In mid-1914, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a shy, short (five foot five) polyglot (French, German, Arabic, Turkish) British scholar and textbook Freudian neurotic—a masochist with an outsized Oedipal complex, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish baronet who had run away with the family governess. Still only 25, he had already walked across 1,500 km of the Mideast, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and had deliberately inured himself to pain and deprivation, while honing his leadership skills. He was possessed of a sense of destiny, the exact shape of which must have seemed obscure even to him. It is impossible to guess how his life might have unfolded had events not conspired, in the form of the First World War, to provide him with a field of operation large enough for his charisma and his military genius.
Korda, 77, the former editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, is a born hero-worshipper, and the author of earlier biographies of Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. In Lawrence of Arabia, Korda has found a figure worthy of his absorbing, detail-rich style, one who exceeds his previous subjects in sheer personal drama and rivals Ike in historical importance. Lawrence became one of the greatest guerrilla leaders of all time, mastering the small (devastating raids on enemy railways) and the large: as Korda convincingly argues, if his hero’s Mideast mapmaking, respectful of ethnic territory and ancient trade routes, had been followed after the war, the region might not have become the bloody mess it is today.
It’s possible to quibble with one of Korda’s central themes: that the anonymous, meat-grinder nature of combat during the Great War means that only a single warrior remains instantly recognizable. Canadians do remember Billy Bishop, for one, and—if only because of Snoopy—the Red Baron is probably more famous to Americans than their own Sgt. York. But on a larger, worldwide stage, Korda proves himself correct: T.E. Lawrence was the most important individual soldier of the war, a hero of mythic stature whose accomplishments still reverberate in contemporary geopolitics.
- BRIAN BETHUNE
Readers who persevere through the sapless autobiographical first chapters of Running the Books will be rewarded unbelievably—so much so it’s maddening—by its second half, where Avi Steinberg’s real book begins. Steinberg is a Harvard-educated former yeshiva-boy-turned-slacker who takes a job as a Boston prison librarian because he has nothing better to do. The early chapters of the book introduce us to his pain: “stress-related back problems,” garden-variety Jewish identity issues, the death of a grandmother he admits to having barely known. But it is only when this wan buffet of minor aches gets put away, replaced by the smorgasbord of hard-core hell belonging to the prisoners who frequent Steinberg’s library—suicidal junkie mothers who abandoned infants, pimps who had put Grade 9 girls into the slave trade—that Steinberg finds his real beat as a storyteller.
One wonders why Steinberg’s editor let him spend quite so long on his weenie shpilkes before giving us the mesmerizing world of the library, where the stacks serve as mailboxes for the “kites,” or notes, prisoners leave each other (Steinberg also writes, touchingly, of “skywriting,” where inmates stand in windows and draw love letters to each other in the air), and all manner of plan is hatched, including a script for a cooking show amazingly titled Thug Sizzle. Steinberg is genius in recording the prison’s pimping patois, and shows a gifted journalistic ability in capturing the heartbreak of some of the prisoners’ lives in just a few strokes.
When the false starts of his own existence veer back once or twice in these later chapters (should he marry his girlfriend? He’s not sure he’s ready), one is in a more forgiving mood. Steinberg has redeemed himself by the book’s end. His editor? Not so much.
- MIREILLE SILCOFF
“You’d be surprised,” Trevor’s high school girlfriend tells him when he returns to his hometown of Grimshaw, Ont., for a funeral. “Even in a town this small, people forget.” Trevor, now 40, is convinced all of Grimshaw must see an eerie connection between the recent disappearance of a local girl and the death of a beautiful young woman some 24 years ago. For Trevor—and for his childhood friends, Ben, Randy and Carl—most everything is connected to that death, and to the house where it took place.
The boys first venture into the abandoned property across the street from where Ben lives when they are eight. Ben leads them there to share the news that his father is dead, having driven his car into a hydro pole—on purpose, Ben believes. As his friends console him, they hear a woman moaning from upstairs. It isn’t clear whether she is in the throes of passion or terror—whether she is even alive. What is certain as they scramble out the back door is that the boys have had their first brush with lust, violence and the kind of grief that doesn’t let go.
Eight years later, they seem to have emerged unscathed. They all play on the town’s celebrated hockey team, the Guardians. They are still close friends. They’ve moved beyond pictures of Farrah Fawcett to real girlfriends. But, from his bedroom in the attic, Ben has been keeping a close watch on the place across the street. He sees something suspicious on the eve of their music teacher’s disappearance and convinces his friends that they have a moral duty to investigate. Soon, the boys become guardians of another kind—of a secret, and, it would seem, of a ghost.
Though his characters sometimes fall flat (a not uncommon malady of mystery fiction), Pyper’s plot hits a near-perfect pace, moving steadily forward to the rhythmic beat of question-clue-question-clue. No spoiler alert is necessary to reveal that every puzzle has its answer—save one. Because, while there is little doubt that ghosts do indeed exist in this story, the problem of what “being haunted” really means remains.
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