One-Minute Book Reviews

December 15, 2008

Laurence Bergreen’s ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Biography,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. By Laurence Bergreen. Vintage, 432 pp., $16.95, paperback.

What it is: A biography the 13th-century Venetian explorer who became the world’s first adventure traveler. Marco Polo was named one of the Top 10 Biographies of the year by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine.

How much I read: About 75 pages (the first and last chapters and parts of others).

Why I stopped reading: Marco had too much competition from holiday parties. I liked the book a lot and would probably have finished it if I’d started it in June.

Best line in what I read: “In disgrace, Andrea Dandolo lashed himself to his flagship’s mast and beat his head against it until he died of a fractured skull, thus depriving the Genoese of the satisfaction of executing him.” Dandolo led a Venetian fleet of 96 ships defeated by the Genoese in the Battle of Curzola. Marco Polo has many lines as memorable as this one.

Worst line in what I read: “ … although he was done with his book, it was not done with him.” Bergreen means “finished.”

Comments: A strange thing happened as I was thinking about the best books I’d read in 2008: I realized that none was a new biography when, in a typical year, I read several or more. So I picked up Marco Polo, an acclaimed 2007 biography that recently came out in paperback. A blurb from Simon Winchester calls Bergreen “America’s liveliest biographer,” and to judge by what I read, he’s at least one of the liveliest.

Bergreen has a flair for storytelling that includes an ability to evoke people and places in a few lines. He can also sum up broad historical forces lucidly. Here’s the first paragraph of his brief explanation of the cause of the Crusades:

“The Crusades began with a simple goal: to permit Christians to continue to make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb in Jerusalem in which the body of the crucified Jesus was believed to be laid to rest. Christians had been visiting this holiest of Christian shrines at least since the eighth century AD. Matters changed dramatically in 1009 when Hakim, the Fatimid caliph – that is, the Muslim ruler – of Cairo, called for the Holy Sepulcher’s destruction. Afterward, unlucky Christians and Jews who found themselves in Jerusalem were likely to be persecuted, and the city’s Christian quarter was surrounded by a forbidding wall that controlled access. Within five years, thousands of churches had been burned or ransacked.”

Try to rewrite that paragraph and say as much in fewer words, and you’ll see how good Bergreen is. Would that all of our history professors had been so concise!

Recommendation? Marco Polo is much longer than Longitude but may appeal to its fans. Like Dava Sobel’s bestseller, Bergreen’s book tells well-written story that involves the history of exploration.

Read an excerpt and more at

About the author: Bergreen also wrote Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, and other books.

© 2008 All rights reserved.

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: