Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ruby in Her Navel

Book Review: The Ruby in Her Navel

Barry Unsworth’s The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel truly is a novel of love and intrigue as the dust jacket promises. The book is an erudite historical mystery driven by Unsworth’s superb story-telling skills. It is quite simply one of the very best books I've read in years.

The tale is set in 12th century Sicily during the rule of the Norman kings (said rule was certainly news to me). The Norman King Roger II uses Muslims in some high offices and our heroic protagonist Thurstan works for one of the most highly placed Muslims, Yusuf, ‘Lord of the Diwan of Control' (chief financial office). In 12th-century Palermo, all races and creeds lived and worked in relative harmony and peace. But the Second Crusade has just crashed and there are those who want to end the Muslim influence. (The Second Crusade's chief champion, Bernard of Clairvaux - the guy who nearly crushed Abelard of Heloise and Abelard - was, shall we say unrepentant in the wake of the Crusade's failure.)

The failure of the Crusade also returns to Sicily Lady Alicia, the woman whom Thurstan loved in his early years. Thurstan’s expectations of becoming a knight and Alicia becoming his Lady had been demolished years earlier when his father suddenly gave his land to the Church. Now suddenly she is back and rekindles an improbable love. Alicia, however, is not the most remarkable woman in Unsworth’s tale; that special place is reserved for Nesrin, the dancer with the ruby in her navel.

Unsworth delivers layers within layers of intrigue. I was got off guard by the coup de grace – even though after it happened I realized it should have been obvious. The Ruby in Her Navel is historical fiction raised to its pinnacle. Highest recommendation.


Interview with Unsworth:

Another Second Crusade link:

Another H & A link:

and one more:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Simplicissimus by Johann Grimmelshausen

Simplicissimus by Johann Grimmelshausen. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "The greatest German novelist of the seventeenth century." Sounds impressive, but how many German novelists were there in the 17th century? There are lots of historical novels written about 17th century Europe, but not so many written then as you see on this excellent website.

The original 1669 book cover.

According to Wikipedia, Simplicissimus is a picaresque novel published in 1669 and written in the Baroque style. The tale was inspired by the events and horrors of the Thirty Years' War which had devastated Germany from 1618 to 1648, it is regarded as the first adventure novel in the German language.
The classic history of the the Thirty Years' War was authored by C.V. Wedgwood. Sample it on Google Books.

My Books for 2010

Books Read in 2010

Most of book links are to Amazon. The author links are from all over - and they're pretty darn good so click on them. More links will be added - probably.

1. The Skull Mantra (Inspector Shan Tao Yun) by Eliot Pattison

2. Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

3. Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks by Oakley M. Hall

4. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer

5. Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson - his blog:

6. Agatha Christie's Mysterious Affair at Styles (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) by Agatha Christie

7. The Burning Land: A Novel (Saxon Tales) by Bernard Cornwell

8. American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan

9. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Chandler requires two links:

10. Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mysteries) by Walter Mosley

11. Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

12. Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

13. Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades: A Mystery Novel by Oakley M. Hall

14. Mayhem by J. Robert Janes

15. Carousel (St-Cyr and Kohler) by J. Robert Janes

16. Henry V (Folger Shakespeare Library) by William Shakespeare
Slip virtually over to Oxford for a short course:

17. Henry IV, Part I (Folger Shakespeare Library) by William Shakespeare

18. Henry IV, Part II (Folger Shakespeare Library) by William Shakespeare

19. Anarchy and Old Dogs (Dr. Siri Paiboun) by Colin Cotterill

20. Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon by Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart

21. Kaleidoscope by J. Robert Janes

22. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

23. The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel (Bernie Gunther Novels) by Philip Kerr

24. Warlock (New York Review Books Classics) by Oakley Hall

25. The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

26. Spies of the Balkans: A Novel by Alan Furst

27. Mannequin (St-Cyr and Kohler) by J. Robert Janes

28. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 by Alistair Horne

29. Prisoners of the Mahdi (Norton Paperback) by Byron Farwell

30. The Friend of Madame Maigret (Inspector Maigret Mysteries) by Georges Simenon (also known as Madame Maigret's Own Case)

31. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (New York Review Books Classics) by Georges Simenon

32. Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

33. Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw

34. The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

35. The complete short stories of Raffles-- the amateur cracksman / by Hornung, E. W.

36. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. (Norton Paperback) by Nicholas Meyer

37. Pirates of the Levant (Captain Alatriste, Book 6) by Arturo Perez-Reverte

38. A Death in Vienna: A Novel (Mortalis) by Frank Tallis

39. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

40. At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie

41. Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics) by Georges Simenon

42. A Conspiracy of Paper: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by David Liss

43. Hypothermia: A Thriller (Detective Erlendur) by Arnaldur Indridason

44. Our Kind of Traitor: A Novel by John Le Carré

45. The Inimitable Jeeves (The Collector's Wodehouse) by P. G. Wodehouse

46. Law and Locomotives: The Impact of the Railroad in Wisconsin Law in the Nineteenth Century by Robert S. Hunt

47. Troubles (New York Review Books Classics) by J. G. Farrell

48. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon

49. Wisconsin's Past and Present: A Historical Atlas by Wisconsin Cartographers Guild
50.  The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine

51. Simplicissimus by Johann Grimmelshausen. A picaresque novel published in 1669 and inspired by the events and horrors of the Thirty Years' War.

52. Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes and Edith Grossman  (1605 and 1615) by Cervantes. (see also Don Quixote

53. Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov. "A comic classic of world literature, Aleko Konstantinov's 1895 novel Bai Ganyo follows the misadventures of [Bulgarian] rose-oil salesman Ganyo Balkanski ("Bai" is a Bulgarian title of intimate respect) as he travels in Europe." From UW Press description.

54. Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin (New York Review Books Classics) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

55. The Forsyte Saga (Oxford World's Classics) by John Galsworthy

Three History Recommended Reads

Submitted for your consideration are three books of history. The first two relate to Wisconsin and both involve the UW's Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History William Cronon. The third, being about the decline of British aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doesn't.

By the way, this entry is similar, but better than the original post over on Monona Doug.

Wisconsin's Past and Present: A Historical Atlas by Wisconsin Cartographers' Guild with an Introduction by William Cronon. An astonishingly excellent collection of maps. Most of the maps are the creation of six Wisconsin cartographers that are uniquely insightful.

The atlas is particularly strong on ethnic histories. Just an example, the series of maps on the native nations of Wisconsin helped me understand - at last - where the tribes came from and where they lived in Wisconsin.

You can sample the book on Google Books.

(One disappointment is the woefully inadequate & inaccurate assessment of railroads in the state.)


Cronon authored my second recommendation:

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

I've pitched this book before. It's a great read. If you live in the Upper Midwest and you have any interest in the area's history, you really have to read this book. Cronon explains by topical study how we got from such a foreign 'then' to the familiar present.

The cover is part of a magnificent lithograph of Chicago made in 1857 by Christian Inger based on a drawing by I.T. Palmatary. Click over to the Encyclopedia of Chicago to see this and other marvelous maps (and anything you want to know about that great city's history).

The book won just a few prizes.

Bancroft Prize for 1992

Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for best non-fiction work of 1991

One of three nominees for the Pulitzer Prize in History, 1992

George Perkins Marsh Prize for 1992 for Best Book in Environmental History published in 1990 or 1991 given by American Society for Environmental History

Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Award for 1993 for the best book in forest and conservation history published in 1991 or 1992 given by the Forest History Society

Award for Outstanding Achievement Recognition to Nature's Metropolis by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee

Honorable Mention for 1992 to Nature's Metropolis in the John Hope Franklin Prize competition, American Studies Association

Geographic Society of Chicago Publication Award for 1991

A review:,%20Nature's%20Metropolis-3.pdf

A critical assessment of the book.

A study guide for the book.


My third offering is The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine. This intensely factual forms around a simple thesis: The British aristocracy plunged from the top of the world primarily because of the collapse of agricultural prices in the 19th century (circa 1880) and secondarily, the almost concomitant extension of suffrage to ever greater numbers of common people. The British aristocracy was a landed elite. Their wealth was almost entirely in the value of their lands for agriculture and the rents the lands could generate. I found the simplicity of the explanation very attractive; how many big things are really just that simple?

As described here:

In 1880, Cannadine informs us, the members of the British aristocracy (which he defines as landholders with 1,000 acres or more) were the "lords of the earth." They were a tiny minority, only 7,000 families in a country of millions. Yet this "tough, tenacious, and resourceful elite" owned four-fifths of the land in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Cannadine richly details the various ways in which the decline manifested itself. The fall was swift - it started and was completed within the span of a single lifetime. They had to sell, sell land, sell art, sell houses, sell it all. (When the going gets Toff, the Toffs get selling.)

At times the meticulous exhaustive detail can get to be a bit much, but the occasional skimming along to the next topic is permitted. His accomplishment is collecting such a vast amount of information, compiling it, and still managing to present it in an interesting the fashion.

One wonders why anyone would bother to write another book on the topic.

More books by Cannadine.


Monday, September 27, 2010

"Why was "Don Quixote" originally written in Arabic?"

"Or rather, why does Cervantes, who wrote the book in Spanish, claim that it was translated from the Arabic?"

So begins a fascinating brief essay published in the NYT. The esssay highlights the connection between Cervantes epic work, Don Quixote,  and the ongoing forced expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian penninsula. Cervantes, by the way, had been held captive by Arab pirates for some five years from 1575 to 1580.

See, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale by Maria Antonia Garces

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Neglected Books

Somebody should create a web page to share information about books once highly regarded (or popular, etc.) and now neglected, except somebody already did. Check out The Neglected Books Page. I bumped across recently (for a reason I can't recall) and again this morning looking for information on (the now-defunct) Prion Lost Classics. I'm reading their reissue of Winston Churchill's early history of the 19th century war in the Sudan (or Soudan), The River War. See my recent post on Byron Farwell's book, Prisoners of the Mahdi.

You can read Churchill's book free at Project Gutenburg:

or here:


One of the Prion Lost Classics reissues was Burgo Partridge's A History of Orgies. This caught my eye for more than the obvious reason. Burgo was the son of Bloomsbury Group leading lights Frances and Ralph Partridge. See Frances obits from The Times and the Independent.The obits give good background on the Bloomsbury troop of nonconformist artists, writers, and hangers-on.

Frances wrote A Pacifist's War: Diaries 1939-1945: Volume 1, which I reviewed here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Georges Simenon: Maigret and Much More

Gegorges Simenon's Inspector Maigret is one of my favorite detective series. Lucky me. Simenon knocked out 76 Maigret novels between 1930 and 1972. Below are a couple of short reviews of two of these books.

Simenon also wrote romans durs (hard novels) that are noted for their psychological darkness, such as Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics) From NYRB:

"Nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier lives in a country under occupation. Most people struggle to get by; Frank takes it easy in his mother’s whorehouse, which caters to members of the occupying forces. But Frank is restless. He is a pimp, a thug, a petty thief, and, as Dirty Snow opens, he has just killed his first man. Through the unrelenting darkness and cold of an endless winter, Frank will pursue abjection until at last there is nowhere to go."

Hans Koning has described Dirty Snow as “one of the very few novels to come out of German-occupied France that gets it exactly right.”

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (New York Review Books Classics), NYRB:

Kees Popinga is a solid Dutch burgher whose idea of a night on the town is a game of chess at his club. Or so it has always appeared. But one night this model husband and devoted father discovers his boss is bankrupt and that his own carefully tended life is in ruins. Before, he had looked on impassively as the trains to the outside world swept by; now he catches the first train he can to Amsterdam. Not long after that, he commits murder.
Kees Popinga is tired of being Kees Popinga. He’s going to turn over a new leaf—though there will be hell to pay.

Tropic Moon NYRB:

A young Frenchman, Joseph Timar, travels to Gabon carrying a letter of introduction from an influential uncle. He wants work experience; he wants to see the world. But in the oppressive heat and glare of the equator, Timar doesn’t know what to do with himself, and no one seems inclined to help except Adèle, the hotel owner’s wife, who takes him to bed one day and rebuffs him the next, leaving him sick with desire. But then, in the course of a single night, Adèle’s husband dies and a black servant is shot, and Timar is sure that Adèle is involved. He’ll cover for the crime if she’ll do what he wants. The fix is in. But Timar can’t even begin to imagine how deep.

In Tropic Moon, Simenon, the master of the psychological novel, offers an incomparable picture of degeneracy and corruption in a colonial outpost.

The NYRB Classics are one my favorite sources for excellent, older books. They have just brought out Pedigree (New York Review Books Classics). The NYRB page for the book: describes it as:

Pedigree is Georges Simenon’s longest, most unlikely, and most adventurous novel....In the early 1940s, Simenon began work on a memoir of his Belgian childhood. He showed the initial pages to André Gide, who urged him to turn them into a novel. The result was, Simenon later quipped, a book in which everything is true but nothing is accurate. Spanning the years from the beginning of the century, with its political instability and terrorist threats, to the end of the First World War in 1918, Pedigree is an epic of everyday existence in all its messy unfinished intensity and density, a story about the coming-of-age of a precocious and curious boy and the coming to be of the modern world.
 In 2008, Paul Theroux wrote a fascinating essay for in the Times Literary Supplement titled, Georges Simenon, the existential hack in which he compares Simenon to Camus. OK, now you know Simenonon was no ordinary detective mystery writer. "A bleak vision and relentless seriousness earned his non-Maigrets the appellation romans durs, because dur means not just hard but implies weight, seriousness: not only a stony quality, but density and complexity – a kind of challenge, and even a certain tedium."


The Friend of Madame Maigret (Inspector Maigret Mysteries)

If you don't know Maigret and you like detective stories, then you are in for a treat - or about 76 treats because that's how many Maigret novels the prolific Georges Simenon published. (I take this number from an excellent essay in the Times Literary Supplement about Simenon by Paul Theroux called "Georges Simenon, the existential hack". The essay is available online.) As with many of the Maigret stories, this one is also published under another name, Madame Maigret's Own Case. Most, if not all, of the books in this new series were previously published under a different title.

Maigret is a seasoned French chief inspector of detectives with an eye for human foibles and a distinct humanism about his policing. Some lists include this title as one of the best of Maigret. Personally, I haven't found much to choose between them - as long as they are primarily set in Paris. Don't be put off by the title (either title). Madame Maigret's role, while key, is also collateral. She provides some crucial information, but Jules really does the work along with his crew of Lucas, Janvier and a very young La Pointe.

Highly recommended.


A Man's Head (Inspector Maigret Mysteries)

Although not strictly speaking one of Georges Simenon's "psychological novels", Maigret's War of Nerves nonetheless explores the psychology of several characters. Detective Maigret arranges the `escape' from prison of a convicted killer that he helped put away in the first place. Maigret had become convinced of the defendant's guilt, but the evidence at trial had been overwhelming. In this 1940 work, Maigret places his well-established career at risk.

Maigret slowly unravels the mystery behind the true killer, but will it be enough to save the wrongly convicted man or Maigret's own reputation? Simenon leads the reader through an examination of the most basic and most extreme human motivations. Simenon wrote dozens of Maigret mysteries as well as other `romans durs'. Maigret's War of Nerves is one of his better efforts.

Note: A number of the Maigret books have been published under duplicate names. This book was also published As Maigret's War of Nerves. It would be useful if someone put together a definitive list of these duplicate titles