Good book reviews are rarities to be prized in these days of shuttered newspapers and diminished book coverage. By good I don't simply mean positive. Squibs that simply condense a publisher's press release, though appreciated, are a dime a dozen. What I mean by good is a considered, thoughtful, and fully developed examinations of a book. I am most grateful that Master of Shadows receives just that kind of review in today's Los Angeles Times. That it also happens to be overwhelmingly positive (though not without a few minor quibbles) is extremely satisfying, to say the least. The full review is available online — please click through to support and encourage this kind of coverage — but here are a few key passages:
Mark Lamster is a brave writer…his affection for his subject is so complete — and completely convincing — his style is so gracefully unpretentious and his research is so thorough that "Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens" manages to be engaging, instructive and thought-provoking, all at once. Lamster's contribution is to demonstrate so clearly the interplay between Rubens' diplomatic assignments and many of his important painterly commissions, a conjunction whose force in his career was much more consequential than other accounts of his life have allowed. Lamster does a nicely clear-headed job of sorting out the tangled politics of the low countries during what was a violently fraught and dynamic era. His history is judiciously free of judgments, something that's a bit of a feat when you're dealing with heroic regimes — at least by contemporary standards — such as the embryonic Dutch Republic and one of history's stock bad guys, Counter-Reformation Spain (with its fondness for a particularly authoritarian Catholicism backed up by the Inquisition). As he emerges in Lamster's account, Rubens manages to be simultaneously the man of the Spanish Court — and entirely his own.
The critic, Tim Rutten, does gently admonish me for occasionally speaking for characters in the book. I will say in response only that these moments were judiciously considered, and at all times based on correspondence and not made up out of whole cloth. But, as he writes, this minor cavil should not "detract from the important portrait Lamster provides of a major artistic master at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time." I should note also that the book recently received a generous review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.