HISTORY IN THREE KEYS: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth by Peter Cohen looks at the Boxer rebellion through the eyes of historians (Event described with the benefit of hindsight), participants on all sides (Experience) and later Chinese who sought to portray the Boxers as Savage Luddite Relics of the Past or Heroic Fighters Against Imperialistic Foreigners depending on the political needs of the moment (Myth, of course). While the actual history of the event isn’t Cohen’s primary interest, he does do a very good job bridging the cultural gap I experienced reading the graphic novel Boxers (like why the Chinese fighters thought they were possessed by characters from Chinese opera). Makes me think a fantasy set in real China could be more colorful and (to my Westernized eyes) strange than an Orientalist fantasy like Kai Lung; very good.
Arthur Machen’s THE THREE IMPOSTERS (cover by Robert LoGrippo, all rights to current holder) are schemers who in the opening murder a man for a rare coin, then try to worm its location out of literary dilettante and his friend through a string of improbable stories, all which relate to a mysterious young man with spectacles. While the opening is effective, it undercuts the rest of the book (even when I first read it, it was obvious who the tale-spinners were) and the high points (the stories-within-stories The Black Seal and The White Powder) are nowhere near as mind-blowing as they might have been to a Victorian audience (and frankly, Lovecraft, a huge admirer of Machen, did similar things better). The pretentious literary types get tiresome fast, though Machen’s at least less sympathetic to them than Lovecraft (who saw himself as a frustrated artistic soul of the same ilk). My opinion that Machen is more interesting for his influence on others than in himself remains unchanged.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is another very technothriller James Bond novel as Fleming waxes about the inside secrets of everything from biological warfare to modern ski technology. I suppose this might have been more interesting when the book came out in the early 1960s but this one is overall as sluggish as the film adaptation, particularly the long draggy stretch in Blofeld’s clinic of evil (though unlike the movie, this doesn’t have the element of the disguised Bond supposedly not liking girls—so why did the film add it?). Surprisingly Tracy Draco’s relationship with Bond works better here, partly because the sequence — Bond meets Tracy in the casino, sleeps with her, then stops her killing herself — makes more sense (in the film I couldn’t quite see how Bond knew Tracy was trying to kill herself). Far from Fleming’s best.
POSSESSION: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present by Erin L. Thompson was narrower in focus than I expected, not a history of collecting in general but specifically people who collect Greek and Roman antiquities (the passion for the former actually goes back to Ancient Rome). Thompson looks at motives for collecting (reaffirming your self-image, showing you’re an impressive person with great taste), argues that our stereotypes of collectors as greedy obsessives were first formed by Roman and Christian moralists, and looks at collateral issues such as forgery, the challenges in restoration and cultural looting (which has its own motives, such as the conviction the collector is better suited than the common herd to take good care of the piece in question). Interesting even though it’s not what I anticipated.