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June  12

Have Sword, Will Travel

Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2005. 253 pp., $23.95

Captain_alatriste_2 We are being inundated of late by a certain category of historical novel wherein a familiar story is told from the point of view of a different character – Ahab’s wife and the boy who loved Anne Frank are two that immediately spring to mind. But a decade ago, before he became an international publishing celebrity with his (deservedly) best-selling The Club Dumas, one of the finest practitioners of this genre, the Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte, invented a compelling character in the first of a series just now being launched in the US.

This mysterious, swashbuckling inhabitant of seventeenth-century Madrid – in a complex and intriguing time after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and during the Thirty Years’ War -- is Captain Diego Alatriste. In true Perez-Reverte fashion, the multi-layered story is narrated by yet another invented character, this time a lad named Inigo. His father was killed in the War and so Inigo has been taken under Alatriste’s wing as his aide and, as a consequence, is eyewitness to his exploits – recounted with sophistication many years later. Thus we are given a documentary picture of the period populated with many real historical characters parading in and out of the imagined plot.

The result is a vivid combination of detective story, romance, and cultural tapestry. We follow the thread of Alatriste’s bloody escapades as a hired "have sword, will travel" with a guilty conscience, and along the way we meet the poet don Francisco de Quevedo on one page, and on the next page are introduced to the golden-tressed young girl who would become the centerpiece of the painter Velazquez’ monumental portrait, Las Meninas.


The intrigue at the core concerns Alatriste attempting to complete a dangerous mission one night on the dark, cobblestoned streets of Madrid, where he is to be well-paid in gold for ambushing two anonymous foreign visitors. However, the assignment becomes corrupted by a mysterious envoy from the Church who wants Alatriste and his Italian accomplice to take the matter one step further. Don’t expect more detail from me as to the identity of the two visitors. When I came upon the paragraph in which this striking fact was revealed, I exclaimed aloud, and you will too, I promise.

Like me, I assume you will open this book knowing nothing about the subtleties of swordsmanship in seventeenth-century Spain, and the various types of weapons concealed beneath the soldier’s flowing cloak and at other unexpected locations of his person. Like me, you may, however, possess a smattering of knowledge about Spanish culture during its so-called Golden Age, a time of rich and opulent art, flowering poetry, diplomatic duplicity, and elaborate etiquette governing social promenading on Sundays in the central plaza.

All these elements are blended with Perez-Reverte’s exquisite style and respect for period detail into an unusual novel indeed. Four more in the Alatriste series will be published in America over the next four years – something to look forward to!

– Neil Baldwin’s new book, The American Revelation, is in bookstores now. It is reviewed in today's Washington Post book section.

June 12, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (2)

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May  29

Love Verging on Brutality

Sudden Rain, by Maritta Wolff. Scribner, New York, 2005. 435pp., $26.00.

Sudden_rain_2 Maritta Wolff wrote her first novel, Whistle Stop, in an undergraduate English class at the University of Michigan. It was published to immense critical acclaim in 1941 when she was twenty-two years old, and five years later was made into a film featuring Ava Gardner in her first starring role. Wolff’s seventh and last novel was completed in 1972 and stashed away in manuscript because the author refused to promote the book and, further, refused to approach another publisher. After her death three years ago, Ms. Wolff’s estate discovered and released the book -- Sudden Rain –- for the great benefit of all of us 21st century fiction lovers in desperate search of an engrossing read, something harder and harder to find in this postmodern world where narrative is becoming a dirty word.

A prevailing theory holds that the ‘60's did not completely end until about 1974. Sudden Rain is a fascinating reinforcement of that hypothesis. Set amidst the lush landscapes, sprawling ranch houses, glittering swimming pools, smoke-filled bars, and, yes, steamy hotel rooms of L.A., the novel is a round-robin saga of the tribulations of four couples in different stages of alienation. Tom and Nedith, suffering through the dissolution of their son's marriage, are themselves pretending not to be estranged. Meanwhile, their neighbor, Cynny, would like to believe that all is well with her husband, Jim. And Cynny’s best friend, Nancy, wonders where things are heading with Dave.

In an early interview, Maritta Wolff said that her characters "have a habit of getting their own ideas...They run away and do as they please." Aside from being strategically ingenuous, this is easier said than done. The author’s pre-eminent accomplishment is that she causes us to care about her characters, most especially the devoted wives, buffeted by arguing teenagers, ignored by straying husbands, bored by days of errands, and imprisoned by interior decor. Every woman in the book is in an endless battle to preserve her self-respect. As we bear witness to these painful struggles, another of Maritta Wolff’s gifts rises to the surface.


This is her uncanny ear for marital dialogue, the ways in which husbands and wives talk to and sometimes "at" each other, the ways in which words can act as a screen to deflect entree into the deeper self. When Tom talks in hurried passing to Nedith, all he wants to do is put her off. But when he packs his bag and leaves on the pretext of a business trip and joins his lover, Hallie, all he wants to do is engage with her and share the vicissitudes of his life.

With its couplings and uncouplings, clandestine trysts elaborately covered up (but not really, because someone is always expressing suspicion), and aspects of love verging on brutality, there is a tantalizing film-noir tenor to Sudden Rain. Now that Desperate Housewives is over, you could do worse than keep this tense and entertaining book on your bedside table. I wager you will be hard-pressed to dip in for fewer than one hundred pages a night.

– Neil Baldwin’s new book, THE AMERICAN REVELATION, is in bookstores now.

May 29, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (2)

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May  15

Fresh Look at the Old School

Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, New York, 2005. 406pp., $21.95

Prep_2 I must confess that when this debut novel was published and became an immediate best-seller, I found the initial critical praise too hyped to be credible, and stayed away. However, my recent trip to the bookstore in search of my next subject was specifically with the intent to write about a first book. So I chose this story of Lee Fiora, a fourteen year old girl from South Bend, Indiana, who goes off to board at the elite Ault School in Massachusetts. I am pleased -- indeed, honored -- to have found out that Prep is far more than just a promising first novel; it is an accomplished and profound work. As I write these words, Ms. Sittenfeld is not yet thirty years old. I must say from the outset -- and this declaration usually comes at the end of a book review -- that I cannot wait for her next offering.


There are two major levels upon which Prep succeeds. The first is the evocation of New England private school culture. This is hardly original terrain for American fiction, and yet, Ms. Sittenfeld makes it fresh, because she allows us to see the school both as her young protagonist sees it in the moment; and then again, as Lee reflects upon her experiences at various times when she is older. At one point, Lee will be sitting in English class and we listen to her very modern, adept interior monologue, acerbically critiquing the teacher/intern's wardrobe. And then, after class, when the teacher compels Lee to read aloud an essay she would not read in front of the class, we are treated to the quintessentially stilted and "sincere" prose of an adolescent. And then, Lee poignantly and compassionately recalls her teacher in later years and wonders what ever happened to her.   

Neil_baldwin_7 Which leads me to the second, even more fulfilling level of success -- the replication of teen-age angst and insecurity to such an intense extent that every few pages I had to put the book aside in deference to the author's sheer emotional virtuosity. These are basic, raw emotions -- Lee is certain that she has no friends; that she is "invisible" in a crowd of freshmen; that nobody will want to room with her sophomore year; that the boy she has a crush on has no idea how she feels; that she will never get off the substitutes' bench on the lacrosse team; that she will never have eyebrows that are thin enough; that her parents, especially her father, are the most mortifying visitors on campus...and on and on.

Ms. Sittenfeld sustains the disturbing hum of this incessant refrain of doubt, insisting that Lee is not meant to be an idealized heroine. She is a deeply-flawed girl, capable of being gossipy, mean, and hurtful. As we follow the slow and painful course of Lee's coming to terms with herself and the myriad of other beautifully-formed and complicated young people in the hothouse environment of Ault School, readers will be bound to wonder how we ourselves managed to live through that fraught period of our lives. I know that Lee Fiora would not agree with my final recommendation that this is a book for our children to read, as well. She would probably make a face and say something like, "You have no idea...how could you possibly assume that, after having only lived with me for a few hundred pages...?"

Neil Baldwin's new book, The American Revelation, is in bookstores now. He is also the author of Barron's Study Guide to A Separate Peace.

May 15, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (1)

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May   1

Sherlock Holmes Rides Again
The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr. Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2005. 263 pp., $23.95

In today's crowded publishing marketplace, it seems as if every day brings a new historical novel complete with facts as well as "facts," lovingly recreated period details, and real characters socializing with made-up ones. Not long ago, however, the field could boast few adept practitioners, and one of the best was young Caleb Carr. The Alienist was a sensational and well-deserved best-seller when it appeared on the scene in the fall of 1994, bringing seedy, gangster-infested Old New York to life long before Martin Scorsese got around to it.  Carr went on to publish The Angel of Darkness and Killing Time. Now a professor of military and diplomatic studies at Bard College just up the Hudson, Carr is back with a vengeance with The Italian Secretary, "a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes" authorized and commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate.

It's all here in this brilliant pastiche: Dr. Watson's tongue-in-cheek, slightly askance perspective; a young damsel in distress; the meticulous attention to fog-drenched Victorian atmosphere; the measured, at times intentionally lugubrious pace of the narrative. "The crisis took place over the course of several unusually cool and volatile September days," Watson begins, and before too long we are settled comfortably into the worn seat cushions of a snug railway carriage on the night train steaming northward out of London, and the two comrades, enwreathed in tobacco-smoke, are just beginning to sort out the ambiguous details of their new case, when suddenly...


Summoned to the Royal Castle of Holyrood House in Edinburgh, Holmes and Watson are confronted with two grisly "incidents," sensationalistically described in a tried-and-true newspaper clipping, that test their mettle to the fullest. Carr takes his loving homage one interesting step further by introducing an element of the supernatural into the story, with such superb effect that I found myself wanting to believe in ghosts in order to understand the complexities of the plot. And the more complex and convoluted it became, the more I wished this rather brief tale would never end.

Whether you are returning to the ageless sleuth carrying an old portmanteau packed with childhood memories, or are new to the game, you will not be disappointed. As a matter of fact, I shall venture to say herewith that your twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes reading experience will be, as it were, both entertaining and edifying. And now, if you will excuse me, I hear my landlady ringing the bell down-stairs to indicate that it is time for tea. There seems to be a mysterious visitor on my doorstep with a tale to tell. Hmmm, judging from his frustrated and peevish manner, I would venture to say that he has recently disembarked from the number thirty-three omnibus...      

Neil Baldwin's new book, The American Revelation, is starting to appear in bookstores this week. It's already shipping on Amazon or through Watchung Booksellers.

May 1, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (2)

daily dish

April  17

Anything but 'Everyday'

Saturday, by Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2005. 289 pp., $26.00Saturday

Before I dive into this week's review, a word of thanks to the many "Barista-philes" who were moved to post responses to my inaugural column about Angels & Demons. I am secure in my opinion that intellectual deconstruction of Dan Brown's work diminishes the entertainment value. With respect to the speculative commentary on my forthcoming The American Revelation, the easiest way to resolve your questions is to order an advance copy of the book on the web, or buy one when it begins to appear in stores in May. 

Now to the matter at hand. Scanning the names of Ian McEwan's eleven earlier works listed at the front of Saturday, I realize that I have been a chronic fan – addict might be a better word –  having read all but one, The Cement Garden.

Those of you who are likewise attracted to McEwan may  have noted a gradual diminishing of overt macabre effects in his recent writing, and a barely-perceptible, concomitant increase in emphasis upon the subtle horrors of quotidian life.  I am thinking of the transitions from Enduring Love to Amsterdam to Atonement


No contemporary author writes better about obsession and its vicissitudes. McEwan is a connoisseur of the infinite, pernicious ways in which loving men and women (and children) become involved with each other. He lays down the deceptively simple components of a relationship, and then proceeds to allow the reader in. Or rather, he manipulates you as a reader into experiencing the mental illusion of being in control, of supposedly understanding the narrative, page by page passing by as if in a trance, until suddenly – and this literary tipping point comes at different places for everyone – you snap to attention and realize that he has been in utter dominance over you since the first word. You pause for a moment and think about the kind of virtuosic writer who can manufacture ambiguity in your mental reading process, an erotic sensation of fading in and out of lucidity. You might even conjure up a vestigial memory of a high school or college English class, where the teacher talked about the "omniscient" narrator. McEwan is securely inside that modernist tradition – Joyce, Kafka, Mann, Proust, and Woolf – but he takes it one step further by perverting it, in the lofty sense. He is able to maintain omniscience on two levels – inside or outside the manufactured consciousnesses of his characters – or actually three levels, if you include your own mind.

I am expounding far longer than my tolerant Barista editor allows. I have intentionally said nothing in this so-called "review" about the book because this is one story where foreknowledge is a disaster. Follow Dr. Henry Perowne, a successful London neurosurgeon, through the course of Saturday, February 15, 2003. After you finish reading this novel, I guarantee you will never again accept the absurd concept of "everyday life."

Neil Baldwin will be in conversation with Sig Gissler on Washington Post Book World "Live Online," Tuesday, April 19, at 3:00 p.m., talking about the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes.         

April 17, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (5)

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April   3

The DaVinci Code Has a Prequel
Angels & Demons. By DAN BROWN. Pocket Star Books, New York, 2001. 572pp., $7.99
Twenty-five million people (thus far) have read Dan Brown's fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed it tremendously and thought it would be fun, while waiting around for the release of his fifth book, to check out his three earlier ones. Reviewers called Deception Point  "unputdownable" but I set it aside after fifty implausible (yes, even for Dan Brown) pages. Onward to Digital Fortress, which was superb – a self-replicating computer virus with an impenetrable mind of its own threatens to melt down all the networks in the world. But Angels & Demons is of particular importance in Brown's oeuvre because it introduces us to the hero of Da Vinci, "world-renowned Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, summoned to a Swiss research facility to analyze a cryptic symbol seared into the chest of a murdered physicist."

Without committing the unpardonable sin of betraying the convoluted plot, let me say that Angels & Demons previews key elements taken to even more sensationalistic heights in Da Vinci – a beautiful and brainy sidekick for the somewhat reserved, tweedy Langdon; the resurgence of a centuries-old, insidious conspiracy aimed at the highest reaches of the Catholic Church; a faceless, demonic killer pitted against religious and secular antagonists that are one frustrating step behind him; complex, allusive iconography that Dr. Langdon must harness all his expertise to decipher in order to stay in the game; "old Europe" scenarios with an authentic, on-location feel; and not least, the author's subversive aptitude for yarn-spinning that tempts you to peek ahead as you flip pages frenetically. Angels & Demons makes no pretense at being great literature; it simply grabs you by the collar and yanks you in from the first page. Deep into the story, when Langdon quotes P.T.Barnum on the run – "I don't care what you say about me, just spell my name right!" –  I  heard Dan Brown laughing all the way to the bank at the protestations of his highbrow detractors.


Neil Baldwin's new book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War, will be published in June by St. Martin's Press. More about Neil at his website.

April 3, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink | Comments (33)

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