Open Letters Monthly, September 2012

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: Nobody moves to New York for the weather. The winters are harsh, the summers are harsh. So most of us have good reason to love spring and fall; by the time they roll around, we’re more than ready for a change. Hard to say which one I like better, because I really do hate summer and winter equally, and release from the one only means we’re in for the other. But I do think fall is pretty fine, and September’s one of my favorite months. The September issue of Open Letters Monthly is equally fine, complete with the pixel equivalent of That New Pencil Box Smell. This month:

Steve Donoghue celebrates the publication of Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably in paperback as a bittersweet event: “When Open Letters Monthly reviewed the hardcover release of Arguably, the reviewer could day-dream about one day sharing a drink with the ailing but still very much with us Hitchens. Now, the book sits on the night stand like a bright yellow tombstone”—until, of course, you open it.

Sam Sacks looks at two novels that explore questions of faith, Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?:

Among the two, the question mark is on the wrong novel: Beha cares about what happened to Sophie Wilder, but does not seem to know; Heti is only pretending to inquire into how a person should be, and, in the idealized character of Margaux, seems to have had her answer from the beginning.

Nicholas Nardini reviews D.T. Max’s refreshingly non-hagiographic David Foster Wallace bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story—“the least Wallace-like biography imaginable.”

Charlotte Mathieson talks about Leah Price’s examination of books as physical objects in literature, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain:

Books cause physical harm when thrown as weapons, but can become damaged even through the simple act of reading. Their bindings signify fashion, status, and wealth, while their pages can be put to endless mundane uses everywhere from the kitchen to the outhouse.

(This one goes on my list.)

John Cotter takes a look at Bruce Wagner’s “witty, weepy, fearful, and emetic novel” Dead Stars.

Joshua Lustig checks out John Bew’s Castlereagh: A Life. This not exactly the tale of a dry statesman; the man

put down a French-backed Jacobin rebellion in his native Ireland and then orchestrated the Act of Union that made it part of the United Kingdom; dueled with his arch-rival, the future Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister George Canning, whom he shot in the thigh; took charge of the British war effort, sustained over two decades, that culminated in the defeat of Napoleon; and succumbed to paranoia and madness and committed suicide while still in office. And beyond all this, he inspired some of the most savage invective ever hurled at a statesman by the leading literary figures of his age.

Kate Schapira discusses Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree—poems that “give shape to a desire to disrupt, to corrupt, to unbridle.”

Luciano Mangiafico examines the incarceration, for treason, of Ezra Pound in Italy—and his consequent institutionalization on grounds of insanity.

Another problem in obtaining Pound’s release was the fact that Dr. Overholser was required to inform the Department of Justice in a yearly report of Pound’s mental condition. It was a Catch-22 situation: if the doctor concluded that Pound had recovered his sanity, he would be tried for treason; if he certified that Pound was still mentally ill, he could not be released from the institution. The situation bordered on the ridiculous, since many of those who had been charged with treason and tried, and many Nazi criminals, were already free.

In 1957, when Pound was relatively out of the limelight, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost quietly convinced officials in the Eisenhower administration that the issue should be resolved, particularly since Pound was 72 years old and was being considered for a Nobel Prize.

Justin Hickey analyzes the imperfect recall of the Total Recall remake: “Now, that klaxon isn’t the sound of precious air escaping under a red sky. That’s the sound of the word WRONG, buzzing in my brain, keeping me awake during a colorless two-hour movie.”

Quentin Brand looks at Geoffrey Roberts’ Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov—“The saviour of Stalingrad, the liberator of Leningrad and the man who brought the Red Army right up to the Reichstag in Berlin.”

And if Zhukov doesn’t do it for you, try the evil Dr. Zarkov, who figures prominently in Steve Donoghue’s meditation on Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo (as well as Ming the Merciless and his randy daughter, Princess Aura:

Mongo is a planet simply bursting at the seams with unrestrained horniness. Not only does Alex Raymond in those early weeks miss no opportunity to strip his hero to skivvies, but virtually every major character is motivated by openly-declared lust. Flash is willing to risk everything for Dale; Ming instantly wants to marry Dale; Princess Aura is willing to risk everything for Flash; the king of the Shark Men tells Flash “I prefer to break your pretty body with my own two hands”; Prince Thun of the Lion Men takes an unconscious Flash in his arms, saying “By the great god Tao! A mere youth—and white!”

For our monthly helping of poetry, we have Two poems by Jay Snodgrass, Walrus Manifesto and Fruits Manifesto (No pull quotes, OK? They’re poems—just go ahead and read them.)

Dorian Stuber talks about J.G. Farrell, author of Troubles:

Memorable as they are, it’s not so much the events that distinguish the novel as it is the characters that suffer through them. It is remarkable that someone who never married, never had children, and never lived to be old is so well able to depict people in all these stages of life. The most striking thing about these portrayals is their fundamental generosity: the characters aren’t always especially likeable, but they are treated gently, with wry humor.

Stephen Akey meditates on William Wordsworth, posing the question:

Is reading poetry therapeutic? Does it—or can it—salve psychic wounds, ameliorate pain, nurture the soul, provide wisdom? Given that poets are at least as screwed up as everybody else, that might seem to be asking a bit much. But if you’ve read enough of it, you might find, surprisingly, that the answer to those questions is: Yes, poetry is and does all of those things.

Douglass Shand-Tucci continues his American Aristocracy series with an examination of Copley Square’s Trinity Church and how it influenced a new cross-cultural architectural dialogue:

Amazing to report, within seven years of the completion of Trinity Church in 1877, such was its global impact that the design for the Bombay (Mumbai) City Hall or Municipal Building wed India’s most celebrated architecture with what was becoming Boston’s (supplanting the Bulfinch State House). It was on the same principle, I suppose, that so many unlikely marriages are explained: opposites attract.

Adam Golaski reviews Colby Somerville’s poetry chapbook DeathTV (1-6), an ode to—among other things—the sound of drone, which is not always such a drab thing as one may first think: “Begin with honey bees, the workers and their collective noise.”

Greg Waldmann ponders Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism:

The point Mann and Ornstein are striving to make—delicately, calmly; I believe the book has one exclamation point—is that the degenerative state of Washington politics is pretty much the fault of one side and that the political system is not equipped handle them. After four years of economic crisis, neither, this argument implies, is the country.

Irma Heldman takes a look at Franck Thilliez’s Syndrome E, “a chilling novel that explores what if the earliest and most brilliant advances and discoveries of neuroscience were not used for good but for evil.”

And Iain Mulder examines Daniel Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (spoiler: “Chamovitz takes great pains to explain to his audience that his book is not The Secret Life of Plants, the 1973 New Age bestseller that argued for plant sentience.”)

(This month’s photograph is “Prewar” by Kathleen Rooney.)

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