Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2000

ex libris reviews

1 August 2000

The two men strugging on the floor of the Clerk's Room differed widely in appearance.
Sarah Caudwell


In This Issue:
The Sibyl in Her Grave

I had not intended to take up golf this past month, but it came for me anyway. It's a long story, and I don't intend to go into detail at this time; suffice it to say that when July opened I owned no golf clubs. Now I do. It's nothing I expected, nor, indeed, is it entirely something I desired. Nevertheless, and be that as it may, I went out and of my own free will bought a new set of golf clubs. More than that: I actually managed to hit a ball about 150 yards with a five iron this afternoon. I'm told that's about the right distance for a five iron. I wouldn't know, myself.

Now, usually I use this space to ruminate over whatever's been bugging me during the past month. I looked back over July, and I saw--golf. I can't say it's been an all-consuming passion, or that it's been taking up an inordinate amount of time; perhaps it's just difficult for a novice golfer to think profound thoughts. I dunno.

But anyway, we've got a good selection of books this month: more nautical adventures by Alexander Kent; mysteries by Steven Saylor and Rex Stout; a new novel by Sarah Caudwell (and there was great rejoicing); plus collected miscellany by a variety of other folks.

We've got a new guest reviewer this month, Julia Brown. She's an avid reader who works by day at an insurance company and stays up late at night reading books. She is 45 years old, married, with 2 children and 1 lazy dog. She lives in Northern California. You can see her first review below.

Finally, I've got an announcement to make. I'll be away on vacation around about September 1st, which will make producing the next issue of ex libris rather an interesting thing. I can write it and post it early, making for a rather short month; I can write it and post it after we get back, making it rather awfully late; or (as I'll be taking my laptop on vacation) I can try to write it in the car and post it from our destination. I may well do that; it would pique my fancy to take ex libris on the road. All I'm saying is, be warned; next month's issue may be a trifle odd.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Sibyl in Her Grave
By Sarah Caudwell

It's been quite a long while since this section has appeared in ex libris reviews; once I started writing my current novel, Jane didn't want me to get distracted. But I'm over 200 pages into it, and hence less dangerously distractable now...and besides, there's a new Sarah Caudwell novel to read.

Some years ago, on a hint and a whim, I picked up Caudwell's first novel, Thus Was Adonis Murdered. It's a witty, intelligent mystery about a haphazard romantically-inclined tax accountant's vacation in Venice, with snide remarks from all of the folks she left at home in London. I loved it; it was like nothing else I'd read. I liked it so much that I soon read it aloud to Jane, and also sought out the two sequels, and read them to Jane. They were all three of them delightful, and frequently caused both of us to laugh out loud.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited. Five or more years later, there is finally a new Sarah Caudwell novel. I'd heard it was coming (and judging by the increased traffic this month on our Sarah Caudwell page, so had lots of other people), and I was keeping an eye out; the first day of our recent vacation I walked into a Borders Books and Lo! there it was. We started in on it as soon as we were back in the car.

I'd like to say that it's every bit as good as Caudwell's earlier books; alas, the best I can do (for now) is say that the first 132 pages are every bit as good as Caudwell's earlier books, because we haven't finished it yet. I'll give the final verdict next month, but I comfortably expect it to be thumb's up.

The only downside is that, to my great regret, there will be no further adventures; Dame Sarah (as I think of her) passed away this past January. I'm nevertheless grateful that she finished her fourth book before it was time to go.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Passage to Mutiny
With All Despatch
Form Line of Battle!
Enemy in Sight!
By Alexander Kent

These are the seventh through tenth novels in Kent's Richard Bolitho series of naval adventures. I'm not going to address them individually, as they tend to run together, and anyway they don't deserve it.

Richard Bolitho is an officer in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century. He sees his first actions during the American Revolution; by the middle of the series (these books) we've worked our way up to the French Revolution. Napoleon has not yet come on stage.

Anything I say will be damning the books with faint praise. If you enjoy tales of tall ships and the sea, you'll probably be mildly diverted by these. The tales are shallow, the characterization clumsy, and Bolitho the man is just a little too perfect. Midshipmen are allowed to indulge in hero-worship; the author ought not.

The obvious comparisons are with C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey, and I'm afraid Kent comes in third. When I think of Jack Aubrey, I can practically see the deck of the H.M.S. Surprise stretching out in front of me, the sun on the water, and the sails in the sky; O'Brian made his characters and their world so very real. Hornblower's world is more shadowy, as the books are more about the inside of Hornblower's head--but it's a somewhat interesting head. When I picture Richard Bolitho, it's like seeing a tall ship in a Leroy Neiman painting. Everything is blurry and indistinct, and covered with the light blue wash.

Sigh. But when you need your dose of tall ships, they do fill the bill. If you've nothing better.

The Ball and the Cross
By G.K. Chesterton

This is Chesterton's second novel, and one he mostly regarded as a failure. I find I can't really recommend it, and yet I'm glad I read it. It's the story of two men with passionate beliefs--an atheist and a Roman Catholic--who come to blows and eventually determine to fight a duel over things printed in the atheist's newspaper about the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the whole of England rises to prevent them from fighting about something as silly as religion.

And that's the point, really; that if religion is true, it's worth being passionate about. Indeed, he would say, if you're not passionate about it, you don't really believe it. And yet, now as then, many people regard religion as an add-on. First you've got reality, and then you sprinkle whatever religion you like on top, and gosh, they are all valid ways to feel spiritual so it doesn't much matter which one you pick, and certainly it's not worth fighting about. That's the attitude I often see in the news. And yet, if a religion is true, it's making a fundamental statement about the nature of reality. Religion is sometimes called supernatural, but it's really subnatural; it claims to have the foundation upon which reality rests. It isn't less real and so less important than our day-to-day world; it's more real and more important. And so it's worth being passionate about.

Now, let me be clear: Chesterton was by no means advocating sectarian violence. Rather, he was taking things to extremes to make a point, or rather two points. First, supporting something lukewarmly is not of much value; and second, two passionate believers are likely to understand each other better, even in their disagreement, than those who believe nothing at all.

The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends
By Jan Harold Brunvand

Brunvand is a folklorist, and the author of a number of books on the topic of Urban Legends; this is one of his more recent books, which I just recently acquired. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and recommend it, but I have to offer a warning: it's not a book that just relates (or debunks) various urban legends. The focus is on tracing different variants of legends, and determining their sources if possible.

I might also add that most of the material in the book appeared originally in Brunvand's newspaper column, so the word "Lusty" in the title should be taken with a grain of salt. There's nothing in here that the Los Angeles Times (at any rate) wouldn't happily publish on the same page as the comics--if Dear Abby is any guide.

Arms of Nemesis
Catalina's Riddle
The Venus Throw
A Murder on the Appian Way
By Steven Saylor

Last month I reviewed Roman Blood, Saylor's first mystery about ancient Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder. Suffice it say that he just keeps getting better, and I recommend the series highly. I've read a fair amount about Ancient Rome, and this series has done more to give me a feeling for life in the City of Rome than anything else I've read.

The books were written in chronological order, and although they stand alone should be read in that order if at all possible. Because Saylor is tying Gordianus' activities into actual events he's stuck with the historical record, and in the historical record, interesting events are often several years apart. As a result, the books span Gordianus' life from his 30's to his 50's or 60's, and the events of the previous books loom large in his memory.

One interesting result of Saylor's emphasis on real history is that the later books almost cease to be mysteries at all. That is to say, there is a mystery, and Gordianus investigates it...but it would be truer to say that they are political thrillers that happen to be set in Ancient Rome.

Gordianus' world is rather more earthy/sensual/ribald than is typically the case in the mystery genre (at least, the mysteries I read), and some readers may be put off by it, particularly in The Venus Throw. Be warned: these are Romans; they act according to the beliefs and tendencies of their day. That said, Gordianus' world is probably rather tame compared to your average bestselling summer beach novel, so your mileage may vary.

Over My Dead Body
A Right to Die
The Golden Spiders
And Be A Villain
Champagne for One
The Second Confession
In The Best Families
By Rex Stout

Nero Wolfe, Nero Wolfe! How did I reach the advanced age of 36 without encountering Nero Wolfe?

I suspect I've just divided my audience in two: those who are smiling and nodding sagely, and those who are saying, "Huh? Who's Nero Wolfe?" If you're in the former group, feel free to skip to the next set of reviews; if the latter, I want to let you in on a juicy little secret.

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series is really amazingly outstandingly good. And there are maybe seventy books in the series, so you've got a good time ahead of you.

Put it this way: before July began, I had read no Nero Wolfe. On a whim, guided by various authors I had heard say nice things about him, I picked up a copy of In The Best Families. I loved it. I bought another one. And when a friend gave me a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble for my birthday, I went and bought six more. Some were excellent; the rest were merely first-rate.

But enough gushing. What makes Stout's novels such a treat is teamwork: the chemistry between sedentary, house-bound detective Nero Wolfe, and his acerbic, wise-cracking, hard-boiled legman Archie Goodwin. Goodwin narrates; he also gathers the clues, runs errands, kisses pretty woman (but only when it won't be resented), and keeps the books. Nero Wolfe, on the other hand, spends his days tending his orchids, eating gourmet meals which he plans with his chef, Fritz, and solving crimes from the comfort of his specially made desk chair (he is a worldly man--wider at the equator than from pole to pole).

Nero Wolfe first appeared in 1934; his last adventure was, I believe, in the 1970's. And while the background details are a bit dated, I found Wolfe's first outing, in Fer-de-Lance, as fresh and delightful as any of the later ones.

If you like mysteries, get thee to the bookstore or library, and hie thee home with an armful of Nero Wolfe. You won't regret it.

The Temple and the Lodge
By Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh

I first got interested in the Knights Templar when I read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. The various characters in that book talk an awful lot of what's clearly (and clearly supposed to be) rubbish about them; to hear Eco tell it, the Templars were the possessors of amazing occult spiritual secrets. I was interested in what the truth was. I've since read a book about the Trial of the Templars and their suppression in the early 14th century, and I'm working on another one about the entire history of the order.

Present-day Freemasonry likes to trace itself back to the Knights Templar; the goal of The Temple and the Lodge is to show the extent to which that link is justified. I'd run across the book several times, and always dismissed it (largely due to the cover design) as sensational and likely to be a little too credulous. This time, though, I picked it up, read a few pages, and judged that the authors were probably sane and that it was a serious book and worth reading.

Alas, I thought too soon.

There are interesting things about the Knights Templar in this book, and interesting things about Freemasonry, and I expect many of them are actually true. But the authors seem a little too willing to let their desires guide their conclusions. The Templars (a militant religious order chartered to protect the Holy Land) are referred to many times as "soldier mystics"; the authors talk about how the Templars liked to let others think that they were magicians, possessed of arcane knowledge not known to other men. They present no evidence for any of this, however, but merely assert it. In my own reading, I've seen no evidence of any mystic tradition in the Templar rule. They were warriors, not visionaries.

The Templars were suppressed by the Pope and the King of France on a variety of charges of religious heterodoxy. The authors admit that most of the confessions were given only under torture, but conclude, on the basis of the few that weren't, that the Templars were indeed heretical in their views. What they don't say is that the accusers, and those members of the order who confessed without torture, generally had some kind of grievance, and an axe to grind. It's not at all clear to me, after reading a lengthy, very dry description of the trials, that there was anything to the accusations.

Much is conjectured, little is proven. The authors want to find evidence that numbers of Templars went to ground in Scotland after the suppression, and indeed they find a certain amount of real evidence. But much of the rest is as circumstantial as a defense theory at a murder trial. It could have played out the way they claim, but there's no real proof of it. An example: they say that a Templar fleet of perhaps 18 ships fled from a Mediterranean port, and were never heard from again. Their conclusion? The ships went to Scotland, and were never heard of again because the records were suppressed. It's just as likely that they went somewhere else, and the records were lost--and even more likely that the single source that mentions them is mistaken, and there was no such fleet. Nor are they consistent: lack of information is sometimes seen as an indication that something didn't happen, and sometimes as evidence that information must have been suppressed.

I dunno. There are some good things in this book, and it's certainly true that certain Masonic groups acknowledge a debt to the Knights Templar. But as for any real link between them, I'd have to say that the verdict is "Not Proven".

Give War A Chance
By P.J. O'Rourke

What can I say? I was on vacation, looking for fun, and heck, I'd really enjoyed O'Rourke's later book Eat the Rich, so I bought this one. It's a collection of columns and articles he wrote as foreign correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine back in the awhile ago. It's not politically correct, it's rather dated (the latest bits are about the Gulf War), and it's extremely funny. But if you're a liberal, you'd best give it miss, unless you've got a remarkably thick skin.

By Richard G. Rieben

One of the interesting things about being a reviewer of books is that authors of books begin to contact you and ask you to review their books. If the book in question seems considerably out of my usual line and consequently unlikely to get a good review, I generally tell the person so and that's the end of it. At other times I'll tell them to send a copy along; that's how I got to read Susan Wenger's delightful parody of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories.

One of the very early requests I got was from the publisher of the above-named Richard G. Rieben, who'd written several books about public policy and political science, and for some reason, in a fit of shocking agreeableness, I said, "Sure! Why not! Send them on over! I can't promise when I'll get to them, but if I do I'll review them." That was quite some time ago, and each of them have been sitting, waiting for my attention for some time. Until now, when I'll work off 1/3 of my guilt.

Reciprocia is Rieben's description of the perfect government. About half the book is his musings on politics, the state, and natural rights; the remainder is his ideal constitution for a state in which people would treat each other properly. It's the result of some ten years he spent traveling and musing about such things.

Now, honestly, I gathered all of the above from the cover, sitting at the kitchen table one day, and I said to Jane, "I wonder how far I'll have to read before he posits some fundamental and unprecedented change in human nature, triggered by changing circumstances?" This is the basic flaw in most utopian systems; Marxism, for example, is based on the assumption that once the means of production are changed, human nature will change. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. But in the event, Rieben hit the wall in just a couple of pages of extremely muddy logic.

According to Rieben, human nature is warped because we live in what he calls dominance societies. It's an abnormal situation for human beings, he says. Then he says that he's going to outline the constitution for the world's first non-dominance society--all human societies known to history have been dominance societies! There's the stumbling block. There's the unprecedented change in human in nature that he rests his argument on...and he tries to make it more palatable by calling all of recorded history abnormal.

Just as an aside, if you grew up in the United States or some other offshoot of Western-civilization, you probably learned about the Golden Age of Greek Democracy in school. Something they didn't tell us, that I learned on my own from my personal reading of history, was this dirty little secret: the Greeks were big on democracy not because they were wise, good-hearted people. Rather, it was because they were lying, cheating, dishonest, ambitious little charmers who knew they didn't dare trust each other. They didn't dare let any one man get too powerful. And their history shows that they were correct to do so; every population of which we know has its share of lying, cheating, dishonest little charmers who might otherwise get too powerful. Democracy is the best system we've got, precisely because we aren't angels.

By this time, I'd read the introduction and parts of the first chapter, and I simply couldn't go on. I was frustrated by the bald assertions, bold non sequiters, and (to me) absurd statements; I felt completely unable to try to follow his argument any further when his foundations seemed so rocky. So I sent the book up to my friend Debbie, the public policy lawyer, and had her take a look. And here's what she said, noting that she could have said considerably more. Note that some of Rieben's ideas that she quotes contradict what I've said above; I can't help that. The book was like that.

Rieben's "common sense" derives from the simple premise that "people are what they ARE" and no political system should try to deny that. At first glance, this is not an untenable notion; political philosophers for centuries have tried to devise political systems that not only take into account human nature, but try to channel it for the greater societal good. This is where Rieben and the philosophers part company. Rieben has no use for societal benefits. Instead, his focus is solely on the individual.

Which raises the first two of many questions regarding Rieben's thesis. First, if people are what they ARE, then shouldn't we make some effort to define what they are? Rieben assumes that "common sense" will give us the answer. But Rieben's "sense" is less common than one might suppose. For example, Rieben's vision of human nature is wholly individualistic and areligious. History teaches us that the first presumption is only partially true and second is flat-out false.

As far as individualism goes, Rieben is correct that human nature is such that people will generally consider their own self-interest before other interests. Even Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies basic human needs such as shelter, food, etc. as every individual's first set of interests, all of them "selfish". Hobbes also identified these interests in self-preservation, but famously noted that, without a moral societal structure, life under such conditions was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Where Rieben falters, however, is the idea that this individualism is mutually exclusive with any other interest. Rieben is particularly derisive of groups, and I agree with him that "group rights" are inherently dangerous, not to mention corrosive of the United States Constitution. But to deny that people generally desire to live, work, and play in groups is to deny who people ARE. Very few individuals voluntarily choose the life of an ascetic hermit. Maslow places "belonging" needs just after physiological and safety needs.

As for Rieben's view of human nature as areligious, if the best way to discern the contours of human nature is by observing it over time, then one must conclude that religion has been at the center of virtually all human societies in history. Religions differ, sometimes widely, in their conceptions of the diety and the moral codes derived from a belief in a power greater than one's own. But the concept that there is something out there bigger, stronger, wiser, and more powerful than human beings is as innate to human thought as the need for food and shelter itself.

The second question is more of an observation than an actual query. Some of Rieben's assertions are so inconsistent as to defy comment. For example, on the ever-controversial subject of abortion, Rieben first asserts that a woman has proprietary control over her body and can abort her baby as she pleases. But then he turns around as asserts that the baby also has paramount individual rights, thus turning abortion into murder. There are many arguments about abortion, some blunt and others nuanced, but Rieben's is just flat out incomprehensible.

Sorry, Richard; it goes against my grain to pan a book that I received gratis, but I'm afraid I just don't buy your argument.

Julia's Recent Reading

by Julia Brown

What's Wrong With Dorfman?
By John Blumenthal

As far as I'm concerned, John Blumenthal's new novel What's Wrong With Dorfman? takes the prize for funniest novel of the year so far. I am a lover of the comic novel and my favorites are Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint, The World According to Garp, and practically anything by Evelyn Waugh and Peter Devries, with the occasional Donald E. Westlake novel. I am adding What's Wrong With Dorfman? to this list as of now.

Like many of my favorites, the plot is secondary to the character. The story involves a cynical scriptwriter who comes down with these weird symptoms. His doctors are clueless, so Dorfman goes on this crazy quest for a diagnosis which takes him to some weird places. On the way, he encounters some unforgettable characters, such as Delilah Foster whom he meets after spilling his urine sample on her at his doctor's office.

But it's Dorfman's character that keeps the ball rolling. You just love this guy. He's funny, insightful, wise, corny, off-the-wall -- a combination Yossarian and Alexander Portnoy. Blumenthal has really captured the character of the hypochondriac here like no other novel I can recall.

Even though this book is not a thriller or a mystery, I could not put it down. It's one of those novels that makes you sad that it doesn't continue for another 200 pages. Maybe Blumenthal will write another -- a trilogy would be great.

I strongly recommend this novel. A++++

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

The books we're reviewing this month aren't really kid's books for a change; rather they are books about raising kids.

The Penny Whistle Party Planner
By Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar

Parties are very important to small people. This coming month we are celebrating the 1st birthday of our son James (as well as the x + 1 birthday of Will) so birthday parties are on the mind. This is a book of party ideas; themes, games, invitation ideas, food suggestions, etc. The idea is to give a great party that is specific to the birthday child and fun for the parents and kids, all without spending your way to the poorhouse. 26 specific party themes are outlined in detail. We used this book to do a Construction Equipment party for David's birthday in February; this was a party we had fun planning, doing and remembering. Hopefully James' party will be as much fun.

Kids are Worth It!
By Barbara Coloroso

This book was recommended to me by my friend Allie who grew up in a very dysfunctional family. She wants to be able to parent her girls well and she has been working hard to discover exactly what that means. She raves about this book. I grew up in a great family with good parents and grandparents; this book is still helpful. It starts with thinking about what kind of person you want your children to become and working backwards to allow them to develop the skills and inner discipline they will need to get there. This book is really geared more towards older children (3 and up) so we are just beginning to get into the issues and lessons in the book but it really has me thinking. I would recommend reading this book before your children are having major problems so that you can help them to avoid them or at least give them the skills to handle them when they arise.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

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