May 12th, 2015

The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday

the vanished pomps of yesterdayOur book today goes by the quintessential Steve-book name of The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, an utterly delightful 1920 “diplomatic memoir” by Lord Frederic Hamilton, a minor younger son of the Duke of Abercorn who could expect little in the way of any inheritance and so entered the British diplomatic corps and duly shuttled around the world from legation to legation, having a great many adventures that are polished in these pages by Hamilton’s enormous storytelling skills.

And he starts off his reminiscences by looking back wistfully on some legations that have vanished in the harsh light of the modern world:

The tremendous series of events which has changed the face of Europe since 1914 is so vast in its future possibilities, that certain minor consequence of the great upheaval have received but scant notice. Amongst these minor consequences must be included the disappearance of the Courts of the three Empires of Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, and Austria, with all their glitter and pageantry, their pomp and brilliant mise-en-scene. I will hazard no opinion as to whether the world is the better for their loss or not; I cannot, though, help experiencing a feeling of regret that this prosaic, drab-coloured twentieth century should have definitely lost so strong an element of the picturesque, and should have permanently severed a link which bound it to the traditions of the medieval days of chivalry and romance, with their glowing colour, their splendid spectacular displays, and the feeling of continuity with a vanished past which they inspired.

“A tweed suit and a bowler hat are doubtless more piratical for everyday wear than a doublet and trunk-hose,” he writes. “They are, however, possibly less picturesque.”

Tweed suit or no, Lord Frederic manages to find quite a few picturesque situations as he travels from England to Russia to Berlin to Vienna to Tokyo to Lisbon. He’s caught in “the attire of Adam” in a legation in Brazil; he encounters shoals of pirahna; he attends bullfights and tiger hunts (and a Russian choral performance with Arthur Sullivan), and he sees the busy people of Russia setting up temporary taverns and tea houses on the frozen Neva once the ice was thick enough – and reflects on the oddness of the sight:

A stranger from another planet might have imagined that these buildings were permanent, that the fir trees were really growing, and that wall the life on the frozen river would last indefinitely. Everyone knew, though, with absolute certainty that by the middle of April the ice would break up, and that these little houses, if not removed in time, would be carried away and engulfed in the liberated stream. By May the river would be running again as freely as though these temporary edifices had never been built on it.

We sit down with him while he eats all the exotic meals of the day; we suffer with him when he’s swarmed by mosquitoes; he shudder alongside him at the sight of enormous alligators lolling in the shallows – indeed, when he declares simply that the three things he hates are “sharks, snakes, and earthquakes,” who can argue? What traveler hasn’t felt the same?

Like in his other books (this author really deserves to be back in print – he scarcely knows how to write a dull sentence), Lord Frederic routinely breaks into broader observations that are always interesting, grounded on experiences that were exceptional even for his fellow world-travelers of the day. His summings-up are a lucy reads hamilton 2particular favorite of mine:

I have seen most of the surface of this globe, and I say deliberately, without any fear of contradiction, that nowhere is there anything approaching Rio in beauty. The glorious bay, two hundred miles in circumference, dotted with islands, and surrounded by mountains of almost grotesquely fantastic outlines, the whole clothed with exuberantly luxurious tropical vegetation, makes the most lovely picture that can be conceived.

Lord Frederic frames his book explicitly with a mild lament for a vanished world, little guessing how much of the tweed suit and bowler hat world he looked upon when he wrote this book would likewise vanish, particularly after a war that would dwarf the “tremendous series of events” so fresh in his mind. Reading through these wonderful pages, I couldn’t help but reflect that diplomatic memoirs like this one have likewise almost disappeared from the world. Maybe not vanished pomps, but vanished all the same.

May 11th, 2015

Mystery Monday: Stone Cold Dead!

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stone cold dead coverOur book today is Stone Cold Dead, the third book in James Ziskin’s enormously enjoyable series (from the good folks at Seventh Street Books) chronicling the adventures of Ellie Stone, 25-year-old “girl reporter” for the Republic, the local newspaper for the little town of New Holland in upstate New York in the 1960s. Ellie is of course a moonlighting amateur sleuth, but she’s between cases on New Year’s Eve 1960. An intense cold spell has clamped down on New Holland, but as the old-time radio serials used to put it, crime never sleeps; Ellie is approached by a woman named Irene Metzger, whose daughter, Darleen Hicks, disappeared over a week ago. The New Holland police won’t pursue the case – they assure the worried mother that Darleen probably ran off with some body and will be back when her adventure or her money runs out. Irene Metzger feels certain something much more serious has happened, and she’s read Ellie’s pieces in the Republic, so she comes to our feisty, hilariously flawed heroine for help.

The story Ziskin unfolds from there will be familiar in all its working parts to murder mystery fans, missing-teen motifs being something of a staple of the genre (as we saw in our previous Mystery Monday, but never fear, just because the little littering monsters still stream loudly past my driveway every weekday at 3 doesn’t mean I’m taking any inordinate pleasure out of these books! I’m sure we’ll be moving on to dead politicians in due time). Three main things save it from the tedium into which a less talented author might have fallen.

The first is the setting, half a century ago but it might as well be Medieval Iceland for all the incredibly-pervasive technological changes that have happened since. When Ellie is spending some well-earned down-time in her apartment, any reader under Ellie’s own age of 25 will find some of Ziskin’s descriptions as strange as anything they’d find in a science fiction novel:

I rose to change the channel, and the television threw a fit. Jack Benny warped and skipped rhythmically from the bottom of the screen to the top, and neither the vertical-hold knob nor the rabbit ears remedied the situation, despite my repeated fiddling. I switched off the set and plopped back down on the sofa, wrapped the afghan around my shoulders, and gazed up at the painted tin ceiling and alabaster light fixture above me. … I tried to will time to pass …

In these and many other passages, we realize with a jolt that Ellie is alone – as in, cut off from the constant presence of the Internet. She gazes at the ceiling instead of gazing at her iPhone. She needs to be in the Republic‘s offices in order to access its files. She sometimes uses something called a “filing cabinet.” It can be very pleasurably bizarre.

The second thing is Ziskin’s wonderful talent for showing us all the sides of even his most outwardly simple characters, like the gigantic Walt Rasmussen, somebody Ellie suspects early on of having had something to do with young Darleen’s disappearance. When she goes to his farm to question him, he’s just emerging from his barn carrying no less than a bloodied axe – and he’s less than friendly about her questions. But it’s not a dozen pages later that Ellie’s best friend Fadge is able to offer a restauranteur’s alternate perspective on the man:

“The kids stare at him, you know? They can be so mean, the little bastards. They stare at him like he’s some kind of freak because he’s so huge. They peep around corners, laugh with each other, point at him. And Walt just sits there in the booth, as big as Goliath, looking straight ahead and ignoring them. But you can tell it’s burning him up. Like maybe he’d like to squash those kids like bugs and be rid of them.”

“Or maybe wring their necks and chop up the bodies in the barn?” I said.

Fadge shrugged. “Imagine what it must be like to go through life having people point at you like you’re a sideshow attraction.”

I’d met the guy. I wasn’t feeling too much sympathy for the man who’d waved an axe in my face.

And of course the third and clinching thing that sets these mysteries apart is Ellie lucy reads stone cold deadherself, who adheres to no tired stereotypes, indulges in none of the flatly unbelievable behavior that 21st century female crime-solvers tend to get up to (this book’s title doesn’t start with “The Girl Who,” thank God), and is always ready with both a sarcastic quip and a leap of courage that sometimes surprises even her. It’s great fun following her through these adventures (and you need not have read the first two in order to enjoy this one) – the only weird thing is remembering: she’s a grandmother by now.

May 10th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Jungle Books!

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jungle booksSome Penguin Classics celebrate awkward anniversaries, and in the literary world, it looks like no anniversary this side of the publication of Mein Kampf will ever be more awkward than that of Rudyard Kipling, born 150 years ago, whose incredible body of work has been simplified and then vilified under the “Empire jingo” tag for so long it that it’s become undergrad second nature to dismiss him out of hand except for a couple of isolated works. So “The Man Who Would Be King” can get made into a successful movie (and phrase can enter common parlance), and Kim can make it onto the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, but the huge bulk of the man’s prose and poetry is consigned to the attic, where it’s understood that the only people who’ll visit it are secretly racist imperialists. It can get a bit tiring to watch the Republic of Letters so resolutely belittle itself.

Of course the foremost example of an ‘exempted’ work by Kipling is The Jungle Books, his much-beloved classic, the first part of which was published in 1894 and the second in 1895. The Jungle Books is now added to the beautiful Penguin Classics hardcover line with a monkey-full cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith, a Preface by Jan Montefiore and an excellent Introduction by Kaori Nagai in which she points out the simple truth that for many readers, the stories in the Jungle Books “have almost become synonymous with the joys of childhood and of reading.” And she draws some intriguing parallels between Kipling’s work and that of his own father:

In many ways, the Jungle Books can be seen as an imaginative reworking of Kipling’s father’s book Beast and Man in India (1891) with its rich descriptions of Indian animals ‘in their relations with the people.’ John Lockwood Kipling, a gifted artist and illustrator, worked in Bombay and then in Lahore from 1865 to 1893, as an art professor and curator. Father and son shared similar perceptions of and an adoring gaze towards animals, and there are significant overlaps between their works.

But as much as that might make me want to find a copy of Beast and Man in India the next time I’m at the Brattle Bookshop, it only reinforces how thoroughly the younger Kipling made the subject his own, mainly by taking the ‘man’ part almost entirely out of the equation. Most of these great stories feature a little Indian boy named Mowgli who’s adopted by a wolf pack and raised as one of their own, gaining the friendship of the elegant black panther Bagheera and the thirty-foot rock python Kaa and learning the Laws of the jungle from the heavy old bear Baloo. Taking up this sturdy, lovely lime-green hardcover Penguin Classic, I plunged into these stories again exactly as if I didn’t have them memorized. And as usual – and fittingly enough, since it’s clearly the inspiration for this volume’s cover – my favorite was the story called “Kaa’s Hunting,” in which the noisy monkey-folk, the Bandar-log, kidnap Mowgli and carry him to the Cold Lairs, a long-ruined city deep in the jungle. Baloo and Bagheera naturally resolve to rescue him, but they are only two while the Bandar-log are many hundreds, so they enlist as an ally Kaa the python, who’s very old and very alien but who helps them because he has no love for the Monkey-people – and they certainly have no love for him:

Generations of monkeys had been scared into good behaviour by the stories their elders told them of Kaa, the night-thief, who could slip along the branches as quietly as moss gross, and steal away the strongest monkey that ever lived; of old Kaa, who could make himself look so like a dead branch or a rotten stump that the wisest were deceived, till the branch caught them. Kaa was everything that the monkeys feared in the jungle, for none of them knew the limits of his power, none of them could look him in the face, and none had ever come alive out of his hug.

But in addition to re-reading “Kaa’s Hunting,” I also soaked up again “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and the brilliant psychological study “How Fear Came,” and the epic action of “Red Dog.” And when I came to “The Spring Running,” I read in somber, rapt attention for the thousandth time as Mowgli, perhaps inevitably, makes his way back to the the world of humans, never to live in the jungle again. And as he goes, he’s sung farewell by his three closest animal friends, each a verse in turn until they share the lucy reads kiplingfinal one:

On the trail that thou must tread

To the threshold of our dread,

Where the Flower blossoms red;

Through the nights when thou shalt lie

‘Prisoned from our Mother-sky,

Hearing us, thy loves, go by;

In the dawns, when thou shalt wake

To the toil thou canst not break,

Heartsick for the Jungle’s sake;

Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,

Jungle-Favour go with thee!

I’ve read my way through dozens of editions of the Jungle Books, from paperbacks to big lavish hardcovers to even the comic book adaptation with lovely artwork by P. Craig Russell. I’d like to think this sturdy little green brick of a Penguin Classic will hold up a lot longer than its predecessors. I can hope so, anyway.

May 8th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange!

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penguin tales of the marvelousSome 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 strange thingsexquisitely 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.

May 5th, 2015

That old familiar smell (ing) in the Penny Press!

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There was never any real doubt that I would return to The New Republic even in what Penny Press historians will refer to as the Post-Chotiner Period. After all, the magazine still has an ample Books section, and even though that section is now run by a couple of guys who did themselves no PR favors during the melodramatic “Whither TNR?” Transition Period a few months ago, the institution itself still has (relatively) deep pockets and will therefore still attract some noteworthy freelance work. How could it be otherwise, smart writers being what they are? Like what I suspect was the majority of the magazine’s long-time readers, I stood back for a few months, waited for the dust to settle, and then warily returned to the scene, as it were, of the crime.

I bought the May issue for the headline takedown of Cornell West about which I’d already heard some intriguing things. And I wasn’t disappointed: Michael Eric Dyson’s piece is very good, and all the more powerful for being so personal. Likewise the first-rate investigation of “click farms,” shady outfits where social media users can pay for clicks and ‘likes.’ I hadn’t known anything about such places, but I suspect I’ve experienced their handiwork, since my paltry number of followers on Twitter, while adamantly refusing to reach 300, fluctuates in the upper 290s with such week-to-week regularity that I long ago suspected some sort of low-wattage fraud had to be involved (I’m annoying, yes, but I’m amazingly consistently annoying).

If only I’d quit while I was ahead! If only I’d stopped after Cornel West and the compu-bots! But nooooo! By that point I was engaged with the issue – so I read William Giraldi’s piece on why the world will always need printed books.

The simple description itself should have warned me off. Articles about the joys of physical books tend to fall into one of two categories: self-congratulation or semi-brainless knee-jerk conservatism. Aw, who am I kidding? Articles about the joys of physical books always, always cover both categories.

Giraldi’s little essay here is no exception on either count. The two things you’re supposed to take away from reading it are: printed books are cooler than e-books ever could be, and William Giraldi is the coolest collector of printed books on Planet Earth.

He hits all the usual notes for this kind of clap-trap. He talks about how many books he owns; he talks about how early in life he caught the book-collecting bug; he quotes from all the usual suspects when it comes to sound bites for his piece, from Leigh Hunt to E. M. Forster to, of course, Borges; and he reduces the whole alleged superiority of printed books to two things: their aura and their odor.

The odor part is the single most annoying refrain printed-book snobs always harp on whenever the subject comes up: the smell of the paper. In my bookselling career, I heard it so often that I ended up wanting to bop all of these budding Hannibal Lecters in the kisser. Giraldi goes at it with a vengeance:

The physicality of the book, the sensuality of it – the book as a body that permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence – that is what many of us seek in the book as object.

I’d call the cops if somebody started sticking his face inside my books, and it’s all so ridiculous anyway, all these professed book-lovers going around sniffing pages and lapsing into weak-kneed euphoria.

When Giraldi shifts from odor to aura, things get even worse, in part because he references atnr better writer than himself, pointing out a piece in which Sven Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” the “expectant tranquility” of sitting looking at his library, the sense of “futurity” he gets, etc. How woeful that a former Brattle Bookshop acolyte should ever have written such codswallop as to assert that looking at his books is a kind of reading, and how lamentable that somebody like Giraldi should then praise such an idiotic idea: Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity, he writes, “those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.”

I’m sorry,” he goes on, “but your Nook has no presence.”

SIGH.

So this fierce defender of printed books is mainly praising not reading them or studying them but simply having them, on display for others to see. Lovely. What clearly bothers him most about the idea of reading on a Nook is that this element of external display is absent – it’s just you and the books.

You scroll and swipe and click your way through your life,” Giraldi insufferably scolds, “scanning screens for information and interruption, screens that force you into a want of rapidity.” (That fumbling fake-antiquing of “in a want of rapidity” – here simply an incorrect way of saying “into a wanting for rapidity” – is typical of windbag essays of this kind, where every junior G-grade book poser tries to sound like William Hazlitt; Giraldi also uses “mounts” instead of “mountains” and “wilderness grot” for “wilderness grotto”), but a printed book encourages you to “be alone with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination.”

smelling the booksNone of this kind of hooey is ever true. The pretentious ninnies who swoon over the odor of printed pages neither noticed nor cared about such a thing before e-books showed up. And this one’s important: people who rhapsodize about reading in silence and solitude share one thing in common: they don’t currently read at all. They might dabble and sample, but this gauze-tinted scenario they describe, where they retreat to some wilderness grot with a beautiful leatherbound tome and soak it up in blissful silence and solitude? It’s pure hogwash. It never happens. They never do it. Indeed, it’s been my suspicion for years that they can’t do it anymore.

It’s true you can’t swan and swoon in front of admirers when you’re reading on an e-reader. You can’t make wistful, faux-woeful comments to less literate onlookers (Giraldi describes an encounter with a neighborhood cop that would make a less foppish writer cringe in embarrassment) about how much they add to your life, even though you know you’ll never read them all, etc.

But you can most certainly read on an e-reader. You can most certainly lose yourself in a book on an e-reader. Inevitably in pieces like this, the qualities of printed books that are sung the loudest are non-literary qualities, but you can read books on an e-reader, just as genuinely and easily as you read printed books. Hell, you can even call up your library and just sit there looking at your e-books – but nobody else can, which is clearly the rub.

May 3rd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Hardcover Classics!

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penguin hardcover classicsSome Penguin Classics break with tradition, almost always to excellent effect. Of course the foremost tradition we all associate with Penguin Classics is the durable, curiously dignified paperback reprints that have been the backbone of the publishing house for well over half a century, and Penguin still produces those in abundance, the finest reprint line in the English-reading world. But the folks at Penguin have also always been fairly canny at coming up with new and eye-catching approaches to re-packaging the great works of literature in their care, and an absolutely nifty new example of this has appeared in 2015: a line of beautiful little hardcover classics.

These books are pocket-sized (indeed, they’re more pocket-friendly in their dimensions than the trade paperbacks Penguin currently produces)(except for the “Little Black Classics” set currently setting the hearts of book-geeks in the UK all aflutter – I have yet to encounter this set, although I long to), and instead of dust jackets that could tear or wrinkle, they have gorgeous designs inlaid into their covers (the designs are the handiwork of the wonderfully talented Coralie Bickford-Smith).

The set I have before me consists of six seminal works of nonfiction from the canon. There’s The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, here in the sturdy 1888 translation by Samuel Moore, with an Introduction by Gareth Stedman-Jones in which he predictably but quite rightly touts the relevance (that dreaded word) of this crackpot tract:

In short, the Manifesto sketches a vision of reality that, at the start of a new millennium and against a background of endless chatter about globalization and deregulation, looks as powerful and contemporary a picture of our own world as it might have appeared to those reading it in 1848.

There’s also Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell, who tells his readers penguin hardcover machiavelliabout Seneca’s “implicit belief in the equality and brotherhood of man despite all barriers of race or class or rank” and then flirts a bit himself with the dreaded relevance:

Whether or not his letters may still be turned to for their pointers to the contented life, they cannot be read without noticing how far in advance of their time are many of his ideas – on the shows in the arena, for example, or the treatment of slaves.

No collection like this would be complete without the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and here they are, translated by Martin Hammond and with an Introduction by Diskin Clay that smartly tries to prepare first-time readers for some of the strangeness they’ll encounter in this remarkable book:

Readers who come to this book expecting the hardness and austerity of a Stoic will not be disappointed, but they will be surprised by prose that often reads like modern poetry and startled by the vivid illustrations that reveal Marcus’ deep appreciation of the beauty and purposefulness of Nature (a word that is properly capitalized).

An odd choice for inclusion alongside all these personal tracts and manifestos is the long poem De rerum natura by Lucretius, which is hardly polemical and not at all confessional. In fact, as Richard Jenkyns points out in his Introduction to the A. E. Stallings translation (here given as The Nature of Things),

Here is a poem without people in it, without any story; instead, if offers a treatise on science and philosophy. The philosophy, moreover, is a strict materialism, which denies the existence of anything magical, mysterious or transcendent. It does not sound like promising matter for poetry at all, let alone for a work of more than 7,000 lines. Yet the result is a masterpiece.

51-Wm2LBRhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I myself have always been a bit leery about calling The Nature of Things a masterpiece, but one of the books in this current Penguin set certainly deserves the title: it’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine, here in the slightly dated by still serviceable 1961 translation by, settle down now, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who imparts a nice stately cadence to the author’s famous exhortations of praise to his Creator:

Who will grant me to rest content in you? To whom shall I turn for the gift of your coming into my heart and filling it to the brim, so that I may forget all the wrong I have done and embrace you alone, my only source of good?

It’s a radical thematic shift to go from the faith-driven ecstasies of Saint Augustin to the tough, clear-eyed pragmatism of our final book today, this set’s pretty little hardcover of The Prince by Machiavelli, here presented with a very good and very pithy lucy deluxe - 30 april 15Introduction by the indefatigable Tim Parks, who gets to the essence of the work quite economically:

From start to finish we have a vision of man manoeuvring precariously in a suffocating net of cause and effect. What is at stake is survival. Anything extra is luxury.

There are more of these little hardcover Penguin Classics than just these six, of course, and all are beautifully and sturdily made, clearly able to serve as gifts just as readily as they’ll take their place on your own shelf. It’s a bit strange for me to think “Penguin Classics” and then think “hardcover,” but that’s more due to the fact that I’ve had hundreds of their paperbacks in my life – if their hardcovers are as lovely as this set, I’ll be happy to re-adjust my mental reflexes.

April 28th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Catullus!

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penguin catullusSome Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted here at Stevereads a few times in the past, take on a life of their own as translations even when the larger currents of social understanding and the craft of translation have moved on. I was reminded of this just the other day when I encountered a slightly battered copy of the 1966 Penguin Classics translation of the poems of Catullus done by Peter Whigham.

I sighed with the happiness of encountering an old friend. I’ve been reading the Peter Whigham Catullus for half a century, sometimes impatiently, sometimes immensely satisfied, and on the day I found this battered copy I wanted the comfort – it was a freezing cold sleeting late April day in what is clearly going to be an actually endless Boston winter. I have warm and sunny memories of Whigham’s translation (I read it first in high summer on Cape Cod, and I read it again on a hot summer afternoon in Florence, and there were many other readings on sultry long summer evenings in Iowa), so I happily sank into it again.

And now, in this 2015 re-reading, I recalled some of that warmth even though Whigham’s opening comments tend to creak a bit under the weight of the intervening decades. He was a truly remarkable figure in the Penguin roster of translators, a self-taught non-academic bon vivant and elegant thinker, although even his thinking doesn’t quite always surpass the limitations of his time, as in his aside about that volatile subject of sexuality:

On many occasions, in moments of intense emotion, Catullus expresses his feelings in the guise of a woman. The fact that homosexuality was not then considered either as a vice, an aberration or a disease, as it is now, is attendant but not cardinal to the point that I wish to make, which is that there was in Catullus a strain of femininity which went deeper than ‘normal’ adherence to the bisexual conventions of his class and time.

Whigham assures us that he’s followed no one text in constructing his translation, although both he and all other Catullus translations rely on a scarcity of manuscripts; “the original codex,” he tells us, “which according to a venerable tradition was discovered wedging a wine barrel in Verona, at the end of the thirteenth century AD and was in a poor state.” And that codex itself disappeared shortly afterward, although not before a couple of copies had been made. In other words, it’s a breeding ground for possible misinterpretations, although Whigham is perfectly right about the wonderful essentials of this author:

There is immediacy and vitality and pathos and nobility. He riddles away with words, juggling them about, a dozen times in half as many lines: eyes, apples, stars, numbers and then more numbers. The primitive is sometimes surprisingly near the surface. He has made his own mirror, not of life but of himself, and in this of course he is a Romantic.

I don’t know about that Romantic reach, but it was certainly a pleasure to read again these jaunty Englished (Americanized, even – Broadway is mentioned often) versions of Catullus lucy and the penguin catullusin all his untranslatable glory:

Your most recent acquisition, Flavius,

must be as unattractive as

(doubtless) she is unacceptable

or you would surely have told us about her.

You are wrapped up with a whore to end all whores

and ashamed to confess it.

You do not spend bachelor nights.

Your divan, reeking of Syrian unguents,

draped with bouquets & blossoms etc. proclaim it,

the pillows & bedclothes indented in several places,

a ceaseless jolting & straining of the framework

the shaky accompaniment to your sex parade.

Without more discretion your silence is pointless.

Attenuated thighs betray your preoccupation.

Whoever, whatever she is, good or bad, tells us, my friend –

Catullus will lift the two of you & your love-acts into the heavens

in the happiest of his hendecasyllables.

These Whigham poems are indeed the happiest of his hendecasyllables – even if I had to read them while wearing a scarf and mittens.

April 27th, 2015

Mystery Monday: The Doll Maker!

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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!