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Book Review: The Weight of Ink

This review originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

In modern-day London, a cache of mid-17th-century papers is found, apparently untouched for three centuries, in a house under renovation. The Hebrew and Portuguese writings bring in Jewish-history expert and ailing academic Helen Watt to assess their provenance. Pressed to assist her is stalled American Ph.D. candidate Aaron Levy. Temperamentally mismatched, they nonetheless begin to uncover the mystery of an anonymous scribe working for a blind rabbi in pre-plague London.

Rachel Kadish offers an impressive achievement here in her latest novel. She ties together complex concepts of metaphysics and theology from the days of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, along with a mid-20th-century love story set in Israel, and a modern-day academic treasure hunt. The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline for one that spends much of its time in a dark study or a research library.

The true central character here is Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Jewish woman whose family took refuge in Holland to escape Inquisition-wracked Portugal; she later finds herself in 1650s London serving as secretary to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Education for women was considered unseemly, and Ester’s work as a scribe renders her unmarriageable—a state she prefers. Ester’s wide-ranging intellect pushes her to read voraciously and ask questions, in particular about the nature of God, man, and the universe; those questions are extraordinarily dangerous.

Helen knows this is her last opportunity to redeem the choices that she’s made, and she and Aaron work against another academic team and her own worsening illness in a race to find and fit the last pieces of the puzzle in order to understand Ester’s true identity. The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.

 

Historical Novels Review Spring 2017 Issue

The following reviews originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

LILLI DE JONG, Janet Benton, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese

In her debut novel, Janet Benton believably imagines the speed with which a young woman’s life can change from safe, happy, and privileged to miserable and outcast. The titular character, Lilli de Jong, lives with her Quaker parents and younger brother in late 19th-century Philadelphia. But then her mother dies, a relative sweeps in to usurp her mother’s place beside her weak-willed father, and a young man staying with the family seduces Lilli before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh, taking Lilli’s brother with him. When Lilli’s black-hearted stepmother discovers her burgeoning pregnancy, Lilli finds herself homeless.

Benton has Lilli relate her story by writing in a series of notebooks, a technique that allows the main character to reflect on ideas and events in ways that would have been difficult in a straight narrative. On the other hand, as Lilli’s circumstances become increasingly fraught, it’s hard to imagine her having the time or inclination to scribble out pages and pages of observations and events—with dialogue—as she attempts to find food, fend off villains, and care for her infant daughter.

To Benton’s credit, she doesn’t render caricatures of either good or evil. The headmistress of the Haven for Women and Infants is severe and exacting, but she is also dedicated to giving the young women in her charge the second chance that society is unwilling to grant. Lilli’s aloof employer, Clementina, is a talented musician who has been forced by convention into matrimony and motherhood; her disappointment makes her bitter and even cruel, but not inhuman. The same cannot be said for the rigid culture that dismisses the human dignity of those at its fringes.

MISS TREADWAY AND THE FIELD OF STARS, Miranda Emmerson, Harper/4th Estate

In 1965 London, successful American actress Iolanthe (Lanny) Green walks out of the theatre where she had been starring and disappears. Lanny’s dresser, Anna Treadway—unemployed when the starless show shuts down—feels compelled to search for the woman she soon realizes she doesn’t know very well.

Anna ignores repeated warnings to stay out of the investigation by the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, a tightly disciplined Irishman whose real name is Brennan. She finds a lead through Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, who joins Anna in the pursuit.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a consideration of identity: of the intentional and unintentional reinvention of identity, of the identity we project out to the world compared to the one we live with inside ourselves, and of how the world perceives us compared to how we imagine we’re perceived. This point is underlined when Aloysius suffers a beating by police and is coldly leveraged into becoming an informant, despite having committed no crime. “He realized now that the man he had become inside his head was far whiter and more handsome than the outer Aloysius… would never have been beaten… would never have had the experience of handcuffs.”

It also explores how often we disappoint ourselves and those around us for not being who we—or they—thought we were or ought to be. The most poignant example is Brennan’s relationship with his wife Orla, which is so filled with mutual disappointment they are incapable of speaking to each other.

In some ways, Lanny is too unevenly drawn to be entirely believable, and Anna’s past remains unsatisfyingly oblique, but Emmerson’s debut is a touching, thought-provoking read.

THE CUTTHROAT: AN ISSAC BELL ADVENTURE, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Putnam

Pity poor Justin Scott, who’s listed as the co-author of nine of the ten books in Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell Adventures series. One imagines Clive checking in every so often from his beach chair in St. Tropez to see how Justin is getting along with the latest installment. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be the marquee name.

However the work was portioned out, The Cutthroat represents a rollicking if scarcely believable turn-of-the-20th-century whodunit—or, more precisely, “who keeps doing it?” When the object of his missing person search turns up dead, Isaac Bell—principal investigator at the Van Dorn Detective Agency—promises the wealthy, distraught father that he will find the killer. Since the agency has offices nationwide as well as internationally, and is far better resourced than the police, Bell’s team is able to pursue an emerging pattern of grisly murders across time and geography that point inexorably back to—wait for it—Jack the Ripper. Bell focuses in on a set of suspects in a touring company of the play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” giving us ample opportunity to ponder the good-versus-evil struggle inside all of us.

The story steams across the county and over the ocean, and squeezes the most out of every bit of technology available to the modern age of 1911. For those of us not familiar with Books 1-9, there’s a handy “Who’s Who” at the front that dispenses with backstory. Though it strains credulity that the perpetrator—given his “day job”—could have pulled off 20-plus years of carnage, it’s a fun, page-turning romp.

Book Review: At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 4 April 2017.

It’s an enduring if hoary image: With a steely eyed, thousand-yard stare, a man stands alone at the edge of a vast desert, rifle in hand, sun-bleached kepi hat casting a shadow across his rough-hewn visage. Perhaps he is replaying for himself the missteps in life that brought him here, for he is society’s outcast, a man without a country: He is a soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

If this were a scene in any of the dozens of cinematic treatments of the legion, at this point the camera might pan wide (as the music swells) so the audience sees the battalion of brave legionnaires arrayed behind our lone antihero, as a line of Arabian horsemen crests the sand dune and charges.

Author Jean-Vincent Blanchard dissects the facts and fiction behind the legendary outfit in this wide-ranging, heavily researched discussion of the history, culture, defining characteristics, and raison d’être of the French Foreign Legion.

In many ways, this is a biography of one of the primary sculptors of the legion’s character, General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, who spent much of his army career in command of legion forces and was a principal architect of its longstanding presence — first in Vietnam and later in Morocco — in support of French colonial expansion.

The legion was born in 1831 when France found itself with a surfeit of unemployed immigrants and a nascent colonial enterprise in Algeria. Forming army regiments out of idle foreigners solved two problems: It gave those people jobs to keep them out of trouble, and it allowed France to avoid the political fallout of sending its citizens overseas to fight and die.

After Napoleon III’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, a sharp division solidified between the legion, as France’s force for colonization, and the homeland army, whose French citizenry stayed put to protect the borders from further German incursion.

In Algeria in 1841, Governor-General Robert Bugeaud gave the legion its first dose of true military discipline and leadership, as well as its first decisive victories over an entrenched foe, the Emir Abdelkader. At the same time, though, he introduced them to brutal, scorched-earth warfare. It was here that the strong bonds of legion tradition first took hold. Men likened joining the legion to joining a monastery, with less religion and more blood.

Enter Lyautey. A true believer in the value of French colonialism, he wanted to conquer by demonstrating the benefits of French civilization, to encourage Francophilia through a method dubbed tache d’huile, “oil slick”: a persistent, pervasive spreading of France’s culture in all the places it touched. The men of the legion included engineers, craftsmen, and artisans who could be put to use in infrastructure improvement and building projects in between pitched battles.

For a man of his time, Lyautey could be considered enlightened, since he had honest respect for Arab and Islamic traditions, and his protection of those traditions won him a measure of favor with Moroccans.

He was equally popular with the legionnaires he commanded, since he also treated them with an evenhandedness and respect that was otherwise often in short supply. He shared with them their tendency toward periods of dark brooding called le cafard — the cockroach — that burrowed into a legionnaire’s brain during long, lonely nights in the jungle or desert. In sympathy, he forgave them their hard drinking and carousing, knowing that a cry, anywhere, of “la legion!” would summon every legionnaire within hearing distance, no questions asked.

Still, for all the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that made this a fighting force to be reckoned with, it is hard to square the activities of the legion with anything that can remotely be termed “heroic.”

Perhaps Lyautey viewed other cultures with some measure of respect, but he certainly led his share of slaughter at the pointy end of colonization. And despite the theory of a civilizing oil slick, the indigenous populations were never given to share in the riches of the folks who crashed in, guns blazing, to set up shop and milk the surrounding lands for the greater glory of France.

As Camille Pelletan noted in 1885, “We are told that we have this imperious need, as men of a superior race, to go about civilizing the barbarians of the world with cannonballs. If we asked those barbarians, I think they’d be just fine being left alone.”

In response to a comment that “superior races have a right with regard to inferior races,” Georges Clemenceau pointed out that the Germans resorted to much the same argument, since they believed the French were inferior to Germans.

(Ironically, Germans had long been favored recruits for the legion, even after the ugly 1870 war. Many of the best troops were thought to be from Alsace-Lorraine because they had French affiliation but were of Germanic build.)

It’s not as though the French were in any way unique among European and New World powers in their quest for colonial expansion, but it’s always interesting to pull the thread of historical cause and eventual effect. For example, the legion left its Algerian headquarters of Sidi Bel Abbès in 1962 after losing the fierce battle against Algeria’s independence.

Blanchard notes that “one of the most ardent fighters against the Algerians was a former legionnaire named Jean-Marie Le Pen.” He, of course, is the father of ardent French nationalist and current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Perhaps she can find some Algerians or Moroccans to commiserate with her over her abiding sense that her homeland is being overrun by uninvited newcomers.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.

THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED: A TRUE STORY OF MY FAMILY, Tom Shroder,  Blue Rider Press, 416 pp.

The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.

Book Review: The Glamour of Strangeness

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 September 2016.

The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic, Jamie James, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.

The title of Jamie James’ The Glamour of Strangeness comes from a quote by that most famous of European adventurers, T. E. Lawrence. In his timeless Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he writes: “Pray God that men reading the story will not, for the love of the glamour of strangeness, go out and prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.”

He goes on to describe that fully adopting Arab ways and thought “quitted me of my English self and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me.”

Unlike Lawrence, the subjects of James’ survey of exoticism were not in danger of losing themselves in service to another nation or people; each was capable of shedding the trappings of his or her constituent nationality without external pressure and for purely personal reasons.

With the exception of Paul Gauguin, none of the artists and writers profiled here are household names, but all took a similar route into the unfamiliar. The other 19th- and 20th-century subjects include Walter Spies, a German artist raised in Russia who made his permanent home in Bali; Raden Saleh, a Javanese painter who came into his own as an artist during 20 years in Europe; a Breton doctor and writer, Victor Segalen, who loved China best and coined the term “exotes,” which James adopts to describe “travelers who seek to immerse themselves in otherness”; a Swiss-born writer, Isabelle Eberhardt, whose adopted locale was the Maghrib in North Africa; and film-maker/writer Maya Deren, born in Russia and raised in the U.S., whose heart was fully in Haiti.

Early on, James makes the distinction between a tourist, one who passes through a place to collect experiences, and a traveler, one who is genuinely interested in and open to the culture, the people, the geography, the history of a place.

He describes his work as “a critical survey of the manifestation of the impulse to acquire a new culture,” and his unifying theme is to consider subjects who were searching for a place that would become the home they never had. For his subjects, “home” was a place that they chose.

These artists were, to some degree, also escaping the strictures of their own cultures. Not surprisingly, for the European/American expatriates, the desire to slip the shackles of conventional sexual mores was one strong draw of an exotic, unconventional life. The women in particular found freedom in their adopted lands that was not otherwise available to them. The French expression is “le decivilise”; the American expression is “going native.”

Gauguin is something of the odd man out here. While it’s true that he was actively trying to cultivate a style uniquely his own and had long considered the concept of a “Studio of the Tropics,” his move to Tahiti was almost a PR stunt, calculated to draw headlines and make more money than he could in Paris.

He and his Symbolist friends held a series of fundraisers to allow him to decamp to a place where he could, as he described, “cultivate in myself a state of primitiveness and savagery.” That he chose a locale known for free love was no accident, but the long line of syphilitic sailors who had visited ahead of him took the bloom off that paradisical rose. Nonetheless, Gauguin achieved all that he set out to do, and he never looked back, eventually losing some of that patronizing sense of Tahiti’s “savagery.”

In contrast to Gauguin, who made a lasting impression on the European art world but left virtually no mark on his adopted homeland (beyond the children he fathered), Walter Spies is a cultural icon in Bali and virtually forgotten elsewhere. His work as a musician and painter is almost entirely lost, but he influenced the Balinese art that came after him.

It seems obvious that it was Spies’ story that initially captured the author’s imagination in undertaking this project. Certainly, Spies offers the best example of an artist who, in search of a true home, jettisons “manufactured wants” to fully embrace and live within a new culture without condescension, and contribute to that culture as a full participant.

While the profiles are interesting in themselves, and perhaps introduce readers to artists and writers they aren’t already familiar with, the collection never becomes more than exactly that: a collection of profiles.

To a modern audience, probably the most compelling elements of Glamour are those describing James’ own experiences as a traveler. A professional travel writer, he has visited some of the wildest, most remote locales on earth. Nonetheless, his own shock of exoticism comes when the English-speaking head waiter at Cambodia’s Grand Hotel d’Angkor, on being tipped with American dollar bills, says of George Washington, “This is your king? He looks like a lady.”

According to James, Walter Spies can be credited with unintentionally starting the tourism industry in Bali, “something he came to regret bitterly by the end of his life.” James wrote much of this book from Bali, as he watched the landscape around his apartment change from rural cattle pasture and rice fields to neon billboards, nightclubs, and luxury hotels — a transformation that illustrates what makes the words “tourist” and “tourism” epithets. By the same token, though, the Balinese see these changes as “a proof that their country is becoming modern and cosmopolitan.”

James also drives home the point that nowhere on earth is truly out of reach anymore — no Forbidden Cities, no culture or geography that isn’t accessible through a Google search, no location that your eyes cannot have beheld until the moment you are standing there. To think of places that way, though, considers the world through the eyes of a tourist rather than a traveler. Seeing a place is nothing like knowing a place. It’s nothing like being home.

More from the Historical Novels Review Spring 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

HystopiaHYSTOPIA, David Means, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

The conceit of Hystopia, author David Means’ first novel, is that the novel it contains was written by a Vietnam vet, Eugene Allen, who leaves the completed manuscript and a set of notes behind when he commits suicide. Eugene’s novel is bracketed by a series of editor’s notes and snippets of interviews with Eugene’s friends, family, and acquaintances, through which we come to understand how much of his novel is autobiographical.

Means makes it clear from the start that all of this is alternative history. The book opens with an editor’s note mentioning, “Details of the seventh assassination attempt made on John F. Kennedy, now known as the Genuine Assassination, have been changed slightly in Allen’s narrative . . . ”

As the novel inside the novel describes, Kennedy’s administration has developed a therapy called enfolding, which attempts to heal returning veterans’ psychological trauma. Vets take a drug called Tripizoid, re-enact the scene of their trauma, and thereby cancel the event out of their conscious and unconscious memory. It doesn’t work on everyone, and a failed treatment deepens the damage.

The story alternates primarily between Singleton and Wendy, agents of Kennedy’s Psych Corps, and a variety of characters roaming the wastelands of Michigan, burned to the waterline by rampaging gangs and failed enfoldees. The worst of these is psychopathic Rake, who has kidnapped a young woman and is holding her at his buddy’s cabin. All of these characters are damaged, some irretrievably, but as the story lines eventually converge, Means allows Eugene to give his characters a measure of light at the end of their dark tunnel. For us, Means has woven an ingenious, compelling, brutal story of the ravages that war exacts on the society that wages it.

EdenWEST OF EDEN: AN AMERICAN PLACE, Jean Stein, Random House

This is the book for anyone who needs to be reminded that money does not buy happiness. In fact, the lesson taught by West of Eden is that having lots of money simply opens the door to buying unhappiness on a truly breathtaking scale.

Author Jean Stein is the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of MCA and one of the most powerful men in entertainment for many years. Each of five sections focuses on a selected family, such as that of Jack Warner of Warner Bros. fame; Jennifer Jones, among whose husbands was hugely powerful producer David O. Selznick; and Stein’s own. It’s fitting that sections are subtitled with the addresses of the houses these people lived in, since each is a character in its own right.

The book is made up of interwoven interviews with friends, family, business associates, and other witnesses to the goings-on of the rich, powerful, and famous. It’s compulsively readable but often disturbing, in particular as readers understand the frequency with which stunningly self-absorbed parents utterly ignore or discard their children. Rarely are stepfamilies blended; the old family is merely left behind somewhere to make room for the new one. It’s a sobering portrait.

AgincourtTHE BATTLE OF AGINCOURT, Edited by Anne Curry and Malcolm Mercer, Yale University Press

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .” One of Shakespeare’s most rousing speeches is declaimed by King Henry V in advance of the Battle of Agincourt, which took place October 25, 1415, and in which the far-outnumbered English army emerged victorious against the French. That battle is the subject of this gorgeous, richly illustrated, and scholarly coffee table book, a project developed under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Armouries to commemorate the 600-year anniversary of a battle that its predecessor, the Office of Armoury, actually outfitted. The book features a collection of essays that discuss various aspects of Agincourt, from the English and French commanders, to the weapons and armaments, to the precipitating factors and aftermath, to Shakespeare’s Henry V, and even to the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of the play, which was filmed in Technicolor and released at the height of World War II as a huge boost to national morale. Though Agincourt was not a decisive battle in the Hundred Years War, the editors credit Shakespeare’s play with making the battle a cultural touchstone in the English historical narrative.