats of sword-play – Morda can’t be killed, he tells our young hero, because he’s used his mystical arts to locate his actual life outside his physical body – and he’s hidden it away where nobody would think to look. Earlier in the book, Taran and his friends had by complete accident found a small cask made of bone hidden away, and Taran had kept it. In the thrilling confrontation with the wizard, Taran makes a leap of intuition that turns out to be right (and had the inevitable echoes of Tolkien):

In Taran’s mind a strange thought raced. The wizard’s life safely hidden? Where none would find it? Taran could not take his eyes from Morda’s hand. A little finger. The coffer in the hollow tree. Slowly, terrified lest his hope betray him, Taran thrust a hand into his jacket and drew out the fragment of polished bone.

At the sight of it Morda’s face seemed to crumble in decay. His jaw dropped, his lips trembled, and his voice came in a rasping whisper. “What do you hold, pig-keeper? Give it into my hands. Give it, I command you.”

“It is a small thing my companions and I found,” replied Taran. “How should this have worth to you, Morda? With all your power, do you covet such a trifle?”

A sickly sweat had begun to pearl on the wizard’s brow. His features twitched and his voice took on a gentleness all the more horrible coming from his lips. “Bold lad to stand against me,” he murmured. “I did no more than test your courage to see if you were worthy to serve me, worthy of rich rewards. You shall have gold in proof of my friendship. And in proof of yours, you shall give me – the small thing, the trifle you hold in your hand …”

But the real drama of Taran Wanderer is personal, not sorcerous. Taran meets Craddoc, the herder, and spends a long time living in his cabin and on his humble farm, which Alexander describes with his typical broad strokes and bright colors:

The farmstead Taran saw to be a tumbledown cottage, whose walls of stone, delved from the surrounding fields, had partly fallen away. Half-a-dozen ill-shorn sheep grazed over the sparse pasture. A rusted plow, a broken-handled mattock, and a scant number of other implements lay in an open-fronted shed. In the midst of the high summits, hemmed in  closely by thorn bush and scrub, the farm stood lorn and desolate, yet clung doggedly to its patch of bare ground like a surviving warrior flinging his last, lone defiance against a pressing ring of enemies.

Craddoc convinces Taran that he is the boy’s father, and the seasons Taran and Gurgi spend on Craddoc’s farm are perfectly, winsomely rendered. When a terrible snowstorm descends on the hollow and Craddoc suffers a terrible fall from a ledge, many truths are revealed, and Taran is forced to continue on his quest. But the pause that is the essential quality of Taran Wanderer is nevertheless a welcome change of pace from the headlong narratives of the other books. That headlong narrative can be a great thing in itself – I doubt that anybody who’s ever read The Black Cauldron has ever forgotten it – but sometimes it’s nice to slow down a little and get to know the hero.

February 15th, 2011

The Spirit Lens!

Our book today is Carol Berg’s richly imagined 2010 fantasy novel The Spirit Lens: A Novel of the Collegia Magica, the first adventure of failed sorcery clerk Portier de Savin-Duplais, a young librarian (though not as young – or as distractingly pretty – as the elfin character on the book’s eye-catching cover) at the last collegia magica in the kingdom of Sabria.

Portier is a true believer, but he’s a few centuries too late; Sabria is in the boom of its own renaissance, and the magical lore so carefully accumulated and catalogued by his library is increasingly being seen as just so much mumbo-jumbo. Portier gets a little lecture on this very topic from no less a figure than Sabria’s sovereign, King Philippe de Savin-Journia, a distant kinsman of our hero:

“I don’t believe in magic, Portier. For most of my eight-and-thirty years, I have judged its practice entirely illusion, trickery, or coincidence. Alchemists daemonstrate every day that matter is not limited to sorcery’s five divine elements. An opticum lens reveals that wood is not homogeneous, but is itself made up of water, air, and fibers. Water contains unseeable creatures and can be fractured into gaseous matter. Spark is but an explosive instance of heat and light and tinder. Similarly with air and base metal. Natural science brings logic  and reason to a chaotic universe. We have discovered more of truth in the past twenty years than in the past twenty centuries, stimulating our minds, benefiting Sabria and her citizens in innumerable ways. However, in this room, it pains me to confess, we find something different.”

King Philippe has summoned Portier to investigate a murder at the royal court, a murder with distinctly magical overtones to it. To help her snarky, introspective protagonist solve this murder (a murder which, needless to say, quickly opens up into other and darker crimes), Berg creates a memorably delightful Odd Couple by teaming him with foppish clotheshorse and fumbling courtier Ilario de Sylvae, whose unwillingness to (inability to?) be introspective has him at gentle odds with his partner for the rest of the book:

Ilario’s prattle dispersed my vision as the wind scatters feathers. But the pain lingered, and I could still smell the reek of blood and mortal panic. The scent of dry cedar never failed to rouse these persistent fragments of horror – memories of the day my father had tried to kill me, and I had killed him instead.

“Portier, are you quite well?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” I said, near breathless from a burgeoning headache. Half-sick, hands trembling and hot as if drenched in nine-year-old blood, I fought to lock away the cursed past like a stray book in its proper cupboard.

When I opened my eyes, Ilario wore an expression of drawn worry so at odds with his raked cap and dangling feathers, I had to smile. “All right, I am not fine,” I said. “As with you, Chevalier, crypts and deadhouses give me the frights. Now, what were you saying about Soren?”

A friend of mine once remarked that today’s extremely pricey paperbacks ($17 for The Spirit Lens when it first appeared in trade, $8 for this mass market paperback) make it impossible to walk into a bookstore’s “new fantasy/sci-fi” section and simply take chances on a handful of books, as was once possible when they were reasonably priced. Sadly, this is true – so it’s all the more eagerly that I recommend a book that’s actually still in print and in bookstores! Give The Spirit Lens a try: you’ll enjoy it very much!

February 14th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Livy’s First Book!

Some Penguin Classics get overshadowed by others, and that’s certainly the case with the Aubrey De Selincourt translation of the first five books of the Roman historian Livy. This volume was done in 1960, but when readers think “DeSelincourt” and “Livy,” they think of that translator’s fantastic, reads-like-a-novel Penguin Classics volume titled The War with Hannibal, the praises of which we’ve sung often here at Stevereads. That Hannibal volume is a kind of masterpiece, but even so, The Early History of Rome deserves its day in the sun.

This is the story of Rome’s earliest mytho-history, from the foundation of the city and the tale of Romulus and Remus to the Gallic invasion of 386 b.c. Here are the Tarquin kings and the virtuous virgins and the squabbling in-fighting and the oversized characters like Coriolanus who so profitably fed the imagination of Shakespeare that he sometimes doesn’t even bother to change Livy’s words as he’s purloining them.

The reason for this is the superb drama of Livy’s prose. He himself concentrates on that drama in an appealingly unashamed way – as R. M. Ogilvie points out in his introduction, Livy had no political occupation or administrative duties; the purpose of his entire life was to write, and despite the stories we read of his public readings at Rome being sparsely attended, he clearly wrote to be enjoyed. He appears to have led no public life other than that of a working historian – he came to Rome from Padua at an early age, and when he was around 30 he began work on the great history that would consume his life: a sprawling, cinematic work of 142 books, of which only 35 survive. He write his prose epic for forty years with the full encouragement of the emperor Augustus (who jokingly accused him of Pompeian loyalties), and when he died in a.d. 17 he was famous throughout the Roman world (there’s an anecdote about a man from Cadiz, with which I shall not trouble you, since you’ve undoubtedly read about it elsewhere).

35 books isn’t much. For those of us who’ve read them over and over for the sheer fun of it, the number is heartbreaking. But there’s a consolation to be taken in these first five books of the Ab Urbe Condita. Livy started here, after all, and these five books were meant as a rhetorical unit. They were proofread, indexed, and sold separately from the rest of the work, even when the rest of the work was well advanced and garnering fans of its own. Something about these elemental stories of Rome’s chaotic founding (stories Livy transmuted from the mostly Greek originals he came across and denied using) held a narrative appeal that retained its strength for long centuries after their storyteller was gone. In Livy’s later sections dealing with Rome’s consolidation of power in Italy and the Mediterranean, there are many spots where the master nods – but in The Early History of Rome there’s scarcely time to take a breath between one incredibly charged moment and the next.

Take the example of the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, a human drama so stark that even De Selincourt’s Edwardian circumlocutions fail to blunt it:

“My body only has been violated. My heart is innocent, and death will be my witness. Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer will be punished – he is Sextus Tarquinius. Hi it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death – and his, too, if you are men.”

The promise was given. One after another they tried to comfort her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind, they said, that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be guilt.

“What is due to him,” Lucretia said, “is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent or unchaste women to escape what they deserve.” With these words she drew a knife from under her robe, drive it into her heart, and fell forward, dead.”

Her father and husband were overwhelmed with grief. While they stood weeping helplessly, Brutus drew the bloody knife from Lucretia’s body, and holding it before him cried: “By this girl’s blood – none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her – and by the gods, I swear that with sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, his wicked wife, and all his children, and ever again will I let them or any other man be King in Rome.”

Or the scene from the story of Coriolanus where he confronts his mother before the walls of the city he’s intending to sack for its insolence to him – a scene that will be familiar to lovers of Shakespeare but in Livy’s hands lacks not one bit of the Bard’s pathos:

“I would know,” she said, “before I accept your kiss, whether I have come to an enemy or to  son, whether I am here as your mother or as a prisoner of war. Have my long life and unhappy old age brought me to this, that I should see you first an exile, then the enemy of your country? Had you the heart to ravage the earth which bore and bred you? When you set foot upon it, did not your anger fall away, however fierce your hatred and lust for revenge? When Rome was before your eyes, did not the thought come to you, ‘within those walls is my home, with the gods to watch over it – and my mother and my wife and my children’? Ah, had I never borne a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country! But now there is nothing left for me to endure, nothing which can bring to me more pain, and to you a deeper dishonour, than this. I am indeed an unhappy woman – but it will not be for long; think of these others who, if you cannot relent, must hope for nothing but an untimely death or life-long slavery.”

De Selincourt’s translations rolls on magnificently from page to page, and the reader is swept along. Penguin Classics has four volumes of Livy (and in my library of dream-volumes from Penguin – a library whose contents we’ll get to by-and-by – they come out with one hugely satisfying plump big trade paperback of all four of those volumes together), and as noted, The War With Hannibal is the best of them, the most vivid and exciting and pivotal in terms of real, verifiable history. But The Early History of Rome takes a close second place and is utterly fascinating in its own right – not only for the drama of its stories but for the uncanny window it opens into how one very intelligent man thought the Romans under Augustus might want to see themselves – or their ideal selves.

February 8th, 2011

The Rationalist!

Our book today is The Rationalist, a lean and quite skillful 1993 novel by Warwick Collins. Despite working fairly close to the world of books, I first became aware of this novel when I found it under a particularly stubborn layer of muck at the bottom of a canvas tub at the back of a charity discard depot – to say it ‘flew under the radar’ in the United States would be a bit of an understatement. One potential reason for that failure to achieve liftoff might be signaled in Simon & Schuster’s odd choice to decorate the book’s back jacket not with the usual graffiti wall of glowing endorsements but instead with one line, “It is a strange dark tale, perverse, erotic, and haunting” – one plug, written by Josephine Hart, whose own novels read absolutely nothing like The Rationalist and whose endorsement, therefore, might strike some readers much as a skull-and-crossbones warning label would on a bottle they’d mistakenly assumed was creme de menthe.

Whatever the reason for the book’s relative obscurity, readers who, like me, failed to catch it fifteen years ago missed a real treat. This is a smart, ruthlessly controlled, perfectly executed historical novel of exquisite discretion and an unfailingly high estimate of its readers’ intelligence. It deserves an enormous audience.

It’s the story of Silas Grange, an 18th-century physician operating out of Lambeth during the reign of King George III. Grange is a self-possessed fellow (one of his closest friends tells him he has “a mind as cold as winter,” and he himself admits that he considers himself to be “a man who is not much at liberty with his own emotions”), and Collins’ prose when dealing with him is equally austere – indeed, the book opens with an arm-amputation scene that reads like it was written by a Vulcan: we see and hear the poor patient’s agony and doomed bravery, but the narrative doesn’t feel any of it, won’t let itself … it’s an altogether beguiling experience – it ought to have been a calling-card to Wolf Hall-levels of fame – and it’s no false advertisement: the entire book is crammed with equally excellent set-pieces.

Grange is a man of science, and despite how carefully he schools them, his passions are quite strong – including a sometimes fierce desire to fly into pure inquiry, to risk everything in order that his insatiable curiosity might find hidden truths:

His own strict image of the truth, learned in the academies of Scotland, was central to this notion. One could not use the image of a candle shedding its light upon objects, for the truth seemed to emerge from inside like some internal radiance, as ghostly as the patina on silver. It appeared to him that truth was not prolix or voluble, but crept out shyly from the side, like a man escaping from a house.

When the book opens, Grange would hardly consider himself prolix or voluble, and yet his imagination is vast, and his attentive eyes miss nothing in the seacoast world to which he’s relegated himself:

More than all the other birds, Grange loved the great gray herons that inhabited the marshes, for their solitariness, their silence, their casual grace as they swam upward into the air. He loved them too for the calm, recondite heartbeat of their wings when agitated. In surveying them, their silence moved him to remark on his own solitude, and perhaps therein lay an identity of interests, or at least of common form.When disturbed, they seemed to move upward into the thinner medium as calmly as thought, grasping the air in their big wings like hands.

The precise order of Grange’s world is disturbed when he calls on the town’s enigmatic Mrs. Quill, a woman who on the surface appears as reserved and formidable as he is himself. In their first fretful interview, he’s driven by a confusion of lust and curiosity to an uncharacteristic piece of hyperbole: “I am a rationalist,” he tells her. “If God’s against that, I am against God.”

If this is meant to shock the conventional moralities of the time, it’s got nothing on the proposal Mrs. Quill subsequently makes to him, and from there the novel unfolds in a sequence of developments as predictable and yet appalling as a fifty-car pile-up on an icy road. You’ll be spellbound and transported … the two effects we like to demand of all good historical fiction and yet so seldom get. I haven’t yet hunted down the rest of Collins’ books at the Boston Public Library, but you’ll hear about it when I do – and in the meantime, I can’t recommend this one strongly enough. No matter what you may or may not think of Josephine Hart.

February 4th, 2011

Mysteries Histories: Three Debuts!

What is it we love about murder mysteries? An old enemy of mine maintained the appeal came from order – that in murder mysteries, everything happens for a reason (even if it’s a bad reason) and that’s inherently comforting in chaotic times. An old friend of mine (reader, I loved him) used to consume an unending stream of murder mysteries to ease the burdens of his rather onerous job, and he said the appeal came from the fact that justice always triumphs (“which is not always the outcome in real life,” he used to sigh, “however much we may strive for it”).

I’ve been an avid fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries from the beginning, so to those two very good theories I could add a third: mysteries please us in part for the joy of watching pointed ratiocination at work. In our ordinary lives, thinking usually doesn’t happen pointedly – we come at problems sideways, we defer realizations until after our TV shows are done, we let our most promising lines of contemplation drift off into complicated fantasies involving Taylor Lautner. For most of us, the protracted aria of proud link-by-link deduction produced by somebody like Hercule Poirot is one hell of a compelling dream. This also accounts for the backlash popularity of mystery’s muddlers, the sleuths who slip and trip into the truth.

Whatever the root causes of the murder mystery’s appeal, though, the result is the same: the library shelves and used bookstore bins are filled with them, to the point where you start to wonder if more people have been murdered on paper than were ever murdered in life. And for the last fifty years or so, a booming sub-genre of that profusion has been the historical murder mystery. We’ll never know who the anonymous genius was who first had the inspired realization that people in the past must have had to solve crimes just like people in the present (technically, even Doyle was doing a bit of this), but in the 20th century, borne aloft by the boom in historical fiction just generally, the sub-genre exploded. Historical figures from Socrates and Aristotle to Ben Franklin and Abigail Adams somehow found time amidst all the rest of their activities to snoop in warehouses and question evasive priests, and even more popular were the adventures of invented characters set down in the past and interacting with the great and the infamous from their own day.

The rise of this second type of historical murder mystery is only natural – even through the mists of time, we know a little too much about the movements of somebody like the Black Prince or Joanna the Mad to make it credible that they could be dueling with tennis rackets atop the 4:15 to Paddington. But a thoroughly invented My Lord of Loverwurst can get into all kinds of scrapes (including punching the Black Prince in the nose – or punching Joanna in the nose, if he’s a blackguard) without prompting that most lethal of historical fiction questions from the reader: did that REALLY happen? If you force the reader to ask that hated question too often, you lose that reader to those boring old sods who write history, and the game’s over.

No, the key is to create a historical stand-in who’s in a believable position to encounter mysteries (we will forever adore Agatha Christie specifically because the Miss Marple stories are so infinitely unlikely) – an army officer, a government official, the king’s better-looking cousin, etc. This person must have access to famous historical figures and events, but the ‘public’ face of those figures and events must be allowed to proceed unperturbed, like some grand floating parade, while the dirt and skullduggery happens around and underneath them. King John still signs Magna Carta – little knowing that our intrepid castellan has just disarmed the would-be crossbow-cocking assassin.

A good example of this is the first of our three debuts, Murder in the Place of Anubis, Lynda Robinson’s 1994 first novel starring Lord Meren, chief investigator to the teen pharaoh Tutankhamun. In this first adventure Lord Meren must unravel the murder of Hormin, a detested scribe whose body is found in the sacred embalming-dedicated precincts of Anubis. Since the pharaoh is a living god in his society, Meren carries a good deal more authority than most historical sleuths, but his best weapon is his own reflective nature, which Robinson manages to convey just as effectively as she does her well-researched background. Meren is a man who’s smart enough to listen to his own reactions, and every time he does, he starts to learn something:

As he listened to Selket, Meren became aware of his own vague uneasiness. At first he couldn’t understand his discomfort, but then he realized that the woman talking to him shifted from fury to complacency and back again in half a heartbeat. When she spoke of Beltis, her eyes took on the look of a rabid hyena, yet moments before she’d mentioned Hormin with a sweet lilt in her voice.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum from Lord Meren and his unlimited authority is Marcus Didius Falco, the downtrodden working-stiff hero of Lindsey Davis’ 1989 debut Silver Pigs. The year is a.d. 70, and Falco is eking out his living in Rome as a poorly-paid informer and part-time snoop. His life changes forever when he encounters beautiful, high-spirited senator’s daughter Helena Justina and he suddenly finds himself embroiled in plots and counter-plots involving no less than the imperial family – genial emperor Vespasian and his two sons, creepy Domitian and suave Titus:

Domitian gave no further sign of nerves. He kissed Helena’s hand, with the half-closed gaze of a very young man who imagines he is brilliant in bed. She stared at him stonily. Titus intervened, with a smoothness I envied, kissing her cheek like a relative as we reached the door. I let him. If she wanted, she was perfectly capable of stopping him herself.

I hoped she realized these two came from an old-fashioned Sabine family. Stripped of their purple, they were provincial and ordinary: close with their money, ruled by their women, and obsessed with work. They both had paunches already, and neither of them was as tall as me.

Falco is the anti-Meren in every way: he intimidates nobody, he carries no authority (even when he’s technically working for Vespasian, it’s clear that if he screws up he’s on his own), and he’s not all that good at deductive reasoning. He has a mongrel stubborn streak that Lord Meren’s type of investigator doesn’t even think to need, so Davis’ readers get a good deal more desperate fisticuffs than Robinson’s do (and a great deal more humor – there are set pieces in the first three Falco novels that alone are worth the price of the books). One key thing they have in common: they each make their historical period come alive.

Veering almost totally in the Miss Marple direction is the first novel in Ellis Peters’ venerable Brother Cadfael series, 1977’s A Morbid Taste for Bones, which introduces Peters’ great fictional creation: the Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael, who came to his religious calling after years of wandering the world as a battle-hardened soldier and is now the chief herbalist at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in 1137 Shrewsbury. Cadfael is wiser than Lord Meren and more temperate than Marcus Didius Falco – he has a personal passion for seeing justice done in all things, but there’s a distinct undercurrent of irritation in many of his adventures, as though he partially resents these intrusions by the murderous outside world into what was supposed to be his contemplative retirement.  The series is some twenty books long, and all of them are fantastic (this rarely happens in murder series, or indeed series of any kind), and they’re all enlivened by Cadfael’s always perceptive, somewhat wry observations of everyone and everything around him:

They met in the orchard, the five of them, Prior Robert presiding in as solemn dignity as ever. Brother Richard read out the saints to be celebrated that day and the following day. Brother Jerome composed his wiry person into his usual shape of sycophantic reverence, and made all the appropriate responses. But it seemed to Cadfael that Brother Columbanus looked unusually withdrawn and troubled, his full blue eyes veiled. The contrast between his athletic build and fine, autocratic head, and his meek and anxious devoutness of feature and bearing, was always confusing to the observer, but that morning his extreme preoccupation with some inward crisis of real or imagined sin made it painful to look at him. Brother Cadfael sighed, expecting another falling fit like the one that had launched them all on this quest. Who knew what this badly-balanced half-saint, half-idiot would do next?

The Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is near the Welsh border and often caught in pivotal events in the epic struggle between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda – too often, as often happens in the Miss Marple formula. After a few books in this series, even the most willing reader will start to wonder if it isn’t a little odd for all these strange events to be cropping up at this one abbey. Fortunately, Peters’ steely-confident prose is on hand at every point – to be enjoyed whether it’s believable or not.

And these three are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical murder mysteries, of course.  Countless others await our inspection, if the Silent Majority is at all interested in pursuing the case!

February 2nd, 2011

The Illustrated History of the World!

Our book today is The Illustrated History of the World, and it’s a response to several of you who caught the fact that when I was writing about Roberts’ History of the World I mentioned that I myself had a sentimental soft spot for a world history that wasn’t Roberts. Many upstanding members of the Silent Majority emailed me wondering what that sentimental favorite of mine was – and here it is.

This heavy, heavily-illustrated (there are maps, charts, and hundreds of black-and-white photos) volume was first published in 1927, edited by Sir John Hammerton and an erudite man named Harry Elmer Barnes, and its calm, accessible prose style quickly won it a reputation among schoolmasters and college professors. It sold well and was reprinted half a dozen times – a rare and heady success for those days. The edition I own was printed in late 1937 and opens with these words:

“To know nothing of the past,” said an ancient philosopher, “is to understand little of the present and to have no conception of the future.” Of all the branches of human knowledge, none is so essential, none so exciting, none has such practical daily usefulness as History. With the record of the past before us, we turn with serenity toward the present and move forward into the future armed for whatever may befall.

The optimism of it, given the date, is enough to make you cry.

There follows the whole panoply of human history, usually given in such useful scope and such accurate detail that I’ve actually continued to consult this big fat book, even despite the dozen or so more contemporary histories on the shelf next to it. And the work’s two editors were no fools: they could see storm-clouds gathering in their own day, although neither they nor anyone else could predict the full horror of “whatever may befall.” They conclude this volume:

City life produces new strains and stresses and leads to a great increase in mental and nervous instability. World war, using the deadly methods of destruction now available, may drag all civilization down once more to the level of barbarism. Only in the degree to which we understand the critical and transitional character of the contemporary age shall we be able to avert calamity and build a world order which will not only be new and different but better, when measured by the standards of general human well-being.

The mild socialism buried in this (our authors matter-of-factly inform us that capitalism has all but run its course) is instantly forgivable when seen in the light of how utterly their contemporary age failed to avert calamity, and I’d forgive it anyway, since it’s not the business of history books to predict the future. What I enjoy most about this volume is its simple belief in the importance of facts – there are no politically correct causes in these pages, no 15 pages devoted to the Armenian Massacre and 2 pages devoted to the American Civil War, no fads or special interest distortion – the whole enterprise of it is too early for such things, and its editors, whatever their faults, too watchful.

And something about the fact that this volume contains no moon landings, no Holocaust, no Cold War or collapse of Communism, no Challenger explosion or September 11, no Internet or Twitter Revolution – something about the fact that the Persian Empire still spreads across its stately pages in this volume, that the same half-smiling Egyptian statues still stand in the Boston Museum, something about the way the past is allowed to be the past, rather than an endless series of springboards for the present, makes this volume oddly comforting to me. It reminds me how thin a film the present always is over the past.