THE HONORABLE CORRESPONDENT

This Middle Eastern stew of a first novel suffers from an identity crisis. Does it want to be a blood-and-guts tale about factional strife and kidnapping in Lebanon, or a more cerebral examination of arms deals and statecraft in the Persian Gulf?

The Lebanon part is straightforward. In 1973, a Maronite militia overlord is gunned down, along with his family and birthday party guests, by a revenge-seeking rival. Eighteen years later, the dead man’s brother, at the Beirut airport, kidnaps a man he wrongly believes to have been implicated in the massacre. Though the ransom demand is made early on, the swap happens only at novel’s end: goodbye, suspense. The kidnapee, Gaspar Bruyn, is the protégé of Bobo (Bertrand de Bossier), the French aristocrat who dominates the story. Bobo, France’s top spy in Lebanon masterminded the massacre to protect his relationship with the PLO; soon after, he became head of France’s intelligence outfit. He’s some guy, this Bobo. Among his achievements: he allowed the Ayatollah to return to Teheran, helped arrange the takeover of the US embassy, and “maneuvered” Saddam Hussein into attacking Iran. (Top that, George Smiley.) All this was done for the glory of France, though not for that dirty Red, Mitterand, or his Jewish advisers. When Mitterand fired him, Bobo became an arms dealer, supplying his top client Saddam (legally) and Saddam’s Iranian adversary (illegally). Playing both sides of the fence eventually caught up with him when, in 1988, he was “executed” by his mistress, Deadeye, on behalf of French intelligence. Scholder moves back and forth between the 1991 kidnapping and earlier time-frames and, inter alia, expatiates on France’s relations with the Arabs, the origins of Iran/Contra, and the Maronites’ ties to Israel’s Sharon; all this makes for a bumpy ride, worsened by clunky prose (“blood was the dominant substance on the lawn, red the prevailing color”).

As crass as they come.

Pub Date: May 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-57962-085-X

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Permanent Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2003

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Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT

Design veteran Chwast delivers another streamlined, graphic adaptation of classic literature, this time Mark Twain’s caustic, inventive satire of feudal England.

Chwast (Tall City, Wide Country, 2013, etc.) has made hay anachronistically adapting classic texts, whether adding motorcycles to The Canterbury Tales (2011) or rocket ships to The Odyssey (2012), so Twain’s tale of a modern-day (well, 19th-century) engineer dominating medieval times via technology—besting Merlin with blasting powder—is a fastball down the center. (The source material already had knights riding bicycles!) In Chwast’s rendering, bespectacled hero Hank Morgan looks irresistible, plated in armor everywhere except from his bow tie to the top of his bowler hat, sword cocked behind head and pipe clenched in square jaw. Inexplicably sent to sixth-century England by a crowbar to the head, Morgan quickly ascends nothing less than the court of Camelot, initially by drawing on an uncanny knowledge of historical eclipses to present himself as a powerful magician. Knowing the exact date of a celestial event from more than a millennium ago is a stretch, but the charm of Chwast’s minimalistic adaption is that there are soon much better things to dwell on, such as the going views on the church, politics and society, expressed as a chart of literal back-stabbing and including a note that while the upper class may murder without consequence, it’s kill and be killed for commoners and slaves. Morgan uses his new station as “The Boss” to better the primitive populous via telegraph lines, newspapers and steamboats, but it’s the deplorably savage civility of the status quo that he can’t overcome, even with land mines, Gatling guns and an electric fence. The subject of class manipulation—and the power of passion over reason—is achingly relevant, and Chwast’s simple, expressive illustrations resonate with a childlike earnestness, while his brief, pointed annotations add a sly acerbity. His playful mixing of perspectives within single panels gives the work an aesthetic somewhere between medieval tapestry and Colorforms.

Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60819-961-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.

THE CANTERBURY TALES

A RETELLING

Continuing his apparent mission to refract the whole of English culture and history through his personal lens, Ackroyd (Thames: The Biography, 2008, etc.) offers an all-prose rendering of Chaucer’s mixed-media masterpiece.

While Burton Raffel’s modern English version of The Canterbury Tales (2008) was unabridged, Ackroyd omits both “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson’s Tale” on the undoubtedly correct assumption that these “standard narratives of pious exposition” hold little interest for contemporary readers. Dialing down the piety, the author dials up the raunch, freely tossing about the F-bomb and Anglo-Saxon words for various body parts that Chaucer prudently described in Latin. Since “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” for example, are both decidedly earthy in Middle English, the interpolated obscenities seem unnecessary as well as jarringly anachronistic. And it’s anyone’s guess why Ackroyd feels obliged redundantly to include the original titles (“Here bigynneth the Squieres Tales,” etc.) directly underneath the new ones (“The Squires Tale,” etc.); these one-line blasts of antique spelling and diction remind us what we’re missing without adding anything in the way of comprehension. The author’s other peculiar choice is to occasionally interject first-person comments by the narrator where none exist in the original, such as, “He asked me about myself then—where I had come from, where I had been—but I quickly turned the conversation to another course.” There seems to be no reason for these arbitrary elaborations, which muffle the impact of those rare times in the original when Chaucer directly addresses the reader. Such quibbles would perhaps be unfair if Ackroyd were retelling some obscure gem of Old English, but they loom larger with Chaucer because there are many modern versions of The Canterbury Tales. Raffel’s rendering captured a lot more of the poetry, while doing as good a job as Ackroyd with the vigorous prose.

A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-670-02122-2

Page Count: 436

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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