Posts from May 2015

May 31st, 2015

The Rise of Roscoe Paine!

the rise of roscoe paineOur book today is The Rise of Roscoe Paine, a delightful 1912 novel by the Joseph Lincoln, who died half a century ago but who, for half a century before that, enjoyed a very nice career as a novelist and balladeer, singing the praises of a gently mythologized Cape Cod in book after book, much to the enchantment of his readers. Lincoln wrote “beach books” before they were formerly designated as such; he’s the spiritual godfather of current-day writers like Susan Mallery and Elin Hilderbrand, and like them, he transports his readers to an idealized, romantic world of muted colors, friendly characters, and happy endings. Lincoln made a very tidy living by doing this ushering of his harried, overworked readers into this make-believe world of long sunsets and sandy footpaths, and once he found a formula that worked, he didn’t trouble himself with varying from it to any notable degree.

By the time he wrote The Rise of Roscoe Paine (about ten novels into his career, with about twenty more to come), Lincoln knew the ingredients of that formula about as well as he ever would: a feisty heroine, an easily-misunderstood young hero, some kind of boat-trouble, and most of all, the constant hint that the haven of his fictional Cape Cod town Denboro might be under threat from the impinging outside world (the reader will notice at once that these ingredients are exactly the same in 2015 as they were in 1915). In The Rise of Roscoe Paine, the title character is our hero, a handsome young man who affects a nonchalant manner but who inwardly broods over the tragedy that derailed his comfortable life a few years before. In fact, Roscoe Paine remembers the exact moment that tragedy touched him:

As a boy I remember myself as a spoiled youngster who took the luxuries of this world for granted. I attended an expensive and select private school, idled my way through that somehow, and entered college, a happy-go-lucky young fellow with money in my pocket. For two-thirds of my Freshman year – which was all I experienced of University life – I enjoyed myself as much as possible and studied as little. Then came the telegram. I remember the looks of the messenger who brought it, the cap he wore, and the grin on his young Irish face when the fellow sitting next me at the battered black oak table in the back room of Kelly’s asked him to have a beer. I remember the song we were singing, the crowd of us, how it began again and then stopped short when the others saw the look on my face. The telegram contained but four words: “Come home at once.” It was signed with the name of my father’s lawyer.

You can see even from so short an excerpt how inviting a writer Lincoln could be (despite his penchant for Irish stereotypes – although since there are such beer-gulping faith-and-begorrah comic figures in every single one of his books, I have to conclude he’d have been more or less lost without those stereotypes … or maybe it was just what his audience wanted). The telegram in question contained news not of death or injury but of disgrace: Roscoe’s father had been branded a thief and embezzler, and the family was ruined.

The aftermath finds him living quietly in Denboro with his ailing mother – when suddenly the quiet is shattered by the arrival of a new family and their construction of what today would be derided as a McMansion. Their pretensions seem absurd to Roscoe, who treats them with the sneer of the Cape native:

I could see the carpenters, whose hammers I had heard at work upon the roof of the barn, now destined to do double duty as a stable and a garage. They, and the painters and plumbers, had been busy on the premises for months. The establishment had been a big one, even when Major Atwater owned it, but the new owners had torn down and added the rebuilt until the house loomed up like a palace or a Newport villa. A Newport villa in Denboro! Why on earth any one should deliberately choose Denboro as a place to live in I couldn’t understand; but why a millionaire, with all creation to select from, should build a Newport villa on the bluff overlooking the Denboro Bay was beyond comprehension. The reason given by the Cape Cod Item was that Mrs. Colton was “in debilitated health,” whatever that is, and had been commanded by her doctors to seek sea air and seclusion and rest. Well, there was sea air and rest, not to mention seclusion or sand or mosquitoes, for a square mile about the new villa, and no one knew that better than I, condemned to live within the square.

By the time The Rise of Roscoe Paine appeared in Boston’s bookshops, readers knew they could expect that the Coltons would have a beautiful young woman among their number, and that she and Roscoe would have a quite literally stormy relationship (including as it does some mild nautical peril at one key point), and that they would end up being each other’s salvation. But the fact that these things are predictable doesn’t in any way make them less enjoyable, especially in the hands of a happy lucy reading roscoe paineprofessional like Lincoln.

I was prompted to find The Rise of Roscoe Paine on my shelves after I spotted a whole slew of Lincoln’s novels on the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop (I bought my copy a very long time ago, at a Tremont Street bookshop that’s long gone now). I was briefly tempted to scoop up the lot of those old novels, those trusted friends at so many Cape bookshops and rental houses of a bygone era … but this time, I refrained. Here’s hoping some Brattle browser took a chance on them – and is enjoying their rewards even now, on a reading couch in whatever seaside Denboro they call their own.

May 30th, 2015

Comics: Behold … The Vision!

avengers epic collectionOur book today is a good oldie reprinted for crass opportunistic motives: it’s the latest “Epic Collection” from Marvel Comics, The Avengers: Behold … The Vision, and the crass part isn’t far to seek: the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron is still in theaters worldwide and has already grossed north of $500 million with no end in sight, and that no doubt motivated the choice of reprint material in even androidthis volume.

Four major characters are introduced to movegoers in Age of Ultron: Ultron, the title bad guy, a grinning near-indestructible robot bent on world domination, the Vision, a red-skinned yellow-caped android created by Ultron but possessing, against all odds, a heroic nature, Quicksilver, a young Eastern European mutant gifted with super-speed, and his sister, the Scarlet Witch, a mutant with the ability to hurl reality-warping “hexes.” Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have a long history in Marvel comics, but Ultron and the Vision were introduced together, in the classic 1968 Avengers issue #57, in which the Vision, capable of altering his body’s density from wraithlike intangibility to diamond-hard compactness, is sent by Ultron to destroy the Avengers.

The core team at the time consisted of Captain America, the Black Panther, Giant-Man, and the Wasp … and the Vision very nearly defeats them all, until his heroic nature violently reasserts itself and he dares to rebel against his master:

“Well, do not simply stand there … like some lifeless mannequin! I gave you a tongue to speak … let me hear your report!”

“Yes … you created me … gave me life! But you meant me to be nothing but a nameless, soulless imitation of a human being! Release the Avengers … or face him whom they have named … the Vision!”

vision & ultronThe team quickly inducts the Vision into their ranks (in the classic issue “Even an Android Can Cry”), and the rest of this Epic Collection features the Vision’s first dozen adventures with the team. The volume reprints some of writer Roy Thomas’s best issues on the title and has artwork by John Buscema, his brother Sal, and the great Gene Colan, here somewhat out of his element (there are also a couple of issues drawn by BarryWindsor Smith, doing a very ham-handed Jack Kirby pastiche). Characters are added – in addition to the Vision, quicksilver & sisterthe Black Knight returns (the volume also includes his 1968 solo adventure from Marvel Super-Heroes #17, an unexpected treat), the archer Hawkeye takes on the role of Giant-Man, and, coming back to Age of Ultron, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch briefly return to the team.

gene colan avengersThe Avengers experience in these fantastic issues is even better than the admittedly fantastic one those theatergoers all over the world are getting with Age of Ultron; it’s even more melodramatic, yes, but it’s also much more satisfyingly adult. Thomas knows exactly what he’s doing in this run, giving us well-rounded characters who just happen to be super-heroes, and pitting those characters against corporate greed and societal racism just as often as he pits them against Kang the Conqueror. We see Hawkeye tormented by his shady past, the Vision tormented by his weird tabula rasa existence … and a few times we see ranting old Ultron in various incarnations, although the simple truth is that he’s one of the Avengers’ least interesting villains – just an evil robot bent on world domination.

Marvel has reprinted some of these issues many times in the past (there’s a new reprint of their Masterworks series that very nearly duplicates the contents of this volume, for instance), but with Age of Ultron currently generating obscene amounts of profit, they’re not about to let Ultron-related back issues languish in limbo. And since those issues are often drawn from high points in the comic’s history, it’s win-win for long-time Avengers fans.

May 29th, 2015

Romance Round-Up: May’s Regencies!

romance roundup

For my final romance round-up in May, I slouched back to my admitted favorite sub-genre, the Regency – and not your grandmother’s Regency (your grandmother, that is, not mine – there’s no documentary evidence that my dear Granny ever read a book in her incredibly long life, bless the dear) but this new richer and hyper-hormonal modern version in which the ladies are outspoken and the men – as you can see from these covers – spend more time working out at Planet Fitness than they do playing whist for modest stakes. It’s no good pointing out that such, erm, specimens would have been considered bizarre circus attractions (or worse, day laborers) to the actual high-born denizens of the Regency-era Ton – marketing departments will have their way, and ours is not to question why.

So on a deliciously warm late Spring day recently, I settled the old dogs on piles of blankets, stretched out under the gently-spinning ceiling fan, and gorged on these new Regencies:

A Good Rake is Hard to Find by Manda Collins (St. Martin’s) – The whole Planeta good rake is hard to find Fitness thing steps into the spotlight with this novel’s cover, but the book itself – the first in the new “Lords of Anarchy” series from the delightful Manda Collins, who here spins the story of Lord Frederick “Freddy” Lisle and beautiful, heartbroken Leonora Craven. Freddy is a member of the Lords of Anarchy (although his hearts not completely in it, as we’re told: “Really, Freddy reflected, all it took was a night out with friends to convince him that he was better off spending time with his dogs”), a daredevil carriage-racing ring, and in one such race Leonora’s brother Jonny met his untimely death – putting her on a quest to find out exactly what happened to him and why. Collins does a very adroit job of drawing these two together while also giving her readers a fascinating look at the world of high-speed carriage racing in the Regency era.

his wicked reputationHis Wicked Reputation by Madeline Hunter (Jove) – Madeline Hunter’s latest novel – a very satisfying and at turns interestingly intellectual thing weighing in at a plump 400-plus pages – likewise opens up a corner of the Regency world about which her readers will be unfamiliar, in this case the world of art ownership and art forgery. The two sides of that world are cannily embodied by our two main characters, Gareth Fitzallen, the bastard son of the Duke of Aylesbury, and Eva Russell, the proud daughter of a down-at-the-heels gentry family. Gareth is investigating an art theft that happened on one of his properties, and Eva makes a small income copying paintings – hence, two narrative arcs that are bound to cross! The novel’s payoff, however, is the spritely characterization of the two leads (only one of whom, rather rudely, is shown on the book’s nonetheless stylish cover): when Eva is giving Gareth a piece of her mind, she says, “You have a charming tendency to think no one knows his own mind as well as you might know it for him.” And Fitz, on being called a charmer, responds: “I am too conceited to deny it. It comes naturally to me. Would that more people endeavored to be charmers. Charm is oil on the machinery of society.” And it, too, is the first in a series – which can be refreshing in this world of the endless genre series.

The Bedding Proposal by Tracy Anne Warren (Signet Select) – The new novel from the bedding proposal coverTracy Anne Warren is likewise the first book in a series, in this case a trilogy called “The Rakes of Cavendish Square” (always a fun gambit, when a romance author ties a series of books to a specific locale in London). Those aforementioned rakes can be presumed to be a collection of good-hearted ne’er-do-wells who’ll all have their scapegrace ways mended by the right women by-and-by, and as such the whole series is likely to slot very neatly into the kind of traditional Regency Warren does so well (2013’s The Trouble with Princesses was especially enjoyable, I thought). In this series debut, the ne’er-do-well is Lord Leo Byron (identical twin of Lord Lawrence), who’s so jaded as our story opens that he’s actually willing to make an attempt at winning the heart of the notorious divorcee Lady Thalia Lennox, who’s scandalous life has exiled her to the farthest reaches of the Ton – and the exile itself has made her especially touchy about becoming the object of anyone’s scorn or irony – but when she initially attempts to make this clear to Lord Leo, she’s caught off-guard:

“You and I shall never be intimates. Good night, Lord Leopold.”

Spinning around, she marched toward the door.

As she did, she caught sight of a man standing across the room – a man she would have sworn was Leopold Byron had she not known that he was still dripping somewhere behind her. Her step wobbled slightly as her mind worked to figure out the unexpected anomaly.

Twins? Good God, are there two of him?

The Bedding Proposal carries on in that bouncing, smirking vein for the whole of its charming story about these two very gradually coming to like each other, and Warren’s craft never once falters. The book easily had me hankering for the rest of the series.

the lady meets her matchThe Lady Meets Her Match by Gina Conkle (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Our final Regency (this time around! Try as I might, I doubt I’ll be able to control this particular reading sweet-tooth in favor of randy bikers and Sicilian billionaires) is this latest from Gina Conkle, the author of last year’s thoroughly enjoyable Meet the Earl at Midnight. It’s a saucy, ironic take on the story of Cinderella, where wealthy bachelor Cyrus Ryland holds an elaborate costume ball, is entranced by a masked woman, and is left with only her glass slipper – in this case an equally-incongruous plain brown shoe – behind. The “King of Commerce” vows to find his mystery woman and Conkle’s sparkling novel springs into motion, but it’s a captivating lucy reads historical romancesperformance even from the first line:

A woman on the verge of moral downfall ought to be well dressed. Clare’s particular transgression was gartered to her thigh, a paper hidden by yards of silk. She walked through the empty alley, confident in one comforting truth: no one dared ask a lady was her skirts concealed.

By time time I’d turned the final page of The Lady Meets Her Match, my bed was littered with Regencies and sleeping dogs, and I was fortified enough to face the next 700-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

May 26th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Bloody Chamber

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penguin bloody chamber coverSome Penguin Classics come in packages that are ridiculously enticing, and the foremost current example of this has to be the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Angela Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber, which here gets an absolutely stunning paperback designed by Lynn Buckley and illustrated in leering, lapel-grabbing black-and-white by Alex Konahin. Here on the 75th anniversary of Carter’s birth, The Bloody Chamber, a book that’s had a long history of gorgeous book-designs, gets what might be its best one yet.

The hosting duties are taken up this time around by Magic for Beginners author Kelly Link, who reveals in her Introduction that The Bloody Chamber is for her one of those books:

I do know that since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. I keep extra copies in the cupboard where we stockpile books that I can then, extravagantly, give away to whoever seems most in need of them.

I fancy that most readers have one or two of those books, the ones you buy whenever you see them, specifically so you always have copies on hand to give to people who haven’t read them, to press on those people like a Gideon Bible. I certainly have one of two of those books, the kind of book you love so much and so badly want people to read that you feel you’ve failed somehow if you aren’t able to put a physical copy in their hands the moment you recommend it. The Bloody Chamber has never been one of those books for me, but there’s something extra comforting in knowing it’s introduced here by somebody who loves it that way.

Certainly the open enthusiasm of the Introduction served to propel me into my first keyholere-reading of the book itself in probably thirty years (God only knows what happened to the cheesy old mass market I used to have), and I was instantly caught up again in Carter’s hyper-lavish use of language – and by the theme that throbs so close to the surface in all ten of these stories, the great murmur of longing that unifies these separate parts. The Bloody Chamber‘s stories are pastiches of well-known fairy tales and folk tales like Beauty and the Beast or Puss-in-Boots, but at their heart they contain the kind of profound psychological displacement that belongs purely to the 20th Century. In the title story, for instance, we watch a recently-married young countess as she boards a train with her new husband, going “into marriage, into exile”:

The train slowed, shuddered to a halt. Lights; clank of metal; a voice declaring the name of an unknown, never-to-be-visited station; silence of the night; the rhythm of his breathing, that I should sleep with, now, for the rest of my life. And I could not sleep. I stealthily sat up, raised the blind a little and huddled against the cold window that misted over with the warmth of my breathing, gazing out a the dark platform towards those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master, his children tucked up in bed asleep in the brick house with the painted shutters … all the paraphernalia of the everyday world from which I, with my stunning marriage, had exiled myself.

That’s so quintessentially Carter, that detail about poetically doomed characters catching glimpses – through warmly-lit windows – into pleasant, settled worlds they will never know. If anything, that detail is heightened in Link’s favorite – and mine – among these tales, “The Lady of the House of Love,” a vampire story in which, according to Link, we’re shown that it’s possible “to blend together in one story the gothic, the comic, the camp, and the cataclysmic.” The vampire Countess in that story hates her supernatural nature even as she yields to it:

On moonless nights, her keeper lets her out into the garden. This garden, an exceedingly sombre place, bears a strong resemblance to a burial ground and all the roses her dead mother planted have grown up into a huge, spiked wall that incarcerates her in the castle of her inheritance. When the back door opens, the Countess will sniff the air and howl. She drops, now, on all fours. Crouching, quivering, she catches the scent of her prey. Delicious crunch of the fragile bones of rabbits and small, furry things she pursues with fleet, four-footed speed; she will creep home, whimpering, with blood smeared on her cheeks. She pours water from the ewer in her bedroom into the bowl, she washes her face with the wincing, fastidious gestures of a cat.

Into her world, briefly, comes that same sunlit glimpse of another, this time in the lucy and the bloody chamberform of a young officer, “blond, blue-eyed, heavy-muscled, visiting friends in Vienna,” but he’s only a glimpse – he’s gone again almost before she can register all the things he might have been.

I found the book effortlessly better and more beautiful than I remembered from the earlier reading a lifetime ago, and this sturdy new paperback only enhanced the pleasure. The front inside flap shows an ornate key, and the back inside flap shows an elaborate keyhole. Even if you’ve read The Bloody Chamber before – and especially if you haven’t – take the proffered invitation: turn the key, and enter.

May 23rd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Power and the Glory!

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power and the glory dust jacketSome Penguin Classics have been reprinted so many times in so many formats and years and fads that no further possible textual justification can ever be found for doing it again – instead, publishers have to think outside the book, have to look for nuances of presentation if they want to create something that feels a bit new. And if this is true for classics like Pride and Prejudice or fan favorites like Dracula – books that exists in billions of copies around the world and so, technically speaking, require no further reprinting – how much more true must it be for the millionth new edition of a flaccid and mordantly overpraised book like Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which has seen hundreds of different paperback reprint editions over the last eighty years while managing to deserve none of them?

It’s a tribute to book-designer Paul Buckley that he can make such an old familiar chestnut look so fresh and inviting. This latest Penguin Classics reprint of The Power and the Glory harks back to some of the very earliest Penguins by having an actual dust jacket, in this case one that overlays a vaguely ecclesiastical gilt-work over a black-and-white cover photo of a soldier squinting to take aim with his pistol – an apt combination of images, given that Greene’s novel is set in Mexico of the 1930s, when the government was using the military to hunt and persecute Catholics in the rough outlying districts where the story unfolds.

That story, as will be well-known to the legions of high school students who’ve had this thing inflicted on them when they could otherwise have been reading Starship Troopers, features an unnamed “whisky priest” who wanders through the aforementioned unnamed provinces in a seedy, alcoholic stupor, hunted by the authorities, suspected by the inhabitants, distrustful of his own faith. In more talented hands, such a plot might have been woven into a great novel (indeed, it largely was – and a free book to the first of you who can identify the resulting huge book, one of the greatest unsung novels in Mexico’s literary history). In Greene’s hands, it’s just another talky, disjointed dish rag of a melodrama, mainly propelled by brevity and snappy place-descriptions – in other words, it’s a thinly-disguised piece of travel-writing.

Greene, always balky at doing anything creative and hence always ready to recycle old material, had in fact already written just such a piece of travel-writing about the brief time he spent in Mexico, a 1939 book called Another Mexico. But according to John Updike, in his 1990 Introduction reprinted with this new edition, Greene, far from recycling Another Mexico (Updike persists in calling it Another Country, and as with so much of the swill he churned out in his career, he wasn’t edited), transformed it into art with a capital “A”:

The tone, too, is transformed: in Another Country Greene is very much the exasperated tourist, hating Mexican food, manners, hotels, rats, mosquitoes, mule rides, souvenirs, and ruins. He even inveighs against the ‘hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes.’ In the novel, as it shows a Mexican moving among Mexicans, and these generally the most lowly and impoverished, all querulousness has vanished, swallowed by matters of life and death and beyond.

Thus prepared for a transcendent novel in which “querulousness” has been purged away, readers will perhaps be surprised to find our man very much still in Havana:

The squad of police made their way back to the station. They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes. The little plaza on the hill-top was lighted with globes strung together in threes and joined by trailing overhead wires. The Treasury, the Presidencia, a dentist’s, the prison – a low white colonnaded building which dated back three hundred years – and then the steep street down past the back wall of a ruined church: whichever way you went you came ultimately to water and to river.

Maybe Updike – from his Montauk vantage point – could discern a meaningfullucy sniffs greene difference between ‘hideous inexpressive brown eyes’ and ‘black secret Indian eyes,’ but I sure don’t, and this kind of offhand garbage is waist-deep in so much of Greene’s boring, one-note fiction, including here in what Updike refers to as his “masterpiece.”

But, thanks to Paul Buckley, this is the prettiest paperback edition of that “masterpiece” you’re likely to find.

May 23rd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: the Holland Herodotus!

penguins

penguin herodotusSome Penguin Classics mark a melancholy succession, and works in translation are particularly vulnerable to this. The old cherished translations of great works – the Rosemary Edmonds War and Peace, the E. V. Rieu Homer, the Dorothy Sayers Divine Comedy, and so on – begin to feel almost imperceptibly dated around the edges. If they’re particularly beloved, the editors might attempt a facelift, bringing in some scholar to write a new Introduction and revise the old translation, maybe providing new notes. But such things are delaying actions only; generally speaking, every age tends to demand its own translations of the canon.

Which is an entirely healthy process, even I must grudgingly admit, but the ‘melancholy’ part comes in when the outgoing translation in question has been an old friend. And what older Penguin Classics friend do I have than the 1954 Aubrey de Selincourt translation of the Histories of Herodotus? As I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, I’ve lived and traveled with the de Selincourt Herodotus to such an enormous extent that the book feels like a part of me. Seeing it dropped from the Penguin Classic lineup can’t help but be shocking, even if it’s being replaced with something very good.

Luckily, in this case it’s being replaced with something very good. Something better, in fact, than I originally thought. When Tom Holland came out with his translation of Herodotus a couple of years ago, the thought that it might one day replace my Herodotus in the Penguin line perhaps made me a bit defensive. But I’ve had a chance to live with the Holland translation since then, revisiting it in part or in whole as a conscious schooling decision whenever my hand just automatically reached for the de Selincourt.

It’s grown on me, this Holland translation. I like it’s straightforward conversational style, which starts immediately in the Translator’s Preface:

Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians. Indeed, he is as entertaining as anyone who has ever written – historian or not. He has been my constant companion since I was twelve, and never once have I grown tired of him. His great work is many things – the first example of nonfiction, the text that underlies the entire discipline of history, the most important source of information we have for a vital episode in human affairs – but it is above all a treasure-trove of wonders.

And I like the way Holland’s dialogue (and Herodotus is simply crammed with dialogue – more, percentage-wise, than we get in War and Peace) is often more natural and less arch than the stuff de Selincourt so often produced in pages from memory. Take the poignant moment when Croesus, the beaten king of Lydia, gives the lucy reads the holland herodotusravenous Persian King Cyrus some ironic insight:

Then he turned, watching as the Persians devastated the Lydian capital, and opened his mouth at last. ‘O King, should I say what has been on my mind, or is this not an appropriate time to speak?’ Cyrus told him not to be afraid, and to say whatever he wished. Croesus responded with a second question. ‘What are they doing, all these rampaging hordes?’ ‘Why,’ said Cyrus,’ they are tearing your city to pieces, and carting off your treasures.’ But Croesus turned this statement upon its head. ‘It is not my city they are tearing to pieces, not my treasures. None of it belongs to me any more. It is you who is being robbed.’

And if I needed any extra convincing, I certainly got it in the form of his gorgeous new Penguin Classics “Deluxe Edition” paperback designed by John-Patrick Thomas. Its pages, its binding, its lovely black and burnt orange color set … de Selincourt never looked this good. It seems a little too pretty to take along on travels, but those days are over too, so I don’t mind.

May 22nd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Magna Carta!

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penguin magna cartaSome Penguin Classics are legitimate scholarly landmarks. Not as many as you might expect, and for the clear reason that the overriding purpose of any classics-reprint line is actually the opposite of originality: a new Introduction here, a pretty new cover there, but the heart of Dover, Signet, Bantam, Penguin and all other reprint lines is mainly to present the familiar, not the new.

Penguin excels in this, of course. Their editions of classics both well-known and, shall we say, speculative, are lovely, handy, and efficient; when I want to re-read a canonical work of which I have half a dozen editions (*sigh* – don’t get me started), I almost invariably reach first for a Penguin Classics. But typically, if I want a scholarly, critical edition of a canonical work, I hunt down some other edition – the Norton Critical War and Peace, for instance, or the John Shawcross edition of Milton’s poetry, and so on.

There’ve been exceptions: the recent three-volume edition of the Arabian Nights, for instance, or the recent David Norton edition of the King James Bible. And to that short, distinguished list must now be added Penguin’s meaty new edition of the Magna Carta, the famous charter King John’s barons wrung out of him in June of 1215 on a field at Runnymede. Magna Carta itself winds down in well under 4000 words, but this new edition, edited by David Carpenter, is nearly 600 pages long, and such a staggering discrepancy would seem to defy justification. But as Carpenter points out early and often, the elaborate extent of the critical attention is well warranted by the sheer bombshell importance of the document itself:

The Charter’s impact in the thirteenth century was actually very great. Its arrival does mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in English history. For a start, the efforts at publication and enforcements meant that the fact of the Charter was enormously well known. Even for those who knew merely the fact and not the details, the fact was massive, for it embodied the basic principle of the Charter. The king was now subject to the law. This idea had, of course, a long pedigree, but now its truth was proved in a document of unimpeachable authority and overwhelming fame.

Carpenter’s edition of Magna Carta is a stunning scholarly performance from start to finish. The document is presented in all its sniveling glory, with English-Latin facing pages, but the glory of Carpenter’s endeavor is its consummate contextualizing. After the presentation of the text (copiously annotated), Carpenter writes what amounts to a political and social biography of King John and his times. We get wonderfully readable discussions of Magna Carta and the poor, Magna Carta and women, Magna Carta and English law, Magna Carta and the monarchy, Magna Carta and subsequent ages, and a dozen other historical permutations.

All this great surging current of scholarly support works to present the entire world and significance of Magna Carta in one elegant paperback volume, so it’s perfect for students coming to the subject for the first time, but it also digs as deeply as a great many works of specialist scholarship, so it’s perfect for readers who come to the volume already knowing something about the subject. That’s no mean feat of scholarship, and Carpenter makes it look easy. And occasionally, there are even some lucy reads the magna cartavery faint hints of skepticism about holy worth of Magna Carta itself:

The Charter has indeed become one of the most famous documents in world constitutional history, regarded as a fundamental protection against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. In some ways, this illustrious history is as undeserved as it was unintended. Magna Carta, as originally conceived, certainly did not offer equal protection to all the king’s subjects. It was, in many ways, a selfish document in which the baronial elite looked after its own interests.

That hint – that the substitution of twenty, thirty, a hundred armed and mercenary tyrants for one single tyrant might not have been a purely good thing in “constitutional history” – isn’t extensively pursued, since the aforementioned illustrious history isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But Carpenter’s towering achievement in this volume is the best thing on Magna Carta to appear in this 800th anniversary year of King John’s capitulation to his subjects.

May 21st, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Centurions!

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penguin centurionsSome Penguin Classics maintain a gruesome kind of relevance, which is surely part of what’s behind the publisher’s decision to bring Jean Larteguy’s 1960 French bestseller Les Centurions back into print, here ushering the book into the Classics line with the Xan Fielding translation (as The Centurions) and a Foreward by Balkan Ghosts author Robert Kaplan, who’s also something of a go-to expert in the deadly rag-tag counter-insurgency methods and mind frames highlighted throughout the novel. Given 2015’s 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon – and given the wars of insurgency currently embroiling half of Africa and half of the Middle East – that gruesome relevance couldn’t be more evident.

The Centurions taps into the seeping disillusionments of the French experience in Indochina by setting up a very satisfying straw man scenario in which stereotypically valiant 20th century soldiers – here epitomized by heroic French Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, who survives a brutal Viet Minh POW camp and thereby learns first-hand the brutal efficiency of unstructured guerrilla tactics – first hate and then embrace a new kind of warfare made up of irregular fighting, improvised tactics, and unsparing ruthlessness.

The tension between conventional and guerrilla warfare was never as simply reduced as that, and Larteguy – the pen-name for a soldier who served in both Korea and North Africa – knew that quite well. In his sprawling, seedy, violent novel, he plays a very sophisticated game of shifting illusions, as his core cast of French paratroopers taken prisoner in Vietnam learn and unlearn everything they thought they knew about their profession. And Kaplan, after his Foreward’s bumpy start (in which he writes, “Conventional modern war, which Napoleon did so much to define and institutionalize, with its formalized set-piece battles and vertical chains of command, has mainly been with us for little more than two centuries” – a statement that would have bewildered professional warriors from Alexander the Great through William the Conqueror and right up to Field Marshal Montgomery), targets the novel’s appeal:

Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half measures, fought against an enemy that respected no limits. More than any writer I know, Larteguy communicates the intensity of such frustrations, which, in turn, create the psychological gulf that separates warriors from both a conscript army and a civilian home front.

Some of Larteguy’s warriors fancy themselves directly connected to their illustrious past, as when idealistic Captain Philippe Esclavier, escaping the drunken revelry of his colleagues, refreshes himself in the cool desert night of North Africa while leaning against an old Roman Legion landmark and dreaming of the past. “The centurion Philippe Esclavier of the 10th Parachute Regiment tried to think why he, too, had lit bonfires in order to contain the barbarians and save the West,” Larteguy writes. “’We centurions,’ he reflected, ‘are the last defenders of man’s innocence against all those who want to enslave it in the name of original sin …’”

Less noble and cinematic but far truer to the book’s essentially ugly ethos are the nighttime ravings of Lieutenant Lescure after the defeat of the French army at Dien-Bien-Phu, when in his madness he glimpses the new reality in which he and hislucy and the centurions comrades find themselves:

It was a great procession of the damned who were making their way to the seat of the Last Judgement; angels had lit their torches so that no one should escape in the dark. Enthroned high above them sat the god with the huge belly and eyes as round as millstones. In his claw-like hands he grabbed the humans up by the fistful and tore them apart in his teeth, the just and the unjust, the pure and impure, the believers and the unbelievers alike. All were acceptable to him, for he hungered after flesh and blood. Every now and then he gave a solemn belch and the angels applauded with a shout: “Long live President Ho!” But he was still ravenous so he also devoured them; and even as he snapped their bones between his teeth, they kept on shouting: “Long may he live!”

Kaplan points out in his Foreward that The Centurions has been a cult classic of serving military men since its initial appearance, and it’s not hard to see why, although the knowledge is intensely uncomfortable. It’s a dubious thing, being a classic of war-fiction.

May 20th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The River Between!

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penguin river betweenSome Penguin Classics look so darn elegant in their special anniversary editions, which certainly applies to the 50th anniversary reprint of The River Between, the lean and powerful 1965 debut novel by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, here presented with a new Introduction by Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala and sporting a gorgeous cover photo by Nigel Pavitt, with the whole production opening with a “message” from Chinua Achebe welcoming the reader to the Penguin African Writers Series. This is the fourth of this author’s novels to join the Series (although it’s probably still to early for the induction of his 2006 masterpiece Wizard of the Crow).

Iweala’s Introduction is earnestly passionate, although reading offers the same kind of uphill struggle the reader faces on virtually every page of Beasts of No Nation: namely, it can be a trial to be lectured quite so sententiously by somebody who’s young enough to be my grandson (if a quick mental calculation is correct, our revered authority has only just crept out of his twenties). Penguin ran into this same problem a few years ago when they commissioned a teenager to write the Foreward to a John Steinbeck book, and things are only a little better here, with Iweala assuring us that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer who’s “profoundly allergic to the simple” and lapsing quite often into lines like this:

It is not an easy text, primarily because it advocates abandoning many assumptions that the postcolonial African (which is to say every living African) has about the struggle for freedom and the institutions that structure everyday life.

I believe the native Kenyan term for that kind of stuff is twaddle, but even twaddle is preferable to thinly-disguised self-promotion. “Writers,” Iweala intones at one point, “have never been an easy lot. More than anyone – except perhaps soldiers or mercenaries – they thrive on conflict, viewing it as an integral part of any society.” Apart from the fact that a good fifteen occupations spring instantly to mind that “thrive on conflict” more than book-writing, there’s also the convenient fact that the main character in Beasts of No Nation is a mercenary. Wouldn’t want to be undercutting our own PR, now would we?

In fact, it’s a jarring jump to move from this Introduction written by a young man to the novel itself, which was written by an even younger man and yet never indulges in either bloat or self-congratulation. Re-reading The River Between is every bit as knife-edge uncomfortable now as it was the first time I read it, right around the time Uzodinma Iweala’s father was teething. This is a novel of only about 150 pages (a lifetime ago, such things were called novellas, according to the rule of a cherished and now long-gone Harvard fixture, who maintained that a short story was a work you could read in one sitting and that a novella was a novel you could read in one sitting “provided there’s tea”), but the London Guardian was right (though a trifle condescending) to say it “sometimes touches the grandeur of tap-root simplicity.”

The river of the title, the Honia, flows between two ridges in Kenya, and the ridges are occupied by two very different villages of the Gikuyu tribe, Kameno and Makuyu. The dividing issue is the newly-introduced Christianity, which will eventually come to divide the villagers, some wanting to embrace the new faith, others wanting to stick with their ancient tribal customs.

Caught in the middle is the book’s main character, a noble young man named Waiyaki, the rising star of the Gikuyu tribe. Waiyaki is on the brink of manhood, a time when “the hidden things of the hills were being revealed to him,” and, after a stint away from home in a prestigious secondary school, he returns ready to undergo his “second birth” in the tribe’s ritual of circumcision, a harrowing scene that’s presented with crystalline lucy reads between two riversbrevity:

All his life Waiyaki had waited for this day, for this very opportunity to reveal his courage like a man. This had been the secret ambition of his youth. Ye, now that the time had come, he felt afraid. He did not, however, show it. He just stared into space, fear giving him courage. His eyes never moved. He was actually seeing nothing. The knife produced a thin, sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering. Around him women where shouting and praising him. The son of Chege had proved himself. Such praises were lavished only on the brave.

The plot tangles further with the introduction of both family tensions (the relationship between Waiyaki and Chege is still, for my money, the most memorable part of the novel) and the forbidden love of the wrong young woman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o plays it all very expertly against the impassive backdrop of the great ridges of the land itself (“they just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator”). It’s a moving, brittle performance, just about as impressive a start to any literary career as could be imagined – and it’s great to have it in the Penguin Classics line at last.

May 19th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Enchanted April!

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penguin enchanted aprilSome Penguin Classics have perfect timing, and this neat new reprint of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s beloved 1922 bestseller The Enchanted April is a great example. If it had actually reached me in the month of April here in Boston, with the skies still black, the days still freezing, and the streets and parks still piled ten feet high in snow, I’d have come down on the slim little thing like ton of proverbial bricks, and I’d have started off with a deeply sarcastic “Some enchantment” or perhaps even “I’ve got your Enchanted April right here.”

But instead, it reaches me in late May, when Boston is turning green again at last, when the nights are still five-blanket freezing cold, but the days are increasingly bright and sunny and souls withered to apple cores by the worst winter in recorded New England history can start to take some comfort from the pages of this perennial charmer.

A perennial charmer with a new Introduction by Brenda Bowen, author of Enchanted August, a contemporary re-imagining of the book. Bowen is a true believer in the book, obviously, and she’s a very spirited cheerleader in her dozen pages:

It’s a confection, it’s a dream, it’s a fleeting April romance, but oh, how hard to get this story out of your head. Who doesn’t long to find a place where one can shine like the sunlight? A place filled with lilacs and local wine and truest love, where we can all at last turn into the best versions of ourselves? Such a place is The Enchanted April’s San Salvatore, where mischievous Puck, with his midsummer violet love potion, would not have been out of place. Lovers come together and part and come together again. Scales fall from eyes. Sunlight and moonlight play tricks. All is forgiven. No one can come away from this April without thinking, even for just a moment, that the course of true love, unsmooth as it may run, is certainly worth taking.

The novel’s story is disarmingly simple: two women taking refuge in a reading room on a filthy London afternoon spot an alluring advertisement in the paper:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April.

They’re both of fairly straightened means, but with the unexpected teamwork of two other women – likewise total strangers, to each other and the rest – they actually take the chance and take the castle, and in the chapters that follow they slowly, gradually loosen themselves and learn about each other. Our author manages these congenial little transformations with such wonderful skill that the whole performance looks effortless, and her technique varies perfectly from crisp dialogue to swooping character

late-night reading
late-night reading

analysis and back:

‘It’s a good thing, of course,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot a little hesitatingly, ‘to be independent, and to know exactly what one wants.’

‘Yes, it saves trouble,’ agreed Lady Caroline.

‘But one shouldn’t be so independent,’ said Mrs Wilkins, ‘as to leave no opportunity for other people to exercise their benevolences on one.’

Lady Caroline, who had been looking at Mrs Arbuthnot, now looked at Mrs Wilkins. That day at that queer club she had had merely a blurred impression of Mrs Wilkins, for it was the other one who did all the talking, and her impression had been of somebody so shy, so awkward that it was best to take no notice of her. She had not even been able to say goodbye properly, doing it in an agony, turning red, turning damp. Therefore she now looked at her in some surprise; and she was still more surprised when Mrs Wilkins added, gazing at her with the most obvious sincere admiration, speaking indeed with a conviction that refused to remain unuttered, ‘I didn’t realize you were so pretty.’

Brenda Bowen is right to cheerlead this warm, inviting book, and it’s a joy that Penguin has inducted it into the Classics line.