Friday, May 14, 2021

Book Review: Jacqueline Winspear THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEAR


Run don’t walk to find a copy of Jacqueline Winspear’s new Maisie Dobbs adventure THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEAR.  I and many of my friends have been a fan for several years.

It is 1941 and the bombs are fast producing a reign of terror on London.  A young message runner views what appears to be a brutal murder and then thinks the killer is the same man he has just delivered a dispatch to.  He reports his experience to the police,  but they seem less than interested.  Frustrated, the troubled young man turns to a woman he has delivered messages to before.  Maisie Dobbs is a private  investigator,  a forensic psychologist,  and also an intelligence operator for Churchills’s  newly formed SOE or Special Operations Executive.  Dobbs takes the boy’s story seriously and then quickly discovers that there are dangerous intersections with the Free French,  the French Resistance,  and the insertion of British spies into occupied France.    

There is, as usual with Winspear,  a seamless conjunction of London and Brititsh geography that pairs up in this book with the historical context of the Blitz and the beginnings of  World War II.  Her style is spare and  direct,  yet manages to convey complexity without sacrificing simplicity.

Masie’s personal romantic life,  the lives of her daughter and her family and friends are also given full play in the narrative. They add a sense of the personal emotions and deadly consequences that lurk just under the surface in any wartime.  It is this element that takes Maise’s trials outside of and above the level of standard detective fiction. 

You can start with this adventure and be well satisfied,  but picking up Maise’s life from the scullery,  to  WW I nurse,  to detective,  to secret agent adds oceans of depth to a complex female character whose growth seems to parallel the women’s movement itself.  She survives the battlefield, tragic love losses, and narrow scrapes that make her as unsinkable as Molly Brown.  She is a character you will comfortably live with over time and love more with each new episode. 

Jim De Young 

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Review of Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor


Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome  by Steven Saylor

I am always the back fill guy.  Having recently read and reviewed Steven Saylor’s Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome, I found a copy of his earlier work titled  Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome at the Warren County Library. I can now report that it was fully as dense, detailed, and exhaustively researched as the later work.    

Empire covers the early development of Rome from its mythological beginnings with the stories of Romulus and Remus to the rise to power of Octavian after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  The second book, which I reviewed a month ago, starts with Octavian (or Caesar Augustus) through to the Emperor Hadrian in 141 AD.   

Roma begins the familial story that ties all of the ensuing events together. Saylor introduces the fictional Potiti and Pinarius genetic line and gives an elder of the family a golden “fascinum” or amulet that carries a sort of religious God anointed survival pass. It seems to work as each new inheritor generally manages to survive annihilation by being just far enough from the center of power to escape notice when the death squads appear.  

Roma was not quite as easy a read as Empire because my grasp on early Roman history is meager. Although names like Coriolanus, Cleopatra, and Hannibal did connect,  most of the rulers and their accomplishments were not on my radar.  Nonetheless, since most of them were no more pleasant than Nero or Caligula in the later volume, the constant bloody animal sacrifices, the frequent even more bloody human assassinations, beheadings, self disembowelings, and mass murders do keep the narrative pumping.    

Fun for me was the section that had the Roman playwright Plautus in the mix.  It was keyed to the success of one of his best comedies “The Braggart Soldier” and it did happen in a time when satire could exist without fierce political punishment.  Comedy can become sublime in the hands of a master and Saylor quotes  Plautus as saying “When men laugh, the Gods laugh, and for a brief time this miserable world becomes not merely bearable, but beautiful.”  It is sad that by the end of his life the wheel of fortune had turned again and the Plautine dictum  turned more to “I’d be glad to write a comedy, if I saw anything to laugh at.”

Saylor  makes little attempt to point out how some of the problems of those early Roman days were similar to our own.  On the other hand when you see hundreds of years of Heads of State grappling with territorial expansion, budget shortfalls, ethnic and class warfare, religious differences, and continuous challenges from cynically ambitious, power hungry politicians, you just have to see some current common pressure points.  Rule by force starts to appear to be easier and more efficient than agonizingly slow argument in their old Senate and our own. .  

I also enjoyed the detailed account of the derivation of the term “Pyrrhic Victory.”  For the record the adventurous Greek King Pyrrhus was keeping numerous Roman legions at bay until the Romans decided to let him win small  battles in widely separated locations. This stretched the Pyrrhic supply lines and weakened the morale of the King’s commanders and soldiers. The fruits of this planned maneuver allowed the  Roman Appius Claudius Caecus to declare that if there are many more Pyrrihic  victories the King “may soon discover to his dismay that he has won one battle too many.   Winning the battle only to lose the war is now a “Pyrrhic Victory."

In sum, if you wish to read both books, I would recommend reading Roma  first and Empire second.  This keeps the historical progression intact and helps to keep the shadow fictional family more connected. Other than that I think you will find either one or both to be good historical reads and I recommend them.   

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Biden's State of the Union Address



President Biden spoke to the American people last night and laid out his broad, generally progressive vision for the country. In my judgment his first 100 days have seen a return to a sense of governmental competence combined with the management of the COVID vaccine dispersal that will be seen as a logistic miracle by future analysts. Now the tougher slog begins. No plan this grand will be without shortfalls.   

Let’s start with Biden’s demonstration that he has solved the “Trump Equation” by the expedient of ignoring him. This is the kind of “death by a thousand cuts” that only bottom feeding egotists feel.  In four years the news bureaus, networks, pundits, and most Democrats failed to get the easier message. So they turned red in the face and wildly attacked each portentous lie and lunacy. Biden has, literally since the beginning of this campaign, been the fish who refuses to take the bait. He has reasoned correctly that raw meat spoils more quickly when not thrown immediately on every grill. Kudos to him!   

On to some of last night’s specifics where we were given a focused, totally understandable, and bi-directional look down an Interstate Highway. The President directed us first to gaze down at the potholed roadway and outlined a plan to fix the aging infra-structure. He emphasized jobs and an ennoblement of the working classes who have built and rebuilt the nation before and now can do it again.

His second direction was to gaze straight ahead toward the horizon where justice, climate fixes, and successful international competition await a renewed national commitment.  He emphasized that it was not possible for us to “not respond” to  this challenge.  If we exhaust our efforts, he said,  competing among ourselves, the rest of the world (particularly China) will not sit around and wait for us to put our house in order. They will see our folly and move ahead without us. 

Note that the President looked only those two ways. His message was narrow, finely honed, and fully understandable. Although I am sure he is well aware of it, he did not mention that the off-ramps on the Interstate are full of dying and decaying strip malls. That is where doom saying toothless tigers are gnashing their  gums while complaining  that these efforts will cost too much.  Republicans off to either side of the road have no apparent foreign or domestic vision, no declared platform of action, and no apparent interest in negotiation or governing.  Mitch McConnell’s cold iceberg isolation stare last night (that could not be concealed by his mask) captured our predicament perfectly.  In closing I reiterate that this is a lift destined to fail in some part, but by all that is Holy, it is a goal worthy of our noble nation. Not to try will be seen by future historians as a monumental failure.

Like Joe, I thank you for your patience.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review of Your Inner Hedgehog by Andrew McCall Smith


In Your Inner Hedgehog Alexander McCall Smith adds another volume to his Portuguese Irregular Verb series and you can count on some fine chuckles as he roasts  the old school German pedants (like Professor Dr Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld) who  scheme mightily about all issues large and small at the tiny Institute of Romance Philology at the University of Regensburg.  Academic Freedom is always a topic and von Igelfeld and his colleagues tend to define that as the freedom to do what they like and not be challenged by the lower pecking order who do not approve of what you have done or are doing. 

When a new female Deputy-Librarian arrives with the demented idea that the Senior Coffee Room (which has been reserved for Full Chairs since the disappearance of the dinosaurs) should be open to all. It is all hands on deck to repulse the forces of distaff progress.  A new doctrine of “compulsory anti-elitism”  is in the air and the old profs worry that it will lead to compelling them to do such distasteful things as inviting your neighbors into your home.

The final straw is broken when complaints to the all powerful University Rector lead to a required election for a new Director of the Institute. All employees, ranging from the office cleaners and cafeteria staff to the senior professors are to have equal votes.  

There are several other complications, including a loud American on a Post Doc, but since this is McCall-Smith everything is ironed out in the end. Getting there is half the fun with this author and if you are familiar with academic life you will enjoy this one.  You can read it in two or three hours max.