Posts from April 2014
April 30th, 2014
Our book today is Angelo Maria Ripellino’s utterly wonderful 1973 book Praga Magica, published in 1994 by Picador as Magic Prague, marvelously translated by David Newton Martinelli. It’s a forlorn love-song to the weird city of Prague, written in white heat at the height of Ripellino’s powers, and it’s as beautiful and sui generis a work of “travel writing” as any ever created. It’s a mystery to me why this book isn’t permanently in print.
Ripellino was an Italian scholar and poet with a positively rapacious intellectual appetite (in his youth, he had the endearing but slightly unnerving habit of reading while he walked), and his Prague book was a long time percolating. He never truly forgot anything he read, and he read everything he could find, and yet he could be adorably dutiful – he was forever saying “I’ll be brief” when everybody (at the lectern, at the dinner table, at restaurants) knew it was virtually impossible. When he managed to wrangle a commission for a book on Prague, he assured all parties concerned (and maybe himself?) that he would be “peaceful in his halter.”
There was no chance of it, of course, and Magic Prague explodes almost immediately beyond anything that would be even recognizable, let alone useful, to, say, anybody contemplating a visit to the city. Instead, what unspools for the enraptured reader is something more diverse, more encyclopedic, and infinitely stranger than anything along the lines of “And here we have the house where Kafka wrote …” More and more of Ripellino’s enormous eclectic erudition starts gushing through the fences of normal sightseeing, so that a routine visit to a famously crowded cemetery becomes a twisting, fitfully illuminating breviary like something out of Umberto Eco:
The gravestones have a rich symbology. Blessing hands are the sign of kohanim, the priests; pitcher and basin are their assistants, the leviim. Scissors indicate the grave of a tailor, tweezers the grave of a doctor; a mortar and pestle represents an apothecary, a lute an instrument maker, a book a printer and an ertog a vendor of greenery for the Succoth festival. Grapes signify wisdom and fertility; a scene in Paradies means that the name of the woman in the grave is Chava (Eve), a rose that her name is Rose; pictures of animals (stags, bears, wolves, lions, roosters, foxes, doves, carp, geese) designate people with animal surnames. A headstone depicting Adam and Eve contained a young couple slain on their wedding night by the angel of death; a headstone graced by two chickens pointing their beaks at a woman’s head marked the resting place of an adulteress whose eyes were pecked out. There is a legend that the carcass of a dog that had been thrown over the wall to desecrate the graveyard was buried in a corner by Rabbi Loew.
You can really sense Ripellino the poet in many of these passages – the flash of images, the perfect compacting of details, stunning passages whose presentation in English really is a testament to our translator’s skill:
Do you remember the first signs of spring, when the gulls returned to the Vltava from Lake Macha and Mrs Hlochova took Brussels lace out of her bottom drawer, when winter retreated into the milk shops with their cold zinc counters, onto the roof tops crusted over with snow, into the narrow, shaded Mala Strana streets? A straw-coloured sun, still weak, flickered as through a vase, yet Petrin Hill would soon explode with forsythia, lilacs and jasmine in a feverish, frenetic exuberance that both brought on one’s allergies and took one’s breath away. In the light of that intense flurry of blossoms, so out of keeping with Prague’s usual gloom, one ponders Kafka’s words: “What misery, a granary in spring, a consumptive in spring.”
(“The milk shops with their cold zinc counters” is so exquisitely old-world Prague – as is that beautiful writing-in-bed image of the sunlight through a vase)
Ripellino was a marvelously happy man, but by the time he wrote his Prague book, there were a couple of very sharp tragedies stalking his life, and some of that sifts into these pages. At a couple of points in his headlong narrative, he stops and realizes this, in moments that are always oddly arresting:
As I look back over these pages, I see have written a gloomy book, a Totenrede, adding the menetekel of recent decline to the city’s constant melancholy, its White Mountain legacy. Yet with the possible exception of the grim clowning of ghosts and the Poetists’ black-bordered ruffles hardly any of the material gives cause for cheer. The true Prague Mozart is not the carefree prankster sequestered in a room in the Villa Betramka to compose the overture to Don Giovanni while merry ladies pass him food and drink through the window…
There’s some poetry of Ripellino’s that I haven’t read (and there’s a mountain of deadline literary journalism that, as far as I know, has never been collected, let alone annotated), but even so, I feel pretty confident calling Magic Prague his greatest book. It’s the equal-standing but neglected sibling of such works as The Worst Journey in the World and Arabian Sands, a wilderness narrative superimposed on the most urban setting the Old World has to offer. Thanks to the bounties of the Internet, even people deprived of my beloved Brattle Bookshop can probably find a copy easily enough. You should! You’ll have read very, very few books like this one in all your life.
April 29th, 2014
The May-June issue of Audubon has a cover story, “From Billions to None” by Barry Yeoman, that takes advantage of a centennial anniversary in its own way every bit as saddening as that of the opening of the First World War: the death in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon.
Yeoman does a smart, concise job of describing the mind-bogglingly huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies of America, and he also does fine reporting about the holocaust of murder that overtook even such enormous numbers:
Even as the pigeons’ numbers crashed, “there was virtually no effort to save them,” says Joel Greenberg, a research associate with Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Field Museum. “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”
But for all the strong prose and excellent reporting in Yeoman’s piece, my bet is that only one paragraph will garner responses from readers:
The most controversial effort inspired by the extinction is a plan to bring the passenger pigeon back to life. In 2012 Long Now Foundation president Stewart Brand (a futurist best known for creating the Whole Earth Catalog) and genetic entrepreneur Ryan Phelan cofounded Revive & Restore, a project that plans to use the tools of molecular biology to resurrect extinct animals. The project’s “flagship” species is the passenger pigeon, which Brand learned about from his mother when he was growing up in Illinois. Revive & Restore hopes to start with the band-tailed pigeon, a close relative, and “change its genome into the closest thing to the genetic code of the passenger pigeon that we can make,” says research consultant Ben Novak. The resulting creature will not have descended from the original species. “[But] if I give it to a team of scientists who have no idea that it was bio-engineered, and I say, ‘Classify this,’ if it looks and behaves like a passenger pigeon, the natural historians are going to say, ‘This is Ectopistes migratorius.’ And if the genome plops right next to all the other passenger pigeon genomes you’ve sequenced from history, then the geneticist will have to say, ‘This is a passenger pigeon. It’s not a band-tailed pigeon.’”
It amazes me, whenever such delusional sentiments crop up in the accounts of the Penny Press. Of course such bizarrely reconstituted quasi-birds won’t be passenger pigeons, no matter what scientific experts might say while peering context-free into their microscopes. And even if those quasi-birds could be genetically manipulated to be identical to the birds humanity wiped out, what about their celebrated numbers? Those numbers can’t possibly be reconstituted – modern farmers, ranchers, and city-dwellers, to say nothing of the air traffic industry wouldn’t stand for billion-strong flocks of anything. And how do we know that billion-strong flocks weren’t an integral part of being a passenger pigeon? And how would those reconstituted passenger pigeons know what it meant to be a passenger pigeon?
It’s as one of Yeoman’s sources says: ecosystems move on.
(Happily, there are plenty of living, breathing ecosystems featured in this great issue, including an article on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula that concentrates on the wildlife being threatened there; the article is full of wonderful photos, including one of a yellow-headed caracara cleaning the ear of a supine and quite visibly blissful tapir … an oddly familiar-looking creature ….)
April 28th, 2014
Our book today is 2005’s The Cold Dish, the first installment in Craig Johnson’s hugely successful series of mystery novels set in the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming and starring laconic, leather-tough sheriff Walt Longmire and a terrifically engaging cast of supporting characters, from his long-time friend and Cheyenne saloon owner Henry Standing Bear to his sharp-tongued deputy Victoria Morretti to his lawyer-daughter Cady. And of course the other major character in this series is the breathtaking landscape of Wyoming, which Johnson (who lives there, in a flyspeck town with fewer citizens than you have roommates) evokes extremely skillfully. His Walt Langmire might be the last rock-solid plainsman left in the modern era, but when it comes to contemplating that breathtaking landscape, his thoughts become almost poetic:
I watched the clouds slowly eat the Bighorn Mountains. There was a little early snow up there, and the setting sun was fading it from a kind of frozen blue to a subtle glow of purple. I had lived here my entire life, except for college in California and a stint in the marines in Vietnam. I had thought about those mountains the entire time I was gone and swore that a day wouldn’t go by when I got back that I wouldn’t look at them. Most of the time, I remembered.
Langmire is a classic example of a kind of mystery-thriller hero that’s taken on renewed popularity in our ultra-convenienced wi-fi café latte era: the tough man (or woman, as in the case of, say, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon) in a wild place. He’s in a deeply sympathetic relationship with the natural world around him, and he’s got a reflexive disdain for the vast majority who don’t feel that relationship (“During the latter part of hunting season,” he grouses, “my part of the high plains becomes a Disneyland for every overage boy with a high-powered toy”). These characters are the anti-Sherlocks; they have no use for the metropolis, preferring the much slower and sparser setting of the country. And they’re anti-Sherlocks in another sense as well – they tend to let instinct, not logic and deduction, govern their behavior. For these characters, the natural world is always there, ready to distract:
I’ve got the large office in the south side bay, which allows me an unobstructed view of the Big Horn Mountains to my right and the Powder River Valley to my left. The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seemed to be happening more and more, lately.
In The Cold Dish (who knows how many Star Trek fans did it inadvertently attract, before they reached Johnson’s opening inscription: “Revenges is a dish best served cold” and recoiled in horror at its attribution: “Pierre Ambroise Francois, Choderlos de La Clos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses” … no mention of Klingons or Khan in sight … it cannot be …), a white man who got a light, suspended sentence for the rape of a Cheyenne girl is found murdered near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Longmire hardly needs a keen deductive mind in order to suspect that a long-simmering thirst for revenge is at work here, but one of the key points of characters like this is that deductive reasoning has little to do with things:
“Good morning. I’m Sheriff Longmire, and I’d like a word with you.” At first he didn’t move, and I could see the wheels turning as he tried to figure out what it was that he had done to bring himself in contact with me. These few moments in the beginning can often tell me what I need to know. You hear about eye movement, nose touching, all that crap but, when you get right down to it, it’s just a feeling. The little voice in the back of your head just says, “Yeah, this is the guy.”
This sort of thing would ordinarily annoy the spinach out of me; I deeply revile the anti-intellectualism of the George W. Bush years, deeply revile the way ‘knowing things with your gut’ was elevated during those years from the status of a slight embarrassment (self-deprecatingly admitted) to the status of a legitimate working alternative to reasoned thinking (proudly, arrogantly asserted). I deeply revile the way that decade strove to elevate mulish stupidity to the level of a worldview, a personal choice nobody has the right to condemn; “you go with your intelligence? Fine – I go with my feelings, and that’s just as good.”
But luckily, that revulsion doesn’t come anywhere near the Longmire books (or the absolutely crack-addictive A&E TV adaptation, starring the great Robert Taylor doing the best work of his career). There’s a hard-edged and very Robert Parker-esque intelligence behind these books (see, again, that heretical epigraph) that wonderfully compliments the instinct-calls of our gruff hero and his wise-cracking supporting cast. In fact, there are times when I wonder if the whole series isn’t in part a commentary on the W. years – although that may just be the city-slicker in me.
April 22nd, 2014
It’s a sad commentary on our relevance-obsessed and overcrowded society that the editorial Powers That Be at the National Geographic magazine probably didn’t hesitate for a moment before choosing the cover story for their May issue: the looming ecological crisis of mass-produced food supply. That article, by Jonathan Foley, is both fascinating and alarming … and of course it’s important, vitally important.
But once upon a time, in an earlier and more innocent age, those same Powers That Be would have chosen a different article in this issue to go on the cover: of course that article would be “Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs” by Peter Miller, a classic National Geographic wonder-fest about giant dinosaurs that once roamed the area of what is now the western United States, 77 million years ago when that region of the country was isolated by a huge shallow inland sea. That isolated land-mass is now called Laramidia, and as Miller writes, “During the 20 million years or so that it existed, Laramidia seems to have been a runaway dinosaur factory, cranking out large and small dinosaurs in a surprising diversity of species.”
The article describes some of the expeditions into Utah’s desert badlands undertaken by Scott Sampson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, expeditions that stumble across pristine dinosaur fossils ten times before lunch. The members of Sampson’s expedition sit by the fire at night and try to imagine that lost world of Laramidia, which was hot, humid, and profusely tropical. And in the face of the profusion of fossils they encounter, they also try to figure out the reasons for the vast variation among the specimens they find:
Something had isolated the dinosaurs of southern Laramidia from their relatives up north, the researchers figured. Left to itself, each community of animals had evolved differently, just as Darwin’s famous finches had done in the Galapagos, where they’d become new species after populating different islands. But Sampson and his colleagues were skeptical of the idea that a physical barrier, such as a mountain range or a large river, had kept the animals apart. Mountains may block the path of some animals, he said, but others are known to walk right over them: “They do it all the time.” As for rivers, “it’s hard to imagine that a river could last for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years,” Sampson said. “Sooner or later there will be periods of drought when rivers dry up.”
The stunning painting accompanying the article – a beautiful composition of textured greens by the great Raul Martin, showing both enormous exotic dinosaurs and the old familiar faces of turtles and crocodiles – would certainly have sealed the deal in those more innocent days; this article on the wonders of the loud and teeming swampland that was once America’s western end.
A grimmer and more responsible world, these days – how can big horned dinosaurs seem anything but whimsical alongside the specter of planet-wide food shortages?
Still, it’s a wonderful piece.
April 21st, 2014
Our book today is Ben Pastor’s A Dark Song of Blood, her third murder mystery starring Nazi Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora (the first two were Lumen and Liar Moon). The book is out now in a very sturdy paperback from Bitter Lemon Press, and it makes for a very absorbing – although very dark – reading experience.
It’s a tour through Dante’s Hell, only with no Virgil as a guide and every anguished soul a suspect in the death of every other anguished soul. The setting is Rome in the early months of 1944, with Nazi control over the city slipping a bit more every day, with Italian partisan attacks growing in scope and effectiveness, and it’s into this tense and attenuated atmosphere the we follow our hero, the aristocratic Bora, wounded and doubting everything, as he begins to investigate the death of German Embassy Secretary Magda Reiner. The case brings the grim and taciturn Martin Bora into an uneasy alliance with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi, and as suspicions start to swirl around Fascist official Ras Merlo, both men are dragged into a case that’s being watched with deeply conflicted interest by all the powers in the city, most certainly including the Church, which has always had a problematic relationship with their Fascist overlords. A conversation Bora has with crusty old Cardinal Borromeo shows Pastor’s extremely honed ability to let spikey tensions ripple underneath the surface:
“I believe I’m telling the cardinal nothing new [Bora says] if I assure him that the German Army is not pleased with any interim government.”
“You’d rather have the city to yourselves?”
“We’d rather have no interference from PAI and what else remains of Fascist police units.”
“That’s neither here nor there. We expect you to curb the zeal of the Blackshirts left in town – even though I’m a Fascist of sorts myself. The Church was Fascist long before Il Duce planned his ‘March on Rome’. We marched on it in AD 64 with Peter and Paul at the lead.” Borromeo rang a bell on his desk. At the timid appearance of a cleric on the threshold, he merely gestured. Shortly thereafter, a tray with a coffee urn and cups was brought in. “I don’t trust people who don’t like espresso.” He ensured that Bora should accept the drink. “Your ambassador gets along with us – why shouldn’t the army?”
“The army is not involved in politics, Cardinal.”
“But the SS is. The Gestapo is. What you’re telling me is that you Germans will not curb any excesses by our police forces, or yours.”
One of the pleasures of mystery fiction is the interplay of investigation and authority (indeed, an old friend of mine, a dedicated mystery reader, often used to say the most interesting part of any murder investigation was “the fellow who can call it off”), and that pleasure is at its strongest in these Martin Bora mysteries, since the authority backing him is not only corrupt itself but hated by him – and in this latest volume, even that dark authority is frittering away. Bora and Guildi must doggedly pursue their complicating murder investigation against the indifference of all parties involved – after all, how important could a single murder be when weighed against whole societies trembling on the brink of destruction? It serves to bring the whole question of sleuthing into almost bitter relief.
Pastor’s novels are all so leanly intelligent that they’re a joy to re-read (she knows exactly how to temper the bleak drive of her narratives with quieter moments; “By the cessation of quick clouds in front of Bora’s face, he might be holding his breath,” she tells us at one point, “In fact, he said nothing whatever. Guidi looked down the dark, wide emptiness of the street. He smelled the night air, bitter and already green”), and a good deal of that joy in this case comes from the fact that our hero is much more alone than he himself would like to be. The implied comforts of the police procedural are absent from these books – the institutional powers are too worried about their own tomorrow to care very much about any single murder victim’s yesterday, which sharpens all the more our appreciation of the man who does worry. I don’t know much about Bitter Lemon Press, but I can’t recommend these books strongly enough.
April 16th, 2014
Our book today is Aldo Buzzi’s 1996 composite travel book Cechov a Sondrio e altri viaggi, brought out by Random House in a very good translation by Ann Goldstein and titled Journey to the Land of the Flies (poor Chekhov gets the heave-ho). Buzzi’s formal training was as an architect, but for most of his life he made his living as a deadline hack. He generated an enormous heap of literary journalism – columns, book reviews, interviews, and the like. And somewhere along the way, he discovered that for a lucky few writers, there are editors out there who’ll pay good money to send a person on vacation. It’s a golden Elysium entered by only a handful of writers, and Buzzi knew a good thing when it happened to him. He took his notebook and toothbrush, he kept his receipts, and over the course of half a century, he wrote a small body of some of the most wry and almost dreamlike travel writing of the 20th century.
In the little pamphlets reprinted here, we follow our author to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Palermo, Jakarta, London, Milan, and lots of much smaller and more interesting places in between, like a little town in Sicily, not far from Messina, where Buzzi uses so many specific details you’d think they’d crush the delicate beauty of the scene he’s painting, and yet they don’t:
After dinner we went to sit in front of the house, chatting, smoking, dozing, meditating on the more extraordinary dishes brought that day to the table, as they do in Sicilian nobles’ clubs. The sun shown gently on the lion-colored earth of the flower beds an among the hundred different greens of the plants, all evergreen: cedars of Lebanon, palms, eucalyptus, pines, silver firs, figs, a pepper tree (false pepper) attacked by ivy, olives, carob trees, holm oaks; and myrtle, rosemary, asparagus, bamboo, oleander, mimosa, hibiscus, jasmine, and capers, which are flowers, like jasmine, or, more precisely, edible flowers, like cauliflower and artichokes.
At the heart of Buzzi’s knack for atmosphere-creating, I think, is his talent for indirection – and he knows it. So often in these books he eases up to his subjects lazily and obliquely, and the descriptions are usually the more memorable for it. And at a couple of points, he actually talks about the approach:
I return for a moment to what I was saying about the beautiful girl of Crescenzabo – that is, to the best way of describing a person. The meticulous enumeration of physical characteristics, used so much in bad novels, serves no purpose. Every new characteristic, rather than blending with the preceding ones and little by little completing the portrait, cancels them, so to speak, and increases the fog that forms between the page and the reader. On the other hand: when Gide says of Claudel, “As a young man he had the look of a nail; now he seems a pestle,” Claudel is immediately present, vivid, even though we do not know if he is tall or short, or what color his eyes are.
Buzzi’s also an indelibly Italian writer, happy to revel in sensory details, happy to inventory food and drink, and, shall we say, prone to enthusiastic appreciations of the women he encounters – or, in a couple of instances, in classic dirty-old-lecher style, specifically their feet:
… rounder than any solid revolution or any circle traced by a compass – and because of its inscrutable mixture of the human and divine, can be considered one of the most convincing proofs of the existence of God, certainly more convincing than the ontological arguments of Saint Anselm.
I recently found this Journey to the Land of the Flies paperback as part of the wonderful old “Steerforth Italia” series with the little postage-stamp pictures in the center of their covers. And it was a lazily joyful experience, giving an hour to Aldo Buzzi again after all this time. It made me inclined to fish out more travel-writing from my bookshelves, and who knows? I just might.
April 15th, 2014
As a reader who’s deeply interested in what other people – and especially young people – are reading and why, how could I not be fascinated by the teeming subset of YouTube known as BookTube? That’s the sprawling (and constantly growing) community of channels on YouTube devoted entirely to books – book reviews, book discussions, bookshelf tours, book-related ‘tags’ (in which somebody comes up with a challenge or theme for a particular video and then ‘tags’ other BookTubers to make videos on that same theme), and dozens of other fun things.
BookTube is an extremely welcoming place – every week, new BookTubers open channels of their own and step out onto the public stage with one or two videos and no subscribers, and the BookTube community enthusiastically embraces them. The most established BookTubers are not a bit less enthusiastic and approachable than the rawest newcomers. It’s very warming to see.
Of course, it’s not all chocolates and chardonnay. If you watch enough BookTube – and I watch a lot of it – you’ll quickly notice some of its annoying traits. Some of these annoying traits are common to vast swaths of YouTube in general: plenty of amateurs don’t put enough planning into their videos – they fumble with dates and facts and then decide, for utterly mysterious reasons, to leave the fumbling intact in the editing; plenty of people – experts and amateurs alike – don’t pay enough attention to the shape and substance of what they’re saying; people start with high hopes and then fall into long silent months of laziness.
But BookTube also has some annoying traits peculiar to itself! Some are superficial – the foremost being the weird, necrotic preponderance of Young Adult fiction. 99 percent of all BookTubers are adults, and yet 99 percent of the books they all talk about are YA titles written for children (and John Green is the god they all worship – let’s not even get started on that). It’s just such a leaden feeling, opening a new BookTuber video and watching the host say, “Guys! I just finished a book that was SO GOOD, I can’t wait to tell you about it” – and then they hold up a copy of Divergent. You click on a new BookTuber channel and there they are looking fresh and happy – and behind them, lovingly ordered on their bookshelves, are all the Harry Potter books in hardcover, all the “Hunger Games” books in hardcover – in other words, all the same books, all neatly arranged in hardcover. It’s such a lockstep environment that it becomes genuinely startling to see somebody talking about a book written for adults (more power, then, to channels like Eagle’s Books https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_MW28EgNTnqdWtK-rM2ag or The Bibliophile https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjlkQ_78fEt0ToXXQ2S_hvA or Jason Purcell at The Heavy Blanks https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Bfb1r6sVGCqgCg_p9xMGQ or Emma Gorowski at the catchily-titled Emma Gorowski https://www.youtube.com/user/emgorowski )
And actually, there’s an aspect of that lockstep environment that bothers me even more than the odd spectacle of so many adults enthusing so energetically about books written for children, and it’s the broader idea that everybody reads in the same way. There are unspoken but fairly rigid taxonomic fences all around BookTube – there’s a workaday, slightly grumbling adherence to an identical conception of what readers do and what they are. They all spend too much money on books; they all have a corseted agreement as to what books are good and what books are bad; they’re all resolutely monoglot; they all have something called a TBR list – a list, a pile, of books “to be read.” They’re all dutiful grinders-away on Goodreads, keeping track of the number of books they read, the pages they’re on, etc. In short, there’s a clubbishness to it all that strikes me as the exact opposite of what real reading is.
Although maybe not what it should be. Maybe that’s the allure of BookTube for me: it dramatizes a version of the reading life that’s bright, happy, friendly, tame … welcoming, in precisely the way that the anarchic Wild West of reading almost never is, welcoming in the way that so many self-taught readers in their solitary bedrooms don’t associate with the life. I look at the landscape of BookTube and see all these happy, including people creating a uniform reading-world, and I wonder if I’d have come to reading much sooner than I did if such a reading-world had ever existed in reality.
I think the two most signature demonstrations of that welcoming world are first the aforementioned bookshelf-tours (what reader doesn’t love to snoop – clandestinely or otherwise – at the book collections of their friends?) and second the prevalence of something called the ‘book haul.’ These videos – always a popular choice for BookTubers – feature the host plopping in front of the camera the latest pile of books they’ve acquired and talking about how excited they are about them all, why they bought them, and so on.
I love watching book-haul videos. I understand that electric excitement, the infectious ‘look what I just got’ burst of happiness. I feel it myself every time I get back home bent double under a load of new books – I don’t just want to read the books (although I do, and I do – I’m a stranger to the very idea of a “TBR” pile), I want to share the joy of acquiring them, especially with like-minded book-acquirers. If had a BookTube channel, I think I’d do a lot of ‘book haul’ videos.
I don’t have a BookTube channel, mainly because I lack even the rudimentary technical skills necessary to record, edit, and upload videos (but also because I don’t, let’s say, have the BookTube aesthetic – they’re almost universally young and good-looking)(vloggers like Mickeleh being exceedingly rare). But I thought just this once I’d try my hand at doing a book haul, if only the written, Stevereads version!
Unlike most BookTubers, I get a lot of books – an average of ten a day on normal weekdays, either at the various used-book venues of Boston or through the mail from publishers. This is one of those days – a haul from April 2014 consisting of 16 books, half of them new releases (in this case, delightfully, a batch of romance titles) and half of them used books from the aforementioned used-item venues. The romance novels are bright and colorful, of course, and the used books in this case are some choice ‘finds’ – a slim and well-illustrated volume of the three most famous stories from Washington Irving’s Sketch-book, a squat, handy paperback of Bate’s fantastic biography of Samuel Johnson, and – in a happy coincidence – a very pretty new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, plus a meaty-looking commentary on the writing of Anthony Trollope, a Penguin Classic of Shen Fu’s bleakly intelligent Six Records of a Floating Life, and Michael Behe’s controversial creationist tract, Darwin’s Black Box. And there’s the highlight of this particular haul, a lovely two-volume Penguin edition of C. V. Wedgwood’s fantastic companion volumes about the English Revolution, The King’s Peace and The King’s War. I’ve had those two books (and their much-shorter coda, A Coffin for King Charles). It’s not often that the used-book section of any ‘book haul’ of mine feels so full of spot-in discoveries, books I’m certainly I’ll be keeping as opposed to cycling through rather quickly. It’s a great feeling, especially since as much as I’m enjoying all those romances, I knew from the start that I probably wouldn’t be keeping any of them.
Needless to say, I heartily recommend all those used books! That’s another thing they do all the time over on BookTube.
April 14th, 2014
Our book today is 1991’s Death of the Duchess by Elizabeth Eyre, which is a pseudonym for the London writing team of Jill Staynes and Magaret Storey (both of which sound more like pseudonyms than “Elizabeth Eyre,” but then, what would I know of pseudonyms?). Death of the Duchess is a murder mystery set in an Italian Renaissance city called Rocca, which is presided over by a remote and choleric Duke and which is rent by the Romeo & Juliet-style rivalry between the noble houses of de Torre and Bandini. To heal the feud, a marriage is proposed between the two families, and the novel plunges us right into the action when the bride is abducted from her father’s house.
The resulting commotion draws the Duke’s private agent, a tall, bald, powerfully-built mystery man named Sigismondo, who has a piercing gaze, a vaguely foreign accent, and a quiet way of commanding the respect of everybody he meets. In the novel’s opening pages, Sigismondo, who goes everywhere on foot and has no servants because they gossip, finds himself accompanied by a simple, good-hearted peasant named Benno, and it’s through this handy plot device that we the readers are allowed to come to know our enigmatic detective a little better. It’s also a convenient way for our authors to paint their rich portrait of Renaissance life, from the dung-heaps of the city center to the halls of the mighty:
Sigismondo commandeered a blanket from the inn where they had hired the horse and rode on up to the Palace, where he asked for a private audience of the Duke. That he was at once granted it made Benno’s jaw drop once more. He trotted after his master, turning his head constantly to admire painted columns, friezes, statues and tapestries, and coming up suddenly against Sigismondo’s back when they stopped at a door. While his master was admitted, Benno gaped at the marble door-casing and, it being suggested forcefully by the guard that he should remove his person somewhat, he stood back.
As Sigismondo digs deeper into the mystery, “Elizabeth Eyre” relishes bringing him into contact with all the different social strata of the city. Sigismondo cannot be intimidated (he stresses a couple of times that he’s only the Duke’s temporary agent); in fact, since he’s a match for any physical situation, he himself is usually the one doing the intimidating:
Poggio flung out his arms again. “I’ve told you everything. I’ve given you all the money, everything! Count it!”
Poggio’s mother enveloped him again, tearful, and howled, “Don’t take him to his death! He’s told you everything! You have the money!”
Sigismondo made a small dismissive movement with the sword and hummed a derogatory arpeggio. “If he had – but as it is –“ In that hum, at least one of his listeners heard the well-oiled levers of the rack.
It’s not every fictional sleuth who can casually hum a derogatory arpeggio, and the ones who can are worth following. If memory serves, half a dozen Sigismondo mysteries followed Death of a Duchess, and whatever the final number (before the whole series stopped and was heard from no more), they were all every bit as immensely enjoyable as this first one. Should you come across one at the Boston Public Library, you should consider yourself gently nudged to give it a try.
April 11th, 2014
Our book today is Thomas Costain’s magnificent 1958 volume The Three Edwards, the third in his “Pageant of England” series, this one centering on the reigns of Kings Edward I, II, and III and thus covering some of the most dramatic and vibrant years in English history. Costain – an old newspaperman from Canada who unexpectedly discovered late in life that he had a knack for writing the kinds of primary-color rollicking-good historical fiction that the Hollywood of his day really liked. So many of his novels were adapted into successful movies that he was able retire from journalism in style and with nary a backward glance.
He wrote with the head-down no-nonsense work ethic of a bricklayer, but his books are uniformly, sparklingly readable – most certainly including The Three Edwards, even though the review-jobbing professional medievalists of the day predictably carped at the corners Costain was cutting to tell his rattling good yarns.
There are of course rattling good yarns aplenty amidst this material, but Costain’s main saving graves as a popularizer is that he isn’t only that: he’s also thought a great deal about his subject, and some of the observations he comes up with are worthy of Will and Ariel Durant. About his first monarch, for instance, he remarks that “the strength of Edward was not in innovation but in his genius for adaptation and his appreciation of the need to define and codify” (he adds: “he would in the years ahead of him earn the title of the English Justinian”).
Costain was an unapologetic romantic at heart (this is one of the main reasons, probably, that his novels will never enjoy a revival in an era tawdry enough to venerate “Breaking Bad”), and even in his nonfiction narratives, he never misses an opportunity to put a human face on the proceedings, even if he risks anachronisms along the way. His account of the illicit passion Edward II’s Queen Isabella felt for the strapping traitor Roger Mortimer, for instance, would scarcely be out of place in a Phyllis Whitney novel (don’t ask – Stevereads will get to her in due time):
It is not difficult to believe that the queen, her emotions aroused by the fine dark eyes of the prisoner, had communicated with him, had in fact made occasion to see him. It is easy enough, too, when served by loyal gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting, to have a cell door opened and a corridor kept clear and thus to receive a guest when the silence of night has settled over the dark Tower. It would be risky but possible to carry on a liaison under the eyes of the court. It is easy to imagine also that the sub-lieutenant could have been won over if pressure of the right kind had been brought to bear on him.
Naturally, it’s not just love but death that fills these pages, including the biggest mortality of modern times, the Black Death of 1346. Costain paints a thrillingly dramatic picture of the plague’s inexorable march across the Continent toward England, which waited fearfully and grasped at every rumor:
When the plague reached France, the people of England became aware for the first time that it was universal. Word of strange and fearful things came over the water to the island. At Avignon the churchyards could not hold the dead and the Pope consecrated the Rhone so that bodies might be committed to the waters. The French people were said to be adopting strange methods to escape contagion. Some were wearing small lions carved out of gold. The gates of Paris were erupting with people seeking escape. Only in houses with windows opening to the north could there be safety. The doctors, who were completely in the dark, were advising people to avoid the sun and warm winds. Stay inside, they were saying, and fill the air with the scent of burning juniper and ash and young oak.
But it’s at the level of the individual that Costain consistently excels, especially when the historical character he’s describing is one he’s come to like. And since, for good or ill, it’s virtually impossible to read about Edward III without coming to like him, his chapters in The Three Edwards are the book’s most effective – culminating in the enfeebled warrior-king’s notoriously unsentimental end in 1377, although even there our author saves the scene with a fine flourish at the end:
The end came suddenly. His sight had not been good for a long time and then, on June 21, his voice deserted him entirely. He was too weak to do more than raise a feeble hand to indicate his wants. Soon even that effort proved too much and he sank into a condition almost of a coma. None of his children were with him, not even the duke who had made a point of attending him closely. The household officials, having been convinced long before of the imminence of death and seeing nothing to be gained now, were paying small attention. Alice Perrers remained in the room and a small knot of household servants and courtiers kept watchful eyes on her. She had never thought it necessary to win the favor of the staff and had been repaid by a general suspicion and dislike.
The king’s confessor was in the room, hovering tensely over the royal couch. When the dying monarch recovered enough strength to mutter the words Jesu Miserere, the priest placed a crucifix in his hands. The royal lips were pressed to the cross. The breathing became less and less perceptible and finally ceased.
Thus died the most brilliant and colorful of the English kings. He had lived to the ripe age of sixty-five years and had been king for fifty of them.
Everything that Thomas Costain wrote is worth reading, but to my mind, his popular histories are the pinnacle of his maudlin, purple-lipped art. “The Pageant of England” was a staple of book clubs and special-edition vendors for decades, so who knows how many basements and cellars still have cobwebbed copies tucked away in some corner? I recently found a hardcover with a pretty dust jacket (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) and spent a wonderful afternoon re-living the pomp and splendor. I strongly recommend the experience.
April 9th, 2014
My favorite ironic, unintentional, sexist contrast of the month comes from the latest issue of GQ: quite by the random chance of advertising space, we get these two pictures side-by-side. On the one side, there’s a young woman who’s dementedly devoted to re-shaping her body into a living simulacrum of a Barbie doll, a self-mutilation GQ‘s editors clearly want their readers to find revolting:
And on the other side, an ad for a men’s clothing line featuring a young model who’s anatomically an adult male but who weighs 85 pounds and subsists entirely on tobacco, having eschewed both solid food and water since childhood:
The creators of that ad – and by extension those same GQ editors – are hoping for the exact opposite reaction here, even though both pictures are equally revolting. There’s a moral there somewhere – perhaps in plain view?