‘The Violins Of Saint Jacques’

The Violins Of Saint JacquesThe Violins Of Saint Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To his fans, recommended.

It is the story of a woman who goes to the Caribbean to be governess or whatever for a wealthy French aristocrat, and basically what happens is the oldest daughter of the family runs away to marry the son of a government official, who for political (and other) reasons the aristocrat/father finds detestable. Pretty mundane stuff, except for the extraordinary climax of the book, which is itself preceded by a dramatic chase: the governess, the oldest son (who is in love with her, by the way) and the butler all go off in different directions to find the daughter. I do not think it is a spoiler to say that, no way, will you see the ending coming. (Oo-o-of.)

It is a little bit of a stretch, literarily speaking, as Fermor tells most of the story through the eyes of an elderly French woman. But you will forgive the occasionally stilted moments, because all the familiar Fermor is here: magnificent character sketches, seductive scenery, alluring history and all of it told with the usual, weighty wit and charm.

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‘Bonfire of the Vanities’

The Bonfire Of The VanitiesThe Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sorry, sorry, I know I am 25 years late, but: This is excellent.

I am not sure I was ready in 1987 to read Wolfe, whose swollen bursts of ellipses-ridden inner monologue can grow to be tiresome, if not outright painful, to digest. But the story of “Bonfire,” dipped in the slick, stylized honey of New York, went down nice and smooth now, in my near-dotage.

If you can pick the ellipses out of your teeth, the balance is so rewarding, so compelling that you will find yourself using cliches like “it’s a page-turner” when talking to friends. But it is, it drives you to keep going, to put off whatever so that you can the end of a chapter. And to nervously check your momentum as you fear missing your train stop.

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‘The Scientists’

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest InventorsThe Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors by John Gribbin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended, heartily.

It sounds like hubris to think you could write a book that, basically, tells the whole broad story of science in one go. But here it is, and it is worth reading.

Mr. Gribbin’s explanations of dizzying series of innovations are always clear and concise. But his strength is a perspicacious gift for knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and when to bind the threads of his story together more tightly. Indeed, this was the most satisfying part. Time after time, Gribbin would seed his narrative with a detail that would sprout in the succeeding pages into a delightful coincidence. Time after time, I would slap my hand to my forehead, then sink back into my chair (or subway bench) in a weary exultation of edification.

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My Anglophilia, as Exposed by ‘Sherlock’ by BBC1

…the British TV series Sherlock is a must see. Sherlock reboots Holmes into our world. Yet despite advancing in time some 130 years when Sherlock first meets Watson he says, exactly as in the original, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” A shiver ran down my spine.

via Sherlock Holmes v. Sherlock — Marginal Revolution.

So, I finally* got around to watching “Sherlock,” the BBC1 update of the eccentric Victorian sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. On the face of it, this is an exceedingly entertaining show and, I would add, worth watching. And I say this as a person who loathes the literary Holmes.

“Sherlock” transplants our gangly sociopath into modern times, “reboots” as the writer in the above excerpts puts it (though he has Holmes’s quotation completely wrong). It all seems faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories. Conveniently, there is a modern war in Afghanistan for Dr. Watson to have been wounded in. The characters are nuanced and are possessed with complex psychologies. And, leaving aside some unfortunate homophobic humor, the grounds for the relationship between Holmes and Watson is, oddly, more believable on TV. Their banter is a highlight; in one scene, Watson chides Holmes for simply being a good guesser. Holmes protests, but of course that is all he really is.

A particularly engaging tactic that fits the context and the medium is the annotation of Holmes’s ponderous line of abductive reasoning (guesses!) with computer-generated captions. As Holmes observes, for example, a murder victim’s rain-soaked collar, explanatory text pops up over his probing fingers. Sadly, there is no similar technological economy employed in leavening his triumphant and tedious oral explanations.

The most interesting thing about the first episode is the method employed by its antagonist, a terminally ill killer who uses poison pills in a kind of Russian roulette to dispatch his victims. You get the idea: there are two pills, and the killer asks his victim to choose one, saying that he will take the other. One nervous gulp later, the victim is dead and the killer is incrementally more smug.

Many fans of the show, though strangely almost none of the critics in the media, recognized that premise from the iocaine-powder scene in the motion picture “The Princess Bride.” In the movie, the idea was that the protagonist was immune to the poison. But in “Sherlock,” no explanation is provided. This led several television critics, in otherwise rave reviews, to gripe about holes in the plot. To wit, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston harrumphed, “How come they always pick the wrong pill?”

Fans of the show were moved in other directions, too. Some slapped their palms figuratively to their foreheads, saying that Holmes’s real problem was that he never went to the movies. Others were moved to compose strange bits of fan fiction. A few apparently literate fans pointed out that the two-pill premise was, in fact, derived from the first Holmes story written by Conan Doyle.

However, knowing as much gets you no closer to knowing the answer to Wollaston’s question. After apprehending the killer, Conan Doyle’s Holmes blusters on and on – “In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards” — but he never explains how the killer knew his victim would take the poison. The reader is left to assume that because the killer was going to die, anyway, he did not care what pill he took.

But this explanation is weakened considerably in context of the television program, in which there are four victims to Conan Doyle’s two (only one by poison). Conan Doyle’s killer was motivated by revenge, but we learn that the television killer is (spoiler!) acting for the benefit of his children; he is being paid per victim. It seems to me that the television killer would want to maximize his chances of staying alive, at least for one victim, and so must have had something up his sleeve. But “Sherlock” provides no more explanation than Conan Doyle did in his book.


The thing that has always bugged me about Holmes as a character is that he is always up against the most eccentric criminals imaginable. I suppose there is something in that odd stories are the ones that get told. But it strains credibility that every ne’er-do-well in Holmes’s London turns out to have some peculiar dust on his pants, or a rare kind of clay caked on his feet, or an aftershave composed of an unusual blend of fragrances. The fastidiously careful criminal — or, indeed, the morosely mundane — is totally foreign to Holmes.

In the end, those Conan Doyle stories drone on much like Holmes does. After the first few paragraphs, you basically have an idea of what you should be looking for later (i.e. the source of the dust, or the clay, or the aftershave). Of course, and annoyingly, Conan Doyle sometimes dispenses with this altogether, and the reader only learns about the most important clue at the end when Holmes explains what it was. It is as if Conan Doyle is saying, Thanks for coming, Reader, but you were not even necessary.

* The caveats here are numerous. I’m coming at this two years too late, of course, and it is not obvious from noodling around on the Web if I’m assessing the program’s initial reaction correctly. And I have not watched any of the second round of three episodes. But whatever.

Delusions of ‘Other Desert Cities’

Jon Robin Baitz is in such good form—bravura verbal contretemps all around—that he practically makes you forget you’re watching another play about the woes of the 1 percent.

via Other Desert Cities – Theater Profile and Schedule – New York Magazine.

Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama is so good that you may not even realize how good it is while you’re watching it.

via Theater Listings – Feb. 3-9 – NYTimes.com.

Having read these eerily similar capsule reviews, I expected to be completely unseated from my wits after allowing my ticket to be scanned at the Booth Theater. Alas, the prickly, obsessive insistence of plot was irritating enough to keep me alert and ready to be absorbed by an engaging second act.

Ben Brantley called this “the most richly enjoyable new play” on Broadway when it was Lincoln Center, and he sees new subtleties at the Booth Theater. I am not sophisticated enough to appreciate it at that level, but it is quite good. The play tracks a Christmas reunion for an arch-conservative, political powerhouse family at which, Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), the daughter and middle child, reveals her plans to publish a provoking, tell-all memoir.

I lack the empathy to identify with the self-absorbed daughter, and her weakness and narrow-mindedness reminded me a little of the menacing half-wit Charlize Theron played in the film “Young Adult.” But focusing on teary Brooke left me wide open after intermission for a pancake-block of a performance by her father, Lyman (Stacy Keach). Stockard Channing, as the mother, Polly, is even better.

‘The Road to Disunion, Volume II’

The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delightful-er, if just as dense as the first volume.

You simply cannot find a better book on the subject, and I would heartily recommend this (and the preceding volume) to anyone with even passing interesting in antebellum America. If tunneling through 1,000-some pages  does not sound appealing, settle for Volume II, which does an admirable, amiable job of standing alone. Freehling is meticulous and thorough, but he also has a lively wit and can distill complicated webs of thought and action to simple principles.

What made a lasting impression on me was Freehling’s treatment of the philosophical weakness endemic to the Peculiar Institution. Obviously, slavery is bad. But what I never considered before is that ground it rested on, from the Southern point of view, was rotten. You cannot justify slavery in class terms because you threaten poor white laborers. You cannot justify it in racial terms because so many large farms and plantations were managed wholly by slaves. And you cannot justify it in religious terms because it is so thoroughly incompatible with any interpretation of Christianity. What the most extreme Southrons could not have known is that their zeal for slavery had only one logical conclusion.

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See also:

Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

via Letters of Note: To My Old Master.

‘QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter’

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and MatterQED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard P. Feynman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s funny; it really is. To wit, Feynman writes: “You see, the chemists have a complicated way of counting: instead of saying ‘one, two, three, four, five protons,’ they say, ‘hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron.’ ”


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First You Read It, Then You Do It

What Shat That?: A Pocket Guide to Poop IdentityWhat Shat That?: A Pocket Guide to Poop Identity by Matt Pagett

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This should be charming, or diverting, but it mostly is a mishmash of mangled sentences and sophomoric humor. And afterward, you won’t be able to identify anything other than the reason for your wasted time. Thankfully, it does not take much longer to read it than it does to do it.

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‘The Ghosts of Cannae’


The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal & the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert L. O’Connell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is engaging, witty in parts and interesting throughout. The author susses the likely truth out of fickle ancient sources, providing expert analysis when helpful without losing focus on the story. The result nimbly ties together a meandering, and stirring, ancient drama — why isn’t this a feature film? — placing the Punic Wars, and obviously Cannae in particular, firmly and intelligently in context. Easily makes my list of best books I read in 2011. It makes me want to put on a toga and recommend it to everyone.

The author of “Ghosts” has a brilliant gift for detail. He uses several tools, for example, to try to describe the slaughter in the book’s namesake battle. He counts the dead, theorizes on the mechanics of carnage and tries to put the reader in the combatants’ shoes. But like an old, half-drunk police reporter, he has an eye for evocative passages from the ancient historians. To wit, to capture the savagery of battlefield, he quotes Livy’s grim anecdote of a Numidian, a Carthaginian ally, “who was dragged out alive from under a dead Roman, but with a mutilated nose and ears; for the Roman, unable to hold a weapon in his hands, had expired in a frenzy of rage, while rending the other with his teeth.”

Another more telling, and less gruesome, story is that, at a time when Hannibal briefly threatened Rome itself, real estate transactions inside the capital, including for parcels where the Carthaginians were camped, went on without any drop in the land’s value. The wars would cost Rome 300,000 dead, and countless fortunes, but it seems the Romans were confident that life would go on.

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