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Books: 6 Great Tales of the Past

3 minute read
Lev Grossman

ARTHUR & GEORGE JULIAN BARNES

Get to know Arthur Conan Doyle: pillar of society, cricket jock and wildly successful author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, whose life of late-Victorian virtue goes all squiffy when he accidentally acquires a passion for a woman not his wife. Doyle also acquires a late-life project in the form of George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Barnes, a top-shelf British novelist whose work doesn’t always cross the Atlantic well, has created a slow-burning, enlargingly human tale of reasonable men whose expectations about the world are first deeply disappointed and then strangely redeemed.

THE PEOPLE’S ACT OF LOVE JAMES MEEK

Siberia, 1919. Enter, staggering across the tundra, a half-starved revolutionary escaped from a Russian prison camp. Already onstage are a marooned regiment of Czech soldiers, a sexy lady photographer and a bizarre Christian sect of people whose zeal leads them to castrate themselves. With these chess pieces Meek stages a stunningly bleak Dostoyevskian drama, exploring the exaltation of the human spirit and the grotesqueries of the human body—the book’s title refers not to sex but to cannibalism.

THE WORLD TO COME DARA HORN

A Nerdy quiz-show writer impulsively swipes a Chagall during a party at a museum. Why? The answer takes us back to the life of Marc Chagall, who taught art at a Soviet orphanage, and that of his roommate, a brilliant yet all but forgotten Yiddish writer known as Der Nister, “the Hidden One.” Their stories form a deeply satisfying literary mystery and a funny-sad meditation on how the past haunts the present—and how we haunt the future.

THE PALE HORSEMAN BERNARD CORNWELL

“There is such joy in a good ship, and a greater joy to have the ship’s belly fat with other men’s silver. It is the Viking joy …” Such are the pleasures animating this big-bellied, bushy-bearded tale of 9th century England. Our hero is Uhtred, a good-hearted lout with a pleasantly sour disposition; he’s like a 9th century Han Solo. As an English nobleman who was raised by the invading Danes but whose fate is to fight against them (with his deadly sword Serpent-Breath!), he endows the book with an unexpectedly complex, thoughtful soul.

PURITY OF BLOOD ARTURO PEREZ-REVERTE

He has been known to flirt with higher literary flights, notably in The Club Dumas, but in his hard-boiled, mordantly funny, unapologetically entertaining Captain Alatriste series (of which this is the second volume), Pérez-Reverte firmly buckles on his swash and swaggers into the muddy, bloody streets of 17th century Madrid. It’s a poor but proud city where tempers run high and everybody is ready to stab and/or shoot one another at the drop of a plumed, foppish hat and where a woman has just been found strangled in her sedan chair, along with a pouch of coins and a note that reads, “For Masses for your soul.”

LEONARDO’S SWANS KAREN ESSEX

Two sisters marry into uppermost Renaissance Italian society. Plain, naive Beatrice gets the ruler of Milan, while precocious (and luscious) Isabella winds up with a lesser man. In this gold brocade world, where every gesture echoes in quadruple—as politics, family, sex and art—only the virtuosos survive, and leading the dance is the greatest virtuoso of them all, Da Vinci.

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