20 December 2011

Review Grab Bag # 2

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy

I really enjoyed The Scarlet Pimpernel. I also liked the sequel, The Elusive Pimpernel. These books are goofy and silly, but they work because the author clearly knows what she's writing and avoids any pretensions to the contrary.

Unfortunately, it appears that Baroness Orczy wanted to overstep her limits in I Will Repay. The story centers on a young girl who is caught between opposing forces, her faithfulness to her father, and her love for the man she has sworn to kill. Dickens could have taken this story and produced something truly great. In Orczy's hands, however, it comes off as flat, one-dimensional melodrama.

But what about Sir Percy Blakeney? Surely his witty foppery and brilliant strategies make it all worthwhile and fun! Sadly, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself is only an incidental character throughout most of the book. He pops in once or twice, and then shows up in the last two chapters for the resolution. This would be like going to see a James Bond movie and finding that, apart from a couple of cameos, the title character doesn't actually do anything until the last ten minutes of the film.

If I want to read moving human drama set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, I will read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. If I want to read exciting and intelligent adventure set during the French Revolution, I will read Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini. If I want to read an action thriller set during the French Revolution, I will read a Scarlet Pimpernel book.

Allow me to illustrate with an admittedly nerdy analogy. There is room in the world for movies that are beautiful, moving and thoughtful like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. There is room in the world for movies that are fun, perhaps even a bit serious, but with tongue firmly in cheek like the 2008 The Incredible Hulk. There is no room in the world for Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, which tries to achieve both and thus falls flat due to a lack of self-awareness.

In the same way, there is room in the world for A Tale of Two Cities and for The Scarlet Pimpernel, but there is no room for a book like I Will Repay.

2/5 stars

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge

First of all, Paul Cartledge is one of the world’s foremost experts on ancient Greece, and is an extremely careful and scholarly writer. As such, I knew before I even began that this book would be great. This book is not actually a biography of Alexander the Great in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it is an introduction to the historiography of Alexander the Great. I made sure this summer to read a narrative biography of Alexander so that I would be prepared to read this book, and I’m glad I did. Cartledge assumes that the reader already knows the story of Alexander the Great, and spends his time dealing with the thorny issues that arise from conflicting sources and the seemingly self-contradictory character or many of Alexander’s actions.

Chapters are devoted to Alexander’s interactions with his fellow Macedonians, with the other Greeks, and with the Persians. His relationships, campaigns and policies are dissected in order to understand why he did the things he did. Cartledge always offers the various dominant theories concerning the various subjects and interacts with the scholarship of each. Near the end of the book, Cartledge shifts to the numerous legends that have sprung up around Alexander over the years and even reviews some historical fiction novels about Alexander, giving his take on the accuracy of each one.

One other thing that must be mentioned is that this book has an amazing bibliography. Cartledge lists all of the published primary sources, all of the major overviews of Alexander’s life and career, and the specific sources that relate to each chapter of the book. In addition, he reviews each source individually to give the reader a good idea of what to read or buy in order to systematically conquer the daunting amount of material out there. This is an excellent introduction and resource for further study.

5/5 stars.

Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths by Régine Pernoud

Author Régine Pernoud worked for years in the French National Archives dealing with documents from the Medieval period, and dealing with the ignorance of the majority of the populace concerning the Middle Ages. She shares one anecdote wherein she was giving an interview on Joan of Arc, her area of expertise. The interviewer asked her how we can know so much about the trial of Joan of Arc, to which Pernoud replied that we have the court records. The interviewer was astonished. “But then, they wrote everything down?” She told him that they did. “Then in order to publish it there were people who recopied everything?” Again she responded in the affirmative. The interviewer’s mind was blown. “It’s hard to believe that those people could do things so carefully.”

The popular conception of the Middle Ages is not unlike the portrayal in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The truth, however, is quite different. Did you know, for example, that after the fall of the Roman Empire slavery decreased and disappeared during the Middle Ages? It was after the revival of Roman law in the Renaissance and during the Age of Exploration that chattel slavery came into being once again. Did you know that the Church fought against arranged marriages, that women could often vote, exercise ruling power, and ply a trade, and that medieval kings, with the possible exception of the Carolingians, cannot be considered true monarchs because they did not wield absolute power? Did you know that all crusade preachers were required to read the Koran before recruiting for the crusades or going to the Holy Land?

Another interesting thing is that we moderns condemn many institutions and practices of the Middle Ages without realizing that we are not so different ourselves. Pernoud relates a television interview she watched once in which a journalist was questioning a representative of the Red Cross about countries that refuse to allow the Red Cross to enter and investigate human rights. The reporter wondered if there was a way to force countries to allow the Red Cross to enter. Upon finding out that the Red Cross had no such power, the reporter went on to ask if civilized nations could not ban or set up sanctions and embargos against nations which would not allow Red Cross investigators to enter. Pernoud points out that in a few sentences the reporter had invented the Inquisition, Excommunication, and Interdict, three things for which the Middle Ages are excoriated.

In conclusion this is an excellent book for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, and especially good for Christians who have been poisoned by secular propaganda about the backwardness and intolerance of the age of Christendom.

5/5 stars

The Vampyre by John William Polidori
This book was a product of the same wild sleepover that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Unfortunately, Polidori did not have the talents of Shelley, and so this story is no Frankenstein. The story is about a young nobleman who decides to travel with an enigmatic aristocrat who, of course, turns out to be a vampire. The vampire seduces young women and ruins them completely before killing them. It’s interesting that the book was originally attributed to Lord Byron, as it is pretty clear that Polidori intends the vampire to be a thinly veiled version of Byron himself, who, like most of the Romantic poets, was a real sleazeball. The only thing terribly interesting about this story, however, is that it later served as an inspiration for Bram Stoker's much better vampire novel, Dracula.

3/5 stars

Traveller’s Rest by James Enge
This short novella about a character named Morlock the Maker was much better than I expected given some of the reviews that I read on goodreads.. It's pure pulp-fantasy of course so don't go in looking for the next Tolkien or anything like that. But this was a fun story, and I may read more of James Enge’s fiction in the future.

4/5 stars

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