A Man with an Axe

Michael Burleigh has quite the vocabulary. Every other word in Sacred Causes that I look up (and there are plenty I need to look up) have the intro "archaic" or "old fashioned" to the definition. Maybe it's a British thing. After all, I doubt Paul Johnson could write a book without using the word eirenic at least once. Nothing wrong in a love of obscure words.

It's not the vocabulary that worries me, it's the distinct sense I'm getting by chapter 2 that Mr. Burleigh is a man of fixed opinions. Again, nothing wrong with that. But I suspect he's just sharpening his axe, waiting to grind away in later chapters. He's a conservative of the European sort. Ok, fine. He's not too entranced by the world of the Politically Correct. Still ok. He has a few uncommon opinions - the latest being that Hitler was too stupid to have a coherent point of view on fascism as religion. Hitler the moron is new one for me but why not? Hitler was insane, why shouldn't he be stupid too.

No, it's something around the edges. I can't put my finger on it but I think Michael Burleigh is about to unleash something a little wacky in this book.

Catching Up

A good thing about Kindle is being able to carry around a dozen books at once. The problem, if that's the right word, is that the likes of me is likely to read half a dozen of those books at once. Current case in point, I'm now reading: Sacred Causes, Heroes, Great Tales From English History, and the Journals of Sylvia Plath; having just finished When Gods Die by C. S. Harris. It's great to be able to change books as my mood takes me and three of these books do lend themselves to enjoying a chapter at a time.

It makes it harder to finish any one of them, though.

When Gods Die is the second book in the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series. I broke my rule in reading this book so soon after the first. I think that a good series should be read at a leisurely pace, not one immediately after the other. For one thing, a good series is too rare a thing and should be savoured to make up for the crap that I read in search of a good book. For another, read too close together a series can begin to reveal it's machinery a bit too nakedly. A few years ago I read three later Martha Grimes Inspector Jury mysteries one after the other and dear God were they painful as a result. What is charming in small doses - like the eccentrics of Long Piddleton - becomes downright loathsome in large helpings. (Also, Grimes is trying too hard to make her books about Something More. She needs to knock that off. Immediately.)

Fortunately, Harris avoids most of the usual traps and the only noticeable machinery is Sebastian's lineage (I hope she doesn't go for the obvious) and Hero's future importance. Nothing to make me run screaming in the other direction. The mystery was a good one and I continue to be amazed at Harris' ability to write an action scene that is both coherent and exciting without ever resorting to the use of exclamation points. There should be an Edgar Award just for the avoidance of exclamation points. The running joke about Sebastian ruining his clothing was fun, too. I can see where Harris might be taking the larger story but I'm hoping that she'll continue to tell an oft told story with new twists.

The Power of Books

Too often I forget the power of books, the power of a good story to comfort, inform and transform. I also forget how wonderful it is to find a book that is even better than I hoped it would be. Pictures at a Revolution was better than I expected. What Angels Fear by C. S. Harris knocked me back on my heels. That Harris managed to entertain me during an emotionally grueling flight from London to NYC is even more amazing.

I knew by the second chapter, when Harris introduces her hero Sebastian St. Cyr, that this was a great book. (The first chapter was a bit "meh" with the fog, the soon to be murdered damsel.) Though the comparisons to Kate Ross's Julian Kestrel are obvious - Regency era nob with a knack for solving murders - I'm more reminded of Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Lymond. Sebastian St. Cyr seems every bit as screwed up as Francis Lymond of Crawford and his parentage looks to be easily as fuzzy. (I do hope that Harris doesn't have plans to go all mystic the way Dunnett did towards the end of her Lymond series - I still can't figure out what the hell the point was of the astrologist who wanted to start her own master race.)

Harris kept the story involving, the pace cracking and the characters interesting. I've already broken my rule about not reading two books in a series back to back simply because Harris is so good. If she can keep the mysteries compelling and not fall into the series trap of making her books too much about the detective and not enough about the crime (yes, that means you Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes) then I'm already looking forward to her 25th Sebastian St Cyr mystery.

A Revolution in the Making

There are pivotal moments in history when "things change." Sometimes this change is apparent at the time, but most often the magnitude of the change is unrecognized. In 1967 and 1968 Hollywood knew something was in the air, but they were more attuned to (what they saw as) the seismic impact of the success of The Sound of Music. Upstart movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were more an annoyance than an event for "Old Hollywood" but as Harris makes clear, these movies represented a new sensibility, an assault on the culture by men and women (most men) who believed that entertainment and meaning could co-exist in film. Harris tells the story of this revolution by tracing the making of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle. In doing so, Harris also tells the story of Broadway's impact on Hollywood, the suffocating success of Sidney Poitier, the rise of the American-style auteur and the actor/producer, and the death of "Issues" picture.

All this might sound somewhat dull and ponderous, it isn't. Pictures at a Revolution is the best feet-up, good-time read I've enjoyed in a long time. It's as fun as it is thought-provoking. I knew Harris succeeded when the book made me want to see all five movies (and several others he covers) again - I didn't think there was a force on earth that could make me want to sit through Dr Doolittle EVER again.

This book has also broken the EW curse. Usually the news that the author used to write for Entertainment Weekly bodes ill. That atomically stupid book about a guy reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and then acting like he was delivering huge news with tidbits like the fact that Greenland is covered with ice being Exhibit #1. Mark Harris knows how to write and how to write about something other than himself. Not once does he resort to telling the reader how much any of these movies meant to him. He deserves a Pulitizer for that alone these days when every topic is an excuse for the author to drone on about their feelings. Just turn it into fiction and publish it as a memoir like everyone else already.

The only downside is that I'm now hoping that Mark Harris will take it into his head to write a book on every batch of Best Picture nominees.

Big Pimpin' Tudor Style

I tried to like The Other Boleyn Girl. Truly. Friends of mine love it. Smart, intelligent, capable women without a hint of victim in them couldn't put this book down. I, on the other hand, am happy to put it down literally and figuratively.

It's not that Philippa Gregory plays fast and loose with the facts. This is fiction, she's allowed. I loved Elizabeth and that used chronology like an accordion. I love, nay, worship The Lion in Winter and that doesn't let the facts get in the way of a story or anachronisms in the way of a good line. If Philippa Gregory wants to pretend that Mary Boleyn was younger than Anne Boleyn and that George Boleyn was flaming, go right ahead. And if she wants to use dialogue that sounds like it came out of the mouths of the interns at my office, rock on.

No, this book is easy to mock for other reasons. Let's start with the fact that the premise of the book is that the Howard/Boleyn clan has decided that the way to raise the fortunes of their family is to pimp out the available females. And it's not just the them, the Seymours are at it, too. As my mother says: now, really. If it were that easy to get into the King's favor the man would never have gotten out of bed. He'd have spent his days surrounded by naked women and Windsor Castle would have been a Tudor Playboy Mansion. It just doesn't play.

Then there are the characters. Mary Boleyn has middle child syndrome. She's always whining about how she was overlooked during her childhood in favor of Anne. She's gratingly slow on the uptake. After her family has dropped her into Henry VIII's bed for the good of the family it comes as a shock to her that the family doesn't care about her feelings. She's shocked to learn that the king is a tad self-enchanted and spoiled. Wow, you mean someone who has their every whim catered to, is never told "no" and holds the fate of all around him in his hands could be selfish? The best part is, Mary realizes this long after the opening scene in which Henry has a friend and cousin executed. Most people would have taken the hint after Buckingham's head rolled in the hay without his body being attached.

Mary's sister and brother aren't any better. Anne is simply put, psycho. The highlight of this psychoness is when a half-naked Anne demands that her brother George says she's "the best" in front of their sister Mary. George thinks this is just the usual sibling rivalry hijinks. Oh the fun they have, those wacky Boleyn kids. George is useful to have around. For one thing, he invents tampons. For another, he's always happy to father a child even if the mother in question is his sister. George also invents "coming out" and he's miserably married - he's just an all around busy guy. Thankfully this doesn't keep him from participating in a boat race, I am not making this up, between the Howards and the Seymours with Anne urging on her team with "Come on, Howards." Anne is just a loyal family girl at heart.

While Anne is out whoring for the family cause, Mary is busy doing her thing. And by "doing her thing" I mean annoying the living crap out of me. Mary is married and having an affair with the equally married Henry VIII but she's put out when Anne replaces her in the King's affections. She's always going on about how she's "a Howard" and "a Boleyn" and she has "no choice." Blah blah blah. Naturally she remarries a poor man for love and then watches Anne's execution thinking that "the long rivalry between me and the other Boleyn girl was over." I was thinking that Mary was a complete cow.

What is Wrong With These People?

Yet another "fake writer" (to use Gawker's perfect phrase) has been unmasked. The latest case of "well, it's not literally true but I called it a memoir because it's MY truth" is Misha Defonseca Her story is highly entertaining. She didn't really escape from Nazis at the age of four and go live with wolves in the forest. She isn't really Jewish. But she felt Jewish.

I totally understand where she's coming from. This year when I did my taxes I felt poor. Sadly, the IRS doesn't agree with me.

Misha clearly mistook her calling. She's not meant to write memoirs. She needs to start writing intentional comedy. Lines like "I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a 4-year-old girl who was very lost" are comedy gold when you remember that the fake memoir in question was written by a 70 year old. Misha also helpfully points about after saying that "This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving" that sometimes she finds it "to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination."

There's a name for that, dear. Crazy. Now crazy, I can understand, but stupid part of the equation, too. It's one thing to go around telling your insane story at the local synagogue where a general politeness might cause anyone to refrain from questioning the story of 4 year old who survives World War II by wandering the forests of Warsaw for 4 years. That just takes a complete lack of conscience. It's another to publish this insane story and assume you'll get the same level of sympathetic credulity. That takes complete stupidity in these post Binjamin Wilkomirski and James Frey days.

It's really very simple. If you write about how you underwent root canal without any anesthesia or survived the advanced stages of AIDs while being on the run from a band of pedophiles bent on revenge or evaded the Nazis (and one presumes, the Russians) for four years with only the street smarts and survivalist skills that can be acquired by the age of four, someone is going to ask "how did he/she do that?" Someone is very definitely going to call bullshit when you go around claiming that you survived a concentration camp at the age of 4, slept in a wolf pack in the Warsaw woods at age 4, or functioned as a total bad ass in and out of prison while sporting the kind of lisp guaranteed to inspire beat downs in high school locker rooms let alone in prison.

At least impostors are most entertaining that plagiarists. They bother to make something up, they just forget that when you do that it's called fiction. The only creativity a plagiarist provides is in their justifications. Cassie Edwards (read the full story here) claims she had no idea credit sources. This would be the part where I make a joke about how Cassie wouldn't like it if someone lifted portions of her novels and plopped it into their own romance novels except that after the controversy I tried to read one of her books. (In the aisles of the local library. I did try and thank God I was standing up. How do people stay conscious while reading Cassie's oeuvre?) Her books are horrible. Not "this is a bad romance novel horrible." Full-on, "I can't believe I'm reading this", "How the hell did this ever get published" horrible. I simply can't believe someone could be desperate enough to copy this undiluted horribleness and call it their own.

Then again, maybe this is how she avoids the Nora Roberts syndrome. Then again, maybe Cassie should consider taking her savage series to Warsaw circa 1940. I'll bet there were ferrets in the Warsaw woods too.