Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Cavalier In the Yellow Doublet

by Arturo Perez-Reverte
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

The fifth Captain Alatriste novel.  The Captain and his young (but now rather handy with a blade) ward Inigo are in Madrid, walking a tightrope between their strict standards of honor and their rather lowly status among the pomp, poetry, and provocation of that city’s many cavaliers and officials.  Alatriste begins an affair with a famous and beautiful actress, MarĂ­a Castro (whose husband serves as some sort of half-jocular, half-bitter pimp), but is warned to stay away, as her favors are being enjoyed by none other than the king himself.  The Captain, of course, cannot be told what to do, and alienates friends and enemies alike by continuing to see the actress.  This, unfortunately, makes him the perfect patsy for a plot against the royal wastrel – and when Alatriste’s old enemy, the Italian mercenary Malatesta, pops up, they both know one of them must die at the hands of the other.

This is a superb historical novel, perhaps the best in the series.  The vanity of swordsmen for a decaying empire, duels over one wrong glance, strict adherence to considerations of honor, pageantry, assignations, plays, poets whose stars rise and fall at the whims of the court: this is Perez-Reverte’s 17th century Madrid, in all its gritty cinematic glory.  The suspense is masterful, with Alatriste and Inigo both independently betrayed by their foolish pride or love, and racing, swords in hand, against a very short deadline separately but toward the same goal.  Alatriste is not at all what the modern reader would think a hero – he’s a tired cynical old killer with no fear of death and his every action is mandated by his sense of pride and honor, not fairness or magnanimity – but he has a shred of sympathy for those over their heads and a few sparks of love in him, and that makes him a complex, fascinating figure.  He’s the perfect centerpiece for these thrilling, swashbuckling adventures of a grittier, prouder time.

four stars

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Every Day In Tuscany

by Frances Mayes

Not a cohesive memoir so much as a personal diary of the author’s time in Tuscany, now twenty years on since her bestseller.  Perhaps because this is her fourth volume of Tuscan ramblings (I have not read anything else by her), she does not take the time to introduce characters but rather just drops their names – is Ed her second husband?  Third?  Common-law live-in partner?  Is her grandchild’s mother her daughter, or Ed’s, or what?  Who are all these neighbors, and their relation to her?  It’s not terribly important, perhaps, but a nagging distraction for those who have just picked up this one book.  In a similar vein, she drops the names of such things as “DOC wines” without explaining that this is an official quality assurance label.  In this sense the book is, ironically, very off-putting and exclusionary, since she is trying to write as if composing letters to close friends.  It’s very poetic, adjective-drenched, sensual language, light on events and drama, and even lighter on chronological sense.  It’s predominately the scents of food and vibrant colorful flowers and thick soft warm cloths, mountains and wooden furniture and Renaissance paintings and fireside sing-alongs.

There is a brief point at which something approaching a conflict of interest or drama approaches.  She is caught up in local politics, and – and after a build-up that makes it seem as if a loved one will be tortured in front of her – she relates a slightly unpleasant event that shook her up a bit.  Her fear soon passes without further incident, as does her telling of it, and after a few pages musing on the bad things that happened to people she’s known, it’s off again with menus, museum tours, shops, flowers, page after page after page about paintings, apparently cribbed from museum tour guides or books on art history – to me the absolute pinnacle of boring reading.  All this, with no particular progression or thought to build up a coherent narrative journey: near the very end of the book is when she chooses to ramble about her struggles with the Italian language – why then? – and of course then switches gears abruptly, droning about what might have been if she’d stayed in Georgia – which can be of no interest to anyone but herself.  All this museum-visiting and garden-planting and wine-tasting and restaurant-lingering and pasta-making and house-renovating is perhaps fascinating stuff to those who read to live vicariously, but it is not for me.  In the end, Mayes’ personal prose style says very little about Tuscany itself, and quite a lot about what a wealthy woman writer from Georgia enjoys doing all day.  That, to me, is not what travel writing is all about.  The final chapter is pseudo-metaphysical pretentious nonsense (“is the universe – at some distance – shaped like the bones of a cranium?”). Boring.  Utterly boring. 

one star

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bone Dry

by Ben Rehder

The second Blanco Country mystery.  Game warden John Marlin is again drawn reluctantly into a homicide investigation.  It starts quirkily enough and in his wheelhouse: a drought has made two prominent local men, Emmett Slayton, crusty old rancher (with loveable bumbling would-be crook hillbillies Billy Don and Red from the previous book working for him), and Sal Mameli, an ex-mafioso in the witness protection program, compete for the suddenly in-demand cedar brush-cutting business; Mameli and his nasty son are willing to turn violent to get the monopoly.  Meanwhile, there are reports of a beautiful blonde anti-hunting activist pretending to seduce hunters and then vandalizing their gear.  But when a hunter ends up shot to death, with one of John’s hunting buddies the prime suspect, things turn grim.  John is forced to take a hand when the suspect grabs a hostage and demands that the game warden help clear his name; with the sexy activist now on his side, he digs for a motive while trying to forget Beth, his separated girlfriend.

This is a briskly paced, amusing, silly, and quite over-the-top ride, with a rather crowded cast of dozens, more than a few plots burning at once, and a handful of twists.  Some of the characters are unfortunate caricatures (Sal’s dialogue, peppered with “dis” and “dat” and references to New Jersey, is poorly rendered and gets tiring, Inga the activist is a one-note fun sexy hippie chick type), but a core group of fleshed-out principals are sympathetic and multi-faceted.  The mystery, hidden beneath all the mayhem and blundering, is solid and Rehder adds a twist that had me smiling admiringly at the end of the book.

four stars

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Charlie And the Great Glass Elevator

by Roald Dahl

The sequel to the famous book about the chocolate factory, this book begins in media res with Charlie Bucket, the eccentric and magical Wonka, and Charlie’s extended family all in the titular glass elevator, hurtling up into space. With a total disregard for how gravity or any other boring reality works, Dahl has the group fly to the newly built Space Hotel, meet up with some belligerent shape-changing aliens (the Vermicious Knids), rescue some astronauts, and return to Earth where, their cosmic adventures already forgotten, Wonka gives the elderly Buckets some pills that turn them twenty years younger per pill. Of course this doesn’t go right, either.

It’s utterly madcap, written as if with a young child’s attention span, logic, and sense of perspective about events. The scenes in which the president discusses the alien attack on the Space Hotel are almost Dr. Strangelove-ish, with President Lancelot Gilligrass convening his cabinet, “a sword-swallower from Afghanistan, who was the President’s best friend,” and the Vice-President, who is Gilligrass’ nanny and actually commands the room. The Chief of the Army keeps wanting to blow everything up and making explosion noises with his mouth, and the President gets distracted from the problem when he thinks of a terrifically ridiculous idea for a fly trap. And that’s just a couple of chapters; the Buckets race from one crazed event to the next. Dahl puts in groan-inducing puns, Carroll-lite doggerel, silly metaphors, neologisms, nonce words, and antiquated but actual words (“he’ll lixiviate the lot of us!”). It’s all thoroughly silly, and it’s hardly as brilliant as Carroll’s calmer surrealism, but it’s light-hearted and memorable.

four stars

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Martha Speaks: White House Dog

"by" Susan Mettaugh

It should be noted that this book is not by Susan Mettaugh as listed, but rather “based on the characters created by" Susan Mettaugh, an "adaptation" by Jamie White, based on a TV script by Dietrich Smith.  It is a book written by a committee in pieces, for the purposes of extending a brand, in this case a television show – not to tell a story.  In this episode, Martha calls the White House to opine that the new president should adopt a shelter dog.  Then the president hears that Martha can talk and hires her to solve a problem with his new dog.  He then puts her on a temporary committee to interview dogs to find out what they’re thinking.  None of this leads to any resolution.  It’s not particularly funny or charming.  Scenes that are descriptions of TV moments that require visuals for humor or interest don’t translate to the printed page.  Bonus points for pushing the shelter dog message, and shoehorning in quick facts and definitions in a well-intentioned if stilted effort to be educational. 

two stars