Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power
The track record of the recent spate of short books on big topics (Penguin’s Brief Lives and its home and native cousin Extraordinary Canadians, the Books that Changed the World and Big Ideas series) has not been very impressive. I’ve sampled quite a few and found none of them essential reading. Ross King’s Machiavelli bio, part of the new Eminent Lives series, is better than average, boiling an eventful and complex life down into a brief narrative that also provides a helpful précis of the career diplomat’s literary output and political philosophy. And I’m not sure we need any more than that.
Dance of the Suitors
J. M. Villaverde
Something about J. M. Villaverde’s excellent debut collection of stories calls to mind Duchamp’s Large Glass, with its diagram of cracked desire representing a voyeurized female cloistered above an anonymous, mechanical circle jerk. In a similar way, the characters in Villaverde’s fiction, including a young “Harry” James on an ironic quest to lose his virginity in Europe and a pair of seniors finding different varieties of love in Acapulco, are less into sex than seduction, the eternal dance of Duchamp’s suitors that ends the title story and has the dancers “moving their limbs like machines winding down.” The art is in the deadpan and earnest voice Villaverde demonstrates such fine control over, seeming always to be straining for an even more perfect rendering of something the dancers are drawn to but which remains out of their reach.
The Drowning Pool
Was Macdonald only Chandler’s epigone? The writing has less flash than the master’s, and it’s hard just what to make of Lew Archer. Almost asexual (“I’m a very low-pressure type myself”) but a stud when it’s required; formidably erudite (he likens a broken gambler in Vegas to the young Dostoevsky) and yet taking pains to conceal it (he later feigns ignorance of Proust). Seeing a distorted image of himself in a mirror he describes a “shadow figure without a life of his own who peered . . . through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.” Which is trite noir self-portraiture, but the most we get. In this, the second Archer novel, the standard Macdonald plot involving a tortured family history isn’t very convincing, and elements borrowed from Chandler, like the sinister medical clinic, sometimes collapse into parody. But the build-up is still a lot of fun.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History
While loving Gibbon this side idolatry, I will concede that some of the conclusions he reaches about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire are not fully supported by the latest scholarship and archeological evidence (though on the whole I think he has aged rather well). In this lively and thoroughly up-to-date narrative account of the collapse of the western Roman Empire Peter Heather sees a coherent process of imperial disintegration consistently, if sometimes only indirectly, related to the sudden rise and even faster decline of the Huns. Perhaps not an entirely “new” account – still the triumph of barbarism, this time without the aid of religion – but an excellent synthesis that provides quite a bit of fresh insight.
Margaret MacMillan’s biography of Stephen Leacock is a brief and affectionately gentle account of the life of a man whose own most popular work was typified by those same qualities. Most writers do not lead particularly interesting lives and Leacock was no exception. MacMillan wisely avoids personal details (not very telling in this case anyway) and structures the book around introductions to different aspects of Leacock’s writing and thought: as a humourist, an academic, and a public intellectual. Dismissive of his conservative and conventional take on economics, history, and politics, MacMillan makes the case for why Leacock’s fiction still matters today.
Stephen King’s fifty-somethingth book starts off with a bang: A Romero-esque zombie apocalypse that has squads of the bloodthirsty living dead squeaking and gibbering in the streets. These zombies, however, are not your regular undead but rather human hard-drives wiped clean by a wireless power surge. Forced to reboot, we soon discover that underneath our civilized software we still have some instinctual programming for (oddly asexual) crazy violence. How this all works and what it all means is anyone’s guess. In any event, by the time the phone crazies start levitating we seem to have flown past Freud into the supernatural. A disappointment even for King fans, especially as his more familiar elements (plucky, threatened kids, anyone?) are starting to get more than a little stale.
This Way Out
Carmine Starnino trains his eye on the here and now in this collection of poems, and finds in the sights, sounds and smells of a vacation in Rome as well as his home and native Montreal visions of the strangest things. The quotidian cracks open and is transformed – a butcher at his hack work develops into a portrait of the artist, and a woman four months pregnant gives birth to a memory of old men slumped on park benches, their rhyming shapes closing life’s parentheses. The few poems that don’t work tilt with rhetorical overload, but for the most part great conclusions are kept at bay and the poems “stick with small answers” rendered in finely measured lines that make careful use of sound effects and intervals of freighted silence.