The Death of My Literary Credibility

Not that I ever had much but the fact that I'm reading and enjoying Twilight might just be the thing that empties the account.

Well, what do I expect? I did give in to peer pressure. Two smart women I respect fell in love with the whole Twilight series and kept urging me to give it a try. One wanted me to read it so she'd have someone to help her figure out why she's so addicted to a story about teenage vampires.

I'm a third of the way into the first book and, yes, it is addictive. I'm not dreaming about Bella and Edward but my commute is flying by even when that annoying couple who insist on reading books to their daughter loudly and in funny voices is sitting near me. (I'm all for sharing the reading love but am always happier not knowing how a stranger would voice the aspirations of a very tired bunny.) Stephenie Meyer is a competent writer. The plot is interesting but in these post Interview With a Vampire times not exactly revolutionary. If I had to make a guess at what makes these books readable it's that Meyer does a good job of creating a very ordinary life for Bella that stays ordinary even after she meets a clan of vampires.

Bella has a flighty but loving mother, a loving father who's not exactly sure what to do with a teenage girl, she has girl friends who are interested in boys and clothes, she's a good student but not a star and she's a klutz at any sport. She's all around average except in the degree of parenting she does for her parents - cooking and sorting out the dry cleaning. All that normal makes it easy to relate.

Wildcats, stewardesses and Hell with Cows

You might be tempted to read this book to better understand the oil industry or how Texas went from populism to conservatism or even how one might go about cornering the world market on a precious metal. Certainly you would learn about all these topics by reading The Big Rich. But you would be missing the point. The point of The Big Rich is a Texas-size good time. Why? Because the crazy factor is through the roof.

The Big Rich in question are mainly the Big Four: Sid Richardson, Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt and their families with occasional appearances by a “lesser” oil millionaires. Not a single one of them acquired their wealth in a boring manner. Physical derring-do, financial brinkmanship and fantastic luck all play a role in striking oil and amassing incomprehensibly large fortunes.

There's something innocent and charming about the antics of the Big Four - opening fancy hotels in the middle of nowhere or creating their own private clubhouse for the boys, at age 30 - at least the antics that don't involve H.L. Hunt and his bigamous desire to propagate his genes at widely as possible. H.L. is quite the character or "crank" as he describes himself. I'd substitute "creep" in place of "crank" but there's no doubt that he'd be happy to drink someone else's milkshake given the opportunity.

The fun hits the stratosphere when the second generation of big rich takes the stage. Bunker and Lamar Hunt are nearly as loony as dear old dad in their wacky hi-jinks such as the actual physical storage of one-third of the world’s silver and freelance wiretapping. Baron “Ricky” di Portanova seems to have been Patient Zero when it comes to the disease of EuroTrash complete with wife named Ljuba, pet monkey and marital pep talks from Kirk Douglas.

In any other book they’d be the most entertainingly crazy characters. But in this book has Clint Murchison Jr and he will take your crazy and raise it ten times. In the space of a mere ten years he’s launching a new company, building a resort, funding a pirate radio station in the Baltic Sea, and starting the Dallas Cowboys. And that’s just his job, Clint also has some fascinating hobbies: drugs (cocaine) and stewardesses (Braniff). As Burroughs explains, Braniff Airways

became one of his obsessions. In the early '60s Clint actually began attending their graduation, sitting in a back row eyeing his would-be conquests.

Clint Murchison, I never met you and I'm amazed that your first wife didn't take an axe to your head on multiple occasions but for living a life that allowed such a sentence to be written I salute you, sir. You're the most crazily trashy person in a book filled with insane crazy people. You go, Clint Murchison, wherever you are. (Also, way to cut out the middleman!)

Clint was called to glory in 1987 and today most of the entertainingly crazy scions of the Big Rich are also gone or bankrupt. The tales of their declines aren't nearly as much fun to read but that's hardly surprising. You can't top Joan Crawford trying to bag Sid Richardson with excerpts from bankruptcy proceedings.

Bryan Burrough has done his homework and explains the oil industry, the efforts to regulate it, and the intricacies of several lawsuits in a surprisingly accessible way. Still, as with all his books, what Burrough does best is tell a complex, wide-angle story with enough energy and just sheer enjoyment to fill out a half dozen summer blockbusters. It's like the Life cereal commercials used to say: "It's good tasting and good for you."

Kindle note: no photographs or linked index in the Kindle edition. The footnotes and sources are linked.

Val McDermid Rules

Val McDermid is criminally talented. The author of three successful mystery series and five stand-alone mysteries, McDermid could retire tomorrow and be confident she would be ranked among the greatest mystery writers of all time. If she had to rest her laurels on only one book A Place of Execution would ensure her presence among any list of the greats. A Darker Domain is reminiscent of A Place of Execution - a cold case, an insular community - but it's far more than a good author revisiting tried and true ground. This is a solid mystery featuring a detective I for one hope McDermid will want to treat readers to again.

Two cold cases occupy DI Karen Pirie: the disappearance of a miner during the 1980s miners 'strike and the kidnapping of a wealthy heiress and her son. I don't want to unveil much more of the plot except to say that McDermid brings the Miners' strike to life so vividly that I've sought out the books she mentions for further reading. Police interviews to tell the story via flashback and does it so artfully that the device never becomes clunky. The central mysteries aren't quite as unfathomable as that of some of McDermid's earlier work and while I'm usually pretty harsh on an abundance of coincidences McDermid does such an incredible job of creating believable characters that I didn't mind. I was too in awe of her ability to sketch an indelible portrait of two very different police partners in less than three pages.

That is McDermid's greatest strength. She can create a twisty plot and deliver the shocks but it is her characters and her communities that stay with the reader. McDermid earns special praise from me for her fully realized female characters. You'll meet women of all classes, persuasions and IQs in a Val McDermid book but you'll never meet a cardboard cutout. And you'll never find a female lead hanging around waiting for a man to save the day. Karen Pirie is a fine example of McDermid's talents - she's a smart woman who knows she's probably sacrifice her personal life for her career, who eats food she knows isn't good for her but doesn't feel guilty about it, and who is ready to match wits against anyone foolish enough to try to get one over on her. That McDermid gives Karen happy ending is further proof that neither she nor her heroines go in for cliches.
In her dedication Val McDermid thanks her grandparents for introducing her to the works of Agatha Christie. I have a feeling that her grandparents and Ms Christie would be proud.

Hell is Other People

It's a tried and true narrative technique - start the book at the pivotal moment then work backwards and ultimately forward from the event. The biography of the famous actor starts when he wins the Oscar. The true crime book starts at the scene of the murder. The business expose starts when the FBI shows up with arrest warrants. Katie Roiphe uses the same technique in Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Literary Marriages. The challenge is recognizing the pivotal event that both encapsulate and unhinge the marriage in question.

If this book is any indication, literary marriages are very odd indeed. It's one thing to fret because your husband won't take out the garbage, it's quite another to wish he'd stop bringing his mistresses over for tea. These mini portraits run the gamut from seemingly traditional (H.G.Wells) to tragic (Katherine Mansfield) to litigious (Elizabeth von Armin) to groundbreaking (Vanessa Bell, Radclyffe Hall) to what I can only describe as "expansive" (Vera Brittain). At the center of these marriages is at least one enormous ego. Several feature multiple enormous egos (H.G. Wells and mistress Rebecca West, for example). If you're wondering whether an egomaniac can have a long, satisfying marriage this book is all the proof you'll ever need that peace and quiet won't be part of the equation.

Perhaps it's the era (early 20th century) but I was struck by how many of these people seemed to be playing at marriage. It wasn't that they didn't take it seriously, but they did treat it like a spectator sport whether the larger the audience the more authentic the effort. Vanessa Bell also seems to extend this logic to her baths - if her good friend Duncan Grant wanted to shave and she wanted to have a bath, why not all pile in together. All the couples here can't wait to tell friends or their diaries all about the latest unconventionalities of their marriages. Which is impressive - it's not easy to write and pat yourself on the back for your modern outlook at the same time.

The phrase "spoiled brats" came to mind several times while reading this book but to Roiphe's great credit not as often as it might have. Whether a husband is abandoning his gravely ill wife because sickness gives him the creeps or a husband is confessing that he has two pregnant mistresses on his hands, Roiphe manages to write with sympathy about these people while still maintaining a critical eye. One of her best lines is when she observes of John Murry "He seemed to believe .. that honesty itself would exonerate him." Also, while you're confessing, the spotlight is entirely on you.

This is an engaging book that is often as much fun as a fabulously trashy novel. Affairs, open marriages, lawsuits, interior decorating and shopping addiction are all on prominent display. Roiphe is entranced by "how ardently they tried" to make their non-traditional marriages work and there is something sweetly charming about, say, how proud Katherine Mansfield and husband John Middleton Murry are of their steadfast devotion to each other - even though they can't manage to stay in the same county together for more than a week. It's also a bit comforting to see that even when one stretches the boundaries of what "marriage" means, it's still hard work in any era.

Christian World

Attempting a one-volume history of anything that has existed for over 2000 years is no small task. Now try to keep it "brief". Once again Modern Library deserves praise just for tackling the task. Martin Marty's emphasis is on the spiritual side of the Christianity in The Christian World, with the institutions taking a back seat. His scope is larger, geographically, than Paul Johnson's admirable yet European-centric The History of Christianity. You won't find a tremendous amount of information about individual churches or creeds but you will meet an interesting array of characters like Origen who decides to go the extra mile in curbing his instincts by castrating himself. (Whether or not this was entirely a DIY endeavor or not isn't clear from the text.)

With material like this the early part of the book glides along. Marty has an eye for a good vignette and a good quote, like the nun who responds to a monk who averts his gaze when he sees a group a nuns. "If you had been a perfect monk, you would not have looked so closely as to perceive that we are women." I do believe that's the early Church equivalent of "in your face, holy boy." Then things bog down a bit and Marty seems to lose a bit of his spark, churning out lines like "It was unholy Christian holy war". Now really. For one thing, what "holy war" isn't unholy? This is just the start of a catalog of atrocities committed by men and women allegedly to act in the name of a religion. This is hardly a newsflash. On the other hand, this occasional heavy-handedness seems to me to be the result of trying to tell all sides of the story in a limited space rather than axe grinding.

All in all this is a solid effort, more history of Christianity as a faith rather than a historical force. It didn't leave me wanting to read more nor did I feel like I have the topic well-covered now but I did learn a few things and what more can one ask of a "concise" history?