Super Summer Books
Dark ArtObsession can make for great stories and it’s at the heart of a brilliant new graphic novel, The Sky Over the Louvre.
Sumptuously illustrated, this book was published in cooperation with the Louvre and includes “reproductions,” appropriately enough because the book in part tells the story of the founding of that amazing museum. The Sky Over the Louvre is set during the Reign of Terror when Robespierre is obsessed with replacing religion in the minds of the hoi polloi. His plan? He wants the painter Jacques-Louis David to paint The Supreme Being to be used in public festivals to inspire the French.
But David can’t get anywhere with this difficult commission because he’s obsessed with a young martyred Frenchmen, whose pure face and body he wants to memorialize for all time. Seething with ambition of all kinds, The Sky Above the Louvre is breathtakingly beautiful on many levels. If you’ve resisted graphic novels, this is the one that might win you over. The text is by Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and many other films, and the images are by one of France’s greatest comics artist, Bernar Yslaire. It’s an intimate, intense voyage into the past where politics and passion meet in unexpected ways.
Sex, Ghosts and Homework
Andrew Taylor faces this dilemma and a lot more in Justin Evans’s harrowing thriller The White Devil, which ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time, and this is one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.
The title should clue you in you're signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies and revenge.
Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. He wants clarity and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.
The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful: “He'd had some half dozen girls . . . But this bravado was poor currency here; a weak dollar.” It’s so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself, to savor the excellence of a superb storyteller. I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost a little sleep because it was hard to put this novel down.
The Return of Dynasty
The heroine is Lola Benjamin, a spoiled rich kid whose billionaire Daddy indulges her beyond belief, reducing her to a state of blissful Blahnik idiocy. She can’t draw a conclusion, but she can draw on her trust fund, and she does so ceaselessly and thoughtlessly. One of the delights of the novel is watching her struggle to think straight and take care of herself (as opposed to pamper herself) when the Wheel of Fortune doesn’t just turn on her, it runs her over.
Lola’s uber-wicked stepmother pours acid rain on her parade by shutting off the torrent of money. Lola’s erstwhile friends abandon or betray her, her wedding is cancelled, she’s suspected of murder, and the paparazzi are slavering to catch each new flaw now that her life has gone spray-tanned belly up. Of course, they followed her every move when she was golden, too, so the reversal of fortune strikes her as especially cruel.
But unluckily for Lola’s bitch of a stepmother, she also tries to destroy Lola’s father’s more resilient and resourceful mistress, and ends up with two enemies determined to bring her down. How they do it involves secret trips abroad, a Fortnum and Mason’s picnic basket of surprises, a grumpy but gorgeous leading man, private jets, drugs, warehouses full of couture, and lots of explicit sex.
This is fanciful fun set in a world of emotional lowlifes living the high life. The good end happily and the bad go to jail—that is what summer fiction means.
The Pleasure Principle
There’s more to his warning than most of us understand, because many of the Founding Fathers had a dim view of the American public’s worthiness for self-governance of any kind since they couldn’t govern their own passions. One writer after another decried American laziness, lechery, drinking, cavorting, dancing. Yes, dancing. The latter provoked blistering criticism because it could lead to all the others, and was considered barbaric—unless you were doing the stately minuet.
This disapproval of pleasure is a theme in American history according to Thaddeus Russell’s entertaining revisionist book, A Renegade History of the United States.
Russell hasn’t just written history with a twist—it’s history with a twister. The author envisions the U.S. as having long been at war with itself, in a sort of confrontation between the Id and the SuperEgo (my terms). Suppressing pleasure, suppressing pleasure seekers and minorities has been crucial to the ruling elite trying to control immigrants, slaves, prostitutes, gays, the poor.
So what would make us worthy of our own country was being abstemious and working non-stop. Work itself was trumpeted as a virtuous joy. As early as the 1830s, foreign observers noted workaholic habits among many Americans, but waves of immigrants like the Irish, Italians, and Jews looking for freedom instead of a straitjacket challenged prevailing norms of behavior. And they did something even worse in the eyes of the culture keepers: they mixed freely with African Americans. That led to them being compared to them, unfavorably in one situation after another.
Russell sometimes overstates his case, especially in comparing The New Deal to Nazi Germany, but you may never consider jazz or a gay bar or an amusement park ride or a movie in the same way again. What do they have in common? They were created and nurtured by renegades, by Americans who ignored what they were supposed to do and did what they wanted.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-six years along with a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of twenty books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he's seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can't identify, and he's done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His latest book Rosedale in Love is his first ebook original. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report, and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.