ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie, by Eric Lichtenfeld, is a look at the action-movie genre from what Lichtenfeld argues is its birth in the seventies with Death Wish and Dirty Harry, through such variations as Schwarzenneger and Stallone “hardbody” films, martial arts adventure, and Die Hard (which Litchtenfeld sees as the major breaking point from the Stallone/Schwarzenneger superhuman protagonists) and merging with other genres such as post-apocalypse, disaster-movie and super-hero. Lichtenfeld argues the genre elements are rooted in a mix of Western and noir films (the loner hero, the hero outside a corrupt system, bringing order out of lawlessness) coupled with new elements such as the detailed focus on weaponry and over-the-top spectacle (Litchtenfeld concludes that while action movies can parody themselves, they may never achieve the level of self-awareness some westerns, such as Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, do). Very interesting.
THE BRASS VERDICT is Michael Connelly’s sequel to Lincoln Lawyer wherein his protagonist takes over a sensational murder case for a murdered acquaintance and so must cope with both defending the accused and wondering if he’s now in the killer’s sights—and just what homicide detective Harry Bosch is hiding about the case. A good crossover; given the ending, I suspect Bosch will guest-star again.
SHARPE’S HAVOC: Portugal, 1803, by Bernard Cornwell has his Napoleonic era rifleman surrounded by hostile French troops in Portugal, cut off from his battalion and targeted by a British traitor scheming to play both sides against the middle and use Sharpe’s platoon as a sacrifice. As always for this series, fun.
Return with me now to the days when a single diabolical intellect sought to upset the “ordained balance between the white and yellow races” … Sax Rohmer’s THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU took existing British worries about “the Yellow Peril” and created a villain who would define the “sinister Oriental” (as they put it back in those days) for most of the 20th century. The racism is dreadful (did you know Chinese-Americans buy live scorpions so that they can have unwanted babies “accidentally” stung to death?) but it’s also a rattling good adventure as grizzled British official Nayland Smith squares off against the sinister Chinese doctor and his vast schemes.
A SUMMER OF HUMMINGBIRDS: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey is less than the sum of its parts: While it does a fair job chronicling Emily Dickinson’s life, the tangled lives of the Beecher family (including Stowe’s status as a national abolition icon) and the 19th century craze for hummingbirds, it doesn’t do anything to tie them together, let alone show how things like Henry Beecher’s affairs mark the change in the zeitgeist from antebellum America to post-Civil War (which is what the book’s intro asserts). It’s probably telling that Benfey can’t find a good 19th century endpoint for the gossipy accounts and settles for using a 20th century Dickinson scholar’s study of one of her poems as the closer. Weak.
SHARPE’S DEVIL: Richard Sharpe and the Emperor, 1820-1821, by Bernard Cornwell is the capstone to the series to date (though a follow-up wouldn’t surprise me, it’s hard to imagine topping a scheme to liberate Napoleon for the conquest of South America), as Sharpe’s quest for a missing friend embroils him in Chilé’s war of independence and an encounter with Cochrane, the swashbuckling daredevil of the title. Another good read.
SOCIAL-SCIENCE COMMENTARY ON THE BOOK OF REVELATION by Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch is an attempt to analyze the Bible’s closing book in terms of how a Jew of the time would have seen sky-beings, God, being neither hot nor cold (“Indifference was considered an offensive insult.”) and the world’s end—most of which, they argue, should be seen as an astrologically themed out-of-body experience. Interesting, though not convincing as “the” interpretation: An argument that it can’t be an allegory for Nero because Nero wasn’t a seven-headed beast hardly convinces and in claiming Americans are too optimistic about the future to get behind the book’s pessimism, they ignore the pessimism of premillenial Christianity.
Reading Jack Finney’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS for the first time, I’m inclined to agree with the one critic who said the message here is community, from the protagonist’s distress that the pods are letting the town deteriorate to the fact that the closing symbol of human triiumph is that the community is returning to normal (rather than say, Miles and Becky being alive, or marrying). A good read, despite some long expository passages, and one chilling touch none of the movies have used (the pods have a five-year lifespan once they “bloom” so five years after everyone is transformed, even podded humanity will cease to exist).
THE BURIED BOOK: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrsoch tells how engraver turned Assyriologist George Smith discovered that the British Museum’s collection included the Gilgamesh poem on clay tablets (significant at the time because it was seen as recording Noah’s flood), then rewinds to the discovery of Asshurbanipal’s library by Horfazd Rassam (a Chaldean archeologist whose amazing successes were scrubbed out of history by British rivals), then to Asshurbanipal’s own lifetime, then back to the Babylonian composition of the poem and the time of Gilgamesh itself (such as we ca n conjecture it). Most interesting.
THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS AND OTHER ESSAYS by Richard P. Hofstadter makes excellent fodder for my book, for example by defining the difference between clinical and political paranoid (“The clinical paranoid thinks he’s being poisoned, the political paranoid things Communists are poisoning all of America with fluoridation.”), and the similarity of paranoid ranting from America’s founding through McCarthy. The other essays are less relevant to me but still interesting as Hofstadter looks at McCarthyism, the Goldwater campaign (which makes me appreciate how much Goldwater’s approach to politics resembles the right-wing style today) and the work of William Harvey, who wrote the best-selling text on the bimetallic debate back in the day (leading to a discussion of how a simplified and inaccurate pitch can connect with an audience in a way deeper works might not).
DRED SCOTT AND THE PROBLEM OF CONSTITUTIONAL EVIL by Mark A. Graber argues that Dred Scott was Constitutional and that Lincoln’s efforts to restrict the spread of slavery probably weren’t, on the grounds the Constitution should be seen as a contract (though he concedes the limits of that approach, such as the fact America’s slave population can’t be said to have signed it) drafted under assumptions that the political balance it created would make it impossible to end slavery without the South’s support (increased population growth in the Northwest put paid to that). Graber argues that while trying to preserve the old balance looks hideously unjust today, there was no guarantee that the Civil War would end slavery (the Confederacy could have won, for instance).
NAMING NAMES by Victor S. Navasky, is the exhaustive study of why people during the McCarthyite era informed and how they justified it—all the more valuable now that so many of these have passed on. A very good job explaining the blacklisting, “greylisting” and delisting process, the social conflicts that developed around it, the Smith Act used to prosecute Communists and the “professional witnesses” who built careers as consultants on anti-Communism. Very interesting, and invaluable for The Enemy Within, of course.