Friday, October 07, 2005

Deadly Duel, Sherman’s Asthma, Souvenir Seekers: New Books

Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) -- In medieval France, God, royalty and the feudal government were virtually one and the same. Legal disputes could be settled by judicial duels, the outcome of which was deemed the ``judgment of God.''

In the year 1386, the last such duel was fought in front of the 18-year-old King Charles VI, his court and thousands of spectators on the grounds of a Parisian monastery.

In his thoroughly researched and oddly compelling ``The Last Duel,'' now available in paperback (Broadway, 242 pages, $14, UCLA professor Eric Jager uses the techniques of the modern legal thriller to tell the story of knight Jean de Carrouges and his one-time friend and rival Jacques Le Gris, who had been accused by Carrouges's wife, Marguerite, of rape. The accusation eventually leads to ``trial by combat,'' and the stakes are high: should Carrouges lose, Marguerite would be burned alive for perjury.

Jager keeps the story taut, building suspense as he progresses from the history of t he Hundred Years War to the complex feudal legal proceedings to the duel itself. That battle is fought atop armored warhorses with lances, swords, axes and daggers, and recreated in stunning detail.

All in all, it's a fascinating read. While the outcome of the battle is too dramatic to reveal here, suffice it to say that the end is bloody and as close as one is likely to ever want get to the brutal hand to hand combat that makes even the fiercest modern courtroom proceedings look like a mere playground dispute.

Sherman's Asthma

The most spectacular scene from ``Gone with the Wind'' is the burning of the city of Atlanta. Novelist E.L. Doctorow recaptures some of that drama in his latest book, ``The March,'' (Random House, 363 pages, $25.95), which reconstructs Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody march through Georgia and the Carolinas at the end of the Civil War.

It is November 1864 and Sherman decides that with Lee's beleaguered army on the run, a scorched earth campaign will break the will of the South. ``The March'' uses multiple perspectives to create a detailed panorama of that campaign.

Sherman is not simply the remorseless monster of most histories -- his men call him Uncle Billy --- but an asthmatic insomniac haunted by the death of his young son. Soldiers, civilians and freed slaves coalesce around his army, among them a 13-year-old ``white Negro'' named Pearl, a stoic German surgeon operating for the Union Army, a Southern belle who loses her possessions and her innocence, and a roguish Confederate soldier who survives by masquerading as a photographer.

The novel offers impressionistic storytelling, delivered in snatches of dialogue and brief, vivid scenes. Yet there is also enough historical substance here to satisfy Civil War buffs.

As so often, the good Doctorow administers a heavy dose of the grotesque, including a walking, talking soldier with a spike in his head, and precise, artistic descriptions of gore, such as this one of battlefield brain surgery: ``the circular cutting head ground into the bony plate. Then he inserted a flattened blade under the bone and slowly levered the disk away from the skull. Under the cerebral membrane was an enormous blood blister purple in color. To Emily, it looked like the head of a toadstool. Hematoma, Wrede said.''

`Edge of Empire'

In ``Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850'' (Knopf, 404 pages, $27.95) historian Maya Jasanoff places the collecting of antiquities and artifacts at the center of British and French colonialism in India and Egypt.

The vast collections of antiquities that were shipped back to the British Museum and the Louvre represented an effort to ``lay claim to history, civilization, to empire past and present.'' In Jasanoff's view, collecting is itself a metaphor for colonialism. Napoleon Bonaparte took the sentiment to heart as he galloped across Egypt in 1798, in part, to capture ancient artifacts before the English, among them, the Rosetta Stone (later ceded to the English in 1801).

Jasanoff mixes a fascinating set of profiles of the illustrious, including the British conqueror of India, Robert Clive of the East India Company, and his son Edward, with those of their more intriguing minions, who sometimes transformed themselves from lowlifes into connoisseurs and aristocrats.

Antoine Polier joined Clive's army in India when he was just 16 years old, amassed a vast collection of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic manuscripts, only to be murdered in his Provencal chateau by French revolutionaries looking to loot his ``Indian treasure trove.''

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Mourning Didion, Twain's Life, High-Seas Hijackers: New Books

Mourning Didion, Twain's Life, High-Seas Hijackers: New Books

Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- On Dec. 30, 2003, writer John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack while he and his wife, Joan Didion, were preparing dinner in their New York City apartment.

It was a month before their 40th wedding anniversary, and Didion was already grieving over their daughter, Quintana Roo, a 37-year-old newlywed who was lying in a coma at a nearby hospital. In ``The Year of Magical Thinking'' (Knopf, 228 pages, $23.95), Didion offers an aching chronicle of her thoughts and feelings, both rational and irrational, of the year following her husband's death.

As a hedge against self-pity, Didion begins by documenting every detail, from the drink in Dunne's hand when he died (a blended Scotch) to the science underlying cardiac arrest, hoping she can perform a kind of literary ``magic trick'' to ``bring him back.''

This has real consequences. Didion refuses, for example, to allow Dunne's organs to be harvested or to give away his shoes because: ``How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?''

Didion tries to distract herself by attending to her ailing daughter (who died in August 2005, after the book was finished), but quickly realizes it is futile.

``Grief was passive. Grief happened,'' she writes. ``Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.'' And so she began to write.

Didion, now 71, has been publishing novels and journalism for more than five decades but remains best known for her acerbic social criticism from the 1960s and 1970s. This book, her 13th, is equal to her earlier, influential work.

She provides an eloquent evocation of the symbiosis of a long marriage, where one is ``incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other.''

Mark Twain Bio

Ron Powers may well have been born to write a biography of Mark Twain. Like Twain a native of Hannibal, Missouri, Powers has written three previous books about the author, but none compare with his extraordinary new biography ``Mark Twain: A Life'' (Free Press, 736 pages, $35).

Resisting the temptation to psychoanalyze the writer, Powers instead focuses almost exclusively on the fantastic narrative of Twain's life. Born in 1835, Twain was a sick child who listened to stories at the knee of his family's slave, Uncle Dan'l, who inspired the voice of Jim in ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'' He witnessed the Gold Rush, the Civil War and the capitalist frenzy of the Gilded Age, the title of a novel he co- wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.

Twain traveled the globe as ``America's Shakespeare'' and became, in Powers's words, the ``world's first rock star.'' Powers ties Twain's personal history to his books, illustrating how the author ``tirelessly inventoried his life to service his fiction (especially when the fiction was presented as nonfiction).''

By placing Twain in the context of history, and not just literature, Powers is able to position the writer as ``the representative man of his times.''


Like fellow Miami Herald products Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan, Sean Rowe is taking his turn as a crime novelist.

His first thriller, ``Fever'' (Little, Brown, 263 pages, $19.95), features a rogues gallery of villains who plan to hijack a cruise ship en route from Miami to Havana, steal $30 million in smuggled drug money and blame it all on Cuban terrorists.

The anti-hero of this caper is Matt Shannon, an alcoholic former FBI agent and head of security for the targeted cruise line. Shannon is coerced into joining the scheme by his step- brother Jack Fontana, an ex-federal drug enforcement agent who has just served a prison sentence for a crime Shannon committed.

The rest of the crew includes a soldier of fortune, a Marxist airplane hijacker and a beautiful cello-playing nurse, though the characters aren't really the point.

Rowe's real skill is with plot. The plan to hijack the cruise ship is clever and plausible (keep this book out of the hands of al-Qaeda), and the aftermath of the attack corkscrews delightfully. But this noirish novel really distinguishes itself when it ventures into creepy territory such as cannibalism, crucifixion and genuinely shocking sex.