Strange Bedfellows

Certain books have been known to make me sleepy. It isn't that they're boring, just the opposite. They require a degree of concentration that at the end of a long day blissfully banishes work from my mind and makes my eyes sag. Paul Johnson's History of the American People and History of Christianity did this brilliantly. So did The Reformation and The Closing of the Western Mind. I love these books, enjoyed every page but I knew that twenty pages or so and the Cappodocian Fathers or Zwinglianism would send me to dreamland.

Now it's Eric Hobsbawm's turn to play Ambien in a bookcover. He's up to the task. Give him a dense topic like, say, the fiscal health of the French government under Louis XVI and I'm gone after two pages. At this rate I'll finish the book sometime in 2009. The Age of Revolution is more economic history than history. It's also more socialist view of economic history. Not that Hobsbawm forgets his duties. He's not a polemicist, thankfully.

If I want to be bored rather than drained I couldn't do any better than Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. After ten pages I knew I'd be skipping my way through this book. It's not that Gregory plays fast and loose with history - this is historical fiction, after all - nor is it that her dialogue screams anachronism! with every line. (Early on, Mary Boleyn says of Anne "I thought she'd marry a French count or somebody." Somebody?) I don't expect Elizabethan English here but "You can't be more a virgin than me."?

So far George Boleyn has introduced his sisters to the concept of tampons (no joke), Mary has experienced post-partum depression and all three young Boleyns have moaned about the fact that their family is using them to advance their interests. This is about as authentic to the Tudor period as my computer. It's enough to turn me against novelized treatments of real people. Oh wait, I'm already against that. But that copy of Fatal Majesty that's been sitting unread on my shelves for eight years is headed for the donation pile for certain after this.

Kindle Class Wars

Who knew a device that was once reviled as "ugly" could be sparking class wars all over Amazon?

I can skim over the posts and reviews that complain about the physical design. Design isn't the only consideration for me. Since most of the comments are from people who don't own a Kindle and in many cases haven't even touched one, it's not like I'm missing thoughtful reasoning. Always nice to hear the thoughts who hates the mere idea of a product.

The near-hysterical posts about the horrors of DRM similarly amuse me. I don't get it. If I buy a book, I own it. I can lend it out. I can trade it in at a trade-in store or hawk it on eBay but it's used and priced accordingly. If I drop the book in a river or a fire, it's lost and I don't expect the publisher to reimburse me because, hey, I bought the book already. I bought a copy, not the copyright. Same with CDs and DVDs. So for the convenience of having something in a more portable format I give up the ability to resell it and it's a little harder to lend it out but the price is lower.

The problem is .... what? That an artist might actually be compensated for their efforts? That a publisher might make money, too? The bastards!

Lately there's been a new twist that redefines bizarre because the DRM ranters have been replaced by people who want to let you know that the Kindle is so expensive you should feel guilty. Really, really guilty. A few choice selections.

Kindle is "only for the elite reader."
Huh? Affluent? Possibly but $399 may not be cheap but it's less than a big screen LCD TV and more people own them than own Kindles.

"After spending $400, I would still have to purchase books to read."
Wow, you mean I pay $299 for an iPhone and I still have to pay for phone service? And I have to pay for cable after I just dropped $5K on that new TV? Outrageous!

Then there's my absolute favorite:
"If you can afford the new electronic toy so that you can be comfy reading one-handed in bed for $400, try giving something that might actually mean something to someone!"
"You already have enough convienience." (His typo not mine.)
rounded up with:
"This society is so crazy!"

Where does one even begin? This guy's basic argument is that if you bought a Kindle and really like it you are out of touch with the real world. (He also seems to have something against spell checking programs to judge by all his posts.) So, yes, he seems to be a little logic challenged.

But how has a device that costs less than $500 and promotes reading and therefore, one can hope, knowledge become a focal point for class wars?

Career Women circa 1536

Did every young girl go through a phase of being fascinated by Tudor England? Lady Jane Grey fascinated me the most but Elizabeth Tudor and Anne Boleyn weren't far behind. I read the whole tranche of popular Tudor biographies that were available in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. Fraser, Plowden, Lofts, you name it. I still have a soft spot for Harriet W. Chapman.

The first book on the subject that I remember reading was a novel titled Young Bess by Margaret Irwin. For some strange reason this book about a 15 year old girl who nearly has an affair with her stepmother's new husband was available in my elementary school. One scene I remember as particularly steamy. Well, steamy for a 10 year old and a book written in 1945. It was a great read.

The sight of a familiar portrait on a bookcover is enough to interest me to this day. I've read some great Tudor histories over the years - Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, Alison Weir - and some hilariously bad ones - Joanna Denny's Anne Boleyn is comedy gold.

Some questions stick in my mind. Why did Henry turn on Anne Boleyn? Was Anne of Cleves stupid or utterly brilliant? Did Catherine Parr know Thomas Seymour was a dog? Two questions have stuck in my mind ever since I read a brief passage in a biography of Catherine Howard noting that lady in waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford and widow of the executed George Boleyn, was executed for helping Catherine meet with her lover Thomas Culpepper.

First, exactly how hard was it to find a good servant back in 1540 if one was willing to employee the wife of the man you'd executed for sleeping with your wife who just happened to be his sister? Second, was Jane Boleyn the dumbest woman of her time? How could she not have clued in that Henry was a tad unreasonable on the topic of wives in general and real or imagined infidelity in particular?

Julia Fox attempts to answer if not exactly these burning questions the questions of who was Jane Boleyn and what lead her to the block. No easy task, this. For one thing, Jane's life is only documented in terms of her husband and her own final trial. Fox soldiers on with the constant use of the words "probably", "perhaps" and "we can't know for sure" not to mention wringing existing documentation for every possible interpretation. The best is when Fox uses the last will and testament of Anne Boleyn's grandfather to draw inferences about Anne's and Jane's commitment to charity. After 2 or so pages (I read this on my Kindle so I can't be sure how many printed pages but it was several paragraphs) of listing every charitable request he made I started to wonder if Fox started out to write a book about Great Tudor Wills and didn't want to give up on all that research. Fox also oversells the importance of Jane's jointure (the settlement made in case of her being widowed) in her ultimate fate. Aside from making clear that Thomas Boleyn was not a nice father-in-law and that women in Tudor England were dependent on men - neither a huge surprise - the jointure doesn't explain all that much.

Where Fox succeeds is in showing how few options there were for any woman who wanted to be in the thick of things. She also makes a convincing case for how hopelessly addictive the King's favor could be. The money, gifts and privileges fell from the sky if Henry took a shine to you. What made this book worth reading was how well Fox demolishes the canards about Jane Boleyn betraying her husband and sister-in-law to Cromwell. It certainly changed my opinion. Fox lays out a case for Jane's behavior in the Catherine Howard matter but even she admits that it's hard to understand the risks she took.

With this fresh in mind I'm ready to tackle The Other Boleyn Girl. Several friends rave about this book, how engrossing it is, etc. I've been putting off reading it for years but now that a friend has lent me a copy I have no excuses. My goal is to go in not hating it.

Cozy Up

I grew up reading Agatha Christie. My grandmother loved mysteries from the Golden Age. We would read them together, she'd have the large print version and I'd have the paperback or whatever the public library had. I preferred Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot but I loved them all. Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh were favorites too, still, who can top Agatha Christie at her best?

Once I'd read all the Christies and Sayers and Marshes, I moved on to modern mysteries. The problem is that I'm a wimp. I don't like bloody murder scenes, serial killers, coroners going about their work or even plain old CSI stuff. I tell myself I'm more interested in the motive than the crime itself and that's part of it. Also, though, it's that I'm a wimp.

Cozies are meant for me. They hark back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and give me murder without the mess. Some practitioners get a little too fey with the proceedings. Witness M. C. Beaton. Admittedly I've only read one of her books, Death of a Charming Man, but that was enough. I read it in audiobook form and I remember all too well that I was on disk 7 of 9 before anyone was murdered. Believe me, by that time I was longing for half the cast to be offed, not just the aforementioned "charming man" who went around with "murder victim in training" pretty much tattooed on his forehead. Never has the word "wee" inspired so much terror in me.

Martha Grimes usually does the trick. Smart detective, engaging (for the most part) recurring characters and straightforward crimes. I have issues with some of her later books, which I'll address in a last post, but her first The Man With a Load of Mischief exhibits all that's right with the genre. A murder in a northern village populated by mild eccentrics with skeletons overflowing their closets. The main characters don't ruminate on their respective pasts or thoughts until you wonder how they manage to get dressed in the morning, they just go about their business. The mystery isn't all that hard to figure out but it's not dead obvious either. It's just an enjoyable diversion from beginning to end.

The literary equivalent of warm rice pudding on a cold day. Perfect for what ails you.

Brought to You By the Words "Possibly", "Perhaps" and "Maybe"

Anytime a writer tackles the live of someone who lived more than 400 years ago a certain amount of supposition is necessary. The amount of supposition increases exponentially the farther into the past and the less prominent the person. Julia Fox's biography of Jane Boleyn (Anne Boleyn's "infamous" sister-in-law) is a prime example.

Where some writers would either boldly present supposition as the most likely thing that happened so let's just go with it, shall we? or skip the supposition altogether sticking to the dry facts, Fox feels compelled to let the reader know she's taking an educated guess. The words "possibly", "perhaps", and "maybe" thus get quite the workout, as do the phrases "may have" and "might have" and "we can't know for certain."

We can't indeed, dear Julia, but that hasn't stopped thousands of historians from guessing so buck up and be a little bolder, ok?

Tsars, Maggots and Revolutionaries

Red Mutiny is depressing. When the subtitle of a book includes the words "Fateful Days" I guess you know what you're in for from the start. My dim memories of my Russian History classes were enough for me to know that the Russian Revolution a) started but fizzled in 1905 and b) the mutiny on the Potemkin didn't end in glory for anyone. Not that I could remember exactly how it ended.

It ended like most things ended in Nicholas II's Russia, in a pathetic fiasco that would have been laughable had the body count been zero.

The sailors on the Potemkin have a lousy lot. They're pretty much kidnapped from their homes for 25 years with little hope of ever seeing their families again. Then they're treated pretty much like slaves (serfs have it better) by their officer. And that's in peace time. During the Russo-Japanese war things get much worse. Red Mutiny offers a few terse paragraphs on the living conditions on ships in the Russian Baltic Fleet as it sails to relieve Port Arthur. Because the ships can't stop at any ports along the way (due to neutrality agreements) it has to fill every available space on the ship with coal to fuel the boilers. Black, dusty coal is in the halls, on the decks, in the kitchens, everywhere; literally driving some sailors insane.

After the Baltic Fleet is defeated, morale in the Russian Navy goes even lower. Committed revolutionaries among the sailors like Afanasy Matushenko see this as an opportunity to convince the sailors to fight back. It's not the pamphlets or the secret meetings that inspire the sailors though, it's the maggoty meat. For reasons not fully explained but seemed to point at bribery, maggot-ridden meat is brought on board to make borscht for the sailors. They refuse to eat the borscht. In response, the captain threatens to execute anyone who won't eat the borscht.

It's hard not to root for the mutineers in a situation like this, even if they do get a little out of hand and murder half the officers.

The hero of the book, and he is definitely presented as the hero, is Matushenko. He comes across as an angry, embittered idealist. You can't blame him for being angry or embittered. When he chooses not to sacrifice the lives of every sailor left on the Potemkin, despite the pleas of other revolutionaries, you know that even the revolution has let Matushenko down.

Neal Bascomb is one of the latest crop of non-fiction writers aiming to give us readable, novel-like accounts of historic events. He does a serviceable job here, telling the story and providing the necessary background without sounding like a textbook. He even manages to convey a sense of suspense on occasion: maybe things will turn out for our heroic, mutinous sailors after all! They don't, of course and Bascomb does have the task of making murderers (justified or not) into heroes. He may embrace that last task a little too enthusiastically. The last chapter finds Bascomb pointing out that the Potemkin sailors couldn't have known that communism would lead to the horrors of the Russian Revolution and Stalin. He leaves unsaid that sailors of the Potemkin, like other working-class Russian revolutionaries, fought one tyranny only to have it replaced by another.

Kindle = Booklovers Heaven

I'm in love. With a small beige book like device. We were made for each other. His name is Kindle.

I've had my Kindle for nearly two weeks now and it's already worth the purchase price. Thanks to the Kindle an eight hour flight to Portland, OR by way of Dallas was almost painless. I read Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife on the flight out. Novelty probably played into it but it's more than that - the Kindle is easier to read. I don't up the font size (although one day I'm sure I'll be grateful for the feature) or make other adjustments, eInk is just easier to read. Less glare and a cleaner font.

Another feature that I'm in love with is the built in dictionary. Go ahead, author, through a random word like kilim at me. I can figure out it's a rug from the context but thanks to Kindle I know it's a pileless rug from the Middle East. I'll probably upgrade the dictionary at some point. The New American Dictionary just isn't up to the words Michael Burleigh spins in the average sentence of Earthly Powers.

Being able to order books and magazines in DFW instead of running around the terminal between flights trying to find a decent bookstore is another big, big plus. So far I've purchased 6 ebooks and tried 6 sample chapters. Amazon still needs to get a few kinks out of the sample chapters. It works great for fiction but for non-fiction and classic lit the sample chapter is often an introduction instead of the work itself.

If you're a power reader - one book or more a week - and you travel alot for work or have a long train or bus commute, check out the Kindle. It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Insightful Cliches

I can't decide whether this book is amazingly insightful or one extended cliche.

I do have a weakness for Sue Miller. She's the best of the "women's writers" genre that includes Judi Picoult, Anita Shreve, Alice Hoffman and, lately, Barbara Delinsky. It's a genre that's on the cusp of "serious fiction" (whatever that is) and at its best tackles topical issues from a woman's perspective. All fine and good.

Sue Miller specializes in exploring the world of "what was she thinking?" or more often, "what in the name of God was this woman thinking? Is she brain damaged or something?" She's very good at creating believable female characters who make apocalyptically bad choices. Miller does this without coddling her characters and with a prose style that propels the story along while seeming to linger over the daily details.

The Senator's Wife is clearly inspired by several political wives. Joan Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Hart and Hillary Clinton. Delia Naughton, the title character, is probably closer to Joan Kennedy in specifics. Married to an Irish politician in the 1950s and 60s, she learns of his affairs but resolves to forgive him until another affair, too public and devastating to her whole family. She continues to stand by him politically but they lead largely separate lives.

Enter next door neighbors Meri and Nathan I'm convinced Miller decided to spell "Mary" as "Meri" so it would be one letter closer to "mess" because that's what she is. A complete mess. A newly married journalist who is terrified of being defined by her husband with a marriage that seems more defined by sex than friendship. Meri is needy. She knows that her life has really been a series of aimless moves that have the appearance of a clear path. She quickly becomes as fascinated by Delia Naughton as her professor husband is by the mere idea of Senator Naughton. Without giving too much away, Meri passes the line from intense interest into creepy stalker pretty quickly. Meri falls apart when she gets pregnant, falls more apart once the baby is born and keeps falling.

Contrast this with Delia. Her life is defined by her relationship with her husband, despite her seemingly successful attempts to create her own life. She is cool, dignified, has an apartment in Paris, has wine and pate for dinner and makes a great gift basket. Delia is also the master of the answer that is accurate without revealing anything. You get the feeling Delia is tired of defending or explaining her relationship with the Senator. She loves him but she can't put up with his betrayals anymore. Her actions baffle her children. Why does Delia campaign for her husband after his particularly appalling betrayal? Because she believes in him politically. Because she holds out some hope for reconciliation? Because she wants him in her debt? Because she wants to hold onto her public dignity? She can't give him up entirely and she's convinced herself they've worked out a life that suits them. Until the Senator has a massive stroke.

The story peaks, or hits rock bottom depending on your taste, with a scene between the Senator, Meri and her sleeping newborn and a late entrance by Delia. There's no getting around that what Meri does is selfish at best, twisted and delusional at worst. Miller tries but I never felt like Meri's actions "made sense" even in her nutty brain. Do you really want to spent time with a character whose actions make you nauseous?

This is the dilemma. Part of me thinks Miller is too good a writer not to know when she's creating a character readers will yearn to visit physical violence upon. Part of me also thinks that Miller thinks she's saying something deep about sexuality and married love. She's not. She's doing a bang up job of showing what goes on in side the mind of the woman in your neighborhood who just can't get her shit together, though.

Not that we're much wiser as to why Delia does what she does. Maybe that's s as it should be since Delia herself doesn't fully understand her actions. Not in a chick lit "Gosh I don't know WHY I did that way" but in the way of a mature woman acting on torrent of emotional and rational spurs. She's confused in the way any one would be confused at finding that the rules one subscribes to and the bargains one has made are suddenly all void. Delia convinces herself she's given up hope that her husband with come home to her and be faithful. But when the chance presents itself, she gives in again.

I could get all philosophical and wonder if Meri doesn't subconsciously betray Delia because Delia is a surrogate for Meri's own emotionally absent mother. Well, maybe, but still, keep your blouse buttoned already.


My brand new, anxiously awaited for Amazon Kindle arrives tomorrow. Naturally I've already been buying books for it. For me the Kindle has two purposes: 1) it will allow me to bring more books to read when I travel and 2) it will allow me to buy books that I'd normally wait to get at the library or skip all together because of limited bookshelf space.

I assume that's the overall Kindle business model. It's not about getting people who don't read books to read them, it's about giving people who do read and buy books great access to them. The "free first chapter" feature also allows readers to try new authors and books.

Kindle is the answer to another problem. How to read more books.

Years ago I read that the most books a single person could read in a lifetime was 800 books. The math was something like 20 books a year for 40 years. For some reason this supposition both depressed and challenged me. If 800 books was all I'd ever read in lifetime then I really wished I'd skipped all those Nancy Drews. They were good but apparently I was trading Nancy for Tolstoy. Doh! Then my competitive streak kicked in. 20 books a year? What kind of wimp output was that. Why I must read hundreds of book every year. Well, actually I don't. Since I've been tracking it my output is somewhere between 50 and 60 books a year.

Quantity isn't the point. If I just wanted to read a lot of books I could read Harlequin Romances, they're, what, 100 pages long or so. The point was that there are all these books I want to read but haven't yet and more new books to read every year. How am I going to ever catch up?

I won't, of course. But I can make a good try. Some people watch TV to relax. I read. I usually listen to audiobooks on my commute and I probably still will sometimes, especially when I need to drown out someone who needs to have that personal cell phone conversation NOW. Kindle will help me make the most of my commuting and traveling time. It won't replace books for me, it'll just make more room for them.

Border Closing

Borders closing in my town, to be exact. When I first lived in this suburban mini-city, Borders Bookstore was the only game in town. The selection was decent enough. I wrote my first ever journal entry in the Borders' cafe. The music department was eclectic, I discover many new artist there that I now treasure.

Then I moved to Boston - Cambridge, to be exact - where independent bookstores still thrived. Yes, there was both a Borders and a Barnes and Noble within walking distance of my home. Harvard Bookstore, Wordsworth and The Coop (also a B&N) were a mere one T stop away too. It was bookstore heaven. But I never lost my fondness for Borders, my first real book superstore, and when I had the chance to go to Ann Arbor for business, I made sure to work in a side trip to the original Borders.

Borders doesn't have the determined funkiness of Powell's or the defiant intellectual snobbery of Harvard Bookstore or the sheer "we sell what we like" of the late, lamented WordsWorth. It doesn't even have the books-as-items-of-decadence feel that Waterstone's manages. Borders just offers shelves and shelves of books.

It's fashionable to complain about the mega-bookstore chains and claim they are strangling the publishing industry. I don't know if that's true. I could make a case that stores like Borders and B&N encourage book buying by making bookstores mainstream, a place to hang out, a place to meet. The offer a larger selection than the local bookstores of a mere 20 years ago. I value those local bookstores but if you didn't share their taste, you were out of luck. In an ideal world, both the megastores and the small stores would survive because both have their benefits.

In the real world, my local Borders is closing and it feels like the end of an era.

Down and Out In Dorchester

Eight years ago I moved to Boston. I was thrilled to be able to afford more for my rental dollar than in the NY burbs. Even more thrilled when I found a three (3!) bedroom, two bath, apartment available for a little less than what I was paying for a 1 bedroom. It was in Dorchester. I went to college near Boston but Dorchester didn't ring any bells. I looked it up on the Internet and saw that JFK's presidential library was there.

I hadn't read any Dennis Lehane then.

Fortunately my brother set me straight and thus my firsthand knowledge of Dorchester is limited.

The more I read Dennis Lehane, the happier I am about that.

Gone, Baby, Gone is Lehane's fourth Kenzie-Gennaro novel and the second I've read. Like Prayer's For Rain, it is unforgettable on multiple fronts. First, and often overlook, is the witty, believable dialogue. No matter who is talking, Lehane doesn't assume that working class equals idiot. Second are Kenzie and Gennaro themselves, smart, likable, and real. Third is the entire cast of secondary characters, some like Bubba recurring, others like Remy and Poole just along for the story. Fourth is the plot.

Somehow Lehane writes about things I would normally refuse to read about - the kidnapping of a child, heinous murders, etc - in a way that focuses on the emotional reality of the situation rather than going for cheap, gory shocks. Gone, Baby, Gone is the story of a little girl who is kidnapped from her drug-addled, drunken, selfish, sluttish, TV-obsessed mother. Looking at that last sentence I can't help feeling I've gone too easy on Helene McCready. Easily one of the least likable characters ever, Helene isn't a monster, she's a walking mess, but she's real. It's what makes her so horrifying. Unlike Hannibal Lector, Helene could be walking the streets as I type this. She could be living a few blocks away.

Lehane puts life's trash on display: people who prey on others, people who have lost whatever paltry self-respect they fleetingly had, people who don't loose themselves in alcohol so much as preserve themselves in it. He also puts tough questions in front of the reader. Kenzie willfully refuses to judge most of the time, when he does, he judges so harshly it frightens him back into refusing to judge. Gennaro is willing to judge because she can see the eventual outcome of the disasters in front of her. Is jail too good for child molesters? When are "parental rights" simply society's way of absolving itself of responsibility to a child? Is there any cure for the borderline poverty and outright despair of the underclass? Do we blame them for their retreat into drugs and alcohol rather than question our own responsibility?

What sets Lehane apart from some of the more ponderously "literary" mystery writers is that he raises these questions seamlessly in the course of a plot that cruises along well above the speed limit. He delivers a mystery, an intricate plot, compelling multi-dimensional characters and one-liners on popular culture without a single drop in the action. He even manages to advance the relationship between Kenzie and Gennaro without falling into the usual traps that await most series-based detective stories. You never get the feeling that the plot is there to either give Kenzie and Gennaro something to talk about or, worse, give them something to baldly and wordily soul-search.

I have three more Kenzie-Gennaro's to go. I'm trying to space them out given that Lehane appears to have moved on. I enjoyed Mystic River but unlike Prayers For Rain and this book, I can't imagine rereading it. It was too painful, too real, too sad to read again knowing the end. Prayers and Gone leave the reader with thread of hope for humanity. Mystic River leaves you with no more hope than its characters. Not that I'd rather not have read anymore than I'd skip any other book he writes. Lehane is too good to miss. And too good to forget.

What to Pack?

On most days I recognize that I have a good job, even a cool job on very good days, and I'm fortunate that my job allows me to travel. "Allow" isn't quite the word, though. Force. Yes, that's it. Forces me to travel. And not Business Class like the glory days of consulting. Coach. That only bothers me on long-haul flights where complementary upgrades are a thing of the past. New York to Boston? Upgraded every time. New York to SF? Never. But I digress.

The real point of this post is the challenge of picking out the right reading material.

I'll be gone two nights in a city that isn't known for night life, or life of any time of day for that matter, so books are even more essential than usual. Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone is certainly along for the ride. Hobsbawm, though? Do I really want to spend my time in a Rustbelt city reading about the evils of capitalism? I can't bring another Lehane because I'm metering his books out slowly and I know I'll need one for that trip to Portland next week. Martha Grimes is the ticket, her books are always better read than listened to anyway. Along with Red Mutiny on the Shuffle I'll be set.

The truth is I'm agonizing even more than usual because I know that the Kindle I've ordered will make all of this worry unnecessary. One small device, 2,000 books; even I can't be disappointed with that. I've already been trolling the Amazon Kindle store picking out ebooks. All those books I've been neglecting to buy because of finite bookshelf space need be neglected no more. Not only will they have a home, they'll get to travel too. Coach, of course.

From War of Nations to Class War

Maybe it's time for me to accept that I like subjects that are depressing. Evidence for this? After reading volume two of history of the Hundred Years War and a novel about World War II in which nearly everyone gets fired on by the enemy I am now reading two books that focus on the nasty brutish and short lives of the proletariat.

Red Mutiny tells the story of the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin. Bascomb doesn't have to work hard to have you rooting for the sailors. They are all but kidnapped from their homes, treated like animals by the officers, beaten at the slightest provocation and then forced to eat maggoty meat. Down with the Tsar, indeed. Tangentially, I'm listening to the audiobook of this and I have to say that narrator John McDonough would be a perfect choice to read a Victorian era ghost story.

Eric Hobsbawm has been flying the red flag from his mast for years. His histories are rightly regarded as classics. I'm finally tackling The Age of Revolution in which he tells the story of the "dual revolutions" of Britain (Industrial) and France (class). For a writer with an agenda, Hobsbawm never puts that agenda first. Still, only 37 pages in and he's already provided such quotes as:
  • "extorted from the miserably peasantry"
  • "battening on the surrounding peasantry"
  • "extortionate money-rents"
At this rate, I'll be marching on town hall by the end of the week. No small feat when you realize how likely I am to vote for John McCain.

I'm also reading Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone and anyone who's read Lehane knows his genius for depicting the lives of the permanent underclass that preys on itself. So that's hardly light relief.

Why can't I read books with happy endings? A nice story about a family of happy kittens that throws a party for the family of kittens next door. Well, maybe not. Chicklit? I'd have to blind myself first to read it, and I can't believe they can pay someone enough to read that crap out loud without vomiting repeatedly so audiobooks are out. Besides, bad writing is more depressing than oppression.

I think it's time to break out the Georgette Heyers.

Empowered Women and Great Scenery

My relationship with Gothic Romance novels is complicated. For one thing, I'm talking about mid-20th century modern Gothics, not The Mysteries of Udolfo. For another, these were the books my older sister devoured when I was a child. My sister used to tell me about the books she read - not that I asked, but that's just one of my sister's charms. She tells, you listen. Anyway, the stories fascinated me and so did the covers. Young women in flowing dresses or gowns, or better still, night gowns, fleeing a large house, preferably a castle of some sort. The women were allegedly fleeing for their lives but they didn't sprint, they sort of scampered and looked great doing it. Oh, and their hair was fabulous. What's not to love? My sister even wrote an English term paper comparing Phyllis A. Whitney to Mary Stewart.

What is a modern Gothic Romance, aka a Gothic Novel of Suspense? Someone once described a Gothic as a story about "a girl and a house." That's a little simple but my definition isn't all that much deeper. A Gothic is a story about a woman who either has to confront her own past or help a trouble man confront his past. Blame it on Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre.

As with any genre, in Gothic Romance there are masters, practitioners, standbys and disasters. Among the masters are Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. To me they were the Big Three and as a teenager I read every one of their books. Rereading their books now, however, is making me reassess all three.

Mary Stewart was always the odd one out. She wrote 13 Gothic Romances in modern settings, 4 children's books and a 5 book series on the Merlin legend. Two of her Gothics contain strong supernatural elements. Recently I've reread Madam, Will You Talk, Airs Above the Ground, and just finished My Brother Michael. While all 3 involved women caught in mysteries I doubt anyone who picked one up today would class these as the current incarnation of Gothics - the Romantic Thriller. They're pure mysteries. At the time they were written having a female heroine and no detective in sight made it unlikely they'd be placed in the same category as the works of Agatha Christie. Still they've aged remarkably well.

My Brother Michael was published in 1959 yet the only thing that makes it feel nearly 50 years old is the fact that the plot revolves around the death of a man's brother in World War II. The heroine, Camilla Havens, like all Stewart heroines is strong, resourceful, smart and doesn't wait for a man to save her. Camilla does start out as a tentative creature, in fact it's her desire to stop being tentative that leads her to the mystery. She's questioning how she could have turned her life and all its decisions over to a man that in retrospect she didn't like all that much. That's a truer insight into the female mind that anything in the recent spate of chicklit.

This isn't my favorite of Stewart's books. The story telling is solid and the main characters are rootable but Stewart's love for describing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of her locales takes over the story on occasion. I'm glad to know what ouzo tastes like without having to actually drink it but three detailed descriptions and a lecture on how it's made? The hero and heroine are classicists so it's understandable that the sites of Delphi would remind them of all they've read and studied but my guess is that when you're being chased by a murderer, these details slip from your mind. Finally, the mystery requires too much backstory, not just World War II but a few wars of Ancient Greece need to be related for it all to make sense.

I'm forgiving of Stewart's lapses into 2 paragraph descriptions of meals because she's good at it and she wrote most of these books in 1950s England when wartime rationing was still on. Back then the descriptions of fresh eggs and veal were probably as good as porn. Stewart has a better handle on the right balance of travelogue and plot in her first book, Madam Will You Talk, and Airs Above the Ground, my two favorites. Both feature resourceful heroines - one knows how to drive cars like James Bond and the other is a large animal vet who pulls a man out of the way of a train - dark, brooding heroes and evil female nemeses who hold the keys to mysteries that reach back years. Fifty years later and nobody does it better than Mary Stewart.

The End of the Wars

Travelling for work as much as I do means I get to spend time reading on airplanes but makes keeping up this blog a challenge. In the last week I've finished 3 books - one an audio book - and started on two more. Two of those books have left me in the middle of major wars a mere six centuries apart.

The Winds of War is an amazingly easy read. Wouk has an ear for dialogue and an ability to impart facts and philosophy usually without appearing to do so. Once in a while he falters, like when he had pilot Warren Henry explain Russian history to the crew of an aircraft carrier, but it's almost endearing how hard he tries to have it make sense. It's also not easy to have one character just happen to be on the spot for the Battle of Britain, the first Roosevelt-Churchill meeting, the Battle of Moscow and in the vicinity for Pearl Harbor. It's even harder to have said characters sons be on the scene for the other major events of the pre-war, Poland and Pearl Harbor, but Wouk goes for the proverbial gusto. He's promised the reader a panoramic view of the beginnings of World War II and he's not going to let a little thing like odds put him off.

Bully for him. I'm willing to forgive the occasional stretch of likeliness for a good and honest story which Wouk more than delivers. It helps that Wouk creates very believable characters, I was especially surprised by his strong female characters. No one is perfect in this book although Captain Victor Henry sometimes seems a close to it. He's more married to the navy than his wife, FDR takes a shine to him and invites him over for cocktails and dinner, he meets Hitler, Stalin and Churchill, a beautiful young woman falls in love with him, etc. I can't quite believe that I didn't hate this guy. Wouk shows Victor's insecurities, his failings, his weakness, his ambition, and his inability to communicate with his children despite loving him dearly. He also has the other characters in the book appraise Victor with results that are far from perfect. Finally, Victor admits that he's just a pawn to FDR, that the world leaders he's encountered considered him an errand boy at best, that he's put his career ahead of his family, and best of all, he drinks himself into a stupor when his wife writes him a Dear John letter. Oh yes, and the battleship command he's all but lusted for his entire career sort of ... sinks out of his reach. And none of this is presented as "poor saintly Victor and his trials." It's just life.

A few words about Natalie, Wouk's stand in for American Jews during the war. She did get on my nerves on occasion. So much that I skipped a few of her scenes. It's hard to accept that it would take a grown woman 2 years to get out of Europe even with all her uncle's visa challenges. I went along with it, increasingly grudgingly though. I understand what Wouk is trying to do here but it's one of his balder efforts.

All in all, The Winds of War is a great book. Is it the American equivalent of War and Peace? Will I be hunted down and burned at the stake for even writing that sentence? In my humble opinion, it's in that territory. For the modern reader it's certainly more accessible not simply because the history is more recent but because where Tolstoy can't resist would spend 100 pages telling the reader what it all meant, Wouk is more restrained. Don't get me wrong, I loved War and Peace, it is truly a timeless book. But it's hard to read it without thinking what a pompous old Count Leo must have been. Wouk, on the other hand, seems like a decent dinner companion. If you want to learn about World War II without tackling a major history, The Winds of War is for you.

Trial by Fire, on the other hand, is not for the casual reader. If you think Tolstoy and Wouk love their battle scenes I promise you they have nothing on Jonathan Sumption. No one has anything on Jonathan Sumption when it comes to detailed descriptions of battles. I'm not a fan of battle scenes but you have to admire what Sumption does. With precious few original sources he comes as close to "You Are There" as possible. He also has an eye for character and intrigue that kept me interested. Unlike Barbara Tuchman, Sumption couldn't care less about chivalry or courtly love. He's a cold-eyed realist with an unbeatable ability to assess character. This is a fine book and I'm glad I've read it, I just doubt I'll ever reread it.

I'll cover the third book, My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart in another post. Yes, there's a war angle in that one too but let's not push it.