Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading Journal: "The God of the Hive"

Laurie R. King, The God of the Hive.  Bantam 2010.  $25.  I read the novel in Advance Uncorrected Proofs, through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994), Laurie R. King introduces readers to Mary Russell, a fifteen year old girl walking the Sussex downs with her nose in a text of Vergil.  On her walk, she stumbles upon "a gaunt, graying man in his fifties" who mistakes her for a boy.  The man is Sherlock Holmes, who has retired from detection to become a beekeeper.  Inevitably, Russell and Holmes are drawn into an adventure together, and a new detective partnership—and a new detective series—is born.  In the course of ten books, Russell and Holmes solve crimes, escape death, engage in espionage, revisit the scenes of canonical Holmes adventures (such as Dartmoor), develop a close intellectual affinity, and get married.
That marriage, between partners separated by nearly forty years, is one of the improbable elements in the Russell-Holmes series that Laurie R. King somehow manages to make work. The novels are for the most part not standard cosy murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, with a body and a slow process of working out the problem. They are more thrillers, or "novels of suspense," than mysteries, and Russell and Holmes occasionally do more spying than detecting—thanks to King's transformation of Holmes's older brother Mycroft into the prototype of the British spymaster.  But King is also playfully aware of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle standing in the background, and for Holmes enthusiasts there are plentiful references to the detective's earlier career.

In fact, The God of the Hive opens with Russell fleeing from danger with Estelle Adler, the daughter of Damian Adler, who is Holmes's son by his former nemesis, Irene Adler (introduced in the Conan Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia").  My progress through the opening chapters of the story was slowed by the fact that The God of the Hive is, in fact, a sequel, picking up the action where it was left at the end of the previous Russell and Holmes novel, The Language of Bees.  It would be best to read the two books in order, but King does a good job of bringing the lapsed reader like me up to speed.  (I had only read the first six of the nine previous novels in the series.)

Most of the novel follows the attempts of Holmes and Russell to keep Damian and Estelle safe from a madman out for their blood.  Along the way, a dangerous plot involving Mycroft Holmes develops.  For most of the novel, Russell and Holmes are forced to separate: Holmes is on the run with Damian and a feisty, red-haired Scottish doctor; Russell is on the run with Estelle, an American pilot, and a mysterious Lake District woodsman.  In King's skilled hands, all the moving parts fit together to create a highly satisfying and suspenseful entertainment. 

The novel is set in 1924, soon after the election of Britain's first Labour government.  In the background of the novel is a sense of political and social change.  Holmes, who was at home in the London of the 1890s, has begun to find the City in many ways unrecognizable.  He and Mycroft are beginning to feel their age as a new generation comes to power.  King is fascinated with the contrast between Britain's rural and pagan traditions and its busy urban modernity. In the end, it's a case of Puck versus the bureaucrat.  

Seasoned readers of the Russell-Holmes series know that Mary Russell speaks several languages, including Hebrew, and has an uncannily accurate throwing arm that allows her to bean six villains in the head with heavy stones in the middle of a pitch-black night.  Russell herself is the most improbable of the improbable elements in the novels.  But King makes her work, and makes her hold together these wild tales of mystery and suspense—and even has a little fun at the expense of her improbable creation.  In one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the novel, Holmes is talking to the Scottish doctor, and mentions his wife.

"She read theology at Oxford," he explains.  
"Of course she did," the doctor replies.  

Russell, like much of King's marvelous series, is too good to be true.  Fortunately, she's fictional, and keeps coming back for more skillfully written and highly entertaining adventures.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading Journal: "Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts"

Carl J. Richard, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Paperback. 202 pp. (with index). $16.95.
Dr. Willard entered largely into the field of ancient history, and deduced therefrom arguments to prove that where power had been trusted to men, whether in great of small bodies, they had always abused it, and that thus republics had soon degenerated into aristocracies. He instanced Sparta, Athens, and Rome. The Amphictyonic league, he said, resembled the Confederation of the United States; while thus united, they defeated Xerxes, but were subdued by the gold of Philip, who brought the council to betray the interest of their country...

Mr. Randall said [that] the quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth; he feared a consolidation of the thirteen states.

(from the minutes of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, January 1788)

For a brief period in the late eighteenth century, the United States passed through an awkward and fascinating neoclassical age. Most of the the Founders, like Adams and Jefferson, were exceptionally well-educated in the Greek and Roman classics, and looked to the ancient world for guidance in setting up their own experiment in republican government. Jefferson established Greek and Roman architecture as the primary model for public architecture in the United States; poets extolled the new nation in neoclassical epics that strove to rival Homer; and politicians—particularly Federalist politicians—quoted the classics as precedents for their own positions on contemporary issues. This neoclassical period was short-lived, however, as American politics and culture became increasingly homespun and democratic. Although classically educated Federalists like Dr. Willard carried the day in 1788, it was men like "plain Benjamin Randall" who came to dominate a more democratic American society. But the influence of the classics was undeniably significant for the founders of the American republic.

A few years ago, I taught a course at Carleton called "America and the Classics." One of the difficulties in teaching the course was that most of my students did not have a particularly strong background in the classics, which made it difficult for them to understand the classical references made by the Founders. What, for example, was the Amphictyonic league that Dr. Willard talks about?

Carl J. Richard's new book, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts, does admirably what I tried to do in the first half of that course. In eight lively and thorough chapters, he provides a crash course in Greek and Roman history, and then briefly discusses some of the lessons that the American Founders drew from that history. For a reader with little grounding in the classics, this book provides an admirable introduction, with chapters on ancient Sparta, Athenian democracy, the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, the rise of Rome, the fall of the Roman republic, and imperial Rome. Each chapter focuses primarily on the ancient background, but concludes with a brief examination of the lessons the Founders drew from that ancient material. Readers who want a more in-depth exploration of the influence of the classics on the Founders can then turn to Richard's The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press 1994).

I'm currently assigning the book as the textbook in the version of "America and the Classics" I'm teaching for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium. My students, most of whom are in their seventies and eighties, have found the book fascinating and highly readable.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Whom It May Concern

Note: It's been a while since I published any original poetry here. Since it's National Poetry Month, here's the poem I wrote when R— F— asked me for a letter of recommendation.

To Whom It May Concern:

Imagine, sir or madam,
the world you would create
if you could people it
from your imagination.
What fantastics
your friends could be!
What impossibilities!
How you would love
and envy them for being
what you could only imagine!
But sometimes the world as it is
brings forth such prodigies
(although prodigy is a word
she might herself disclaim)
that any madman such as myself
would be proud
to claim them as figments:
as soon as you meet her,
you feel a piece of the imaginary world
falling into place, becoming real.

© 2010 Rob Hardy

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reading Journal: "Empire of Liberty"

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic 1789-1815.  Oxford University Press, 2009.  778 pp. (including index). Hardcover.  $35.00.

In a recent revision of the state standards in social studies, the Texas Board of Education removed Thomas Jefferson from "a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th and 19th century."  As the New York Times reported, "Jefferson is not well-liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term 'separation between church and state.'" If the conservative members of the board had read Gordon S. Wood's remarkably thorough and balanced history of the early Republic, Empire of Liberty, they would have known that in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson's notion of "a wall of separation between church and state" was popular among the growing evangelical denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, because it severed the connection between the the former established churches, the Congregationalists in New England and the Anglicans in the South, and political power. Evangelicals were, in fact, among Jefferson's most enthusiastic supporters.  But as Wood writes: "It was not enlightened rationalism that drove these evangelicals but their growing realization that it was better to neutralize the state in religious matters than run the risk of one of their religious opponents gaining control of the government." 

Wood's book, the latest volume in the magnificent Oxford History of the United States, beautifully elucidates the complexities of American politics and culture in the crucial years 1789 to 1815, when the young United States was struggling to survive and to define itself as a nation.  The book is a perfect antidote to those who seek to make history a vehicle for promoting their own narrow political ideology.
Wood's thorough treatment of Jeffersonian Republicanism, for example, shows that Jefferson was at the same time an aristocratic intellectual and a fervent champion of the common man; he was an agnostic who had a strong following among evangelical Christians; he was an ideological proponent of limited government who, through the Embargo Act, was responsible for a breathtaking expansion of Presidential power; he was a fiscal conservative who paid $15 million for the Louisiana Territory; he was a prophet of freedom and equality, and an owner of slaves; he wanted America to remain primarily rural and agricultural, but through his embargo he hastened the development of American industrialism.  

History is seldom as simple or as ideologically straightforward a narrative as our politically motivated "standards" attempt to make it.  Any serious student or teacher of American history will benefit from Wood's admirably balanced account.  The book covers the Presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, with thorough and lucid treatments of religion, slavery, the position of women,  diplomacy, economy, Western expansion and relations with native Americans, and artistic and literary culture.  Running through the entire book is the story of the declining influence of the aristocratic Federalists and the rise of a more democratic society, which in the North especially led to the remarkable expansion of commerce and to the beginnings of a middle-class culture that was distinctively American.

Wood, a distinguished historian of the early Republic and a professor at Brown University, writes clearly and cogently, and his volume (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year) is a worthy companion to the other volumes in this series.  (See my reviews of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.) 

Final note: Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of separation of church and state, as President regularly attended church services that were held in the House of Representatives.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "When Everything Changed"

Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (Little Brown 2009).  471 pp.  (including notes and index).  Hardcover.  $27.99.

Gail Collins is one of the most consistently thoughtful and entertaining op-ed columnists at the New York Times, and she brings those qualities, along with an impressive amount of research, to the story of the women's movement from 1960 until the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.  I was born in 1964, a few months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which included an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person's sex.  Although I had lived through much of the history covered in Collins' book, I found that I really knew very little of it.  I knew about Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, of course, but I new nothing about many of the "ordinary" women whose persistence and courage helped to bring about such remarkable change in American society over the past half century—women like Lorena Weeks, the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against her employer, Southern Bell, that struck a major blow against sex discrimination in the workplace.  Nor did I know about the bill, cosponsored by Walter Mondale in the early 1970s, that would have provided universal free or subsidized childcare for American workers.  The bill passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, only to be vetoed by President Nixon at the urging of conservative staffers led by Pat Buchanan, who feared the bill would lead to "the Sovietization of American children." Collins is a lively writer, and her combination of archival research and oral history presents a colorful picture of the period. When Everything Changed is a fast, captivating, and often inspiring read.  

Note: One of the lesser-known heroines of Collins' book is the late Republican state Assemblywoman from New York, Constance Cook, who introduced the first state law legalizing abortion, in 1970.  The law became the model for the decision in Roe v. Wade.  Constance Cook represented Ithaca, New York, and was a familiar name when I was growing up in her district in the 1970s.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .