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I kept being surprised by how often this family pops up in events I already knew about. Who could have guessed, from the beginning of the story, that this was the same Lord Carnarvon who sponsored – financially and politically – the excavation of the tomb of King Tut!
Obviously that could not possibly fit into the story of Downton Abbey, but it is only one of the many digressions that real history includes and entertainment programs cannot.
The book is well-written, and I recommend it highly; I also predict that it will become a mainstay of many women's book groups, if it isn't already.
The problem with Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris, by Christopher Kemp, is that at 187 pages and only a half-inch in thickness, the book is far too long.
The actual interesting material – the composition and uses of ambergris – are worth a good New Yorker or Atlantic article.
But Kemp stretches it out with endless ruminations and self-indulgent reminiscences. In love with his own writing style and omphaloskeptically self-obsessed, Kemp becomes the most tedious of companions through this journey. Finally the reader with any self-respect must tell him to shut up, skim through the interesting factual stuff, and then jettison the rest of the book.
Ambergris, used in the manufacture of perfume, is fascinating stuff. Found washed up on ocean shores, in lumps large and small, ambergris is produced in the guts of sperm whales, formed of fecal material building up around the unexpelled hard bits from the bodies of squids and octopuses.
In other words, this incredibly valuable substance derives its powerful stinkiness from the fact that it is a combination of cephalopod corpses and cetacean poo.
Isn't that cool? And I just saved you 23 three bucks and several hours of wasted time reading the book.
Meanwhile, I once again register my impatience with writers who think that their "art" consists of self-display instead of communication.
It's like buying a pair of binoculars made by a lensmaker who thinks his art consists, not of creating the clearest, most well-focused lenses, but rather of engraving intricate designs into the glass of the lenses, until you can barely see through them at all.
I didn't buy this book in order to watch in awe the cleverness of Christopher Kemp; I bought it to find out about ambergris. Which, eventually, I did.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the third and final volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill has finally arrived, and it was well worth the wait.
Manchester suffered a stroke before he had written a word of the final volume, though his research was complete, and his notes and plans for the book were copious. He lived for a long time after that, perfectly capable of speech and of reading, but unable to write a thing.
He became friends with journalist Paul Reid after his stroke, but over the years came to the conclusion that Reid was the writer who could finish his magnum opus – and he was right.
Reid's writing does not try to imitate Manchester, except perhaps in his clarity and intelligence; what he does follow very closely is the way Manchester thinks, the kinds of anecdotes and facts he includes, the way he marshals his evidence, and the outspoken way he passes judgments on various historical figures.
The result is that the third volume feels like an almost seamless continuation of Manchester's work.
The one frustration is with the audiobook only. The first portion of the book is read by Paul Reid, whose distinctive, gravelly voice was a pleasure to listen to. Reid has some weird pronunciation issues: He repeatedly pronounced the last name of historian Thomas Babington Macaulay as if it had the stress pattern of "Saturday" rather than that of "appalling" – MACK-uh-lay instead of muh-CAWL-ee. But even with such flaws, his reading was excellent and clear and real.
However, he's definitely an American, and the audiobook producers apparently felt the need to have the bulk of the book read by an Englishman. Thus we are afflicted with the mannered, monotonous reading of Clive Chafer.
Chafer's problem is that he apparently thinks that deep voices are better than those of middle-range. A natural tenor, he tries to press his voice down into its lowest register.
The result is an extremely limited vocal range, and where sentences should sink down in pitch to express completion, he cannot go any lower. Every sentence therefore sounds incomplete, which becomes more and more annoying the longer you listen.
I would so much rather have listened to Reid's wonderfully natural voice – American and mispronunciatory as it is – than Chafer's monotonous, artificial voice, despite its authentic Englishness. If only one of the narrators of the two previous volumes had been available – both Frederick Davidson and Richard Brown did superb work.
It's a shame that the excellent writing of the third volume should be marred by such a tedious reading.
But it is not so dreadful that I have to stop listening, as some readings are. It is only by comparison with Reid and with the previous narrators that Chafer seems so inadequate. For he does achieve adequacy, though excellence eludes him.
Meanwhile, I move forward through the story with great pleasure in Reid's faithful completion of Manchester's final work.
Michael Connelly's The Safe Man is a short story, and therefore quite slight compared to Connelly's excellent mystery novels. But it is well worth buying and downloading it.
Brian Holloway is the son of a convicted safecracker; he uses the same skills, but as part of his work as a locksmith. He specializes in opening safes whose combinations have been lost or forgotten. He comes to the home of a writer who recently bought an old house with a safe in the floor. It's of a make that he doesn't recognize, so he has to drill his way in.
What ensues is a story more of the supernatural than mystery genre. And far from being a horror story, the supernatural element is rather hopeful, offering a chance of preventing catastrophes.
The good news is that Connelly does his normal excellent job of world-creation and character development. We get the sense that there is far more to this story than is contained within these few pages.
The bad news is ... there are too few pages. This should have been a fully developed novel. We should see what the character does with the things he has learned; we should watch him trace backward through the history of the safe itself.
We should also watch him arrange for swimming lessons instead of getting a pointless oogly-boogly ending. Connelly isn't Stephen King, and that's a good thing – irresolute oogly-boogly endings are a flaw, not a virtue, in King's work.
Meanwhile, it's only a week until Connelly's next Harry Bosch novel, The Black Box, comes out. I can hardly wait.
Once audiobooks end up on my Nano, only the title and author information remain. So the novel Immune just sat there without telling me it was book two in a series, whose first volume I also had on my Nano: The Second Ship....continued on page 3