Fifteen
Stars
In our General Index, we award
*stars*
to titles that we've found to be of
"Especial Merit."
We list below those that have been so honored in the last ten issues of RALPH.


The Adventure of English
The Biography of a Language
Melvyn Bragg
(Arcade)
We get to follow the language from its lowly beginnings, originating with the West Germanic-speaking invaders of 500 A.D. We go with it through times of what one of my students called "The Venereal Bede," through King AEthelred and monk AElfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, going into hiding during the time of the Normans and finally emerging into the light with, of all things, the coming of the plague of 1350.

Why? "The Black Death killed a disproportionate number of the clergy thus reducing the grip of Latin all over the land."

    Where people lived communally as the clergy did in monasteries and other religious orders, the incidence of infection and death could be devastatingly high.

Laymen took their place, "sometimes barely literate, whose only language was English."

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review


Memoirs of a Dwarf
At the Sun King's Court
Paul Weidner
(University of Wisconsin/ Terrace Books)
Readers who are fans of all things French as well as those who are fans of lovingly-constructed novels should spend a few days with Memoirs of a Dwarf. It's a you-are-there adventure, a brilliant return to the pleasures and tradition of the picaresque novel.

After a few pages, we become the dwarf, cleaning up the royal slops, spying on the royal family, carrying out the embossed shit-pot of Louis XIV, and, at night, since we can fit under the tables in the gaming room, passing cards back and forth to the nobility, listening to their coarse jokes and even coarser gossip --- the gentry who hang around whatever palace Louis XIV and his various wives and mistresses are inhabiting at the time.

Hugues also finds himself used by the younger ladies in the gaming room (including the Marquise de Montespan --- one of the more favored mistresses of the king) in a more tawdry occupation, inspired by his prodigious tongue. Hugues develops a high regard for the Marquise's "pasture," which --- he observes --- "has not too many fleas."

The key to a dwarf's life, Hugues tells us, is that "life as observed at crotch-level beneath an apartment of tabletops presents a vastly different aspect from that of aboveboard ... where the appearance of at least a modicum of civility can be mustered up."

    But below! below, take heed: for here are to be found the least admirable pursuits of humanity; to wit, the passing of wind; the covert loosening of various articles of clothing, depending upon the heat of the evening and matters of girth; the scratching of bums, of _______s, of _______s, of groins, of feet, of _________s, of knees; the pursuit of fleas and other parasites in the lower hypogastric region ... manual stimulation of divers parts (I blush to write it); and lusts, lusts of various orders, all of them lower, much lower, and most of them manifestly apparent to one who was privy to the nether regions as I had indisputably become.

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review


A Tale of
Love and Darkness
A Memoir
Amos Oz
Nicholas de Lange, Translator
(Harcourt)
A Tale of Love and Darkness is just that: a tale filled with wonderful pictures of family, isolated lives, heart-rending stories, lived as always with great exit lines. This is his learned, always busy Uncle Joseph:

    Now run along my dear, and do not steal any more of my time, as all the world does, having no thought for the minutes and hours that are my only treasure, and that are seeping away.

And throughout, there is Oz's gentle, writerly wit. He tells us that he never was much of a scholar, never "had any talent for research," one "whose mind always turns cloudy at the sight of a footnote. My father's books are rich in footnotes..." he continues. This statement appears in a footnote.

We've always had an affection for Oz since we stumbled across his short and very funny novel The Same Sea. The autobiography is not as unified, compact, and deft. But it has the virtue of being rendered in bite-sized pieces, perfect for picking up and leaving and picking up again.

I've been spending the last month doing just that. I've arrived just past page 300. I plan to spend at least another month or two wandering through this one.

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review


Way to Paradise
Mario Vargas Llosa
Natasha Wimmer,
Translator
(Picador)
First, we have Paul Gauguin, off there in the South Seas to paint the natives, to go native, to go mad, to die; on the other hand, there's Flora Tristán, radical, feminist, crusader, rabble-rousing speaker, a woman driven as one can be in France of the Second Republic.

In addition to Vargas Llosa giving us these two characters, we get a fine lesson on 19th Century sweatshops, laws of marriage, the power of the Catholic church, the lives and ways of the Maoris before and after the coming of the French, various styles of Gauguin's painting, the Chartist Movement, the whorehouses of Lyon, the Bayaderes, the slave trade, Simón Bolívar, the long-term effects of syphilis, Flora's scheme for merging the efforts of exploited workers and exploited wives --- and, finally, the highly comic Battle of Cangallo, 1834, Peru. "Nieto's soldiers turned and ran in wild retreat towards Arequipa. At the same time, not knowing what was happening on the other side, and believing himself lost, General San Román also ordered his troops to retreat by forced marches, in view of the enemy's superior strength. In his flight, which was as desperate and ridiculous as Nieto's he didn't stop until he reached Vilque, forty leagues away."

    The picture of the two armies running from each other with their generals at their heads, each believing it had been defeated, was something you would always remember, Florita --- a symbol of the chaos and absurdity of life in your father's country, that endearing caricature of a republic.

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review


Tropical & Subtropical Trees
An Encyclopedia
Margaret Barwick
(Timber Press)
Ms. Barwick is obviously bonkers about trees, and the writing is sensual and seductive, a style of writing that is appropriate to a love-paean. She tells of the Carob, where the males are "catkin-like, with a pungent smell, and the females are solitary." The fruit is "fleshy ... a sweet, mucilaginous pulp." She tells of John the Baptist's husks "that the swine did eat" --- thus called "St. John's Bread."

"The ripe juicy fruit swollen with sweet mucilage that nourished Wellington's cavalry when they wintered along the north Spanish coast during the Peninsular War between 1808 - 1814."

    Perhaps the greatest fame, however, is the claim that its large seeds were the original carat weight used by jewelers and apothecaries. The fruit is fermented to make alcohol and the seeds have been used as a coffee and chocolate substitute, as a coloring for bouillon cubes or as a diabetic flour suitable as a baby food.

"A type of confectionery is derived from the pulp. The heavy red timber is used for furniture. The seeds must be soaked for 24 hours before sowing. This is an important honey plant." Gor, is there nothing she doesn't know about these trees, all trees?

A thousand or so are represented here, with at least five photographs awarded to each --- usually of the plant as a whole, its bark, and the male and female parts. The description is complete with Latin name, country of origin, height, status (both threatened or in some cases, "undesirable"), tolerance for dry climate or salt water, form of propagation, and in which zone --- between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn --- the tree is to be found.

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review


The Devil's Blind Spot
Tales from the New Century
Alexander Kluge
(New Directions)
Kluge offers some 173 "stories" but they are really aperçus, like his vision of Chernobyl --- complete with an appalling picture of a cur caught in the original burst of radioactivity. Or the story about the much-admired Admiral Bull Halsey, at the end of WWII, who demanded that the entire U. S. Navy set sail across the Pacific from Japan. There were three typhoons "that destroyed more U. S. ships than the entire war" said a critic. It was hushed up.

Or there is the tale of a high-ranking officer at the Pentagon who seriously contemplated the idea of the United States dyeing the Arctic and the Antarctic bright red so that the climate in the world would change ... perhaps to the disadvantage of the Russians (it had to do with the reflective value of red snow over white snow). No one was quite sure what it would have done to you and me and the rest of the world.

There is also the story of astronomer Fred Zwicky who said if he stopped looking at "the central red light of a spiral galaxy [to] where he could see the speckled distribution of pale blue stars and of nebulæ shimmering in the winds, he could hear a kind of VIOLIN MUSIC."

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review


Happy Baby
Stephen Elliott
(Picador)
This one could be a parody: all these folks sitting around the old bagel shop (or later, back in Chicago) with their hair yanked out, black eyes, puncture wounds, cigarette burns on their backs, chests, wrists. It could be pure shock value ... but Elliott is a better writer than that.

And Happy Baby has its own strange logic: the daily fears of his youth were so profound that peace now only becomes manifest in regular (and controlled) pain. While Theo was being raped in prison by the guard, a Mr. Gracie (sic), none of the other prisoners would dare to assault him.

Twenty years later, when Theo finds out where Gracie lives, he starts to shadow him, until the man stops him, and says:

    "Don't follow me anymore, Theo. I can't take care of you. I have my own family. You wanted this talk. Fine. Remember I kept you safe. You were safe when I was around. None of those boys did anything to you when I was there. You know why I kept you safe, right?"

And the old bastard turns and leaves. And Theo does nothing.

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review


The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
Lt. Colonel J. H. Patterson, D.S.O
(Lyons Press)
You and I have been taught to despise colonialism --- mostly through the writings of the liberal historians and the biographies of those who fought the good fight: Gandhi of India, Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba of Africa. Much of this literature describes the bitter last throes of colonialism as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United States were dispossessed of their conquered territories.

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo ostensibly about lion-hunting is, more exactly, a chronicle of the Good Old Days of Colonialism, when Great Britain was at the height of its powers, when it could send in a single ambitious officer to design and build a railroad and keep an army of workers and "natives" under control. Outside of the simple tale of murdering as much wildlife of Uganda as possible in two short years, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo is a fascinating document on colonial power --- a power that struck both ways.

Plain Tales from the Raj, which we reviewed several years ago, revealed that fully seventy-five percent of the front line soldiers from England were to die in India. Likewise, Patterson had to deal with not only lions, hippos, crocodiles and bustards, but malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, typhoid, leprosy, sleeping sickness and, in one case, the plague:

    I gave the natives and Indians who inhabited it [Nairobi] an hour's notice to clear out, and on my own responsibility promptly burned the whole place to the ground. For this somewhat arbitrary proceeding I was mildly called over the coals, as I expected, but all the same it effectually stamped out the plague, which did not reappear during the time I was in the country.

"Mildly called over the coals." Ah, shades of Kipling.

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review


A Long Long Way
Sebastian Barry
(Viking)
The facts of war are presented simply, free of the burden of besotted rhetoric. There is the inarticulate language of the men, a language of the field and dying and blood and anger ... heavy with expletives but rarely touching on the truth of what they are going through. Then, suddenly, there are nervous attacks from too many days of unrelieved combat, in which Willie "couldn't stop his head jerking about, and his left arm had a mind of its own, the mind of an arm that wanted to dance a jig all the blessed day."

The facts of war are adroit and believable: the breaking of arms of cadavers in order to be able to stuff them in the ground quickly; the rules under which they operated: "In one raking stream [of a machine-gun] two of the new boys of Gardiner Street were removed from the line; one was left screaming behind, but no one could stop to help him, it was forbidden;" and the simple pleasures: the feeling of a hot, steaming bath after months in the trenches. At Messines ridge, "they were given two water bottles that night and the second they found was full of tea. Their boys at the kettles and the big pots far behind at the field kitchens hasn't let them down. A big stew came up after them and a double ration of rum. It wasn't the war they knew." It wasn't the war they knew.

    The guns had stopped a good few hours and the land about had returned to itself. It was like a new country, a fresh place. The summer rain had loosed the smells of everything, the new grass that was boldly coming up everywhere like a crazy green beard, the briefly drenched woods all about. There were even nightingales in the woods that any man could hear for himself and wonder at.

    "What's that bird going on?" said Willie Dunne.

    "Fucking nightingale," said Christy Moran.

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review


When All The World
Was Young

A Memoir
Barbara Holland
(Bloomsbury)
When All the World Was Young is a book of our times. Not these times, not Theresa Schiavo nor Putin nor Bush I or II nor AIDS. No, the times of those of us who were born seventy or eighty years ago. The funny and wise books from then were gentle and wistful ---The Egg and I, Cheaper by the Dozen, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. When All the World Was Young, by contrast, is wistful ... but not so gentle. Holland tells us that the word "depression" then referred to an economic condition, not dire mental condition where you fell apart in the brain-pan, as it does now, as it did for her.

She lived through those times (and those emotions): the end of the Depression, WWII, the post-war glory of a United States before anyone could pronounce, much less think about, post-traumatic stress syndrome, dystopia, marijuana, alcohol-dependence, Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Viet-Nam, Iran, Iraq.

She grew up in Washington, D. C. --- her father was a lawyer at the Labor Department --- and she spent many of her summers in Florida. Not far from where I spent the first twenty years of my life.

She remembers the black-outs where, starting at sundown, we hung dark curtains on the windows and doused the lights before going outside. Gas for our cars was rationed --- "A" "B" and "C," all depending on your importance (or your connections.) She remembers (as I do) the white sands of the beach being soaked in crude oil from the tankers sunk by the German submarines, and the signs hung in the schools, at the bus stops, in the train stations: "Loose Lips Can Sink Ships."

She remembers reading, always reading, seeking places where she could read all night without being found out ... and then going off to school in the morning and not being able to manage simple algebra or "sociology." Which in those days was concerned with teaching girls how to grow up and make babies and raise families and not even think for a moment of being a professional, seeking a job, working the way that men worked.

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review


The Double
Josť Saramago
(Harcourt)
Before, we have spoken highly of Saramago in our review of The Cave and, as well, citing it as one of the Ten Best Books of 2004.

We opined,

    Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...
    ... plus, and in addition, any other prizes around --- the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever remaining bookish prizes they have hanging around --- to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

I suspect that Saramago's forte is the shaggy dog story, one that goes on (and on) with enough wit and style and verve to make one want it to last forever, and it is not just because of mots that pop up: "Chaos is order waiting to be deciphered," or "All great truths are basically trivial." No: it's the story line and falling in love with the characters and all of them being so salty and funny that you want to jump right in and become part of it.

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review


Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Read by George Guidall
(Recorded Books Unabridged)
Furst has made a specialty of the bitterly contested wars that have raged over time between Russia and Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia and Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Macedonia, into the obscure corners of that world: Syrmia, Bessarabia, Carpathia.

His novels are heavily peopled with wise, all-too-wise, all-too-brutal secret police, along with brutal Communists, Marlowe-like heroes, fiendish Turks, astute peasants, vile Fascists, wise aristocrats, powerful women ... always with a dollop of the American presence: the Americans usually fresh and optimistic, usually foolish.

Earlier, in the pages of RALPH, we have reviewed other Furst novels --- Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Red Gold. We have recommended them all. Night Soldiers is somewhat different, being not only longer, but the earliest of this series, having been published in 1988. It may be longer than most, but we found ourselves, as we listened to this tape, not wanting it to ever stop.

Thus Furst and I have been together now, going to and from work, for ten days, 18-½ hours, 13 cassettes. He tells a dandy story. I mean dandy, but not the walking stick, fancy-dress dandy.

No, this dandy grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go until you, and it, done with each other, are exhausted. I arrive at my job, don't want to leave the car until they blow up the hotel, or until the beat-up old truck of the French partisans can make it down the mountain road, out of the hands of the SS, or until the very unlikely, very American girl meets up with Khristo, wonders about sending a letter home: "Hi, Mom. I'm in Madrid, participating in the Spanish Civil War. Yesterday I machine-gunned a German Messerschmidt and wounded the fighter pilot. Wish you were here."

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review


Call It Sleep
Henry Roth
(Picador)
"Call It Sleep is the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American. It is a work of high art, written out of the full resources of modernism. It subtly interweaves gutter, cellar, sexual and religious taboos with the overwhelming love between a mother and son. It brings together the darkness and light of Jewish immigrant life before the First World War as experienced by a very young boy, really a child, who depends on his imagination alone to fend off a world so hostile that it begins with his own father."

--- Alfred Kazin
from the Introduction


The Manor and The Estate
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Joseph Singer, Elaine Gottlieb, and
Herman Eichenthal, Translators

(Terrace Books/ University of Wisconsin)
The fear I have is not that I won't be able to finish The Manor and the Estate, but that I will finish it too soon. It is an epic tale, told not in mock-epic style, but in proletarian-epic style. It concerns itself with the Calman family of Jampol, Poland, starting in the 1860s.

Maybe we should call it 'Yiddish Magical Realism.' The pages are overflowing with characters, weird, funny, sassy, greedy, hungry, pompous characters. As with most of Singer's writings, it spares no one: the rich, the fallen gentry, the poor, nor even some of the all-too-pious rabbis.

Singer has the magician's ability to capture --- a word snapshot --- inhabitants of that fantastic land in just a few words: a man named Zawacki arrives at the count's manor, and, during supper, tells of his fascination with autopsy. The count's daughter has to be excused from the table:

    "After awhile you get used to such things," he said. "Why, I sometimes had to boil human heads on my own stove."

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review


Kinsey:
Sex the Measure
Of All Things

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
(Indiana University Press)
Part of the wonder of the book is Gathorne-Hardy's writing style. Here he is on Kinsey's agonized view of the Anglo-Saxon view of homosexuality:

    It is here, above all, sharpened obviously by autobiography, that there is passion in the Report. Kinsey had seen how these men had been harmed by society for their sexuality --- he had seen them in prison, blackmailed, made to feel guilt and anxiety, even made outcasts, and it had made him very angry. This never led him to falsify his figures; it did dictate his presentation.

It is not, ultimately, a happy story. Kinsey's investigation into and publication of a second study --- of female sexuality --- was far more controversial than the first report on males. This, plus the workings of the usual American Morality Police, and financial agonies --- his foundation support melted away in the early to mid-1950s --- made Kinsey somewhat paranoid, and more and more haunted in the months before he died in August of 1957.

But, even now, so many years after the fact, so many of us will never forget the power of the first Report.

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review


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