Clothes, the old saw goes, make the man (or the person). Books, perhaps, help make (or shape) the mind. In that regard, when it comes to choosing one’s mental companions, it is often true that new books are easy to love. They’re fresh-faced, pretty young things, with their whole life stretching out before them. To borrow from John Patrick Shanley, they’re like moonlight in a martini: elusive, intriguing, and captivating. Old books, like the rich, are different; one need only spend a few hours in a used book store to realize that it may well take an act of the will to love the brittle pages and lifeless covers of ages past.
Like many fellow travelers, I have loved and left many books of both varieties. I have purged my shelves of many former compatriots over the years, abandoning them to the care of the strangers at the local thrift store or the patrons of the occasional garage sale. I have also benefited greatly from the purges of others, be it the rare garage sale find, the worthy used item, or an outright gift.
Years ago, I received a box of books: a virtually complete paperback set of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, along with a few other nuggets of early 20th-century science fiction (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the books of Otis Albert Kline, for example). The box also included a slew of military books, with subjects such as the battle of Stalingrad and the Flying Tigers.
I loved those books. To be sure, Burroughs had a tendency to become repetitive, somewhat like the westerns of Louis L’Amour (and speaking as someone who will actually cop to having read every one of L’Amour’s books except Bendigo Shafter, I believe I am a worthy witness to this truth). But Burroughs could also be quite entertaining; to this day I still remember Tarzan Triumphant, undoubtedly my favorite Tarzan novel, and The Mad King, which is one of those ubiquitous “I’m a king with a royal double I never knew about” stories that were probably less of a cliché a century ago than they are today. As for Kline – well, his take on the whole “let’s have a guy go to another planet and become king of the aliens and beat up the evil overlords” genre was actually a load of fun, albeit somewhat derivative of Burroughs’ more successful John Carter books (or Carson Napier of Venus, for that matter).
Some books never quite leave your mind, let alone your possession. These books, these gifts, have traveled with me. They have been my companions across 20-plus years and countless miles; once in a box, left unopened for years, but now on a shelf, piled high and free, where I can visit them from time to time and return for a moment to those distant days when I explored those improbable alien lands for the first time.
This is not always the way of it, of course. The dog-eared copy of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, which I read some 15 or more times in high school, fell by the wayside somewhere in between there and here, between then and now. It is like that as well for the box of books now in the back of my car, waiting impatiently for their new home somewhere other than the cramped, overflowing confines of the bookcases I can’t seem to keep tidy. Some purges, it seems, are inevitable. Yet one must assume there is still something of Thomas Covenant rattling about inside my head; perhaps there is also something of the countless other characters, from Jack Pumpkinhead and Princess Ozma to the Riddle-Master of Hed or Dickens’ pernicious Pip, who have each occupied an occasional parcel of mental real estate.
Oh, I still have my personal preferences, as do we all. Some old, some new. When I first read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, I marveled at the wit and creativity of his tale; likewise, when I read Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s Nation of Rebels, I found their perceptions of popular culture quite striking. And yet with books I find I can indeed backtrack, revisiting old terrain with new eyes, be it Tolkien or Chandler or Hemingway: in each, there is that opportunity for a new revelation with each pass across the surface of the text. On the bookshelf, it seems, one can find both the newly discovered and the eternally relevant.
Here are this week’s reviews from a wildly disorganized bookshelf:
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams
Donald Bogle, the author of Dorothy Dandridge, is one of the nation’s leading authorities on African Americans in film. His extensive knowledge and incisive writing is on display in Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. This immensely readable (as well as intermittently shocking, sad, entertaining, and poignant) history tracks some 60 years in the history of “Black Hollywood.” Bogle interviewed a host of historical figures and documents how they carved a place for themselves in an industry that initially was not interested in them.
As with the rest of the nation during much of the period covered by the book, Black Hollywood was a world set apart from what we typically think of the golden age of “Tinseltown.” It possessed a distinct social structure all its own, as well as its own social scene and personalities. Bogle explores the lives of such people as Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr., and many more. As he documents, from even its earliest days there was an African American presence in Hollywood that defied easy categorization, such as in the context of the relationship between the woman who called herself Madame Sul-Te-Wan and D.W. Griffith, the director whose masterwork was arguably the racist Birth of a Nation (some might look to Griffith’s Intolerance to see an impressive early silent film in many technical respects, but it is for Birth of a Nation that he will undoubtedly forever be remembered).
The book reflects a part of entertainment history that is often overlooked or lost to the mainstream. The narrative is masterful, both conversational and engaging while remaining always informative. Far from being a dry documentary on African American performances in front of the camera, the book documents the often-unseen world behind it: the nightclubs and social interaction, the gossip and the glamour. It is these human stories which give the book its heart, if not its soul as well.
The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Vampires never seem to lose their cool. Whether it’s Anne Rice, Joss Whedon, Wesley Snipes or Kate Beckinsale, there are constant efforts by the contemporary heirs of Bram Stoker to breathe new life into these ancient bloodsuckers. From Buffy to Blade, modern vampires and their hunters constantly escalate the blood and the violence, even as others play the genre for laughs (for example, George Harrison in Love at First Bite, or David Niven slumming in Vampira).
In literary circles, the heavyweight in recent years has been Rice, although she is hardly alone. Most recently, vampires have been the latest to walk the mean streets popularized by Raymond Chandler, as writers such as Charlie Huston graphically transform their fanged protagonists into private detectives, in the process somehow fulfilling Chandler’s directive that such characters manage to be the best to walk the darkened streets and alleys of the underbelly of America. Huston’s book Already Dead, released earlier this year (and reviewed here), is a dark urban fable replete with intense, bloody violence. In contrast, Mario Acevedo’s new novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, is a literate, darkly humorous fusion of the vampire legend with Area 51, space aliens, and yes, nymphomania.
Felix Gomez came back from Operation Iraq Freedom with his own unique disease syndrome. After a firefight in which he and other soldiers accidentally killed a family, including a young girl, he met an unusual form of retribution: a vampire who honors Gomez’ request to be punished by bringing him into the eternal brotherhood of the undead. With the help of modern cosmetics, Felix is able to venture out during the day and simply chalk his appearance up to a “skin condition” he picked up in the Persian Gulf. However, his simultaneous aversion to drinking human blood is having an unintended side effect: his “vampire powers” are slowly eroding away.
As the novel opens, his work as a private detective has caught the attention of an old acquaintance, who has invited him to the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado to help investigate a mysterious outbreak of nymphomania among some of the female employees. The guy can’t seem to cut through the red tape to discover what sort of contaminants might have caused this bizarre outbreak – which is why he’s willing to pay Felix $50,000 to uncover the truth. Since Felix is now up against some of the most lethal, nefarious enemies around (i.e., government operatives), he has to muster his flagging powers in order to find out what is behind all the “horny women” at the secretive facility.
His investigation proves surprisingly difficult, impeded in part by the fact that every time he attempts his vampire hypnosis on one of the victims of the nymphomania, he runs into trouble. He has some assistance from local vampires and another mythical ally, but also another problem: vampire hunters from Eastern Europe who are bound and determined to take the stake to every available vampire. As he uncovers the improbable reality and Byzantine secret operations at the base, the evidence seems to suggest the truly impossible: that the most absurd, crackpot theories of UFOs and alien abductions may well have some basis in fact.
Acevedo manages to take his campy plot and make the most of it, avoiding the easy exploitive angle and infusing more dark humor into the story than overt titillation. He seems determined to have a bit of fun in merging his horror with the hard-boiled detective genre. The plot seems a bit uneven at times and yet overall this campy retake on the vampire myth is oddly engaging.
The Once and Future King
In the entertaining BBC comedy series As Time Goes By, the crusty character played by Geoffrey Palmer decides to read some of the books he “thinks” he read as a child (such as The Tales of Winnie the Pooh). For me, T. H. White’s seminal work of Arthurian lore was one such title: a book one dimly remembers “maybe” reading, but which one perhaps knows more “about” from other sources than the text itself.
Late last year I picked up a copy of The Once and Future King at Borders. It is indeed a delightful book, a fanciful retelling of the Arthurian legends most of us think we know so well. While the opening portion of the book was indeed lifted to create Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (an uneven, and relatively unremarkable Disney animated flick), the book really hits its stride once the young “Wart” draws the enchanted sword from the stone, forever changing his life – and England as well. From Merlin, the wise sage who lives his life backward to the “ill made knight” Lancelot, White’s book is simply a fantastic recasting of the myth of Camelot in distinctly human terms.
Yes, more history. This time, we go back a couple more centuries with Leanda de Lisle for her engaging snapshot of the transition between Elizabeth I of England and James, her most unwelcome successor as the lord of the fair realm called England. The book does not ignore the early years of her reign (which were justifiably some of the most heady years enjoyed by any monarch), but instead chooses to cast a critical eye at a period often ignored by historians: the end of the affair.
The last years of Elizabeth’s reign were troubled. Far from being the solid, dependable monarch often depicted in film, at the end of her life Elizabeth was but a shadow of her former self. In poor health and with her mental faculties arguably diminishing, she brooked little opposition and remained excessively insistent upon ignoring the realities of the moment. She refused to make provision for an heir of any sort, leaving the door open to conflict over her successor; this was especially true as there were a number of possible claimants who each had some claim to the throne.
The transition to James — which many historians have regarded as essentially bloodless — was far from assured at the time. Instead, as de Lisle documents, Elizabeth’s court was a seething hotbed of turmoil, possible treason, and striving for personal advancement. James was regarded with suspicion by many who distrusted or despised his Scottish roots, and when he failed to keep many of his promises upon obtaining the throne there were many, both Catholic and Protestant, who conspired against him.
De Lisle does a wonderful job of describing the often dissolute cast of characters who sought to shape or subvert the English monarchy to their own ends, as well as casting a modern eye upon the social institutions of 17th century England. By narrowing the lens of her focus to this brief moment in time, she is able to carefully explore the palace conspiracies and intrigues which shaped the transition from the England of Henry VIII and Elizabeth to that of the House of Stuart. It is well-written and compelling; a fascinating freeze-frame of history.
A Hole in Juan
Despite the play on words, the Juan in Gillian Roberts’ latest Amanda Pepper mystery doesn’t actually end up perforated with bullet holes. Nonetheless, one does have to wonder why anyone in Philadelphia would pay to send their kids to the private school where Amanda teaches, given the number of rather brutal mysteries she has had to solve involving students or faculty of the institution. This latest episode is no exception.
Halloween is only a few days away, as is the school’s annual “Mischief Night” party. Normally, the school escapes with a few incidents of minor vandalism and other pranks. This year, however, an ominous sense of doom hangs over the school, much of it centering around a new science teacher, whom many of the students seem to regard as some sort of evil classroom dictator.
At first the incidents seem relatively harmless: somebody decides to summon the fire department during a test. Then all the orange and black paint disappears from the art room, and the mustard packets vanish from the school cafeteria. The stakes rise, however, when chemicals and equipment disappear from the science lab and Amanda discovers that one of her exam keys and her attendance book are both missing. To make matters worse, the science teacher, Juan Reyes, receives what might well be a death threat in the form of a letter referencing an incident about a teacher killed by students.
Amanda’s life is already hectic enough as she’s trying to balance her professional obligation to the school while spending the rest of her time working as a private investigator with her husband. Not to mention the rather inconvenient presence of her husband’s nephew, a 16-year-old high school dropout who has crashed at their place for the foreseeable future. Now she has to investigate her own students – including a popular group of seniors who may be at the crux of the recent shenanigans.
When an explosion in the science lab critically injures Reyes, Amanda must pursue her fear that some of the students were involved. When she receives a warning that there is more to come, she knows that she must identify the perpetrators and stop them before their next prank proves fatal.
Roberts’ novels are breezy, entertaining fun. There’s not a lot of over-the-top gore or violence; instead, the story is understated and almost elegant in its straightforward puzzles. Amanda’s relationships with both her husband and the husband’s nephew breathe as if real, and embody a gentle wit and relational experience. While not an exceptional mystery in a plot sense, A Hole in Juan is a well-crafted tale of an amateur sleuth and the schoolyard trouble she’s forced to solve on her own.
The Templar Legacy
Steve Berry’s latest novel might well be characterized by many as a riff on the same themes articulated in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. In it, Cotton Malone, a former government operative, is contacted by his former supervisor, who is also the widow of a researcher who had spent his life investigating the ancient medieval order of the Knights Templar. The researcher apparently committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Somewhat against his will, Cotton is drawn into an investigation that seemingly leads toward the “lost” treasure, who were forcibly disbanded by the king of France in the 14th century.
Combining a love of arcane documents, dead languages, and cryptic puzzles, Berry’s narrative is entertaining if not always plausible. Malone quickly discovers that there are other players hot on the trail of the treasure, many of whom aren’t interested in playing nice or sharing their toys. And the frequent discussion of Gnostic theology will undoubtedly tip many readers to the reality that the Templar treasure may involve more than just a cache of gold and precious jewels: there is a secret here as well, a secret that might well reverberate throughout contemporary Christendom. (full review)