Posts from January 2013
January 31st, 2013
Josiah for President
by Martha Bolton
“If you can’t trust the Amish, who can you trust?” asks a gushing voter in Martha Bolton’s debut novel, Josiah for President, and like jesting Pilate, does not stay for an answer. Bolton may be a first-time novelist, but she’s an old hand at writing, with over eighty books to her name and a stint as a staff writer for Bob Hope – and this, more than anything else, saves her modern-day parable from being quite the same brand of gummy treacle most religious-book publishers churn out about the Amish. Zondervan has a particularly treacly track record in that regard, but this book is much smoother, more grounded, and of course funnier than anything they’ve ever published. That still doesn’t get us very far, but it’s something like a start.
The usual patter of Amish-oriented religious fiction is to stress idyllic Plain Way world the Amish have established for themselves in such places as our book’s initial setting, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Take that allegedly pristine world of bearded men, subservient women, and horse-drawn buggies, bathe it in a very predictable ‘things were so much better then’ glow, and present it to your millions of brain-pithed Christian readers as a story about a better, purer version of their faith, before “we all” got side-tracked by the cell phones and DVDs and DVRs of our crazy modern world. Such books – and there are dozens every year – scrupulously make no allusion to civil rights, post-grade school education, the benefits of modern medicine and such technological achievements as electricity, or the self-evident mass psychosis of a sect that behaves as if the last 400 years didn’t really happen. Instead, the Amish are portrayed as avatars of an almost childlike innocence – it’s the rest of “us” who are at fault.
It’s foul nonsense, explicable only by the fact that most Christians simply aren’t brave enough to attempt living their lives in direct engagement with the precepts of their Saviour (“Gimme That Old Time Religion” being code in all cases whatsoever for “Jesus told me to love my enemy, but if you so much as look at my daughter, I’ll pump you full of bird-shot”), but it sells books. Books based entirely on a fraudulent conception of the past and its connection to the present – time travel, in other words, for Buckeyes who’d never read the real thing.
So Bolton deserves at least a little credit for her playful premise, because although Josiah for President starts out in Lancaster Pennsylvania, it’s got much wider vistas in mind. Failed presidential hopeful Mark Stedman is driving through Lancaster when his GPS mistakenly sends his car into a ditch. Humble Amish farmer Josiah Stoltzfus and his horse help the stranded Congressman out, and in the course of their interaction, Stedman begins to conceive a madcap idea:
What if an Amish family really did move into the White House? What would that mean for America? Could an Amish man get the country back on track? Back to basics? It didn’t seem to be as ridiculous a notion as anyone originally thought. Could good old-fashioned common sense really be making a comeback?
Readers who find themselves nodding enthusiastically at such stuff will love Josiah for President. They’ll love the fact that Josiah handles himself with folksy charm during the presidential debates, wins in a landslide, turns off the electricity in the White House living quarters, and hitches his horses in the Rose Garden. Bolton writes smooth, engaging prose (and the scene where the Secret Service stumble over each other while trying to catch a runaway goat is genuinely charming), and it’s all in service to that idea of getting the country ‘back to basics.’
Readers who see an idiotic phrase like ‘back to basics,’ on the other hand, readers who know what the entire length of 20th century American history repeatedly taught – which is that ‘back to basics’ is always, always code-speak for denying equalities to black people, Hispanic people, Jewish people, gay people, and female people – well, Josiah for President wasn’t written for them in any case. Which is a bit ironic in its own right, since it’s those people who’ll see the book’s title and reflexively think, “But America’s already had a president named Josiah.”
They’ll be thinking of President Josiah Bartlet, immortally portrayed by Martin Sheen on TV’s The West Wing. And they’ll be a long way from home, in these pages. President Bartlet, after all, favored complexity.
January 30th, 2013
My usual one-two combination of The London Review of Books and the TLS always has a huge amount of long, meaty, scholarly piece of literary journalism – that’s why I’ve been coming back to them every week since before most of you were born. And this last week was no exception, with plenty of great, long pieces on books both obscure and well-known.
But sometimes, in amongst the dinosaur-march of all those long pieces, there are scurrying little moments that really brighten the whole lunch, and they don’t often get the credit they deserve. It’s no easy thing to work a winning side-note or a funny bit into a piece that has to pass through the remorselessly humorless hands of an editor; writers who can manage it should get a bit of credit before their work is ground under in the constantly-turning wheel of the Penny Press.
Take the LRB, for example: in the middle of a very tough but very fair piece on Thomas Nagel’s skimpy new booklet-essay “Mind and Cosmos” (about as long as this Stevereads post), reviewer Peter Godfrey-Smith takes a second to mention Reginald Punnett’s 1915 book Mimicry in Butterflies – and call it “beautiful”! Anybody who’s read the book (and I now know there are at least two of us) would be momentarily ecstatic, and I was.
Or elsewhere in the same issue, when Adam Phillips is reviewing Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense and quips, “Spufford is preaching to the unconverted” – hee.
J.C., the mastermind behind the “NB” column in the TLS, can almost always be relied upon for such smile-inducing moments, and this last issue was no exception, talking about special Days commemorating famous people: “Usually, on a Day set aside for an important personage, something happens. People have a holiday or eat haggis.”
But to my mind, the best little moment of them all this time around came in that same issue of the TLS, in a brief review by Houman Barekat of The Notorious Sir John Hill … a review in which the burst of joy derives from one perfectly-chosen word. See if you can spot it:
It would do no great disservice to John Hill’s twenty-six-volume opus, The Vegetable System, to observe that its author was one of those unusual men whose greatest achievements make for the least interesting part of their story. Published in instalments between 1759 and 1775, the leguminous tome helped seal his reputation as a natural historian …
Hee. I’m not sure I’d have seen that particular opportunity, but I’m sure glad Barekat did!
January 23rd, 2013
As usual, the latest National Geographic contained wonders – and as usual, many of those wonders were distinctly familiar to me! That’s one of the best things about the magazine, for those of its readers who’ve seen a bit of the world: the best photographers in the business work every month to bring it all back to you.
Of course, that has good and bad parts, since a great deal of the world is rather unpleasant. This month’s cover article, on benighted Libya, is an excellent if slightly obvious example: the piece is all about Libya’s people slowly emerging to rediscover their country in the wake of their tyrant’s downfall, but the place has been a hell-zone since the days of Septimius Severus, and the article can’t do much to hide that fact, though it tries mighty hard.
And if an article on Libya is an example of an obvious reminder of something unpleasant, how much more so must be an article on venom? (as the article itself helpfully reminds us, poison is ingested – venom is injected) The piece in question is by Jennifer Holland, and it’s called “The Bite That Heels” because its hook is that the deadliest venoms in the animal kingdom may hold vast untapped pharmaceutical treasures, chemical combinations that, properly refined, could work wonders in treating everything from hypertension to heart disease to cancer. The naturalists and scientists interviewed throughout the article all sound so purposeful and optimistic, but the great photos by Mattias Klum won’t make the retired world traveller dream of miracle medical cures, no – the gorgeous shots of green mambas and cobras and Cameroon’s hysterically savage rhino viper will only serve to remind such a traveller of one thing: how rotten it is to be on the receiving end of venom. Scorpions and snakes may be the unwitting factories of future vaccines, but their bites and stings kill well over 100,000 humans every year (and Gawd only knows how many other animals), and some world-travellers have had spectacularly bad luck in the whole getting-bit sweepstakes. Klum’s beautiful shot of a Jameson’s mamba, looking like a perfect thing chipped out of emerald, will no doubt elicit several rhapsodizing letters – but getting bit by a Jameson’s mamba can ruin your whole afternoon. And if there were anyone alive today who’s been bitten, stabbed, and stung by every single one of the noxious creatures mentioned in this article, well …
Slightly warmer memories were evoked by Michael Finkel’s fantastic article on the Kyrgyz nomads of Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor between Pakistan and Tajikistan – although ‘warmer’ only in the emotional sense, since the high plateaus that are the setting for Finkel’s piece (and for Matthieu Paley’s quietly magnificent photos) are some of the most relentlessly cold places in the world. The hardy people who live there can see the temperature plunge to dozens of degrees below zero virtually every day of the year, and the very rare visitor to the region must travel for almost a solid week of utter misery (trusting yaks not to slip and fall on snow- and ice-covered pathways no wider than the computer you’re using to read this, camping in glorified lean-to’s while the wind shrieks ‘outside,’ subsisting on snow melt and gloppy stews of gleaming half-melted fat, etc.) just to get there. And as Finkel makes clear, that visitor is travelling as much through time as through the Karakoram Range:
This intense isolation is the reason the Kyrgyz suffer from a catastrophic death rate. There’s no doctor, no health clinic, few medicines. In the harsh environment, even a minor ailment – a sniffle, a headache – can swiftly turn virulent. The death rate for children among the Afghan Kyrgyz may be the highest in the world. Less than half live to their fifth birthday. It is not unusual for parents to lose five children, or six, or seven. Women die at an alarming rate while giving birth.
There is beauty to the place – Paley’s photos capture it well – but it comes at such a preposterous cost to everything living that sees it. The retired world-traveller will likely remember it as a place of pure longing – not for plumbing or warmth but for an entirely different world: hunkered down in the Kyrgyz’s miserable world, you long for the warmth and comfort of a half-length sofa covered in sleeping dogs, where you can read about it all in complete peace. After first checking for kraits in the cushions, that is.
January 21st, 2013
Since there’s bloody little else to do on these wretched state and federal holidays during which the holy Post Office is closed (and with a winter storm coming – that being something of a tradition for Inauguration Days I care about), we can get a lot of extra reading done on Martin Luther King Day. Ah, but what to read? Prior to the advent of Stevereads, this used to be the premiere question nagging every voracious reader: what do I read next? (Now, in the Age of Stevereads, there are two – and only two – equally wonderful options: you can read the books recommended on Stevereads, or you can read Stevereads itself, which is now so vast an archive of verbiage that you’d need a whole day to get through it all!)
It’s lucky for such searching readers (or maybe it’s because of them?) that bookworms like nothing more than the making of lists. Books Read. Books To Be Read. Favorite Books in All Categories. Runners Up. Such lists have featured prominently here on Stevereads all these years, and they’re everywhere else too – it’s understandable, really, since the profusion of books out there makes every winnowing-device feel like a godsend.
Hence, the profusion of books consisting of lists of books! These have been with us for centuries, and now, ironically, readers need help picking which books to read about picking which books to read. And Stevereads is here to offer such help – in the form, naturally enough, of a list:
Have You Read 100 Great Books? – Everybody’s got to have a first encounter with such books, and for me it’s this dorky 1950 volume from the late lamented Jasper Lee Company. The book (printed soon enough after the WWII that it could refer to the war itself as “the great holocaust” – no capital ‘H’ – without self-consciousness) believes explicitly in the improving power of reading, and it wants to convey that power to ‘the man on the street.’ The first third of the book is taken up with ‘best books’ lists from such literary luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, John Cowper Powys, John Lubbock, Arnold Bennett, and Christopher Morley, as well as house lists from such institutions as Columbia College and the Grolier Club. The last third of the book is filled with page-long excerpts from some of the great books listed all throughout. But it’s the middle third that was – and still is – the charmer for me: Jasper Lee sent out questionnaires – not to famous authors or magazine columnists, but to libraries, asking them to send in their lists of the best books ever written. These lists went to the most illustrious institutions in the country – Milton Lord and his staff at the Boston Public Library required exactly one afternoon to generate their response – and also to all the beautiful little libraries dotted throughout the country. Many of those little libraries grappled so earnestly with the task of creating their lists (consulting the staff went without saying, but since the staffs in question could often be four people, in many cases favorite patrons were consulted as well) that Jasper Lee had to remind them more than once about big-city deadlines (the list from Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a work of art – and one of the only ones to contain any Longfellow).
The List of Books – The job was almost never done more comprehensively than in this tall, slim 1981 volume from Kenneth McLeish and the great Frederic Raphael, in which many lifetimes of reading are distilled into common sense categories (“Fiction,” “Home and Garden,” “Poetry”) and flagged with a Linnean system of icons: “A particular pleasure to read,” “Difficult: worth persevering,” “Major masterpiece,” “Minor masterpiece,” “Infuriating: possibly illuminating,” and that most coveted reader accolade of them all: “Not to be missed.” As could be expected in any project involving Raphael, The List of Books is fare more than what its title implies – it’s in fact an over-stuffed treasure-trove of argument-starting literary opinion (about Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Irish Famine book The Great Hunger we read: “One of the best books on Irish history. If you are English it should make you blush with shame”). Almost all of literature is touched on here; all it really lacks is everything that came after it was published.
The Joy of Books by Eric Burns – Despite being a professional journalist, Burns is an intelligent, omnivorous reader, and this 1995 book is my favorite among the many first-rate things he’s written. These are occasional book-themed essays, collected and sometimes slightly elaborated, and they sparkle with the kind of no-nonsense quotable gems Burns was able to dispense with almost medical regularity, as when he writes about the drawbacks of the writing life: “Maybe a writer can finagle a $30,000 advance for a book, but it will take him so long to write that his hourly rate works out to about the same as the guys who stuff the rodent remains into all-beef hot dogs.” Like all such books, he ends his festivities with the course we all wanted: his own list of his favorite books in a handful of genres – the ones that have brought him the most joy up to the time of his writing. It’s great to see Pete Dexter on that list – and a little wistful to see such names as Ward Just, Vincent Patrick, and Colin Harrison there as well.
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen – This skinny little 1998 volume probably sold more copies total than any of the other books on this list; it’s the books-only equivalent of the New York Times column she wrote for many years, full of wonderful, winding conversations on all aspects of the reading life (with some potted historical asides inevitably hauling in the Sumerians). As charming as these ruminations are, they, too, are merely the foreground for the good stuff at the end: Quindlen rewards her readers not just with books-lists but highly themed books-lists: “10 Nonfiction Books That Help Us Understand the World,” and “10 Books for a Girl Who Is Full of Beans (or Ought to Be),” and best of all “10 Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer To Read (but Aren’t Beach Books)” (in case you’re wondering, #1 is Gone with the Wind). These are the kinds of lists only the most hopeless book-addict would even think to make, and they’re the highlight of this little endeavor.
For the Love of Books by Ronald Shwartz – Hopeless book-addiction certainly applies to this 1999 volume (my personal favorite on the list), written with erudite passion by an author who steered clear of liberal arts graduate school because “it was rumored to be a cold clinic in which to deconstruct literature, a place where bad things happened to good books.” Instead, he went to law school and continued to give himself over to the love of reading – and that love is the subject of this book, which is an extremely fascinating collection of reminiscences by famous authors looking back on the books that shaped them. Shwartz doesn’t give us any book-lists of his own – except for the long and wondrously varied list that emerges from listening to all these writers talk about the writing that most stuck with them thoughout their lives. Scwartz spent many years as a Boston trial lawyer, and it shows: these personal responses, these affidavits, speak as enumeratively – and eloquently – as any hundred lists could do. The result is, erm, good enough to lick.
A Passion for Books – edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan – This generous book also came out in 1999, the mid-to-late 1990s feeling the massive groundswell of the Internet and beginning, perhaps, to sweat a little about the future of plain old printed books (our current march toward digital domination was only the glimmer of a nightmare to these authors and editors; they imagined that ubiquitous home computers would eliminate reading, not eliminate printed books). A Passion for Books resembles very closely the first book on our list: it’s a miscellany, really, including not only quips and quotes and cartoons but also longer excerpts by book-folk down the ages, from Petrarch to Montaigne to Robertson Davies and even a bit from the Anna Quindlen book just mentioned. There are much longer pieces, too, including Robert Benchley’s hilarious “Why Does Nobody Collect Me?” and William Dana Orcutt’s great essay on Aldus Manutius (no idea – then or now – what this piece is doing here, but it’s such a joy I’m not complaining). And yes, there are lists at the end – including the infamous Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century, which caused dozens of bookworms throughout the country to start lying about whether or not they’d ever read Zuleika Dobson.
By the end of a wretchedly non-postal afternoon spent in the company of such books, the outside world is forgotten, and the reader is busy making – or re-making – book-lists of his own, surely one of the best book-addict activities this side of that Holy of Holies, book-rearranging. And who knows? If this mythical snow really does arrive, maybe tomorrow will be the day for that.
January 13th, 2013
Hero of Rome
by Douglas Jackson
Corgi Books, 2011 (US paperback)
“She did not look like a man in woman’s dress,” we’re told. “She was tall, certainly, and well-built, but the turn of her wrists was graceful and the waving curls of red hair escaping from her four braids stirred against a face that was neither cragged nor harsh.”
That’s one of the first Roman’s-eye-view descriptions we get of that notorious figure from the colonial history of ancient Rome, Boudicca, in Pauline Gedge’s massive 1978 novel The Eagle and the Raven. Quite contrary to my expectations, The Eagle and the Raven has held up well upon subsequent re-readings; it’s a full-bodied multi-viewpointed look at the massive native revolt that convulsed Roman Britain in A. D. 60-61, perhaps the single most famous military uprising against Roman rule this side of the Spartacus revolt. One of the biggest reasons why the British revolt has been so famous is its leader: Queen Boudicca (once upon a time known as “Boadicea” and pronounced with all five syllables), the Iceni leader who was unjustly whipped by her vicious Roman overlords (who were supposed to be allies) and forced to watch as both her daughters were raped by legionaries. In righteous fury, she led a grand and comparatively well-organized revolt that swamped the scattered and demobilized Roman colonists in and around Norwich, sacked the town of Colchester, and threatened London.
One picturesque detail in the story made famous by Tacitus: a small 200-man detachment of Roman troops got trapped in the marble temple in Colchester dedicated to the deified emperor Claudius (those of you of a certain age will remember with delight the harrowingly good episode of “I, Claudius” called “A God in Colchester”) and eventually routed from their makeshift sanctuary.
Douglas Jackson tells the story of that ill-fated detachment in his fantastic historical novel Hero of Rome – the hero in question being the tribune Gaius Valerius Verrens, who’s sent to shore up the local defenses with an entirely inadequate troop-count – sent, of course, by the requisite foppish, oblivious superior:
[Verrens] pointed out the elementary error. “This doesn’t say how many cohorts I’ll have under me.”
“Cohorts? I do not believe we need think in terms of cohorts,” Decianus sniffed. ‘You will have one hundred and fifty men from the Londinium garrison, and such other troops as are on leave or in transit. Enough to provide a stiffening for the militia and stay the panic in the quaestor’s heart until such time as the governor considers it necessary to move a vexillation of the Ninth legion to Colonia.’ He smiled disdainfully. ‘You see, Verrens, I take no chances. The governor is informed, a solution suggested and a reinforcement sent. What more should I do?’
‘Sir, with respect, two hundred men is -‘
‘Appropriate to the threat, and as many as you will receive.’
The book is the first volume in a series about Verrens, who’s cut from the standard stalwart hero cloth, and Jackson does a wonderful job fleshing out the book’s small coterie of supporting characters. There’s some very good atmospheric scene-setting and some snappy interplay, but of course the main momentum of the book tends toward that siege at the temple of Claudius. Jackson bottles his heroes up in its confines and ratchets up the tension, wisely choosing to let the violence wait until one climactic moment:
The door exploded inward in a shower of sparks and flame followed instantly by a howling wave of warriors. Valerius killed the first man with a single thrust but the sword blades and the spear points were too many to resist and they came at him from every angle in a flurry of bright metal. He heard Petronius’s death cry at his side as a blade hammered his ribs. Roaring with pain and made with fear and rage he smashed his sword hilt into a screaming, wild-eyed face. The blow left his right side open and, as he backswung in an attempt to parry a blur of metal that hacked at his eyes, he knew he was an instant too slow. A lightning flash of brilliant colours exploded in his head and he felt himself tumbling into darkness. Death reached out to him and he welcomed it. The last thing he remembered was a face from his worst nightmares.
Verrens survives to return to Rome, although at great cost to himself, and eventually the legions are sent to put down the rebellion itself. This is a tough-fisted addition to the long shelf of novels about this rebellion (although Hero of Rome is only second and third-hand about Boudicca herself, which is kind of refreshing in a way), and an effective opening segment to the series. We’ll see if the BPL can deliver the next volume.
January 12th, 2013
The “New 52″ company-wide conceptual reboot that DC Comics pulled off recently has been such a success (both financially and, I grudgingly admit, increasingly creatively as well)(some of the new titles launched back in 2011 are really starting to find their footing, much though I’ll always miss the old standbys they replaced) that transformed the superhero-comics industry – so it’s naturally got me thinking about the last time DC tried something on this kind of scale. Back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, the company ran the mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in a drastic attempt to clean up and simplify 50 years of tangled backstory continuity, so that – just as with the “New 52″ – new fans would feel invited rather than intimidated. The purpose of “Crisis” was the clear the slate and bring the company’s comics back to their basic world-famous elements, most of which had become hopelessly muddled – and considerably weakened – during the ’70s.
Like the “New 52,” “Crisis” was a huge success – and demanded a follow-up. After all, what’s the use of clearing the shrubbery if not to make room for new landscaping? What the DC powers-that-be wanted was simple: a return to iconic greatness. That meant revamped and simplified versions of such marquee characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. (as usual, the near-perfect working simplicity of Batman was left largely untouched), and that called for some sort of launching event-series. Call it “New 52″ 1.5.
This was “Legends,” written by comics vet Lein Wein, drawn by fan favorite John Byrne, and featuring a dastardly plot by the granite-faced DC bad guy Darkseid to destroy mankind’s faith in its superheroes (a neat gesture on plotter John Ostrander’s part, meant to indicate fan frustration with the previous state of affairs at DC). He sends a crowd-manipulator to masquerade as an anti-superhero demagogue, and he sends a gigantic monster named Brimstone to wreak havoc while our heroes are fumbling in the wake of a cease-and-desist order (issued by none other than President Reagan!).
Brimstone is fought for about ten seconds by Cosmic Boy, one of the founders of the 31st-century super-team the Legion of Super-Heroes (he and his girlfriend are vacationing in the 20th Century), who then gets rescued by the current incarnation of the Justice League, a epic line-up of losers whose quick demise and wholesale replacement was one of the foremost series marching-orders to come down from DC corporate. Long-time fans were calling this Justice League the worst-ever iteration of the team right from the start, and not even Byrne’s signature dramatic splash-pages can salvage them (their general lameness even extends to how Wein has them introduce themselves to poor Cosmic Boy – “Name’s Vibe” “They call me Elongated Man” “I’m Vixen” “I answer to Gypsy” “My code-name is Steel” – and it’s lucky there aren’t more of these losers, or even Wein would have run out of stupid variations on “I’m”). They save Cosmic Boy from getting trashed by Brimstone and then – in absolute record time – they get trashed by Brimstone themselves. Thus clearing the ground for a new Justice League.
When Darkseid gets impatient with the whole turn-people-against-their-heroes business, he reverts to type and just unleashes his standard-variety Earth invasion – loads of flying para-demons, plenty of enormous mechanized Warhounds – and that’s when the mystic sorceror Doctor Fate decides it’s time to assemble a new Justice League. Why he doesn’t decide this earlier is never explained – but then, one of the main challenges of any mini-series like this one is how to believably sideline all the characters who are so powerful that their presence would otherwise make the plot impossible: Captain Marvel spends the whole story as his powerless alter ego Billy Batson, traumatized by doubt, and Superman spends the whole series doing just what Frank Miller would have you believe he always did: obeying the wishes of the Gipper. And as for Wonder Woman – “Legends,” just like the “New 52″ “Justice League” title twenty years later, takes the formation of the team as an opportunity to introduce the revamped version of the character to the rest of her future teammates (and it’s not just the moments that are identical – it’s the threat: it’s Darkseid and his marauding minions yet again).
Once it’s accomplished this essential grouping, the story wraps up fairly quickly, with a new Justice League being sworn in by Doctor Fate. Changes were made to that team’s line-up before it launched as an irritating comic-relief title in the late ’80s – so, maddeningly, the team Ostrander and Wein went to all the bother of assembling here, a team largely composed of, as it were, legends – the core membership of which will always be some variation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman – doesn’t get its day in the sun for a few more years.
That basic team – with all its unlimited dramatic potential – is now the cornerstone of DC’s latest exercise in re-invention: the “New 52″ “Justice League” is consistently one of the company’s best titles every month despite being only 10 pages long each issue. “Legends” was collected for the first (and last? Can that be?) time in 1993 – who knows what new world order we’ll be seeing in 2033?
January 7th, 2013
Our book today is Larz Anderson: Letters and Journals of a Diplomat, a pleasingly plump 1940 volume assembled three years after Larz’ death by his wife Isabel, whom we’ve already met here at Stevereads: she was the author of (among many other books) the delightful memoir Presidents and Pies. Her husband Larz spent his whole life in the U.S diplomatic corps and was besides that an energetically prolific letter-writer and journal-keeper who had always intended some day to write a memoir but never got around to it. After his death, Isabel also protested her intention to ‘do something’ with the vast written legacy Larz left behind – and true to her word, this resulting volume is a vast, lovingly assembled treat, professionally edited and footnoted, full of the adorable doodles Larz tended to draw on everything, and prefaced by a quick note from his life-long friend Charles Francis Adams, who was a classmate of his (Harvard ’88 – 1888, that is) and who writes simply of him, “his greatest talent was for friendship.”
The book is an endless gazetteer of privilege. Larz came from a wealthy Ohio family, went to Phillips Exeter and then Harvard, and took a long, leisurely tour of the world right after graduation. He entered the diplomatic service in 1891, married Isabel in 1897, and moved steadily from one posting to another – London, Rome, Belgium, Japan, always with ample leisure time, always with happy friends and lavish dinners. There was the sumptuous family home in Brookline, Massachusetts, a country mansion in New Hampshire, and a beautiful house in Washington, D. C., and there was the very comfortable yacht Roxanne, and after Larz’s retirement in 1913, there were cruises everywhere in the world, always with cheerful letters of introduction to all the best people in all the best ports of call.
It’s saved from being vaguely repulsive by two key things: First, the Andersons were inveterately fun people – genuinely inquisitive, tirelessly upbeat, and, eventually, very much in love with each other. Larz was a dauntless seeker after new experiences (“the most brilliant of us” Adams writes, uncharacteristically giving himself too little credit) and he prized more than anything sharing those experiences, both in person and then in print, as he did during the week in 1905 when he was feverishly preparing for a long camping trip in the wilds of Maine:
I am bound to town in a few minutes. I must buy some last things for our trip – make a rough fellow of myself. Oh, I shall look properly dirty before we get through, unshaven, unwashed, and my, how good it will be when we come out of the woods and can lead a clean life once more! I hope Isabel will enjoy it as much as she anticipates – and that I may enjoy it more!
(The trip itself was one long rain-drenched mosquito-plagued disaster, but it made for such wonderful stories later that nobody seemed to care)
Larz served for a year at the Belgium station, learning in late summer of 1911 that his name had been put forward (the Taft administration, as usual, had been a little lax in sending out its notifications – a slackening that always happened when the President and Mrs. Taft set up vacation shop on the North Shore):
The first I heard of my actual nomination as Minister to Belgium was from a newspaper man who, by mistake, got me on the telephone while we were on board Roxana, tied up to the dock at Beverly. … When we came back and saw the announcement in the evening papers, assuring us of our nomination, I went to call at the Summer White House to express my gratification, but the President and Mrs. Taft were out. I stopped at Nahant to see Senator Lodge (who, however, had just gone to Washington), for I wanted to find out from him what might happen in the Senate, and he is one the Foreign Relations Committee. I got to Washington tonight.
Of course, even after Larz and Isabel left government service, they still had government access through their nerve-center Dupont Circle house, entertaining diplomats, kings, dowager empresses, and presidents, and being entertained in their turn. Some of the most fascinating little insights in this volume come from those latter days, which for a time seemed to pass in a dreamlike state of semi-permanence (“The year 1924 began as the year 1923 had ended, with beautiful days, cold, still, and sunny …”). Our happy couple weren’t on particularly friendly terms with President Wilson, but we get to read some of Larz’ observations of later presidents, some of which are fairly keen. “The President was not silent, but not talkative,” he writes of Calvin Coolidge for example, “his silences are most speaking, for you feel that he is there all the time, and thinking, and enjoying himself.”
Larz Anderson died of pneumonia in April of 1937, and his dumbstruck widow received telegrams from all over the world – expressing condolences, testifying to kindnesses done, remembering some wonderful stories. This big volume is a wonderful memorial to the man’s giving nature, but it’s not the only such memorial, not by a long shot: there are parks, and in Boston by the boat house there’s a bridge over the Charles, and in Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum there’s a gorgeous collection of bonsai trees – all the gifts of a more generous time. All the gifts of Larz.
January 6th, 2013
Some Penguin Classics aim for the unreachable, bless their hearts, and a good case-in-point is Guy Lee’s edition of Virgil’s Ecologues, which was brought out in the Penguin Classics line in 1984. Lee opens his Introduction by promptly admitting that the 20th Century had seen no shortage of English translations of Virgil’s career-making debut verse collection. But he says his own has a distinction that sets it apart from the rest: Virgi’s versification, he tells us, is strict, not free – it’s hexameter lines of six metrical stresses, no more and no less, and his translation of Virgil, he claims, has as its goal to “reproduce that regularity” in English.
He then immediately starts telling his readers why that can’t be done. First, he’s chosen to use the English Alexandrine as his medium – which (as any nearby English-major grocery clerk might be able to tell you) is iambic, whereas Virgil’s lines are dactylic. Which scotches the whole ‘reproduce that regularity’ business right at the get-go. Lee is ready for this objection:
… first, that in English poetry blank verse (iambic rhythm) is the commonest medium, just the dactylic hexameter is in Latin; secondly, that in practice the English dactylic hexameter offers more syllables than are normally needed to render its Latin equivalent, whereas the blank verse line contains too few.
“These considerations point to the Alexandrine, or twelve syllable iambic line, as the natural representative in English of the Latin hexameter,” he tells us, but he’s not done quite yet: “provided that a feminine ending and certain substitutions be occasionally allowed in order to increase the number of syllables available, and conversely that now and then a trochaic line be admissible.”
In other words, there isn’t really any prosodological reason for this version – or any version – of the Ecologues, but it’s just possible this one will come in handier than most as a kind of student trot – a metrical version in which the reader will “be able to recognize every word of Virgil’s Latin.” The pages that follow have the Latin on one side and the English on the other (the whole thing followed by Lee’s superb, mercifully concise notes), and that’s where the real test comes in: regardless of metrical niceties, has our translator actually given us a version of these famous verses – the fount and school of so much Western verse – that’s actually good to read?
True to Penguin Classic form, he has. By sticking as close as he could to Virgil’s Latin, he actually is able to simulate some of the master poet’s peculiar mix of jangle and melody. In the much-imitated second Ecologue, he catches almost perfectly the way Virgil has poor lovelorn Corydon over-intellectualize his unrequited love for the beautiful Alexis:
‘O cruel Alexis, have you no time for my tunes?
No pity for us? You’ll be the death of me at last.
Mow, even the cattle cast about for cool and shade,
Now even green lizards hide among the hawthorn brakes,
And Thestylis, for reapers faint from the fierce heat,
Is crushing pungent pot-herbs, garlic and wild thyme.
But I, while vineyards ring with the cicadas’ scream,
Retrace your steps, alone, beneath the burning sun.
– and the rest of the versions are equally involving, to the point where even the Latinless reader can see why all of Rome would have been captivated by this new voice in its midst. That captivation took many forms, and later translations of the Ecologues have gone much further in displaying the flexibility and versatility of these poems. But Guy Lee’s Penguin Classic volume does exactly what he wanted it to do: it gives readers a perfect place to start.
January 5th, 2013
In 2012 more than in any previous year, I found myself playing catch up at my beloved Boston Public Library, the best public library in the world. Some of you will already know of my affection for the sumptuous solidity of the McKim building – and especially for the soaring beauty of Bates Hall, under whose towering windows and glowing green lamps I’ve written three novels, ten short stories, and roughly a thousand book reviews. The BPL (both the gorgeous old McKim half and the less-than-gorgeous newer Johnson half) is one of the basic cornerstones of my Boston existence (along with the Atheneum and of course my beloved Brattle Bookshop)(at the latter of which generous gift certificates can always be ordered in my name …); for years, I’ve prowled its shelves in happy times and sad, and I never leave empty-handed.
But just recently, just in the last year or so, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward the newer books, constantly reminded of the dozens and dozens of new titles that simply eluded me in 2012. Through Open Letters Monthly and my various other reviewing homes, I manage to cast a wider net than I ever have before – I’m constantly hounding my publicist friends for review copies and then lugging them home from the Post Office (the review copies, not the publicists). But even so, plenty of books get by me – and I see them all lined up at the BPL like just so many enticements! So from time to time I’ll be combining those two favorite things of mine – the Boston Public Library and reviewing new books – to do some catching-up here at Stevereads. Starting today with:
The Time of the Wolf
by James Wilde
Pegasus Books, 2012
James Wilde is the pseudonymn for Mark Chadbourn, the British author of (among other things) the quite good fantasy novels The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men, the first and second volumes in the “Sword of Albion” series (with the third, The Devil’s Looking Glass, set to make its US debut in mere moments), which are set in a not-quite England shot through with sorcery and presided over by a lethal, larger-than-life hero, Will Swyfte. The American covers of those novels feature brooding male model Paul Marron dashing about in doublet and hose, which he seldom dons in real life. Under the name James Wilde, Chadbourn published a novel in the UK called Hereward: The Devil’s Army which in 2012 got a hardcover American edition retitled (and better titled) The Hour of the Wolf, and a glance at its cover – a dark, eye-catching design by Jeff Miller at Faceout Studio – is enough to warn that more things have changed than just the author’s nom-de-plume. The product-description, “A Novel of Medieval England,” accompanies the grim image of a hooded man holding a broadsword as though it were a chalice. Not a doublet in sight.
And yet, not so much has changed. The Time of the Wolf takes place deep in the midst of the 11th Century English fen country and surroundings, which were reputed to be just as full of sprites, faeries, and demons as anything in The Silver Skull – and might well have been, for all we still know about the day-to-day realities of the time. Turmoil was the watch-word, turmoil was everywhere. The year is 1062, and England is a bloodstained chessboard of competing powers. The nominal king is Edward, but he’s weak and distracted, and several of his earls are jostling for more power. The Church watches warily for any chance to increase its power. Vikings maraud, the ones in this book lead by the unrefined but intelligent Harad Redteeth. And most ominous of all, just across the Channel a ruthless warlord named William the Bastard is busily building an army and a navy, intent on nothing less than the conquest of England. Such is the board, but what individual pieces – the spies, the priests, the over-powerful noble families, the humble village-dwellers – were doing at any given time is almost as much a matter of conjectural fancy as the stuff found in Chadbourn’s (very well-researched) fantasy novels.
Even more so the character James Wilde chooses as his conflicted hero: Hereward, the indomitable warrior posthumously nicknamed “the Wake” (meaning alert, watchful). Even in his own time, Hereward was very nearly as mythical a figure as Will Swyfte: exiled by his own father (and declared an outlaw by the King) for rowdy behavior when he was still a teenager, larger-than-life adventuring in many countries before returning to England in 1069 and taking up arms against William and his conquering Normans, sacking Peterborough Abbey and fighting William’s forces at the head of a motley little army. Hereward offered himself as a focal point for local resistance to the Normans – and Wilde became convinvced, we’re told, that this story should be the basis for a novel (no mention is made of Charles Kingsley’s best-selling 1866 novel Hereward the Wake, but I thought – perhaps over-hopefully – that I detected an echo here and there in Wilde’s book).
Certainly in The Time of the Wolf Hereward gets a novel after his own heart. The thing is swimming in blood up to its (probably gouged) eyeballs. Wilde may not mention Bernard Cornwell by name, but it’s hardly necessary: Cornwell’s trademark hysterically omnipresent hideous violence speaks for itself. Even in the first pages, in an opening scene that culminates with Hereward rescuing the monk Alric from Redteeth and his men, the barrage of glass-shards and police sirens is unrelenting:
“He’s defenseless,” the monk stuttered.
“Good,” Hereward angled his sword above the mail shirt and drove it into the man’s chest until the tip protruded from his back. The Northman gurgled, eyes frozen wide in shock. When Hereward withdrew the blade, hot blood trailed from the body where it had been opened to the air.
There are quieter moments scattered throughout (some of the best of which involving exchanges between our Dark Ages Odd Couple of Hereward and Alric), and even the furtive, utterly doomed gesture at a romance. The sources for the outline of Hereward’s life suggest a three-dimensional invidvidual, and occasionally Wilde tries to show us that person – before lapsing back to his favorite single-dimension, the Realm of Evisceration. This sub-genre of historical fiction – call it yore gore – has been undergoing a steady expansion since Cornwell re-introduced it to modern bookstores nearly two decades ago. Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Simon Scarrow, and the rest of their blood-spattered peers (no peeresses, since no sane woman would write this way in a million years) may serve as the models or prods, but with The Time of the Wolf Wilde has proven that he can hack and slash with the best of them.
The book leaves open the possibility of sequels, and history is uncertain what eventually happened to Hereward, so the potential for a nice meaty series is there. Wilde’s particular vision of his hero – a man as tormented by his own homicidal rages as he is by the evildoers who elicit those rages – is compelling enough to make readers of this first volume hope for many more.
With apologies to Charles Kingsley, of course.
January 4th, 2013
Our book today is Donald Sobol’s 1963 classic Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, which introduced Sobol’s immortal character, 10-year-old super-sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, to legions of young people who until they read the book had no idea they liked reading at all – and then found they loved it.
Our diminutive hero – “a complete library walking around in sneakers” – is the quiet, well-behaved only child of Mr. Brown, the police chief of small-town Idaville, and his prim, open-minded wife, who used to be the town’s English teacher (before she got married and became a housewife, that is – “timeless classic” also meaning “forever dated”). The police department of Idaville has a sterling reputation for cracking cases, due in large part to the singular deductive abilities of young Leroy, to whom his father often opens cases over the dinner table – and comes away matter-of-factly astounded by his son’s uncanny ability to see through assumptions, false associations, and plain deceit.
Encyclopedia isn’t a genetic freak, however. As Sobol makes winningly clear right from the beginning, the boy was a champion reader before he was a champion anything else. As in most fictional depictions of alleged bookworms, Leroy doesn’t act particularly bookish; we hardly ever see him reading, and he seems untroubled by interruptions when he is – he hardly ever talks about books except to cite them as mystery-solving authorities (although, to be fair, who would he talk about books with, in Idaville?). Perhaps most tellingly, he completely fails to elicit that particular pitch of mindless blood-frenzy that bookish children always arouse in their savage, semi-human peers. Even his nominal enemies – including the rather pathetic little gang called the Tigers, led by Bugs Meany – never even consider meting out to Encyclopedia the treatment his real-world counterpart would instantly receive, that is, cracking his mouth against the nearest piece of concrete. Instead, Idaville’s kids – both the victims he helps and the wrongdoers he exposes – all respect him.
One perhaps less – or more – than the rest: Sally Kimball, the whip-smart tomboy who springs upon the scene in this book by intervening to stop a bullying (and punching the daylights out of the bully) – a mundane form of justice in which Encyclopedia himself, it must be said, seems uninterested. When Sally nearly beats him at a “mystery contest.” he makes her his “junior partner” in his Brown Detective Agency (25 cents a day, plus expenses) – and, interestingly, his ‘bodyguard’ (we’re never told why he needs on, or thinks he does). Apart from various outright criminals at the moment of their ruin, Sally’s the only person who ever chides our hero, telling him to “be serious” and “quit fooling around.” The fact that he doesn’t start fooling around until she shows up augurs a long, happy friendship, though there’s hardly any hint of that here.
Sobol has devised the book with fitting cleverness, to snare the unwary reluctant reader: each chapter but the first serves up the ingredients of a crime-and-solution. We see all the same clues Encyclopedia Brown sees, and we’re left with two things: his certain declaration that he’s pieced those clues into an answer, and the block-letter question/taunt HOW DID ENCYCLOPEDIA KNOW? In this as in so many other ways, the stories invoke Sherlock Holmes, who repeatedly tells Watson (and us) that he’s seen the same things Holmes has seen and should therefore be able to solve the mystery (Holmes isn’t named in this first book, but reference is made to “the great detective” who, like Leroy, closes his eyes while hearing the facts of a problem). The solutions are given at the back of the book, usually in one bland paragraph explaining what the boy genius saw that eluded everybody else.
Those solutions might be bland, but Sobol’s prose everywhere else is a quiet, low-key delight, a mixture of perfect clarity an wonderful small-town turns of phrase (“I’ll be as quiet as a cat at a dog show,” “They looked as happy as six flat tires,” or – Sally, of course, in mid-combat, “This should take the frosting off you”). It’s easy to understand why this book an all its sequels would go on to be so undyingly popular, eternally in print, each set of new covers taking a slightly different aesthetic approach to Idaville’s most famous son. The books are four-square celebrations of intelligence as a way to success: very shortly after establishing Brown Detective Agency, Encyclopedia and Sally have enough money – the princely sum of $3.50 – to open an actual bank account (when they go to do that, they interrupt a robbery – naturally), and we can assume the paying customers keep coming.
I came late to reading and so missed encountering the world of Encyclopedia Brown when I was a child. It took the solemn-faced and slightly reproving recommendation of a studious ten-year-old to send me, abashed, to the Boston Public Library to rectify my oversight. In a way, I needn’t have bothered: that ten-year-old could have recited Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective to me – he practically knew it by heart. Now I do too.