Karl May, 1842-1912 : Big In Germany

There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America.   This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.

So why the indifference?  It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs.  He wrote page turners.  Good page turners.  It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling.  He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action. Continue reading

Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course.  Continue reading

Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi. Continue reading

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889-1920): Womens’ Battalion of Death

The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.

There was in fact precedence from the First World War.  Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death.  The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.

She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two.  He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west.  Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit. Continue reading

Dr James Still (1812-1888): Did No Harm

And rather a lot of good, if contemporary accounts are to be believed.

He was the son of slaves who bought their freedom in Maryland and moved east to New Jersey for some peace of mind.  The father was of a strict frame of mind:

“I often thought his whole soul was wrapped in the twenty-fourth verse of the thirteenth chapter of Proverbs, which reads, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes.’ I had no particular love for that passage of Scripture.” Continue reading

George Fabian Lawrence aka Stoney Jack (1861-1939): Items of Interest

Son of a  pawnbroker and initially a pawnbroker himself.  The standard objects of failed enthusiasms (musical instruments) or changing tastes (mustache cups) or romance gone bad (old wedding rings) held only so much interest for him.  He had a taste for the unusual and put word out among the mudlarks who scoured the Thames at low tide and the navvies who dug the foundations of new construction over old that he would pay cash and ask few questions if they had anything of interest to show him.  Continue reading

Thomas Dallum (ca. 1575 – ca.1614): Don’t Shoot, I’m Only the Organ Player

Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork.  Makes sense.  When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal,  you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged.  Fortunately for Europe,  there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.

As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time.  A simple one handed  pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases,  twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work.  By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate.   And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire,  was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company,  the gift had to be spectacular indeed.

So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III? Continue reading

Lady Anne Blunt (1837 – 1917); Horse Sense

Née Lady Ann Isabella Noel-King.

Her grandfather was Lord Byron, her father the Earl of Lovelace, her mother Ada Lovelace, who is credited (not quite accurately) as the first computer programmer for Babbage’s calculating machine.  With that kind of pedigree, anything was possible.

She grew up on her father’s considerable estate at East Horsley Park,  home-schooled in languages, mathematics, and violin.  She learned drawing from John Ruskin.  As befits a proper country blueblood,  she found her  real passion from  a young age was horses (indeed, it was said that she could jump a mount well into her seventies).    This meshed nicely with her husband’s passion for the Middle East.  It was about the only thing on which they could make a real partnership. Continue reading

Lucy Stone (1818-1893) – By Any Other Name

Well the next thing I had to do as to join the Lucy Stone league, so that I could keep my own maiden name after matrimony.  Because a girl’s name should be Sacred, and when she uses her husbands it only sinks her identity.  And when a girl always insists on her own maiden name,  with vialents, it lets people know what she must be important some place or other.  And quite a  good place to insist on an unmarried name, is when you go to some strange hotel accompanied  by a husband. Because when a room  clerck notes that a girl with a  maiden name is in the same room with a gentleman, it starts quite a little explanation, and makes a girl feel quite promanent before everybody in the lobby.

But Dorothy said I had better be careful.    I mean, she says that most Lucy Stoners do not really worry the room clerck, because they are generally the type that are only brought to hotels om account of  matrimony.  But Dorothy  said that when Henry and I waltz in and ask for a  room with my maiden name the clerck would probably take one good look at me, and hand Henry a room in the local jail for the Man act.  

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Anita Loos  (all spellings utterly sic) Continue reading

Bibi-la-Purée (1847? – 1903) The Last King of the Latin Quarter

“It will come as a shock to every Englishman who has studied in Montmartre to know that the famous Bibi la Puree has been locked up for forgetting to pawn some clothes of a brother bohemian and putting them on himself.  The downfall of this strange character, with his long hair and historical looking clothes, dates from the night when poor Paul Verlaine, the decadent poet, took him home and housed him for a few days.  The poor fellow came back severely stricken with poet mania and has never done a stroke of work since, and never will.  I believe he belongs to one of the most aristocratic families in France.”

The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 38, May 7, 1902

Well, that would be a “no” on most points.

Continue reading