Posts from December 2013

December 12th, 2013

Best Books of 2013: History!

History, too, was thriving in 2013, although I saw the usual reasons for concern – mainly two: the continued rise of imbecilic cardboard garbage calling itself history and increasingly mistaken as such even in respected venues, and the (connected, obviously?) decreasing historical competence among the average citizens of the Republic of Letters. In a word: dumbification. In a country where the heavily and ineptly ghostwritten pseudo-histories of TV comedian Bill O’Reilly can be phenomenal bestsellers, this downward trend is manifestly visible, but as in all previous years, so too in 2013, there is hope yet! I read well over a hundred works of genuine, searching, intelligent history this year (a great many of which were issued with little hope of profit by my beloved academic presses without which the intellectual landscape would be a barren mire) so many, in fact, that I had my usual agonizing hour choosing only ten of the very best:

the furies

10. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines (Bloomsbury Publishing) –   Martines’ lean, fast-paced book reminds its readers that the Renaissance era we thumbnail as a time of burgeoning artistic expression was also a time of unrelenting war; this was the most truly interesting book on the period I’ve read in years. You can read my full review here. 

the guns at last light

9. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt) – As great as the previous two volumes in Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy were, this third one stands far beyond them in its sheer narrative power as the author brings us into the heart of the Western Front of WWII. You can read my full review here.

lawrence in arabia

8. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Random House) – I was initially skeptical of Anderson’s approach here, as he lavishes hundreds of pages on lesser-known English and American players in the Middle East in and around the time of the Arab Revolt; I wondered how much weight could really be placed on characters T. E. Lawrence had only seen fit to mention in passing in his great Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But I was once again reminded that the storyteller makes the story, not vice versa: Anderson’s book is toweringly good, even though Lawrence still (and always?) steals the show. 

rebranding rule

7. Rebranding Rule by Kevin Sharpe (Yale University Press) – Shortly after I read this enormous and scholarly masterpiece, I was shocked to learn that Kevin Sharpe recently died – I’d actually been ready to send him an email praising the monumental achievement of this book. I can’t tell him how much I loved it, alas, but I can tell all of you: this account of the slow and subtle ways monarchy domesticated itself and adapted to its own powerlessness (in order to survive at all) is brilliant and utterly convincing. When taken as the capstone of a life’s work (all of Sharpe’s other books are equally good), it’s all the more impressive, although melancholy.

franco's crypt

6. Franco’s Crypt by Jeremy Treglown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – This artfully written examination of the long shadow cast on Spanish culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco doubles as very insightful look at what life under that shadow was actually like. Treglown’s approach is so elastic and all-encompassing that this book sometimes felt tricky to classify; the author is easily conversant with the history of Spain in the 20th century, but what he’s really doing here is tracing the soul of a cultural identity. The subject matter couldn’t interest me less (I suspect I’m not the only one for whom Hemingway spoiled Spain), but the book captivated me completely.

the genius of venice

5. The Genius of Venice by Dial Parrott (Rizzoli Ex Libris) – This beautifully-illustrated book (the straggling, pathetic remnant of last year’s mighty all-Venice list!) turned out to be something very different and very much better than I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be yet another smoothly impersonal art-and-architecture view of the Piazza San Marco, complete with the usual canned, freeze-dried chunks of Venetian history. But Parrott infuses his familiar subject with terrific energy and pathos; he tells the story of Venice’s unfolding social history as if it had never been told before and makes it all feel new. The result is a Venice book so good it doesn’t even need the gorgeous pictures that adorn it.

warsaw 1944

4. Warsaw 1944 by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The horrifying, utterly pitiless story of the Warsaw Uprising has been told many times before, but never to my memory better than this fat volume by the author of that wonderful feast of a book, Faust’s Metropolis. Richie has studied her subject down to the least historical document, and she fills these pages with dramatically-realized real characters – which makes the whole thing even more emphatically heartbreaking. 

the borgias cover

3. The Borgias by G. J. Meyer (Bantam) –  The second Italian Renaissance history on our list this time around, this spirited study by Meyer (whose World War I history A World Undone was fantastic, and whose one-volume history of the Tudors is mighty good too) takes a clear, revelatory new look at the era’s most notorious family – and finds nothing at all he was expecting to find. The resulting tone of smart, incredulous outrage that fills the book is extremely entertaining.  You can read my full review here.

the bully puplit

2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster) – The headlining subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest and best book is the personal and political rift between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that resulted, among other things, in the election of Woodrow Wilson as President. But the book’s other subject – the progressivism of the Roosevelt era and the tight-knit group of muckraking journalists who sharpened their rhetorical skills on the many corporate and social evils of the day – manages to be even more interesting. The combination of the two makes for a mighty involving book. You can read my full review here.

the days of god cover

1. Days of God by James Buchan (Simon & Schuster) – Buchan’s incredibly lively, incredibly thoughtful examination of the fundamentalist revolution that gripped Iran in 1979 and plunged the entire world into spasms of violent, unpredictable religious insanity from which it’s still suffering every day is outstanding on every level; not only has Buchan traced the actual roots and details of the revolution with painstaking care, but he’s written it all with passionate prose and a very old-fashioned sense of high dudgeon that make this the best history book of 2013.






May 21st, 2011

Comics! Superboy and the Legion – the Early Years!

It’s such an unassuming little thing, a slim new graphic novel collection of five individual comic books, published by DC Comics this week with no fanfare whatsoever. It’s an entirely no-frills production: no new Introduction, no new cover-art, no “P.S.” from one of the creators involved, revealing some behind-the-scenes secret, no page of rough pencil-sketch outlines from the artist. Instead, it’s just titled “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years,” and prospective readers are given no more help than that. Of course, 99 percent of those prospective readers will be that particularly obsessive subspecies of comic book reader known as ‘Legion Fans,’ so they’ll hardly need any help. And to Legion fans such as myself, this unassuming little volume is a cause for almost unmitigated joy. Not just because the whole thing is written by Paul Levitz, one of the three greatest Legion authors in the entire history of this extremely venerable comic book franchise – although Levitz’ presence here is certainly a wonderful thing; he has a feel for the interpersonal dynamics of the Legion’s many characters, and although his forte is the grand epic storyline (which he doesn’t do here), he’s almost equally fine with smaller tales like these.

No, the real cause for celebrating this volume is its mere existence. What a long and torturous road those poor Legion fans had to travel, to get to the simple beauty of this issue’s sex-bomb cover (Scott Clark and David Beaty team up to produce a lean and supple roster of original Legion characters who virtually drip with a sullen sensuality we haven’t seen since the infamous Dave Cockrum costume-redesigns of forty years ago)(and dead center is that most natural of all paradoxes: a super-sexy Superboy – not the non-threatening Walter Cronkite the adult Superman has become over the course of nearly a century, but just exactly what a corn-fed farmboy teen from Kansas might be if he were also the most powerful being on Earth … gone is the baby-fat of the Curt Swan/Kurt Schaffenberger Superboy from decades past – this Teen of Steel sports a coral-sharp eight-pack and an inscrutably hungry dead-eyed stare. No comics writer has ever written that Superboy, and that certainly includes Levitz in this collection!).

Long-time comics readers (or, for that matter, long-time Stevereads readers) will recall the source of the problem: “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the mega-event to start all mega-events, the continuity-reboot DC did some thirty years ago in which the entire fictional reality of all its characters was reset in an attempt to dump lots of cumbersome back-story and lure new readers. As a result of that reboot, Superman never adopted a “Superboy” identity as a teenager – as with the character’s earliest appearances in Action Comics, he took on the identity of Superman as an adult.

Legion fans felt like they’d been kicked in the knee. If Superman was never Superboy, where did that leave the Legion of Super-Heroes, that super-team of 30th century teens who looked to the historical legend of Superman as their inspiration and used their time-travel machine to enlist Superboy as one of their members? Legion fans had been reading “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes” stories for decades, and now, with a mere mini-series, DC was saying none of those stories ‘really’ happened.

Years passed, and other writers stepped in and monkeyed around with that clean new continuity. The Legion returned – a Legion without Superboy, or with substitute Superboys of one kind or another. Legion fans adapted as best they could, but it wasn’t easy: nothing was really the same as Superboy, the adventures of Superman when he was a boy. Gradually, very gradually, that “Crisis” revamp was inched back and back and back, until finally, at the end of some damn mega-event or other, the door was left open to the possibility that Superman HAD had adventures – in costume – when he was a teenager … and that maybe he’d been mind-blocked from remembering it, or some such thing. Legion fans forced themselves not to be picky: any way back to the glory days was fine by them.

2010 saw the final fulfilment of that dream – with a bittersweet twist. The “Legion of Three Worlds” mini-series established two things: first, that Superman had indeed donned the familiar costume as a teenager and had many adventures as Superboy with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and second, that the Legion then did the unthinkable: it grew up. The new ongoing Legion comic-book would feature that adult Legion, not the kids whose adventures fans had been following for decades.

But there was a silver lining: for a while, DC also resurrected “Adventure Comics” and used it to feature ‘lost’ tales of that younger, teen Legion. It’s five of those issues that are reprinted here: five stories featuring the original teen Legion in their original dorky costumes – with a teenage Clark Kent plucked from the 20th century and adventuring right alongside them as Superboy. The original formula, restored almost 100% complete, after an ill-advised series of detours now best forgotten (although true to Legion form, every one of those ill-advised detours spawned its own sub-cadre of fanatically devoted fans).

These new stories are fairly tame. There’s the obligatory retelling of the Legion’s origin, how the three founding members – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – spontaneously team up to save the life of galactic squillionaire R. J. Brande, who rewards them with a nifty clubhouse and a hefty bankroll as the brand-new Legion of Super-Heroes. There are well-done battle-issues featuring some solid artwork by Kevin Sharpe (whose Superboy is more the beefy-sexy high school football star than the slinky sex-droid of those covers) – and featuring a small portion of the Legion’s overwhelmingly gigantic cast of characters (including the usual scenes with Ultra Boy punching through the metal hulls of spaceships, even though such a thing should be impossible – Ultra Boy possesses an array of super-powers: super-speed, super-strength, super-invulnerability, etc. … but he can only use one power at a time. So if he were strong enough to rip apart metal, the very act of doing so would shred his hands … and if his hands were tough enough to withstand the force, his muscles wouldn’t be strong enough to exert it, and so on). To a Legion fan of long standing, the sight of these old familiar characters romping around in new, non-retooled stories is mighty damn pleasant.

These are fairly simple stories – no doubt intentionally kept that way by Levitz, who only drops small hints here and there of what he might do if the DC powers that be weren’t watching. For instance, in these five issues it’s pretty clear that the women of the Legion (and perhaps one or two of the men? Statistics suggest it, but so far no Legion boy has come out of the 31st century closet)(should that day ever come, the smart money would be on Element Lad)(although there was one wowser of a panel once, involving Brainiac 5) all view Superboy’s presence among them as a major historical turn-on … they’re forever hanging all over his broad shoulders and mussing his inky black hair. Levitz never delves into the extent to which Superboy’s Legion teammates might be simply using him – or the extent to which he knows it and maybe resents it. Those would make excellent ‘the early years’ stories to tell, but we may never see them, and with good reason: DC has made this mistake a couple of times before. There is no good way to have two ongoing Legion titles set in different time-periods of the Legion itself. ‘Lost’ stories of the early Legion never work – for the simple reason that they lack any kind of dramatic tension … we know the characters all live, we know the older Legion happens.

Instead, the approach DC should take is obvious, and for once they seem to be taking it: now that they’ve established the older, adult Legion as the ‘real’ or ‘definitive’ one, that Legion can be slowly, gradually ‘de-aged’ until it’s in roughly the same semi-eternal late-20s age-bracket as Superman and Batman, that wonderful limbo in which the characters have loads and loads of back-story (or, in Batman’s case, generations and generations of Robin) but never get any older themselves. A monthly Legion of Super-Heroes comic done right would be yet another dream come true, even though it wouldn’t feature Superboy.

Of course, in any graphic novel collection, you take the bad with the good. In order to re-live these delightful issues, I had to re-live the terrifying Eduardo Pansica panel in which a disguised Brainiac 5 not only is suddenly about eight years old but is also being creepily fondled by a sharkishly leering Ma Kent, causing the boy-Brainiac to have an obvious sexual reaction even his level-12 intellect can’t understand. Needless to say, such a travesty-panel hardly deserves the second shot at life it’s getting by being reprinted in this collection – but the rest of it compensates.

January 5th, 2011

The Noble Revolt!

Our book today is John Adamson’s 2007 tome The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I, another addition to our roster of very good very long books (it’s so long that one rather wimpy soul, upon seeing it, kept mechanically blurting out “It’s the longest book in the world!” over and over again)(but it’s not). It’s the natural follow-up to the Kevin Sharpe’s equally-massive, equally fantastic 1994 tome The Personal Rule of Charles I (Sharpe’s book is actually 100 pages longer, but don’t tell that to the aforementioned wimpy soul); both are about that most problematic of English monarchs, Charles I, a man so punctilious that he’d refuse to eat a meal if the place-settings were even slightly wrong, and a man who brought that ironclad sense of entitlement especially to his rule – and at one of the worst possible moments in English history.

Charles I had the misfortune to believe completely in the indivisible divine right of kings at just the time when large numbers of his subjects were beginning to feel real power for themselves. His great noblemen and merchant princes had long since begun to bridle at his thoroughly medieval views of what was due him, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that Charles himself was not a commanding presence – personally, he was far more fit to be a local deacon or perhaps an overweening schoolmaster than to be king; he was physically tiny, possessed of a shrill, high voice, and prone to mincing. Mentally, he was one of those sticklers-of-pointless-detail whose own friends often want to punch them in the face. Even his dogs preferred to take their food from someone less apt to make pointers on their chewing methods.

Little surprise, then, that Charles I tussled with his Parliament often, and the title of Sharpe’s enormous book refers to the King’s idea of a solution to that friction: his infamous period of ‘personal rule,’ where used sub rosa foreign loans to render himself free of Parliament’s financial support and so rule without them. Such an approach for a mightier king in mightier times, but a great many of the men in Charles’ Parliament not only wanted more of the power they’d begun to accrue to themselves, they wanted more of that power to be specifically over the King himself. Rudely, awkwardly, the idea of the figurehead monarch – an expression and relic of pomp, possessing little or no real power – was being born. The Stuarts were the last English kings to hold vast monarchical powers personally in their hands, and they naturally fought to keep it.

Adamson’s enormous book chronicles that fight in a minutely detailed virtually day-by-day fashion, and his prose is throughout so clear and forceful that, believe it or not, the reader is swept along. Adamson is perfectly aware of the larger societal forces at play over his vast canvas, but he never forgets that his is an intensely personal story – people always come first in his accounts, and he’s very talented at delineating them, as in the case of Thomas Wentworth, the much-maligned Earl of Strafford, when the anti-monarchy forces of Parliament were baying for his blood:

This outward confidence and good humour, a facade seemingly maintained with immense emotional and physical effort, had defined Strafford’s public performance from the moment the treason accusations had first been made. Although granted the favour of legal counsel to assist with the preparation of his case, a privilege usually denied to those accused of treason, Strafford’s command of law and factual detail was nevertheless formidable. Ignoring his physical infirmities (he had been suffering acutely from the stone since the previous spring), he brought the full force of his intelligence and his devastating powers of sarcasm to bear against his accusers. He mastered his brief and had a command of detail and a quickness of repartee that repeatedly confounded his slower-witted opponents. To cite but two examples: his retort to th chart that using soldiers to enforce decisions of the Irish Council amounted to ‘levying war against the king’ (a long-established treason) is characteristic of his style: ‘These be wonderful wars if we have no more war than such as three or four men are able to raise. By the grace of God, we shall not sleep very unquietly.’

Historians who can make politics this interesting are rarer than you might think – Adamson is to be commended all the more that he maintains the great tension of his story (whose famous outcome even most historical neophytes already know), shifting from broad-view to the specific personal details he clearly enjoys so much:

with the two Houses locked in immovable stalemate, it was becoming clear that the struggle for supremacy within Parliament would be determined not inside, but outside the Palace of Westminster; above all, by what happened on London’s streets. For those vying for power, violence and coercion had once again become an indispensable element of their political calculus.

When it came to control of the capital, Charles believed that he started with one pre-eminent advantage over his enemies: Sir Richard Gurney, the City’s fussy, elderly, but devoutly royalist Lord Mayor …

And because The Noble Revolt is so long, the reader gets to experience not only the momentousness of this unprecedented struggle but all its peaks and valleys, all the moments when the whole contest seemed to teeter on the edge of mob violence, or sudden unexpected reconciliation. It’s a prolonged, enormously complicated chess match between Charles I and the men in his three kingdoms who were gradually, almost unwillingly coming to realize that their efforts could have only one end result, and it certainly wasn’t Charles living in comfortable exile somewhere near the Hague.

I admit it: I absolutely delight in massive histories like this one (and Sharpe’s). I want a historian to do the gigantic amount of work necessary to make the past live again, the gigantic amount of work necessary to present the whole of their mammoth subject, not just the banner headlines. Adamson’s 200 pages of end-notes amply demonstrate that he’s just that kind of historian – they’re practically worth the price of admission all by themselves. In them, we see the infinite care he took in his researches:

I use the term ‘protege’ in the relatively strict sense of someone who received the protection of a peer, whether formally a member of the nobleman’s household or not. Thus, for example, Calybute Downinge was ‘protected’ by Warwick and allowed to reside for a time in his country seat, even though (so far as I have been able to establish) he was never formally one of the earl’s household chaplains.

How I’d love to see volumes this vast on a whole shelf of vital historical subjects! Every time one surfaces (and two very promising examples are expected later in 2011), I dive into it with avid joy – not only because I’m an enthusiastic fan of historical writing, but also for the reason that started off this whole epic digression: I love losing myself in a good book.