Monday, July 30, 2007

We've all been things we aren't anymore

A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following about Richard Aleas's first novel, Little Girl Lost (2004):
The novel ends with the protagonist—who in himself is the best part of the book to that point, a young detective whose inexperience leads him to make dangerous mistakes—making a morally unacceptable choice. He knows he's done wrong, but even so, neither he nor the novel seem to fully admit how wrong his decision is. It made me pull all the way back to questioning the author's ethics, and that's not where you want to leave a reader at the end of a mystery novel.

With his second novel Aleas lays those questions to rest. Songs of Innocence (2007) brings back Aleas's detective John Blake to reveal that not only does Aleas know how bad Blake's decision--to hand a murderer over to mobsters, who will brutally kill her--was, but that Blake knows as well, and that the knowledge has been preying on him for two years.

At the time of Little Girl Lost Blake was a English lit graduate school dropout who'd stumbled into a job as a private detective; his inexperience--which showed in rookie mistakes like his getting clobbered while distracted by his cell phone--put him somewhere between a real gumshoe and one of those ordinary saps so common to noir, the sort of guy who sees his first pistol when the femme fatal hands it to him and tells him who need shooting.

In Songs of Innocence, Aleas is more interested in what the title implies, the essential innocence that John Blake's namesake posited centuries ago as the opposite of experience. For despite the guilt that torments Blake, he remains an innocent, perpetually surprised by the darkness and depths of human life. It's not that he's always thinking the best of people--he has, after all, worked as a private detective--but that when he thinks the worst, it's almost never bad enough. Combined with his inexperience, that innocence is a volatile mix. He's innocent enough to believe that actions taken in good faith will have good outcomes, and he trusts his instincts too much, jumping to unsupported conclusions. In a violent world, those conclusions all too often lead to violence, the consequences of which are unpredictable, dangerous, and, like the consequences of Blake's long-ago bad decision from the first novel, irrevocable.

Songs of Innocence sets the stage with a magnificent opening line:
I was a private detective once. But then we've all been things we aren't anymore.
In large part because of his guilt over his role in the murderer's death in Little Girl Lost, Blake has left the agency he worked for in favor of a job as an administrative assistant for Columbia's writing program, a job that allows him to take writing classes on the side. His girlfriend, Dorrie, a fellow writing student and part-time escort, is dead, an apparent suicide--but Blake isn't convinced. He has been fighting suicidal depression himself, and they had a last-chance phone call pact; he can't believe she would have killed herself without at least telling him first.

So Blake begins doing what any bereaved lover with detective skills would do: he starts digging. He meets Dorrie's employers and customers, and soon he's diving deep into the world of New York prostitution, with all the gangsters and violence that come with it. He quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed, as if solving Dorrie's murder could still save her, and maybe even clear the stain of his earlier mistake as well; his intentions are noble, but he refuses to acknowledge that sometimes even the most dedicated knight can do nothing to right the wrongness of the world.

To make it worse, there are real questions surrounding Dorrie's death, and the more Blake investigates, the more he is trapped in them, with nothing to do but keep struggling. In scenes reminiscent of the fever dreams of Mark Smith's The Death of the Detective, he sinks lower and lower until he becomes a fugitive himself, huddled all day on a Central Park boulder, waiting for the welcoming anonymity of night so that he can recommence his investigation.

As Blake's mistakes--all committed in good faith, and several with horrible, jaw-dropping outcomes--pile up, it's hard to imagine how Aleas is going to extricate him. The consequences he's facing are too severe to be neatly escaped. That Aleas succeeds in bringing the novel to a satisfying close without denying either his characters or the reality they live in is impressive, and it sets Songs of Innocence well above the usual run of crime novels. I think it's the best book Hard Case Crime has published, and it has me really looking forward to Aleas's next book.


No real time to post today, so all I've got for you are a couple of descriptive lines that struck my eye recently.

The first, from Wilfrid Sheed's casual, anecdotal book about the creators of the American songbook, The House That George Built, with Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (2007) is deployed to help explain Irving Berlin's prickliness:
New York in the early twentieth century was less a melting pot than a chafing dish, and if Irving could seem abrasive in later years, it's worth remembering that he was rubbed raw himself at an impressionable age.

Here, also from The House That George Built, Sheed tells how Arthur Schwartz explained his writing of his lovely "Dancing in the Dark":
His partner Howard Dietz had greeted some life crisis or other with the repeated phrase, "What is life, but dancing in the dark?" "So," he said, "I dashed off the tune in twenty minutes." And I thought of the unusual soliloquy in the middle of that song ("What though love is old?/What though song is old?" etc.) and I asked it that only took twenty minutes, and Arthur conceded that it actually took three weeks.

And the, because a few weeks ago I promised you more from C. V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War, here's her description of Pope Urban VIII:
In so far as he stands out at all in Papal history, he stands out as a negative quality. Depressed, nervous, well-intentioned, he was not a bad man and he was not a bad pope. Perhaps he was scarcely a Pope at all. His fame with posterity rests on nothing that he did, but on the fact that Velaszquez painted him. He lived in the Vatican, played bowls in its magnificent garden, set his hand to Papal bulls and went through the religious duties of the Holy Father, but his political and private life were alike swamped by the activities of an ambitious sister-in-law, who used his position as a mounting stone for her social elevation and a missile in her personal quarrels. As for his being a "Holy Father" somebody unkindly commented, the very children ran away from him, "tant il etait effroyable a voir."

French readers, am I right that the closing phrase means more or less, "So much that it was appalling to see"?

Friday, July 27, 2007

From the Department of Almost But Not Quite

1 In recent weeks, Ed and his readers at the Dizzies have been discussing the persistence in literature of the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the snake that eats its own tail, a metaphor for circularity and infinity. I remembered that discussion late Wednesday night as I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and came across the following scene, which finds Luna Lovegood leading Harry into Ravenclaw's common room:
[Luna] knocked once [on the eagle-shaped door knocker], and in the silence it sounded to Harry like a cannon blast. At once the beak of the eagle opened, but instead of a bird's call, a soft, musical voice said, "Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?"

"Hmm . . . What do you think, Harry?" said Luna, looking thoughtful.

"What? Isn't there just a password?"

"Oh no, you've got to answer a question," said Luna.

"What if you get it wrong?"

"Well, you have to wait for somebody who gets it right," said Luna. "That way you learn, you see?"

"Yeah . . .Trouble is, we can't really afford to wait for anyone else, Luna."

"No, I see what you mean," said Luna seriously. "Well then, I think the answer is that a circle has no beginning."

"Well reasoned," said the voice, and the door swung open.

The phoenix or the flame? The head or the tail of the snake? An ouroboros in Harry Potter, almost . . . but not quite.

2 On the train and around the city the past week, I've seen dozens and dozen of people reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But I've also seen, just today, people reading Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Colleen McCullough's Fortune's Favorites, Anna Karenina, Walden, Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, Gregory Maguire's Wicked, The Turn of the Screw, and, as seems to be the case any time I get on the train, The Kite Runner.

So almost everyone's reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . but not quite.

3 In the introduction to his fascinating City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006), Vic Gatrell writes about a gentlewoman named Lady Worsley:
In 1782, nearly a dozen prints circulated in fashionable London that were not at all designed to trump her high standing and connections. Costing a shilling plain or two shillings coloured and exhibited in printshop windows, they were bought by the great if not the good in malice and delight.

In one, by the up-and-coming caricaturist, James Gillray, entitled Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, Exposing his Wifes Bottom--O Fye!, a man hoists another man on to his shoulders to allow the latter to peep through a bathhouse window at the naked Lady Worsley as she washes herself demurely. In bluff military fashion, the peeping man remarks to the other below: 'Charming view of the back settlements, Sr Richard.' 'Good lack! my lady,' her attending maid exclaims in alarm, 'the captn will see all for nothing.'

The print illustrated a scene that had been revealed during a suit Sir Richard Worsley filed against the captain referred to in the print, Captain Bissett, for "criminal conversation" with Lady Worsley. According to Gatrell:
The court heard that while Worsley was quartered in the military camp at Cox's Heath, Lady Worsley had often used the nearby bathhouse at Maidstone. On one occasion her husband had tapped on the bathhouse door, saying 'Bissett is going to get up to look at you.' Hoist Bissett up to the window Worsley duly did, for him to gaze on her nakedness.
Perhaps needless to say, given this revelation the court found Worsley's suit less than convincing and awarded him only a single shilling in damages for the adultery.

The story is similar to the famous tale told by Herodotus about Candaules, King of Lydia, and his friend Gyges:
Now this Candaules became enamoured of his own wife and therefore thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. One of the members of his personal guard, Gyges the son of Dascylus, was an especial favourite of his, and Candaules use to discuss his most important concerns with him; in particular, he used to keep praising his wife's appearance, because he thought she was so beautiful. Candaules was destined to come to a bad end, and so after a while he said to Gyges, 'Gyges, I don't think you believe what I tell you about my wife's looks--and it's true that people trust their ears less than their eyes--so I want you to find a way to see her naked.'
The proposal made Gyges extremely uncomfortable, but Candaules was his king, so he allowed Candaules to hide him in the queen's bedroom. A painting of the scene, below, features in Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings; his characters encounter the painting in Venice, which allows Powell to use the tale to highlight a pair of his favorite topics, sex and power.

{"Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed" by William Etty}

The queen discovered Gyges in her chambers and, ashamed, told him,
Gyges, there are now two paths before you: I can leave it up to you which one you choose to take. Either you can kill Candaules and have me and the kingdom of Lydia for your own, or you must die yourself right now, so that you will never again do exactly what Candaules wants you to do and see what you should not see. Yes, either her or you must die--either the one whose idea this was or the one who saw me naked when he had no right to do so.
Gyges was horrified, but he realized he was trapped. He opted for killing Candaules (for which the queen already had a suspiciously well-developed plan), took the throne, and reigned as King of Lydia for thirty-eight years.

The result of the revelation of Sir Richard and Lady Worsley's immodesty, on the other hand, was of much less consequence: public embarrassment, the creation and sale of a variety of satirical prints that they surely knew were hidden in the sideboards and bedsteads of their supposed friends, and the revelation, according to Horace Walpole, that Lady Worsley had "enjoyed the favours of thirty-four young men of the first quality."

The story of the Worsleys is almost an analogue for the story of Candaules and Gyges . . . but not quite.

4 I'll end with a passage I read on the train on the way home today, from Tolstoy's Hadji Murat, in which Tolstoy is writing about Tsar Nikolai I.

{Portrait by Franz Kruger of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, 1852}
The constant, clear, vile blatancy of the flattery of those around him had brought him to the point where he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer adapted his actions and words to reality, logic, or even to simple good sense, but was absolutely certain that all his instructions, no matter how senseless, unjust and mutually incompatible, became entirely sensible, just and mutually compatible simply because it was he that gave them.

I have to confess that it's only wishful thinking that lands this passage in the Department of Almost But Not Quite.

Sadly, there's no not quite about it: put that passage in one of Ron Suskind's books about the Bush administration and you'd never think it the slightest bit out of place.

I Capture the Castle

The past fortnight of Pottermania has made me extra-sensitive to questions of genre. Genre can be of great use as an aid to description and understanding of a book, but instead it often becomes prescriptive, limiting expectations for both a book's artistry and its potential audience. Most of the tut-tutting about how Harry Potter's popularity with adults is a sign of the apocalypse is tied to its being a children's series, and while that strain of criticism seems less prevalent this time around, with previous volumes a lot of commentators allowed that aspect of the series to obscure the undeniably cheering fact that the books' great popularity has led 8.5 million people--many of whom do not spend a lot of time talking or thinking about writing--into discussions of the elements of creative art, such as narrative structure and strategies, artistic intentions, and representation of character. (Michael Berube has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the Common Review about his son, who has Down Syndrome, learning about how stories work through reading Harry Potter.)

I wouldn't argue that the Harry Potter books aren't children's literature. Rowling is specifically writing for children (or young adults), and her structure, concerns, and approach, however creative and well executed, fit too neatly within the tradition for me to say otherwise--but I also don't care, because a genre classification has no power to limit the books' audience at this point. There's joy and excitement for readers of any age there, along with a singular (and fun) feeling of community that books, by their very nature as solitary objects of contemplation, generally don't provide.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948), on the other hand, I would argue could use the boost of not being regarded as a children's book--or at least not regarded solely as such. Marketing it that way makes sense: Dodie Smith is best-known for The One Hundred and One Dalmations, the book is told in the form of the journal of a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a decaying castle in rural 1930s England, and the publishers make extravagant use of praise for the book from J. K. Rowling. But at the same time that it is a novel in every way suitable for a smart teen or pre-teen reader, there is nothing about it that ought to limit it to that audience. Without disrupting the verisimilitude of her young narrator's perspective, Dodie Smith's perceptiveness and intelligent attention shine through, and though I Capture the Castle is a gentle book at heart, with little of the darkness of the world, there's at the same time a palpable sense of reality to it. Its gentleness and humor are not created through avoiding or denying life's dangers but through enthusiastically embracing the world as it is--imperfect, yet still able to take your breath away with its shimmering beauty. Smith is not talking down to anyone, and she's not limiting the insights her story can generate: she's simply showing us a young woman learning about herself, her family, and the differences that make us who we are.

The narrator, Cassandra, lives in genteel but actual poverty with her family in the ruined castle, which they rent from a family of landed gentry. Her volatile father is a writer who published a critically hailed avant-garde book (which comes across as a mix of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, the more fragmented portions of "The Waste Land," and, say, Finnegans Wake) when Cassandra was a toddler, but hasn't published a thing--or earned a shilling--since. The rest of her eccentric family consists of the teenage son of an old family servant, her younger brother, and her beloved older sister, as well as her stepmother, Topaz, a former model and artistic bohemian who is by turns silly, self-involved, dedicated, and kind. Topaz is the sort of character Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh might include in a party scene, though Smith presents her as a far more complicated figure than those two's passing mentions would allow. In a near-perfect isolation, sometimes glorious, sometimes constricting, the family ekes out a unique, cobbled-together existence, the roles of parent and child indistinct, the children without even a clear idea of how other people live. Like Iris Murdoch would later do in a couple of novels, Smith shows how the such unusual places can develop their own odd atmospheres, affecting and infecting the people living there; though the bonds such isolation forces can be glorious at times, the possibility that they will curdle and become malign is ever present.

As the novel opens, Cassandra's sister has reached her late teens and is beginning to despair of ever escaping the family's insularity and establishing a life of her own; life has established a pattern, and it seems unlikely ever to change. But suddenly change bursts upon the family in the form of the new heirs to the manor house, a pair of attractive young men who stumble into the castle one night while searching for their grand new home. (Another similarity, now that I think about it, to Murdoch: her novels are full of figures who enter established groups and disrupt them--though Smith's young men are essentially benign, while Murdoch's are almost always at least chaotic, if not demonic. I could certainly imagine Murdoch knowing and liking this book.) Like Austen heroines, the sisters spin dreams around the men, and those dreams begin the inevitable process of forever changing their seemingly changeless family life.

Through some luminously described scenes--a paired swim on a cool spring night around the six-hundred-year-old moat, an illicit late-night dance in the candlelit manor, a solstice bonfire--the girls fall in and out of love, the family's life is turned upside down, and Cassandra grows up. Like her sister, she welcomes the idea of escaping their poverty, but that escape inevitably brings a loosening of the family bonds as well. The book ultimately reminds us of the inevitability of change and the importance of accepting it--we can and should try to hold on to what is good, but there often comes a point when such efforts become false, and a healthy heart must learn the art of gracefully moving on. It's a hard lesson for anyone, let alone a teenager, and Smith presents Cassandra's acceptance of it with great subtlety and care.

Dodie Smith invests the Cassie and her language, as well as the other characters, with such evident warm love and empathy that I will confess to assuming that she had drawn them from her own childhood, though her Wikipedia entry gives no hint of a connection. I think that obvious love is another reason that I Capture the Castle gets pigeonholed as a children's book: a lot of people do read it when they're young, and that warmth resonates strongly, inspiring a deep devotion that we don't often develop for books we read as adults. So if you have smart, bookish children, by all means give them a copy--but be sure to find the time to read it yourself. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Noir, names, and hidden secrets

NEFF. Just don't let's start losing our heads.

PHYLLIS. It's not our heads. It's our nerve we're losing.

I don't really have time to write tonight, but it's late and my brain is still too busy kicking around ideas from the bike ride home to go to sleep. And following my recent post about books and movies in which I gave books the advantage in part because they can be read in parks, I feel like I need to admit to where I spent my evening: I was in the park, downtown, watching a movie. The Chicago Outdoor Film Festival, now in its eighth season, has become one of my favorite parts of a Chicago summer, and tonight, as you may have guessed from the still, was Double Indemnity (1944). The three lead performances, from Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, are magnificent, but the heart of the movie is Raymond Chandler's screenplay, adapted (with Billy Wilder) from James M. Cain's novel, which crackles and stings and leaves you gasping, astonished at the rhythm, force, and audacity of the dialogue.
PHYLLIS (standing up again). Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.

NEFF. Who?

PHYLLIS. My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?

NEFF. Sure, only I'm getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.

PHYLLIS. There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

NEFF. How fast was I going, officer?

PHYLLIS. I'd say about ninety.

NEFF. Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

PHYLLIS. Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

NEFF. Suppose it doesn't take.

PHYLLIS. Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

NEFF. Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

PHYLLIS. Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.

NEFF. That tears it.

And that name: Walter Neff. He was Walter Huff in Cain's novel, but the name was changed for the movie, and now it's perfect. The sound and the feel of it are just right for a guy who thinks just a little too highly of himself and is willing to be unscrupulous--but who is, ultimately, just another patsy in the hands of someone who instantly saw through him and had even fewer scruples than he did.

I was already thinking about names because while we sat waiting for dark, I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (I wasn't the only one: within ten yards of our blanket I counted half a dozen other people reading it--but that's nothing compared to what Julie Wilson at Seen Reading logged last Saturday in Toronto.) J. K. Rowling is very, very good with names: Fenrir Greyback, Albus Dumbledore, Mundungus Fletcher, Bellatrix Lestrange, Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and, of course, the best, Severus Snape. The names conjure the essence of each character in near-Dickensian fashion; they're fit to take their places with Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Lady Honoria Dedlock, and Ebeneezer Scrooge.

I'm now nearly two-thirds of the way through The Deathly Hallows, and what I found most striking about the first half or so was the pervasive sense that Rowling was going to somehow make use of every single incident and character from the first six books to resolve her long-running plot. It feels almost as if one could go back to the first books and, line by line, scene by scene, decode what's to come, the way typologists would read the Old Testament in search of prefigurations of the New Testament stories--as if there should be a reminder early on that you should be paying close attention, like the publishers of eccentric mystery novelist Harry Stephen Keeler used to insert midway through his books:
STOP! At this point all the characters have been presented. It should now be possible for you to solve the mystery. CAN YOU DO IT?

Thinking of Rowling's first six books as volumes of occluded signs and seemingly insignificant clues caused me to remember this passage from Alan Furst's Night Soldiers (1988), in which his protagonist, a former Soviet NKVD operative hiding in wartime Paris, gives a stark example of the paranoia bred by--and essential to--any double life:
As Khristo hurried to and from the kitchen, his mind wandered among the small, insignificant events of the past week. Simply, there were too many of them--he felt like a blind man in a room full of cobwebs. There was Dodin, the new lodger. The blind veteran in the Parc Monceau with an educated, cultured voice--wearing a corporal's tunic. Small things, ordinarily not worthy of notice. The death of Kerenyi. Sad, surely, and perhaps without meaning. The clumsiness of the gold theft. Ineptitude could be, he knew, an effective mask for intentions of great subtlety. He feared that something was gathering around him, strand by delicate strand, and that, when its presence was at last manifest, it would be one instant too late to run for freedom.

Which, in turn, reminded me of the following story, which I hadn't thought of for a good while.
From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl
Responsibility is difficult, wearing, neverending. Without care, it can lead to a fate like that of the Director of Messages in the following tale. In those days of increasing intrigue, messages flew between palace and battlefield, battlefield and palace with the inscrutability and foreboding of thunderheads. Everyone, it seemed, had reason to watch, the schemers and the schemed against, the progress of the many messengers on their fleet mounts. Those who pressed gold into the scarred hands of bandits for the kidnapping of messengers considered it their duty to the empire, the emperor, the prince, or even their own terrified hearts. As garrison after garrison was lost to ambush, the Emperor realized that the old methods of secreting messages were no longer sufficient. The messages sent in code were decoded, those inscribed in invisible ink shewn forth. The unfortunate courier whose message had been tattooed on his bare head, over which his russet hair had again been grown, was captured by bandits whose patron had read the ancient histories: his head, shaved, was cut from his shoulders and taken for inspection while his corpse was left as a meal for the vultures and a message for his companions.

Over time, the success of one sender of messages came to the emperor's attention: his messages were rarely intercepted, and, if intercepted, never comprehended. With the emperor's praises, he assumed the position of Director of Messages. His abilities were vast, equal to his responsibilities. To the army in the east, desperately needing orders, he sent a band of reinforcements. Spies, confused, discerned no message, but the garrison commander understood that the very number of the reinforcements was itself the message. In short order, the required actions had been taken. To the southern border towns the Director of Messages sent a mute juggler. On his journey, his luggage was rifled, his juggling balls stolen and studied at length--scraped and heated and cracked and finally burned. But the message got through, his inability to speak being all the information needed. A black African, a favorite of the Emperor's court, was a message; a halt beggar, tap-tapping his cane, another. The successful transfer of information translated to success in the campaign: the emperor's enemies were quashed.

But as intrigue subsided and the need for messages decreased, the fervor of the Director did not. He continued to encrypt even the simplest of messages in the most obscure and difficult fashion. The order for breakfast had to be interpreted from the hint of jasmine beneath the cook's window of a morning; the emperor's choice of wife for the night was conveyed by a single orange butterfly released in the inaccessible chamber of the ladies. The business of the palace, as might be expected, ground to a halt. Summoned before the emperor to provide an explanation, the Director could not bring himself to emerge from behind an sky-blue silk folding screen, from behind which emanated whistles and clicks and the rustling of rice paper. The emperor, as quick to anger as he had been to praise, flung a lighted torch at the screen, which burst into flames that licked the high ceiling of the chamber. Some would say that the short but intense conflagration was the Director's final message.

And with that, it's to bed. Sleep well.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A recipe for restless sleep

{Stacey: Let's read Chilling Ghost Stories!
Carson: How about we read Flowers instead?}

This is a new version of a longtime family favorite, guaranteed to produce a frothy mix of vaguely frustrating and disturbing dreams, full of shadowy characters, betrayals, and the low hum of constant danger.

Restless Sleep


1 spy novel, all but the last hundred pages read
1 breathlessly anticipated seventh volume of an unprecedentedly popular children's series
1 dry gin martini, up, with olive


Begin reading the remaining pages of SPY NOVEL in time to be finished by 9:30. Set aside and let rest for fifteen minutes (It can later be lent to one's father.). Prepare and drink MARTINI. When clock reads 10:00, settle into comfortable reading position and begin reading BREATHLESSLY ANTICIPATED CHILDREN'S BOOK. Read one hundred pages, or until clock says 11:00. Set book aside (Remainder can be enjoyed as leftovers for up to three days.). Sleep; dreams should follow apace.

As an adaptation of a family staple, this recipe is fairly forgiving--quantities and times need not be exact for you to achieve the desired result. In a pinch, substitutions can be allowed--I find that Luc Sante's Low Life, Mark Smith's The Death of the Detective, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, or Ecclesiastes work well in place of the spy novel, while the role of the children's book can be reasonably approximated by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the collected works of Charles Schulz, or, oddly enough, any of the novels of Haruki Murakami. There is no substitute for the martini.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

"You sound as if all we had to look forward to was being gobbled up."

{My nephew as Harry Potter. Photo by rocketlass}

As my annual family vacation followed a week that I began with two posts about children's books, and as Stacey and I were looking forward to capping the vacation with a midnight Harry Potter party in the company of our eight-year-old nephew, it probably comes as no surprise that I read some children's books during the trip.

No, I haven't read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet; from the moment just after midnight when we were handed it at the very pleasant Treehouse Books in Holland, Michigan, until 4:15 this morning, Stacey was buried in it. She says she stopped reading at 4:15 because
I started thinking about how very weird it is that we look at this set of little marks on a page, and they make words, and then those words make a story. That got very distracting, so I decided that meant it was time for bed.
Meanwhile, my mother, waking up at 3:00 and going to check that we'd all made it back from the bookstore, saw her and said,
A-ha. I thought so.

{Stacey as Nymphadora Tonks. Photo by rocketlass}

The children's books I read instead were older, and accompanied by considerably less hooplah. In the comments at The Dizzies last week, I weighed in on the side of Lloyd Alexander regarding the question of whether his Chronicles of Prydain are better than Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence--but I realized that my confidence was somewhat inappropriate, as I'd not read the Prydain books since childhood. So in the car on the way to the house we were renting for the week, I blazed through the first of the series, The Book of Three (1964).

I was surprised at how little of the plot I remembered, especially as so many of the characters remained so vivid. The more mysterious characters must have resonated with me most strongly as a boy, for they're the ones I remember most clearly. When Taran and Lord Gwydion were captured by the evil sorceress Achren, her terrifying seductiveness rushed back whole into my mind, as if I'd tapped a cobwebbed keg containing my actual memories of reading the book as a boy; her mix of femininity, ruthlessness, and power must have mightily addled my adolescent brains. Gurgi's appearance had a similar, if less powerful, effect, reminding me of how much I was entertained by him when I first read the books--though it has to be admitted that he's a character who wears better on pre-teens than on adults. He remains fun, but I now understand a bit better why the adults in the book get frustrated with his wheedling and yammering.

The one character whom I'd almost totally forgotten was the young princess, Eilonwy (Yet I remembered Taran clearly--evidence, should any have been needed, that I was not a preteen girl when I first read the book?). Not that I had forgotten her existence, or her role in the series--instead, I'd forgotten her essence: she's weird. She shares all her rambling thoughts (including her frank opinions--the headline for this post is from Eilonwy's mouth) and she makes odd leaps of logic and intuition. I don't remember quite how she develops in the following books--except that she retains her bravery while growing nicely into leadership--but in The Book of Three her most entertaining and endearing characteristic is her tendency to invent strange, yet apt metaphors. Here's a batch from throughout the book:
I know it isn't nice to vex people on purpose--it's like handing them a toad.

You can't just sit there like a fly in a jug.

[Petting this fawn] is lovely; it makes you feel all tingly, as if you were touching the wind.

You've been carrying that harp ever since I met you, and you've never once played it. That's like telling somebody you want to talk to them, and when they get ready to listen, you don't say anything.

It's silly to worry because you can't do something you simply can't do. That's worse than trying to make yourself taller by standing on your head.

I can't stand people who say, "I told you so." That's worse than somebody coming up and eating your dinner before you have a chance to sit down.

Other than recovering Eilonwy for me, what this reading has revealed is that The Book of Three, though great fun, isn't even in the same league as Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book of Susan Cooper's sequence. But one book is insufficient evidence by which to judge a whole series--Over Sea, Under Stone is by far Cooper's best book, while I remember the emotional power of the Prydain Chronicles growing along with Taran as he meets new people and spends more time with the ones we've met already. Before I can render a proper judgment, I'll have to reread the rest of the Prydain books, which I'll likely do over the next several months. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tomorrow (or possibly Monday), I'll write about the other children's book I read on vacation, which was a birthday gift from my friend Maggie, giver of impeccably chosen gifts: Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Movies and books

A very quick post today, because I'm leaving on vacation soon.

I found a link on my friend Joe Germuska's blog to an interesting piece at that contrasts the attitudes that movie people and book people (broadly defined as people who are involved in some way in those industries) have toward trash and its relationship to art. The writer is arguing that movie people have a much healthier relationship to crap, essentially accepting that there's a place for it and it can be fun; book people, in his view, are the opposite, always arguing for high art and totally ignoring or denigrating popular or genre fiction. He admits to making broad generalizations, and I do think the argument has some holes--failing, for example, to take full account of how seriously movie people take the pious crap that surfaces around Oscar time, while at the same time not making sufficient allowance for the marginal position of the book world in popular culture, and the possibly understandable defensiveness that provokes--but it did get me thinking, and it's definitely worth taking a look at.

I don't actually see that many movies, but not because I don't like them. It's more because seeing a movie takes some work and planning, and when I'm surrounded by books--having three or four on my person at any given moment--the effort of getting to a movie usually ends up seeming like too much.

I was thinking about that last week as I was reading a recent Hard Case Crime book, George Axelrod's Blackmailer (1958). Axelrod is best known as a screenwriter, author of The Manchurian Candidate and The Seven-Year Itch, among other screenplays. Perhaps not surprisingly, reading Blackmailer is a lot like watching a good thriller. In telling the story of a guy sucked into a double cross--though he can see it coming all the way--Axelrod relies almost exclusively on images and dialogue rather than introspection. You feel that all the book needs to turn into a movie is a screenplay formatting program. The plot clips along satisfyingly, with plenty of twists and surprises, and Axelrod throws in some interesting observations on the craft of acting (and, oddly enough, on the relationship between crap and art in movies). In two hours, I was done and satisfied--and, because it was a book rather than a movie, I had spent the whole time in the park. How can you beat that?

Speaking of Hard Case Crime, I've packed the past few months of their books in my vacation bag--they're perfect for this trip because they're reliably good, they're portable, and when I'm done I can lend them to my father. I've supplemented those with a half-dozen other books of various sorts, and now we're ready to go. I'll be away from the blog for a bit; enjoy whatever you're reading until I get back.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Some passing thoughts on a passing state, that of ecstatic joy

I've had Van Morrison on the brain lately, because I've spent the past few weeks listening to him a lot and because earlier this week Ed at the Dizzies pointed out a blog where Van fan Patrick Maginty is writing about Van's 36 albums, from his least- to his most-favorite. Ed also sent me to this cartoon (which is now my second-favorite music cartoon--my favorite is here), which relates cartoonist Mr. Saturnhead's dream that his great new job was to buy 44 Van Morrison albums--none of which exist in reality. The titles of the few that he displays in the comic are hilarious dead ringers for actual Van titles. Now I'm kind of surprised that I never tried imagining unmade Van albums in my days of being a superfan--when the password for my first e-mail account was G.Ivan1945. Trying to hit just the right note of lyricism verging on pretentiousness would have been a fun exercise.

As I waited for the train this morning, I was listening to Van's "So Quiet in Here". A gorgeous, unexpectedly cool summer day was just getting underway, and I started thinking about how good Van is at writing about sheer joy; he's the only person I know who would write a song called "Days Like This" that is about good days. To my mind he's rivaled in pop music only by maybe Prince and Stevie Wonder (oh, and I suppose Little Richard) in writing happy songs--which is harder than it would seem. The opening of Anna Karenina may have become a cliche, but at the base of Tolstoy's statement about happy families is a real truth. Joy so often occurs in the absence of conflict, while art thrives on the creation, depiction, and resolution of conflict. To write about the ecstatic state outside the confines of mystical religion is difficult, and Van Morrison, over forty years, has frequently made it look easy.

My commuting companion the past few days has been Tolstoy's short early novel, The Cossacks (1863), and as I settled back into it this morning, it occurred to me that Tolstoy, too, is one of the great depictors of surpassing joy in art. The thought came to me as I read the following scene, in which Olenin, a young Russian nobleman who has traded his dissipated Moscow life for service in the Caucasus, achieves a near mystical state of joy on a hunting trip deep in the forest:
This cloud of insects went so well with this wild, insanely lavish vegetation, with the forest's countless animals and birds, the dark verdure, the hot, aromatic air, the rivulets of murky water seeping out of the Terek and gurgling somewhere beneath overhanging leaves, that Olenin found pleasant what he had previously found unbearable. He walked around the place where they had seen the stag the day before and, not finding anything, decided to rest a little. The sun stood high above the forest, and whenever he came upon a path or clearing, it relentlessly cast its harsh rays on his head and back. The seven pheasants hanging from his belt weighed him down painfully. He looked for the track the stag had left the day before, crawled beneath the bush into the thicket where its lair was, and lay down. He looked at the dark foliage around him, at the damp spot where the animal had lain, at yesterday's dung, the stag's knee marks, the torn-up clump of black earth, and at his own footprints from the day before. He felt cool and comfortable. He thought of nothing, desired nothing. Suddenly he was gripped by such a strange feeling of groundless joy and love for everything that, in a habit he had from childhood, he began crossing himself and expressing his thankfulness.

Often in Tolstoy, the happiest states are triggered by physical conditions--think of Levin in Anna Karenina bursting with joy despite aching in every muscle after a day of reaping with his kulaks. But whereas Van Morrison is writing pop songs, which at their best create and sustain a single mood for their duration, Tolstoy's writing novels, so he almost always takes the next step. These states, he reminds us--though as they happen may feel as if they are, in their essence, eternal--are often followed closely by states of lost purpose, self-reproach, or despair. Levin believes he's found his way forward in life, but the reader knows that his joy is temporary, that the life of a kulak will not satisfy him. Or, in a different vein, there's Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, whose exuberant, overflowing love of life (and its representatives, other people) is almost impossible to dampen--yet dampened it is, time and again, when Stepan Arkadyevitch is made aware of the deeply felt pain he's caused others, primarily his wife, Dolly, through his ceaseless carousing. He may not ever quite understand why his actions have that effect--and he's sure to thoughtlessly, accidentally inflict the same pain sometime in the future--but when the undeniable reality of a crying Dolly is before his eyes, even he plunges, at least for a while, into a sort of despair.

That understanding of the continuum--or would pendulum be better?--between joy and despair is crucial to Tolstoy's art, and it also helps explain, I think, the brutal asceticism of his later life.

The sense one gets from reading about Tolstoy the man, with his works serving as a backdrop, is that he didn't trust (or maybe even feared) strong emotion; a religiously based asceticism forces a tamping down of the emotions while simultaneously allowing one to attribute a religious or mystical cause to the emotions one does feel. That Tolstoy's asceticism was cruel to his family, that it further damaged an already fractious marriage, that it was on its face absurd in the context of his wealth--none of that mattered when set against the sense of control and purpose it delivered.

Van Morrison, I think, though of course the lesser artist (who isn't a lesser artist than Tolstoy?), has the better solution--I can't imagine anyone suggesting that the chubby lover of late-night wine and craic has any ascetic tendencies. Instead, he leavens his ecstasies with a near-Buddhist argument against the self, an effort to feel oneself to be, at one's heights, a connected, minuscule part of a larger, significant whole. Instead of a closing of the self, as Tolstoy chose, it's viewed as the ultimate opening of the self, an embrace of the universe that, at base, is little different from what Tolstoy ascribes to Olenin in the forest. Tolstoy could write about those states, but he couldn't live within them; maybe Van Morrison can't, either--most likely none of us can--but that's at least where he's aiming. I don't know Van, so I can't say for sure that he's happy--but I'd be willing to wager that he has been happier than Tolstoy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Thirty Years War

Last week I reiterated my preference for histories written with an eye toward the personalities of its subjects, the odd details that bring historical figures to life. As a dilettante rather than a scholar, I know that I'll never be able to recall--let alone master--a large portion of the history I read, as I tend to flit like a butterfly across eras and locales, so from most histories what I hope to take away is a general sense of the sweep of events and the changing of cultures. That knowledge, however, is only interesting when wrapped up in--and anchored by--actual people who, memorably described, bring otherwise flat events to life.

When it comes to such a complicated event as the Thirty Years War, that sort of portraiture and description become indispensable. The war itself--which will probably be most familiar to non-historians as the war in which the Three Musketeers are involved--was so lengthy, widespread, and politically intricate that it almost defies explanation. But in The Thirty Years War (1938), C. V. Wedgwood (descendant of the potter and Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood) does a masterly job of sorting out the causes and consequences of the war--while salting the narrative with fascinating details and stories.

The war, which began with one of the best-named historical events, the Defenestration of Prague of 1618, in which a group of Protestant leaders, worried about the consequences for religious freedom of the election of the Catholic Ferdinand as King of Bohemia, threw two Catholic governors of Prague out a window. (To everyone's surprise, they landed on a pile of dung and survived.) The war that ensued was at various points a religious war, a territorial war of nationalism cutting across religious lines, and an essentially causeless struggle between opposing armies of mercenaries. The number of nations and armies and prominent figures involved is mind-boggling: the list of belligerents includes the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, the Netherlands, England, Sweden, and a plethora of German princes, all in a welter of alliances that continually dissolved and re-formed along new lines. The eventual peace negotiations, which took nearly five years, give a hint at the underlying complexity of the war: it took six months for the parties to agree even to the order in which they would enter the room.

Despite all that, Wedgwood brings a surprising clarity to the conflict. She's very good at explaining the ins-and-outs of diplomacy, much of it secret, that continually determined the course of the war and the roster of participants, but she's at her most effective when tying the decisions of statesmen and generals to the suffering of peasants and conscripts. She never lets us forget that such losses, as always in war, were borne by those farthest from the seats of power:
[The price] may not have seemed to expensive to the princes, for it was not they who paid the price. Famine in Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel caused the Duke to notice that his table was less plentifully supplied than usual, and three bad wine harvests on the Lower Danube once prevented Ferdinand from sending his annual gift of tokay to John George of Saxony--such minute draughts blew in through palace windows from the hurricane without. Mortgaged lands, empty exchequers, noisy creditors, the discomforts of wounds and imprisonment, the loss of children in battle, these are all griefs which man can bear with comparative equanimity. The bitter mental sufferings which followed from mistaken policies, loss of prestige, the stings of conscience, and the blame of public opinion gave the German rulers cause to regret the war but seldom acted as an incentive to peace. No German ruler perished homeless in the winter's cold, nor was found dead with grass in his mouth, nor saw his wife and daughters ravished; few, significantly few, caught the pest. Secure in the formalities of their lives, in the food and drink at their table, they could afford to think in terms of politics and not of human sufferings.
That relative immunity to consequence, Wedgwood argues, was one of the primary reasons the war lasted as long as it did, but another, just as important, were the particular strengths and weaknesses of the leading players. Time and again, she asserts convincingly that, had the Emperor Ferdinand, or naive Prince Frederick, or General Wallenstein been just slightly different people, decades of suffering might have been averted. For example, of John George, the dithering, uncertain Elector of Saxony, she says, "he was one of those who, seeing both sides to every question, have not the courage to choose. When he did act his motives were wise, honest, and constructive, but he always acted too late."

That phrase should give you a sense of Wedgwood's deftness at sketching brief portraits, which is what will stay in my mind long after I've lost a lot of the details of alliances and battles. It quickly becomes obvious that Wedgwood loves her vast array of sources and the gems of inessential knowledge about the players she finds there. Her description of John George, for example, continues:
In spite of [his] claims to culture, John George had preserved the good old German custom of carousing in a manner that shocked men under French or Spanish influence, Frederick of the Palatinate and Ferdinand of Styria. John George, who scorned foreign delicacies, had been known to sit at table gorging homely foods and swilling native beer for seven hours on end, his sole approach at conversation to box his dwarf's ears, or pour the dregs of a tankard over a servant's head as a signal for more. He was not a confirmed drunkard; his brain when he was sober was perfectly clear, and he drank through habit and good fellowship rather than weakness. But he drank too much and too often. Later on it became the fashion to say whenever he made an inept political decision that he had been far gone at the time, and the dispatches of one ambassador at least are punctuated with such remarks as, "He began to be somewhat heated with wine," and "He seemed to me to be very drunk." It made diplomacy difficult.
But that's not the worst the Germans come in for from Wedgwood, who, however objective her intentions, was writing as the Nazis were sweeping across Europe:
Germany was in fact celebrated throughout Europe at this period for nothing so much as eating and d rinking. "Oxen," said the French, "stop drinking when they are no longer thirsty. Germans only begin then." Travellers from Spain and Italy were alike amazed at the immense appetites and lack of conversational talent in a country where the rich of all classes sat eating and drinking for hours to the deafening accompaniment of a brass band. The Germans did not deny the accusation. "We Germans," ran a national proverb, "pour money away through our stomachs." "Valete et inebriamini" a jovial prince was in the habit of closing his letter s to his friends. The Landgrave of Hesse founded a Temperance society but its first president died of drink; Lewis of Wurttember, surnamed the Pious, drank two challengers into stupor, and being himself still sober enough to give orders, had them sent home in a cart in company with a pig. The vice ran through all classes of society; young gentlemen in Berlin, reeling home in their cups, would break into the houses of peaceful burghers and hunt them into the street. At the weddings of peasants in Hesse more would be spent on food and drink than could be saved in a year, and the bridal party arrived at the Church more often drunk than sober. . . . This was not a reputation of which the intelligent German could be proud, yet there was a tendency among the simpler sort of patriots to glorify the national enjoyment of meat and wine. They had the authority of Tacitus that their ancestors had behaved in much the same way.
In fact, it's reasonable to say that the shadow of Nazi Germany hangs over much of the book; some scholars trace vicious strains of German nationalism to the decentralized German state left by the eventual peace, and while Wedgwood doesn't go quite that far, it's hard not to feel the presence of the Nazis throughout, even indirectly in statements such as this one:
Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right rather than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

There's much more I could share from The Thirty Years War--it's as rich as any history I've read, and the New York Review of Books should be applauded for returning it to print (perhaps at the recommendation of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in A Time of Gifts calls it "by far the best and most exciting book on the whole period"?). But I've taken enough of your time tonight, so I'll stop here; if I get really organized, maybe I'll arrange to run some more bits from The Thirty Years War while I'm on vacation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

But when I became a man I put away childish things

Oh, how wrong you are, I Corinthians! After all, the final volume of Harry Potter is on its way . . .

That, along with thinking about Lloyd Alexander, has me in the mood for a few notes on children's books.

1 In the comments on my Lloyd Alexander post, Idalia wrote:
That *is* an awesome first sentence, I had forgotten that one. However I have yet to see a children's book first sentence that can go up against Charlotte's Web's "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
Just as she had forgotten the opening of The Book of Three, I had forgotten the opening of Charlotte's Web. What strikes me now, reading that line, is how perfectly in keeping it is with the tone of E. B. White's letters, a collection of which I've been reading off an on for the past few months.

Here, for example, is his reply to a batch of letters from a fifth-grade class, in which he was asked about animals on his farm:
I have raised a good many young pigs, lambs, chicks, and goslings in my barn. I will tell you something that happened to the young geese last winter. There is a small pond down in the pasture and the geese use it for a swimming pool. They start from the barnyard, walking slowly; then as they get nearer the water, they break into a run; and then they spread their wings, take to the air, and land on the pond with a splash. But one night, early last winter, the pond froze during the night. The young geese had never seen ice, and knew nothing about it. They started for the pond, sailed into the air, and when they came down for a landing their feet struck the ice and they skidded the whole length of the pond and crashed into the opposite bank. That's how they learned about ice.

White's prose, whether in a letter or in a more polished piece of writing, has a kindness and matter-of-factness that rescues it from the ever-present danger of archness. What ultimately comes across is the sense of an observant man who enjoys sharing what he's seen, particularly glimpses of the livees of animals or unusual people. The bounce and balance of his sentences ends up seeming effortless, only natural to his storytelling style, as in this letter to James Thurber:
I made the drive in an open car with a turkey in the back seat and a retriever in the front. Stopped off at the Coatses' and we ate the bird and freshened up the dog.

Even when, as so often, he's being thoroughly ironic, as in this 1943 letter to Gustave Lobrano, his charm wins out:
Hospitals are fun now because all the competent people have gone off to the fighting fronts, leaving the place in charge of a wonderfully high-spirited group of schoolgirls to whom sickness is the greatest lark of the century.

All of which leads me to wonder if maybe it's time to reread Charlotte's Web? Or maybe The Trumpet of the Swan, which I remember liking more when I was young?

2 Thinking yesterday of waiting for books to be sent to me through the regional library system also reminded me of the annual trips my parents would take to Chicago for the Farm Bureau convention. I had never been to Chicago, which was 300 miles away from our town, but I imagined it as a paradise, because it had Kroch's and Brentano's, a multi-story downtown bookstore that, it seemed, stocked nearly every book. Before each trip, my parents would ask me for a list of books I was looking for, and invariably they would bring back the majority of them.

The very idea of such a big bookstore was fantastic to me in those pre-superstore days; the fact that in a city you could walk out of a bookstore with not only The Rescuers but Miss Bianca and Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines as well--to say nothing of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH--was, I think, the first seed of my desire to transform from a a country mouse to a city mouse.

It was the right choice: Kroch's is long gone, and books of all sorts are far more readily available to rural residents, adults and children alike, but the lure of the city remains powerful, the rich variety emerging from density no less compelling.

3 I've also had J. M. Barrie on the brain lately, perhaps a lingering reaction to once again seeing the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens this spring--or possibly because of a surfeit of Thomas Hardy, of whom Barrie was a champion. Explains Lisa Chaney, in Hide and Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie:
Amongst living writers it was Hardy and Meredith whom Barrie admired the most. . . . Barrie's capacity for hero worship might at time have made the diffident Hardy feel a little uneasy, but where Barrie worshiped he also protected, supported, even nurtured. He was capable of immense loyalty, and throughout his life was prepared to expend gargantuan efforts on behalf of his friends.
That loyalty could unquestionably be smothering for its objects, as Barrie was a strange and difficult man, never quite comfortable with adults but at the same time unable to achieve that relatively easy (some might say too easy) understanding with children that Lewis Carroll seems to have had. After his wife left him for a younger man, Barrie successively insinuated himself uncomfortably into two different families--Anthony Powell describes him in this stage as "Dracula-like"--in the unpleasantly overlapping roles of father figure/friend of children/third wheel to a marriage. Though his adopted families were often glad of his company, attention, and, it must be said, money, the situation, it seems, never quite escaped awkwardness, if not outright discomfort.

The following story of Penelope Fitzgerald's father, longtime Punch editor E. V. Knox, meeting Barrie for the first time, which she relates in The Knox Brothers, seems typical of Barrie's uncomfortable nature:
Desmond MacCarthy, the most genial of Irish critics, had been at King's, and wanted to help [Edmund], as he wanted to help everybody he met. He also knew everybody. Eddie must come to him and ask advice from James Barrie, who was at the height of his fame, though he could sometimes be a little disconcerting, unless the side of him which spoke to adults, and which he called "McConachie," happened to be foremost. Buoyed up by MacCarthy's confidence, the two of them called at 133 Gloucester Terrace, where they found the room empty, except for a large dog, with which Barrie used to play hide-and-seek in the Park. While they waited, Eddie in sheer nervousness hit his hand on the marble mantelpiece. It began to bleed profusely. MacCarthy was aghast. Barrie could not bear the sight of blood. They tried to staunch it with handkerchiefs, and with the cuffs of MacCarthy's soft shirt, which became deeply stained. Barrie appeared at the doorway, took one look at them, and withdrew. Kind-hearted though he was, he was obliged to send down a message that he could not see them.

Overall, Barrie's was an odd, sad life, with far more than its share of sorrow and loss to leaven his success. Powell, in a review of Janet Dunbar's J. M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image (1970) writes:
In the end one feels that only Dostoevsky could do justice to Barrie's life, the passionate sexless love affairs, the money, the rows, the reiterated tragedies. It is all Dostoevsky's meat.

4 All this has lead me to wonder whether some children's or young adult books should accompany me on my upcoming vacation. On my shelf, unread, is The Brilliance of the Moon (2004), the third volume of Lian Hearn's samurai adventure series, Tales of the Otori. Should it be packed? And, having hauled down the Prydain Chronicles to write about Lloyd Alexander--and then finding myself wanting to argue that they're better than Susan Cooper's sequence, The Dark Is Rising--I wonder if I should bring those along?

That would help solve my problem of bringing too many books on trips: if I get tired of hauling these around, I can always send them home with my nephew, further cementing Stacey's and my reputation as that aunt and uncle who always give books. I guess there are worse types of aunt and uncle to be.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

R.I.P. Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007)

From The Book of Three (1964)
Taran wanted to make a sword, but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.
With those utterly straightforward, yet evocative lines--surely one of the best openings of any children's book--Lloyd Alexander began his Chronicles of Prydain, a five-book series aimed at young adults that wove the Mabinogion and other Welsh myths with Alexander's own inventions into a fantastic, heroic, exciting tale that's the equal of any children's story I know. Alexander died back in May at age 83, though I just learned about his death from Ed at the Dizzies, and obituaries are still appearing now. He leaves behind more than thirty-five books for children, the writing of which he described as "the most creative and liberating experience of my life."

Looking back, my discovery of Alexander in fourth grade seems perfectly emblematic of the experience of childhood reading. I bought The High King (1968), the final volume of the Prydain Chronicles, at a Scholastic Book Fair, seduced as much by the Newbery Medal logo as by the swords and monsters on the cover. I devoured it, astonished, then read it again while waiting for the remaining volumes to be sent to my local library through the regional library system.

When they finally arrived, they didn't disappoint. This was storytelling of a wholly different caliber than I, having previously subsisted mostly on the Hardy Boys, had ever encountered. There were real dangers in Prydain, real values--compassion, care, kindness, and, most of all, bravery and heroism--at stake, and there were real consequences to the characters' actions, good and bad. I think the Prydain Chronicles may have been the first books I read where all the members of the heroes' party weren't there to celebrate at the end. As Alexander's hero, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, puts it in The Black Cauldron (1965):
"It is strange," he said at last. "I had longed to enter the world of men. Now I see it filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, with those who would destroy all around them."
But even as Alexander was making that more clear than it had been to me up to that point, he never went long without a reminder of the good that also graces the world. Taran's worries lead his friend and mentor Lord Gwydion to reply:
"Yet, enter it you must," Gwydion answered, "for it is a destiny laid on each of us. True, you have seen these things. But there are equal parts of love and joy."
As fun and surprising as Alexander's inventive fantasy can be, it is that ability to mix sorrow with joy, excruciatingly difficult trials with moments of sweet fellowship, failure with success, that lifts the Prydain Chronicles to the highest echelon of children's literature; despite not explicitly teaching lessons or linking Taran's struggles to our own, the books cannot help but enlarge a child's understanding, empathy, and self-knowledge. Alexander himself hints at that in the last lines of his introduction to The Book of Three:
The Chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.

Though the Prydain books were Alexander's crowning achievement, I read most of his other books multiple times as well. The Westmark Trilogy, a mostly realistic trilogy set in a vaguely eighteenth-century Europe, tells the dramatic tale of a revolt against corrupt monarchical and religious authority, along the way advancing arguments for individual liberty and the importance of being willing to fight for what one believes in. I checked all three out of the Carmi Public Library multiple times; the third volume, The Beggar Queen (1984), is the first book whose publication I remember anxiously awaiting.

Even some of Alexander's less ambitious, stand-alone novels are well worth remembering. One that I still recall fondly is Time Cat (1963), which undertakes to explain why it is that we attribute nine lives to cats. It turns out that cats are natural time travelers, allowed nine times in their lives to enter different eras and places--which also explains where cats are those many times when, despite turning the house upside down, you can't find them.

If you're looking for books to put in the hands of the kids in your life, you really can't go wrong with Lloyd Alexander. There's little higher praise in my book.

From Taran Wanderer (1967)
"I have the sword I fashioned," Taran proudly cried, "the cloak I wove, and the bowl I shaped. And the friendship of those in the fairest land of Prydain. No man can find greater treasure."

Melynlas pawed the ground, impatient, and Taran gave the stallion rein.

Thus Taran rode from Merin with Gurgi at his side.

And as he did, it seemed he could hear voices calling to him. "Remember us! Remember us!" He turned once, but Merin was far behind and out of sight. From the hills a wind had risen, driving the scattered leaves before it, bearing homeward to Caer Dallben. Taran followed it.

Rest in peace, Lloyd Alexander. Your tale is told. As the bards used to say at the close of each story in the Mabinogion:
And thus ends this branch of the Mabinogion.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Unintentional and undeclared, American History Week continues

My reading shifts a bit with the seasons, and with the arrival of summer I tend to find myself digging through the various histories I've accumulated during the year. Perhaps I'm driven to reading history in the summer by the memory of childhood vacations with my family when I was a kid, the five of us crammed into a compact car and wandering all over America, stopping off at historical sites along the way. So in acknowledgment of my summer tendencies, I'll continue what's turned into a history week by taking a look at a couple of strong American histories I've read recently, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958), by Richard N. Current, and Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007) by John Ferling. Both authors seem to fit Montaigne's description of great historians in "On Books":
The truly outstanding historians have the capacity to pick out what is worth being known, they can select of the two accounts the one that is more likely to be rue. From the character of princes and their humors they infer their intentions and attribute to them suitable words. They are right to assume the authority of regulating our belief by their own; but certainly this privilege belongs to very few.

Current's book, which I picked up after Eric Foner recommended it in the New York Times Book Review, is set up explicitly along the lines that Montaigne suggests, weighing various bits of evidence, assessing veracity and pertinacity, and making judgments. As Current explains in the foreword, even fifty years ago when he was writing, the number of books on Lincoln was already almost unmanageable, presenting almost as many different Lincolns--many of them irreconcilable. So instead of attempting to write a definitive book on Lincoln or stake out new territory, Current decided to return to Lincoln's own words, and the words of his contemporaries, and sort through them for what they reveal about several specific facets of the man, including his military leadership, his handling of the South's initial provocations, his family life, and his religion.

The brief book that results could serve as an introductory course in writing history: for each topic, Current presents the evidence for each possible position, then, by taking into account the trustworthiness and reliability of each source, their distance (in both time and relationship) from Lincoln, and, ultimately, the inherent plausibility of each possible explanation for Lincoln's behavior, he makes a judgment. The Lincoln who emerges from Current's trial is by no means clear or open--the man played his cards too close to his vest for that ever to be the case--but I do feel that I know him a bit better and am more comfortable in my impressions.

John Ferling's aim in Almost a Miracle is much bigger; he's written a full history of the military side of the American Revolution to accompany his earlier account of its political and social aspects, A Leap in the Dark. But he, too, has taken Montaigne's dictum to heart and is not afraid to render judgments when appropriate. And while the British generals--dithering and uncertain where not positively incompetent--come off the worst, General Washington's reputation also takes some hits. Whereas other Revolutionary histories I've read--Benson Bobrick's Angel in the Whirlwind, for example--give Washington enormous credit for selecting and adhering to the Fabian strategy appropriate to his outnumbered force, Ferling presents a Washington whose attitude towards his situation is far more complicated.

Forced by circumstance to embrace the proto-guerrilla tactics of Fabianism, Ferling's Washington at the same time chafed against them, looking again and again for opportunities to discard his strategy of evasion in favor of a decisive, European-style battle. That desire, argues Ferling, led Washington to make a number of strategic blunders--blunders that, had the British had the creativity and ambition to exploit them, could have been fatal to the American cause. That's not to say that he dismisses Washington. Indeed, when Ferling presents the full picture of the conditions under which Washington labored--from being forced to create and train an army on the fly to having to perpetually reassure or cajole the weak and recalcitrant colonial government--the very fact that he remained in command throughout the war, let alone won it, remains impressive.

Ferling writes extremely well of battles, and he's particularly good at explaining the infighting that plagued the military leadership of both sides. Though I'm sure it wouldn't surprise anyone who's seen military service, I'm always astonished when I read military history by the amount of self-dealing and politicking that goes on among officers. While nominally dedicated above all else to a successful prosecution of the war, generals throughout history have undercut their leaders, secretly appealed to their elected representatives, and put themselves and their ambitions above the goals of the overall force; Washington's ability to navigate those waters--which reached their most treacherous with the betrayal of Benedict Arnold--is another testament to his leadership; the one quality that seemingly all writers on Washington assign him is a razor-sharp ability to assess people.

But fascinating as all this is, and as thoughtful as Ferling's presentation, I'm not ashamed to admit that ultimately my interest in history, like my interest in fiction, comes down to people. As Montaigne says elsewhere in "On Books":
I would rather choose to be truly informed of the conversation [Brutus] had in his tent with some of his particular friends the night before a battle than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his study and his chamber than what he did in the public square and in the Senate.
Fortunately, Ferling is also extremely good at that sort of detail, as evidenced by the following brief character sketch that introduces General Charles Lee, pictured here in a caricature by Barham Rushbrooke.
Tall and wafer-thin, with a pinched and homely face, Lee was given to quirky behavior. He was habitually unkempt, slovenly even, and voluble. Opinionated and prone to ceaseless monologues, he also never learned to curb his penchant for delivering a searing riposte. Lee had never married and insisted that he preferred dogs to most people. He spoke "the language of doggism," Lee said, adding that he found canines attractive because, unlike many people, they were neither bigoted nor inclined to put their "convenience, pleasure, and dignity" ahead of his. He traveled everywhere with his pack of hounds and seldom hesitated to foist them on others. "He is a queer creature," John Adams said of him, and Lee would have been the first to agree. He once confessed to his sister that in his "cooler candid moments" he understood that "my deportment must disgust and shock."

My only real complaint about Almost a Miracle is that it's one of the worst-edited books I've ever read. There are almost no typos, but other errors abound, from dangling modifiers to misplaced words to subject/verb disagreements. It's as if the only editing the book underwent was by a particularly good spell-checking program. Sloppy editing in and of itself is grating, but far more important--and frustrating--is the unshakable worry that an editor who isn't catching grammatical mistakes is unlikely to be catching mistakes of content. A serious book deserves far better.

But I hate to end on a negative note, so back to the positive: that's two books removed from the mess of histories ranged about on our spare bed, making my task of selecting books to carry on vacation later this month that much easier. Unless, that is, I make the mistake of going to the bookstore again before I leave . . .