Eve Zibart

Those who know the British Regency mostly from Georgette Heyer novels of heaving bosoms and Beau Brummel-ish heroes, or from Jane Austen’s witty satires on British manners, may be surprised to discover that the real Regency decade (1811 to 1820) was a period of intense political and social unrest, both nationally and internationally; of cavalier (in both senses) cruelty and contempt; of crushing taxes, tariffs and starvation versus extravagance; and of addiction (often prescribed and socially consumed), organized crime and pornography. It was also the setting for a golden age of London theater and art; for a fanatic explosion in sports both elegant and excruciatingly bloody; for literal Dickensian child poverty and criminal exploitation; and eventually for (almost redemptory) scientific and technical innovation.

Morrison’s well annotated and engagingly anecdotal book is a worthy romp through one of the most licentious, libertarian and obviously paradoxical decades in British history. Warfare, which was almost continual from Napoleon to New Orleans, required immense funding, while the Irish and other colonials were alternately taxed and denied relief. It was also a great era of expansion in India and the Middle East, which Lord Elgin saw as artistic reclamation and Lord Byron considered blatant looting.

Morrison reminds us that what literature classes refer to as the Romantic poets were also prominent social revolutionaries, writing against obvious profiteering Parliament laws and in favor of universal rights, suffrage and prison reform. It didn’t come cheap, either. Shelley was the near-victim of an attempted assassination, Byron lost his life fighting for Greek independence from Turkey, and newspaper publisher Leigh Hunt spent two years in jail for his scathing criticisms of the Prince Regent, which probably lead to his early death.

Morrison also offers a timely debunking of current misnomers. “Luddites” were not anti-tech—only anti the machines that stole their jobs during the industrial revolution. And despite the way Victorian has come to mean “prudish,” the 19th-century Brits (including those from the Regency era) endorsed sadomasochistic floggings at boys’ schools, incest (which was more socially acceptable than masturbation) and celebrity affairs. The Regent himself, and his brother and successor William IV, were famously dissolute and shared an almost hereditary weakness for actresses. William had at least 10 illegitimate children, most of whom survived with titles and a few honors, but of course, they could not inherit the throne. And thus, the brothers’ niece Victoria ushered in Britain’s next era.

Morrison’s engagingly anecdotal book is a worthy romp through one of the most licentious, libertarian and obviously paradoxical decades in British history.

America’s frontier may have been a vast and solitary expanse, but as it turns out, the Wild West was a small world after all.

Legendary scout Kit Carson gave “Wild Bill” Hickok a Colt pistol; Hickok intervened when a bully threatened the young Buffalo Bill Cody, possibly saving his life; and they were friends until Hickok’s untimely death. He was cozy with Gen. George Armstrong Custer (and perhaps even cozier with Mrs. Custer) and hung out with such debatable desperadoes as the James brothers and John Wesley Hardin. And despite the popular broadsides-to-Broadway stories about Calamity Jane, his real true love was a circus performer/entrepreneur 11 years his senior, and they were only married for four months before his murder. (That Jane was buried next to him seems to have been a sort of joke.)

Oh, and his name wasn’t William, or Bill, or even “Shanghai Bill,” his Jayhawker nickname: It was James Butler Hickok, son of an abolitionist host along the Underground Railroad in Illinois.

Buffalo Bill Cody was a soldier, a scout and a spy, a lawman and a gambler, a prospector and a trapper, a theatrical star and, most famously, an ambidextrous dead shot, who in 1865 won what many people consider the first quick-draw duel in the West. In addition to his Colts, he carried a pair of derringers, a Bowie knife and sometimes a rifle or shotgun.

And while Wild Bill may not have been a mountain man, he was certainly a mountain of a man: fully six feet tall, handsome, well-spoken, a graceful writer and habitually dressed, like his friends Cody and Armstrong, in a fantastical hybrid of high collars and fringed buckskin—frontier Edwardian, the 19th century equivalent of steampunk. (Happily, unlike almost all his contemporaries, Hickok bathed every day.)

Strikingly poignant is the fact that the unmatched marksman was already losing his eyesight in his early 30s, one reason he always sat with his back to the wall at the poker table—well, that and his long having been a target for wannabe gunslingers. He took to wearing blue-tinted spectacles, and though he blamed the trouble on circus fireworks, it was likely glaucoma. Because of this, the day another gambler refused to cede Hickok his usual chair, a petty criminal was able to creep up and shoot Hickok in the back. He was just short of 40.

And yes, the “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights is real; the fifth card, Clavin says, was a queen.

While “Wild Bill” Hickok may not have been a mountain man, he was certainly a mountain of a man: fully six feet tall, handsome, well-spoken, a graceful writer and habitually dressed in a fantastical hybrid of high collars and fringed buckskin—frontier Edwardian, the 19th century equivalent of steampunk.

Imagine reading an issue of BookPage—in fact, reading all the books reviewed—in a volume the size of a matchbox. Then imagine reading even tinier illustrated books—not just the best-known poems of Shakespeare, but his entire folio. Now imagine reading something so small that it requires a microscope.

Simon Garfield, whose previous book explored the creation and variety of movable type fonts, turns his relaxed, fireside-chatty tone (and a sprinkling of puns) to the human fascination with not size, but scale. In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World is a charming collage of historical vignettes and commentary, wandering from tiny volumes and flea circuses to miniature railroads, both the hugely commercial layouts and the private escapes of such enthusiasts as Rod Stewart, Neil Young and Roger Daltrey (rock stars and railroading—who knew?).

Model villages—and the single-minded artists who created them—are monuments to imagination (Chinese human hair is used for roof thatching) and sheer doggedness (a one-inch clematis vine features 201 minuscule leaves). A photo of then-Princess Elizabeth towering over her future domain at Bekonscot Model Village is oddly gripping—her face is presciently grave, as war has not come to either Bekonscot or Britain.

Garfield has a particular fascination with the Eiffel Tower, which appears throughout the book in various forms and sizes, from a man-size toothpick model and the half-sized tower in Las Vegas to the merely 76-foot version in Walt Disney World, plus dozens of others around the globe. They are designed to, as Garfield puts it, “shrink the world.” But while the 1889 view from nearly 1,000 feet up gave some visitors an almost celestial vision of the city of boulevards and cathedrals, others found their own “shrinking” somewhat disorienting. Art critic Robert Hughes compared the experience to the first view of Earth from the moon, but do we become greater or tinier? Is that an issue of size, or of scale?

And is there a reason why the pharaohs of ancient Egypt buried hundreds of miniature statuettes in their tombs to serve them in the afterlife, while the Emperor Qin had more than 8,000 life-size warriors and cavalry buried in his? Conviction or mere convenience? Weigh that on your philosophical scale.

Simon Garfield, whose previous book explored the creation and variety of movable type fonts, turns his relaxed, fireside-chatty tone (and a sprinkling of puns) to the human fascination with not size, but scale. In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World is a charming collage of historical vignettes and commentary, wandering from tiny volumes and flea circuses to miniature railroads, both the hugely commercial layouts and the private escapes of such enthusiasts as Rod Stewart, Neil Young and Roger Daltrey (rock stars and railroading—who knew?).

When it comes to this year’s wine and spirits books, everything old is new again, retasted and retold. After all, there are few subjects with more history behind them than booze. These five books touch on nostalgic and historic high points with some odd and entertaining side trips into potions, pot stills and poetry.

Blotto Botany: A Lesson in Healing Cordials and Plant Magic by herbalist and blogger Spencre L.R. McGowan is a sweet-natured throwback—a hippie-dipso catalog of restorative concoctions and medicinal cordials. These 40 recipes are sorted by season and include handy plant facts and trivia. Homebrewing with botanicals requires real dedication and may necessitate some specialty shopping, but luckily, McGowan’s colorful, collage-filled book with handwritten notes is a refreshing tonic itself. Recipes include a lilac-infused wine with the optional addition of rose quartz, an elderberry brew and various syrups, tonics and infused waters. Here’s a holiday tidbit for our toasters: Amethyst got its name, which essentially means “sober” in ancient Greek, because its winelike color was thought to counter alcohol. Good luck with that, merrymakers!

EDIT SOBER
A Sidecar Named Desire: Great Writers and the Booze That Stirred Them by artists Greg Clarke and Monte Beauchamp is a sort of Bartlett’s of imbibing anecdotes and illustrations, mixing tales of the great and powerful word wizards—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Charles Baudelaire and more—with recaps of the evolution of the great spirits and a dash of recipes. Hemingway claimed to have popularized two cocktails—the Bloody Mary (probably not) and the Papa Doble (perhaps)—but then, he was always something of a braggart. Many of these inebriated authors created surrogate characters whose habits they knew all too well, and for whatever reason, guzzling gumshoes and sipping spies were a popular conduit—think Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and, of course, James Bond. This is an entertaining little book for those whose love of literature is paired with a love of elicit elixirs.

PUB TALK
In Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, longtime beer critic John Holl evocatively writes, “I once had a beer made with caramel malts and almond extract that reminded me of the cookies served by our local Chinese restaurant after dinner. It had been years since I’d eaten that dessert, and the taste of the beer took me down an unexpected memory lane of family gatherings.” Holl goes on to fearlessly debunk beer snobbism, pointing out that the pumpkin-spice craze (love it or loathe it) followed the long custom of autumnal pumpkin beers, not the other way around. Despite the traditional admonition “beer before wine, mighty fine, beer after whiskey, mighty risky,” Holl embraces “cross-drinking,” by which he means dabbling in beer, wine and even cocktails in order to enjoy their various virtues. But be warned, Holl is a pro—not everyone should try this drinking style at home. Inspired by the BBC’s “Sherlock” and Holmes’ description of a “mind palace,” Holl suggests a “mind pub” to help you identify and remember the characteristics of beers you like.

SIP UP TO THE BAR
Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland 
by Clay Risen is perhaps the most serious-minded book in the gift bag. The follow-up to his bestselling American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, Risen’s beautifully illustrated book pays homage to the flavors, aromas and aging of 330 bottlings from more than 100 fine Scottish single malt whisky distilleries. (For those a little confused by spellings, “whisky” without the “e” is how Scottish, Japanese and Canadian spirits are spelled; Irish and American whiskies, including bourbon and rye whiskey, use the extra vowel. Perhaps we need the oxygen.) Risen is an editor at the New York Times, and his book’s introductory material on the brewing, fermentation, blending and barreling of Scotch whisky is clear and blessedly short on jargon. His equally brief and unpretentious explanation of Scotch whisky’s history—especially the market balloons and busts, reform movements and wartime strictures—is sharp and instructive, and his descriptions of labels, flavors and more are insightful and concise.

FINE VINTAGE
The delightful Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing is an anthology of short pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, about discovering, delving into and debauching on wine. Bestselling novelist and wine columnist Jay McInerney (who includes an article of his own in the book, a Tom Wolfe-ish nip at “Billionaire Winos” that begs for a film adaptation featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) has assembled more than two dozen stories that are worth reading for pleasure, presumably with a glass in hand. Some of these pieces and persons are delicious to rediscover: the original wine critic, George Saintsbury, author of the 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book, who dissed tasting notes as “wine slang”; a chapter from Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, which was adapted into a film that gave pinot noir a boost and merlot the boot; “Taste,” a classic Roald Dahl story written for The New Yorker; and so on. A bit of synchronicity: Both “Taste” and McInerney are mentioned in A Sidecar Named Desire.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When it comes to this year’s wine and spirits books, everything old is new again, retasted and retold. After all, there are few subjects with more history behind them than booze. These five books touch on nostalgic and historic high points with some odd and entertaining side trips into potions, pot stills and poetry.

If you assume that Hollywood went overboard portraying the derring-do of the shotgun riders of the Old West, think again. These guys were as daredevil, dogged and—according to the tintypes—dashing as any Louis L’Amour novel hero. And the highway bandits (and occasional Wells Fargo turncoat) were every bit as colorful and defiant as those in a romantic ballad. Shotguns and Stagecoaches author John Boessenecker is an unabashed lover of the wild, wild West, and quite frankly, he loves the tales of the bad men as much as those of the good guys. This fun, flamboyant read is his ninth book, and it reads a little like a wall of wanted posters, handlebar mustaches and all.

Henry Wells and William G. Fargo were owners of American Express, but after the discovery of gold in California, they realized that the western half of the United States needed a mail delivery system, especially for valuable commodities. So Wells and Fargo recruited a small army of armed guards, called shotgun messengers. Some of the property they were transporting was astonishing—like thousands of dollars’ worth of gold dust. And it wasn’t just shotguns they used to protect their cargo, but pistols, rifles, knives, whatever came to hand and sheer nerve.

The shotgun messengers were a truly colorful crowd, crossing the legal boundaries in both directions, and often more than once. Some were former or future justice officers, some just happened to be good shots, while others were failed gold miners at unwanted leisure. The luckiest, or smartest, lasted the longest: Henry Ward worked for almost 50 years as shotgun messenger and driver.

Most of the reference material Boessenecker uses is from the period, like contemporary newspaper reports, and the fervid prose has seeped into the text. But that’s much of the fun of the book; short, dramatic scenes and crosscutting violence.

Perhaps the most interesting, and saddest, facet of these mini bios is how many of the stagecoach heroes died lonely, crippled and even destitute—divorced after years of absence, wracked by wounds and hard riding and, in many cases, even harder drinking. Barkeep! Shots for the shotgun messengers.

If you assume that Hollywood went overboard portraying the derring-do of the shotgun riders of the Old West, think again. These guys were as daredevil, dogged and—according to the tintypes—dashing as any Louis L’Amour novel hero.

Though it may be best suited for initiates of Napoleona, The Invisible Emperor details the deceptively calm but ultimately catastrophic interlude in the 25-year military career of one of history’s most famous soldiers, Napoleon.

Historian Mark Braude has re-created a detailed description of the emperor’s 10-month exile from France to the island of Elba. Napoleon’s new dominion lay only six miles off the Tuscan coast and 30 miles from Napoleon’s native Corsica, but to his captors, it seemed isolated enough for security and near enough for scrutiny. At the time, Elba was a French territory, which allowed for some familiarity of language and custom for Napoleon, and his guards even cultivated some loyalty toward the stocky little soldier, who whether for comfort or clever camaraderie preferred worn-out and undecorated old military garb as he wandered about the countryside.

Napoleon’s primary jailor, Neil Campbell, was an injured British colonel assigned, rather ambiguously, to “accompany” Napoleon in his new estate, which was quite lavish for an abdicated general. Still titled “emperor,” albeit only of Elba, Napoleon threw parties, ordered extensive renovations for his wife and son when they joined him in exile (they never did), had ships, horses and carriages delivered, and picked out several residences with good views. A man who once controlled nearly the entire European continent between Russian and Great Britain could now truly say he was lord of all he surveyed—86 square miles.

But if Napoleon’s weakness was stubborn ambition, his strength was strategy. Within the year, with only a thousand or so soldiers, he marched to Paris without even a skirmish. The next few months, now known as “the Hundred Days,” culminated in the Battle of Waterloo and the deaths of nearly 50,00 combatants.

Braude’s narrow focus on this “invisible” interlude dangles bits of psychological suppositions not always entirely supported, but his view of a man still caught up in his own self-image—one which, it must be admitted, was shared by many others—is intriguing.

Though it may be best suited for initiates of Napoleona, The Invisible Emperor details the deceptively calm but ultimately catastrophic interlude in the 25-year military career of one of history’s most famous soldiers, Napoleon.

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