Our book today is one of my many re-reads: Penelope Lively’s 2013 memoir Dancing Fish and Amonites, her elegant and intelligent meditation – partly about her life and upbringing but mainly about the story of her life as she observes it in her own memories: “The memory that we live with – the form of memory that most interests me – is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on,” as she puts it. “It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.”
That’s a subtly complex construction of exactly the kind that tend to wind through her novels, and although I admit I could often be impatient with those novels – on how many reading afternoons did one after the next of her books strike me as fussily faint-hearted! – here in her memoir, it found more fertile ground with me. I read and liked this book when it first came out, and just recently I found a copy at a thrift shop (since of course my original copy promptly disappeared), snapped it up, and spent an hour re-reading it on a freezing cold afternoon, expecting to be distinctly underwhelmed the second time around.
Instead, I found myself again and again charmed by Lively’s straightforward, almost bald, reflections on growing older, reflections that show her usual combination of wide angle and precise detail:
Writing survives, for me. Other pleasures – needs – do not. I was a gardener. Well, I am a gardener, but a sadly reduced one, in every sense. I have a small paved rectangle of London garden, full of pots, with a cherished twenty-year-old corokia, and two pittosporums, and various fuchsias, and Convolvulus cneorum and hakonechloa grass and euphorbia and heuchera and a Hydrangea petiolaris all over the back wall (well, some of you will be gardeners and might share my tastes). It gives me much pleasure, but it is a far cry from what I once gardened – a half acre or so that included beans, carrots, squash, you name it, the lot. All I can do now is potter with the hose in summer, and do a bit of snipping here and there, thanks to the arthritis; forget travel, what I really do miss is intensive gardening.
This second time around, I found Dancing Fish and Amonites even more interesting than the first time, perhaps even enough to prompt me to keep it, although that might be asking a lot.
Our book today is a genuine stunner: Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi, with gorgeous photographs by Jean-Francois Jaussaud. The book is subtitled A Private View of the City’s Most Beautiful Interiors, and the folks at Rizzoli have pulled out all the stops in making it the Venice-themed coffee table book of the year.
It’s introduced with a winsome personal essay by filmmaker James Ivory, who writes about something – a perception, even a worry – that every newcomer to Venice will immediately recognize, the sense of two cities, one for looking at and another, much smaller and much more exclusive, for living in. Merchant recalls the first time he came to Venice (with the obligatory “no more than fifty dollars” in his pocket), looking up at the lighted windows of the grand palazzi, sometimes glimpsing people walking past those windows, living lives entirely out of reach of the tourist. And in the course of his essay, as his fame and wealth increase, he gradually shifts over to being one of those people up on the balconies, living their lives while outsiders file past down below.
But the shift doesn’t require money or fame – familiarity alone can manage it. Venice is a city under ceaseless assault, washed in waves of tourists in every day of every season, and this only intensifies the already inward-looking tendencies of the Venetian people. But if you stay long enough, dress and behave like an adult, and, with any luck, speak a bit of the language, that other Venice will open up to you, and you’ll find yourself reading Dante in gorgeous little home libraries, or sipping a delicious Valpolicella wine on a leafy terrace overlooking a quiet canal, or even living in a building two centuries older than your home country (with, alas, bathroom plumbing every bit as old).
If readers don’t have the means or the time to make the acquaintance of that other Venice, they now have the next best thing in the pages of Inside Venice. Toto Bergamo Rossi introduces each sprawling district of the city in general terms, as with the Dorsoduro:
A series of facades in different styles follow one after the other all the way to Ca Foscari, the outer limit of the Dorsoduro quarter, and now seat of the University of Venice. Once, valuable salt was unloaded from ships on to plain wooden rafts to be unloaded again on the Fondamenta della Zattere landing before being stored in the Magazzini del Sale. The old salt storehouses have since been converted into exhibition spaces.
And then he does just as his book’s description promises: he goes behind the grand facades, goes in through the water landings, up the renovated staircases, into the grand parlors and intimate studies and sunny outdoor decks of some of each district’s signature buildings, new and old. He’s talked with the current owners of several of these spaces, and he can discourse with easy familiarity on history of the spaces themselves:
The very old Giustinian family built twin palazzi sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, probably with the collaboration of Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. The aim was to house two branches of the same family: the Giustinians called “dei Vescovi” occupied the palazzo bording on Ca’ Foscari, while the Giustinians “dalle Zoge” lived, until the mid-nineteenth century, in the palazzo currently owned by the Counts Brandolini d’Adda, who purchased it in 1876. Each palazzo has an independent ground entrance and a courtyard surrounded by high crenellated Gothic walls. Some of the rooms on the lower main floor conserve interesting stucco decorations executed by the school of Jacopo Sansovino, and a pictorial cycle by Palma il Giovane.
But of course the real highlight of Inside Venice isn’t verbal: it’s all those beautiful photos by Jean-Francoise Jaussaud, all shot with a light and airy warmth quite unlike the forbidding coldness of so many such coffee table books. I’ve slowly paged my way through more such books than I can readily count, and I can’t recall one I’ve liked better than this. And unlike so many of the books I talk about here on Stevereads, this one is brand-spanking new, just waiting there on the shelf of your nearest good retail bookshop, ready to part you from $60 of your hard-earned money. In this case, it’s well worth it.
Our book today is one I’ve mentioned briefly before: The National Geographic Society’s Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World from 1968, one of the series of great volumes they put out forty years ago and that are now staples of flea markets and yard sales all over the United States. At one time or another, I’ve owned virtually all of these volumes, especially of course Man’s Best Friend and Men, Ships and the Sea (although I’ve never yet found a copy of Song and Garden Birds of North America, so if you encounter it at your next yard sale, feel free to snap it up for me and ship it out to Hyde Cottage), but this one is probably my sentimental favorite.
These wonderfully inviting productions were overseen by National Geographic Society Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of the Board Melville Bell Grosvenor, and they feature artwork by Society stalwarts like Peter Bianchi, Louis Glanzman, HM Herget, Tom Lovell and half a dozen others. Like all the other historical volumes, Greece and Romefeatures a very pleasingly solid advisory board of actual experts, all of whom, like Merle Severy in the opening chapter “Quest for Our Golden Heritage,” try to strike that ‘informed general reader’ tone the National Geographic magazine has been hitting so perfectly for a century now:
Renaissance men proclaimed the rebirth of Greece and Rome, drank deeply at the wellsprings of their art, and enriched us with the masterpieces. The American and the French revolutions flamed with ideals of the Roman Republic and Athenian democracy. Our forefathers looked at their bold new world through Rome-colored glasses. The Roman patriot became the ideal citizen, the Roman tribune the guardian of man’s rights, the Roman general the most valiant of leaders. Rome’s laws and monuments were a vision of grandeur.
All the key marquee players in the Roman saga are here, most of them in chapters of their own, as with “The World of Alexander”:
A hero-worshiper, he was himself a hero on a grander scale than even Homer conceived. The single decade that brought him from youth to death took him beyond the known boundaries of civilization. Though his epic empire broke up in less time than it had taken him to win it, in death he achieved the ultimate ambition of his hectic life: He joined the demigods in the realm of legend.
Or “In the Footsteps of Hannibal,” where we get ancient history overlaid on present-day reality in the time-honored National Geographic way:
Glitter hides Hannibal’s trail along the Costa Brava. High-rise hotels and escuelas de esqui – schools for water-skiing – have tamed the Wild Coast, today the Spanish Riviera. Hoping for a detour into the past, I turned down a dirt road. It ended abruptly at an old deserted church, set in a deep cork-oak forest overlooking a broad valley – the kind of valley that would lure Hannibal’s foragers. Here slingers and spearmen might bring down game. Raiding parties would seize cattle and grain. Some natives, anxious to see the marauders move on, would surrender their crops and livestock. But not all yielded without a fight. In the 200 miles between the Ebro and the Pyrenees, Hannibal lost thousands of men in unchronicled skirmishes and desertions.
I was very pleased to find a copy of Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World the other day (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course), and unlike the previous copy I owned and mysteriously discarded, this one still had the little pouch in the back containing an absolutely wondrous huge fold-out map of the greater Mediterranean with hundreds of overlaid annotations marking all the various historical and even mythological events that took place in every nook and cranny of the region, back when giants walked the earth. I’m going to try to hold onto this copy.
Our book today is a genuine corker: Galapagos: World’s End by William Beebe, his 1924 account of the trip he took in 1923 with the Harrison Williams Galapagos Expedition to travel in the footsteps of of Charles Darwin’s expedition there with the Beagle in 1835. Beebe was already a prominent scientist and natural history expert when his book came out, and it sold like griddle cakes and lodged on the bestseller lists for months and months.
Its success was hardly a surprise – Beebe is such a smart and chummy writer that every one of his books makes the same kind of jumpingly lively reading. But even his normally vivid prose glows a little brighter when he’s playing his adventures off against the far more famous adventures that Darwin wrote about in his own (also delightful, it should be remembered) book. Beebe’s book parallels Darwin’s in several intriguing ways, including sometimes ways that even after many re-readings I still think are unconscious. For example, Beebe can no more resist than Darwin could the temptation to be a royal pain in the ass to some of the Galapagos’s most famous inhabitants:
To test the acquisition of fear, I caught an iguana of medium size, jerked him into the air, played with him for a few minutes and then loosened the noose and set him free. He ran of a few feet, turned and looked at me and offered no resistance to being again caught and swung through space. Six times I repeated this, and if anything he was tamer after the rough treatment than before, in the face of a series of experiences which would have driven any ordinary wild creature insane with fright.
(I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands twice, and on neither occasion did I feel the slightest urge to play tilt-a-whirl with the basset-sized lizards who live there – or to chuck them into the sea and watch what they do, as Darwin did; maybe it’s a weird quirk isolated to naturalists?)
Another parallel with Darwin is Beebe’s deep and persistent feeling of inquisitive awe at the largely unknown natural world around him. Every one of his observations feels as fresh as a sunrise, and his always-eloquent prose reflects that no matter what he’s writing about, from the mechanical intricacies of the Panama Canal to the surprisingly cutthroat world he observed
just beneath the gorgeous surface f the Pacific:
Fish savagery is always a striking feature of sea-fishing. Large fish are wary of attacking other large fish, but the moment either one seems to be in trouble or incapacitated he immediately becomes a victim. The attack seems more savage than the kill of the jungle, and the smell of blood arouses much the same instinct among fish as it does among jungle carnivora. The struggle for existence – for food – that takes place in the black depths of the sea is more fierce than that on land.
I was naturally quite pleased when I came across this old Dover paperback of Galapagos: World’s End at the Brattle last week; I’d forgotten the first-rate job Dover used to do with its line of nonfiction reprints. This volume, printed in 1988, is full of the color and black-and-white illustrations the author included in his original edition nearly a century ago, and it’s remarkably sturdy for a paperback – which is a very good thing when it comes to William Beebe, since anybody who reads him will certainly be re-reading him before too long.
Our book today is one we’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads: A Fair Wind for Troy, a 1976 YA novel about the lead-up to the Trojan War, one that centers, as classically-minded readers might be able to tell from the title, on the bloodthirsty House of Atreus and the willingness of its head, Agamemnon, to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the anger of Artemis and secure good sailing weather for the Greek armada bent for Troy.
The book is slim – well under a hundred pages – and it’s the sixth and final volume in a series of mythology-retellings Doris Gates did for the Viking Press. It’s aimed at younger readers, but Gates brings such texture and depth to her version of Euripides that, like all the best children’s literature, it can easily repay adult attention. Gates came late in her life to these adaptations of Greek legends, and they form a patchwork reflection of her own personality and upright morality, much like the similar work of her older counterpart, Edith Hamilton.Indeed, I’ve often wished some enterprising publisher would gather all Gates’ slim mythology books into a stout collection and maybe even call it Doris Gates’ Mythology.
A Fair Wind for Troy spends a good deal of its time performing running character studies of the great women of this grim story – only secondarily poor Iphigenia, and far more directly the girl’s mother, Clytemnestra, about whom we’re told that her dark beauty was “no threat to Helen’s dazzling loveliness.” Helen isn’t fond of her half-sister: “But there was also a dark intensity about her, an almost brooding fierceness, that Helen found repellant. There was no humor in her, no flippant charm, no playfulness whatsoever.”
And, refreshingly, we’re certainly not expected to be fond of Helen herself. Throughout the book, she’s portrayed as the quintessence of brittle vanity, as in the scene where handsome Trojan prince Paris is wondering how his plans to escape Sparta with Helen will be crimped by Helen’s young daughter. The picture of Helen we’re given by Gates is as stern as it is unappealing:
Paris had entertained some doubts about Helen’s daughter, Hermione. The little girl was now nine years old. A child had not figured in his plans, but would Helen abandon her willingly?
Helen soon put his doubts to rest. “The child means nothing to me,” she declared. Indeed, during the long months of pregnancy when her body had become swollen and distorted with the life growing inside her, Helen had known an agony of fear. Would she ever be beautiful again? Would this thickened waist ever return to its former elegant proportions? At the time of her betrothal, Menelaus had encircled it with his two hands. Now the grossest of her slave girls was more lissome than she.
And what of Iphigenia herself? Well, there’s only so much that can be done with one of the most pathetic fictional creations in all of classical literature, although Gates tries her best. She makes what I think is the tactical misstep of having Iphigenia embrace her victimhood, which might make for a stirring set-piece but also has the deplorable effect of making the girl complicit with her father in her own slaughter:
Clytemnestra took a step toward her, and Iphigenia stepped back. “No, Mother, do not try to weaken my resolve. I will die for Greece. Only I can give these ships the wind that will take them to Troy. It is I, and not our warriors, who will have caused her fall. I will save Greece, and my name will be honored for all time. What is my life against the lives of the thousands gathered here? To save one little life there will be woeful bloodshed, and this fine man here, fighting bravely for me, will surely be killed. Nor will you and I escape with our lives. No, no, my Mother. Much better that I should yield up my body in willing sacrifice so that our warriors can proceed to Troy and conquer it.”
A Fair Wind for Troy is illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak in somber pencils mostly depicting the very thing Gates herself scrupulously elides from her book: Greek and Trojan men-at-arms in full martial glory (one imagines there was some machination to get boy-readers interested in a book that’s very much about mothers and daughters). I’ve re-read the book many times in a scrappy little paperback that I’ve had for years, so I was naturally pleased to find a sturdy hardcover to go on the shelf and better withstand what I’m sure will be a few more re-readings!
Our book today is Falling Slowly, a 1998 novel by the late Anita Brookner. Her death caught me by surprise, and a dispirited search of my shelves turned up only this one book, which I took down and duly re-read.
It’s the story of Miriam and Beatrice Sharpe, a pair of middle-aged sisters in London whose lives have slowly, almost imperceptibly degenerated into “a delirium of ennui.” Beatrice is a pianist on the verge of losing her berth as an accompanist, a wanly romantic figure whose syrupy view of life’s possibilities is like fresh meat in the water for a cruising shark like Brookner. Her counterpart is her wry, sardonic sister Miriam, who makes a living as a translator and is bitterly aware of the constrictions of her life:
The monotony of her current situation was of a different order, had something shameful about it, useless; without attachments she saw her desire to please as unmotivated, unsolicited. And although this might at a pinch be counted as tribute to some residual innocence, as if she were still an eager girl in quest of friends, she knew that his was not the case. Age had invested her with emotions – resentment, fear, sorrow – and she was shocked by her consistently ruminative mood, not previously encountered, regretting all the time now the breathless expectations of youth, which her continuance in the world had somehow put to shame.
(That “was of a different order, had something shameful about it, useless” has been whittled to the point where it’s practically haiku, if haiku were a martial art)
These two share a bond that’s partly involuntary and almost wholly mutually unhealthy, although true to form, our author is more concerned with carving the sharp outlines of their lives together than she is with leading her readers around by the nose to obvious conclusions. She probes their relationship with a forensic coolness that doesn’t even try very hard to mask its own malice – a malice that jabs out in all directions:
They had been witnesses to each other’s discomfiture, a condition which they could not translate for others. By their twenties, their thirties, they were popular, courted, felt themselves momentarily to be part of the effervescence around them. Those years had run their course. They had their work, they had an agreeable home, but they were a little tired of going to weddings, which to them marked the disappearance of confidantes.
Falling Slowly was Brookner’s 18th novel, but to my eye they all read with an almost preternatural skill and precision, the amazing way Brookner seemed to appear fully-formed as an experienced novelist on the literary landscape. Long before Falling Slowly, a critic once commented that the chief joy of Brookner’s novels is the gleam in her eye as she torments the same slight plot in book after book, and that thought formed a small consolation for me in only having this one novel at hand the other day. The next time I find a copy of Hotel du Lac at the Brattle, I won’t hesitate.
Our book today is an energetically delightful translated work put out by the good folks at Europa Editions: Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book by Alessandro Marzo Magno. The book was originally published in Italy (as L’alba dei libri. Quando Venezia ha fatto leggere il mondo) in 2013 and is here given a very lively translation into English by Gregory Conti.
Magno’s Bound in Venice is even more gripping than another – and, erm, very different – book I read by the same title back in the less-accountable 1970s; it’s the story of the birth of the modern conception of the publishing world, and Magno quite rightly locates that birth in Venice, the home of some of the earliest printed editions of the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the great classics of Greece and Rome, and the works of the great thinkers and humanists of the Renaissance (and home also to Aldus Manutius, the great pioneering printer). For centuries, Venice was the center of the Western world’s booming book trade, and in this delightful book, Magno has the inspiration to tell that history like the adventure story it really is.
He takes his readers inside his copious researches into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dramatizing the day-to-day reality of the printer’s shop, the import-export exchanges, and at the heart of it all, the mighty bookshops where tastes were set and careers were made and broken – and to the sainted Information Desk, which was once upon a time the nerve center of such places:
The command post of the shop is the counter; that’s where the lectern that holds the journal in which the owner makes a note of everything he needs is located. Sitting on the counter are various objects: an ink bottle, a quill, and anything else that might be useful in the day-to-day operation of the shop. The counter’s numerous drawers and cubbyholes allow the owner to keep his accounts and receipts reserved, as well as to keep hidden bundles of sheets intended for a restricted readership (such as works originating in countries of the Protestant Reformation).
“Like a captain on the quarterdeck of his ship,” Magno writes, perhaps taking things just a bit too far, “the bookseller observes from the counter everything that happens in his shop, listens with discretion to the conversations, careful not to violate the rules of polite behavior.”
He also fills his story with the vivid personalities of the time, especially Manutius but also plenty of other merchants, writers, and scholars, each of whom is given a memorably colorful portrayal, as in the case of the great and now-forgotten Arentino:
A genius. A pornographer. A pervert. A refined intellectual. Pietro Aretino has been called all of these and more. And, at the end of the day, all of them are justified. He published what can be defined as the first pornographic book in history. And he, “the scourge of princes,” invented the figure of the author-celebrity, the writer-star that droves of nameless readers throng to see. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he writes not to please but more often than not to satirize. Nor does he write to instruct or teach. His is a militant use of writing, and in this sense too he turns out to be a surprisingly modern writer.
Bound in Venice is a practically perfect example of Venetian history at its personable best. I loved it when I first read it back in 2013, and I loved it even more during this recent re-read.
Our books today all star that most inimitable of American Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin! During one of my bookshelf-reorganizations back in 2015, I had one of those awkward realizations so common to book-people: I noticed for the first time that I had something like seven different biographies of Franklin. This was embarrassing, of course (there’s almost no tenable argument that can be made in favor of owning seven different biographies of the same person, and yet, on my shelves, there’s Byron … and Erasmus … and Hamilton … and Taft …), but when one owns lots and lots of books, such embarrassments are practically a part of getting out of bed in the morning. Virtually every day will bring you in contact with the evidence of some long-forgotten book-acquiring extravagance of the type that makes our non-bookish friends look upon us with wonder and pity. That filthy, taped and rubber-banded old paperback of Around the World in 80 Days? That sexually-explicit manga version of Frankenstein? That elaborate pop-up book of Moby-Dick? We learn to take such things in stride when we stumble upon them in our periodic forays into our own bookshelves.
So it hardly fazed me at all when I was making one of those forays just the other day and once again encountered half a dozen Ben Franklin biographies … but a different half-dozen. Gone were the H. W. Brands, the Thomas Fleming, the Edmund Morgan, even the Carl Van Doren … all gone to I know not where, and all replaced by alternates from the endless number of such books that have appeared in English in the last century.
Even a little more than a century, in the case of Sydney George Fisher’s quintessentially Victorian The True Benjamin Franklin from 1898 that strikes early on the slightly admonitory tone it will maintain throughout:
It is curious that American myth-making is so unlike the ancient myth-making which as time when on made its gods and goddesses more and more human with mortal loves and passions. Our process is just the reverse. Out of a man who actually lived among us and of whose life we have many truthful details, we make an impossible abstraction of idealized virtues.
Refreshingly uninterested in myth-making of any kind is The Private Franklin by Claude-Anne Lopez and Eugenia Herbert from 1975, a book solely concerned with Franklin the family man – or man of many families, as our authors make clear throughout this fantastic book:
He was a nest builder par excellence, at home and abroad. He needed a family every bit as much as he needed “ingenious acquaintance.” A great deal has been made of his alleged sexual promiscuity; far more evidence exists for a kind of emotional promiscuity in creating familial surroundings wherever he happened to be.
That “wherever he happened to be” hints at the wide traveling Franklin did in his lifetime, despite the fact that travel was arduous back then and especially so for him, since from the age of forty on, he was quite often tormented by poor health, including blindingly painful gout and kidney stones. Franklin lived long enough to put down extensive roots in several far-flung places, including the Paris of young America’s peace negotiations, the subject of David Schoenbaum’s wonderful 1976 book Triumph in Paris, where the evocative scene-setting more than compensates for a greater-than-normal degree of hagiography:
If many had contributed to the great moment of victory and independence, no one man had done as much as Benjamin Franklin. He had been the architect and mechanic of the alliance that had provided, with infinite pains and complexities, the supplies and monies that had made Washington’s final triumph possible. He had been the very heart and soul of the peace talks, the one man to whom all turned. It was not to Adams or to Jay that Shelburne had written. Nor had they drafted the four points on which peace was built. It was Franklin, old, ill, but steady and wise.
Another location that lays claim to the good doctor is of course the city of his birth, Boston, which nurtured the young genius for just as long as it took him to devise a way to leave town forever. Those Boston years are the subject of Arthur Bernon Tourtellot’s dense and incredibly good 1977 book Benjamin Franklin: The Shaping of Genius: The Boston Years, and that term “genius” gives our author occasion for some elaboration:
Did Benjamin Franklin qualify? John Adams, who was not among his warmest personal admirers and was sorely tried, when he was one of the American peace commissioners in Paris, by the sage’s easy way with women, his love of comfort, and his reluctance to offend, thought so, and may have been, in the Boston Patriot, May 15, 1811, the first to apply the word genius to Franklin – and with a sweeping totality, albeit in a grudging context: “Franklin had a great genius, original, sagacious, and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and the mechanic arts. He had a vast imagination, equal to the comprehension of the greatest objects, and capable of a steady and cool comprehension of them.”
Geniuses have a tendency to attract overpraise almost as much as imbeciles do, and lord knows, Franklin has had his share of overpraise – a particularly gushing case-in-point appearing in Walter Isaacson’s otherwise-solid (though egregiously mistitled) 2003 book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life:
He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.
When Isaacson’s Franklin wasn’t walking on water, however, he was busy dabbling in science and hob-nobbing with grandees – two things that very much occupied his time during the years he spent in London, for instance. Those years are the focal point of a very readable new book by George Goodwin,Benjamin Franklin in London, which intermittently tries to keep its subject in a proportioned framework:
Franklin had an international prestige among natural philosophers, with Immanuel Kant hailing him in 1755 as ‘the Prometheus of modern times,’ but he had also achieved a wider celebrity through the reading public’s learned interest in the natural world, supported, of course, by a sensationalistic fascination for ‘magic shows’ that sizzled with special effects. Franklin’s knowledge and fame had won him access to the tables of the aristocratic, influential and powerful.
As Isaacson points out, the foremost invention of Benjamin Franklin was Benjamin Franklin, and that observation is certainly borne out by the wily old character who shape-shifts his way through these six books and hundreds more just like them. Those hundreds more will almost certainly show up on my bookshelves in future impromptu re-arrangements. I’ll try not to be embarrassed when that happens.
Our book today is a new Star Trek novel set in the world of the Original Series, The Latter Fire by James Swallow, a sci-fi genre-novel hack of the first water, with a wide shelf of Star Trek, Warhammer, Doctor Who, and Stargate books to his credit. I made the mistake of reading his Author’s Bio before I started the book, and seeing that long, long list of novels written in the imaginative universes of other people, I despaired of what I’d find in The Latter Fire; all the usual caveats crossed my mind about an author who’s so often paid to provide reading pleasure composed so explicitly of checking off boxes of expected cliches.
But 2016 is of course the 50th anniversary of the birth of Star Trek, and that’s hardly a time to begin skipping Star Trek novels, especially novels set in the world of the Original Series – so I bought The Latter Fire, braved its industrious author’s bio, and plunged in.
And I’m certainly glad I did! The first new Star Trek I read in 2016 turned out to be a corker of a good book, a straightforward mixture of space adventure and personal drama sweetly reminiscent of the Original Series at its least challenging and most enjoyable. And its setting is inherently intriguing: it takes place toward the end of the starship Enterprise‘s original five-year mission under the command of Captain Kirk, that shadowy, undocumented stretch between the end of the final Star Trek TV episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” in 1969, and the opening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. And Swallow, bless his nerdy heart, signals some of the changes in store for the Enterprise by opening his novel with Ensign Chekhov leaving the ship to pursue security training … and Lieutenant Arex, the three-armed alien familiar to long-time fans of the show from the short-lived and much-reviled 1973 cartoon episodes, joining the ship’s crew.
Another clever twist Swallow gives his tale is to have Captain Kirk’s “recent” record come back to haunt him. As the story opens, the Enterprise is hosting a party of officials from the Federation Diplomatic Corps, who are all grimly familiar with the ways Kirk has played fast and loose with the Federation’s non-interference mandate, the Prime Directive. These diplomats are accompanying the Enterprise to a meeting with the Syhaari, a distant alien race being offered entrance into the Federation. Kirk and his crew, we’re told, first encountered the Syhaari a few years earlier, and now, the Syhaari starships are displaying suspiciously more advanced technology – leading the FDC to wonder if the Enterprise accidentally (or not) revealed bits or pieces of advanced technology. Kirk bristles at the suggestion, and despite how happy he and his crew are to meet the intrepid Syhaari captain Kaleo again, it isn’t long before Kirk’s Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, is detecting some very strange things going on in the Syhaari engine rooms.
But things immediately grow more serious: the fledgling Syhaari space fleet is decimated by a strange rogue moon emerging from the space debris cloud surrounding the Syhaari solar system. The moon wields overwhelmingly powerful energy-lightning that endangers the Enterprise and is lethal to the more primitive Syhaari ships – leading to a nice moment of introspection on Scotty’s part:
But what was clear was the storm of debris that appeared off the bow of the starship, spread out in a slick of shattered fuselages and broken engine nacelles. Pennants of spilled electroplasma trailed from holed warp-drives, and sparkling fields of flash-frozen atmosphere caught the weak light of a distant sun. Everywhere Scott looked he saw burnt twists of wreckage, and it made his gut knot. These were not his ships, and they had not been crewed by his people, but a man could not be a spacer for as long as Montgomery Scott had without sharing a common horror that any starship crew would feel at such a sight.
There turns out to be much more to that rogue moon than first appears, and Swallow quickly and very effectively escalates his plot, building everything to a delightfully gripping climax that mixes space-action and personal struggles so dramatically that reading it actually caused me to miss my subway stop – the first time a Star Trek novel has done that since Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally back in 1984. And as full-throttle as the book’s main plot is, the parts I found myself enjoying most were the quicker, quieter moments like that scene of Scotty’s horror at starship wreckage, or, elsewhere in the book, a little awkwardness when Spock and Lieutenant Uhura find themselves working in very close quarters, or a moment when Captain Kirk and Captain Kaleo share an unguarded reflection on the job they share:
“You’re free to say what you want to me, Kaleo. We both know what it’s like to face death out here.” He motioned at the walls, but his gesture took in the void of space beyond. “To have other lives balancing on each order we give.”
“It is a great weight, yes?” she agreed. “Sometimes, it lifts off your neck long enough for you to raise your head and be the first to see something incredible … but it soon settles once more.”
“Would you give it up?”
“Never.” Kaleo showed her teeth in a brief grin. “Would you?”
“Not in a million years.”
I didn’t expect to like The Latter Fire nearly as much as I did (even despite the fact that the title is taken from a Tennyson poem that’s quoted all through the book), and now I’m foolishly hoping it’s a kind of good omen for the rest of my 2016 Star Trek reading – foolishly because I know how long the odds are that the rest of the novels coming out this year will be anywhere near as good as this one. I guess Dayton Ward’s Elusive Salvation next month will serve as my wake-up call …
Our book today is an essential classic: Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough (we’ve met Emily before here at Stevereads), their 1942 bestseller about the madcap European tour they took as fresh-faced Bryn Mawr graduates back in the comparatively innocent days of the 1920s. They strike a mischievously tongue-in-cheek tone of heroic stoicism about the sacrifices they endured in order to save up for the trip (“going without sodas”), offhandedly note that their parents provided them with letters of credit (“enough to permit us to live for three months abroad if not in the lap of luxury, at least on the knees of comfort”), pack their bags, and embark on their steamship.
Not exactly the most original of premises, but oh, how to describe to the newcomer the droll, hilarious wonders Skinner & Kimbrough fashion out of their familiar travelogue setup! They hardly require half a dozen pages to begin weaving a sharply smart and funny and seriously silly narrative that burbles along on a stream of hapless incredulity and out-of-their-depth bumbling. In incident after incident, we see the girls striving to be worldly and sophisticated and failing hilariously every time:
We bathed, changed from our curious traveling attire into our best crepe marocain dresses and went to the Ritz, where Emily’s friends blew us to a lavish feast. We each put on an act for the benefit of the other, trying to behave as if quail and champagne at the Ritz were merely the equivalent of a banana-split and hot chocolate with marshmallow whip at the Bryn Mawr Cottage Tea Room. I’m afraid we didn’t get away with it. The champagne gave us away. I had lived in Paris for a year but had never drunk anything more giddy than vin ordinaire thinned with Evian. Champagne was as unknown to me as marijuana, but I tried to be casual about it as an old Deauville rip. Emily, who was descended from a long line of Indiana teetotlers, took her first sip of demon alcohol with the bravura of Eve biting into the apple. This was when she discovered that champagne makes her slightly deaf. Its effect upon me was to make me look distant and sad and I hoped everyone would think I had had an unhappy love affair.
For chapter after chapter, we watch these two wreak havoc wherever they go, and thanks to their effervescent writing style, the book feels simultaneously period-piece and contemporary. The vanished world of pre-modern travel – steamships, travel trunks, washing basins – lives vibrantly in these pages, right alongside a clueless American sense of entitlement that’s felt completely contemporary to me every time I’ve re-read this book over the decades. In my latest re-reading, I found myself enjoying especially the delectable little wasp-sting comments they make about many of the people they encounter (watch for the parentheses in all cases):
Through some colorful flight of fancy we had made arrangements to take over the rooms of a former Bryn Mawr student who had spent the previous winter working for a Ph.D at the University of London. She was one of those brilliant scholars far too intellectual to be concerned with creature comforts, and after we saw the way she lived we came to the conclusion we weren’t intellectual types after all. She had written to us that she was leaving for a “hiking” trip (that fine outdoor term implicit in any number of splendid things in the way of blisters, fish and chips and a brave avoidance of baths). However, she assured us that the landlady was fully cognizant of our arrival, and would be waiting for us with welcome at I forget what number Tavisock Square. As a cheery afterthought she added she hoped we’d be happy in her “digs,” a word which slightly startled us and made us wonder if we were to lodge in some sort of cellar.
My hardcover copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is delightfully illustrated by Constantin Alajalov, and the book is extra-light in the hand, since it’s printed on cheap wartime-rationed paper, but even so, it’s held up much better than the much-later mass market paperback I used to have. I keep thinking I ought to upgrade my battered old hardcover to a spiffy New York Review of Books reprint or a slim, beautiful Penguin Classic edition, or maybe, if I’m feeling generous, a pricey-but-beautiful Franklin Mint slipcased hardcover … except that none of those things exist. Instead, this glittering little book that brought so much joy to so many is currently languishing out of print. So I guess I’ll hold onto my battered old hardcover.