Bond (James Bond), Pryor bio among Bellamy’s picks

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 02:25 PM

Every year at The Herald-Sun, we receive countless submissions of books for possible review. Every year, we pick some of our favorites from the preceding months to recommend as possible gifts. Here are a few guilty pleasures and scholarly tomes that I enjoyed, and that might make a good gift for someone:

“Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War”
By Max Hastings (Alfred A. Knopf, $35)
For people of my generation raised on stories about World War II, its precursor is a distant historical event. Yet the Great War changed everything – the whole nature of warfare, political boundaries, faith in human progress. It gave us the Lost Generation.  Veteran reporter and journalist Max Hastings’ new history of the first few months of the war does more than try to explain the motives and maneuverings of the political and military leaders, although he does that brilliantly. Hastings also humanizes the war, through extensive use of diary and letter entries from ambulance drivers, young children under occupation, and, most of all, soldiers in the trenches.
“Throughout history,” Hastings writes, “armies had been accustomed to fight battles that most often lasted a single day, occasionally two or three, but thereafter petered out. Now, however, the allies and Germans explored a terrible new universe of continuous engagement.” This is a devastating, page-turning chronicle of what the soldiers of all countries involved and their loved ones back home endured in that new universe.


“Solo”
By William Boyd (Harper Collins, $26.99)
Ian Fleming Publications, the company that oversees the James Bond stories for the late author’s estate, picked novelist William Boyd to write the latest Bond saga, “Solo.” This newest Bond adventure will please purists loyal to Fleming’s original stories.
In his author’s note, Boyd makes clear his loyalty to the Bond character. He sticks to the details of Bond’s life that Fleming chronicled in his “obituary” in “You Only Live Twice.” Rather than making bond youthful, Boyd’s Bond, like Fleming’s, was born in 1924, served in World War II, and is a product of the Cold War.
“Solo” is set in 1969. Bond is sent on a mission to infiltrate the West African secessionist republic of Dahum, which has broken away from Zanzarim. The plot involves oil, the security of the West, and Bond’s quest to avenge operatives who tried to kill him.
In keeping with character, Bond’s reputation still precedes him: He still has an appetite for women, is fussy about what he eats (Boyd has a footnote recipe for his homemade salad dressing), and likes cars that purr. This great entertainment also is a morality tale about the price of duty – as Bond expresses his doubts to his boss M about the multinationals lining up for a drink from Zanzarim’s oil fields as a result of his mission accomplished.


“Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him”
By David Henry and Joe Henry (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25.95)
Readers who grew up in the 1970s probably have a favorite Richard Pryor moment. Mine is a tie between the preacher who takes down the Book of Revelation a notch, and his imitation of someone on an acid trip. What many fans do not realize is the source of that comedy, the depth of Pryor’s insight, and his intelligence as a writer and an actor.
Brothers David and Joe Henry, lifelong admirers of Pryor, have written not a “cradle-to-grave” biography, but a book that looks at his achievement through “the cultural landscape from which he emerged.” They have produced a fine tribute to Pryor, one that has the depth of a scholarly biography but does not read like one.
It is at times a harrowing read. To paraphrase Ford Madox Ford, this is one of the saddest stories ever told. Pryor began using cocaine and alcohol in his early “Chitlin’ Circuit” days, and never truly kicked the habit. He was married multiple times in often violent relationships.
But he took all that pain, all of those inner demons, and changed stand-up comedy, from an art of telling jokes to an art of storytelling and observation. Through his various characters, the Henrys write, Pryor “provided entry into a side of life that seemed – that was, in fact – closed off to most of middle America. And it was a side we wanted to know. It was where all the best music and the biggest laughs came from.”


“XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths”
Edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, $18, paperback)
In Sabina Murray’s short story “The Sisters,” Carson Bakely, a mediocre graduate student in English, gets an internship with the Sisters of Emily Dickinson, the author who is the subject of his thesis. Years after Bakely disappears, retired professor Basil Zinn, the narrator of this story, gets a letter from a member of the society, which leads him to do some detective work. At the risk of spoiling the tale, the professor finds that Bakely was the victim of modern Bacchantes, followers of Bacchus, god of revelry. 
Murray is among the authors who write modern stories based on ancient myths from various cultures: Adapted stories include coyote myths, Daedalus and Icarus, Oedipus, Odysseus, and many others. For each selection, the authors supply a brief afterword about why they chose a specific myth.  Kate Bernheimer, editor of the journal Fairy Tale Review, has published previous anthologies in which she asked authors to retell fairy tales (“My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales”). This is a collection of stories that is both edifying, sometimes quirky, but always entertaining.