Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

In her bestselling novels published in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mary Renault recaptured, in lilting and simple prose, the world of ancient Greece, re-telling the myths of gods and heroes and the histories of kings and queens. In The Bull From The Sea she writes in the voice of Theseus, the Athenian prince whose adventures included slaying the terrible half-man, half-bull Minotaur in Crete, capturing and marrying the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and building an empire famed for the justice of its laws and the peace enjoyed by its people.

There are so many versions of the Greek myths, and the characters in them have such convoluted relationships, that a novel like this, carefully researched and plotted, helps us to hear them anew as they must have sounded to ancient audiences listening to them sung around a hearth fire – as just vivid dramas about people. Theseus has a tangled family background to begin with. The fearsome Medea was his father’s mistress; the unbalanced Phaedre, who ended up lusting after his own son, was his second wife; the girl Ariadne, whom he abandoned after she helped him escape Crete, was Phaedre’s sister. Theseus' adventures, in Mary Renault’s hands, are not just tall tales, but spring from his own rational and human responses to pressing problems. He must defend his kingdom against ambitious men who would be glad to take it from him, he must marry a woman he doesn’t like to create needed alliances. Illness and palace gossip and religious conflict are all, also, a part of his and everyone’s life, and shadow everything he decides to do.

Renault is particularly strong where she interweaves, in the old myths, what modern scholarship knows about the history of this era. If we had to "place" The Bull From the Sea in history, we might put it circa 1200 B.C. Towards the end, Theseus meets the young Achilles, a hero of the Trojan war which may actually have been fought around that time. The historic truths looming behind the plot are, first, the religious clash between people (mostly women) who worship a very ancient Mother-and-Moon Goddess, and those (mostly men) who worship Zeus and find the Goddess cult emasculating and grotesque – which it probably was. The second truth is the movement of barbarian tribes, pushed by who knew what far-off turmoil "at the back of the north wind," down into the Mediterranean in search of land, plunder, and safety. It is the wars they cause that bring the story to a climax, and bring Theseus his greatest grief.

Renault creates a world of sunlit seas and fields, intense physical activity outdoors, and family bonds so casual – men "get" children on slave, queen, and war captive equally – that paradoxically, almost everybody is as familiar as family. Despite the sun it’s a bleak world, too. A man "is what he is"... but the gods decide all.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first novel, starts out well. A middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Pickwick, and his three friends, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Tupman, and Mr. Winkle, travel about England in the 1830s, observing people and customs in order to report back to their quasi-scientific gentlemen’s club. The four friends are delightful nincompoops, and get themselves in a variety of awkward situations, more than once involving a shocked middle-aged lady in her nightcap. Early on they all, nearsighted to a man, are caught in an open field between two sides of an army regiment preparing to drill with live fire. For a while, it’s great fun.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pickwick’s three friends disappear after the opening one-fifth of the book. They are replaced by "Samivel Veller" (Samuel Weller), a working-class, salt of the earth young man whom Pickwick hires as his personal servant. Weller shepherds his innocent master through the remainder of the tale, as Pickwick tangles with two con men, Alfred Jingle and Job Trotter, and, more seriously, with a pair of dishonest lawyers pursuing a breach-of-contract suit against him on behalf of a lady who pretends Pickwick jilted her.

To take on the adventures of Sam Weller means taking on, first, Dickens’ obsession with dialect. Weller’s accent must have meant something to English readers in the 1830s, but for us it means enduring over 500 pages of transposed v’s and w’s. It becomes "wery inconwenient." And to take on Dickens at all means taking on, even here when he was only 24, his obsession with the workhouses and debtors’ prisons of his era. (Mr. Pickwick ends up in one.) I have no doubt that social conditions in 19th-century England were terrible, and Dickens himself probably deserves huge credit for helping publicize and rectify them. I only wish he could have been either preachy or silly. Too often, he is both. Throw in that early-Victorian mawkishness – the angelic little girl, gazing trustfully up at her palsied grandfather in the bowels of the workhouse, the ruined debtor grimly watching his creditor’s son drown – and you have an unsavory and fiercely dated mess. I was particularly struck by the young author’s contempt for the law.

All that said, Dickens remains a great wordsmith. He seems to have had the 19th- century gift for gorgeously convoluted language that plugs every hole in the reader’s awareness before he even knows the holes are there. And he is often funny. My complaint about him is that he himself is so much there. Maybe that’s a sign of greatness, but other great writers stand back and tell the story. Dickens strikes me as always interposing himself between the reader and the tale: here I am, I have suffered and understand all, and will now interpret because I am Great.

Incidentally, the three friends return at the end, and the book concludes happily. To carry on with Dickens’ oeuvre means reading nineteen more.

Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar by Victor Appleton II

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

It’s impossible to pass up a title like Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar, especially when the first two lines alone make the book worth its 50 cent, castoff price: " ‘Tom, your new atomic sports car is absolutely dreamy!’ said Phyllis Newton. Eighteen-year-old Tom Swift Jr. grinned at the pretty, dark haired girl ...."

Tom Swift is the male counterpart of Nancy Drew, the fantastically accomplished, brave, upright youth, mature enough to be out of school and driving around having adventures, but young enough to still require fully adult mentors, and adult rescuers from danger when adventure turns rough. Like Nancy, he also has a strong, wise, moneyed father, another scientist and inventor whose Swift Enterprises is doing well enough to provide young Tom with a four-square-mile laboratory and production plant, where he creates atomic energy capsules and tests new, super-strength plastics. Early on, there is an atomic explosion in Tom’s lab, but he and his friend Bud clean it up right away, and then they relax over a pot of cocoa.

The storyline is gloriously wild. Someone wants to steal the secret of Tom’s new vehicle, and then his mother and sister are given two fabulous rubies which have something to do both with important advances in maser communications, and with a cursed ruby mine in the struggling young nation of "Kabulistan." Sinister men in turbans spy through windows, and a bomb goes off in an airport. Tom drives cars, pilots planes, and calmly deals with everyone from predatory business executives in "Shopton" to shady antique booksellers in Teheran and mounted Kurdish tribesmen in the highlands of central Asia. When he first shows off his atomicar for the press, he himself takes the controls after a reporter mocks the planned use of a robot-driver. ("Good heavens, boy!" his father bursts out later. "You might have been killed if the repelatron-force ray from your anticrash device hadn’t stopped that truck!") On weekends, Tom relaxes with his family’s business friends, strolling the artists’ colony in Taos, or hiking, swimming, and playing tennis in the Adirondacks. They all eat good meals, fried chicken and biscuits at home, sheep’s head and pomegranates abroad. Because of his previous inventions he has had contact with representatives of advanced civilizations in outer space, but they don’t make an appearance in this book.

To author Appleton’s credit, and apart from the credit he deserves for his research, he does keep his eye on two things throughout the story. He bothers to describe Tom’s experiments, albeit loosely – there’s talk of "hydraulic pressure gear," and valves and megacycles – and he bothers to include real violence, not gratuitously but because Tom gets involved with violent men. Only once does a mute thug aim a carbine at Tom’s friend, but when he does, he means business.

Tom Swift’s adventures must have been great fun for a boy to plunge into, say on a fine, free summer afternoon in 1962. They’re still quite a tour de force now.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Master and Commander is the first of Patrick O’Brian’s series of sixteen Aubrey-Maturin novels, that is, novels set in the British Royal Navy of the late 1700s and early 1800s whose main characters are Captain Jack Aubrey and medical officer Dr. Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is the gallant, diamond-in-the-rough type, fearless and good, if somewhat less than whip-smart. Maturin is the scholar, the landlubber, the reader’s stand-in: nautical terms and rules of engagement are explained to him, and he in turn observes Captain Aubrey and the ship’s crew for us.

Since Patrick O’Brian has great respect for his readers’ abilities, this book will probably provoke one of two reactions right away. You might simply give up at all the technical sailing vocabulary, or you might decide to let the mizzenmast-and-fo’c’sle talk wash over you, and get on with the gist of the story. The story concerns the activities of the sloop Sophie, cruising the western Mediterranean in 1800 under orders to protect neutral shipping convoys and do what damage it can to French and Spanish interests in this era of the Napoleonic wars. There are half a dozen fiery battles, interspersed with emotional battles among Aubrey, Maturin, and the ship’s first officer Dillon, all of whom keep dangerous secrets from each other.

One of the marks of a really good historical novel is that it recreates attitudes and situations that we would never have thought of, precisely because times have changed. Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin both are devoted amateur musicians, who take time off whenever they can to hear concerts and play duets together. They use wonderful archaic words like "tumefaction" and "mammothrept." They also have unthinking religious prejudices which would horrify us, but which are truly not sinister given the characters’ fundamentally decent behavior throughout the book. Jack Aubrey "hates Papists," because he "heard that they are cruel." In truth he doesn’t hate anybody, but the author has given him a character trait appropriate to an 18th-century Englishman. Lovers of history will appreciate the glorious little trick by which O'Brian ties his fictional Jack into the life of the very real Samuel Johnson, via a girl -- also real -- named Queenie.

What the reader will take away from Master and Commander, above all, is an appreciation of the fantastic amount of work and knowledge that went into manning the sailing ships of two centuries ago. Sophie would be a mare’s nest of sails and ropes for a modern time-traveler, not to mention the confusion of loading, swabbing out, and firing cannons by hand, and of making a ship move by adjusting to the wind. (Only the North African Muslim pirate galleys had the luxury of oar power, propelled as they were by Christian slaves. Captain Aubrey encounters this authentic bit of the 18th century Mediterranean, too.) O’Brian further mesmerizes by pointing out that, while his characters are fictional, his whole story comes from primary sources. "The admirable men of those times," he says in a short preface, "are best celebrated in their own splendid actions."

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

More than fifty years after its first publication, the title Auntie Mame might only conjure up memories of Rosalind Russell on screen, exclaiming to some meek soul that "life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" Indeed they are, at least compared to the wonderful Mame Dennis.

In the novel the narrator, a suburban family man, reflects on how his own remarkable relative could pretty much devour alive the pallid Unforgettable Character that he has been reading about in a magazine. This charming and difficult spinster aunt, he notes, did all the things his spinster aunt did – took in her orphaned nephew, educated him, struggled with financial problems, later entertained and vetted his college girlfriends – only with nowhere near her spice and aplomb. What makes the difference between the two? What makes Auntie Mame nowhere near being a "poor sucker starving to death" at the banquet?

Despite the book’s being often laugh-out-loud funny ("I know the most divine new school ... all classes are held in the nude under ultraviolet ray. Not a repression left after the first semester"), its theme is, really, the well-lived life. Mame Dennis has some advantages over the magazine-aunt, and over the rest of us, in living well. She is a very wealthy Manhattanite throughout most of the story. But when the Depression hits and takes most of her money as it took most of everybody else’s, she is thrown back on resources that are not financial. She is thrown back on herself, and she still knows how to live well.

In Mame we meet a hard drinking woman, an irreligious woman (except for her curiosity about the East’s "exquisite mysteries"), a woman slightly silly and (as the narrator admits) often, amid the social whirl, slightly lonely. But she is also loving, brave, compassionate, well-read, curious – and foul-mouthed, stagey, overbearing, and above all sharp as a tack. She lies abed after a party, poring over newspaper maps of Rommel’s campaigns in Africa. She reads all of Edith Wharton straight through, and can lecture pleasantly on Tudor architecture. She has elegant friends who edit fashion magazines and are "authorities on Rimbaud;" she has friends who are pushcart vendors. What Mame cannot abide is counterfeit, and her ability to spot it and name it is what makes her life well-lived even though she is only a comic heroine, and even though sometimes she is broke. Hateful people and fake things, joylessness, are what set her off. A rich, lovely girl who is rude to a waitress is, for Mame, counterfeit. So is a syrupy daiquiri masquerading as a drink, when straight Scotch is perfectly available ....

We may not share all Mame’s little tastes, but she is an Auntie to whom it is always delightful to return for a refresher course in living. She has the last word: " ‘Enjoy yourselves, darlings!’ "

A Gardener's Year by Katharine Twomey

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

A Gardener’s Year is one of those books that libraries tend to discard because it has not been checked out in twenty-four years. And it is one of those books that tends not to be checked out because, perhaps, the library patron browsing the gardening shelf takes it down to look at it and sees a collection of short, almost abrupt essays, not written by an expert, published by an obscure, long-gone press, and asks himself – "Why do I need to know what this lady did with her garden in Hot Springs, South Dakota, in 1973?"

We don’t need to know what she did, of course, but the book is a little triumph of charm. Katharine Twomey seems to have written at a time when an ordinary person – do we dare say, a busy housewife – could "contribute scores of articles on horticulture to newspapers throughout the Plains States" detailing little more than her own amateur experiences in, and ruminations about, her garden now, and her memories of gardens past.

These essays did not cost her much effort, which is not to say that they are not good. They are lovely, unhurried, highly personal; she assumes that she can hold people’s interest in simple stories of grasshopper invasions, of the hunt for flowers that will not bring on her husband’s hayfever, and of the depredations to the perennial bed caused by the family dog. Taste in reading matter is highly personal, and it may be that through all this she cannot hold many people’s interest, which is why my copy of A Gardener’s Year was last stamped DUE in May of 1984. I like these kinds of gentle, idiosyncratic essays. The writer is not trying to impress, she hasn’t a slew of professional citations to back up her work. She is simply one human being recording her ideas for the possible pleasure of another.

And all this is not to imply that the book is all sweetness and light and has no backbone whatever. The collection’s great strength is that it details the adventures of the distinctly amateur gardener. As Twomey points out early on, the respected garden writers of yesteryear were often well-to-do people, living in bosky climates, with a staff of servants to do their work. Miss Gertrude Jekyll, comfortable herself, designed gardens for the estates of wealthy Englishmen. She could plan "vistas" and experiment with her famed color schemes to her heart’s content. Katharine Twomey was much more like the rest of us. She lived in an ordinary house and coped with the ordinary problems of gardening around the garage beneath a vista of telephone wires. She also coped with the expense. "You see a lovely iris in a catalogue and you order one – yes, one," she writes.

Winter is the best time for reading gardening books, as Twomey points out, and her own book might prove more encouraging, come spring, than all the up-to-date and expert advice you can find.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome to Vellum

I look for old books, the kind with the sea-green and sky-blue and brick-red re-enforced library bindings, as thick as plywood and maybe with a design of triangles or cross hatchings on them, done in white. No dust jacket, no gushing reviews on the back. Maybe a date or a near-defunct publishing company on the title page -- Little, Brown, 1951, 1931, whatever -- and the old pages are as soft as plush. And they are filled with information, with stories people used to know. I imagine a stout middle-aged lady in a dress and gloves and a pill box hat, riding the train somewhere and reading. Have you ever noticed in old movies (ironically enough) how often people are shown reading, and how often they talk about reading serious books? Norma Shearer in The Women reads poetry before bed. The stout middle-aged lady in Strangers on a Train, or some other Hitchcock film, allows on the witness stand that she was busy on the night in question reading a biography of Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli! Mercy! For fun?

I was impressed even in junior high school by the references in my favorite book, Gone With The Wind, references that Margaret Mitchell and her editors fully expected the reading public of 1936 to absorb. I didn't know any of them except as words. Thermopylae, the Borgias, Shakespeare, "Dead Sea fruit," and all rattled off quite naturally. Novels, histories, and belles-lettres published today may show forth similar proofs that modern day audiences are expected to know a lot, but somehow it doesn't seem so. Then there's that old-fashioned grace and complexity in the prose, again something that just seems not quite so prevalent anymore. Even Janis Joplin -- and this will seem wildly anomalous, but "wait for it" as the pundits joke -- wrote at least a grammatical letter to her parents while on her way from Texas to fame in 1966. "With a great deal of trepidation ... I understand your fears at my coming here." Someone taught Janis Joplin, or she had read enough English to know instinctively, the use of the gerund. (You will find the letter in Lisa Grunwald's and Stephen J. Adler's Letters of the Century, The Dial Press, 1999.)

A culture that could teach rocker Joplin grammar was also producing books that still deserve to be read now. Oh, the culture still produces mighty good stuff, to be sure. It's the generally more sinewy tone of old books, packed between their near plywood covers, that seems to have relaxed so. Let's not forget that tone; every last example of it doesn't belong in the library sale bin, to make room for what's up to date but floating in a reference-less modern vapor. Welcome to Vellum.