Posts from April 2015

April 27th, 2015

Mystery Monday: The Doll Maker!

mystery monday header

the doll maker coverOur book today is The Doll Maker by Richard Montanari (from Mulholland Books), that author’s eight installment in his series of police procedurals set among the mean streets of present-day Philadelphia and starring grizzled police detective Kevin Byrne and his younger, smarter partner Jessica Balzano. This latest adventure opens in a typically gripping fashion, with insomniac Detective Byrne sitting late-night stakeout on the scene of an earlier bodega robbery and murder. Byrne is certain the killer of the bodega owner will be coming back for his discarded murder weapon, because they always do:

Even though there was always the distinct possibility that the police knew where you had stashed the weapon, and might be watching that spot in case you came back, in Kevin Byrne’s experience, that had never stopped them.

Not once.

Montanari puts some clear and well-intentioned effort into crafting Detective Balzano into a three-dimensional character, but even so, these books really belong to Detective Byrne, an embattled and sharp-minded veteran who’s seen, as he often reflects, enough of the hard knocks of the police world for three lifetimes. There’s always such a character in police procedurals (including the televised kind, as the innumerable fans of Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe will attest), and Byrne keeps up the team spirit by regularly coming out with weathered apothegms about life on the job:

There were some who believed that the police, as a rule, were stumbling oafs who only managed to catch the dumb criminals. While the argument for this was persuasive, to some, it was not true. For Kevin Byrne, as well as for most of the lifers he knew, the saying was a little different.

You catch the dumb ones first.

“Rule number one of any homicide detective was to never take any case personally,” Byrne reflects, but he himself regularly disregards that rule, and fiery-tempered Detective Balzano needs little prodding to disregard it as well, especially in the case they face in this latest adventure. A maniac or team of maniacs is kidnapping and killing children, posing their lucy reads the doll makerbodies in macabre tableaux – and promising to go on killing at regular intervals unless the stalwarts of the Philadelphia PD can stop the pattern. Byrne ‘s determination to save the kidnapped children vies with his worldly experience in terms of the cold realities involved:

He knew that, when it came to finding missing children, investigators spoke in terms of months, sometimes weeks, more often in days. The more time that passed, the less likely it would be that the children would be located alive and well.

No one spoke in terms of years.

Montanari handles the constantly-increasing tensions of his narrative with the polish of an old adept. I wouldn’t have thought he could top last year’s The Stolen Ones, but The Doll Maker is not only faster-paced but also far more psychologically disturbing and creepy. And it’s longer, which, when it comes to a series this good, is a happy extra.

April 26th, 2015

Pleasure by the Busload!

pleasure by the busloadOur book today is Pleasure by the Busload, a brimmingly delightful work of travel-writing done by Emily Kimbrough in 1961, with whimsical line-drawings by Mircea Vasilu. Kimbrough was famous at the time as one-half of the writing team (along with Cornelia Otis Skinner) of the best-selling 1942 book Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and in this book Kimbrough recounts – in her typically gimlet-witted and raucous style – a trip to Portugal, and she starts things off in her inimitable way:

It had not been my intention to fly to Lisbon. It is never my intention to include flying when planning a trip. Flight is a last-minute expedient thrust upon me as a faute de mieux, and in my opinion travel by air is all faute and nothing mieux about it. Up above the world so high is the last place I would choose for twinkling like a diamond. Therefore, a travel agency, under my merciless prodding, had found a boat with an itinerary made to order for me and other cravens.

Kimbrough undertakes her journey with four other people: the redoubtable Sophy, reader of kimbrough2maps and itineraries, Gina Bachauer, her husband Alec Sherman, and her brother Theodore, and in the best Mark Twain tradition of travel-writing, her account of the marvels and curiosities of Portugal is decidedly secondary to her account of the people sharing the trip (this reflects the reality for a great many travelers who prize the company over the destination, and it’s even occasionally been true for me, although the huge majority of my own traveling has been done solely in non-human company). She lavishes most of her attention on Sophy, and Pleasure by the Busload is at least as much a chronicle of their friendship (varying moods, similar background, similar handbags, a shared affection for the wine-guzzling they refer to as “shoebag hour”) as anything else:

I have made considerable number of trips with Sophy; the pattern has always been that we go our separate ways for the hours when we are in transit confined within a car, train, boat or plane. She is a will-o’-the-wisp. She likes to set off early in the morning, guidebook and maps under the arm. She may agree to a meeting place for lunch. Frequently she is not seen again until the “shoebag hour.” This pattern is mutually satisfactory. I am pokier than she. I am a dawdling, not a brisk sight-seer. My attention is caught by trivia that do not attract her eye. Therefore, at the end of the day over our shoebag refreshment we exchange travel notes, discovering that except for basic landmarks we might have been exploring separate cities.

kimbrough1(Sometimes this can lead to disarmingly intimate moments that, while no doubt intended to be read with a note of sarcasm, nevertheless come across as the kinds of moments that only happen between best friends. At one point the two of them are watching the cool evening unfold: “The day had been overcast, we had even gone through some rain, but by the time we had finished dinner, the clouds had scattered and the moon was brushing them to either side as she swam across the sky” … and Kimbrough adds, “The way your mother used to do the breast stroke,” I said to Sophy. “Such dignity.”)

Like so much of the best travel writing, Pleasure by the Busload has also become, over time,lucy reads by the busload a museum exhibit; prices are radically less or nonexistent, regulations are radically more relaxed or nonexistent, buildings, cars, dress fashions, even food fashions … these and a dozen other things captured in Kimbrough’s prose – and in Vasilu’s carefree drawings – have changed enormously in the last half-century. But as is likewise the case with the best travel writing, this time-lapse quality only adds to the charm. Gone are the days when I could recommend this book to customers planning a trip to Lisbon, since a) those customers can now click on house-by-house video tours from the comfort of their beds, and b) Pleasure by the Busload is out of print and will almost certainly stay that way forever. But if you should spot a copy at your own version of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, you should grab it – and prepare to embark, armchair-style, on a wonderful adventure with some very memorable new friends.

April 24th, 2015

Romance Round-up: April 24, 2015!

romance roundup

As I ruffled through the stacks of new romance novels on my shelf, still stung by lingering accusations that I unthinkingly favor historicals over other sub-genres, I assembled three new titles that have no historical aspirations at all. These three novels feature iPads, laptops, semi-automatic weapons, and lots and lots of motorcycles, but as I settled in and started reading, I realized they mostly feature something else, too: prequels! You’ll see what I mean:

give it all coverGive It All by Cara McKenna (Signet Eclipse) – This is the second book in what’s now going to be a series starring the disparate members of the “Desert Dogs” motorcycle club based in the small (and mystery-enshrouded, naturally) Nevada town of Fortuity, and it’s a fairly dauntingly direct sequel to the first book, Lay It Down. McKenna – fine and energetic storyteller that she is – does a lot of unobtrusive work in the book’s first couple of chapters to bring new readers up to speed, but the fact remains that Give It All is only half a book without its predecessor, in which we first meet fiery-tempered Raina Harper, the owner of Benji’s Saloon, Fortuity’s only bar, and in which we also meet Duncan Welch, the legal counsel for Sunnyside Industries. Duncan is a “fixer” for Sunnyside’s “development company,” which technically means he’s supposed to be helping clear the legal ground for Sunnyside to build a shady casino in Fortuity, but which really means he doesn’t have to keep office hours or fill out pay sheets or anything else that might stall him from making, er, headway in using his battered outsider image to seduce Raina, even though he’s, yes, a stranger in town:

Duncan’s image didn’t do him any favors, either. He was corporate. He was overdressed; he was a British expat; he was wealthy. He was cold and clean and calculating. He was wrong here, in every possible way. Wrong for Raina Harper’s bed, as wrong as her ex was right. And yet ex was the operative word, wasn’t it?

Duncan’s an odd hero to put it mildly. Not only is he pushing forty (nearly twice the age of the customary romance anti-hero), but he’s riddled with weaknesses (“At least he’d cut down on the Klonopin, in recent weeks,” we’re gamely told). And the whole time I was reading his latest adventure with Raina and the gang, I was wishing I’d met him just one book earlier.

fragmented coverFragmented by Stephanie Tyler (Signet Eclipse) – This is the third in Tyler’s “Section 8” (where’s Corporal Klinger when you need him?) novels, following Surrender and Unbreakable, and if Give It All walks you into the middle of an ongoing plot, Fragmented drops you off a steep cliff into the middle of a fireworks display. The main character is Dr. Drea Timmons, who’s abusive boyfriend Danny is a member of yet another motorcycle club, this one nefariously called the Outlaw Angels, has vowed revenge for her involvement with a heroic vigilante group called Section 8, and if that all sounds confusing, it certainly doesn’t get any clearer from Drea’s perspective:

Jem had kidnapped her because he needed a doctor to save Avery, who was dying. Drea had saved her, but spending time with Jem had gotten her in trouble with Danny and the OA. S8 helped her get away from the OA, and she’d gone on the run with them, willingly. And when they had a job to do, one that involved a human trafficker who was after Gunner, she’d gotten involved as a decoy. Unfortunately, from what she’d been told, it’d gone wrong, and she’d been kidnapped.

That “from what she’d been told” is just as bad as it sounds: it turns out Drea has amnesia and so is unhelpfully unclear on why she’s being handed around like a shoplifted tchotchke, although she remembers what she likes (“Danger isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, his kind of danger makes me feel alive”), and that neatly coincides with a smooth-talking badass like Jem. You remember, Jem? The one who kidnapped her? One of the ones who kidnapped her? Or was he … wait a minute …

you really got me coverYou Really Got Me by Erika Kelly (Berkley Sensation) – So it’s with an audible sigh of relief that I turned to You Really Got Me by Erika Kelly, since it’s called “A Rock Star Romance,” it’s also proudly billed as “First in a New Series”! I started it happy to know I wouldn’t stumble right out of the starting gate over the baggage let behind by previous books. Instead, I got the story of Emmie Valencia, an aspiring band manager who’s loud, overbearing boss never seems to give her the chance to prove herself. While said boss is out of the country, Emmie goes to Austin, Texas intent on showing that she, too, can be a star-maker.

There she’s introduced to Slater Vaughn, the lead singer for a band that’s not exactly burning up the charts. Emmie has only six weeks to change that, but the first impression she makes on loutish, oversexed Slater isn’t promising:

As Slater approached the table, he watched Derek clear out the groupies. They scattered – lucy reads bad boy romancesall of them except one. Only she didn’t look like a groupie. She looked … well, Slater didn’t know what she looked like, other than maybe a teacher. A kindergarten teacher. She wore her dark hair long and straight – no particular style – and he could actually see her complexion, uncovered as it was by makeup. What was she doing at their table? She glanced up at him and smiled. All sweet and innocent, like he was her date at the movie theater, bringing popcorn and soda.

That meeting happens around page 10, so it was around page 10 that I realized my initial impression was wrong: true, You Really Got Me wasn’t carrying around the baggage of previous books in the series (that’ll be left to its sequel, I Want You To Want Me, due in July) – instead, it was carrying around the baggage of every odd-couple romance novel ever written. Talk about prequels!

April 22nd, 2015

Comics! Bottom’s Up in the Legion!

superboy and the legion 1DC’s company-wide event “Convergence” continues, in which long-abandoned incarnations of their super-characters are temporarily given current issues again, in a kind of multi-part gift to the company’s older, more nostalgic readers. As a result, today’s trip to Boston’s wonderful Comicopia seemed like a flashback to visiting the same twenty or thirty years ago.

Longer than that, actually, in this case, at least for me – because of course the reason I showed up at the comics shop at all was because among this week’s “Convergence” titles was the first issue of something called “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.”

The issue’s set-up is the same as all the other “Convergence” titles: the city of diaper 1Metropolis – in this case in the 30th century – has been cut off from the outside world for a year by a mysterious dome, and all the super-powered beings inside the dome have been rendered powerless, most certainly including the 30th century’s foremost super-team, the Legion of Super-Heroes. The team’s living inspiration, Superboy, was visiting them from the 20th century when the dome went up and trapped him in the future, and as this issue opens, he’s giving televised pep-talks to the people of Metropolis, but he himself is feeling miserable, missing his home back in time, missing his parents, even, in the issue’s best line (the one that had my comics friends emailing me taunts as soon as they read it) missing his dog.

diaper 2The team’s resident genius, 12th-level intellect Brainiac 5, has been working feverishly for a year to break through the dome, without success, and the rest of the team is coping as best they can with the loss of their powers – and the loss of their teammate Wildfire, who’s disappeared. As Superboy puts it, “As a being of pure energy, [he] was nothing but powers – so he just dissipated into thin air.”

This kind of thing bugs me, of course, and always has. The reason Wildfire dissipated was because there was no way to separate him from his super-powers, sure – but it always bugs me when writers (in this case, Stuart Moore) ignore the fact that lots of super-heroes are inseparable from their super-powers. Superboy may be powered by Earth’s sun and therefore powerless after a year cut off from it, but plenty of Legionnaires – Shrinking Violet, Triplicate Girl, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, etc. – are born with their special abilities. There’s no more diaper4explanation in this issue as to how the big bad villain of “Convergence” could somehow delete those abilities than there is how he could put a dome over not just every super-hero in the multiverse but every super-hero at every time-period of every multiverse. If a bad guy is that powerful, why bother telling the story at all? And oops i crapped my pantsseveral times in this issue, Brainiac 5 complains about the limitations of his teammates’ lesser intellects – but his super-power IS his 12th-level brain – so shouldn’t it be deleted as well?

But I overlooked such quibbles in order to bask again in reading an adventure of Superboy and the Legion. Not a clone Superboy, not a retro-stupid Legion, but just the real thing – the flight rings, the Legion Clubhouse, the old familiar characters of the team. For some inexplicable reason, issue artist Gus Storms decided to draw many of those characters wearing what looks for all the world like the old Saturday Night Live spoof-product Oops I Crapped My Pants, but Stuart Moore does a fine job capturing what the Legion means to Superboy:

This whole place – the Legion – it used to be like a dream, a fantasy world. I could come here and fly around with kids just like me, then close my eyes and wake up back in Smallville, with Krypto barking at the chickens and the sun coming up, blood red over the haystacks.

And naturally, reading this issue – and considering the fact that when this limited run ends, I’ll likely never read another new comic book featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes – my memory was filled with all the times I’ve read about this team, in all its incarnations, from the first time I encountered them on the spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary. Those memories made this issue, flaws and all, one big smile for me to read – so I guess I’m one of those nostalgic older DC readers who’s getting regular weekly gifts from “Convergence.” I’ll take them while they last.

April 21st, 2015

Ink Chorus: Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading!

james franco typing

leae me alone coverOur book today is Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, a thoroughly delightful bookish 2005 memoir written by long-time NPR book critic and Washington Post mystery-novel columnist Maureen Corrigan. The book is sub-titled “Finding and Losing Myself in Books,” and if ever a sub-title was fully earned, this one is. The thing is equal parts autobiography, book recommendations, and well-told raconteur gems, and all its voices are so perfectly balanced that regardless of which register she’s in, you’ll wish she would just go on for pages and pages. Usually, this kind of books-related mish-mash tends to get old real fast, but I doubt any reader of Corrigan’s book will be ready for it to end.

The autobiographical elements range from stories of a Catholic girlhood to some funny anecdotes from the rigors of college:

But I had a price to pay for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school. I think of those years as my time served as a character immured in a Gothic novel. To give you a sense of how weird – indeed sometimes even sinister – this world of graduate school was, let’s journey back to the autumn of 1977. It’s four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I’m standing in a small cluster of first-year graduate students who’ve been invited to the weekly “Sherry Hour” hosted by Penn’s English Department. The dark lounge in Bennett Hall where the gathering takes place resembles, to my delight, a shabby drawing room out of an Agatha Christie mystery. I’m quietly crowing to myself … Here I am sipping sherry, for heaven’s sake! I don’t like it, but I’ll learn to and … wait a minute. Professor X, who’s holding court at the center of our little group, is saying something. I’ve been assigned to be his teaching assistant, so I’d better listen. Professor X knocks back another glass (what is this, his fourth?), stares over our heads at a spot on the wall, and mutters an oracular verdict: “None of you will ever come close to Ira Einhorn. He was the most brilliant student the department ever had.”

The professional elements range from our author earning her way into the publishing world (frequent mention is made of long Village Voice book-reviews that I’d very much like to see collected in a book of their own) to the openly-confessed charge she gets out of working against a tight deadline, sometimes forcing herself to get up before dawn so she can write a review for NPR’s Fresh Air program, going over it on the fly with her producer Phyllis Myers, and hearing it broadcast that same day – a thrillingly compressed version of the usual piece-publishing rigamarole, but one that has potential dangers:

Occasionally, though, this whirlwind pace knocks me flat on my face. Like my mother, I tend to mangle names. I’ve recorded reviews in which I’ve referred to a book, even though a book that I love, by two different titles or I’ve committed dumb grammar mistakes – and the gaffe has slipped through the batlike ears of Phyllis, but not those of the listeners of National Public Radio. The worst on-air mistake I ever made was when I confused my old Jewish literary leftists, referring to Irving Howe when I meant to refer to Alfred Kazin. Oy vey, the listener mail on that one was nasty.

There are also disarmingly personal strands running through the book involving her quest to adopt a Chinese daughter, but for me, the best part of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading was the way every single page veritably bristles with book-talk, book-reflections, book-recommendations … she loves everything from John Ruskin to Dorothy Sayers, and she writes about it all with the infectious curiosity that characterizes the true bookworm, whether she’s dissecting the common strands in Victorian women’s memoirs or lamenting the lack of post-wedding lives in some of lucy reads m corriganfiction’s most memorable female characters:

Of course, once safely tucked away in their marriages, our heroines, like fireflies trapped in a bottle, flicker and fade into gray domesticity. Austen and company devote, at most, a couple of pages to imagining the postnuptial lives of their lucky brides – and with good reason. Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet spawn children, tend to their peevish husbands (Mr. Rochester probably made even more so by his temporary blindness), and carry on the debilitating round of social visits expected of upper-crust ladies. Nancy Drew fortunately remains frozen at age eighteen; although, as Bobbie Ann Mason observes in her terrific book The Girl Sleuth, even in her chaste late adolescence, Nancy displays incipient tendencies toward becoming another proper Mrs. Bobbsey. Harriet Vane makes a wan postnuptial impression in Busman’s Honeymoon, where she defers to Lord Peter in the detecting department.

The best thing about Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading is that it’s mis-titled; it’s the furthest thing in the world from a banishment. Come Join Me, I’m Reading would’ve been more accurate for the wonderful experience that awaits her fellow reader in these pages.

April 20th, 2015

Mystery Monday: Strange Loyalties!

mystery monday header

strange loyalties coverOur book today is William McIlvanney’s Strange Loyalties (not, as the last couple of “Mystery Mondays” might lead you to believe, Strange Loyalties … of the Dead!), the third murder mystery novels to feature Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, who stalks the mean streets of 1970s Glasgow and is routinely referred to by his superiors on the force as a “maverick.” Laidlaw first appeared in 1977’s Laidlaw, a nearly-flawless example of the ‘hardboiled’ sub-genre of mysteries, and next in 1983’s superb The Papers of Tony Veitch. Strange Loyalties first appeared 1991, and the good folks at Europa Editions deserve drinks all around for their decision to re-issue the trilogy in these stylish paperbacks as part of their “World Noir” series.

If anybody deserves a place in that series, it’s McIlvanney, who’s won a series of literary awards as long as your arm and is widely credited with inventing the whole realm of gritty Scottish noir that’s treated authors like Ian Rankin so well ever since. One of the main ingredients of that brand of noir is a main character who’s a) well-versed in literature but rusty at recalling it, b) a smart mouth, and c), needless to say, a reflexive, excuse-making, embittered alcoholic (it’s also fairly standard for this main character to have a less interesting and less edgy mother-hen style partner, in this case Laidlaw’s colleague Brian Harkness, whose compared to a worrying old lady in every book – in this one, it first happens on page 23). Laidlaw is a quintessential mixture of these ingredients; he hates every element of the law-and-order system of which he’s a part, from the judges at the top:

Those judges, I thought … Never mind having little understanding of the human heart, they often didn’t have much grasp of the daily machinery of the lives they were presuming to judge. Time and again the voice had quavered querulously down from Mount Olympus, asking the question that stunned: ‘A transistor? What exactly do you mean by that?’ ‘UB40? Is that some kind of scientific formula?’ (‘Not a formula, Your Honour. A form. An unemployment form.’) ‘An unemployment form? And what is that?’

To the lawyers in the middle:

‘A brilliant lawyer’ was a phrase I had often heard. That was all right if all you meant was an ability to play legal games. But what did that mean? Intelligence as a closed circuit. Intelligence should never be a closed circuit. Take them off the stage that is a law court, where the forms are all present, and a lot of them wouldn’t know tears from rain.

To the majority of his fellow cops, many of whom (Brian included) are irritated as Strange Loyalties opens that Laidlaw is obsessing more than usual about what seems on the surface to be a simple car accident in which the drunken victim wandered out into the road and was killed accidentally. The reason for Laidlaw’s obsession is stark: the victim was his brother Scott, a gregarious type with “a head busier than an anthill.” Now that his initial grief has worn off, Laidlaw’s relentless bent for questioning everything has kicked in:

“I know it was an accident … But where did the accident begin? That’s what I want to know. In the middle of the road? At the kerb? In the pub before he went out? In the fact that he drank too much? In the reasons why he drank too much? When did the accident begin? And why? When did my brother’s life give up its purpose? So that it could wander aimlessly for years till it walked into a car? Why? Why did it lose itself until we found it lying in front of that car? I want to know. Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst of us flourish? I want to know.”

It will come as no surprise to police-procedural mystery readers that what seems like an lucy reads strange loyaltiesopen-and-shut roadway accident turns out to be much more complicated; Laidlaw’s stubborn snooping is soon uncovering all sorts of things about his brother that he’d rather not know but can’t ignore. Likewise readers familiar with McIlvanney’s novels will know to expect proceedings to get more gripping (and often more darkly funny) as the plot picks up steam – and that’s certainly the case with Strange Loyalties. And readers not familiar with the Laidlaw books – well, they’re in for quite a treat. My advice would be to go to Europa’s website and buy all three … trust me, you’re going to want to binge on them.

April 18th, 2015

A Golden Guide to Everglades National Park!

golden everglades guideOur book today is a little gem: the “Golden Regional Guide” A Guide to Everglades National Park and the Nearby Florida Keys (this one is the third printing, from 1962, when Warren Hamilton was the Superintendent of Everglades National Park), written by Herbert Zim and wonderfully illustrated throughout, not only with crisp (albeit tiny) photographs but also with dozens of color drawings by Russ Smiley.

Like all the Golden Guides, this one was very much intended to be tucked into a pocket and brought along outside – in this case, out into the flat vastness of the Everglades. In fact, the last time I was there, one of my travel-companions was carrying a shiny (then) new edition of this very book, and there were times when I could have sworn he was paying more attention to it than to the wilderness all around him.

Fortunately, my other traveling companion on that particular outing (which lasted only twoegrets days) was an old, old friend of mine, somebody with whom I’d explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys at much greater length long before that guide-consulting companion had been born (and since he’s now retired and living on bottled air in Phoenix, the rest of you can just assume that all of this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away). She and I consulted no guidebooks, although she was a good deal more comfortable in her surroundings than I was. Southern Florida in summer is a pestilential hell-hole of heat, humidity, and bugs, a hammock-and-sawgrass nightmare of steam and muck and monsters that were already old when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. I have paddled by canoe all through the waterways of the place, camping inland on the rare humps of dry land and camping on beaches on the Gulf side, and over time and over repeated visits, I reached a grudging but sincere appreciation for the otherworldly beauty of the place.

shell beachThis Golden Guide takes a typically no-nonsense approach to that otherworldly beauty. It opens with a brief panoramic history of Southern Florida and the Everglades – Lake Okeechobee, the Anhinga Trail, the enormous variety of wildlife, and the outer reaches of the ecosphere, the 200-mile arc of the Florida Keys, stretching from Miami to the Dry Tortugas (I’ve sailed over every inch of those Keys, but I did most of that sailing in the sole company of a brace of beagles – not an experience I’d recommend to the faint of heart). The Guide rightly declares that the 300 species of birds here are the Everglades’ true glory, but even so, it hardly has any choice but to spend a page on the malevolent stars of the wetlands, the American alligator and the American crocodile:

Crocodiles are much rarer than alligators in this region. They live in the salt marshes and mangroves of the Park and Keys, sometimes going out into Florida Bay. They are thinner, with a narrower, pointed snout. Some teeth are exposed when their mouth is closed. Crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators, but are too rare in this country to be the problem they are in Asia and Africa.

My travel companions and I saw a few alligators during our two-day jaunt, and my old friend alligatorand I saw many, many more during our various much longer trips – eight-footers, ten-footers, and in one rather harrowing encounter, a monstrous creature much longer than our canoe, a thing probably sixty years old. That brief, glancing mention that crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators is this Golden Guide’s only semi-concession that alligators themselves are dangerous, but you only have to be around them for five seconds to feel five millennia of human civilization just slide away.

Actually, the whole place feels that way. I know of hardly any experiences on Earth more inherently despairful than watching the sun set from a tent deep inside Big Cypress Swamp and feeling the most oppressive darkness in the world closing in, teeming with vigilant aliens.

bird lifeForemost among those aliens are the alligators, but right behind them would be the innumerable snakes that infest the area. My old friend insisted during every visit that these creatures were actually beautiful, but she wasn’t bitten by as many of them as I was. The Guide is typically sanguine about that possibility:

Snake bite is more easily prevented than treated. Wear heavy shoes and use care when walking. All snakes bite. The bite of non-poisonous species may show a U-shaped pattern of tooth marks. Treat with an antiseptic. Bites of poisonous snakes often show two large fang punctures and perhaps other teeth marks as well. Learn first aid before you go. Keep the patient quiet; apply a tourniquet; cut and suck the wound. Notify a park ranger or get the victim to a doctor immediately.

There’s actually a somewhat stern tone running through a good part of this Guide – a tell-tale giveaway that despite its rosy, tourist-friendly ultimate purpose it knows perfectly well it’s lucy reads about the evergladesdescribing a hellscape that wants nothing more than to consume all these clueless pink-skins tromping around with their cameras hanging around their necks:

There is little danger in the park except for that which people create themselves. Stay on trails and roads. Dress appropriately. Be prepared for mosquitoes in summer. Check charts before boating and fishing. Much of the park is wild country. Do not underestimate it.

I very much doubt I’ll ever be back to the Everglades or the Keys, so it was extra-nice to find this Golden Guide at the Brattle Bookshop the other day. The Brattle’s ecosystem doesn’t bother me at all – I suspect I’ll be back to it, no guidebook needed.

April 16th, 2015

Good News and Bad News in the Penny Press!

As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:

new yorker cartoon

April 14th, 2015

The Civilization of the Renaissance!

phaidon burckhardtOur book today is The Civilization of the Renaissance, the brilliant 1860 masterpiece by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, but it’s not just any edition: I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) a copy of the beautiful oversized edition put out by the Phaidon Press in 1939 for the English-language book market in Vienna – and done up in typical lavish Phaidon style. The text of Burckhardt’s book, here given a great galumphing translation by S. G. C. Middlemore, can easily stand on its own, of course: Burckhardt is an endlessly interesting, passionate, intelligent guide. Every time I revisit this grand book, I’m struck again by how energetically good it is, how quicksilver-intelligent and how massively, almost effortlessly eloquent it all is. Burckhardt looks at the full spectrum of the ideological side of the Renaissance – the revival of letters, the seismic shifts in blind religious faith, the rise of both the state and the individual as new kinds of works of art, the growth of secular burckhardt1festivals and commerce in the cities and towns, all of it – and he moves through it all with such masterful skill as to put virtually all such histories, before or since, in the shade.

And like all great books on such a level, there’s a very pleasingly reassuring proportion of rum summaries and wry opinions. As with the works of Gibbon or Adam Smith, there are plenty of bits to spark arguments, bits that always make me smile for their sheer outlandishness, like this description of that magnificent brute, Pope Julius II, hardly one single detail of which is right:

Whatever may have been the private morals of Julius II, in all essential respects he was the saviour of the Papacy. His familiarity with the course of events since the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus had given him a profound insight into the grounds and conditions o the Papal authority. On these he found his own policy, and devoted to it the whole force and passion of his unshaken soul. He ascended the steps of St. Peter’s chair without simony and amid general applause, and with him ceased, at all events, the undisguised traffic in the highest offices of the Church. Julius had favourites, and among hem were some of reverse of the worthy, but a special fortune put him above the temptation to nepotism.

burckhardt2But such bits are just illicit titterings; the real enjoyment of Burckhardt’s book, its real rolling magnificence, comes from its intensely empathetic descriptions of every aspect of the Renaissance itself – the soldiers for hire, the ordinary people, the kings and doges, the merchants who were suddenly voyaging everywhere in the world, and, in a wonderful passage, the key administrators of the whole Renaissance itself, the new wave of humanists who were embracing and promulgating the new learning. When Burckhardt writes about them, you get the distinct impression he’s feeling a burckhardt3personal connection:

The career of the humanists was, as a rule, of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed. The first danger came, in some cases, from the parents, who sought to turn a precocious child into a miracle of learning, with an eye to his future position in that class which then was supreme. Youthful prodigies, however, seldom rise above a certain level; or, if they do, are forced to achieve their further progress and development at the cost of the bitterest trials. For an ambitious youth, the fame and the brilliant position of the humanists were a perilous temptation; it seemed to him that he too ‘through inborn pride could no longer regard the low and common things of life.’ He was thus led to plunge into a life of excitement and vicissitude, in which exhausting studies, tutorships, secretaryships, professorships, offices in princely households, mortal enmities and perils, luxury and beggary, boundless admiration and boundless contempt, followed confusedly one upon the other, and in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence. But the worst of all was, that the position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place.

But in addition to Burckhardt’s great text, this Phaidon edition has a glorious addition: its final hundred pages consist of a huge gallery of absolutely gorgeous high-definition black-and-white photos of paintings, tapestries, portraits, sculptures, building plans, building models, and sketches, all of the assembled and curated by Ludwig Goldscheider, the founder of Phaidon.

It’s an incredibly enjoyable assemblage of images, all in such exquisite detail. We can see alucy reads burckhardt close-up of the heavy-lidded face of vicious condottiere Gattamalata, from the statue made by Donatello; we see Dosso Dossi’s infectiously happy portrait of a laughing jester sharing a close-up with a sheep; we see a cartoon caricature by Annibale Carracci that looks like it could be found in any satirical magazine today, and there are hundreds more such illustrations. Paging through that back portion of the book, I was struck by what a sumptuous way it was to experience Burckhardt’s work. I know I have a normal paperback of The Civilization of the Renaissance somewhere in my library, but I doubt I’ll even bother to look for it now.

April 13th, 2015

Mystery Monday: The Language of the Dead!

mystery monday header

the language of the dead coverOur book today is Stephen Kelley’s The Language of the Dead (the prepositional phrase isn’t explicitly necessary to get your book featured on Mystery Monday, but it obviously doesn’t hurt…), the first in a planned series of murder mysteries taking place in rural England during the Second World War, when food and resources are being rationed, when blackouts are in effect every night as an optimistic precaution against German bombers, and when the backdrop of a world war subtly shifts the very feel of murder on the home front.

The Language of the Dead is set in lovely Hampshire in 1940, and our hero is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, a married man and WWI veteran who comes to us in the novel’s opening chapters so snugly packaged in police procedural cliches that meeting him feels more like reminiscing about him. He has strained relations with both his wife Marjorie and his daughter Vera, he takes breath mints to help him with his struggle against his tobacco addiction, he’s carrying around psychological baggage from the Great War (and he shares a surname with a famous writer, for extra points), he’s much more of a plodder than a piercer when it comes to ferreting out crimes, he’s a stickler for procedure except when he’s not, etc. etc.

It’s a heavy load to throw off in the course of only one novel, and it’s to Kelly’s credit that he manages even as much as he does. Things are helped along by the plot (although even there, the ultimate villain is spottable almost from the first pertinent scene, after which you’re just waiting to learn motive, not identity), which is kicked into gear by the discovered of the body of an old loner farmhand named William Blackwell, who’s been gruesomely murdered in the village of Quimby:

Will Blackwell’s arms were flung away from his body, as if in a gesture of ecstatic welcome, and his legs spread wide. The position of the old man’s limbs put Lamb in mind of a child lying in the snow making angels. The leftmost tine of a rusting pitchfork with a worn, weathered handle was thrust into the center of his neck while a scythe with a curved blade of roughly twenty inches long – also partly rusted – protruded from his chest. A copious amount of blood had pooled in the dry grass around the body and the old man’s eye sockets were full of fleshy pulp.

Kelly does a good job juxtaposing the sordid nature of the crime with its frankly idyllic setting, which he evokes in offhand half-paragraphs of memorably unstressed pretty detail:

The twilight air had grown cool and redolent of the fragrances of wildflowers and windblown grasses. Bees and butterflies busied themselves in the meadows and the first bats appeared. Small birds occasionally darted from thickets to alight on sagging fences. The sun had eased its way down to a point just beneath the tops of the highest trees of the wood to their right, slanting shadows across the footpath.

And as more murders occur (and as a helpless and obviously traumatized boy and lucy reading language of the deadsuspicions of local witchcraft gather around the peripheries), Kelly also does a good job of juxtaposing something else: the subtle ways the tensions of the crimes combine in all the characters with the tensions of the times. As one character says later in the book, “It’s bad enough that the damned Germans are due any day now and our men are being shot out of the sky and slaughtered before they can even get airborne. It’s too much strain for the average person.”

By the time The Language of the Dead is in full swing, Kelly has largely made you forget about the many derivative ways it got started (and, for that matter, about that peskily familiar prepositional phrase in the title), and the last fifty pages or so are genuinely exciting. In the end, the book turns out to be yet another cliché, although this time a good one: it’s a very promising debut.