Monthly Archives: March 2012

Duty and Desire, by Pamela Aidan

Title: Duty and Desire
Author: Pamela Aidan
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 320 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.5 stars

If my complaint with the first book in the series is that it follows its source a little too nearly, my complaint of the second is entirely at the other end of the pendulum’s oscillation. Duty and Desire starts off in a promising mold — we are in unknown territory here, a period of Darcy’s life which neither Austen nor the BBC covered, and so Aidan is freed from her tethers. Unfortunately, she takes that opportunity to veer off into a very strange land. While the first third of the book is what you would expect — Darcy at Pemberley, learning about his sister’s reformation, seeing to his tenants and his family, and so forth — the last two-thirds seem to come from another planet.

In an afterword, Aidan states that she was inspired for this section of the book by Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic romance, Northanger Abbey. Not having read that book, I can’t comment as to how near or far her imitation is, but coming in the middle of this series, it’s a bizarre and jarring left-hand turn. Mr. Darcy, attempting to banish Elizabeth Bennett from his mind, makes the impromptu decision to join some old schoolfellows for a house party. Most of the characters are fairly interchangeable and indistinct, making it difficult at points to determine what anyone’s motivation is. The exception is the half-Irish half-sister of Darcy’s host, Lady Sylvanie, whom Aidan takes pains to point out to us at every opportunity is fairy-like in appearance. Darcy is both captivated and mystified by her, and though Aidan clearly wants to set her up as a point of tension and suspense, it’s hard to believe that Darcy could really be tempted by her when he so clearly mistrusts her. Things spiral out of control when a strange sacrifice appears at the standing stones on the manor — a dead pig trussed up to resemble a child. And so suddenly this Regency comedy of manners veers sharply into a supernatural mystery. It’s very odd and very discordant — and what’s worse, it never pays off. The ultimate resolution is strange, under-explained, and unsatisfying.

The book also occasionally verges into very preachy territory, particularly with regards to Georgiana, who attributes her maturation to the influence of a very religious companion, the widow of a minister. Georgiana pushes Divine Providence at Darcy, prompting the narration to expound at length on matters of 19th-century Christian theology. This isn’t surprising when you learn a bit about the author, who is very much influenced by her faith. Very nice for her, and perhaps for a great many of her readers, but not to my taste. Though Aidan clearly paints Darcy’s and Society’s disapproval of Georgiana’s fervent religious awakening in a negative light, I’m rather on their side, finding the whole thing somewhere between unnecessary and obnoxious. I don’t mind religion as part of a historical plot — because, obviously, religion is a force that has shaped so much of human culture and which plays a significant part in many historical figures’ lives. What I mind is when it feels more like the author shoving a religious interpretation at the reader, not just part of the story.

Though I first read these two books a few years ago, I was never moved strongly enough to purchase the final installation in the trilogy — and honestly, I don’t know if I will be so moved anytime soon. It isn’t that I think it would be bad — there are just so many other books on which to spend my hard-earned cash, and, well, this doesn’t approach anything near the top of the list.

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An Assembly Such as This, by Pamela Aidan

Title: An Assembly Such as This (Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman #1)
Author: Pamela Aidan
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 255 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.75 stars

This book is fanfiction. I don’t say that disparagingly — I’m very positive on fanfiction, as is natural, since I’ve been writing it for fifteen years myself — but that is, absolutely, what it is. It’s not a re-imagining, it’s not “inspired by” — it is fanfiction of Pride and Prejudice. What’s more, it appears to be fanfiction derived more from the 1995 BBC miniseries than from the book itself. Whole chunks of the book read like a narrative of the film, with little augmentation on Aidan’s part.

An Assembly Such as This is the first in a trilogy of books written from Mr. Darcy’s perspective, and it begins just where the film does — with Darcy arriving with his friend Mr. Bingley at Netherfield. From there, we roll through the events of the first third or so of Pride and Prejudice — the country gatherings, Jane Bennett falling ill at Netherfield, the promised ball, etc — getting Darcy’s view on matters rather than Elizabeth’s. There is some interest to this — we get a bit more insight into both the Bingleys and the Darcys as families and about the connections that bind them. We see more of Caroline Bingley’s machinations, and learn more about Georgiana’s troubles. But the main point of switching the perspective — getting more of Darcy’s internal monologues — could use better execution. We do get to see him grapple with his feelings for Elizabeth, but there’s not a lot of depth to his self-analysis. The best word for it is probably “aimless”. Or perhaps “bland” — Aidan doesn’t really fill Darcy in as an exciting, attractive character. He seems rather normal and pedestrian — it’s hard to see from her augmentation precisely what there is to fall madly in love with.

My ultimate verdict is: Inoffensive if uninspiring. If Jane Austen fanfiction fluff is what you’re after — and I say that with no judgment, because sometimes fluff is absolutely what you want to reach for — then this is the book for you. If you want something rather more inventive, well, there are plenty of romance novel authors out there happy to oblige you.

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro

Title: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Author: James Shapiro
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 338 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 5 stars

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fascination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First FolioShapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude.

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

(Originally posted at the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog).


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Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Brief Lives probably has the most cohesive plot of any of the Sandman collections, excepting maybe Volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In this collection, Delirium, youngest of the Endless, has conceived a fierce need to go in search of “the Prodigal”, Destruction, the middle of the siblings, who has abandoned his realm and who has not been seen in some 300 years. But she doesn’t want to go it alone (and is vaguely aware that she can’t, fractured and unstable as she is). She first asks the twins, the siblings nearest to her in age, Desire and Despair; both refuse. Then she asks Dream, who, surprisingly, consents — though his reasons have little to do with helping Delirium or finding Destruction, and far more to do with having an excuse to walk in the mortal world.

Dream, we learn, has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend, the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), and he’s gone into quite the existential funk over it. Several of the inhabitants of the Dreamworld discuss how his mood affects their manifestation of reality:

Nuala: Brrr. Listen to that thunder. Poor Lord Morpheus. He must be very sad.

Mervyn: Nah. He enjoys it. I mean, hell, it’s a pose. Y’know? He spends a coupla months hanging out with a new broad. Then one day the magic’s worn off, and he goes back to work, and she takes a hike. Now, guys like me, ordinary Joes, we just shrug our shoulders, say, hey, that’s life, flick it if you can’t take a joke. Not him. Oh no. He’s gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin’ the loss of his beloved, so down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet.

I like this little poke at the Dream-lord’s massive ego — he is, in many ways, a figure that takes himself quite seriously (as his sister Death frequently reminds him). So, both to shake himself out of this depressive fit — but also hoping that he might cross paths with his ex-lover — Dream agrees to accompany his sister on the search.

The search goes badly right from the start. Delirium has a list of people who were acquainted with Destruction, who might know his whereabouts, but they all suddenly die or disappear before Dream and Del can get to them. This is more worrying since these figures are immortal — some gods, some figures out of mythology, and some who have just refused to die. In one of the more memorable openings of the series, one chapter begins:

There are not many of them, all things considered: the truly old.

Even on this planet, in this age, when people consider a mere hundred years, or a thousand, to be an unusual span.

There are, for example, less than ten thousand humanoid individuals alive on this planet today who have personal memories of the saber-toothed tiger, the megatherium, the cave bear.

There are today less than a thousand who walked the streets of Atlantis (the first Atlantis. The other lands that bore that name were shadows, echo-Atlantises, myth lands, an they came later).

There are less than five hundred living humans who remember the human civilizations that predated the great lizards. (There were a few; fossil records are unreliable. Several of them lasted for millions of years.)

There are roughly seventy people walking the earth, human to all appearances (and in a few cases, to all medical tests currently available), who were alive before the earth had begun to congeal from gas and dust.

How well do you know your neighbors? Your friends? Your lovers?

Walk the streets of any city, and stare carefully at the people who pass you, and wonder, and know this:

They are there too, the old ones.

I love that passage. It’s chilling, unsettling, and somehow inspirational, all at the same time (a Gaiman specialty). And the first of these that we meet, we meet at his death; Bernie Capax remembers the stink of mammoth during his morning commute, and moments later, gets crushed by a construction site accident. He doesn’t want to believe it at first — after all, he’d made it so long, and for it to end like this? Who could blame him for feeling cheated at the last? But, as Death reminds him, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” We find out later that Bernie was on Delirium’s list; somehow, Destruction left a trip-wire in his wake that’s disrupting any attempts to find him, often at great cost.

Dream and Del also incur some purely mortal collateral damage, as accidents and mishaps plague their travel. Eventually, Dream throws in the towel; he’s had enough, he isn’t getting what he wanted out of the trip anyway, and he’s tired of their efforts getting people killed. Delirium takes this poorly, throwing a fit, retreating to her realm, and locking it down; Death intervenes, chastising Dream for being callous and selfish, and he agrees to try again. After coaxing Del back out, the pair journeys to their eldest brother, Destiny, who tells them to seek out an Oracle who is of the Family — Dream’s son Orpheus. Orpheus reveals Destruction’s location in exchange for a boon which he can claim from his father; despite knowing full well what price he’s going to have to pay, Dream agrees, and off they go to find Destruction — who is, as fate would have it, on an island neighboring the one where Orpheus has been kept all these years.

The meeting is, if anything, anticlimactic. Destruction reiterates his reasons for leaving his realm — he doesn’t think that the Endless should behave as they do, toying with mortals and governing their lives — that mortals quite have the hang of it now on their own, and the functions of the Endless can go on without their personal supervision. (Clearly this is correct for Destruction — we do a plenty good job of that — but what happened with Dream’s absence from his realm at the very beginning of the series calls the truth of his assertion into question). The conversation ends to no one’s satisfaction, and Destruction decides to pack up and go on the move again. Dream returns to the other island and kills his son, at Orpheus’s own request.

I really, really enjoy this volume, for several reasons. I appreciate the progression of the saga’s overarching plotline and thematic concerns. I like getting to see more of Delirium, who is a fascinating figure in her own right. Her contradictory nature and unpredictability show best when she and Dream visit Destiny; when Dream has a minor breakdown, Delirium briefly reigns herself in in order to console him. She says it hurts, and she doesn’t like doing it — but she can, when the need is great. The idea isn’t explored much further, but I think it’s tremendously interesting. I also like getting to see Destruction, on his own, attempting like anything to create and finding that he cannot do so in any sort of satisfactory manner. But perhaps more than all of that, I like what this collection has to say about immortality. It anticipates American Gods (published in 2001, 7-8 years after these issues first appeared in stores) in many ways, particularly in the idea of how old gods and other mythological beings survive: namely, any way they can. Most poignant to me is the story of Ishtar, reduced to dancing in a seedy strip club for the scraps of sexual worship she can glean there. She doesn’t seem to take it too badly, honestly, but there are echoes of such greatness and such loss in some of her conversations with her friends. And then, when she takes herself out in rather spectacular fashion:

I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams. … And what comes after, not even we know.

She’s a stunner, to the end, and no mistake, and she makes a powerful statement — even the gods are not truly immortal; only the Endless are, and even they, as we learn in this collection, can falter, perish, and be replaced by a new aspect of themselves.

Brief Lives also includes, in a flashback to the seventeenth century, an interesting commentary on Reason. Poised at the edge of the Age of Enlightenment, Destruction comments that man has turned away from other methods of explaining the world and has focused on reason.” It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth, or dream.  But it has the potential to be far more dangerous.” Dream agrees that it is a flawed tool at best. This is an interesting thing to consider, from a modern standpoint, in an age when science and faith so often find themselves at loggerheads — when we debate whether or not evolution should be taught in schools and whether or not religion ought to be allowed to govern what women can do with their own bodies. It’s interesting for me in particular because I somewhat straddle the line where reason is concerned. I love science, believe in science, am fascinated by science — but I have faith, too. I don’t see that the two have to be incompatible — the world is no less miraculous just because it’s composed of atoms and forces and chemical reactions — and yet there are so many who would insist on making them enemies. I think we need all of those things — instinct, myth, dream, and reason — in balance, to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. But that is, of course, only my own musing on the topic; I do love when Gaiman makes me think these thoughts.

In Brief Lives, you can really feel the saga spinning towards something. All the pieces are not only in place but now in motion. There’s more of an intensity to this volume, that will only ratchet up further in The Kindly Ones. Before that, though, we get the delightful imaginative exploration of World’s End

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The Rake, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: The Rake (Lessons in Love #1)
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 375 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite romance novels, and not for any really good reason. The book has some very definite flaws (the embarrassing cover being only one of them), and yet — I flipping love it.

Georgiana and Tristan hate each other, in that tremendously obvious way which indicates they’re really in love with each other and have been for some time. What Georgie has kept secret for six years is that they were lovers, briefly, before Georgie found out that he’d bet on winning a kiss and a stocking from her and then lied about it, which led to their parting and feud. For years, Georgie’s been worried that Tristan might expose her as a “ruined” woman — but nothing’s come of it. Still, she doesn’t feel she can marry anyone else, because she can neither reveal herself as a non-virgin nor deceive a potential husband by marrying him when she knows he has expectations of that virginity. Oh, here, I’ll let her explain:

“Why should I?”
“Because you’re blaming me for something that –”
“I could marry someone who only wants my money in an instant,” she said in a low, tight voice.  “I’ve already told you I won’t marry for that reason.  And I can not marry for love.”
“Someone who loved you would understand.”
Stopping her, cheeks alarmingly pale, Georgiana snatched her hand from his grip.  “I would never trust anyone who said he cared for me.  I’ve heard it before.”

My empathy, Georgie. Six years later, Tristan hasn’t married, either, but it’s becoming a dire need, as his father’s debts have left his estate extremely strapped for cash; as such, he’s on the hunt for an heiress. He’s looking at Amelia St. John, who by all appearances is right much of a bubble-head, but has an enormous portion and is herself hunting for a title, so that would solve problems pretty neatly — Tristan just can’t quite resign himself to yoking himself to her for the rest of his life. Amidst this, Georgie and her friends Evelyn and Lucinda decide to impose some good behaviour on the errant men of England, and each determines to find a man to teach a lesson in manners to. Georgie, tellingly, chooses Tristan as her target. She aims to pay him back for hurting her years earlier, and decides the best way to get herself in proximity is to offer herself as a companion for his maiden aunts, one . This (apparently) allows her to live in the same house as Tristan and his brothers without impropriety.

I knock a bit off the rating because the book has some elements that stretch even the credulity of a romance novel. Actually, the entire conceit of the novel doesn’t make that much sense — both in the “lesson-giving” idea and in Georgie’s becoming the aunts’ companion when she’s still clearly on the Marriage Mart, hardly a retired spinster. There’s not a lot of logic there. And the book’s eventual resolution makes even less sense in some ways. But I forgive the book all of that because the characters are just so much fun. Just like Beatrice and Benedick, Georgie and Tristan “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them”. Georgie’s also fond of treading on Tristan’s toes and breaking fans on him. Their conversations crackle with lightning wit and sexual desire, the constant parry, thrust, and feint of two people who know just how to hurt each other but don’t always want to. Enoch clearly conveys their familiarity with each other and the extremely tangled emotions involved in their situation.

I also appreciate the idea of a non-virgin heroine, someone finding her way back to love after a broken heart. Despite the ire she aims at him, Georgie’s never been able to get Tristan out of her head or her heart. Part of the challenge of the book, for him, is to prove himself worthy of her — to earn her trust, which he seriously fumbled on the first attempt. And so I enjoy that double-message that the book provides — that the hero has to make some effort, has to pay the penalty for his own bone-headedness and then make an honest new start, and that the heroine overcomes her own hesitancy and have the bravery to take down defensive walls (to let in the very man who prompted their construction in the first place). These aren’t the most typical tropes for historical romances, but I always enjoy seeing them in play.

And then, there are the Carroways — Tristan’s family, four brothers (two of whom we’ll see as the central figures in later books), all with fantastic personalities. I love when a writer can convincingly create a family atmosphere, and Enoch has a triumph in the Carroways — they’re probably second only to the Bridgertons when it comes to my favourite romance novel clans. Their fraternal patter is natural and engaging, which makes them a whole lot of fun to watch in action.

All of these factors make The Rake a delightful read, despite the somewhat bizarre conceits of the plot. Skate on through those, and you have a book populated with wonderful, witty characters, unbridled and effervescent. Not the deepest of reads, perhaps, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

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Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Cold Vengeance (Pendergast #11)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 480 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: somewhere shy of 4 stars
Spoilers: For Fever Dream, the preceding book in the series, as well as other previous Pendergast novels. Most of this review will be spoiler-free for Cold Vengeance, though I will have a clearly marked spoiler-full section at the end.

This is definitely the middle section of a trilogy. That shouldn’t automatically be taken as criticism; The Empire Strikes Back is my favourite of the Star Wars movies, and The Two Towers, in my opinion, is a far better tale than The Fellowship of the Ring. (Well. Half of it is, anyway). There’s nothing wrong with being the filler of the sandwich. But it does make it damn hard to review the thing. Not just for the spoilers, but also because — it doesn’t really begin or end. We start in medias res, with Pendergast on what’s bound to be an ill-fated hunting trip with his erstwhile brother-in-law — whom he has just learned was responsible for his wife Helen’s death. The first few chapters are wonderfully evocative, exploring a boggy mire in Scotland. P&C’s talent for breathing life into a location is as active here as ever, and they walk the reader through the twists and turns of this Highland battle in a way that keeps the tension well-mounted. Eventually (and as this happens in the first few pages, I’m not going to consider it a spoiler), Judson Esterhazy gets his shot in and leaves Pendergast for dead.

This being a Pendergast novel, I don’t think it’s a spoiler, either, to reveal that Pendergast makes yet another of his fabled great escapes — otherwise there’d be very little book left. Once healed, he embarks on a mission to hunt down Judson and determine where Helen might be now. Of course, every avenue he pursues leads to more evidence, apparently incontrovertible, that Helen is dead. Yet Pendergast persists.

I wish Preston & Child had worked in a little more of the revelations from the first book in the trilogy into the opening few chapters, to better remind the reader of what was at stake. It’s been a year since I read Fever Dream, and though my memory for books is pretty good, I was a little hazy on the details. I had trouble remembering exactly what Helen had been up to on Spanish Island that made her so dangerous she had to be killed, had trouble recalling precisely what was unearthed there — and my last review was of no help in jogging my memory, since I was so careful to keep spoilers out of it. So it was a ways through the book before I felt like I was back on terra firma as far as background was concerned, and by that point, all sorts of new confusions had been thrown into the mix.

Overall, the book clips along at the usual good pace of P&C novels, but I admit I found the second act somewhat muddy. It seems to amble and meander a bit, with a lot of shady clues, red herrings, and cul-de-sacs. It could’ve used some tightening up to give it the sort of laser-focused plot I’ve come to expect from the Pendergast series (Wheel of Darkness not withstanding).

Pendergast is also on his own more in this book than ever, eschewing help from the usual suspects. New character Ned Betterton never really gets the chance to take off, which is a little jarring considering how much time we spend with him — he seems very much a character designed to relay information to the reader because no one else is still in the place where that information is, not someone designed as a person in his own right. When Corrie Swanson (of Still Life with Crows) turned up, I was really hopeful she might get to take an active role, but that never quite panned out fully. She hovers at the edges of what Pendergast is doing, trying to unearth some revelations, but she’s not quite the active, engaged partner that D’Agosta, Heywood, Green, Kelly, and Smithback (RIP) have been in the past. Pendergast has gone solo and rogue by this point, yet that doesn’t really serve to clarify the story very well. He continues to keep secrets from the reader, and we have no other solid means of unearthing them.

That said, the last several chapters of the book — which involve a raid on a yacht and urban combat, among other things — are electrifying. This is the sort of close-quarters action we got in some of the earlier novels (Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and Still Life with Crows come to mind), but with a very super-spy sort of feeling grafted on. It’s a bit of a change from the standard fare, but in some ways, it feels more like Pendergast-as-FBI-agent than we often get to see him. It’s an interesting tactic, and a definite way of rollicking through towards the end of the book —

Which, of course, has no satisfactory ending whatsoever. It’s a cliffhanger by design, as is typical for the middle book of a trilogy. Nothing wraps up, and we end the book with almost no more answers than we began it, and a whole lot more questions. Effective, in its way, but ultimately, I’ll have to wait to see how everything pans out in Two Graves before I can really pass judgment on what happens in Cold Vengeance. It’s an odd feeling to leave a book with — not necessarily bad, but unfulfilled nonetheless.

Alright. From beyond this point, consider yourself in spoiler territory, because I’ve run out of ways to talk about this book without giving away major plot points.

First off, I don’t mourn Ned Betterton (we hardly knew ye, and couldn’t really be compelled to care), though I was a bit surprised that he bit the dust so pre-emptively, but I really hope P&C are punking us about Corrie, because if she’s really dead, I might well and truly have a hissy fit. I think there’s hope — they note she was reaching into her purse just before the gunman fired, so maybe she managed to mace him and spoil his shot or something. I really hope she’s not dead, because I really want her to take an active role in the next book. She deserves it — and it would, to me, feel a fantastic waste of a character to have introduced her way back in Book 4, have kept her in the readers’ consciousness with peppered references to her since then, and then just take her out like this. (Then again, I still feel that killing off Bill Smithback was a waste of a character, so there’s really no telling what P&C might do).

The neo-Nazi angle was a highly unexpected hard left turn. I don’t know that I don’t like it, but I don’t know that I do, either — if that makes sense. This is all down to personal preference. World War II and the Nazis have never been subjects that I voluntarily go to in fiction; it’s just not an area of interest for me. I’m hoping that P&C manage to make this interesting in a new and innovative way, rather than falling into any Nazis-as-villains cliches and pitfalls.

There were a lot of bits and pieces in this book that really didn’t come together for me, and I’m giving P&C the credit that those threads will intertwine in Two Graves. One of the biggest was the revelation of Helen’s faked death. That’s going to require a lot of explanation — and unfortunately, Judson’s now incapable of telling us anything about it. How on earth did he manage that? How did Helen not know? What required the sacrifice of her hand? Honestly, I was pretty infuriated with the utter refusal of either Judson or Helen to explain anything within the confines of this book. I know P&C are heightening the cliffhanger, but in this case, I found it more annoying than pleasingly suspenseful. If there’s good enough payoff in Two Graves, I’ll cheerfully forgive them — but they’ve got a ways to go to get there.

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Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet

Title: Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists
Author: Tony Perrottet
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 416 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history, travel
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is not the sort of book I typically read, but I’m so, so glad I took a chance on this one. It’s completely delightful — Perrottet has a wonderfully accessible tone, and he melds history and the present day together in a fascinating weave.

Tony Perrottet, a travel journalist and lifelong lover of the classics, decides to go on one last final adventure when his girlfriend falls unexpectedly pregnant. He had, previously, always avoided the Mediterrannean as overcrowded and overhyped — but then he hit on the idea to embrace the mania and follow the trail of the first generation of international tourists. The book opens with a magnificent description of the unveiling of Agrippa’s world map, an enormous marble creation which displayed, for the first time, the world as they knew it in all its glory. Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Britain to India, Germany to the cataracts of the Nile, all laid out in a public gallery for first century Romans to peruse at their leisure. Even more importantly, at least for purposes of tourism, it showed the roads and shipping lanes which connected the empire. Suddenly, everything seemed so close — and so off they took, in droves. Perrottet arranged his journey, pregnant girlfriend in tow, to mirror theirs: starting in Rome, then south to the Bay of Naples, the peninsula to Brundisium and thence to Greece, to chart all the sites of the once-great empire, then island-hopping across the Aegean, travel by land up the coast of Asia Minor to Troy, then down to Egypt for Alexandrian indulgence and a Nile cruise.

Throughout the book, Perrottet hops back and forth between the experience of the ancients and his own. He tells us what excited first-century Romans, where they partied and where they studied. In so many ways, you can see how little has changed: they have the same complaints about greedy hoteliers and foreign food, road conditions and overpriced souvenirs, they seek out the best wine and the finest dining, they carve their initials on monuments — all motions that tourists today still go through in their millions. The priorities of the ancients don’t always align with ours, and what the sites meant to them was different, thanks to religious and cultural drift, but still — the humanity of them shines through across two thousand years of history. More than anything, Perrottet brings that commonality across.

The section on Rome was particularly fun for me, because I’ve been almost everywhere he mentioned. I went to Italy with a school group when I was 16, and while I wish I’d been older, to better appreciate it all, it’s still vivid in my memory. The Forum Romanum, the Coliseum, the coast at Baiae, the isle of Capri, the sandy streets (and looming mafia presence) of Pompeii, the tightly-reined terror of Naples. I have my own torturous tale, of thinking I was in for a day of shopping and then finding myself having to trek three miles uphill to Tiberius’s villa at the absolute highest point on Capri. I know what those places look and sound and smell like, and so this section of the book was a wonderfully nostalgic trip for me. And yet, there was still new information for me, both from the historical and the modern perspective. Pagan Holiday provides some delightfully salacious details that high-school students don’t get told when visiting sites, particularly in regard to the carnal indulgences of Baiae. Perrottet also actually stayed in Naples, where as we were herded carefully in and out, and the characters inhabiting that degenerated city that he draws for the reader are unforgettable. By and large, though, we walked a lot of the same steps, and it made me miss Italy terribly.

The rest of Perrottet’s journey, though, was unfamiliar territory to me. Perrottet makes Greece sound both like a great experience and like a significant challenge. I imagine it’s a lot more of the latter now than it was ten years ago, when he wrote this book, and, thanks to the Greek economic instability, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer. But still, Perrottet finds the ancients awakened for him across the country, from the erudition of Athens to the bizarre ways in which the Spartan military legacy has lived on in Mani, from the ghosts of athletes at Olympus to the wilderness of Arcadia.

Of all the places Perrottet discusses, he most put a fire in me to visit Ephesus and its environs in Turkey, which he describes as a better-preserved, more lively, and less aggressive version of what you’ll find in Greece. He also states that Turkey is better traveled by land than by sea, which is encouraging for this hydrophobe. I had no idea that Ephesus was nearly equivalent to Pompeii as an archaeological site:

Nowhere else is the ancient Roman world so vivid, the intervening centuries so transparent; nowhere in Greece or Italy makes it so shockingly clear that the past actually happened. You couldn’t just see the ancients enjoying their holiday pleasures; you could hear and smell them.

I want that memory in my life. And, like Perrottet, I would love the chance to visit the anticlimactic ruins of Troy. His description of how Troy was already a tourist trap in the first century is pretty fascinating, since, of course, Troy was already 1200 years in the past for them. The Romans had a passion for all things Trojan, thanks to their cultural myth of being descended from Aeneas and other heroes who escaped the Fall. Perrottet connects their obsession with their fallen heroes to a story from World War II: not far from the site of Troy was where the battle of Gallipolli took place, a disastrous endeavour with heavy losses on both sides. In one of the book’s more poignant sections, Perrottet visits this site, finding on its memorial the name of an uncle of his who died there. He walks this recent battlefield, to which he has a personal connection, with Homer’s words ringing in his head.

I think my patience, much like Perrottet’s girlfriend’s, would have worn out somewhere in Egypt (even without the pregnancy factoring in). Of everywhere the author described, the process of traveling seemed least pleasant there — even worse than the terrible weather in Asia Minor and the desperately frenetic attitude of Greece — and I can only imagine it’s gotten worse in the intervening decade, given the current political circumstances in Egypt. I know they’re trying to lure tourists back in with assurances of safety and luxury, but frankly, I’m not buying it.

Part of it comes from having heard horror stories from a friend whose tour guide literally abandoned her group in the desert. That seems, from Perrottet’s descriptions, to be in-line with what tourists can expect throughout the country. I also was astonished to learn that, even a decade before the Arab Spring, terrorist attacks were so common in Middle Egypt that they shut down cruises on the Nile and that trains routinely expected to be shot at on the way to Luxor. I am curious, though, about how the Alexandrian scuba-recovery project is going, if any progress has been made on that front in ten years. And still, no matter the current climate, there is something tremendously compelling about the oldest extant places in the Western World. I remember, on a much smaller scale, visiting the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, three thousand years old, and being completely bowled over by the age of them. To stand in the middle of something so profoundly ancient is an astonishment to the senses, almost incomprehensible. Egypt is another couple thousand years removed from the present than the Etruscan complexes are. Seeing those sites must be absolutely tremendous.

Perhaps the best part of the Egypt section is the tale of Perrottet’s very own personal mummy’s curse. After he literally pokes the mummy of Pharaoh Thutmose III — under invitation, by the way, of the curator — a series of disasters provokes a side-quest, to appease the ancient ruler’s spirit. I really enjoyed the way Perrottet wove this story in; it doesn’t overwhelm the narration, but the thread is there, and it mixes an appropriately ancient air of superstition in with the all-too-cynical mundanity of modern travel concerns.

I should very much like to read more travelogues of this kind in general and from Perrottet in particular. I appreciate how much detail Perrottet put in and how devoted he was to making sure his research was solid. I liked that he told us where his stories came from (and I now really want to find the account of Germanicus’s grand tour, that ended in his untimely death). And yet he never loses sight of his own stories, his own experience, and his own take on things. His insights are wonderful, personable, and often quite touching, yet always with a wry sense of humour attached as well. At the end of his trip, cruising down the Nile and suffering from archaeological oversaturation, he reflects:

…we decided to skip a few land visits. All we wanted to do was wallow in the pool and stare at the riverbank. I felt a little ashamed of this philistine behavior, until I read that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had enjoyed the same sort of trip. Caesar was exhausted after years of battle. Cleopatra was heavily pregnant with his son. Of course, Julius had just conquered the entire known world. But apart from that minor detail, the parallel seemed fairly apt.

I recommend this book to any travel junkies or classical enthusiasts — there’s plenty here for both sets, and if you exist in the overlapping portion of that diagram, you’ll be in literary heaven. If I ever have the money (and the regions are ever completely safe to travel in again), I would love to re-create this same journey. It sounds like a blast.

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