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The Siren's Call: A horn of plenty's worth of holiday reading

Michael Dirda's 'On Conan Doyle,' A.N. Wilson's 'Dante in Love' and much more.

November 27, 2011|By Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times

With the recent death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, everyone is rightly speaking about the genius of his designs (of course the praise is deserved). When I open this book, however, the people who impress me slightly more are those anonymous artisans who created jeweled fittings to decorate a sword hilt or the intricate designs on a cheek panel that hung down from a helmet to protect the side of a warrior's face (the helmet's gone). The images presented in this book are gorgeous. And stunning.

"Lost Gold of the Dark Ages," a companion text to a recent documentary on the National Geographic Channel, serves as a pleasing introduction for lay readers to a fascinating, murky topic. It's also an encouraging reminder that the deep past isn't entirely lost to us; answers are still out there, and, in some cases, they're literally under our feet.


If you still have room for even more books in your horn of plenty, then consider Nathaniel Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?" (Viking: 131 pp., $25), a brief defense of the Herman Melville novel. It's usually a waste of time to find justifications in what others say about a book rather than trust in your own sensibility, but the author of "In the Heart of the Sea" provides a helpful accompaniment before you plunge into the voyage of the Pequod. And as I said, it's short — far shorter, in fact, than what Wilson does for Dante.

Dark Horse Comics is bringing out more installments of "The Occultist" (Dark Horse: $3.50), a one-off comic book published last year that ended on a cliffhanger. College student Rob Bailey has absorbed the power of an old book and has been transformed into a powerful sorcerer — now, a bunch of hit men ("hit mages" is probably more accurate) want to kill him and retrieve that strange, potent tome for their master. It's difficult not to get swept up in Rob's ordeal, especially since he doesn't know the full extent of the powers he now possesses.

This column recently covered Stephen Greenblatt's award-winning book about the Roman poet Lucretius, "The Swerve," and thanks goes out to readers Joe Gates and Joel Peck for recommending, as a follow-up, the book "A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment" by Philipp Blom.

Another book that also might please some readers this holiday season actually appeared during the summer, "Aelian's 'On the Nature of Animals'" (Trinity University Press: 180 pp., $15.95). Edited by Gregory McNamee, Aelian's treatise "De Natura Animalium" is one more example of the Roman mind striving to make sense of the cosmos. Some of the observations of Claudius Aelianus are fanciful and seem straight from a magical realist novel ("the female dolphin has breasts like a human woman"). Others, however, are charming and inspiring, like this image of wolves crossing a river: "One wolf will bite the tail of the one in front of it, and so on, and then they will all swim across as a chain, so that no harm can come to them." Lovely stuff.

Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at

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