Monday, August 22, 2011

Pope, Shevdon, Tolstoy, Toole

Ramage and the Saracens
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is the seventeenth of eighteen Lord Ramage Novels, a series about a British naval officer whose wit and dash brought confusion to the French and their allies during the wee years of the 19th century. Still commanding the frigate Calypso with the same officers and men who have been with him on so many adventures, Ramage once again proves to be a shrewd tactician and an admirable leader, blessed with more than his fair share of good luck.

His first stroke of luck is surviving an encounter with two French line-of-battle ships which take him by surprise, especially after the Battle of Trafalgar seemingly wiped the French off the sea. He then gives two French frigates a good pounding, sinking one and capturing the other, all without pleasing the admiral on the Naples station whose only concerns seem to be head money, prizes, and promoting the careers of his favorites. Since Ramage isn't one of these (somehow, he never is one of his admiral's favorites), he gets sent away one some dirty and thankless jobs. And though the admiral seems to have expected him to fail, he ekes out two daring victories against the most terrible and desperate foe: Saracens. Muslim warriors from off the coast of Africa, made fearless by the belief that death in battle against the infidel means instant Paradise. (Political Incorrectness Advisory: Teachers, there are some school districts where recommending this book could cost you your job.)

The Saracens have been raiding ports along the southern coast of Sicily, seizing fishing boats, strong men to row their galleys, and the nubile women to populate their brothels. Without any hope of saving those already taken, Ramage works out where the Saracens will strike next and sets a trap for them with his ship's carronades and swivel guns, musket-bearing marines, and seamen armed with cutlass, pike, and tomahawk. Even so they are outnumbered two to one, and the resulting fierce battle is touch-and-go. Even more dangerous, however, is his second mission. In command of a flotilla of two frigates and two sloops, and reinforced by three hundred soldiers, Ramage is to attack the Saracens' base and rescue their Sicilian slaves. What he had earlier dismissed as undoable must now be done, even though no charts exist for the (fictional) Saracen base of Sidi Rezegh.

Ramage is an unusual commander for his time. In some ways, perhaps, he may even be anachronistic: a man of present-day sensibilities thrown back into history. In a era when human life was spent with ruthless prodigality, Ramage is one leader who values the lives of his men and who takes every measure—indeed, every risk—to keep casualties to a minimum. If his inner life is troubled by anything, it is by preemptive guilt before every battle for the cost in lives should anything go wrong. Yet his men adore him, as do more women than he can really handle—and it is this book which "closes the circle" as to the fate of one of them. Just when you start to lose patience with his woolgathering over the Marchesa Gianna, the point of keeping her in the picture becomes clear. Trust Dudley Pope to make sure that his characters' interior monologues bear either an instructive purpose or a clue toward coming events.

And so, with only one more adventure (Ramage and the Dido) still to come, we brace ourselves for the end of a series of noble exploits, penned by an accomplished naval historian whose works, in addition to the Ramage series, include seven more novels and twelve works of nonfiction.

Sixty-One Nails
by Mike Shevdon
Recommended Ages: 14+

One moment Niall Petersen is an ordinary London commuter, married to his career and harassed by his ex-wife, fighting his way through tube-station traffic while having another kind of fight over his cell phone. The next moment he is dead, thanks to a massive heart attack brought on by stress. Just when you're thinking this could seriously bring down the life expectancy of main characters in novels, Niall comes back to life. But his old life is over.

The woman who brings Niall back calls herself Blackbird. She explains that the faerie magic she used could not have saved him unless they both had the blood of the Fair—I mean, Feyre—in them. A seer told her something big would happen if she waited that morning at the spot where Niall dropped, so it seems they are fated to be together. And since, by bringing him back from the dead, Blackbird prevented something evil from crossing over from another place and taking possession of his body, Niall will have to go on the run. They, with a capital T, know he's out there, and They will not rest until They destroy him.

You see, there are seven Courts of the Feyre, but only six of them sit on the Council. These include everything from trolls and dwarves to your basic winged fairies. The Seventh Court, which takes a rather fascist view on blood purity, has broken off relations with the other six and bides its time by exterminating everybody with mixed human and Feyre heritage. Once half-bloods start to show their powers, these creatures of darkness and evil can usually find them and kill them without much trouble. So Niall has a very simple choice: run or die.

This is a lot for a pudgy, divorced architect and father of a teenage daughter to take in all at once. He really doesn't quite believe it until something unspeakably nasty tries to surprise him in his apartment that night and causes a local policeman to die a horrible death instead. And then there's the weird powers that he begins to discover in himself. Powers that suggest the seemingly impossible: that Niall, now known as Rabbit (because names have to be changed to protect, well, everybody), is the same type of Feyre as the beings he is running from.

For reasons that I don't have space to explain here, Rabbit and Blackbird realize that the key to keeping the Seventh Court from overrunning our world and enslaving mankind lies in a centuries-old covenant known as the Quit-Rents. Here author Shevdon blends fancy with the type of fact that is even stranger, acquainting us with the legal and ceremonial office of the Queen's Remembrancer. To make a long story short, and thereby almost totally incomprehensible, this peruke-wearing personage must perform a ritual involving a sharp knife, a dull knife, a cane of hazel, six horseshoes, and sixty-one horseshoe nails. These ceremonies actually take place, and have taken place annually since the 13th century, as payment for a place in London called "The Forge" and a tract of land in Shropshire called "The Moors." And since no one can quite explain why the rents take this particular form, the explanation that their proper observance prevents all fey hell from breaking loose seems as good as any other.

This is a book full of disturbing magical beings, weird rituals, high-paced action and danger, and a unique romance between two people who are (mostly) undeterred by an age difference of several centuries, perhaps because they can (usually) look any age they choose. Their sensitivity to iron suggests that such folk would find this an uncomfortable age to live in, though they have abilities to compensate. Niall's abilities are particularly unsettling, not only to us but to the woman who loves him, because they represent the greatest pain and evil that she knows. And whether the Council will ever extend its protection to a creature like him remains unresolved until almost the last page of this book—by which you will be glad to know that this is only Book One of a series titled The Courts of the Feyre. Its sequel, already in print, is The Road to Bedlam.

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
Recommended Ages: 16+

I have had a copy of War and Peace on my bookcase for the better part of a decade without once cracking it. It seemed destined to be the quintessential doorstop. And though books like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix proved that big, thick, heavy books needn't be everlasting doorstoppers, the fact remains that I was intimidated. War and Peace's reputation as a big read is proverbial, with heavy going through crowds of characters, a vast sweep of events, and long stretches of dry prose in which the plot goes nowhere; and that's without accounting for the strange manners of Russian noblemen in the time of Napoleon, and references to characters by first name and patronymic (such as "Pyotr Kirillovich"), which come naturally to native Russian speakers but which tend to blur together for everyone else. And then there was the question of time. What time was I going to spend reading this book, when I have little enough time to read the myriads of books that I actually expect to enjoy?

And then one day I found the answer written on my windshield. For some time now, I've been looking through that windshield for anywhere between ninety minutes and two hours every business day. I had used up all my patience with the available radio programming, had found out that keeping my car freshly stocked with CDs of classical music was a lot of work, and had happily moved on to a series of audiobooks borrowed from the County Library, when it hit me: Now was the perfect time to read The Book You Always Said You Were Going To Read Someday. And with British actor Frederick Davidson reading it aloud to me while I drove, it would be painless. Or, at any rate, I would be a captive audience, prevented by my seat belt from putting the book down and leaving the room to do something else, should any distraction come a-temptin'. So I took out Tolstoy's masterpiece in two thick sets of disks, 47 in all, and immersed myself in it while my body went through the mechanical motions of driving to work and home again each day. For, like, 5 weeks.

First, I must give Davidson his due for making the best of what must be one of the toughest jobs in the recorded-book industry. I am aware that authors and professional readers differ as to how much an audiobook reader should dramatize the book. How far should he go in playing characters with distinct voices? How much should he ham it up? With most books, however, there is room for a wide range of interpretation. With a book like War and Peace, a worldwide cultural treasure featuring some 40 speaking characters, an actor must walk a vanishingly thin line between atrocious taste and incomprehensible tedium. Nevertheless, Frederick Davidson kept his balance from one end of the highwire to the other, presenting each of the main characters with his or her distinctive voice without ever stepping away from his role as the storyteller.

Tolstoy, however, doesn't manage this last trick. I risk heresy by finding fault with what is widely accepted as the greatest novel in world literature, just as I risk becoming absurd after cheerfully recommending a thousand inferior books with scarcely a quibble, but there it is. Tolstoy's 1869 novel set a new standard for novelists to strive toward, and he set some then-groundbreaking precedents in their approach to storytelling, but he could not do so without risking some structural awkwardness. And awkwardness is what I call it when the narrator pauses increasingly often in the latter parts of his tale to deliver himself of fragments of a treatise on the historiography of the Napoleonic Wars and, in an inexorable crescendo of abstraction, on the philosophy of history in general. I call this "groundbreaking" where, in its earlier instances, it foreshadows the journalistic approach of many of today's most exciting authors, who move between fact, fiction, and philosophy with an ease that stimulates the mind as much as it entertains. I call this "awkward" where, particularly at the end of the novel, the ponderous inertia of the nonfiction material staggers, and finally stops, the forward momentum of the story. Fair warning: Leo Tolstoy does not shut up until long, long after the story is over.

But it's one serious story. No, I tell a lie; it's a thick, complex braid of stories, all bound up around the wars involving France's Emperor Napoleon and Russia's Tsar Alexander I. The novel embraces events between 1805 and 1820, with special emphasis on the 1812 war in which Napoleon led a vast army into Russia and advanced as far as Moscow without losing a single battle, only to turn tail in a disastrous retreat that ultimately cost him his empire. Between attempts to reshape his readers' view of history from a series of deeds accomplished by geniuses and heroes to a tissue of accidents in which luck, chance, and the dutiful persistence of a bunch of historical nobodies told the tale, Tolstoy as if by accident tells his.

The main characters (you may want to make a note of this, in case there's a quiz), judging by who ends up alive and happily married at the end of the book, are siblings Nikolai and Natasha Rostov, the middle two of four children belonging to a cash-strapped provincial count; Pierre Bezukhov, the favorite and thereby best-educated of his father's numerous "natural" children, who by inheritance becomes one of the richest men in Russia without having the first idea what to do with all his money; and Maria Bolkonsky, the pious daughter of a landed prince whose eccentricity and cruelty have made her a lonely, lifelong martyr. A lot happens before they get to be happy couples, however. Nikolai gets involved with a poor orphaned cousin named Sonya, who is neither designing enough for you to hate properly, nor self-sacrificing enough for you to love. Sonya breaks the heart of a ruthless scoundrel named Dolokhov, who retaliates by cheating Nikolai out of a fortune at cards and, later, plays a role in Natasha's disgrace. Natasha, meanwhile, breaks the heart of Nikolai's friend Denisov, who later shares your heartbreak when the Rostovs' youngest child gets himself killed while hero-worshiping Dolokhov. Natasha is also vaguely courted by a cynically ambitious young brave named Boris Drubetskoy, who seems like a nice enough lad at the beginning of the book, only to leave you rejoicing to see him married to an irritating ninny named Julie Karagina.

Then Natasha gets engaged with Maria's brother Andrei, whose first wife died in childbirth after he miraculously returned from the dead, having been wounded and taken prisoner by the French at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805). But an adventurer named Anatole Kuragin plays a vile trick on Natasha, and so her romance with Andrei goes into Tragedy Mode, lightened only by a deathbed reunion after Prince Andrei fares less miraculously at the Battle of Borodino (1812). Luckily for Natasha, Pierre is waiting in the wings, having loved her all along even though he foolishly married Hélène Kuragina (Anatole's equally vile sister, foisted on Pierre by her manipulative and greedy father). Tolstoy drives with one tire on the solid white line of propriety in order to give us enough hints to understand that Hélène dies of complications from an abortion, as a result of trying to be married to three husbands at the same time. Nikolai and Maria have, in the meantime, fallen in love with each other, but the Rostov family's financial embarrassment almost proves to be an impediment to their union in the final real crisis of the novel.

There. If a shorter synopsis of the main plotlines of War and Peace can be given, I would like to see it. Even so, I haven't begun to describe the novel's relish in the customs and living conditions of its period, the problems uniting (and sometimes dividing) the rude Russian peasantry and the sometimes repulsive, in many cases monoglot French-speaking noblepersons who literally owned them. You get to meet Napoleon and the Russian commanders who confronted him in some of western history's biggest battles up to that time. You get to go along on a fox hunt, a fancy-dress ball, a number of dinner parties, an affair of honor, and even some of the secret rites of the Masonic Lodge. You get to meet politicians, soldiers, cads, hussies, flawed but sympathetic heroines, foolish men who grow into admirable characters, and a handful of people too lovable to live long in this world, along with mobs, demagogues, fools (some of them holy fools), gossips, wits, traitors, and (singled out as the worst sort of people) diplomatists. Some of them are real, historical people. Others merely represent the types of people Tolstoy imagined when he thought of his grandparents as young adults.

It would have to be a big novel to deal with all of this. With a good reader selling it to you, in spite of the sometimes tedious speculative passages, War and Peace seems big enough without being too big. And now that I've been dunked in it, I have lost my fear of it. So I think it likely that I will really read the doorstop that has been holding down the bottom shelf of my bookcase for the past decade. I may also invest in a video of the Oscar-winning, 1968 Soviet film based on the book, or (even more likely) in a recording of the opera version by Sergei Prokofiev, which I listened to many years ago without the benefit of having read the book. It's really that strong a story. And it doesn't hurt that it shows a remarkable side of one of the greatest conflicts in history, about a people whose apparent weaknesses prove to be Reason #1 why you should never mess with them. I daresay if Hitler had read this book with even the slightest comprehension, he would never have invaded the Soviet Union. And if I had read it ten years ago, I could be on my twentieth time through it by now...

A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Recommended Ages: 16+

Barrett Whitener read the green deerstalker cap off the audiobook edition of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which enabled me to finish a book I had started months earlier and misplaced amid the confusion of two overnight bags, a briefcase, a laptop bag, and a tote bag. I am glad I had Whitener's voice to bring to life the dialects and voices of all the characters in this book, published over a decade after its author's self-inflicted death by carbon monoxide poisoning. The story behind this novel is most tragic; indeed, it is almost a miracle that it was ever published, thanks in part to the persistence of the author's mother and the support of author Walker Percy. Yet the book itself is a comic masterpiece, a novel that makes you squirm and laugh in equal proportions. It populates New Orleans, U.S.A. with a cast of characters loopy enough to be worthy of its title, and sets them loose in a complex, sprawling farce that pokes fun at the absurdities of life among the idle rich, the idle poor, cops, crooks, blacks, whites, leftists, right-wingers, sexual deviants, and many other types whose struggles give the lie to the name "the Big Easy."

At the center of these struggling masses of characters is one whose oddities, listed in order, would make a description too long for this poor review. His name is Ignatius J. Reilly and, in spite of holding a master's degree, he has no job and he lives with his mother. Flatulent, obese, tortured by crippling insecurities and yet difficult to pity because of his readiness to exploit those who pity him, Ignatius would like of all things to be left alone in his filthy bedroom to scribble incoherent diatribes in his collection of Big Chief notebooks. But when his tippling mother finds herself liable for damages in a car accident, she forces him to seek gainful employment. And so he begins to carom about the city like a well-padded billiard ball, irrevocably altering the course of everybody he collides with.

Ignatius tries a filing job at a factory that makes pants. He moves from there to a career as a hot dog vendor. Wittingly or unwittingly, he also gets caught up in a couple of short-lived political movements, an illegal pornography ring, an unhappily married socialite's benevolent projects, a massive lawsuit, an undercover police investigation, and the collapse of a popular professor's academic career. As ineffectual as Reilly seems to be when it comes to achieving his own goals, he proves amazingly effective as an agent of chaos and ruin wherever he goes, whatever he tries. And in his career of destruction he always finds reliable support in the fresh and unique daftness of each person he meets.

Whether Ignatius Reilly is a true original or a typical specimen, taken from a typical sample of 1960s New Orleans culture, is now for us to discuss. Alas, we will get no help from the author on this question. One could, to a disturbing degree, read Toole as a prophet of things to come throughout this country. But it would probably be ridiculous to do that while, at the same time, enjoying the bold, vivid, often grotesque strokes of this portrait of our nation's most colorful city in the midst of what might have been its most colorful era. The contradictions and compromises within its central character might be, in a sense, Toole's portrait of the city itself: a swollen, smelly, loud, outrageous life form; charismatic yet offensive, cultured yet coarse, overwhelmed by its own sense of history; helpless to escape its inertia on the one hand and to check its momentum on the other. And though each member of the book's ensemble cast seems unchangeable in his or her craziness, all their lives do indeed change on contact with Ignatius—who himself, the most seemingly changeless of all, finally makes the big change the whole book has been building toward. We can never know whether he has escaped from one craziness to another, or from the fate of one considered crazy to something better. But if you're like me, you'll giggle to think of the possibilities, long after the book has ended.

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