Monday, February 22, 2010


Give me a story featuring some number of the following: capes, large hats, swordplay, misunderstood heros, sailing ships, Caribbean settings, villains, damsels, trysts, derring-do...well, to sum it up, give me a swashbuckler and I am lost. Gone, gone, gone. Plots differ, characters have different names, settings change but the effect on me is always the same: enjoyment.

Dumas, Sabatini, Stevenson - these are the giants of the genre. And if we are contemplating a Mt. Rushmore of swashbuckle (or even just a roadside museum), I want to add Arturo-Perez Reverte to the gallery.

Perez-Reverte is a Spanish author, mostly known for intelligent, even erudite thrillers including The Seville Communion, The Nautical Chart, and Queen of the South. In his books, the streams of history and contemporary life merge together and the reader is swept along for the ride.

Perhaps as a diversion, or simply an excuse to play with another genre, Perez-Reverte has also written a series of books featuring Captain Diego Alatriste, a veteran of seventeenth century Spanish military actions, compelled to earn his living by hiring  out his experience and swordsmanship - a kind of seventeenth century private detective or armed security guard. The books are narrated by his squire, Inigo Balboa y Aguirrethe son of a comrade in arms, who begins the series as a young teenager and grows older and more experienced, if not always wiser, with each succeeding book. Inigo is writing these books when he is at an advanced age himself, looking back on his youth and the escapades, and lessons, that Alatriste and his contemporaries taught him.

The writing is terse, dramatic, and effective. Action scenes, and they are many, are cinematic in effect. As I read I want to reach for a bag of popcorn and some raisenettes.  There are swordfights, dramatic rescues and escapes, ships, ambushes, assignations - it is all there.

I was at first attracted to these books because of the adventure and action and I was unprepared for how good the books are in other more important ways. There is much Spanish history explained or revealed, and much world history of the seventeenth century as understood from the Spanish perspective. In these stories the Caribbean sea trade, the wars in Holland, the battles with England, the Church and the Inquisition, and Spanish and European royalty are all familiar but are presented with a distinct Spanish interpretation that is a refreshing change for this English-speaking (and Anglo-centered) reader. This interpretation is critical and honest, but with a view of the world from the Iberian peninsula that we do not get from reading most English-language authors.

Captain Alatriste himself is a complex character whose personal history and worldview are gradually revealed through the series. He is a good man, and a natural leader, who lives by his own code of honor, one that is not going to advance his financial or social standing. Inigo is an impressive narrator. As an old man, putting these adventures down on paper, he allows himself to perceive the action and characters from his own youthful, inexpereinced perspective. As he grows older, his observations of Alatriste and society grow with him so that reading through the series adds layers of understanding and appreciation to the reader as it does, undcoubtedly, to Inigo himself.

The English translation  is elegant, terse, and dramatic. I can only imagine that the writing is even more satisfying in the original Spanish. Perez-Reverte takes the opportunity in the telling of these stories to insert references to and quotes from Spanish literature of the period including Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and other lesser-known writers.  In The Sun Over Breda, Captain Alatriste himself appears in Velaszquez' painting Surrender at Breda and I found myself scouring an image of the painting to identify just what the captain looked like! References to Spanish literature, art and music are abundant. The stories also provide lessons in Spanish geography and the diversity in its regions, cities, and people.

A caveat: David, who introduced me to these books, warned me that there are few, if any, significant female characters and he is correct. Those who are featured are really stock characters. In fact, there are really only two characters who are fully developed: Alatriste and Inigo. Many others are well-drawn and memorable but of little real concern to the reader. This is their story. And Spain's, of course.

And for swashbucklers? Why do I read them and like them so much? Let me share with you the preface to The King's Gold, the fourth book in the Captain Alatriste series:

                                         What do we gain from it all? A little glory?
                                         Some rich rewards, or merely boredom?
                                         You'll find out if you read our story.

                                  Garcilaso De La Vega (16th century Spanish soldier and poet)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Abandon All Hope

The last time I played a video game was over twenty-five years ago when I played Pac Man with my daughters at the 7-11 store. For some years now, I believed that any attraction to this activity had long since disappeared from my brain, limbic or otherwise.

Then, before Christmas this last year, I read a review of a video game that featured spies in Renaissance Italy. Apparently, together with plots, poisonings and ninja-like maneuvers came details of Italian architecture and geography. I hinted that this might make a great reintroduction to the thrills of the video chase for me but then learned that not only would I need to acquire the game itself, but that this then required a console and TV setup that made the whole thing too complicated. No Renaissance assassins for me. (A nephew, however, benefited from my intrafamilial hinting and he received the game for Christmas.)

Now, just as I had become reconciled to never returning to the video game arena, I see a review of a video game in the New York Times featuring an unlikely action hero: Dante (the poet) in a new video game edition of "Inferno!"

The game's creators said that research showed that most people had heard of Dante and the "Inferno" but didn't know what it was about. This game is designed to fill in that gap. Some changes had to be made. As the executive producer of the game explained, "It's Dante, who's kind of passive, and he's a poet and he's philosophical. We had to take the bold step of saying, 'How do we make this guy an action hero?' "

In the video game, Dante is not the passive writer we have known but perhaps not respected all these centuries but rather a brawny knight returning from the Crusades to discover that his beloved Beatrice has been murdered. Lucifer has captured her soul and Dante must pursue them through layers of hell to rescue his beloved. Now I am suddenly wondering what it would take to acquire the needed console and screen to play this game. I can kill demons and engage classical literature all at the same time!

The New York Times review goes on to quote some reactions from the world of academia. Some scholars question the changes in plot and character that such an adaptation requires. Some do not think this will attract young people to further reading of the classics as a side benefit. I am too old to worry about whether this game will interfere with my literary development. Any time spent with Dante, whether the passive, philosophical poet or the refurbished brawny, armor-clad action hero, is bound to be a hoot. February needs some hoots.

This all got me to thinking. How about other video game versions of classics. As long as we are permitted to make adaptations to story and author how about providing Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" with some ninja-like powers, or enabling her author to roam eighteenth century England solving relationship tangles? "Moby Dick" would be simple. (I want to be the first to register as a character by typing in "Call me Ishmael.")

Dickens provides terrific range for gaming. Can you and Pip in fact realize your "Great Expectations" or will you lose your lives before triumphing? For serious gamers, I think William Faulkner could be adapted to let you explore Yoknapatawpha County in more detail than you ever thought possible.

Finally, the very best gamers among us might spend June 16, 1904 with James Joyce in Dublin (it would be necessary to buff him up some and provide him with weapons mightier than the pen) as you team up to make sure that Molly Bloom concludes with "yes I said yes I will yes" and not anything like, "maybe" or "whatever."

Now, how can I get that console?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fresh Fish and Caponata: Italian Crime Fiction

If the pasta 'nasciata, when they had finished it off, was greatly missed, the melanzane alla parmigiana, when it reached its end, deserved some sort of long funeral lament. Meeting an honorable death along with the pasta was also a bottle of tender, beguiling white wine, while to the melanzane they sacrificed half a bottle of another white, which under a veneer of utter meekness concealed a treacherous soul. The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri, Penguin Books 2009, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, p. 69).

I have come to realize that I read detective fiction less for the mechanics of plot, mystery and resolution, than for the private moments I get to spend with protagonists as they contemplate their lives, accomodate coworkers, indulge in meals, develop and resolve personal conflicts, and allow me to view the larger world through their eyes. I pick up, almost intuitively, on clues, deceptions, red herrings, and guilty parties but to be considered a serious reader of mysteries, I should discipline myself to pay more attention to the crime at hand, and the solution. Instead, I wait for the interludes when the police inspector, or private detective, or amateur sleuth reveals more of himself or herself and allows me to spend some time with them.

The most satisfying shared times of all have been with two Italian detectives, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, of the police force of the fictional town of Vigata, Sicily, and Commissioner Guido Brunetti, of the Venice police (in the novels of Donna Leon, an American who lives in Venice and writes in English.)

These are two quite different men from two very different parts of Italy. Montalbano is a bachelor, whose long-term girlfriend lives elsewhere in Italy. He lives in a small home on the beach, has a housekeeper who keeps his refrigerator stocked with delicious meals, and takes long swims, and long walks to clear his mind and work out the mysteries. Brunetti is a family man, an urban sophisticate, who yearns for tranquility in a profession designed to deny him that.

And here is lunch with the Brunetti family in Venice:

Paola placed a platter of fried aubergine on the table, nodded in sudden agreement, and began to drop the newly made strips of pasta into the boiling water...[discussion of son Raffi's report card]...Paola, stirring the pasta, managed to give the side of the plot a few heavy clangs....[daughter Chiara returns from school]...

Starting with Rafffi's plate Paola served up four heaping dishes of pasta and then offered them grated parmegiano which she sprinkled liberally over their pasta. She began to eat. They all began to eat....

...Paola got up from the table and took their pasta dishes from the plates on which they rested. She went to the oven, opened it, and brought out a platter of cotoletta milanese, placed some sliced lemon wedges around the edge of the platter, and set it on the table. While Brunetti took two cutlets, Paola helped herself to some aubergine, saying nothing.

(The Death of Faith, Donna Leon, Macmillan 1997, pp 49-50)

Aren't you glad you were able to join them? The tension over the report card (and some disagreements with Paola) might have spoiled this moment, and yet the meal redeemed the day for all.

I am not alone in my appreciation of the attention to food in Leon's and Camilleri's books. I was excited to read a post some months ago in the blog Detectives Beyond Borders:A Forum for International Crime Fiction by Peter Rozovsky, where he commented on the culinary routines and adventures of these same two characters. When I read his comments, I felt less embarrassed that I read these books for the food first, and the crimes second. He understands the appeal of attention to the smallest details of a character's life, especially ones who have the capacity to savor life's pleasures. To his credit, Mr. Rozovsky, also follows his crime fiction with a professional's eye to the conventions, and surprises, and meanderings of mystery and solution. He is certainly more committed to crime fiction than I.

And me? I will continue to read crime fiction, American or international, cerebral or exotic or cozy, and I will enjoy most of it. It is with my real friends, however, like Inspector Montalbano and Commissioner Brunetti, that I will slow down and savor the leftovers in the refrigerator, the picnic on the beach, the lunchtime pasta and cutlets, the cappuccino and roll for breakfast, the espresso (coretto [with a shot] or not) and the wine. After dinner, I will stroll along the Venetian canals or walk to the lighthouse on the Sicilian coast to think about my son's report card, or solve a kidnapping or murder, or decide how I feel about life and love, and I will look forward to leftovers tomorrow.

[Note: I am most grateful to my friend Eleanor who introduced me to both of these series and with whom I have enjoyed many conversations, literary and culinary.]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"I Spied a Poor Cowboy..."

...with nothing to read."

It is not news any longer that the last bookstore in Laredo, Texas has closed, leaving over 250,000 residents with a trip of over 150 miles to the next place to purchase a paperback to carry in a saddlebag. It is true that the public library remains open but even those brave and blessed guardians of books and civil rights, librarians, have admitted that they cannot provide all of the recently published volumes that readers are looking for.

I don't know what the bookstore in Laredo was like but I was saddened by the loss of our little local bookstore here in Riverdale in the Bronx when it closed shop last year. Of course I have access to bookstores large and small throughout the city and the Riverdale shop was not my favorite. It was, however, walking distance from my house, convenient to a coffee shop, a bakery and a gelato place. A Saturday stroll could include all three and depending on how good the book was that I picked up, I could even stop at the Irish pub before getting home. Pretty good, huh?

I choose not to compare bookstores and libraries here. The differences are great and deserve some detailed reflection. I will note that a public library that works is a sacred space and like any church, temple, or cathedral can satisfy the soul, quiet a racing mind or heart, and provide a vision of beauty and art that are clouded by daily routine. I will also note that the public library in Fayetteville, Arkansas should receive the Kennedy Center medal or the equivalent for what it provides and how it promotes community and citizenship. I must also note that the public library in Penfield, New York helped my wife and me raise our children and stay relatively sane at the same time.

Bookstores are public places, places of commerce and social gathering. They are something other than sacred and must live and die by the dynamics of profit and loss. They must provide customers what they want as much as what they need, and they need to be located where customers, not always readers, will find them convenient for short or long-term visits.

A successful bookstore can be huge, or tiny. It can have private spaces, nooks and crannies or can be open and spacious. I offer no formula for what makes a bookstore good or bad. I do know, usually within a few minutes, if I like a bookstore or not. It takes me only a little longer to determine how a bookstore ranks in my collective bookstore memory. The best bookstores, like the best wines, often grow in my estimation, either over the course of a few visits or over a longer period of time as I visit at different times of years, carrying different moods with me, encountering different writers, different stories and different discoveries.

I spent this last weekend in Portland, Oregon, attending the wedding of our friend's daughter. After two days of ceremony, festivities, and brunch, PYZ and I had an entire Sunday afternoon to become acquainted with the famous Powells City of Books. At first glance, the boxy block-long structure, bright lights, and movie marquee sign did not signal the kind of setting I associate with a bookish afternoon. The inventory was of course huge (they do an impressive online business as well) and it is recommended that one refer to the map provided to avoid becoming lost. Having assured myself that I could be in touch with PYZ by cellphone, I ignored the map, happy to roam through the warren of sections, subsections, and subsubsections .

Among other qualities, Powell's carries and displays together a stock of both used and new books. It also has the same book located in different sections to the delight of a customer like me who is really just wandering, waiting for discovery. It has sophisticated and helpful notes on books of special interest. Signs directing the customer to other areas of the store where they can find other books by the same authors are very helpful as well.

This bookstore grew on me as I spent the day and I realized that, as when wine is opened and exposed to the air, and one begins to taste subtle flavors and aromas, new qualities, and a different balance of tastes, exposure to a store this bold and complex would change as I was exposed to more of it and its customers. It occurred to me that what was very special about Powell's was not its size, its collection, its map, its range, or its service. It was in fact the community of readers, shoppers, and visitors who were there. The store was filled with an entertaining variety of people. There were old geezers like me, fathers and mothers, tattooed youth, teenagers, quiet children, noisy children, people in need of a mystery, people studying Wheelock's Latin, authors (no doubt) looking for inspiration or checking out the competition. There were patient browsers, quick drop-ins, nearly-residents, tourists, teachers, and many others, all spending Sunday afternoon together. We had convened in a place that brought together stories, illustrations, poetry, instruction, fantasy, diversion, escape, whimsy, and spirituality of all kinds. We visitors brought our lives into the common space where we all shared a common experience. We each left with something added to our lives. Success for a bookstore depends on the quality of its product, its selection, its marketing and management but its identity is the daily creation of the community that it feeds.

As with wine, terroir is the vital element, one that is not always understood or appreciated. Every wine is not only the creation of the grower, the winemaker, the bottler or the marketer. It is really a product of the grape that it is made from. The grape is a living thing that is nurtured by the sun, the climate, the soil, the elevation, the water, all of which are unique to a place. Bookstores, too, have a terroir. The same books are available throughout the country and throughout the world. There are variations on how they are displayed, organized, and selected for inclusion in inventory. The terroir of bookstores is in who visits them, why they are there, what their lives are like, what their reading lives and interests are like and what relationships, personal and literary, they bring with them. No two bookstores, even in the same town, can be exactly the same. Differences can be profound or minute. Travel is illuminating because the bookstore terroir is very apparent, especially on an initial visit. The west coast Oregon literary community, for example, was dramatically visible in my afternoon at Powell's. I immediately drew comparisons to Seattle's Elliott Bay Bookstore, and contrasts to the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in NYC.

So, in Laredo, Texas, lots of young cowboys and cowgirls will visit the library, I hope. So will the parents, the students, the writers, the seekers, the thinkers. They will not have a place, however, that provides them and visitors with a marketplace for their reading experiences, where they browse, and shop, and together create a reading community that is their own, to be enjoyed and shared, one which they will take with them when they visit other places. Let's hope that new economic growth, and new technology, protect and nurture the literary agora that includes local bookstores. Let's hope that a new entrepreneur will want to take up the challenge of serving, and creating, a literary marketplace in all of the Laredos we know, including Johnson Avenue in Riverdale, New York.