Derek Robinson is an English novelist, specializing in wartime tales of British pilots. Goshawk Squadron, his 1971 debut, is the story of a Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front in World War I. Often compared to Catch 22, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize that year, losing to V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Robinson should have won. (According to John Fowles, who was on the Booker committee, Goshawk Squadron was Saul Bellow's favorite for the prize.) The Robinson corpus is wildly entertaining, with the RAF titles featuring what I'm told are accurate technical descriptions of the flying machines, if that's your cuppa, and better-than-real-life wisecracking dialogue. But with Libya still atop the headlines, let me especially recommend his novel set in North Africa, 1993's A Good Clean Fight. Robinson's own description conveys well the sensibility of his novels (which owes a little something to Raymond Chandler, I think):
North Africa, 1942. Dust, heat, thirst, flies. Nothing to harm but the sand, the enemy and yourself. A good clean fight, for those who like that sort of thing, and some do. From an advanced landing ground, Hornet Squadron's clapped-out Tomahawks go ground-strafing. Simultaneously, an S.A.S. patrol drives hundreds of miles to get behind enemy lines and hit his airfields. Airmen and soldiers alike are painfully exposed to retaliation, and German Intelligence has plans for that. Good news for the flies.
Many of Robinson's books are unjustly out of print, but can be ordered from the author himself at his website www.derekrobinson.info.
This is Justice Scalia’s 25th year on the Supreme Court. There’s no better way to celebrate the occasion than to read a few of his great opinions. Well, I take that back. There is a long essay of his that a few years ago was made into a short book that I’d also recommend, A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law. Not exactly light reading, but it is distinguished by his elegant prose style and leavened with his characteristic wit. If you don’t know much about who Scalia is or why he’s important, then you should get this book. Scalia takes up the subject of how judges should interpret the law, and he sets forth the judicial philosophy for which he is so well known—that of textualism, also known as originalism, by which it is the meaning of the Constitution as it was understood at the time of its making that judges should seek to discern and apply. Scalia, by the way, decimates the “Living Constitution” school of interpretation held by four of his colleagues. Guess which ones!
At some point a culinary-cultural shift of great significance had taken place: The best restaurants in New York City were no longer all French. Today there’s Thomas Keller’s Per Se, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, and Masa Takayama’s eponymous eatery, among many others. But in the early 1960s, if you wanted to eat fancy, you ate French. And the quintessential French restaurant was the Pavillon, located at the time across the St. Regis Hotel off 5th Avenue and 55th Street. A marvelous account of this Manhattan landmark and its legendary propietor Henri Soulé can be found in Dining at the Pavillon (1962). The book’s author, Joseph Wechsberg, was one of the great contributors to the New Yorker and here provides an up-close and personal account of that era’s restaurant scene along with intimate portraits of Soulé’s counterparts in France, Fernand Point (Pyramide) and Alexandre Dumaine (Hôtel de la Côte-d’Or).
Here’s one sample: “At the Pavillon some people drink whisky throughout their meal. The ambassador [Soulé] has accepted this inexorable fact of life in les Amériques, like the rush hour in New York’s subway, the breakdowns of the air-conditioning on the hottest day of the year, the elevator getting stuck between the forty-sixth and forty-seventh floors, and Con Ed men opening the street just below your window.”
And something you likely won’t see written today—a supplier trying to impress Dumaine by showing off a leg of veal and bragging: “White as the snow on Mont Blanc on a sunny morning in spring! This animal wasn’t over six weeks old. Never saw the light of day. Never tasted grass.”
It is only a shame the book hasn’t been reissued for some time. I found a used one on Amazon. You may have some luck there or perhaps at your local library. In New York next week, I plan on stopping by and paying my respects at the site of where the Pavillon once stood. It is currently a Disney store.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in 2003, might well have been the premier British historian of the 20th century: A scholar of the Renaissance and 17th-century England, he successfully combined literary flair with original thinking and scholarship. But Trevor-Roper was no mere pedant, and one of my favorite books was something of a busman's holiday for the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford: Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1977).
Backhouse (1873-1944) was the wandering son of a wealthy English Quaker family who washed up in pre-revolutionary China at the turn of the century, ingratiated himself with the tottering royal court, wrote a famous history of his friend the Empress Dowager and, over the decades, accumulated a huge collection of antiquarian Chinese books and manuscripts which he donated to Oxford's Bodleian Library. He was also a master forger, sexual deviant, confidence man, fabulist, and inveterate liar whose webs of intrigue and deception are scrupulously untangled, decade by decade, at the expert -- and at times, bemused -- hands of Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Hermit of Peking is an astonishing, complex, and endlessly diverting tale of scholarly psychopathology, served on an elegant platter by one of the master chefs of literary history.
For anyone who loves dogs and appreciates the unique relationship between man and his best friend, Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a feel-good, comforting addition to the canon of canine literature. Written from the perspective of a television-educated, philosophizing lab-terrier mix named Enzo, the book’s premise, surprisingly, never wears thin. Enzo believes he will be reincarnated as a human when he dies, and so his entire dog life is centered around learning about and understanding the species he expects to become. It’s an entertaining journey for readers. Stein’s simple prose captures what dog owners everywhere believe their own pets are really saying when they bark or nuzzle or whine or lick our faces or hold their tails between their legs. A quick read, but one that’s unforgettable as soon as you realize there’s a lot of Enzo in your own dog.