"The Middle Ages" Edited by Edwin S. Grosvenor

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The Middle Ages contains eleven essays covering salient topics from Europe’s so-called Middle Ages. This term comes from Petrarch, whose scheme held that history was divided into the Classical, the Middle, and current times (contemporaneous with Petrarch - the 14th Century). The eleven essays covering this 10 centuries:

1. The Barbarians, by Richard Winston
2. The Age of Charlemagne, by Régine Pernoud
3. Europe in the Year 1000, by Morris Bishop
4. When Moors Ruled Spain, by Gerald Brennan
5. When the Normans Invaded England, by Morris Bishop
6. The Byzantines, by Alfred Duggan
7. Richard and Saladin, by Alfred Duggan
8. The Knights Templar, by Morris Bishop
9. The Troubadours, by Frederic V. Grunfeld
10. Alfonso the Learned of Castile, by Frederic V. Grunfeld
11. The Black Death, by Philip Ziegler

I list the essays this way to give the reader exactly what the volume offers. This is not a comprehensive survey of this long, significant period in the West. It is a series of essays that combine some historical high points with certain nuggets of interest which sometimes border on gossip. They are useful in their way, but for a rigorous history or histories, I would direct readers elsewhere. If your grounding in Europe’s Middle Ages is relatively strong, this compendium might provide interesting color for certain events or trends. It was a diverting day-and-a-half for me.

"Night Boat to Tangier" by Kevin Barry

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In Night Boat to Tangier we encounter Maurice and Charlie, middle-aged Irish gangsters who together keep a vigil at the port in Algeciras, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Hard by the Rock of Gibraltar, in fact. Whenever a ferry unloads its passengers from Morocco, they go through the crowd, haranguing the tired-looking people for any news of Maurice’s 23 year-old daughter Dilly. They pass out photographs, or they try to, since most passengers want nothing to do with them or the pictures. The two men are fatigued themselves, with physical ailments, and emotionally less than stable.

The story covers salient points in their histories together, through their heyday of smuggling Moroccan hash and heroin through Spain into Europe, and in particular, to their native County Cork, Ireland. They manage somehow to stay alive and un-incarcerated through their various adventures, from renting powerful boats and their crews, to Charlie’s affair with Cynthia, Maurice’s wife, to winding up in the same room in a mental institution. The courtly, formal way they speak to one another is the result of long years of familiarity, derring do, and just personal history. We are treated to this highly economical language throughout Barry’s novel; it is part Irish patois, part a criminal shorthand, and it lets us in on the intimacy of the relationship these two share.

Less clear, though, are the reasons for some of the plot’s activities. We can accept that Dilly at last arrives in Algeciras, but she then confuses us by turning right around and boarding the next boat back to Tangier. We are not privy to any transactions she might have executed, except to skulk past the two gentlemen, if they may be so called, and decide to pass right by them undetected.

I think it’s more the metaphor in the title. The two aging gangsters are stuck, through a combination of hard experience and a shying away from any more of the same, from making any more crossings. The unique, economical diction makes this book a great treat to read; beautifully does Barry yoke his idiom to his serve his plot. In the end, however, I feel as though the novel adds up to less than the sum if its parts.