The English Country House!

the english country houseOur book today is a gorgeous 1974 Thames & Hudson volume called The English Country House: an art and a way of life, written by Olive Cook with loads of great photos by A. F. Kersting. The book has one of the most interesting and charming subjects of them all to examine, and it opens with a quote from Henry James that couldn’t be more quintessentially true:

Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house.

James of course knew what he was talking about; he himself made a habit of shuttling (ever so unwillingly, of course) fromgreat chalfield manor country house to country house during his time in England, and if you’ve ever visited such a country house, you’ll understand immediately why – under the right circumstances, they can be little pieces of Heaven on Earth.

If you have visited such a house, it’s overwhelmingly likely you’ve visited it as a paying customer, handing over your entrance fee to the smiling National Trust employee standing in front of the velvet rope in the front hall. I confess I’ve done that too, many times – I’ve visited almost every country house Cook and Kersting document here, and I know the history of these magnificent old buildings to the last detail. But books like this one have an added allure for me because one of my oldest friends comes from English “old money” (the main branch of her family’s own country house, just outside of Leeds, is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener) and through her kindness – and in her company – I’ve spent many weeks and weekends not just visiting but actually living in English country houses all over the country, in all seasons. I met and came to know some of their current owners, spent many deliciously peaceful afternoons tucked into upstairs nooks while autumn rain pattered on inner courtyards, or walking on the grounds during England’s preternaturally elongated twilights.

oxburgh hallCook and Kersting’s book brought back all those memories and more. They tour their readers vicariously through some of the grandest old buildings in England, and Cook is throughout the book a lively and highly informed guide, shifting easily between historical overview and architectural developments, as when she’s telling us about Great Chalfield Manor in scenic Wiltshire:

Brick gave wing to unprecedented flights of fancy in various directions: it encouraged romanticized elaborations of the traditional house of the immediate past, it gave rise to new, extravagant forms of customary features and it also stimulated the feeling for ordered design already apparent in the composition of Great Chalfield Manor. It even led to a structural absurdity – the replacing of the wattle and daub filling in the important timber-framed houses with brick. For of course the timber frame becomes redundant in the brick-built house.

Some English country houses are of course known for their oddities as much as for their quiet grandeur, and some manage to combine the two – like Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, with its gorgeous rooms and its overlooking view of the quiet river Gadder and its gaudy moat meant to evoke an entire martial past the place never came close to actually warranting. Cook is particularly good about this place, which passed into the hands of the National Trust half a century ago:

A less overweening expression of individual pride and power, a more romantic allusion to the past than Faulkbourne Hall, Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk translates the theme of the moated, quadrangular castle into weathered red-brick domesticity with conspicuous success. It is unforgettable because of the contrast in scale between the symmetrical south ranges and the immense, dominating and co-ordinating gatehouse, seven storeys high, and also because towers, battlements, stepped gables, oriels and crenellated chimneys, starting up like carefully positioned castles in a game of chess, rise so directly from the moat upon which the house seems to lie like a galleon becalmed.

“Like a galleon becalmed” is, come to think of it, a pretty good shorthand description of the effect most English country houses have on even the most familiar lucy reads about country housesvisitor; like castles, manors, and country houses everywhere, they’re intended to be worlds unto themselves, bastions and refuges, and they retain something of that feeling even though their beds have been soaked with blood and their walls have echoed with the screams of the unmedicated dying for centuries. I once spent a torrentially rainy week in a rather large old country house in the beautiful country of Kent and I came to know a reed-frail boy who was the youngest son of the family. He never spoke above a low murmur, and he was painfully shy, but once he opened up to me, he confessed how much he loved the house and grounds. After a couple of conversations, I had an astounding realization and had to ask him outright to confirm it: I realized he’d never actually left the house and grounds – that he’d never, in 16 years, set foot outside.

He admitted it, and I thought there would follow some expressions of regret or longing – but there were none. I asked him if he were ever curious about the world outside the Park, and he sighed and said, “I’d be so afraid of being disappointed.”

That  wasn’t the only week during which I knew exactly how he felt, and this wonderful book – a Brattle find, naturally – brought it all back to me.

Enrico Dandol & The Rise … of Venice!

enrico coverOur book today is another recent Brattle find: Enrico Dandolo & The Rise of Venice, a 2003 study of medieval Venice (and its most remarkable citizen, whose life spanned almost the whole of the twelfth century) by Thomas Madden, who has a wonderful way of scraping away the romantic veneer of post-Renaissance Venice and showing his readers the decidedly less glamorous city two centuries before:

In the eleventh century Venic was a different place. Dirt and mud abounded. A boat ride down the Grand Canal was anything but spectacular. Venice’s central waterway was flancked, not by gowering palazzi, but by piers buzzing with workers loading and unloading merchant vessels, wooden buildings ranging from large warehouses to tiny hovels, and, most of all, land. Yes, open areas were still plentiful in Venice. A traveler on the Grand Canal could watch farmers cultivating vegetables, fishermen netting their catch in closed-off rivers, and men and women tending vines and inspecting their grapes. Many Venetians also scratched out a living in the lagoon’s plentiful saltworks. The city’s landscape was dotted with marshes crossed by tributaries flowing out of the Grand Canal. On the banks of the canal, where one day masterpieces of architecture would stand, cows grazed and pigs ate at the trough.

Madden chronicles the contentious international relations of the time and the rise of powerful new mercantile families like the Dandolo clan. There are plenty of drawn daggers between these clans (perhaps inevitably, Madden has written a particularly violent book), but the main villains of the piece are the marauding Normans muscling in on Venetian trade routes and land bases. “The Normans were wild and warlike,” Madden writes, adding wryly, “in other words, bad for business.”

In 1147, when the Normans invaded the Adriatic and conquered the Byzantine island of Corfu, threatening those trade routes, the Venetian patriarch (of the Polani family) announced Venetian participation in a naval war to repel the Normans, but the Dandolo family objected – a puzzling step Madden duly interrogates:

Although in keeping with reform thought, Dandolo’s decision to oppose the alliance with Byzantium is an odd one, suggesting that he and his supporters had become overly zelous in their goals. Having already captured Thessalonica, the Normans were gunning for Constantinople itself. It was in everyone’s interest, both in Venice and in Rome, to stop them. Control of Corfu already gave the Normans an opportunity to close off the Adriatic Sea, thus strangling Venice’s access to eastern markets. Few Venetians could accept such a state of affairs, least of all the Dandolo, who derived much of their wealth from trade.

At the heart of all these dangers and intrigues is Enrico Dandolo himself, old as the hills and sharp as a tack despite many personal tragedies and the loss of his eyesight. In most histories of the Fourth Crusade, Dandolo is an arch, almost cartoonish planner, a figure trusted by nobody. Madden has to deal with this figurelucy reads about enrico dandolo before he can develop his much more complex and nuanced picture:

A word should be said at the outset about the character of the doge. A great many accounts of the crusade rely heavily on the harsh words of Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine senator who never met Enrico Dandolo. To this is added the shopworn stereotype of “Venetians first; Christians afterward.” The result is a rather grotesque caricature of the doge, based on little knowledge of the man or his world, which is then pressed into service to explain the outcome of the crusade. Dandolo in these accounts is portrayed as a conniving and clever trickster who beguiled the naïve northerners into a web of confusion so as to pervert their pious crusade into a war of Venetian profit and revenge. He kept his designs secret, mulling them over in the dark recesses of his black heart, where they apparently can be discerned only by the sharp eyes of contemporaries who never met him and by various modern historians.

“Needless to say,” he writes, “this colorful character will not receive another airing here.”

It’s the groundwork to the more famous Renaissance Venice that’s being laid in these fascinating pages. I read the book in one eager gulp, and I still scratch my head a bit that I missed it when it originally appeared. But catching omissions like that is part of what Stevereads does, so here it is at last!

A Season of Giants!

a season of giants coverOur book today is an oversized ‘coffee table’ treat, Vincenzo Labella’s lavishly illustrated 1990 tour of the Italian Renaissance, A Season of Giants, 1492-1508: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael. Labella claims right from the start that his book centers on three titanic artistic geniuses of the period, and when it comes to those three, our author never met a guide-book cliche he didn’t like:

This book is about that season and its protagonists. They were not supermen; to the contrary, even as they climbed to the highest peaks of excellence and fame, they retained their natural vulnerability. Far from being unassailable, they were hurt, and in turn, hurt others by envy, jealousy and pride. They were arrogant in the self-assurance of their talent, humble in the knowledge that beyond any finishing line there was another and yet another to be crossed. The threads of their lives were spun from different origins, yet were interwoven, and often entangled, in that unique loom of the Renaissance tapestry that was Florence.

Ordinarily, that kind of thing fairly quickly irritates me (no doubt because I’m prone to it myself), but there’s something about the unabashed, almost boyish enthusiasm with which Labella goes about the task of giving his (fairly good, fairly breathless) summary of the high Renaissance that wins me over every time I dip into this book. And of course Labella doesn’t confine himself to his central three artists – could anybody have that kind of self-control? No, we get all the other big names of time time: from Columbus and Machiavelli to those two opposite pole-stars that briefly pulled at Florence’s – and at Michelangelo’s – imagination, the vicious religious zealot Savonarola and the thinking man’s libertine, Lorenzo the Magnificent:

The two sides of the Florentine coin, the sacred and the profane, had always attracted Michelangelo with equally suggestive power, as did the classical greatness of the Magnificent’s new Athens and the religious revival of Savonarola. His first sculptures, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapithae, are perfect examples of this dichotomy; and the later Bacchus and his first Pieta executed in Rome would confirm it.

Labella comes by his easy penchant for scene-painting in the best way possible: he paid his dues as a hack journalist and thereby learned how to make virtually laocoonanything interesting – and how to make interesting things downright riveting. Time and again in A Season of Giants, he zeroes in on just the perfect human scene to offset the epic struggles of genius that are his main theme. Take for example the discovery of the Laocoon:

Rome awoke on the cold morning of January 14, 1506, to a sweeping tramontana wind that carried the icy breath of snow across the mountains into the Tiberina valley. In the vineyard of Felice de Freddis on the Esquiline hill, amid the ruins of the baths of Emperor Titus, a farmer was digging holes in the frozen ground to bury seedlings.

Suddenly, he stopped, reeling back and crying in horror. A hand had emerged from the earth, the pale whiteness of skin visible beneath the dirt. The man ran to the house of his master. Soon a small crowd gathered around the spot; someone dared to touch the hand, cold as marble. Indeed, marble it was: a mutilated arm, a head, then a tangle of arms and serpents and more heads emerged as the digging continued. Finally, a large statuary group, surprisingly well preserved, was unearthed.

I’m sure a big part of the allure of this particular book (there are, after all, many, many books on the Italian Renaissance) for me is the fact that it was the companion-volume to a long-gone TV mini-series that was such a frothy blend of crap and quality (often in the course of the same two-minute scene) that I fell in love with it instantly. The mini-series showed on TNT and starred a bunch of really good actors – F. Murray Abraham, Ian Holm, Jonathan Hyde, John Glover – doing some of the worst work of their entire careers (although even Michaelangelo's that was subject to maddening fluctuation; true, Hyde and Holm’s work can’t be salvaged, but Abraham is an at times very effective Pope Julius II, and there’s one fleeting moment of John Glover’s Leonardo that will absolutely break your heart). The mini-series also starred handsome Mark Frankel as Michelangelo in a stiff and studious performance that doesn’t really give you much inkling of what this actor was capable of (he died in a daredevil racing accident only a few years after this mini-series aired). The pacing and directing of the lucy reads a season of giantsmini-series is just as problematic as the acting, alas: most of those four hours are, I can objectively look back and admit, pretty unwatchable no matter how prettily they’re filmed … and yet, there are moments – the nighttime journey of the David on rollers to its morning unveiling spot, for instance, and especially the surprisingly moving final moments of the show, when Michelangelo’s stern, carping father stares in gaping awe at the newly-finished Sistine Chapel ceiling and realizes – in a very smart bit of emphasis on the part of the show – that the whole staggering cycle of the thing is about the reconciliation of fathers and sons.

I got the oversized companion book back in 1991 mainly because I was taken with the mini-series, and I ended up liking the book on its own merits. I kept that original copy for years and years, packing it into boxes and moving it from apartment to apartment, until finally at some point I lost track of it. Just recently I found it again at (where else?) my beloved Brattle Bookshop – and I don’t just mean ‘found a copy’ – I mean, of course, ‘found my copy,’ complete with pages of dog-sketches tucked into the back. I’ll try a little harder to hold onto it this time.

Mystery Monday: By My Hand!

mystery monday header

Our book today is By My Hand, the new Commissario Ricciardi mystery by Maurizio DeGiovanni – a richly textured and enormously enjoyable series starring a morose young police detective in 1930s Naples who, since his childhood, has had a gift – or, from his own viewpoint, suffered under a curse – that helps him in his job solving murders but tortures him in the process:

I see the dead. On every street corner, at every window, I see the dead. I see them as they were when they died their violent deaths, their bodies ravaged, blood pouring, bones jutting out from their torn flesh. I see suicides, murder victims, those who were run over by carriages, those who drowned in the sea. I see them, and I hear them obsessively repeating the last obtuse thought of their broken lives. I see them, until they dissolve into thin air, to find a peace that may or may not exist. I don’t know where. And I feel their immense pain at abandoning love, for all time.

By the time this latest novel, the fifth in the series, opens, Ricciardi’s police team know his routines well: at any murder scene, his men form a cordon and let their Layout 1boss enter first alone. They don’t know the reason for this (Ricciardi keeps his baleful secret to himself), but they know the results, the uncanny intuitive leaps their leader seems able to make after leaving any crime scene.

The scene in this book is typically brutal: a man and woman savagely hacked to death in bed in a seaside apartment building, the dead woman forlornly repeating Hat and gloves? and the man saying I don’t owe a thing, not a thing. Ricciardi is faced in these pages not only with the task of untangling these necessarily cryptic final utterances (as usual, the author does a clever and in this case touchingly ironic job of bringing the crime’s resolution back to the words Ricciardi initially hears from the dead) but also with his complex feelings for his neighbor Enrica, a wonderfully-drawn character who worriedly attended the detective’s bedside after the near-fatal car wreck that ended the last book but who has, since then, withdrawn from even the very tenuous connection she had with him – loading just a little more heartache onto our somber hero. She’s even closed the window through which Ricciardi used to watch her go about life in her own apartment, observing her as though she were yet another ghost in his life:

He missed finding in the serenity of her movements – as she made dinner for her parents and siblings, or read or cleared the table, listened to music or tutored children at home – a haven from the blood and sorrow that assailed him at every street corner, a respite from the pain that serenaded him, and him alone, with its horrible song.

As I’ve enthused on a couple of occasions now (here and here), this is an absolutely terrific series, the jewel of Europa Editions’ superb line of original paperbacks. And new readers can easily jump in at any point – and so they should!

The August 2014 Boston Public Library Book Sale!

My last experience with the every-other-month Boston Public Library books sale was so pleasing – not just the sight of lots of enthusiastic young people eagerly rainy booksalebrowsing the books but also a near-complete paperback set of Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent series of Aubrey/Maturin novels – that I hardly hesitated this morning to make the short trip through Boston’s choking, swampish humidity to the dear old McKim building. I didn’t go to the same location inside, alas: the book sale has been moved from its spacious quarters downstairs to the third-floor Charlotte Cushman Room (under the gorgeous, recently-restored Sargent murals). So I climbed the stairs I’ve climbed so many innumerable times, revolving in my head the dimensions of the Charlotte Cushman Room in my mind’s eye, trying to figure out how the library’s sale could possibly fit in its much smaller confines.

The answer? Horribly. The BPL’s staff did everything they could with the space they had, but even so, the city’s book-lovers seeking bargains were bpl sale 1packed into the hot, humid room like sardines in a can, and simply browsing the shelves I found myself saying “pardon me” more times in one hour than Richard Nixon did on the phone with Gerry Ford.

And this time around, I found no finds comparable to that Aubrey/Maturin set (there was just such a set, this time of Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series, but that series has never really grabbed me – I was hoping for the whole run of “Flashman” books, or perhaps the Cairo Trilogy, but no such luck), but even so, I easily managed to fill the crook of my arm with goodies:

Tricked and Trapped, two mass-market fantasy novels by the delightful Kevin Hearne, both from 2012 and starring his himbo action hero, two-thousand-year-old Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, who has modern-day adventures in sorcery and sexual innuendo much in the nature of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” These “Iron Druid” books are extremely enjoyable candy-reading, and their general tone is captured well in the dying bpl sale 3advice O’Sullivan’s father imparts to his sun millennia ago: “A man’s supposed to shit himself after he dies, son, not before. Try to remember that, lad, so that when your time comes, you won’t make a right girly mess of it. Now fuck off an go play in the bog.”

Also fiendishly enjoyable but far more elegant is Rose Macaulay’s 1935 collection of spirited little squibs, collected into one of those little miscellaneous nonfiction titles I always seek in order to give as sure-fired modern library kimgifts. Personal Pleasures features little meditations on bed (both “Getting Into It” and “Not Getting Out of It”), armchairs, flattery, fire engines, shopping, traveling, and of course reading. This collection includes perfect little classics like “Christmas Morning” and “Booksellers’ Catalogues,” and it’s always a joy to find, in large part for the delicious anticipation of finding some new recipient for it. Every reader should have a copy of this book – but then, every reader should have all of Rose Macaulay’s books. That she’s only known in pretentious hip-lit circles for the first line of one novel of hers is an intellectual scandal.

Almost lost amidst the trade paperbacks was Alan Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel The Spell, but its setting hardly matters, since this book is always just about being lost, sandwiched as it is (along with the not-quite-as-good The Folding Star) between this author’s meteoric debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, and his incredibly good two latest novels, The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. I’ve had copies of The Spell a handful of times over the years and always managed either to lose them or give them away, so it’s always a pleasure to find a copy in some narrow crack of of some book-sale. There’s always at least a few gay themes running through Hollinghurst’s novels, but The Spell is the last of his novels that’s specifically about being gay, and all four of its main characters are the perfect Hollinghurst combination of archetype and the spell tpindividual. I’ll probably re-read the book tonight, and this time, I think I’ll keep it; young gay men can, after all, find their way to the local library just like plain folks.

personal pleasures tpThe Spell has an arresting cover in its Penguin US paperback, and it was an equally-arresting cover that caught my eye for the Modern Library edition of Rudyard Kipling’s grotesquely overpraised 1901 novel Kim, which shows a young man silhouetted by blazing sunlight in an ornate doorway. It was just a bonus that I found this volume had an Introduction by Pankaj Mishra, who at least pays the book the compliment of warning readers that it’s not a particularly happy reading experience:

To read the novel now is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy’s journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man’s world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for him the anguish of abandoning his childhood.

one gallant rushFar more enjoyable to read – though even more tragic in effect – is the next book I got, Peter Burcard’s 1965 book about Robert Gould Shaw, the handsome, charismatic 25-year-old who led the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to its death under the batteries of Fort Wagner outside Charlestown in 1863. Burchard (who was, like Hearne, a hell of a likeable guy) tells the whole story of Shaw’s short life, from his life and works of august saint gaudensboyhood on Staten Island to his meeting with Abraham Lincoln and his sight of battle in the Shenandoah – and tells it all with such lean and poetic prose that you won’t want to stop reading (I can make the same recommendation for Russell Duncan’s 1992 collection of Shaw’s letters, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find that at the BPL)(and, needless to say, my own original copy is long gone). Thousands of rude tourists tramp up Boston Common every steaming-hot summer to look at the magnificent bronze relief of Shaw and his regiment by Augustus Saint Gaudens; finding this wonderful little volume made me want to tramp up the Common again myself to look at the Shaw Memorial (I’ll do it on Monday on my way to the Atheneum, if that isn’t too unbearably Boston a combination).

By a neat coincidence, One Gallant Rush at the book sale led me next to Burke Wilkinson’s fantastic 1985 biography of Saint Gaudens, which I read and loved all those years ago and tremendously enjoyed. I’ve been a fan of Saint Gaudens for a very long time and consider him one of the greatest sculptors since the Italian Renaissance. I’ve marvelled at his statue of a standing, brooding Lincoln in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and I intentionally sought the lady elizabeth uk tpout his Hiawatha statue in Philadelphia, and many times, in bright daylight and warm, sad rain, I’ve stood in awe of his memorial statue to Clover Adams in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. In all of those moments (and plenty of others; Saint Gaudens did lots of work in his career), I’ve found myself sharing the thought that Charles McKim (who designed the library in which I found Wilkinson’s book) had when he first learned that his old friend had died. He wandered into the Church of Saint Giles in Edinburgh and stood looking at Saint Gaudens’ bas-relief of Robert Louis Stevenson:

The pilgrimage there was the nearest I could come to him, but it was a comfort to me to be able to visit the church and to see his great work constantly surrounded by the public, who did not even known the name of the sculptor.

The gulf between him and the next best man in his art will long remain unfilled.

It was great to find The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens and thereby get another chance to read it, and I got a similar second chance with the next book, historian Alison Weir’s historical novel The Lady Elizabeth, which I read (and reviewed, of course, in my rollicking-good-fun “Year with the Tudors” for Open Letters) back in 2008 and liked quite a bit more than I’ve ever liked any of Weir’s nonfiction. I didn’t keep that original volume I world enough and time hcread and reviewed, and that’s just as well, since the copy I found today was even more squarely in my sweet spot than that long-lost original, because it’s a UK paperback, and I have a weird little fascination with UK paperbacks. Their trade editions are bigger than the UK counterparts of the same titles, and because their print-runs are gigantically smaller, the thickness of their paper and binding can be commensurately greater – they have a marvellous heft that their Amerian counsins almost always lack. I not only don’t remember how I lost my original copy of The Lady Elizabeth but I also never mourned for the loss, whereas this paperback will go onto my permanent shelf of Tudor fiction (until it mysteriously disappears, that is).

The last goodie I took home from the BPL today was Nicholas Murray’s 1999 biography of 17th-century lyric poet Andrew Marvell, World Enough and Time, in which Murray does a first-rate job of not only analyzing Marvell’s writings but also of filling in the many, many details of Marvell’s life that skimmers of the Oxford Book of English Verse are likely not to know. In short, Murray gives us an intensely political life of Marvell, the Royalist bpl book sale august 2014sympathizer and satiric genius who was also an MP for Hull for a quarter of a century. I of course eagerly gobbled up Murray’s book fifteen years ago when it first arrived at the bookstore, and I enjoyed it enough to wish it were twice as long. Even so, it disappeared from my collection (in this case probably not mysteriously – it was probably lost in the fire of 2004 where I lost 99 percent of the biographies I then owned), so I’m glad to have it back.

I might have found other choice items (I particulary neglected the paperback romance section, alas), but after a bit less than an hour, the airless heat and closeness of the room finally got to me, so I wiped my brow, paid my pittance, and lugged my books back to the apartment, where I found two over-warm old dogs peacefully sleeping. I took them for a little stroll, then we all cuddled into my tiny book-filled little monk’s cell and basked in air conditioning for a couple of hours, where they slept soundly and I glommed over my new books.

The next BPL book-sale is the first weekend in October, when it might be a bit cooler and drier. I’ll certainly plan on being there – who’ll join me?

Saladin!

saladin coverOur book today is Saladin, the great 2008 biography by Director of Research at Paris’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Anne-Marie Edde, now at last available in a sturdy paperback in an English-language translation by Jane Marie Todd. And although six years is a disgracefully long gap between French intellectual curiosity and American intellectual curiosity, the book’s appearance is a happy occasion nonetheless. Saladin, the powerful and oddly charismatic 12th century Kurdish Muslim who founded a dynasty, shone with brilliance on a dozen battlefields, and, most famously in the West, beat the Europeans of the Third Crusade and yet showed them more of what they themselves called “Christian mercy” than they ever showed to the Muslims they fought.

“The actions by which he distinguished himself are relatively well known, the individual less so,” Edde quite accurately writes. “In Saladin’s case, the difficulty of grasping his personality is amplified by the success of his legend.” That legend found expression in countless romances and poems, a handful of national delusions (it hardly escaped Saddam Hussein’s notice, for instance, that he and Saladin shared the same home town), and dozens of English-language biographies in the last century alone. Like most of the rest of those biographers, Edde has to spend a little preliminary energy dealing with that outsized legend:

His name is usually associated with the Crusades, with chivalry and courtliness, generosity and respect for one’s foes. His image, portrayed since the Middle Ages in various chivalrous romances and chansons de geste, has continued to evolve in conjunction with the historical circumstances. During the Age of Enlightenment, authors such as Voltaire and Gotthold Lessing depicted him as an enlightened sovereign, tolerant and open to all religions. Even today, he is probably the only Muslim ruler in history whom Hollywood studios could imagine casting as a hero.

In greater detail and with more disgressive curiosity than any recent Saladin biographer, Edde looks at the whole of Saladin’s life and legacy, lucy reads saladinscraping away as much of the accretions of legend and embellishment that has grown around the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and she concentrates very refreshingly not on Saladin’s clashes with Richard the Lionheart but rather on his constant manuevering to maintain power against threats from his own tenuous alliances. The result is a biography that feels broader and more true than any previous Western Saladin biography, constantly revivified by Edde’s determined efforts at balance:

It would be futile, however, to seek behind that bombastic rhetoric any real ambition to extend the empire from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic, or any desire to obliterate all trace of Christianity. Saladin’s actions on the ground, his clearly displayed priorities – to reunify the Muslim Middle East and drive out the Franks – and the measures he took to allow non-Muslims from his territories to live in peace are proof of that.

Lag-time or no, it’s very nice indeed to add this big, learned biography to 2014′s shelf.

The High Price in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

 

… and we’re not talking about cover prices, although they’re expensive enough (it really does make palm-to-forehead sense to subscribe to any magazine you regularly read). No, the real price for reading a lot of the Penny Press is the garbage you confront on your way to reading the good stuff. This is true in the sports-and-healthy living magazines like Men’s Journal, which are so choked with tobacco ads that you practically need a face mask to read them, and it’s true of the glossy fashion magazines like GQ and Esquire, which bombard you with perfumed pages and ads for $10,000 wrist-watches before letting you pass on to first-rate fiction and feature writing.

And it’s nowhere more true than the political magazines, which try to pad out their partisan screeds in the front half of the magazine with well-commissioned book reviews in the back half of the magazine.

The July 21 issue of National Review is a good case-in-point. Since I’ve been reading the magazine for years, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the opening pages, so I turned right away to the book reviews in the back.

I was amply rewarded, as I always am. There was Joseph Postell writing very intelligently about F. H. Buckley’s thought-provoking book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. And there was Ryan Cole, turning in a smart but far too lenient review of Fierce Patriot, Robert O’Connell’s smart but far too lenient biography of William Tecumseh Sherman. True, the most Michael Bishop could do with Lawrence James’s bloviating Churchill and Empire was bloviate a bit more, but that was a small inconvenience when laid aside John Bolton’s thunderous take-down of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. Like the rest of the people in the world, I winced when Bolton was made U.S. representative to the United Nations, since the man is a blowhard and a bit of a blockhead, but lord knows, those things don’t disqualify anybody from being a book reviewer! He lays into Clinton’s book with gusto, declaring that the book is all the more unimpressive for being so well-vetted:

Her defenses in the book are the best that years of political-spin strategizing and word massaging could produce. None of the arguments presented there will improve with time, so it is significant how little there is in Hard Choices to support a second Clinton presidency, based on Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state.

It’s naturally that tenure – and the Benghazi attack that will forever be its signature – that draws Bolton’s most personal ire, especially when he’s contemplating the national reviewfact that Clinton left her office right before the thick of it:

This is stunning. I have worked for six secretaries of state, very different in background, style, and demeanor. I am convinced none of them would have gone home that evening. But Hillary did.

So yes, the back half of the magazine pulled its weight as always – but dear God, the price to be paid was steep this time around! I refer of course to Charles Cooke’s cover piece on Neil de Grasse Tyson and “America’s nerd problem.” I’ve read a lot of vile nonsense in National Review over the years, but this piece goes in the Hall of Fame.

The piece’s argument – such as it is – boils down to: real Muricans don’t need no fancy thinkers to get the job done. In complaining about the “extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States,” Cooke starts by singling out every public figure who’s ever finished a sentence on camera without shouting and then flailingly broadens his scope to include – well:

One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox‘s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman, the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and morel precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.

I don’t know which is worse here, the schoolyard-bully (and Maoist, with his “Cultural Revolution” street thugs beating up anybody with an education) taunting about wearing glasses or the patently obvious fact that in Cooke’s context, “babbling” about statistics is the same thing as consulting statistics. At a time when the modern world has never been more complex or faster-moving, Cooke’s ridiculous essay is a proud, cornpone rallying-call for people to stop thinking and go with their gut – it’s an embarrassment, and none of Cooke’s editors should have let it through into print.

Yet they did, and they let worse through as well. Cooke saves his most repulsive rhetoric for Tyson himself, and because he and his editors know National Review shares newsstand space with publications not still ideologically mired in the South Carolina 1950s, he has to resort to the kind of oily code-speak his kind always use when they’re not 100 % sure of their audience:

The movement’s king, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has formal scientific training, certainly, as do a handful of others who have become celebrated by the crowd. But this is not why he is useful. He is useful because he can be deployed as a cudgel and an emblem in argument – pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.

I wonder what “sort of person” that would be? Astrophysicist? Harvard graduate? Or might it be something a bit more innate? Might that be why Cooke, who has just enough technical knowledge to turn on a light switch, refers to Tyson’s multiple degrees, honorary degrees, peer-reviewed articles, and books as “formal scientific training, certainly”? Might it be why he dusts off some of the most hoary racist lingo in referring to uppity Negroes as mere “useful” tools of … well, it’s not hard to guess who, right? It never is, with this kind of rhetorical filth.

I know, I know – I shouldn’t have read it. I should have known better and read only the back half of the magazine. But the waste of doing that irks me, since I paid for the whole thing. But isn’t that just the way with my kind? You know, the kind who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.

The Atheneum Centenary!

the atheneum centenaryOur book today is a bit of a specialty item, I readily admit: it’s the sturdy volume commissioned and printed in order to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the venerable Boston Atheneum, Boston’s great private library, and right away we’re on squishy ground, since the long and torturous history of the Atheneum could admit of half a dozen founding moments.

The date chosen by this present volume, The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum, is 1807, the year the Atheneum was formally incorporated in the spring in Scollay’s Buildings, roughly were Scollay Square would hannah adamsdevelop a century later (and which was unconscionably bulldozed and paved over in 1962 to make way for the monstrosity that is the current Boston City Hall). It was in the spring of 1807 that the Atheneum’s five trustees, William Emerson, John Thornton Kirkland, Peter Oxenbridge Thatcher, William Smith Shaw, and Arthur Maynard Walter, took over what had been the dear old Anthology Society and made what had been a rambling and ad hoc affair into something regular and official.

The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum takes that 1807 date as the essential birthday (disregarding the half-dozen earlier premises and collections, a disturbing number of which met their end in blazing infernos), and in 1907 its authors could write very stirringly (if ornately, in the orotund style of the day) of its special character:

It is in no sense a private place, yet it has qualities of privacy as fine as those houses where the very fact of your reception is in itself a subtle pleasure. It is not a public place, where the whole world may jostle you until you wonder whether in some better world than this you may find yourself, if you are good here, among angels without elbows; yet it has the impersonal generosity of such publicity as makes your presence in its halls and alcoves a cordial matter of course.

james perkinsI’ve been a member of the Atheneum for a very long time, and although there’ve been whole years where I hardly darkened its doorstep once in twelve long months’ time, there’ve been other years when I could honestly say I needed the place, needed its tasteful Edwardian splendor, needed its respectful proximity to the Old Granary Burying Ground (watching cold winter rain fall on the grave of Samuel Adams), needed most of all the sacrosanct peace and quiet of its fifth floor.

And it’s fair to say that the time most closely chronicled in this volume – from roughly 1870 to 1900 or so – was the heyday of the place, “the most memorable centre of intellectual activity yet developed in English speaking America.” This wonderful old volume rattles off the famous names – most now forgotten – who helped to bolster the reputation of the place: dear old Hannah Adams in her bonnet, George Barrell george bemisEmerson, Francis Crowninshield, Nathaniel Bowditch, Thomas Wren Ward, Charles Eliot Norton, Francis Parkman, Lemuel Shaw, Edward Lowell, Samuel Gridley Howe, joyless Charles Francis Adams, handsome, generous young George Bemis (whose special connection, donated to the library, is detailed in these pages, although that bare listing can’t do much to suggest the bright light of the boy, the joy of knowing him), William Hickling Prescott, caustic Josiah Quincy (whose wicked humor glimmers in the portrait done of him by Gilbert Stuart that now hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, ignored by visitors even when it’s pointed out to them), and all the others, hundreds of scholars great and small making their way to 10 ½ the sumner staircaseBeacon Street with what Barrett Wendell here perfectly describes as “eager catholicity of taste.”

He sums it up nicely:

The Atheneum has never taught us to be critical; yet it has never suffered us to be smugly content. There is ineffable charm in the outlook from its quiet windows, on the old burying-ground where the Boston generation which Copley painted lies secure. Their gray stones – particularly in the warmth of summer when the grass springs about them and the trees grow rich with shade – bring us fantastic intimations that this world of ours springs from lucy nodding over atheneum centenarya root deep in ancestral New England soil. And we turn from this assurance of our fellowship with our fathers to the persistent voices of elder ages and of younger, whispering from the friendly array of books here within our very reach.

It’s an older and somewhat vanished Atheneum featured and celebrated in these pages – the hallmark of which was the grand, reverie-inducing Sumner staircase, which is long gone now (in fact, it’s depressing to realize, by now everybody who ever climbed those stairs is long gone as well). But the building is still there, and the tall windows of the upper floors still look down on the peace of the old burying-ground (and across now at an immense new Suffolk Law Library) – and there’s peace for the living, too, especially when they most need it.

A July Book-Haul!

spaulding book-haul, 12 July 2014The dog days of summer have settled into place (although it’s resolutely refusing to feel that way in the entire eastern half of North America), and all my young friends over on BookTube are happily ensconced in making their July book-videos – very much including the book “hauls” they somehow manage to take in despite lacking, most of them, anything resembling a vigorous bookstore culture where they happen to live (they’re devotees of The Book Depository and The Book Warehouse, these young BookTubers). As I’ve mentioned before, it gives one a yen to join the fun.

On a warm day in Boston recently, I took in a book-haul of my own – hardly surprising in its own right, since I do that practically every day when visiting my favorite orifice in the whole world, the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box. But this book-haul wasn’t the latest crop of forthcoming books sent from publishers – and it also wasn’t, mirabile dictu, the latest harvest from my beloved Brattle Bookshop. No, since Boston and I go back a very, very long time, I know every single nook and cranny where books can be found – including discarded books that would otherwise be boxed up and sent to the incinerator.

I recently snagged a full tote bag of such books, and they’ll constitute my Stevereads book-haul for July, starting off with that fixture of used bookstores, the fat little red mass market paperback of the collected short stories of John Cheever. This is an author who’s been growing on me for a decade now, and I’ve found myself re-reading especially this collection with a great deal of enjoyment. I have it, of course – this copy’s a double, because it’s a neat thing to give away.

Also in little mass market paperbacks are two stellar romances, A Courtesan’s Scandal by Julia London and Temptation and Surrender by Stephanie Laurens, two lavish modern Regencies that I remember liking very much the first time I read them – and that are both helped out considerably by the presence of a certain someone on their covers …

Next is Michelle Moran’s 2009 novel Cleopatra’s Daughter, about one of the children Cleopatra had with Marc Antony. I read it when it first came out and temptation insetremember considering it a fairly solid Roman historical novel, ripe for re-reading, especially since the price, as it were, was right.

Then there’s Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass, a baleful, horrifying classic of natural history writing the like of which you’ll never have read in your life. It’s all about the apocalyptic havoc animal-venom can wreak on the human body, and the long chapter on the Brown Recluse spider will be one of the most freezingly terrifying pieces of nonfiction you ever read. This one too is a double, of course, intended as a gift – provided the recipient is made of some fairly sturdy stuff.

Along the same lines as the Grice is Stephen Herrero’s classic Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, which is effectively a natural history of North American bears rather than something specifically danger-oriented. This heavily-illustrated volume covers just about everything – mating, life cycles, tracking, behavior, etc. – but it keeps coming back to its central subject: what happens when bears and humans interact, and how to stop those interactions from turning deadly. I owned a copy of the original edition of this book and found it fascinating, although I’ve also had my fair share of bear encounters in the wild and can counter-balance the book’s hopeful, ecological outlook with the simple observation that when it comes to frothing, ferocious engines of pure hate and destruction, the North American bear is second only to the North American moose. So a book like this can induce shivers.

Shivers of a very different kind with the next book, the mighty Helen Gardner edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, which is (with all due apologies to Rumpole of the Bailey!) the best edition of this timeless classic. Gardner couldn’t equal the sturdy Victorian beauty of the prose of her predecessor, Arthur Quiller-Couch, but she’s ten times the editor he is and very nearly ten times the scholar, and those are the qualities for this job. The edition I found the other day has a dreadful Giorgione cover illustration (that was dramatically fixed in the following edition), but it hardly matters: there’s an undeniable thrill to finding a volume like this – one of the English languages tiny handful of true ‘desert island books’ – in perfect condition, in a pile of discards nobody had the sense to want anymore.

The same certainly holds true for the next book in our haul, Wilton Barnhardt’s great, sudsy 2013 Southern novel Lookaway, Lookaway, in which a magnificently dysfunctional North Carolina family falls apart before the delighted reader’s eyes. I loved the book as soon as I read it, in an advance copy long before publication, and I loved it even more when I re-read it once I got the finished hardcover. I considered it one of the best novels of 2013, so it was a treat to find a free copy. I know exactly who’s getting it, and that’s a nice feeling too.

One of the features of a random haul like this is that it’ll almost always feature at least one book that you always meant to get around to and never did. For me, this time around, that book was Kevin Phillips’s Wealth and Democracy from 2002, but I confess, having been so ruinously bored by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I almost hesitated to pick up this book, so clearly a spiritual ancestor of the Piketty bore-fest. But I really liked Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor, and I feel certain that if Open Letters Monthly had existed back in 2002 (how did the world manage to scrape by without it?), I’d have requested this courtesan insetbook from the publisher and consumed it eagerly. Resolved then not to let Piketty trauma afflict me, I added this to my pile. I’ll report back what I thought of it.

I’ve already made plain what I thought of Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed: I loved it, considered it, too, one of the best novels of 2013 (much to my surprise, since this is an author who’s seldom pleased me in the past), and then promptly lost my copies (I had the ARC and the finished hardcover, both mysteriously vanished) – so it was very handy to find this paperback in the bin, especially since this is a prime example of the kind of book that reveals more of itself upon re-reading.

And speaking of re-reading! Hee. When I saw this neat little hardcover copy of The Return of the King, I couldn’t help myself – I grabbed it, even though I have one or two editions of the book already and have read it once or twice. And as inevitable as the sunrise, it was the first book from this haul that I read, thrilling again to the Siege of Gondor and Battle of Pelennor Fields, the madness of Denethor and the death of Theoden, and the long Appendices at the back that are in themselves so full of stories that they could easily spawn a thousand pieces of LOTR fan fiction. Granted, I could have enjoyed all those things by simply returning home and taking one of my other volumes of Return of the King off the shelf – but this one was right there! Hopelessly impulsive, I know.

Impulsive too the last book in our haul this time around, yet another novel from 2013, Julie Garwood’s Hotshot, a paper-thin but mindlessly entertaining modern-day romance in which a sexy resort owner falls in love all over again with the sexy FBI agent who was her childhood friend. The book has all the trappings of New York Times-ready contemporary romances: the female lead has a man’s name, the male lead has a ridiculously action-hero name, the writing consists almost entirely of clichés and idioms, and the plot, such as it is, turns on a mundane triviality. If Garwood weren’t such a practiced and snappy pacer (and if the cover didn’t feature a certain someone), the whole thing wouldn’t be worth picking up off a table, let alone reading. But she is, so I did.

And there you have it! A nice healthy July book-haul! It doesn’t reflect what came to the OLM Post Office box on Friday, or yesterday, but since Sunday is the one day of the week when I don’t traffic in books of any kind, it’ll do just fine for today.

 

 

Mystery Monday: Thus Was Adonis Murdered!

mystery monday header

Our book today is 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell, the pen name taken by Sarah Cockburn, the witty and delightful sister of thus was adonis coverfamed muckraking journalists Patrick, Alexander, and Andrew Cockburn. She was a London barrister in the eccentric Rumpole mode, and in the down-time from her busy legal profession, she wrote murder mysteries – of which Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first.

It’s also the first to feature Caudwell’s signature character, Professor Hilary Tamar, prickly, working-omniscient professor of Medieval law who also presides rather informally over an energetic and often hilarious group of young barristers who crack wise, mock each other, and, almost incidentally, solve crimes, with Professor Tamar’s help.

These spirited barristers seek that help – and they confer with each other – in large part through a series of long letters; this is that rarest of rare birds, an epistolary murder mystery. The book pre-dates the Internet Era, or else the device would be hopelessly twee – but as it is, Caudwell not only integrates it well into her tale but also uses it for full effect in perpetuating one of the little gimmicks of this and subsequent novels: we never learn the gender of Hilary Tamar (Caudwell herself had a long personal history of tilting at the sexist windmills of her day, which gives the gender-question trick a little poignancy – although not as much, one suspects, as its author might have thought).

Thus Was Adonis Murdered decamps from England and centers mainly around that always-reliable murder mystery destination, Venice. To Venice has gone young barrister Julia Larwood, a friend of our central group, and in Venice she becomes embroiled in a mystery when a tourist is found stabbed to death within incriminating proximity of a copy of the Finance Act Julia brought with her to Italy for some light bed-time reading. As quick as you can say ‘nothing doing around the office,’ our heroes are off to Venice to snoop around, being guided sometimes in spirit and sometimes in the flesh by Hilary Tamar, who, like Sherlock Holmes, routinely sees deeper into things than anybody else but who, unlike Holmes, is freely willing to admit when she can’t:

It does me no credit – save in showing how little this chronicle is written in any spirit of self-advertisement – to admit that even now I was unable to identify the murderer and the motive for the crime. All the essential evidence was available: except to confirm an hypothesis already virtually assured no further investigation should have been necessary. Certain of my colleagues in the world of Scholarship would perhaps not scruple to omit all reference to their subsequent enquiries, preferring to set forth immediately the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence and to veil in silence their own delay in reaching them. The true scholar, however, should disdain such paltering.

My old Dell paperback of Thus Was Adonis Murdered has an uncredited Edward Gorey cover illustration that doesn’t really fit the book (true, lucy reading sarah caudwellthere’s a gondola, but all the characters on the cover are looking at a prim purse-holding woman – a pretty clear indication that Gorey either thought or was told that “Hilary Tamar” was a prim purse-holding woman). The Penguin paperback edition’s cover was scarcely better, a clumsily cut-and-paste collage of typical Venice sights.

I wish I could tell you that the current paperback edition looks better, but there isn’t one – the mystery world has moved on from Sarah Caudwell and Hilary Tamar. This was no doubt made a bit easier by the fact that Caudwell died in 2000, having written only four of these intelligent and impeccable novels. Still, I’m happy to recommend them all – starting with this one.

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