Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

What do we know about World War I, much less about how it started? I remembered from some long ago history class that somebody got shot in Sarajevo, all the European countries were bound by alliances and had to fight each other, and the Tsar and his family were shot. Maybe I got some of that last from Dr. Zhivago (what a movie!).

However, like most of history, the situation was much more complicated than that and – surprise – people, real people, were involved. In this case, two people were assassinated by Serbian terrorists. Two people who loved each other deeply and had defied the very imposing, very petty, and very obsolete Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia, King of Galicia and Lodomeria and Grand Duke of Cracow, by marrying. It was a morganatic marriage, a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. Probably the most famous example in modern times, the marriage took place in 1900 marriage when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, wed Bohemian aristocrat Countess Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa. The marriage was initially resisted by Emperor Franz Joseph I, but after pressure from family members and other European rulers, he relented in 1899 (but did not attend the wedding himself). The bride was made Princess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother’s new name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession.

The Hapsburgs, once one of the most powerful families in Europe, were in decline by the end of the 19th century. Inbreeding, separation of branches of the family, and disunity among countries all contributed to the “Twilight of the Habsburgs” (title of a biograph of Franz Joseph by Alan Palmer). The last Habsburg, Otto von Habsburg, died in 2011. At age 98, von Habsburg brought to a close 640 years of European history.

Sophie was treated as though she was invisible by the Hapsburgs and was omitted from most royal events. Deeply religious (Catholic), she seems to have been able to forgive this and find comfort and love with her husband and three children. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie profoundly loved each other and their children.

Franz Ferdinand was the Emperor’s nephew and would not have been heir to the throne if it had not been for the scandalous murder/suicide of Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolf, at Mayerling in 1889. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph’s demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, first shot his mistress in the head and then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of “mental unbalance” in order to enable Christian burial in the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Mary’s body was smuggled out of Mayerling in the middle of the night and secretly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. Whether this is what actually happened is still unsettled 124 years after the event.

The continuing theme in this book is that Franz Ferdinand was misunderstood; the foreword was written by the Archduke’s great-granddaughter who quotes the Archduke’s daughter explaining why she answers questions posted by journalists: “But I must defend him,” “him” being her father. He was not a personable man and was reclusive to a great degree. Some of this can be explained by the treatment given his wife, Sophie. He preferred to be with her than attending official events to which she was barred. On the other hand Franz Ferdinand was a great friend of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and had an excellent relationship with King George V.

Why did the Archduke and his wife go to Sarajevo? Why was there so little military or police protection for them? Oskar Potiorek, an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, who served as Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was responsible for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s stay in Sarajevo. He was clearly negligent in providing adequate protection for the royal visitors. He rejected numerous recommendations for providing safety for the two. Was this incompetence or part of the conspiracy to assassinate the couple? These are questions that perplex historians 100 years after the fact.

Franz Joseph was completely uninterested in the deaths. He gave every impression of pleasure at the death of his nephew and heir. However, as the Emperor of Austria-Hungary he had to do something. Austria-Hungary, like many in countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slav nationalism once and for all. As Russia supported Serbia, an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention–which would likely involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Britain as well. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s children suffered greatly after their parents’ death. Unrecognized by the Hapsburgs, they were shuffled among Sophie’s family, never knowing stability. When Hitler came to power, the sons were sent to Dachau where they almost died. Their lives after World War II saw more loss.

The causes and consequences of World War I remain with us today. For example, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and its divisions by the European nations are with us even now in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the other countries of the Middle East. This is history that we need to know. I recommend this book as one element of the history of the 20th and 21st centuries.


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A Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett

I have been remiss in not writing about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and intended to share my pleasure in this book. Unfortunately, things happen.

This book has been compared to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and A.S. Byatt’s Possession (one of the most haunting books I’ve ever read). I might also mention Chemistry of Tears, discussed elsewhere in this blog.

A book about antique books and the stories behind them is a natural for comparison. The subtitle is A Novel of Obsession, a descriptive that could be applied to the protagonists of all these stories.

In this book, a mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search—through time and the works of Shakespeare—for his lost love. The Bookman’s Tale tells a terrific story — there’s mystery and suspense, murder and seduction — but more importantly, Lovett shows us how it’s all connected, all of this: the reading and the keeping and the sharing of books. It forms a chain long and strange enough to tie a heartbroken young scholar from North Carolina back to the Bard himself, who might or might not have been William Shakespeare.

Bibliophile and antique book restoration expert Peter Byerly is directionless following the unexpected death of his young wife, Amanda. In hopes of getting his life on track, he’s moved from North Carolina to England and is trying to face bookshops again, which he and his wife, once loved haunting.

In a small bookshop, a painting of Amanda falls out of an early Shakespeare folio he is perusing. This inexplicable event starts him along a trail of detection as he tries to establish provenance of the art piece along a twisting path that might just prove for once and for all that Shakespeare was the actual author of all of his plays.

If you are a bibliophile and love old books, this is your book. Lovett describes books passionately and lovingly throughout his novel, as they are throughout the comparative novels. These are all meticulously researched and span generations. All novels jump from the past to the present and everywhere between.

However, this is not to imply that this book is a pale imitator of those popular books. Mr. Lovett might address a similar subject matter, but he chooses to tell his tale in a far different manner from his predecessors.

The Bookman’s Tale is told in a straightforward manner, quite unlike the fanciful prose of Spaniard Ruiz Zafon or the clinical narrative of Brooks. Though his narrative travels through time, the words Mr. Lovett chooses are rather plainspoken, though not without their own melody. He projects heartfelt warmth that is lacking in both Ruiz Zafon’s or Brooks’ novels.

There is a paranormal aspect of The Bookman’s Tale. Specters and more are both described and hinted at throughout Mr. Lovett’s book, creating a sense of expectation that is quite lovely.
The author’s scholarship is impeccable—let there be no doubt of that—but he uses the facts to support the more metaphysical aspects of his story rather than for strict authenticity, and that definitely sets The Bookman’s Tale apart from People of the Book.

This book has it all: antiquarian books, deceit, love, murder, passion, Shakespeare, death…and (spoiler alert) a secret passage. What more could you ask for?

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361 by Donald Westlake

I was familiar with the humorous Donald Westlake, the creator of John Dortmunder, who is the most clever and least lucky thief in crime fiction. You want a good laugh and a terrific mystery, look for John Dortmunder. Or Joe Gores’s DKA series. Good giggles there, too.

However, 361 is not that Donald Westlake. No grins or tickles in this book. 361 is a searing, raw, emotional novel, not for a reader looking for happy endings.

Published in the UK in 1962, 361 was Westlake’s third novel under his own name, following The Mercenaries (1960) and Killing Time (1961). It is among the best of Westlake’s early works, some believe it is one of his finest novels.

Westlake would, of course, strike literary gold later in 1962 with the first Richard Stark/Parker book, The Hunter, but in many ways the groundwork for the Parker novels was laid here: stripped-back prose, short, clipped sentences, and a blunt, realistic depiction of violence and its consequences. 361, like The Mercenaries and Killing Time before it, is written in the first person, narrated by a protagonist whose peculiar oddities and eccentricities give the novel its distinctive character and flavor.

Ray Kelly is newly discharged from the Air Force as the story opens, going to New York to meet his father. Ray’s dad is inexplicably nervous when the two meet up, but Ray doesn’t dwell on his anxiety—until the next day, when, as they’re driving out of New York heading for their home town, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulls alongside their Oldsmobile and a guy in the Chrysler sticks his hand out the window and starts shooting at them. A month later Ray wakes up in hospital having lost an eye and, his brother Bill informs him, his father. Shortly after that, Bill stops visiting Ray, and Ray is told by a nurse that Bill’s wife has been killed in a hit-and-run.

Thereafter, Ray enlists Bill’s aid in trying to find out why their dad—and seemingly Bill’s wife—was murdered, in the process uncovering their old man’s murky past as a mob lawyer. But it’s Ray’s reaction to the news of the death of Bill’s missus that gives the earliest indication of what an oddball character he is: “‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I never met her.’” He’s a peculiar, intriguing character, perhaps even more twisted in his own way than the shifty types and gangsters he encounters in his quest for justice and the truth. At one point, whilst attempting extract
information from a frail pensioner, he bows his head, removes his glass eye, and looks up again, uttering the words, “I can see your soul this way. It’s black.” Following this gruesome piece of theater, the old man becomes the first of the bodies on Ray’s hands.

But Ray’s also surprisingly funny at times—he gets irritated by people who take their time getting to the point, and some of his his sarcastic put-downs are priceless—not to mention strangely philosophical; attending a funeral, he narrates:

So Saturday six hired pallbearers carried the coffin from the funeral home. There was no stop at a church for the suicide; he went straight out of town to a clipped green hill with a view of Lake Champlain, and into a hole which no priest had blessed with holy water. He would have to make do with God’s rain.

This taken care of, Ray runs around New York and surrounding areas leaving a bloodbath behind him. We learn the reason for his mean streak, and then an additional trauma that he accepts with his by-now expected emotionlessness, after which he does his best to embrace the badness within him. That he can’t quite—not all the way, anyway, but it doesn’t stop him delivering a fitting vengeance on the man who brought so much destruction on his life.

Incidentally, look up “361” in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: destruction of life; violent death; killing. Pretty descriptive.

Westlake’s characters have feelings but that are never celebrated at the expense of the plot. This clear-eyed attitude is refreshing and addictive, but it’s also probably why Westlake never had a breakthrough bestseller: the average reader needs more obvious sentimental emotional engagement than Westlake was willing to provide. 361 is the most extreme example of this emotional distance. Westlake himself said that it was almost a technical exercise in creating emotion without speaking of it. This is the kind of mystery I prefer. The books in which we learn what the character is wearing, who his/her friends are, or have long philosophical talks with him/herself are not my favorite. (I’m thinking of Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton – I gave up on them long ago).

Westlake had over a hundred novels and non-fiction books to his credit. He was a three-time Edgar Award winner, one of only three writers (the others are Joe Gores and William L. DeAndrea) to win Edgars in three different categories (1968, Best Novel, God Save the Mark; 1990, Best Short Story, “Too Many Crooks”; 1991, Best Motion Picture Screenplay, The Grifters). In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America named Westlake a Grand Master, the highest honor bestowed by the society.

By the way, The Grifters, with John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening, is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is based on a novel by Jim Thompson, which I have read, and it is one of the few movies that didn’t disappoint me in its film adaptation. Read the book, read the movie, or else.

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Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

In Norse mythology, Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”) are a pair of ravens which fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. Odin is referred to as “raven-god”. In the Prose Edda and the Third Grammatical Treatise, the two ravens are described as perching on Odin’s shoulders. Heimskringla details that Odin gave Huginn and Muninn the ability to speak.

Huginn and Muninn’s role as Odin’s messengers has been linked to shamanic practices and general raven symbolism among the Germanic peoples, and the Norse concepts of supernatural creatures.
In the Third Grammatical Treatise, an anonymous verse is recorded that mentions the ravens flying from Odin’s shoulders – Huginn seeking hanged men, and Muninn slain bodies. The verse reads:
Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s shoulders;
Huginn to the hanged and Muninn to the slain [lit. corpses].

Setterfield references these birds in her closing: the descendants of Thought and Memory will gather at the end of your story, just as they do at the end of William Bellman’s story.

This is a thought-provoking, challenging, and provocative book, not for readers who do not want to think about what they are reading or remember events in their lives. Those of us who have experienced deaths of family and friends will understand some of it. I think the book requires a second reading to understand all and, even then, much will be left to the reader’s interpretation.
It was a difficult book to read, in that it is difficult to see a man’s life collapse so totally.

Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, was published in 2007, and has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. It has moved up to the top of my very tall stack of books to read.

As a ten-year-old boy, William, out playing with his friends, idly kills a rook. A rook is in the crow family, with black feathers often showing a blue or bluish-purple sheen in bright sunlight. The feathers on the head, neck and shoulders are particularly dense and silky.

Collective nouns for rooks include building, parliament, clamor and storytelling. Their communal nesting behavior gave rise to the term rookery.

William is the grandson of a wealthy woolen mill owner. However, his father married beneath him, was cut off from the family, and eventually deserted his wife and son. Consequently, William is beneath his grandfather’s derision. He will not inherit the mill from his grandfather. His uncle, though, hires him as at the mill, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck. He learns everything there is to know and suggests improvements which his uncle puts into place, with some manipulating of the grandfather.

William is an outgoing, pleasant, sociable young man with a charming way with the ladies. He wins over all the workers at the mill, even the ones who initially mistrust him because of his family ties.

Eventually, grandfather dies. His uncle takes him on as an assistant. The mill flourishes. Then his uncle dies. Because his cousin, Charles, has no interest in the mill, William takes over. William meets and marries and has four children. Life is good.
Then his mother dies and his life falls apart. His friends die. His wife and three children die; the fourth remains in a coma for months. He finds solace only in work.

The odd thing is that at every funeral, over many years, there is a man in black, unknown to William. Finally, at his children’s graves, he talks to this man, Mr. Black, and they make a deal.

William turns over management of the mill, moves, with his daughter, to London and spends a year building a department store for death, Bellman and Black. As you undoubtedly are aware, death was to the Victorians what sex is to us. The business booms, and William is at the store all day and all night. Yes, he has a bed built into his office. He has no friends, hardly sees his daughter, is rarely away from the store. Death is his business.

Profits, though, begin to decline. Why? No explanation, other than cremations seem to be the fashion now.

Then William is visited by Mr. Black who appears only as a darkly shrouded form. He has come to say good-bye. William offers him money, but he learns that he misunderstood the deal. What Mr. Black is offering is “Thought” and “Memory,” the thought and memory of death. He remembers all the people he has known who have died, and then he remembers the rook he killed.

After William is buried, his daughter and the son of a friend who was there at the beginning go back to the mill to see the flocks of rooks that fly over the mill each day. It is a startling sight.

Is the rook death? It is Thought and Memory. As mentioned above, a collective noun for rooks is storytelling. The rook will be there at the end of your story and tell it to other rooks. Setterfield closes by telling us that rooks have a collective noun for us: an entertainment of humans.

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The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

After reading a string of depressing, although well-written books, I decided that I needed a definite change of pace. P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves seemed just the ticket, old thing.

If you have any sense of humor, then you will appreciate Wodehouse’s creations of Bertram Wooster and his man Jeeves. Bertie is a complete twit, constantly getting himself into awkward, potentially embarrassing predicaments, while Jeeves is the calm, perceptive, and always sensible gentleman’s man who somehow solves Bertie’s dilemmas. This is a plot device that goes back to the stock characters of Roman comedy, servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes by means of cunning and resource, often by deceptively manipulating him or by convincing him to sacrifice himself.

During the middle 60 years of the 20th century, P.G. Wodehouse (1881- 1975)—familiarly known as Plum—was the finest writer of comic fiction in the English language. His novels and stories, especially those about sun-dappled Blandings Castle or the immortal duo of dimwitted but lovable Bertie Wooster and his formidable valet Jeeves, are nearly all masterpieces of intricate plotting and clockwork timing, packed with Keystone Kop action, outmoded slang, literary and scriptural quotation, and, not least, smile-inducing similes on every page.

“My motto is ‘Love and let love’ – with the one stipulation that people who love in glass-houses should breathe on the windows.” From Come On, Jeeves

Just reading sentences like that makes life worthwhile. Here, in capsule form, are the Master’s mature virtues: the curiously arch tone, the beautifully balanced syntax and elegantly contrived diction, the learned allusion, some re-purposed stock phrases, and a simile that slowly unfolds to a zinger.

Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in his remarkable seventy-three-year long career (1902 to 1975). His works include novels, collections of short stories, and musical comedies. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by “series”. I know this is lengthy, but here it goes:
• The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed “the Blandings Castle Saga” by Wodehouse, about the upper class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle.
• The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London’s idle rich.
• The Golf and Oldest Member stories.
• The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called “the Jeeves stories”, or “Jeeves and Wooster”, they are Wodehouse’s most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre–World War II English slang in use.
• The Mr. Mulliner stories, narrated by a genial pub raconteur who can take any topic of conversation and turn it into an involved, implausible story about a member of his family.
• The School stories, which launched Wodehouse’s career with their comparative realism.
• The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner..
• The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh
• The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham..
• The stand-alone stories. Stories which are not part of a series (although they may contain overlapping minor characters), such as Piccadilly Jim, Quick Service, Summer Moonshine, Sam the Sudden, and Laughing Gas.

Almost all of these series overlap: Psmith appears in a “School” story and a Blandings novel; Bertie Wooster is a member of the Drones Club; Uncle Fred and Pongo Twistleton appear in both the Blandings Saga and the Drones club stories; Sir Roderick Glossop, one of Bertie’s nemeses, visits Blandings in one story; Bingo Little is a regular character in the Jeeves stories and the Drones Club stories, etc.

Where do you start? According to Michael Dirda in the Wall Street Journal (August 30, 2013), among the novels, the top tours de force were Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters (1938) and Joy in the Morning (also published as Jeeves in the Morning) (1947). Among the short stories the winners were “Uncle Fred Flits By”—in which Frederick, Lord Ickenham and his nephew Pongo impersonate increasingly improbable characters—and the touching “Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend,” followed by only marginally lesser classics such as “Sonny Boy,” “Tried in the Furnace” and “From a Detective’s Notebook.” These masterworks are, of course, only the tip of the oeuvre.

Along with E. Nesbit’s (an author with whom I am very familiar – see PhD dissertation subject) contemporaneous books about the Bastables, the Railway Children, and the children in her fantasies, Wodehouse’s children’s stories helped liberate children’s literature from goody-goody Victorian moralism. And even when Wodehouse stopped writing them, many of his adult characters—notably Bertie Wooster and the various members of the Drones Club—continued to behave like carefree schoolboys, living for practical jokes, rags and silly competitions; afraid of fearsome aunts and authority figures; prey to puppy love rather than sexual passion.

Also, you may have seen House with Hugh Laurie. About 20 years ago, he and his best friend Stephen Fry (a fantastic actor, e.g. Wilde with, incidentally, a very young Jude Law as Bosie) starred in the Bertie and Jeeves series on the BBC. (Why do they get some of the best TV?) You can watch some episodes on YouTube. They were born to play those roles. The series is also available on DVD. They also had a series; they are marvelous comedians. You don’t see that so much on House, but it is there.

Some of Wodehouse’s quotable quotes:
“Misery loves company, and seldom gets it.”

“She looked like a martyr at the stake, who deprecatingly lodges a timid complaint, fearful the while lest she may be hurting the feelings of her persecutors by appearing even for a moment out of sympathy with their activities.”

“I remained motionless, like a ventriloquist’s dummy whose ventriloquist has gone off to the local and left it sitting.”

If you go to the P. G. Wodehouse website, you can find a quotation generator plus lots of other things Wodehouse .

The work of P.G. Wodehouse possesses many virtues, and one of them is inexhaustibility. I suggest you begin with Bertie and Jeeves. From now, when I am down I will reach for Bertie and Jeeves.


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