Having read Sir Philip Magnus’s biography of William Gladstone in graduate school, I recently picked up a copy of his King Edward the Seventh, published in 1964 and made the basis of a very excellent series by Masterpiece Theater, with the superb British actor Timothy West in the title role, a decade or so later.  Unlike many or most historians, Sir Philip takes a sympathetic view of Edward, equally compelling in print and on screen, as having been a misunderstood Prince of Wales and King determined to do his duty despite a difficult upbringing overseen by his overly scrupulous father, Albert the Prince Consort, and Queen Victoria’s unwillingness to allow her son to prepare himself adequately for the throne.

So far I have read only the two introductory chapters and the third, about Giu seppe Verdi, in the newly published Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten (University of Chicago Press) by Linda and Michael Hutcheon.  The psychological business doesn’t interest me much, but the Hutcheons’ discussion of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, as a deliberate and witty musical commentary on Wagner’s own final work, Parsifal, and an encouragement to young Italian composers to stick with their musical tradition in the face of the encroaching German one, is very good indeed.

Every time I have the chance to grab a French edition of one of Georges Simenon’s novels, I take it.  On the plane to and from Boston last month I read Le relais d’Alsace (The Alsatian Relay Station, or inn): a clever novel, not quite a “mystery” story, set in 1933 on the French side of the German border and having to do with a dubious personage suspected of having committed a burglary at the elegant hotel across the road—also of being a long-sought international swindler known as The Commodore.  Like everything Simenon wrote, Relais is notable for its masterly evocation of atmosphere and psychologically telling observance of the most minute gestures.   

        —Chilton Williamson, Jr.

Turning my hand and thoughts to an old idea for a novel that I’d set aside a year ago, I was drawn to (distracted by?) a book of essays that pertains to the fiction writer’s craft.  Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (first published in 1969) should be read by every aspiring story writer, but also by every lover of fiction in general, as well as every reader who thinks he’s a serious thinker because he doesn’t read fiction.  So, most everyone.  As it happens, I was introduced to this book by my friend James O. Tate, when he mentioned it in passing in another review in this very magazine, on page 32 of the July 2013 issue.

O’Connor’s fiction pays dividends every time I read it, and my mother, Carol Sue, and I like to swap recollections of her stories whenever the mood strikes.  Somehow, we just seem to know, or have been related to, many of her characters.  A grandmother who would name her cat Pitty Sing reminds us, shall we say, of someone.

O’Connor knew her characters, too, because she was rooted in a particular place and, therefore, could know herself.  I’ll just let her talk, from “The Fiction Writer & His Country”:

The writer’s value is lost, both to himself and to his country, as soon as he ceases to see that country as a part of himself, and to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks.  It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.  The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.

So here’s to Flannery O’Connor, and my mother, and Jim Tate, and his mother (O’Connor’s friend), Mary Barbara, may she rest in peace.           

        —Aaron D. Wolf

How does an author sell over a million copies of his novels without ever learning how to write a convincing line of dialogue?  Welcome to the world of Amazon Publishing and self-published direct-to-Kindle ebooks.  Price your work cheaply enough and enable One-Click™ purchasing, and you may be the next Blake Crouch.

So why did I read not one, not two, but three of Crouch’s excruciating “novels” set in a fictional town in Idaho?  Crouch’s books were the inspiration for the recent FOX television show Wayward Pines.  Compared initially by reviewers with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the M. Night Shyama lan-produced series caught my attention with the very first episode.  It had, as they say, “great potential,” as did the central idea of Crouch’s trilogy.  Part nostalgia, part science fiction, part post-Edward Snowden surveillance-state paranoia: In different hands—say, Ray Bradbury’s—this story could have been a delight.  (Indeed, something about the premise calls The Martian Chronicles to mind.)  Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity, because no one will now be able to take this particular twist on a postapocalyptic world and do it right.  (Shyamalan had a chance, but he diverged from his source material only in frustratingly inconsequential ways, and hewed closely to it whenever he shouldn’t have.)

The only thing to be said for Crouch’s dialogue is that it is no worse than the other elements of his writing—plotting, pacing, grammar, spelling.  Amazon.com has pitched its direct-to-Kindle imprints as the future of publishing; if Crouch’s trilogy is any indication, that future looks about as bright as that of the residents of Wayward Pines.

        —Scott P. Richert