ex libris reviews
1 October 1999
Also, truth to tell, I have always been a bit of a claustrophobe, and
the edginess that comes from suppressing an irritating and irrational
fear, combined with my current far-from-irrational caution about
venturing into a London bristling, for all I knew, with knife-wielding
youths all too willing to pick up where their colleague had left off,
made me regret that the chief inspector had not decided to keep me
locked up overnight.
Last month I read and reviewed nearly thirty books, a remarkable number for a single month. Many of them were light reading, and chosen for that reason; others were familiar favorites, and easily read from repetition. This month, however, things went considerably more slowly. David needed more of my attention this month, and then on the other hand I was reading, who, while ultimately rewarding, is most certainly not light reading. I made it through ten or so titles this month, and count myself lucky. I hope you will, too.
-- Will Duquette
A Monstrous Regiment of Women
Long-time readers of ex libris may be surprised to see these books reappearing so soon; I reviewed both of them in January's issue (I don't intend to describe them in any detail, having done so then). Now, I am known for re-reading books, but even so, ten months is an extremely short time. Here's the tale.
Last Fall, my sister suggested that Jane might like Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I got them, and enjoyed them thoroughly, and passed them along to Jane. Jane, at that time, was expecting our second child, and was consumed with gestation. Those of you who have not been pregnant, or had the honor of living with a pregnant woman (and some of you who have!) may be unaware of how thoroughly draining pregnancy can be. At that point Jane had just enough brainpower left over for the essentials of life; reading complicated intellectual mysteries was, alas, inessential, and The Beekeeper's Apprentice languished on her bedside stand.
So things remained until after last month's reading aloud blowout. I was looking for something to read Jane, and gathered together three or four possibilities. I figured that the The Beekeeper's Apprentice deserved another chance, and included it, and Jane picked it.
Well, there is good news, and bad news. The bad news is that the books do not work quite as well aloud as they do silently. The prose usually flows quite nicely on the tongue, but there are occasional traps that made me stumble over the words; on top of that, the basic premise is that the protagonists are just head-and-shoulders above the rest of us intellectually. Reading it silently I was able to identify strongly enough with Mary Russell, the narrator, that I reveled in her superiority. Read aloud, though, and thus more slowly, she often seems a bit of a smart-aleck.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Jane has indeed, as my sister predicted, enjoyed the books very much. We're currently in the middle of King's third Mary Russell novel, and I rather expect we will go on to the fourth in due time.
The Kindly Ones
At last I've finished Gaiman's Sandman series; these are the last three books. World's End was particularly interesting; it takes place in a tavern, where each guest must tell a story. Each of the stories is drawn in a distinctly different style, making the book quite an eyeful. I won't say any more; by now you're either sufficiently intrigued to look up the Sandman for yourself, or you're bored with hearing about him.
To Lie With Lions
These, the fifth and sixth books of Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, are what dominated my reading over the last month. For those who haven't been following along, the series follows the career of renaissance-era merchant banker Nicholas de Fleury. In the course of the series he travels all over the known world, from Iceland in the far northwest to Cairo in the Middle East to Timbuctoo in central Africa. I don't want to give any of the plot away, as to do so would spoil the earlier books, so I'll just give a brief sketch of Nicholas himself. To begin with, he's undeniably brilliant, with the additional knack of inspiring loyalty and dismay (in approximately equal measures) in his followers. Dunnett seldom lets you know what Nicholas is thinking, nor does Nicholas often explain himself; further, every word that comes out of his mouth is calculated to create a particular effect and is, therefore, not to be entirely trusted. As a result, we the readers are put in the position of Nicholas' followers: puzzled, sometimes aghast, sometimes amused, but never really completely sure what's going on until events come to fruition. Much in The Unicorn Hunt, for example, doesn't become clear until the climax of To Lie With Lions. And yet, there is so much going on, so much incident and intrigue, that it isn't until later that one says, "Now, what was that all about?"
I quite like Dorothy Dunnett, but I confess I need to be feeling energetic to really appreciate her.
Is there anyone in the world who hasn't heard of this book? It was first recommended to me in the very early days of this website; it's still on the bestseller lists, and it's prominently displayed in every bookstore. I tend to avoid national bestsellers on general principle--just because millions of Americans like it, doesn't mean that it's any good. But I'd heard some interesting things about it, and was caught in a bookstore in a weak moment, and picked it up.
I suppose most people who haven't read it have heard it characterized as a true crime book set in Savannah, Georgia. That's misleading. Yes, there's a murder, and the subsequent trials are described in great detail, but that's not the focus of the book. Rather, it is a book of character sketches, and an odd lot they are, too. Savannah comes across as a decaying peach cobbler, sweet and rich, with a thin (and stale) upper crust over a mellow and slightly (in some places, extremely) rotten filling. The book is both witty and compulsively readable, and, like Savannah, not entirely in good taste.
Some years ago I read Foucault's Pendulum. I was so put off by the obscure, eccentric, erudite oddness of it that I didn't finish it the first time I tried; later I was more patient, and I've read it twice all the way through. For those who haven't run across it, the book concerns three Italian intellectuals at a small vanity press. The trio are given a manuscript concerning the Knights Templar, a military order of religous knights founded during the Crusades and brutally suppressed by the Pope and the King of France in the early 14th century. According to the manuscript, the Knights Templar were possessed of a powerful mystical secret. When the order was suppressed, certain members went underground and have preserved the secret to this day. The manuscript contained a number of cryptic verses that purported to be a key to locating and claiming that secret power.'s book
Just for the intellectual fun of it, the three men studied the verses, and did their best to come up with a reasonable explanation of what they went. In short, they made up a story (freely inventing facts as needed) that fit the details in the verses. Things began to go awry when a number of present day occultists decided that the trio were on to something. Properly viewed, the story is remarkably funny.
Anyway, that was my introduction to the Knights Templar. And once introduced to them, they started popping up everywhere. The Masons (so I've read) claim descent from the Knights Templar (indeed, the Mason's auxiliary group for boys, DeMolay, is named after the last Grandmaster of the Temple, Jacques De Molay, who was burned at the stake as a heretic). Every weird conspiracy theorist you'd care to name likes to drag in Templars as owners of some secret mystical power which lead to their suppression. Eventually I began to wonder what was going on here: what was the straight dope about the Knights Templar. I went to the bookstore, to the history section. The books I found would no doubt have been entertaining, but they didn't seem particularly...scholarly, yes, that's the word I'm looking for. Rather, they seemed credulous at best, exploitive at worst. I wasn't looking for a book of poorly substantiated legends and suppositions; I wanted to know what really happened.
Eventually I found Barber's book, The Trial of the Templars. It gives a very brief history of the order, and then gives a (sometimes painfully) detailed blow-by-blow account of the trial from the first accusations to the last executions. And, in the end, here's what happened: The Order of the Temple was a wealthy order. Since they needed great resources to pursue the fight for the Holy Land, and since they needed to be proficient at moving those resources, both as goods and as money, from the lands of Europe to the Middle East, they became powerful bankers. Moreover, as a monastic order subject to the Pope, they were not subject to the control of local secular clergy or of the countries in which they lived. In short, they were wealthy and powerful, and they owned a considerable quantity of land given them by those wishing to save their souls by contributing to the Crusades. And the King of France found this to be utterly intolerable. This was at a time when the Pope and the French King were wrestling for control of Europe; it ended with the Pope moving from Rome to Avignon, France, and remaining firmly under French control for many years. As the first blow in this battle, the King accused the Templars of many heretical beliefs and acts, and questioned many of them under torture. Not surprisingly, many of the French Templars confessed to those heretical beliefs and acts. And yet, in countries like England, where torture was not used, no confessions were obtained. Furthermore, while the list of offenses ascribed to the Templars sounds quite exotic to our modern ears, it was in fact quite a familiar list; every group of heretics in the last several hundred years had been charged with much the same offenses. As a bigot of our day might say, "All Upper Slobovians are shiftless and stupid," the people of that day would say, "All heretics spit on the cross, profane the sacraments, and indulge in unnatural lust."
In fact, the whole tawdry tale is fairly simple. The King of France saw the Templars as a threat, and as a source of funds; he accused them of crimes they had not committed as a pretext of seizing their lands; he railroaded the Pope into suppressing the order completely. There were no mystical secrets (at least, not that helped the Templars any), just unsubstantiated gossip and malicious rumors and hearsay evidence. I don't wish to imply that the Templars were all saints--few are, in any place and time. They were certainly, by that time, rather arrogant in their wealth and power. But they almost certainly weren't the heretics they were made out to be.
Time to Murder and Create
In the Midst of Death
These are the first three of Block's Matthew Scudder novels. I picked them off of the shelf because I wanted to read something a little lighter than The Sins of the Fathers a little too predictable; its successors are, in my opinion, much better books.and , and also because I've just started a writing class. Block matured considerably as a novelist during the course of writing the Scudder novels, and I wanted to read them again, more slowly, and watch what he was doing. I enjoyed all three of them. As before, I found
Matthew Scudder is an interesting character. He's an alcoholic; an ex-cop; a private detective. Except that he's not a private detective; private detectives have licenses, and submit receipts, and do paperwork. Scudder just has "friends", for whom he does "favors"; sometimes, in return, they give him "gifts". So much we are told. But what makes Scudder so interesting is what we aren't told. The books are written in first person, with Scudder as narrator, and yet we very seldom get inside his head. He tells us in great detail precisely what he's doing, where he's going, what he's drinking (especially what he's drinking), and he tells us matter-of-factly. He doesn't tell us that he's an alcoholic; he tells us that went out in the evening, and had a few drinks in each of a dozen or so bars, and still didn't manage to get really drunk because the shots were so small.
Scudder is not for everyone. He lives in a violent, sleazy world (though it's rarely graphically so), and readers with weak stomachs are recommended to turn elsewhere. To, say, Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, which are just as well written, and funny to boot.
This is another book I pulled off of the shelf while recovering from The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, a collection containing some Jeeves stories but some others as well. Particularly worth mentioning: "Uncle Fred Flits By". You'll be glad you did.. It contains all of Wodehouse's short stories about upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his oh-so-resourceful valet, the inimitable Jeeves. I'd read the collection several times before (and out loud to Jane), and if the stories weren't as knock-down funny this time as they were originally, at least they were light as a well-cooked souffle, and warm, and comforting, and friendly. If you have never read Wodehouse, I advise you to run right out and get this book; or, if you can find it,
Written by and illustrated by
This is a book Jane and I picked up over a year ago, knowing that it would sit on the shelf for at least that long before Dave had any interest in it. I took it down a couple of days ago, and surprise! Dave is now, at 2 1/2, old enough to enjoy it.
The book takes place in the Land of Chewandswallow, where no one buys food or raises food from the ground, because all the food they need comes from the sky. In the morning it might rain orange juice, and snow eggs over-easy, for example. In the afternoon it might be cloudy, with a chance of meatballs for dinner. And then one day the weather takes a turn for the worse....
We bought the book on the strength of the pictures: well-drawn and witty, with a wealth of small details that make them a joy to study. The words, well....they tell the story, adequately, but they don't flow from the tongue as they ought. Having never read this book aloud before, I was really rather disappointed at how often I found my tongue tripping over the words. On the whole, though, the glorious pictures are worth the trip.
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