Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2001

ex libris reviews

1 March 2001

We are mistaken when we believe that culture and the humanities are being served by scholarship. The truth is that art and culture do not belong in the university. It cannot be a home for them because culture proper and scholarship proper are diametrically opposed.
Jacques Barzun


In This Issue:
Flu Season Redux

Well, I let my guard down, and that was my mistake. Last month, everybody else got the flu, and I made myself stay healthy. And after that we had a couple of family birthdays, and I made myself stay healthy. And last weekend, after it was all over, I let my guard down, and it got me. Being home sick is a mixed blessing. There's lots of time to read--if you have the attention to give to it.

This month we've got lots more Ngaio Marsh and Lindsey Davis, another P.G. Wodehouse, and a number of other choice selections by Barbara Hambly, Tim Cockey, Simon Winchester, Jonathon Carroll, Jacques Barzun, Winston S. Churchill (yes, that Churchill), and the oddly named Lemony Snicket. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Nursing Home Murder
Singing in the Shrouds
Killer Dolphin
When in Rome
Tied Up in Tinsel
Photo Finish
Light Thickens
By Ngaio Marsh

With the exception of The Nursing Home Murder, these books were all written in the later part of Marsh's life, when she was at her best. I liked all of them but When in Rome; written in 1970, it's primarily about drug dealers in Italy, and shows unpleasant signs that Marsh was trying to abandon the gentility of her earlier books so as to be more hip and compete with the grittier novels of the day. The rest are up to Marsh's usual high standards.

It's astonishing how many of Marsh's novels involve the stage; particularly notable in this set are Killer Dolphin and Light Thickens, both of which are set at the renovated Dolphin theater and which involve many of the same characters.

Venus in Copper
The Iron Hand of Mars
Poseidon's Gold
Time to Depart
By Lindsey Davis

If I'm not mistaken, I've now read all of Davis' tales of Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco, thus ending an era; for the past several months I've headed to the mystery section of any bookstore I enter and grabbed three Ngaio Marsh novels and one or two or three Lindsey Davis novels, headed for the cash register, and gone home. Now I'll have to work harder. It's something of a comfort that there are likely a few more Falco novels to come. I'll just have to wait and see.

If you've been reading ex libris for the last few months you're already familiar with Marcus Didius Falco; if not, consult our Lindsey Davis page. I just want to say that I enjoyed all of these thoroughly. They are funny, enthralling, and remarkably well-drawn; more than that, Davis has worked a trick I don't think I've ever seen before in a mystery series. Each novel grows out of its predecessor; in particular, the problem Falco is set to work on is generally one that came up during the previous novel and which there wasn't time to attend to. Thus, in Silver Pigs Falco helps bust a conspiracy against the emperor; in Shadows in Bronze he's involved in tracing the remaining conspirators and ensuring their loyalty.

As a result, each book is dependent on a considerable amount of background material from the previous books in the series. Somehow Davis manages to provide that material transparently, in the context of the current book, without drawing any obvious attention to it, and in particular without giving out any spoilers. As an aspiring writer, I'm quite impressed.

Search the Seven Hills
By Barbara Hambly

I have a kind of on-again/off-again relationship with Barbara Hambly. She's a good writer, and I've enjoyed most of her books; and yet most of them are fairly run-of-the-mill sword-and-sorcery that I've had no desire to re-read. Occasionally, though, she comes up with a quirky gem.

This particular book has been sitting on one of my shelves, unread, for longer than I can remember. It's a mystery set in ancient Rome (sound familiar), and somehow I had just never been in the mood. This month, though, I spent a week sitting at home with bronchitis and nothing to do but read, and was thereby forced to look at my backlist of unread books. I've been reading a lot about Rome recently, so it seemed reasonable to give this one a try.

It's OK, if flawed. It takes place fifty years or so after Lindsey Davis' Falco series, in the reign of Emperor Trajan. The sixteen-year-old daughter of a Roman consul is kidnapped, apparently by a outlaw sect of religious cultists, followers of one Joshua bar Joseph (Christians, to you and me). It's well-known in Rome that Christians sacrifice babies and drink their blood; they might sacrifice young women as well, and the girl's beloved, Marcus Silanus, vows to find her before they do.

The book has everything you'd expect in a novel about Rome: bread and circuses, orgies, corruption in high places, public baths, and all of that, and I enjoyed it. But it's still flawed. Rome is painted with a very broad brush; it lacks the fine details of Lindsey Davis' or Steven Saylor's books. It seems more like one's stereotypical concept of Ancient Rome rather than a real, living city. More than that, the dialog in the opening scene was so bad that I nearly put the book down right then.

I also detected a tendency that's unfortunately common in science fiction and fantasy (Hambly's home base), and that's the desire to tell what I call "The Big Story"--a story in which the conflict is such that if the hero doesn't win through, general calamity will result. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a sterling example of The Big Story done well, and a great favorite of mine, but I find that as time goes by I'm appreciating The Small Story more and more--the story in which the outcome is primarily of interest to the immediate participants.

On the other hand, Hambly presents the Roman Christians all too clearly, warts and all. I don't entirely like her representation--I suspect it's a bit exaggerated--but I can't deny that Christians then, as now, were loud, argumentative, sometimes obnoxious, and much given to involved theological hairsplitting. It's the latter trait that is shown most clearly...and while Hambly doesn't attempt to describe the different points of view to the reader, the characters clearly understand them and are vocal about them. Given my background, I was able to follow the disputes perfectly well, and naturally, to take sides.

The Hearse You Came In On
By Tim Cockey

Tim Cockey has written an engaging first novel, and is to be congratulated, but he still has a ways to go.

The memorably-named Hitchcock Sewell is a Baltimore undertaker. During a wake at his funeral home, he spies a young woman in a tennis outfit, not usual funerary attire, and his curiousity is piqued. It's piqued even further when, having given him a false name, she inquires into the cost of a funeral--for herself.

From this modest beginning, Cockey builds an involved and tortuous tale of corruption, murder, adultery, influence-peddling, and domination--in short, he's written a Big Story. And there are a number of problems with this.

To begin with, any mystery series about an undertaker has to have an undercurrent of humor to be bearable, and indeed this book has that; but the humor is at odds with the gravity of the story. More seriously, Hitchcock Sewell is too small a player to be a serious force in a Big Story of the Big City; as a result, he spends the last part of the book oddly detached from the things that are going on.

The next problem is the sense that Hitch (as his friends call him) is dancing to the tune of the author's plot in defiance of his own character. He eventually hooks up with the doll in the tennis skirt, and does an amazing array of ridiculous things at her behest. They were necessary to the plot, but it didn't make sense that he was doing them. The size of the plot exceeds the stature of the character.

The worst problem with telling The Big Story, though, is that it's next to impossible to tell one Big Story after another about the same characters without quickly moving into the land of absurdity. Readers of David Eddings's novels will understand what I mean. Cockey has written a second Hitch Sewell novel, called I believe A Hearse of a Different Color, so he clearly intends to write a series; if he wants to pull it off he'd best scale back his plots drastically. Nevertheless, I plan to keep an eye out for the paperback of his second novel.

The Code of the Woosters
By P.G. Wodehouse

Yet another Jeeves and Wooster novel, this one follows directly upon last month's Right Ho, Jeeves. Gussie Fink-Nottle is still trying to marry Madeline Basset; Aunt Dahlia is still trying to run her magazine at a profit and somehow retain the services of her peerless cook, Anatole; Bertie Wooster is still being enlisted by all parties to do unpleasant (and mutually incompatible) things. At the center of the tale lurk a silver cream pitcher in the shape of a cow and a would-be dictator named Roderick Spode

This was the first Wodehouse I ever read, some ten or twelve years ago, and I wasn't particularly impressed...but that was because I didn't know what I was getting into, and didn't understand the rules of Wodehouse's game. Still, a newcomer would be better off starting with some of Wodehouse's short stories. Look for the anthology The Most of P.G. Wodehouse for an excellent sampling.

The Land of Laughs
By Jonathan Carroll

I have a bit of history with this book. I first bought a copy when it was a new book, back in the early eighties; I was deceived by the author's name, by the cover blurb, and by the cover art into thinking that the book had some stylistic similarity to Lewis Carroll's Alice books. It can very difficult to read a book when your expectations and the story are so entirely at cross-purposes. I got about halfway through and put it down in digust. It sat on my shelf for many years, and so far as I can tell I finally got rid of it.

During that time, though, I occasionally heard Carroll's name mentioned, in print and on-line, by people whose opinions I respected. Thus, when I saw a new edition of The Land of Laughs at our local bookstore I resolved to give it another try.

It's ironic, really. Twenty years ago, had I read it in the proper mood and with more accurate expectations, the book's conclusion would have blown me away. Now it seems, if powerfully written, nevertheless just a little trite.

I see that I've written quite a bit about the book without describing it at all; that's partially because it's a hard book to describe without giving away essential details. But here are some bits. Once there was a famous writer of truly magical children's books. He lived in a small town in Missouri, and discouraged publicity and interviews, and eventually died. Two of his greatest fans resolve to write a biography of him, and though warned that his surviving daughter is unlikely to be helpful, they continue with their research and eventually travel to the small town--and that's when the weird goings on begin. It's a disturbing and macabre book about the power of writers to create new worlds, and it's exactly the sort of book you'll like, if you like that sort of thing.

I'll likely be keeping an eye out for Jonathan Carroll in the future; whether I'll be buying or not is another question.

The Professor and the Madman
By Simon Winchester

Winchester's book is a best-seller so you've probably heard about it already. It's the story of three remarkable characters: The Oxford English Dictionary, its first great editor, Prof. James Murray, and one his chief correspondents, Dr. W. C. Minor. The unique thing about the OED was that each word, and each sense of each word, was to be illustrated by a quotation, with the earliest extant quotations to be preferred. Naturally this was (and remains) a heroic undertaking, much reliant on volunteer labor. Dr. Minor was by far the most productive of the volunteers. He was also, at times, stark raving mad. He suffered from paranoid delusions, among other things, and was confined to the Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane.

There are two primary things I take away from this book, which I rather enjoyed. The first is a deep appreciation for the work involved in creating any dictionary, let alone one as substantial as the OED. The second is astonishment at how ill Dr. Minor really was. I had assumed that his madness must be a small thing, given the extent of his scholarship. It was, in fact, far worse than I had imagined, and the details are not very pretty. It's a fascinating tale, but I don't recommend it to the squeamish.

Although, in a culture obsessed with Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, I suppose Dr. Minor is pretty much a pussycat.

The Cynic's Dictionary
By Aubrey Dillon-Malone

This book is best read in little dribs and drabs, to fill in odd moments, rather at long stretches. A little vinegar goes a long way.

What editor Dillon-Malone has done is take the premise of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary and extend it with cynical definitions from a vast array of writers (with Bierce prominently included). The definitions range from the wry to the dreary. For example, while Jeffrey Barnard's definition of "Hangover" as "The wrath of grapes" inspires a chuckle, many others inspire a frown.

The book has two faults. The first is that editor has (naturally) cast all of the quotations as definitions; many of them were not written to work that way, and sound stilted as a result. And when the quotation is a famous one, the restatement sounds doubly wrong, as when Robert Frost is cited as giving the following definition of "Good Fences": "What make good neighbors."

The second fault is that (in at least one case) sources are not always quoted accurately. On the subject of the future, the editor has C.S. Lewis define it as "Something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 miles an hour whatever he does, whoever he is." This is, on the face of it, either deeply metaphorical or merely nonsensical; I can't make heads or tails of it. But what Lewis actually said is that everyone reaches the future at the rate of 60 minutes an hour--an obviously true statement, phrased that way for effect, and in context not the least bit cynical.

The River War
By Winston S. Churchill

This is Churchill's account of General Kitchener's campaign up the Nile River to Sudan to defeat the forces of the Mahdi, reconquer the Sudan for Egypt, and avenge the death of General Gordon.

If you have any idea at all what I'm talking about you may well appreciate this book. It's well-written and enjoyable, putting both the conflict and its resolution into historical perspective; if it has a flaw it's a tendency to dwell on the detailed movements of the combatants in each battle. As it should, given that it's a military history.

If you've no idea what I'm talking about, I'll give a few details. During the early 19th century, Egypt (then a vassal state of Turkey) conquered the Sudan, a vast tract along the Nile to the south of Egypt. The Egyptian governors took no thought for the inhabitants except to squeeze them as much as they could, and after many years a Sudanese holy man declared himself to be the Mahdi, the Expected One, the Islamic Messiah, and led a Holy War to throw out the "Turks". Now, Egypt was officially a vassal state of the Turkish Sultan, but in practice it was at this time so in debt to the Great Powers of Europe that it was in fact ruled by them, and by the English in particular.

England sent a famous general, "Chinese" Gordon, to go to the Sudan and evacuate the Egyptian garrisons. Gordon was given nothing of what he needed to do the job, and was ultimately killed by the Mahdi's forces. The public outcry was intense, and after more than a decade of preparation an Anglo-Egyptian force, led by Herbert Kitchener, began its slow, inexorable march down the Nile.

It's a fascinating campaign, for it's almost a textbook example of how to do it. The supply chain was critical, and Kitchener was careful to ensure that he protected the supply chain and never, ever outran it. It took three years to pacify the Sudan, but the outcome was never in doubt. Kitchener was able to be so slow and deliberate precisely because he had all of the modern tools of war: machine gun batteries, repeating rifles, smokeless powder, gunboats, and above all the railroad. His opponents, though both numerous and brave, were simply not equipped equally.

And that's the irony: textbook campaigns just don't happen between equal opponents, as England was to find out just a few years later during the Boer War. But that's another story.

By John Pollock

Serendipity strikes again. When I was halfway through The River War, I was at the bookstore and found this book, a thick biography of Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener. I was of several minds about buying it. On the one hand, Kitchener's name appears in many of the history books I've read, sometimes center-stage, but more often on the fringe; therefore I was naturally curious. On the other hand, I'd gotten a rather unpleasant impression about him from a lot of those previous books; I wasn't sure I'd like him much, and it's painful spending an entire biography with someone you don't like. On the third hand, Churchill's account of him in The River War was really fairly positive. I took a gamble, and bought the book-- all 492 pages of it (excluding notes, bibliography, and index).

I was astonished. I slammed through the whole thing in two days. Granted, I was home sick, and had nothing else to do--but usually I read books like this over a long period of time, alternating sections with shorter, lighter books. There was no question of this here. And I've come away, rather to my surprise, with a great deal of admiration for Kitchener.

Well, enough gushing. I don't have time to give a precis of Kitchener's entire life; let me hit some highlights.

As Sirdar (commander-in-chief) of the Egyptian Army, he reconquered the Sudan for Egypt and England. That sounds harsh to our ears; be aware that before the conquest, Sudan was a strife-torn wreck. After the conquest, Kitchener went to great lengths to rebuild the country. He founded grammar schools and a college, and instituted a period of peace and prosperity and lasted for sixty years--right up until Sudanese independence.

Under Lord Roberts, and then on his own, he defeated the Boers of South Africa in the Boer War, a civil war of sorts between the English and Dutch settlers. The Boer War was the first modern guerilla war, and was fought with astonishing ferocity and brutality on both sides. It is here that Kitchener takes the most knocks. But. The peace that Kitchener negotiated with the Boers at the end of the war allowed English and Dutch to live together peacefully in a united South Africa right up to the present day. He is often castigated for not insisting on the enfranchisement of the native Africans--something he in fact favored and argued for but was unable to make the Boers accept. Nor, had they accepted it, is it all clear that his own government would have. On the subject of racial inclusion, he was actually ahead of his time.

When World War I began, Kitchener, as England's favorite and best known war hero and military leader, was named Secretary of State for War. He immediately shocked the cabinet by predicting that the war would last at least three years, rather the six weeks that was taken as an article of faith. Had he not been brought in, England would likely not have recruited and trained sufficient manpower to see the war through. It is a tragedy that he died before the war ended; had he been involved in the peace talks at Versailles (and had he been listened to), perhaps World War II could have been averted.

On top of all of these achievements, Kitchener was a lifelong Christian, and a man of amazing integrity. He believed his faith, and he lived it. He was constantly looking for ways to aid others, and whenever possible did so in secret. He always did his duty, without regard to the possible cost (political or economic) to himself.

As a Christian and a product of the late 20th century, I find the figure of the Christian Soldier a most unsettling one. The two terms seem inconsistent somehow. And yet, what of the Christian Knight, steeped in chivalry, who uses might to aid the right? That, to my mind, is as good a description of Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (as he was eventually titled) as anything else I can think of.

Well, anyway, I liked the book a whole lot. If you have any interest in history, and would like to take a tour through the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, you could do much, much worse than this.

The Culture We Deserve
By Jacques Barzun

It's always a treat to read something by Barzun, on nearly any subject. Though a lifelong academic, he manages to express himself clearly, cogently, and thoroughly, leading the reader safely through even the densest arguments.

The present book is a collection of essays on the general topic of art and culture, and I recommend it highly. For those who have seen and been daunted by Barzun's massive From Dawn to Decadence, this slender book covers some of the same intellectual territory, and serves as a worthy introduction to the larger work.

If you've been following the Culture Wars, and puzzling yourself about funding for the arts, the place of the Western Canon, and the pernicious influence of Dead White Males, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

His basic thesis, or one of them, is that becoming "cultured" is not a scientific or analytical process, despite what is currently taught in college literature departments. It's a process of synthesis, in which one reads much, listens much, views much--and then reflects, solitarily or in conversation, on what one has encountered. It isn't the individual Great Book that's important; it's the interconnections of thought between all of the Great Books that furnishes the cultured mind. And those interconnections can be appreciated only through reflection--what I call "pondering".

As such, Barzun supports the teaching of the Western Canon in a thorough and deliberate way--not because he favors the so-called hegemony of Dead White Males, but because of the vast, conflicting, rich body of ideas the Canon represents. Once through it, the student will have encountered not only most of the important questions about life, the universe, and everything, but also most of the possible answers--and having digested and reflected upon the material, will then be in a position to come to his or her own conclusions.

I freely admit that I didn't get that kind of education, and though I wouldn't have appreciated it at the time I am now rather sorry.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

The Bad Beginning
By Lemony Snicket

This is the first volume of six in a series entitled "A Series of Unfortunate Events". The series first caught my eye near last year's "Harry Potter" day, when bookstores were feverishly trying to catch young reader's eyes with anything even remotely similar to J.K. Rawlings' Harry Potter books. I was intrigued by the words on the back cover:

Dear Reader, I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hand is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe.... It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting down this book at once, and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

Dark, yes, but with definite humorous possibilities. I didn't buy the book at the time, but recently encountered it again, and picked it up.

I'm very sorry to say that I'm disappointed, on a number of counts. The first is that Snicket is writing down to her (?) readers, which is something one should never do. It gives the whole thing an unpleasantly arch tone that for the most part I dislike. In places, it comes off as ironic rather than arch, but those places are all too few.

Now, it's conventional in this kind of book that the children are very bright, the villains are very evil, and the good adults well-intentioned but completely unobservant. One expects this. But Snicket takes it all too far. The evil Count Olaf is so remarkably nasty--so obviously nasty and with such patently nasty friends--that it is beyond belief that Mr. Poe, the children's solicitor, and Justice Strauss, the kindly next door neighbor, should be taken in by him for a second, let alone most of a novel. The result is to make Poe and Strauss--supposedly intelligent, cultured people--look like bumbling idiots. One wonders that they are capable of tying their own shoes.

On top of this, the book is extremely short. It is handsomely bound, with a hard cover, and looks reasonably substantial, but I read through it in something under two hours. That's not unreasonable in a children's book...but although I'm curious to see how the series comes out, I'm not eager to shell nine dollars apiece for the remaining five books. The handsome binding simply isn't worth that much.

The book isn't a total loss; it was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours. But unless the later volumes improve dramatically, I'm afraid I really can't recommend it.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2001
Copyright © 2001, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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