Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club: Vol. XXI -- Flashman
It's a new year, so why not a new direction - at least just this once-for a book club devoted to non-fiction. But, be forewarned, this latest recommendation is limited only to those readers with a strong streak of the cur in them and a deep affection for the anti-hero.
I refer, of course, to the Flashman series of comedy/adventure/historical fiction novels by British writer George MacDonald Fraser. He just published his 12th volume, "Flashman on the March," in the series that is more than 35 years old.
The Flashman character was originally introduced to literature as a minor villianous bully in "Tom Brown's Schooldays," a famous British novel. He was resurrected decades later by Fraser, who takes up the tale after Flashman's expulsion from Rugby, a famous British school for boys.
Although well-reviewed, Fraser's series has never hit bestseller status. But he and his anti-hero have achieved a cult-following all over the world, and it's a rare library or major bookstore that doesn't have most, if not all, of the Flashman books. The series recently got a boost from author John Updike, who wrote a lengthy article about Flashman in The New Yorker.
The gist of the series is that Harry Flashman, a cowardly British military officer and thoroughgoing rogue, always seems to find his way reluctantly into the middle of the action, his only goal being to survive with his undeserved reputation for heroism intact.
The story line could get tedious, but Fraser crafts the old soldier's purported memoirs with fascinating and detailed recountings of major historical events, complete with footnotes. His latest tells the story of Flashman's role in Great Britain's military campaign in Abyssinia in 1867-68 to rescue diplomats held hostage by King Theodore, an insanely bloodthirsty despot. Now largely lost to history, this Abyssinian campaign once was the subject of worldwide headlines.
It's just one of many military campaigns or tales of intrigue in which Flashman matches wits with giant historical figures or is involved in major historical events. He consorts with Abraham Lincoln ("Flash for Freedom"), Otto von Bismarck ("Royal Flash") and John Brown ("Flashman and the Angel of the Lord") and bears witness to Custer's Last Stand ("Flashman and the Redskins") and The Charge of the Light Brigage ("Flashman at the Charge").
Flashman's adventures always move at a lively pace, and his observations of and interactions with various heroes and villains, not to mention a variety of damsels not necessarily in distress, are great fun.
The first book in the series, simply titled "Flashman," which concerns the sepoy rebellion (1839-1842) is the best place to start. But each of the Flashmans, with the sole exception of "Flashman and the Tiger," a series of short stories, stands on its own.
This series is a masterpiece. But prigs, women subject to the vapors or modern-day girlie-men should avoid it like the plague.
Updike's New Yorker article as well as a recent New York Times story on Fraser can be found on my web log at news-gazette.com along with the previous recommendations from Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club:
[–] "Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission" by Hampton Sides.
[–] "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris.
[–] "A Night to Remember" by Walter Lord.
[–] "April 1865: The Month That Saved America" by Jay Winik.
[–] "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand.
[–] "Lindbergh" by A. Scott Berg.
[–] "The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963" by Laurence Leamer.
[–] "The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case" by Sam Roberts.
[–] "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" by Jane Leavy.
[–] "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions" by Ben Mezrich.
[–] "Harry & Ike: The Partnership That Remade the Post-War World" by Steve Neal.
[–] "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" by Michael Lewis.
[–] "Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone" by Martin Dugard.
[-] "In Harms Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors" by Doug Stanton.
[–] "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." by Bryan Burrough.
[–] "Flags of our Fathers," by James Bradley.
[–] "Cary Grant: A Biography" by Marc Elliot.
[–] "Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager" by Buzz Bissinger.
[–] "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York" by Kenneth Ackerman.
[–] "They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967" by David Maraniss.