Posts from August 2015
August 19th, 2015
Our book today is Sir Edward Creasy’s durable 1851 classic work of popular military history, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, a worthy work that no 21st-century reader can approach without feeling just about the saddest irony in the world. Creasy, surveying the sunny morning of his Victorian era, with Napoleon Bonaparte long since defeated and with international diplomacy enjoying its golden age, could look upon his subject – warfare – with the complacency of a doctor looking at the last remaining laboratory specimens of a once-rampant disease:
It is an honourable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilised states with gradually increasing aversion. The Universal Peace Society certainly does not, and probably never will, enrol the majority of statesmen among its members. But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried; and when the law of self-defence justifies a State, like an individual, in using force to protect itself from imminent and serious injury.
Still, he concedes immediately, “There is an undeniable greatness in the discipline, courage, and in the love of honour, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.” And through close accounts of fifteen big battles (‘big’ is one of his unapologetic criteria, although he’s much keener to ‘pivotal’ than his critics used to give him credit for being), he gives his readers ample amounts of honor, courage, agony, and destruction.
He’s got a sweet tooth for enormous set-piece affairs, especially if they’ve got a moral twist to them. From the ancient world, he picks the battles of Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, and the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest, where Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions and a great big crowd of auxiliaries through both tactical stupidity and, as something Creasy lays on with a trowel, through a vaguely Asiatic and very un-Roman decadence that the German mercenaries all around watched with steely interest:
For this purpose, the German confederates frequented the head-quarters of Varus, which seem to have been near the centre of the modern country of Westphalia, where the Roman general conducted himself with all the arrogant security of the governor of a perfectly submissive province. There Varus gratified at once his vanity, his rhetorical taste, and his avarice, by holding courts, to which he summoned the Germans for the settlement of all their disputes, while a bar of Roman advocates attended to argue the cases before the tribunal of the Pro-consul; who did not omit the opportunity of exacting court-fees and accepting bribes.
From the Middle Ages, he picks the Battle of Chalons in 451, the Battle of Tours in 732, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (how could he not?), and Joan of Arc’s victories over the English at Orleans in 1429 – the whole while adding a running context that actually makes this a more fluid reading experience than “Fifteen Decisive Battles” might suggest. And as his time-frame inches closer to his own day, he chooses the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Battle of Pultowa in 1709, the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the Battle of Valmy in 1792, and of course he winds things up with the grand finale of Waterloo in 1815. And it’s all done with such quintessential Victorian gusto (and a good deal of very solid research – military historians are a notoriously fussy lot, but several of these accounts hold up in their main lines even today) that the book is immediately readable.
Still, there’s that clinging sad irony, inescapable when Creasy hits his favorite triumphalist note:
In closing our observations on this the last of the Decisive Battles of the World, it is pleasing to contrast the year which it signalised with the year that is now passing over our heads. We have not (and long may we be without) the stern excitement of martial strife, and we see no captive standards of our European neighbours brought in triumph to our shrines. But we behold an infinitely prouder spectacle. We see the banners of every civilised nation waving over the arena of our competition with each other, in the arts that minister to our race’s support and happiness, and not to its suffering and destruction.
Creasy died in 1878, so he lived long enough to at least begin to see, in names like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, that he and all his fellow club-members had been wrong about the demise of armed warfare. But he was gone to his grave long before he could learn just how wrong he’d been. The horrible roll-call that’s extended since his death – the Somme, Verdun, Kursk, Luzon, Khe Sanh, and on and on – might have been sufficient to curb his armchair enthusiasm for that “undeniable greatness.”
July 19th, 2015
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.
June 5th, 2015
This last week turned out to be a sharply sad one for me, in the realm of comics. I was reading a spattering of the latest “Convergence” spin-off issues from DC, all of them set in the various fractured sideline-realities and featuring DC characters from various titles and imprints over the decades before the company’s “New 52” continuity-reboot. It’s been fun seeing these old characters again – Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, for instance, or the normal, traditional Superman who’s hopelessly in love with Lois Lane, or Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, or the WWII-era Justice Society of America, the first super-team of them all. But as these isolated two-issue stories have started wrapping up, it’s finally dawned on me that these things are every bit the wistful – and final – good-byes they seem to be on the surface. And that’s made reading them unexpectedly hard to do.
Take two issues as examples. In the wrap-up to the “Shazam!” storyline, written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Evan Shaner, once all the teaming up and fighting are over, our heroes – Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Bulletman, and Bulletgirl (and a talking tiger in a war plane – a long story) – are flying into the sunset when Captain Marvel says: “There’s never really a happy ending … or even an ending. All we have are the moments, and this one is pretty special to me … in the sky again, with my best friends. With my family!”
And things are even more explicitly valedictory in the wrap-up to “The Justice Society of America” two-parter, in which our heroes – Hawkman, Doctor Fate, the original Green Lantern, and the original Flash – use a one-time-only spell to recapture their lost youth and powers so they can defeat a killer robot attacking the city. The issue – written by Dan Abnett, drawn wonderfully by Tom Derenick, and actually called “One Last Time” – largely consists of that battle, during which our heroes realize that doing this, using their powers to champion the cause of right, has been the joy of their lives:
I share my friends’ frank appraisal. They speak of the wonder of being super-men. The sheer, glorious, thank-god-I’m-alive, this-never-gets-old, unbelievable, astonishing sensation of being members of the Justice Society. It kept ups going through the toughest moments. The compensation of feeling blessed. We thanked fate and fortune and the stars every day that we were getting to do the things we were doing. We were lucky we ever got to do them at all. Just once would have been an utter privilege. We were damn lucky we got to spend our whole lives doing them. Now we’re getting to be those people again, one last time. And we’re going to savor every second of it.
But when the fight is over, they revert to old men again and shuffle off to get some coffee. And reading that scene, it really dawned on me: DC is saying one last good-bye to these characters before shifting their main focus back to the militarized, joyless main line they created a few years ago. Here’s hoping some of the sunlight and optimism of the concepts they’re shutting down this month leaks into that main line, even if these great old characters don’t.
May 8th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are just eye-openingly beautiful, extravagantly so in the case of the recent hardcover Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, the first English translation of a medieval Arabic work called the Hikayat, the manuscript of which was found by a German Arabic scholar in a library in Istanbul and published in 1933. The work is a collection of Arabic folk stories that might very well pre-date the much more famous Thousand and One Nights, and it’s here presented in an English-language translation by Malcolm Lyons, with an Introduction by Robert Irwin in which he follows the age-old Penguin Classics tradition of introducing a work by being fairly stern with it:
Though the Tales of the Marvellous are indeed astounding, they are not flawless. They are written in a vulgar style, and their Arabic is sometimes incorrect. The diacriticals that are used to distinguish some letters from others have often been omitted. Where the words are vowelled, the vowels are sometimes incorrect. Occasionally the scribe has not understood what he was transcribing, and often the odd sentence or two has been skipped.
Anyone who’s familiar with the better-known Arabian Nights will be prepared for the tsunami waves of barbarism and violence they’ll encounter in these pages, but just in case, Irwin is takes pains to issue the appropriate warnings:
Misfortune breeds misfortune. The authors of the tales in Tales of the Marvellous delighted in being cruel to their characters, and Schadenfreude is definitely one of the dark literary pleasures provided by this collection. Hands and feet are lopped off, eyeballs plucked out, lips cut away, penises slit off, people burned alive, women raped, cripples and blind men mocked and robbed, and the ugly have their deformities seized upon and exaggerated. Here political incorrectness has gone mad, and there is ‘Laughter in the Dark’. In fact, as in fiction, public executions were popular entertainments. But the good suffer almost as much has the bad in these ruthless stories.
But there’s an enormous amount of savage and elegant beauty in these stories, where princesses and shopkeepers break into verse with encouraging enthusiasm, extolling their hatreds, their arrogance, and also – in this one example among hundreds – their longings of love and desire, sometimes bristling with exquisitely Catullan agony:
This letter comes to you from hope
That lodges in my ribs and does not leave,
From sleep, which now I seldom taste,
And from a heart not occupied with blame.
I am consumed with passion and with love,
And one of these alone would leave me dead.
By God, if passion could send messengers,
These messengers would be my heartfelt sighs.
Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange would be a pearl of a book even if it were “merely” a standard Penguin Classic black-spine paperback. But as I mentioned, Penguin has instead outdone themselves in making this a particularly lovely hardcover volume. Its front and back covers are entwined in branching trees of birds and beasts embossed in gold; the many sections of the text are headed in delicate script; and the whole thing presents this ancient but largely unknown work in just about the prettiest debut volume it could possibly want.
April 27th, 2015
Our 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.
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 bodies 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 24th, 2015
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 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 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 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 – all 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 20th, 2015
Our 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 open-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
Our 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 two 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.
This 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 and 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.
Foremost 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 describing 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 14th, 2015
Our 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 festivals 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.
But 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 personal 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 a 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
Our 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 suspicions 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.