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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 10, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


TV Series, Mystery Novels, Histories

Inevitably, Facebook is littered with the whinings of people who are outraged that the moment Halloween was over (and in some cases long before), many people begin all kinds of chatter about Christmas. "Let Thanksgiving have its time," they insist. "December is Christmas enough."

These people are wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, but it was created by government decree and through custom it lasts for exactly four days: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There is no month-long build-up with lights and decorations for Thanksgiving.

Also by custom, only the first of those four days is Thanksgiving itself, while the other three days belong to football and Christmas shopping. (And, of course, the travel time before and after, if you reunite with family for the feast day.)

Thanksgiving doesn't have anything to do with November 11th, for example (Veteran's Day), or with November 8th, which is the very day I'm writing this column, a day on which Americans are voting to decide which horrible candidate will rule us undemocratically for the next four years. You who read this already know the outcome; as I write this, I have no clue. But I'm quite sure that, barring a miracle involving the House of Representatives in a tied election, this presidential election will have given little cause for thanksgiving later in the month.

My point is this: If other people choose to begin their celebration of the birth of Christ in October, let alone early November, instead of complaining and criticizing them with all your "bah" and "humbug," why not let the natives have their festivities according to their own culture, while you stand as aloof as an anthropologist, noting the odd folkways of the three-months-of-Christmas tribe?

Christmas has begun for me -- partly because the only way to have our Christmas decorations up and ready to go on Thanksgiving Day is to spend November arranging their installation. And the only way to get our Christmas baskets filled with a wonderful selection of chocolates from Loco for Coco, Fannie Mae, See's, Lake Champlain Chocolate, and other sources of nectar is to place our orders weeks or months in advance.

If you make your Christmas gifts, chances are you've been crocheting or painting or sawing or sewing since June.

Those who refuse to think about Christmas till December are doomed to find the shelves empty of all the cool things that we three-months-of-Christmas people have already bought. But we who are ready will not gloat. You can bask in the glow of our Christmas lights -- our Christmas spirit is large enough to embrace you all.

*

Hey, guys. Don't get weird.

Sorry. I keep wanting to begin every column with the tag line from People of Earth. It's never appropriate, it's not original with me, yet every now and then I have to succumb to the temptation. At least when I'm going to write about television series.

*

Notorious, a new TV series about a strong friendship between a defense lawyer and a TV news producer, sounded like it would be all soap opera. I mean, how serious can you be about a legal show if it spends at least as much time on how a TV producer corrupts the legal process -- and her news credibility -- by collusion with a defense attorney as it does on the actual cases.

Worse yet, the first plotline, extending across several episodes, already grabbed for the desperation plotline: The defense attorney, Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata), was charged with the murder instead of his client! This is usually what the writers do in the third season, when they're mentally exhausted and pathetically desperate.

Here's the surprise. It all worked. First, because the plot actually made sense. Second, because every collusion -- not just with the defense attorney but also with the district attorney -- made sense, and all the participants were very much aware of the ethical lines they were skirting ... or crossing.

Most of all, it worked because Piper Perabo, who plays producer Julia George, is such an excellent, compelling actress. Ever since I first became aware of her in Coyote Ugly, a fairly silly movie in which she was brilliant, I have regarded her as one of those rare performers who could make me care about the phone book, if she was giving it a dramatic reading.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Both Julia George and Jake Gregorian have strong characters working alongside them in their jobs. Kate Jennings Grant is completely believable as anchor Louise Herrick, whose show is some weird combination of news, commentary, human interest, and tabloid sensationalism.

Ryan Guzman plays gung-ho news-show intern (and boss's son) Ryan Mills, and his antics keep things hopping. He's one of the main ethical-line-crossers, but the writers also maintain his general good sense, so that we don't (yet) think of him as a complete idiot.

J. August Richards plays Gregorian's brother and law-firm partner, Bradley, and he adds an anchor of stability to both support his brother and help keep him rooted in reality. Aimeé Teegarden and Sepideh Moafi are both memorable as trusted underlings in the two offices; but unfortunately, my visual memory and my memory for names aren't good enough to remind me, looking at their pictures, which one is the assistant producer on the show, and which is working as a sometime investigator in the law office. But both of them are superb performers, and while watching the show I'm never confused.

I can't talk too much about the storylines, because in this era of binge-watching and catching up on recent episodes, I don't want to spoil the many twists and surprises that keep this series hopping.

I'm going to keep watching Notorious, at least until they really do go over the edge. So far so good.

*

I'm getting kind of tired of having "geniuses" portrayed on television as if they all lacked social skills and sensitivity to the needs of other people.

First, it's debatable whether "genius" exists. Even if it does, the people I've known who might qualify for the category have a completely normal mix of the foibles, the strengths and weaknesses of regular people.

Which brings me to Pure Genius.

James Bell (Augustus Prew), the super-rich insensitive guy who created the hospital/medical research facility at the heart of the series, is straight off the cliche shelf. The writer/creators, Jason Katims (Boston Public, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and Sarah Watson (writing positions on many series), bring much experience in character-centered writing to this show, so it's no surprise that Bell remains likeable despite his insensitivity. In fact, they try so hard to defuse his thoughtlessness that at times it feels as if we're supposed to pity him: poor billionaire!

The deep problem that the series may not recover from is that it's hard to write a guy who's smarter than the writers. These are smart writers, but Bell is supposed to be off-the-charts brilliant. And since part of their agenda with Bell is to show his vulnerability and underlying goodness, despite his causing pain to other people, very little time is devoted to showing his supposedly hyper-brilliant thought processes.

Bell is as enthusiastic as a cheerleader, showing off the cool capabilities that have been developed through his funding of really smart medical researchers. But mostly this means that he pushes people to use as-yet-untested procedures and machines. He "knows" what will be medically best for people -- if it works. I would be horrified if any real medical research facility was headed by somebody this careless of scientific process and medical ethics.

He has the insane goal that anybody who comes into his hospital to be treated must have a good outcome. And part of this is fueled by his own genetic disease, which is so far untreatable.

For the record, to all writers in Hollywood: In the film business, people are called "genius" for the mere combination of adequacy and good luck. Also, powerful people tend to behave extremely badly, betraying and destroying underlings on purpose. But all this monstrous behavior is forgiven as long as they are still "geniuses," meaning that their film projects make money.

In the real world, none of these people are actual geniuses. And I choose the word carefully: I mean none. In a collaborative art, somebody who thinks he's a genius and overrides everybody else is usually a disaster when it comes to the actual art of film. Also, many a "genius" has actually been saved again and again by having a few people around to curb his excesses and smooth over the damage his stupid insensitivity and/or deliberate cruelty have caused.

I remember George R.R. Martin talking about the time when he replaced Harlan Ellison as story editor on the version of The Twilight Zone that aired in the mid-1980s. Said Martin, "It took two of us to replace Harlan. Me, and a parrot trained to say 'Stupid idea.'" Both Martin and Ellison were and are excellent writers. So they knew that even good writers need help to sort through their ideas and develop the ones that are worth spending the time and money necessary to bring the story to the screen.

So far -- and I've seen only two episodes -- Pure Genius has failed completely to show us anything beyond childish enthusiasm in the title character of James Bell. However, this is not a fatal flaw. Nobody has written a believable genius, for television or film, not even in Limitless or Lucy -- though both of those were compelling, fascinating films.

The TV series Limitless played the same game as Pure Genius -- the "genius" guy is mostly insensitive and enthusiastic when he's in genius mode. Then they write that he comes up with the right answer again and again. But nothing they do shows us how his "genius" actually functions in the real world.

Real geniuses are not right all the time. They just think creatively enough, in a cross-disciplinary way, that among their ideas, they come up with solutions that nobody else thought of. Isaac Newton changed mathematics and in some ways invented physics -- but also wasted much time on utter nonsense.

Winston Churchill's ideas transcended ideologies and organizational boundaries -- like when he invented government health insurance, and when, as head of the British Navy in World War I, he came up with the idea of a land battleship and then built it under Navy auspices, disguising his breach of the Navy's defined mission by calling these things "tanks." Churchill was also right about Hitler long before it was obvious what a monster he would turn out to be. Yet a large number of his insights and ideas were painfully wrong, like his opposition to woman suffrage.

My point is that the cheap way to make somebody in a fictional setting be a "genius" is to have them always be right. I know how to do this myself, because hey, I wrote Ender's Game. But what nobody involved in the filmscript of the Ender's Game movie even remotely understood was that Ender Wiggin was not a genius because he always won (in Ender's Shadow, a kid who was even smarter always lost -- but for genius reasons); he was a military genius because of the way he treated other people, since no military leader can possibly accomplish victories without a well-trained, disciplined, loyal, courageous, creative army, from officers on down to common soldiers.

Naturally, people who came from the movie biz had no idea of how to treat people in a way that would lead to victories, so the version of Ender Wiggin in the movie is childish, petulant, and very, very stupid -- you know, like most Hollywood "geniuses."

Here's why Pure Genius is working (so far) while making the standard mistakes of writers trying to write characters who are smarter than they are: Katims and Watson know how to write relationship stories that audiences care about deeply.

The pilot episode suffers from the usual first-episode weaknesses: It's mostly about introducing the regular characters in an interesting way, and so the story gets far less attention. It's with the second episode of Pure Genius that I realized how very, very good this series may turn out to be.

There were three main plotlines in the episode. First, there's the kid whose legs are shattered when he's hit by a car. The X-rays of his fibula and tibia look like somebody scattered odd-shaped Legos across the floor, they're so broken. The obvious thing to do would be to amputate his legs, hopefully below the knees, and then fit him with some of the remarkable prosthetics that the medical center has developed.

But the doctor in charge of treating the kid won't do it. He fights to save the leg -- though it requires the use of experimental screws and scaffolding made of spider silk. The ideas are cool, but what makes the story work is the realization that the boy was playing in the street because his neighborhood is so abandoned by government that there are no parks -- they have nowhere but the street. Another doctor, who had argued for amputation, is converted to the need to make every effort to save those legs.

Of course they succeed -- come on, this is television, not an indie movie -- and it's a profoundly emotional moment when they tell the mother.

The second plotline follows a woman who needs a partial liver transplant from a living donor, and the only possible donor in the world is her father. But he was a drunk during her growing-up years, and she had many terrible experiences with his shockingly neglectful actions, followed by pleas and promises to reform, so that we come to the well-earned moment when she refuses his offered liver lobe, saying, "I'd rather die than owe him anything." And since that's the actual choice, it's shocking and painful.

This story also ends well, and I'm not really spoiling anything by telling you that the climax is when the father comes to her yet again and says that he won't expect anything from her afterward, "But at least let me do this one thing right." It's the only condition she can accept, though we are given hope after the surgery that maybe some kind of healing might be possible.

The third story is Mr. Genius's feeble attempts to ask Dr. Zoe Brockett (Odette Annable) on a date. Following the same frustrating pattern that has driven Scorpion for its entire existence, for some reason Mr. Genius isn't able to bring his ham-handed enthusiasm to dating; in that province, he's absurdly, stupidly shy. Again, not a pattern I've seen in real life from people who otherwise have no impulse control.

But in the process of approaching, then avoiding the idea of embarking on a romantic relationship, Bell accepts her idea of creating an "instant park" in that impoverished neighborhood so kids don't have to play in the street.

And in this deliberately frustrating storyline, when he again can't bring himself to ask her out (leaping to a wrong conclusion about her relationship with another guy, again just like Scorpion), he says, "Six." Six what? "Six more parks, just like this one." Because, he explains, a good idea is a good idea -- and since he has the money to buy land and create parks for kids to play in, he's not going to stop at one. It's a nice moment, showing that he relies on his money to make good changes in the world -- and the changes really are good. She's impressed -- but has no idea that part of his motive is his attraction to and admiration of her.

My favorite storyline, though, is the one that seems least urgent: the story of the strained relationship between Dr. Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney) and his son, who is in high school on the other side of the country. Wallace chose not to move his family when he took this job -- his arrival was the core of the first episode -- because his son is fragile and anxious, and making him change schools would have been cruel. However, the boy is now angry and resentful because his father essentially left the family for a mere job.

It isn't a problem that can be resolved by finding the right thing to say during iPad Facetime, but the episode ends that storyline well enough for now.

The overall thread that will bind episodes together for some time to come is the ongoing effort by Dr. Wallace to tame and teach Bell how to trust the doctors to know what they're doing and not keep overriding their decisions in his enthusiasm. Though Augustus Prew does a splendid job of bringing to life whatever the writers give him for Bell to do and say, the heart of this series is Dermot Mulroney.

Mulroney doesn't get a lot of flashy things to do. In a way, this series is structured around him the way My Best Friend's Wedding was built around his character. Yes, Julia Roberts dominated that film -- but nothing about Wedding would have made sense if the audience hadn't understood at a deep level that her "best friend" -- Dermot Mulroney -- was worth it.

That's what Dermot Mulroney creates just by existing in a scene: a sense of profound decency and goodness, so that we want him to prevail, and we share his vision of what a happy outcome would be. (I'm also baffled and awed by the fact that he is credited in movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol as a cello player. What? An actor who also has the discipline to reach and maintain a professional performance level on a demanding musical instrument?)

Pure Genius could crash and burn at any point, especially if they never make Bell grow up -- or if he grows up too soon. As long as they can keep coming up with fascinating diseases of the week and moving relationship stories, this series has legs, even if nobody involved has the slightest idea of what genius is.

*

I can remember the days when "television documentary" meant "you will hate your life the entire time you watch this." The only exceptions were very short mockumentaries, like the one about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, which showed people harvesting spaghetti from trees. That was brilliant. { https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU }

But most documentaries were boring voices droning on as they made the most fascinating topics deadly in the extreme.

Gradually, in recent years documentaries have stepped up their game. But historical documentaries suffer from the drawback that there aren't any videos or films or even stills from the time before cameras were invented -- which is most of human history.

There's a fairly new genre, the speculative documentary, which shows us things that will happen, or at least might happen. Such is the really compelling series Doomsday: 10 Ways the World Will End, airing on the History Channel.

Each episode is a one-hour look at how various cataclysms would affect our lives as human beings on planet Earth. The series began with a killer asteroid, then with a supermassive black hole.

We see the killer asteroid strike again at the same place where the asteroid struck that wiped out the dinosaurs -- near the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Step by step -- the first few minutes, then hours, then days and weeks -- we are shown the immediate shock wave, the climate changes that result from all the debris thrown into the atmosphere, and then the slow recovery.

With the black hole, it doesn't really have to come all that near to us for its massive gravitation to disrupt the structure of planet Earth, triggering earthquakes, volcanos, and monster tsunamis.

Then there's episode 3, in which a rogue planet -- a big one -- approaches Earth. Again, gravity is the destroyer, since the planet would create tidal forces that dwarf the pathetic efforts of the Moon. In fact, the Moon would be torn into fragments before it finally pulled the Earth to pieces. Needless to say, without the gravity of our intact planet, our atmosphere would dissipate and we would be dead long before any fragments of Earth collided with the planet.

What I didn't know was that scientists estimate that there are twice as many loose planets wandering around the galaxy as there are stars. That's a lot, and it makes the speculations of catastrophists like Velikovsky about how a rogue planet may have helped configure our Solar System sound not so far-fetched as they once did.

The first episode I happened to watch was number 4, in which a solar storm spews a massive chunk of the Sun right at us. Even though it's all gas, it's extremely hot and wreaks havoc with everything electromagnetic. At least it leaves Earth intact, but recovering our electricity-based civilization would be hard. The most disturbing thing about this episode is to realize how often such solar storms have happened in the past. As with asteroid strikes, this is not something that may happen -- it almost certainly will happen, and we cannot defend ourselves against it.

The nuclear war episode is not as interesting to me, mostly because I've spent my whole life in the shadow of imminent nuclear war, and from childhood on we've been warned about all the devastating effects. Yet the war kept not happening, and so the repeated warnings became background noise.

Besides, nuclear war would have a human cause, a historical cause, and so is preventable. I'm much more interested in the astronomical and planetary events that we might -- or someday will -- have to cope with.

For the worst disasters -- the black hole, the rogue planet -- there would be no possible escape except to get as many humans off planet as possible. If Earth itself is broken up and destroyed, we can't exactly build bomb shelters strong enough to do us even momentary good.

Killer asteroids can be watched for -- and many astronomers are already watching. There are serious plans for steering such asteroids away from us, or blowing them into smaller fragments, as in Armageddon and Deep Impact. But the near-certainty of an eventual killer asteroid heading our way makes it all the more vital that we maintain a space program that will let us reach an approaching asteroid in time to make a difference.

This is a very well-produced documentary, and unlike most reality programming, it does not spend two-thirds of its time telling us, after a commercial break, what it told us right before the break, and then telling us what it's going to tell us right after the next break. In other words, the show repeats itself relatively little, which makes it watchable without your finger on fast forward.

There is nothing cheerful about any of these Doomsday scenarios, but they make a fascinating story out of each one. With actors enacting imagined responses to each disaster, it often looks like a documentary from a real event. Such enactments could have been embarrassingly bad -- and in other documentaries, they usually are. But these producers have done a good job of keeping the quality high.

Just don't let your little kids watch this, because the "speculative" part of "speculative documentary" may well be unintelligible to them -- and you don't want them to think the world is really ending!

*

I think it should be obvious that I'm as addicted to television watching as anybody else -- but that doesn't mean that I don't still love to read. I recognize that my addiction to history isn't shared by most people, but those aren't the only books I ingest.

For instance, The Second Life of Nick Mason is a powerful mystery novel by Steve Hamilton, who also wrote one of my favorite novels, The Lock Artist.

I read Lock Artist years ago, and even though I meant to review it immediately, with all the enthusiasm of first love, I never got around to it. I'm going to remedy that now, because it's one of the best contemporary novels I've read. Michael is a kid who had a traumatizing experience at age eight, and since then he has not spoken a word.

But even in his silence, he experiences the world around him fully, and has felt a strong drive to perfect his ability to open any lock. Any lock -- on a door, on a safe.

This talent naturally leads him toward crime -- after all, people generally resent, and therefore pass laws against, other people getting through their locks. We don't put locks on things we don't wish to keep for ourselves and away from others, and Michael can get to everything.

Michael's relationships with other people are fascinating, in large part because of the one-sidedness of all his conversations. And because he really doesn't want to lead a life of crime -- normality is really his goal, along with perhaps a little success with girls -- and in the course of the novel he finds a spectacular way to break free of the criminals circling around him. In the process, he unlocks that deep secret in his own heart, the trauma that broke him in the first place.

Since The Lock Artist also won the mystery genre's top awards and, because it has a teenage protagonist, an award in the young adult category from the American Library Association, you can be sure that I'm not the only one who regards it as an outstanding novel -- perhaps even a great one.

So when I realized that Steve Hamilton, author of The Second Life of Nick Mason, was the same guy who wrote The Lock Artist, I began reading it -- well, listening to it, in a very good recording by narrator Ray Porter -- I was optimistic.

I was not disappointed. It's a wild, wonderful ride, so that even though it does not reach as complete a resolution as Lock Artist did, and not everything turns out as the hero might have hoped, he isn't trapped in the hell that seemed to be his destiny.

Nick Mason, you see, found himself in prison under a sentence of first degree murder -- even though the only crime he actually expected to commit had been a bit of thievery. He had promised his wife that he was out of that life, but with a beloved daughter, he felt that the need for a serious dose of cash was more important than that promise.

Unfortunately, some of the people he was working with were crazy, and one of them pulled a gun and killed a federal agent who was trying to arrest them. One of Nick's friends was then killed, but everybody else got away -- including the shooter. Only Nick was caught. The first degree murder charge was laid on him, not because they thought he actually did any killing, but because, as an accessory, he could help law enforcement find the whole gang and bring it back to whoever hired them to do the job.

But Nick didn't tell on anybody. Not a name, not a hint. He took the whole sentence on himself, and never expected to get out from under it. He would serve his time.

It was killing him, though, never to see his daughter, because of course his wife divorced him -- broken promises and serious federal time were not what she wanted for herself or their daughter. She never visited Nick; she never brought their daughter to see him.

In prison, Nick was befriended by a powerful crime lord who ran a complex criminal empire through intermediaries on the outside. One day the crime lord informed Nick that he was arranging Nick's early release. Not a pardon, not parole -- one of the cops who arrested him had come forward with the "confession" that he had faked some of the evidence against Nick, and Nick's conviction was set aside. He was leaving prison because he was now officially innocent.

Nobody on the outside expected to see him, and it isn't a pleasant surprise to his ex-wife, now married to a decent man who was a good father to Nick's daughter. Nick accepts that he will not be part of her life, but he also can't stop himself from seeing her -- watching her soccer games from a distance, for instance.

But what dominates Nick's life is that freedom from prison isn't really freedom at all, because the crime lord now expects payment. Whatever he orders Nick to do had better be done, and promptly. That's why, against his will and contrary to his character, Nick becomes an assassin. And when some of the people he's ordered to kill turn out to have been cops, Nick realizes that his "friend" the crime lord is making him into a kind of man Nick can't bear to be.

The rest of the novel consists of Nick's determined efforts to break free -- even under the threat, not just of violence to himself, but of violent and terrible acts against his daughter and his ex-wife. Somehow Nick has to shape events so that the crime lord is taken down, along with his agents who are controlling Nick on the outside. To do that he has to involve some of the people whom he protected by his silence at the time of his original trial; and he needs the help of the police, even though they suspect him of being involved in the killing of at least one cop since getting out of jail.

This complicated plot remains perfectly clear, because Hamilton does an excellent job of making all the characters so memorable that we are able to keep them straight and track all their actions and motives.

If you, or someone you know, likes mystery-thrillers -- think of the works of Jonathan Kellerman or Robert B. Parker -- Steve Hamilton delivers two powerful entries in the genre, with The Lock Artist and The Second Life of Nick Mason.

*

It has long been my practice, when I realize there's a gap in my knowledge of history, to find books or courses that will help me fill that gap. I've picked up some knowledge of the history of India over the years, but when the Great Courses came out with steeply discounted A History of India, I decided it was time to get into Indian history from the inside, instead of picking up bits through histories of the peoples and nations who conquered this or that bit of the country.

The course was well and clearly taught by Michael H. Fisher, and even though I sometimes wished for a map, I knew enough about Indian geography to understand most of the place references. To my relief, I realized that the bits I had learned over the years were pretty much all that the course offered -- mostly because India has spent most of its history so fragmented that except for a couple of assertive empires, most of Indian history is really a history of the religions that began there and swept through the whole culture.

The course is well worth listening to -- or watching, if you get it on DVD or as a video download. The visual presentation is full of pictures and maps, so it isn't just a talking head. The drawback is that you can only receive the course while sitting in front of a screen. As an audio-only presentation, you can listen while doing other tasks, like driving or shopping.

The lectures in the Great Courses are all written out in advance -- there's no other way they could meet their time limits -- but they are still presented by real college professors, who write them as lectures, not as books. This makes the experience more personal, but a little less orderly.

So it was quite a different experience to listen to the audio version of The Story of Egypt: The Civilization That Shaped the World, a book by Joann Fletcher. I've read Egyptian history before, but Fletcher's book is quite new, and there's a surprising amount of new information that helps to clarify much.

The most surprising finds came early on, as Fletcher made it clear that the beginnings of Egyptian culture took place thousands of years earlier, out in the Sahara. Now the Sahara is a desert, but as the last Ice Age ended, the Sahara was savannah -- lush grassland with occasional trees. Humans who lived there hunted all the big game animals we now associate with Kenya and other countries far to the south.

Only recently have archaeologists discovered that cultural patterns we recognize as Egyptian actually reached Egypt long after they began. It was the climate change that dried up the Sahara that caused humans to move eastward to the Nile, a water source that did not dry up, and brought annual floods based on rain in the tropics. This wiped away the last vestiges of the theory that Egypt was actually a culture imposed on the natives of the Nile valley by semitic invaders from the Fertile Crescent.

Much of Egyptian history consists of a pharaoh acceding to the throne and immediately starting work on his tomb. Along the way he marries a sister -- or aunt, or niece -- and they proceed to have hopelessly inbred children until the dynasty falls and somebody else began to practice pharaonic incest and rule the country.

Fletcher does a very good job of making a repetitive history interesting and helping us to understand the nuances of the struggle between the pharaohs and the powerful priests.

One of the pleasures of the book is that Fletcher's decisions about when to go into detail and when to summarize are spot on. Most histories skip over the Ptolemies -- the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt until Rome took over after the death of the last Cleopatra (it's hard to think of a ruling dynasty anywhere that cycled through so few names as Macedonian Egypt). I was delighted to see how the Ptolemies went native, governing Egypt very much as native dynasties had done.

Reading about ancient and foreign cultures is rewarding enough, but Robert Tombs has just come out with a remarkable new book, The English and Their History. A lifelong Anglophile (ever since I read The Prince and the Pauper when I was eight), I thought I knew English history. After all, I can match most Englishpeople in my knowledge of the kings and queens since the Norman Conquest, and I know most of the famous battles, the great cultural figures, and the forces that shaped the language and the character of the English nation.

But in recent decades, most histories have broadened their view to include all of Great Britain and even the colonies; Tombs has decided to focus on the English -- the nation that takes up most of Great Britain, and which gave rise to the English language and the uniquely English culture.

As with Fletcher's history of Egypt, Tombs begins with the things that archaeology and genetic studies have revealed about England in recent years. The impression I got many decades ago, that the Anglo-Saxons swept into England after Rome withdrew, driving out the native British, turns out to be completely wrong. While many Anglo-Saxons came to England from the continent, and eventually became a ruling class that imposed their language on the native people, genetically speaking the overwhelming majority of the genetic heritage of the people of England is British, not Saxon.

A one-volume history of England has to skip over many stories that I've read and studied in far greater detail over the past fifty-five years. Remarkably, though, Tombs brings a fresh perspective to everything. I had never realized that both before and after the Norman Conquest in 1066, England was the most coherent and the richest nation in Europe. At a time when no other nation deserved that name, the English had institutions and customs that, eventually shaped into "common law," allowed it to be considered a true nation in something like the modern sense.

Even if you think you know the history of England -- and I did "know" it -- Tombs will help you see how more recently gathered evidence changes what we thought we knew, and how England compared with other kingdoms and principalities on the mainland of Europe.

Because American culture is largely derived from that of England, and because the modern, politically-correct universities no longer teach us anything close to an adequate amount about the roots of American culture among those Dead White European Males, this book is a valuable remedy.

Recent college graduates, having been cheated -- at great expense -- out of a genuine education in Western civilization, even if they took a course with that name, might do well to begin some remedial self-education, and The English and Their History is an excellent place to start. Even if your own ancestors were not English, England is the main ancestral nation of the culture of the United States. It is fascinating and valuable to watch principles develop that later became enshrined in our founding documents, along with others that we adopted informally because they formed an important part of English politics and culture, even if our founders were trying not to continue old "bad" habits.

For instance, I was always told that habeus corpus was created by Magna Carta. Well, yes and no. It actually began as a crucial point in law when royal courts long after King John began to assert the right to demand that local courts produce particular defendants so that the royal court could examine their cases. It began as a practical matter, but the assertion of the authority of royal courts over local ones is now echoed here in the authority of federal courts over state and local jurisdictions.

If you want the details of colorful stories, then watch Becket and A Lion in Winter, Anne of a Thousand Days and one of the movies about Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days queen, or the classic A Man for All Seasons. They take liberties with the details of the history, but the human relationships are powerfully recreated and you can correct the details by reading. You can't expect any history to include the level of detail that makes good historical movies work so well.

But between the fictionalized movies (no, none of the Robin Hood movies is any closer to historical truth than any of the King Arthur movies) and the real histories, you can gain a powerful and memorable idea of how England was created. (Of the historical films, Becket, based on the play by Jean Anouilh, and A Man for All Seasons, adapted by Robert Bolt from his own brilliant play, are the two that will give you the most accurate picture of English culture and governance at two very different points in time.)

In fact, if I were assembling a gift for someone who enjoys reading and appreciates good historical movies, it would be hard to come up with a better package than A Man for All Seasons and Becket, both of which won best-screenplay Oscars, and The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs.

Now we need somebody to write a first-rate script for a play or movie about the tragedy of King Harold II Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who first defeated an invading Danish army at Stamford Bridge, saving England from reconquest by the Norse, and then marched his army south to face William of Normandy, whom Harold might also have defeated -- except for the unfortunate accident of happening to die during the battle.

I'd write it myself, if I weren't busy writing books about kids in space.


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