A Dynasty Between the Sheets: The Romanovs

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Review: The Romanovs, 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 2016. 744 pp. $35

In college, I studied two semesters of Russian and Balkan history with a professor who spiced his lectures with tidbits about outsize personalities, such as the aptly named Vlad the Impaler. Indeed, so well known was Professor Marcopoulos for his dry wit and remarkable breadth of knowledge that people not enrolled in the class would ask me, “Has he gotten to Rasputin yet?” because they wanted to sit in when he did.

Fedor Rokotov's portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Fedor Rokotov’s portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Consequently, I can’t read a book like The Romanovs without hearing my late teacher’s voice, seeing his long, looping script as he wrote the names of key figures on the blackboard, and starting in recognition when those names, which I haven’t heard uttered in more than forty years, pop up in Montefiore’s text. There’s plenty in The Romanovs that Dr. Marcopoulos would have enjoyed, including the focus on autocrats as determinants of history, and the depth of garish splendor and corruption that marked the dynasty.

I particularly like the section on Catherine the Great, which successfully merges the story of her private life with her politics, including precious insight into the way she viewed power. “‘One must do things in such a way that people think they themselves want it to be done this way,’” she said. When challenged, Montefiore argues, she could be ruthless but was never cruel, and preferred subtle diplomacy to banging her desk with a fist. As a woman, she might not have survived otherwise; Frederick the Great, for one, a noted misogynist, thought she was incapable.

Once, when her secretary remarked on her boundless power, she laughed and replied that it wasn’t so easy. “‘I take advice, I consult and when I am convinced of general approval, I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power.’” Regarding legends of her sexual appetites, Montefiore recounts her many love affairs, yet insists that all she really wanted was a warm home life, “sharing card games in her cosy apartments and discussing her literary and artistic interests with her beloved.”

Unfortunately, Catherine’s is the only full, satisfying portrait in the book. Peter the Great comes in second, and I like aspects of Montefiore’s characterizations of Alexander II and his spineless, narrow-minded grandson, Nicholas II. Overall, however, I question the historical and narrative choices Montefiore makes, his writing style, and the numbing amount of often extraneous detail.

The author explains (repeatedly) that he’s the first to research troves of private letters that have only recently been made available to historians. I understand his pride and applaud his diligence. But just because he’s found astonishingly frank letters about sexual practices, pet names, and innumerable affairs with ladies-in-waiting and ballerinas doesn’t mean these must all be included. Such tales do convey the unbelievable corruption that plagued Russia (and still does), and some are entertaining. But I can’t help think that Montefiore simply couldn’t let any of them go, an emphasis that seriously mars his work.

The Romanovs often reads, and looks like, a suitcase that’s stuffed so full that it’s ready to spring open at the slightest touch. The text repeats itself in wordy prose that can be confusing or vague or, in some cases, unintentionally funny because of poor grammar. (Montefiore also uses the word girl when the context clearly suggests woman, an annoying, provocative lapse that, incidentally, belies his portrayal of Catherine the Great as a victim of sexism.) Voluminous footnotes occupy the bottom of almost every page; if they don’t contribute to the main narrative, why are they there, and why so many? Sexual escapades take up so much room that significant historical events and movements sometimes seem almost an afterthought. And at historical turning points, the author never looks back, refusing to ask “what if,” having summarily decided–as he says once–that “counterfactual speculation is pointless.”

Really? What if it leads to deeper analysis of what actually happened? For instance, I never knew that as a prince, Alexander II visited England and charmed Queen Victoria, newly on the throne and still unmarried. Alexander’s father, Nicholas I, said, “Forget her,” and the son duly complied. But such a marriage would have changed Europe and altered the dynastic succession in Russia. Surely that’s worth a paragraph, and something illuminating might have come from it.

I can’t recommend plowing through all of The Romanovs. But, as I said, several sections are worth your time, as are the stunning photographs. I also like the last three pages very much, about the ways that subsequent Russian regimes, including Putin’s, have adopted Romanov style and policies. I could have read more about that happily.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Death of a Genius: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

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Review: Fall of Man in Wilmslow, by David Lagercrantz
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Knopf, 2016. 354 pp. $27

Like Alan Turing himself, the extraordinary mathematician and cryptanalyst whose life forms the premise of this novel, Lagercrantz’s narrative is often brilliant but fails to realize its promise. In Turing’s case, his apparent suicide by poisoning in June 1954 ended a life of spectacular accomplishment while he was still young. In the novel, the mystery quickly swims away like a red herring, and the focus shifts, a setback for the reader, who may be forgiven for expecting that the narrative will identify who might have wanted to murder Turing and build a case for or against.

 

Alan Turing's passport photo at age 16, 1928 or 1929 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Alan Turing’s passport photo from his teenage years, 1928 or 1929 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Instead, you get a sort of coming-of-age story about the detective who investigates, a character almost as annoying and socially inept as Turing, but who has talent of his own, submerged under a mountain of self-hatred. Leonard Corell is twenty-eight but hardly formed, conscious that he was meant for better things than to be a policeman in a backwater like Wilmslow, a town near Manchester, yet also believes he deserves nothing else. Leonard has no friends, has never had a romance, was bullied at school (which he never finished, for lack of will), and is often irritable with colleagues who try to be friendly. Just the kind of person you’d want to spend a few hours reading about, right?

Indeed, if that were all, Fall of Man in Wilmslow would be a dreary book, too much to finish. Yet Leonard learns to grow into his skin–haltingly, to be sure, a process rife with sharp elbows given and taken. He has a long way to go, and Lagercrantz’s portrait is terrifying in its depth and detail. Leonard’s father, now dead, was a narcissist who drew constant attention to himself through exaggerated stories and antics, such as announcing, on entering a room, “What a delightful gathering! May a simple man such as I join your company?” Required to revolve around this sun like an outer planet in perpetual shadow, Leonard grew up feeling that he would never be good enough. Yet, at the same time, he fantasized coming up “with an idea, a great thought which would revolutionise the world.”

What the reader knows, though Leonard doesn’t, is that Turing was just such a thinker. Not only did he develop the theory and mechanical means to crack German codes during World War II, he framed the mathematical theories that have given us computers. But Leonard, though groping in the dark, can tell that Turing was special, and you sense that in attempting to grasp how such an accomplished person could poison himself, and what Turing was trying to say about life, the young detective will change.

Turing was homosexual and prosecuted for it, victim of both homophobia and hysteria over national security. The Cambridge ring of Soviet agents (which Helen Dunmore wrote about in Exposed, from a different, later perspective) included several homosexuals, about whom it was presumed that they were led to their treason by immorality, an unnatural affinity for communism, or desire to destroy the world. Since only highly placed intelligence officers know what Turing did during World War II, most people who hear his name, including the Wilmslow constabulary, assume that he must be a danger to society because he’s gay. And the intelligence community, many of whose less enlightened denizens wonder whether Turing ever passed information to the Soviets, becomes very curious about this young policeman who asks a lot of questions.

They don’t realize what Leonard’s after, or where he wants to go. But the reader sees that he starts out sharing the common prejudices and comes to recognize the hypocrisy in himself and others. He gets there, in part, through long discussions of mathematical principles and of Turing’s life and character. These can be long, interesting though they often are, and feel like explanations, another weakness of the narrative, which tells too much instead of showing it. Nevertheless, Fall of Man in Wilmslow has tension to spare, because Lagercrantz occupies Leonard’s head so convincingly, and the young man is fit to burst with discovery and feelings he can’t manage.

I know nothing about math or cybernetics, and I don’t think you need to be passionate about either to appreciate Fall of Man in Wilmslow. However, if you’re looking for a mystery, this is one of character, not who done it, and that may be a letdown.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Art Belongs to the People: The Noise of Time

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Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 2016. 201 pp. $26

How can an essentially plotless novel about a man’s career path be so riveting? And how can the narration, which sprays the protagonist’s thoughts like atomic particles that ricochet and rebound, feel like seamless, inevitable chemistry?

When the protagonist is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and the author is Julian Barnes, that’s how.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (Courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

The story, to the extent that there is one, begins in 1936, when the Helmsman, Josef Stalin, attends an opera, a singular event in itself, only to leave in the middle. The next day, an editorial in Pravda attacks the composer, D. Shostakovich, for making “muddle, not music.” Be it known that the Helmsman’s love for and understanding of that art go no further than tapping his foot to songs from his native Georgia, and that the opera in question, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (I kid you not) has been performed for months to good notices. None of that matters, of course.

What matters is that untold numbers of people have already died for less. As Lenin said, art belongs to the people, which, under his successor, means that anything that may be construed as antirevolutionary, anti-Soviet, or possessed of occult or insidious influences must be stamped out. Naturally, captive pens will do the necessary construing, as if Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk were reactionary trash, everybody had known it from the get-go, and the groundswell of criticism were spontaneous. Shostakovich must confess his sins and be reeducated.

But even that may not be enough. Rumors fly that Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, decorated war hero and architect of Soviet grand military strategy, has been arrested. And when he’s executed for plotting against the Great Leader, Shostakovich’s days are numbered. Why? Because the late marshal, who loved to play the violin, was the composer’s friend.

Since we know that Shostakovich outlived Stalin (and Krushchev, whom he privately disdains as Nikita Corncob), the question isn’t whether the composer will be murdered or exiled to the gulag. It’s how he handles that possibility and the problems that survival poses afterward.

Yes, survival has its problems. Since the state has protected him, every several years, an emissary comes from on high, like a tax collector who must be paid, except not in money. For instance, open letters are published under Shostakovich’s name excoriating Stravinsky, whom he admires above all other twentieth-century composers; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom he also respects (and whom, he suspects, has actually downplayed the true horrors of the gulag); and the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. As Shostakovich muses late in life:

Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment–when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.

Barnes makes brilliant use of circumstances surrounding his protagonist’s birth. His parents wanted to name him Boleslav, but a priest told them they couldn’t–and they bowed to his authority. Name the boy Dmitri, like his father, the priest said; and the future genius became Dmitri Dmitreyevich, a repetitive moniker that has no music to it. Even his name is a surrender to authority.

However, The Noise of Time would be a dull, excruciating rant if its subject were simply a coward. Things aren’t that simple; how could they be? While Shostakovich waits to be dragged away to prison and death–he spends his nights by the elevator outside his apartment door, suitcase packed–he knows that not just his friend Tukhachevsky but members of his wife’s family have been arrested. If he goes too, what will happen to her and their children, or her other relatives? Other people he knows, whose only crime is to have been his friends? When critics living in the West beseech him to “make a statement,” he answers (silently, of course) that they have no idea how much that would cost or how little it would accomplish. At the same time, he understands what they’re saying.

Dmitri Shostakovich comes across as a complicated man, a celebrated figure at the pinnacle of his profession, yet living in an abyss of conscience. Julian Barnes has made fine literature from his predicament.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Hands-on History: How to Be a Tudor

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Review: How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman
Liveright/Norton, 2015. 320 pp. $30

To paraphrase an old maxim, writing social history is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. But, as Goodman proves in her remarkable book, it helps if you’re using a hammer authentic to the period–better yet, if you’ve forged that tool yourself.

And that’s essentially what she’s done for the years from 1485, when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, assumed the throne as Henry VII, until 1603, when Elizabeth I died. Doublets, kirtles, ruffs, and gowns? Goodman has sewn them, by the hundreds. Want to know why Tudor folk dumped rushes on castle floors and slept on them? She can tell you, and what’s more, she’s done it. Think it would be a challenge to prepare a feast in a sixteenth-century wood-fired oven? To understand exactly how challenging, she’s built them–and, by the way, if you do likewise, remember to soak the wooden door in water so that (a) it doesn’t burn, and (b) imparts steam to the heat.

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, painted between 1470 and 1480 (Courtesy Musee Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, a portrait believed to have been painted between 1470 and 1480 (courtesy Musée Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).

 

I’ve never read a book like this, informed both by devoted scholarship and meticulous, hands-on experience. Even more amazing, Goodman has set her focus precisely where the written sources are thinnest, on how the common folk lived. Since few commoners could read, and even fewer could write (the skills, when taught at all, were learned separately), these people created no chronicles of themselves, and upper-class or noble commentators wouldn’t have deigned to. However, by using court records, parish registries, wills, paintings, and books of advice and commentary (a literary genre just then becoming popular), Goodman has pieced together a startling amount of information about daily life among commoners. It’s not surprising that she’s a recognized expert, a consultant for costume dramas, as with the televised version of Wolf Hall.

Among other things, I learned how details of posture and dress that we would call subtle or even meaningless spoke loudly to fifteenth-century Englishmen and -women about social class and breeding. Woe betide any who failed to observe these strictures, and who thus became suspect of trying to get above his or her station, for humiliation and punishment would soon follow. Naturally, the higher up you were, the more latitude you had. Certain young gentlemen, a classification with a specific social meaning, liked to swagger with their hips thrust forward, which caused purses, daggers, swords, or bucklers to swing about and make a clattering noise. Such was a swashbuckler, who announced his presence well before he came into view. The word is one of thousands the Tudors bequeathed to modern English; and of course, nobody coined more than Shakespeare, who left us some seventeen hundred.

Goodman has subtitled her work A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, and the way she goes about this makes sense, though it also has its drawbacks. She begins with cock crow, when people got out of bed, and describes their rituals of prayer, dress, and hygiene, and ends with nighttime, return to bed, and what went on there. In between, she recounts what people ate; how they cooked it; what they had to learn so they could function, stay out of trouble, and maybe rise in the world; what kinds of work they did; and how they amused themselves when they had the chance. You easily understand the rhythm of everyday life, and how busy people were, especially those who had no servants to tend them–indeed, Goodman accounts for every waking minute.

The downside to this approach is the lack of narrative or individual characters. Occasionally, a person emerges from the crowd, provides an example, and quickly recedes. I lay this charge gently, because more than one critic has said the same about my work, and the dearth of first-person source material dictates how this type of social history must be written. In this book, however, I found myself pouncing on these brief stories, only to feel disappointed that they melted away so soon. I suspect that I yearned ever more for them because the wealth of detail Goodman offers can be overwhelming. I confess that I skipped over parts of How to Be a Tudor; the section on dress, for instance, goes on too long for my taste. However, I devoured the rest, such as the fine points of a bow or curtsy or the manner of baking bread.

In short, there’s something for everyone in How to Be a Tudor.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Keeping Secrets: Exposure

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Review: Exposure, by Helen Dunmore
Atlantic, 2016. 391 pp. $25

Simon Callington is a decent man, the dutiful Englishman. He’s a devoted husband and father of three, bright but not brilliant, content with modest pleasures, too self-effacing to say no when maybe he should, too slow to realize that others don’t play fair. In other words, Simon is a perfect fall guy. And since this is 1960, when Soviet spies are turning up inside the British government–in fact, his immediate superiors in the Naval Department have been “batting for the other side” for years–a fall guy can be useful.

Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby worked for British Intelligence but was actually a Soviet agent. One of the so-called Cambridge Five, men who attended that institution and spied for the USSR, Philby defected in 1963. This image comes from a 1990 Soviet postage stamp (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby worked for British Intelligence but was actually a Soviet agent. One of the so-called Cambridge Five, men who attended that institution and spied for the USSR, Philby defected in 1963. This image comes from a 1990 Soviet postage stamp (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The story all starts innocently enough. Giles Holloway, an old friend, mentor, and immediate superior, calls Simon at an inconvenient hour to have him rescue a file from a place it should never have gone. Simon agrees, only because he can’t say no to Giles, part of which goes back to their days at Cambridge, when they were lovers. But Simon will have ample time to wish he had said no, because one look at the file tells him that neither man should have seen it, and Giles’s briefcase, which Simon comes across, contains more of the same. Rather than return the file to the office, as Giles wants, Simon brings it home. From there, his life unravels.

With Exposure, Dunmore proves again why she’s among my favorite writers. She’s written a thriller as gripping as any, using Simon’s very ordinariness and decency to devastating effect. There’s no cloak-and-dagger here, no secret that will explode the universe if it falls into the wrong hands, no mole who must be uncovered before he or she compromises national security. Rather, it’s how those who act to protect national security are destroying the decency and moral compass that Simon represents, and they do so without a second thought, certain of their righteousness. So yes, the world is at stake after all, for what happens when decency and moral compass mean nothing?

Consequently, Exposure has to do with how the government Simon serves repays his loyalty, and how they hurt him, his wife, and children. Once suspicion falls on him, he has no friends, and the people he might have counted on for support, like Giles, will gladly sacrifice him to their own interests. Simon’s only ally is his wife, Lily, a woman of great resourcefulness. However, Simon refuses to tell her anything that might compromise her, and Lily, who can be difficult to reach, has a secret of her own that she won’t share.

Dunmore excels here, deriving so much tension from unwillingness or inability to communicate that at times you want to howl. But there are good reasons for it, which, typical of her fiction, come from within the characters. Lily, a German Jew by birth, grew up living “in fear before she knew why she was afraid . . . knowing that people hated her,” and though she escaped her native country, she can’t escape herself. Once Simon is arrested, Lily rebuffs her friends, believing that she mustn’t taint them, and concentrates on protecting her children as best she can.

Another thing I like is how Dunmore contrasts the offhand, charismatic Giles with his mousy, submissive underling. Early on, Giles observes:

We aren’t meant to see ourselves as others see us. In fact it would be a bloody dull world if we did, because no one would ever make a fool of himself again. We might as well accept that we’re put on this earth to make unwitting entertainment for other fellow men, and get on with doing so.

All that sounds very nice, blasé wisdom for the Cambridge common room. But without ever saying so, Dunmore shows what happens when Simon, dull as he may be in comparison with Giles, actually tries to connect with life instead of looking at it as a game. His plight may furnish entertainment for the men who want to sink him, but everyone else is in great pain.

The only false note in this portrayal concerns Simon’s sexuality. If he was homosexual at Cambridge and found it exciting, why has he given it up? He may think of it as a youthful road he no longer prefers to travel, and his marriage is plainly substantial. Yet Giles still exerts a pull over him. Also, Giles’s boss, Julian, though a master of the nasty innuendo and capable of intimidating just about anybody, seems two-dimensional. Almost every time he appears, the adjective cold sticks to him like Arctic ice on bare skin, but that doesn’t satisfy me.

The first book I reviewed for this blog was The Lie, a lyrical, heart-rending tale of rootlessness that’s still my favorite of all those I’ve written about here. Though Exposure deals with a different subject, it’s a worthy companion, and I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Flesh and Faith: The Painter of Souls

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Herod's Feast, Salome's Dance, painted by Lippi between 1460 and 1464, Prato, Italy (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Herod’s Feast, Salome’s Dance, painted by Lippi between 1460 and 1464, Prato, Italy (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Review: The Painter of Souls, by Philip Kazan
Pegasus, 2015. 261 pp. $25

One pitfall of biographical fiction is the elbow-in-the-ribs aha! moment, when our protagonist meets the great and renowned on his or her way up the ladder of fame. Such scenes afflict The Painter of Souls, a novel about the fifteenth-century Florentine Carmelite painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Not only does the young–and I mean young–friar run across such luminaries as Donatello and Brunelleschi as easily as rolling out of bed, they instantly recognize his talent and praise him generously, to which he rubs his sandal in the dust and utters the Italian equivalent of “Aw, shucks.” Meanwhile, the prior gives Fra Filippo every bit of leeway, impressed with his gift, which surely comes from God, and sees no reason not to let him paint church frescoes and altar pieces under the tutelage of lay artists.

Despite these happenings, which sometimes seem too good to be true, I like The Painter of Souls. What saves the novel for me is its good-natured, winning protagonist. Pippo, to his secular friends, likes a drink, a game of dice, and has sexual fantasies about the paintings of Eve that adorn church walls. His father died when Pippo was six, and his mother has been virtually catatonic from grief ever since, leaving the boy to fend for himself. He’s learned how to beg, scrounge for food in garbage heaps, rob market stalls, fashion crude pens and ink to make drawings of passersby for pennies, and share his gains with the gang to which he belongs. Pippo comes dangerously close to letting that dead-end life swallow him altogether. Entering the church has saved him.

However, he doesn’t take well to the discipline. He wants to, but he misses too much of the outside world to accept his new surroundings, especially the restraint, which he finds excessive. The silence of the convent feels “heavy, deliberate, enforced,” its purpose to stifle noise except at prescribed times, as with bell ringing or the ponderous closing of cell doors. Pippo loves the sky, the sights, sounds, and smells of Florence, the taste of roast meat and the good grape, the glimpse of a pretty face. Or more than a glimpse, which of course leads him to sinful daydreams. How he reconciles all that with his religious faith, his desire to believe, makes the story worth while. Constant contact with painters unbound by monastic rules only increases the temptations, which he tries to channel toward its acceptable object. Beauty is divine, therefore re-creating it in religious art serves God. If, however, the act of creation involves a little transgression here and there, well, He’ll understand.

Consequently, it’s not Fra Filippo’s strengths as an artist, nor his seemingly effortless rise to fame, that make The Painter of vSouls worth reading. Rather, it’s Pippo’s weaknesses as a friar and a man that propel this novel–the whoppers he tells on the spur of the moment; the deals and excuses he makes with himself so that he can still feel honorable; his delight in the forbidden; and the pull his former life still exerts on him (and its vivid portrayal in Kazan’s deft hands). Pippo understands that he’s a sinner, and though he loves nothing more than to paint, part of him fears accepting the offer of a dispensation to remain a friar while still becoming a member of the painter’s guild, a privilege offered to very few. Who is he, a sensualist with a brush, or a man of God?

While he’s weighing this question, an artist he’s working for brings him to a barber, after whose ministrations Pippo looks in a mirror for the first time in his life:

He is looking at an almost round head, an elongated sphere, domed like a cannonball above, and gleaming from the passage of the razor. His chin is round as well, dimpled. He had no idea his mouth was so wide. There is a hunger implied in the fleshy, almost feminine curve of his lips which he finds disturbing. He looks into his own eyes. They are heavy-lidded, dark ink-brown, close-set but large, watching him, watching themselves. The irises dart, gathering, betraying an appetite, a need for satiation. This face is thinking, how will I draw you? How will you draw me?

Pippo has one other endearing trait that helps counteract the smoothness of his career arc. He believes that there’s good in everyone, and whenever he can, he uses social outcasts as his models, finding grace in them that no one else does. It’s hard to quarrel with that, and with The Painter of Souls, even if the story seems incredible, at times.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

This Is Not a Book Review

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This past Tuesday night, my wife and I dined at a small Parisian restaurant we’d stumbled on almost thirty years ago, and which, I’m happy to say, is just as good as it was then. Since we were feeling romantic and happy with the world, I told the maître d’ how his establishment had figured in our lives. Our first visit happened the same week I asked my wife to marry me; our second, some years later, occurred when she was pregnant with our elder son.

The maître d’ thanked us profusely. “What you’re telling me gives me goose bumps,” he said. He added that what mattered most to his colleagues and him was the passion to prepare and serve food the way it should be done. I said that what was on the plate proved the point; he beamed and said he was touched.

Two days later, back in Seattle, we read about the massacre at Nice. I can’t tell you how revolted, heartsick, and incredulous I feel, how outraged. Among other things, to me, France represents the love for and appreciation of the beauty that makes life more fulfilling. It’s as the maître d’ said, the understanding that even a snippet of the everyday should be created just so, as if there were no excuse for ugliness. Not that there’s no ugliness in France; of course there is, and plenty of it, not least the bigotry and xenophobia that poison public discourse. But you’ll also see there the passion this man was referring to: a moment, an interaction, a way of being that says, This is what life’s about.

During our trip, we encountered many examples of this. A Tunisian market-stall merchant in Dijon urged us to sample his olive oil, easily the best I’ve ever tasted, and when I said so, he wound up telling us about his life and why he’d emigrated to France. An elderly couple who run a bed-and-breakfast in Bourges embraced us when our three-day stay ended and said they’d miss us. Why? I think it’s because we expressed admiration for their city and the care with which they renovated the ancient building that’s their home.

The Paris métro, like any other hole in the ground through which trains run incessantly, is noisy, grimy, and sooty, and the ads are loud and garish, like ads everywhere. But take a closer look at them, and you’ll see that their borders are ornate ceramic tile. Who thought to bother, and why? Who decided, way back when, to name the stations after historical figures or events and decorate them accordingly? Then again, back further when, who thought that a cathedral spire needed meticulously carved ornaments so high above the ground?

The terrorists’ response? Blow it up. Run it over. Shoot it. Hate it. Like any sociopath who fears himself impure and worthless, they see only filth, depravity, sin, which must be wiped out. A café, for instance, isn’t a social hub but a place where men and women mingle freely over alcohol. But it takes a particular sickness to translate that belief into action, to decide that a certain lifestyle, and the freedom to choose it, aren’t merely different or new but an insult, one that can be assuaged only by murder.

I grieve for Nice, for France, for the world we live in.

Those Double-Crossing de Medicis: The Red Lily Crown

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Review: The Red Lily Crown, by Elizabeth Loupas
NAL, 2014. 418 pp. $16

It’s April 1574, and Florence braces for the death of one de Medici grand duke, Cosimo, and the accession of another, Francesco. It’s common knowledge that the heir apparent has two interests, women and alchemy, and the skinny is that he’ll be a crafty, intemperate ruler–just like his forbears, in other words, except more so.

Bronzino's portrait of Francesco de Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, 1567? (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Bronzino’s portrait of Francesco de Medici; 1567? (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But such thoughts are secondary for Chiara Nerini, the fifteen-year-old daughter of an alchemist and bookseller who immolated himself searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemy fascinates Chiara as well, and her father’s laboratory has many treasures in it:

It was fantastical, disconnected from hunger, hunger, hunger, worn-out clothes and winter cold, as mysterious as if it had been created by some kind of magic. There was an athanor made of brick and clay from Trebizond–wherever that was–and a green glass alembic in the shape of a crescent moon. There was a gold-and-crystal double pelican and a silver funnel engraved with an intricate circular labyrinth design, supposedly a thousand years old.

But tragedy as well as poverty has dogged the family; her mother is dead, and horsemen ran over and killed Chiara’s brother, knocking her on the head too, a blow that still causes her headaches and fainting spells. She and her two surviving sisters live with their grandmother, a woman of republican sympathies who ill conceals her contempt for the ruling house. Nevertheless, Chiara has taken it upon herself to sell off her late father’s equipment, and who better to buy it than Francesco de Medici?

However, even to approach the great man is a dangerous gambit, and she’s nearly trampled again in the attempt. But she’s also lucky that Ruanno, an English alchemist working for Francesco, recognizes the worth of the object she has brought to sell–except that when de Medici sees it, and her, he makes a proposition she can’t refuse. Chiara is to remain in his house as a servant and assist in his laboratory, where he’s trying to create the Philosopher’s Stone. He believes that to succeed, he needs someone to represent the feminine principle, and she’s nominated. If she passes several tests to prove she’s a virgin , she’ll work alongside Ruanno and the grand duke, and her family will receive food, money, and gifts. But if Chiara fails the tests or breaks her vow, she’ll die. Simple.

This chain of events illustrates the key strength of The Red Lily Crown. You’ll notice that each twist in the story corresponds to a “yes, but,” the parallel structure to the “no–and furthermore” common to thrillers but also appearing in well-plotted novels of other genres. In the “no–and furthermore,” the protagonist thinks she’ll get what she’s looking for, only to fail and be presented with an even worse problem. Here, Loupas relies on a different sort of complication. Yes, Chiara sells her father’s equipment, but Francesco co-opts her. Yes, that has its advantages but could also prove fatal. Later in the novel, the author employs the “no–and furthermore” too; but to set the stage, she’s content to lead Chiara into a labyrinth.

De Medici drives the tension, changing minute to minute, leaving everyone around him to wonder what he really wants, what he’s got on them, and what they can or can’t get away with. I find him a bit much, vicious and selfish beyond belief, and the information that his parents persecuted him doesn’t quite balance the portrayal. But Loupas re-creates the Medici court, its intrigues, affairs, murders, and rituals, with a sure hand. I believe that part.

I have more trouble crediting certain plot turns, well done though they are, especially the de Medici arsenal of poisons. You know that Ruanno, who seems too good to be true, and Chiara will attract one another, so that’s no surprise, though Loupas keeps you guessing as to how it will unfold. I wish she hadn’t rushed important transitions in the romance, and it seems as if Chiara can read his thoughts whenever she wishes, a telepathy to be envied.

But I like a good story, and The Red Lily Crown is one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Pawn or King’s Counselor?: The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan

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Review: The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, by Robert Hough
Anansi, 2015. 342 pp. $16.

Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but I didn’t know that such things as chess hustlers existed, nor that they prowled seventeenth-century London’s coffee shops and taverns, looking for fools and their money. But in this well-told, riveting novel, which begins in 1664, young Benny Wand has a difficult choice: Spend twelve years in Newgate for having fleeced the wrong gentleman or be deported to Jamaica. Though Benny has never been to sea and has no apparent skills other than his chess mastery, he instantly chooses the New World, for he rightly expects a dozen years behind bars will be a death sentence by slow torture.

Alexandre Exquemuelin's 1707 portrait of Henry Morgan, painted almost twenty years after the subject's death (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandre Exquemelin’s 1707 portrait of Henry Morgan, done almost twenty years after the subject’s death (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But on arrival in Port Royal, called “the wickedest city on earth,” he quickly realizes that his prospects are dim indeed. An acre of transported criminals like himself crowds a beach, living on rum and roast turtle, with no hope except the rumored reappearance of Henry Morgan, a privateer licensed by the British Crown. Morgan’s reputation for daring, and his ability to liberate Spanish gold from its former owners have the societal castoffs excited, and no wonder. Not only is it possible for men who wouldn’t know sky from ocean to become rich virtually overnight, but, as Benny learns when the fabled captain shows up, his leader has no use for the social barriers that have kept his new crewmen down all their lives. In return for obedience, Morgan offers something extraordinary–advancement based on merit.

Benny soon profits thereby, for Morgan fancies himself a chess player and, hearing of Benny’s prowess, invites him to his quarters for a game. What a heady experience for a young man who’s never come closer to power than being on the wrong side of a judge’s bench. Benny revels in their contests and in Morgan’s free admission that his deck swab’s skill easily surpasses his own, the first praise he’s ever received. What’s more, he asks Benny his secret, only to be told there is none. Victory, he explains, depends on seeing what’s in front of you, what might be lurking just out of sight, and in planning for both.

Naturally, Morgan recognizes the inherent military wisdom in Benny’s approach, and you won’t be surprised to hear that, little by little, the captain relies on him for advice in the field. However, though Morgan listens, what always eludes him is Benny’s gift at anticipating what the enemy will do next. The adventures make for tense reading, but there’s much more here. The relationship between the two men explores the nature of power (and how it corrupts); the fury unleashed in men whom society has humiliated; and how money influences both.

For instance, when Benny and his mates are filling their pockets during a successful raid, he feels vindicated:

Sheer glory this was. Every step through that steaming and fearsome jungle had been worth it, for with each pilfered necklace and pocketed earring I was getting even with all those who’d made my life miserable in England. I’m talking about unforgiving landlords and brutal schoolteachers and truncheon-swinging police and priests with fat roaming hands. Sod the world was running through my head while we emptied one house after another, and it was intoxicating as Kill Devil [a potent alcoholic drink].

The problem with intoxication, however, is that it can possess you, and Benny’s no exception. Having noticed Morgan’s growing corruption, he worries about his own, and whether he’s become his captain’s creature, caught up in another man’s game. Is Benny a pawn, or is he the man who can save Morgan from himself?

Hough’s narrative moves swiftly but seldom compresses an emotional turning point. I like the vivid prose, which, in Benny’s salty, worldly voice, makes his character come alive. Morgan comes through too, though less clearly, perhaps the drawback of this particular first-person approach. None of the other characters seems fully fledged, but the key relationship is so complex and delivers so much that this matters less than it might otherwise. At times, I wondered whether Benny’s language or thought process sounded too modern, but that too shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this entertaining, thought-provoking novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Deception: The Paris Winter

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Review: The Paris Winter, by Imogen Robertson
St. Martin’s, 2013. 360 pp. $26

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But Maud Heighton, the protagonist of this excellent thriller set in 1909, can’t help herself. She’s slowly starving in Paris, garden of earthly delights, while learning to become a painter at l’Académie Lafond. All Maud’s classmates are women, which keeps predatory bohemians out, but Lafond charges his female students double what he would if they were male–the image of respectability costs extra, you see.

Quai de Passy, Paris, during the flood of 1910 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Quai de Passy, Paris, during the flood of 1910 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Not that anyone of the male persuasion believes in that respectability; Maud’s brother, a lawyer back in England, disapproves of his sister’s choice to live in that sinful city, and many men freely offer their opinion that art is a masculine preserve. So as Maud’s meager funds drip away to finance her education, and as she covertly lunches on the tiny cakes served at class sessions, she’s terribly alone. She loves Paris, but it’s out of reach–and so is Maud, a proper Englishwoman who keeps her distance, living in her books and sketch pads.

In the full light of day Paris was chic and confident. The polished shops were filled with colour and temptation and on every corner was a scene worth painting. It was modern without being vulgar, tasteful without being rigid or dull. A parade of elegant originality. Only in this hour, just before dawn on a winter’s morning, did the city seem a little haggard, a little stale. . . . The streets were almost empty–only the occasional man, purple in the face and stale with smoke and drink, hailing a cab in the Place Pigalle, or the old women washing out the gutters with stiff-brushed brooms.

But Maud can’t remain impervious and aloof forever. Tanya Koltsova, a wealthy Russian classmate from Lafond’s, befriends her, determined to show her a good time and feed her enough to restore color to her cheeks. Naturally, Maud’s too proud to accept charity, but through Tanya, she learns of a situation as a lady’s companion. Sylvie Morel, a pale, blonde beauty with a sensual face who could have stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Burne-Jones, is very sickly, and her older brother wants someone to coax her into the world and help her gain her strength. How perfect for Maud; it’s precisely what she needs for herself. In return for her room, board, and a princely wage, all she need do is entice Sylvie away from her sickbed, teaching her English and giving her drawing lessons.

There are complications, however. As Morel confides, Sylvie is addicted to opium, which he indulges within limits, hoping to wean her off the drug. Yet he praises Maud’s efforts to get her out and about and insists that he can see real progress.

Then a madwoman pounds on the door one day when Morel’s out–as he usually is–and forces her way into the apartment. Morel’s a thief, the woman declares, and Sylvie’s not his sister but his wife. The Morels have ruined her life, besmirched her good name. Naturally, Maud can’t believe a word and is horrified that she couldn’t ward her off; luckily, the concierge and her husband arrive in time and threw the madwoman out.

I probably don’t have to tell you that things unravel quickly from there, and that the Morels aren’t who they seem. The Paris Winter tells a gut-wrenching, dark story while exploring the theme of how money imprisons people who have too little or too much of it. I like the storytelling very much–Robertson makes skillful use of “no; and furthermore”–and most of her characters, who come from all walks of life. Tanya’s poor-little-rich-girl act wears at times, and I wish the author had given her more than a good heart, a taste for beautiful dresses, and a quest for what it means to marry for love. A worldview, maybe? But the weak link here is the Morels, who seem like sociopaths (especially Sylvie), and, as I’ve said before, I dislike thrillers or mysteries in which the villainy comes purely from psychological distortion.

Even so, I enjoyed The Paris Winter immensely.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

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