August 9th, 2017

The Don and the Duchess!

ancient historyOur book today is Ancient History by M. I. Finley, and in addition to its own merits, it also had for me in this re-reading the charm of serendipity. I spend my life these days reading books and book reviews, so the book-driven serendipity to which I’d like to think I’ve always been observant now surrounds me on all sides every day: a Vanity Fair column, while talking about an upcoming deluxe coffee table production number, will offhandedly mention some obscure book, and lo, that obscure book will spring into my path at some charity shop only a week later, or some friend or colleague will allude to a nettlesome author who’s recently made their life miserable even though said nettlesome author died centuries ago, and sure enough, mere days later a sample of that nettlesome author’s long-forgotten work will turn up at a Goodwill otherwise known for its coffee-stained copies of Trevanian (I make a mental note never to tell the colleague that I’m consorting with the enemy, but I admit, that often gives the reading an extra pinch of pleasure), or – by far the most common instance, predictably so – I’ll read the name of one author in the book of another, and by whatever mnemonic arithmetic is responsible for such things, the name will stick with me, nagging just off-stage, until I chance upon a book by that author at the Brattle Bookshop and feel almost obligated, I recently found some cover designs by Damonza that I am so excited to start using on my books.

My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of the Finley book came about in just such a way. I’d been reading Barbara McManus’s utterly winning new book from the Ohio State University Press, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, all about the trailblazing life and sharp mind (and tongue) of the great classical scholar Grace Harriet Macurdy, and since the book included some fairly juicy (by academic press standards) anecdotes about the rows she had with the Grand Old Men of her profession, Finley’s name came up.

He was for a good long time one of the grandest of Grand Old Men in the classics world, who got his BA from Syracuse University at the ripe old age of 15 and taught the Greek classics in England and America (with one rather notable brief Red Scare-induced interruption) for many decades. He was on the go-to name-index for half a dozen harried editors who might need somebody to expound on Callimachus without making an ass of himself, and that generated a fairly good amount of occasional deadline prose, some of which constitutes Ancient History.

Re-reading the book, which came out in 1986, I was reminded on every page how much I drunkenlike Finley’s punchy, no-nonsense writing about the discipline to which he devoted his whole life. Pieces like “Documents” or “How it really was” feel every bit as fresh now as they did when I first read them a quarter-century ago, and the best piece in this collection, “The Ancient Historian and his Sources,” still strikes an invigorating tone of stern disbelief about a recurring problem-subject:

The insufficiency of primary literary sources is a continuing curse. If it looms largest in the study of the archaic, more or less preliterary, periods of Greek and Roman history, this is only because those are the periods for which archeological evidence is currently dominating the learned discussions. In fact, the lack of primary literary sources bedevils Greek history altogether after the death of Xenophon in the mid-fourth century BC, the whole world of the Hellenistic East, important periods of the history of the Roman Republic and the Principate, including most of the history of the Roman provinces. For example, for the long reign of Augustus the only primary sources, other than documents, are half a book of naive, superficial history by Velleius Paterculus, some letters and speeches of Cicero for the early years, Augustus’ own account of his stewardship, the Res gestae, a model of disingenuousness, and the Augustan poets.

It was a pleasure, in other words, to spend time in his written company again, regardless of what train of associations brought me to that point.

It’s of course a perfect example of the kind of casual sexist-preference that Macurdy so often railed against that Finley had more book contracts dangled in front of him, enjoyed greater renown in his own lifetime, and still has books that can be found on the Brattle’s sale-carts on an overcast summer morning. And his success was no accident of privilege; re-reading Ancient History was a wonderful reminder of just how good a writer and teacher he could be. And if I ever feel a little guilty at once again getting that pinch of pleasure by consorting with the enemy, I can remind myself with a smile: Moses Finley has never had a biography, much less one as smart and entertaining as The Drunken Duchess of Vassar.

July 25th, 2017

In the Penny Press: Geographica!

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I turned to the latest National Geographic, I freely admit, for some relief. My Facebook page and Twitter feed are full of misery and impending doom; the news feed on my iPad features daily – sometimes hourly – updates on the ways the President of the United natgeoStates is disgracing the country; and the actual real world in my immediate vicinity is an unending cataclysm of dump trucks, jackhammers, back hoes, cement mixers, police sirens, and low-flying Air Force jets, a black, stiff-walled whirlwind of noise so constant that I no longer remember what peace and quiet on my own reading couch was like, so constant that I know the names of all the workers, so constant that for years, when friends visit from out of town, I tell them, “just turn right when you exit the train station and then walk up the street until you get to the biggest, loudest construction zone you’ve ever seen in your life.” “Oh no,” they commiserate. “You live near a construction zone?” “No,” I tell them. “I live in it – the construction zone is your destination.”

And in addition to all this, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently abandoned most of the magazine subscriptions that once brought me so much enjoyment, as one by one they referred to easily-verifiable conscious lies as “eccentric claims” or called the racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron in the Oval Office “unconventional” in the hopes of not alienating a stupid, aggressive monster known as “The Base.” One by one, each magazine that sold its integrity in order to appease The Base got dropped from my monthly reading, despite the fact that this has also deprived me of some of the most interesting books-coverage currently being published.

But not all periodicals fell away – a hardy few remained, either because they were almost baby elephantsentirely non-political or because, politics or no politics, I simply can’t do without them. And foremost in this latter category is National Geographic, which I’ve been reading and absorbing for a long, long time. So I turned to the latest issue both out of an old familiarity and also for some relief from the raging apocalypse that’s engulfing every inch of the rest of the world.

Alas, however, not all refuges are perfect. The latest issue of National Geographic was tremendous, yes – intelligent, thought-provoking, visually beautiful as always – but in accordance with the magazine’s century-old mandate, the issue looked with unblinking clarity on both the world’s wonders and its iniquities. National Geographic doesn’t care that one of their subscribers might want a whole lot less iniquity these days, and the magazine wouldn’t care if all their readers felt that way, nor should they care: the merciless, gorgeous balance of their world-portrait is the reason they’re the National Geographic in the first place.

So, in this issue, I read about the heart-racing valor of the 21st century’s space race, yes, and this was uplifting, yes – but running through the article was the thread of privatization, and expropriation, and since I’m old enough to think of solar system exploration (and particularly, Gawd help us, actual peopled landings), such a thread was somber. And I read an article about the prevalence of humans in “developing” countries open-air defecating, and it, too, had a somber thread – in earlier Geographic versions of such an article, there would have been a near-obligatory mention of how sanitation is making progress, even in the most primitive settings. Not so now: the article makes clear that al fresco crapping is on the rise in many places in the world, with all the host of microbial horrors that accompany it. And I read a short, heartwarming article about an makosharkAfrican sanctuary for orphaned young elephants that naturally brought a smile to my face – until I encountered its own somber thread, which is that the flow of such orphans, created by the hunger for poaching elephants, certainly shows no sign of slowing.

Still, the issue nevertheless provided some of the sought-for relief. After all, there’s a boost to the simple fact that those elephant orphans are being lovingly cared for, right? And then there’s the highlight of the issue, a snappy (hee) article by Glenn Hodges about shortfin mako sharks – their physical beauty, their ceaseless vitality, and, as an unlooked-for bonus, their relatively healthy world-wide distribution. The piece also has stunning photography by Brian Skerry and a typically magnificent illustration by the great Fernando Baptista. Hodges even throws in Mark Twain’s still-funny quip about seasickness: “At first you are so sick you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t.”

So I limped out of the issue at least happy that some orphan elephants are being encouraged to cuddle and play, and that plenty of shortfin mako sharks are still swimming around in the ocean. It’s not much, admittedly, but in 2017 I’ll take it.

July 22nd, 2017

Jane at 200 in the Penny Press!

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As I’ve mentioned – and as would surely come as no surprise in any case to any long-time Stevereads habituéone of the periodicals to survive the Great Penny Press Purge of 2016 was the Times Literary Supplement, the mighty TLS. This would have been true in any case, the TLS being the world’s greatest serious literary review currently being published in English, and it was only rendered a little bit more true recently, when the editors finally twigged to a good thing and began publishing my Open Letters colleague tlscoverRohan Maitzen – a recent issue featured Rohan wafting on for an entire glorious page about none other than her specialty author, George Eliot, and it was like encountering Penelope Fitzgerald again in their pages, or Emma Tennant, or even a certain former TLS stalwart named Virginia: at once daunting and elevating, both clear and sublime – i.e. quintessential TLS material, a prime example of why the paper survived when so many other decades-old subscriptions succumbed to alternative facts and were elbowed into receivership.

The latest issue of the TLS was likewise full of quintessential validations. It was a Jane Austen issue, which at first might be cause for worry, since literary anniversary issues of any kind tend to bring out the worst in the authors who get signed up for them. But in this particular issue, only the insufferable ja3opening essay by Ian Sansom fell prey to that tendency, with Sansom spooling out one bored-sounding platitude after another:

Northanger Abbey is thus either the very epitome of dullness – a parody performed ironically, when everyone knows a parody should really be deadly serious – or a profound lesson in how to read and an exquisite challenge to try and understand exactly what’s to be taken seriously and what’s not.

But the “symposium” assembled by the editors, consisting of two dozen or so writers describing briefly what Jane Austen means to them, was remarkably free of that kind of sleep-writing, finishing up with the great Adam ja2Thirwell writing simply, “I think she is one of the greatest novelists and I have no idea how to talk about her.” And Bharat Tandon’s round-up review of five new Austen-related books was masterfully done.

And the best Austen-related thing in the issue was also the oldest: the “From the Archives” page unearthed Walter de la Mare reviewing some now-forgotten biography of the mighty Jane and very quickly going off-topic to write about her himself:

In her pages the seven deadly sins fade into one – ill taste. Her heroic virtues dazzle us as rarely as the winter stars. Her narrow range, indeed, is Miss Austen’s glory. We just open the door in her novels, and look straight into the drawing-room.

The rest of the issue was, as usual, full of interesting reviews and essays, but the block of ja1Jane Austen articles in this special issue felt like a little extra gesture of reassurance. Yes, it seemed to say, we may from time to time notice your alarming American politics, but rest assured: our primary focus will always be on what matters in the Republic of Letters.

I think I’ll turn to the new National Geographic next – for equal assurances.

July 21st, 2017

Helping the Cause in the Penny Press!

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In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, I let the subscriptions lapse on most of the periodicals I’d been reading up to that point. This wasn’t an easy decision, since I’d been subscribing to and attentively reading those dozen-or-so magazines and newspapers for decades – no longer reading them left what felt like a distinct void in my lunch hour reading time. I missed the excellent book coverage that such magazines reliably provided, missed seeing the work of some friends and colleagues, favorite reviewers particularly of the latest nonfiction. But I decided that November to spare myself even the brief remedy of simply skipping all the political coverage in the front pages and going straight to the “back of the book” to get my review-reading – a brief remedy that would nevertheless have been painful, summarily discarding over half of every issue: I could practically hear the voice of Me Sainted Ma saying, “Y’er not made o’ cart2money, y’know.”

And even given my firewall, some of those dozen-or-so remained unavoidable, sometimes justifiably so. Perhaps The New Republic would manage to get a nice long ruminative piece out of Sam Sacks; perhaps friends would tell me about a terrific author-profile in Harper’s; several times, I was alerted to “can’t miss” pieces in The New Yorker.

The New Yorker was, in fact, by far the toughest of those dozen-or-so to let go, although they were also in theory the most self-evident case of necessity. I knew they would find the Trump gang irresistible, and I don’t even much fault them – it’s their remit, after all, in addition to showcasing great writing, to reflect American society-at-large, and nobody does it better. I’ve been reading The New Yorker for a very, very long time. I had an entire file of clipped articles. New Yorker cartoons were my there’s-one-for-every-situation shorthand long before emojis came along. New Yorker covers have been the sentimental GPS of my adult life in all its moods and seasons. A new era of not-reading this particular magazine seemed unbelievable (some cases, of course, actually were unbelievable; budding autocracy or no budding autocracy, life is not possible without the TLS or National Geographic)(and an honorable exception nycart1can be allowed for Vanity Fair, whose editor has been warning the public about this public-auction Pinochet for thirty years). And yet, it had to be.

Issues still come to my attention; the break has not been clinical. I just recently read the July 24 issue, for instance, and it was full of reminders of why I stuck with the magazine for so long. There were some wonderful cartoons; there was an interesting short story; there was the always-dependable Anthony Lane doing his Kael-goes-slumming shtick with the new popcorn movie “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

And there was a “can’t miss” standout piece, the kind of New Yorker piece that always surprises you first because it’s in The New Yorker at all and then continues to surprise by the sheer gold it finds in an apparently prospectless topic. This time around it was Kelefa Sanneh’s long profile of the great country singer George Strait. Sanneh’s piece betrayed not one ounce of the knee-jerk condescension you might think would sell it to the typically-imagined New Yorker audience – instead, it was smart and passionate throughout, managing at every turn to make fascinating reading about a man who’s spent his entire career cautiously avoiding being fascinating:

A George Strait concert is a masterclass in the art of restraint. “He just stands there,” an executive once marvelled, “and people go fucking crazy.” Strait leans away from the high notes, sways gently with the up-tempo songs, and says just enough to remind fans that they are not, in fact, listening to his records; all night, he strums an acoustic guitar that no one can hear, maybe not even him.

But this issue also sported a picture-perfect example of why I don’t read and try not even to see magazines like this anymore (I subscribed to Architectural Digest and Condé Nast coverTraveler and Birds & Blooms instead, and I happily went back to Science Fiction & Fantasy, Analog, and the mighty Asimov’s – my mailbox isn’t quite as crowded as it used to be, but at least its inhabitants get along with each other, and with me) … and it was literally a picture: the noxious front cover. It’s by Barry Blitt and it’s called “Grounded,” and it shows a stern Donald Trump kicking his son-in-law Jared Kushner down the stairs of the freshly-landed Air Force One while dragging his oldest son Donald Junior behind him by one tugged ear. It’s a revolting image, not because it’s poorly drawn or politically provocative but because it strives by implication to domesticate the horrifying. Here is a dour Papa Trump who wants to be concentrating on serious policy-making and international diplomacy but instead is forced to deal with the bumbling ineptitude of his little boys. Here is a picture asking us to laugh not at Papa Trump but right alongside him, as we sympathize – as indeed how could we not? – with a beleaguered parent who just wants to get things done.

Never mind that Jared Kushner is 36 years old and had a long career of fraud and failure in two different fields before he came to the White House and added deceit, misrepresentation, and treason to his résumé. And never mind that Donald Junior is 39 and lost whatever lingering shreds of childhood he might still have possessed when he lined up endangered African animals in his rifle scope, pulled the trigger, and laughed over the corpses. And never mind that Papa Trump is more bungling and juvenile than either of them even when they were actual children. And never mind that at every point in the 16 years of his presidency so far when he might have concentrated on getting things done, he has instead voluntarily turned all of his attention to petty fights, personal insults, and stretches of free-association babble. Blitt’s cover is, in other words, a whopping big lie, premised on half a dozen whopping big lies, and designed to sell a whopping big lie to anybody who looks at it. It’s designed to soften into comedy what is deadly serious.

And it’s of course also a reminder: this break has to be clean. If I can be blackened into a grim mood by the mere sight of a cover, it’s pretty clear I can’t indulge in dipping-in occasionally. And in the meantime, at least now I’ve got a fantastic roster of George Strait songs playing in my head.

July 12th, 2017

Summer Reading in the Penny Press!

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As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious anachronism, this whole idea of “summer reading.” At the back of it is a picture of a world in which hard-working people breathe a collective sigh of relief around Memorial Day, say a jovial good-bye to their office mates, pack the kids in the station wagon, and head to the beach or the lakeshore. There, they open up the slightly dilapidated old house, uncover the furniture, sweep out the raccoon droppings, force open the stubborn windows, and settle in for a richly-deserved three-month summer vacation, an idyllic time when they can finally pick up those books they’ve been longing to read. It was in roughly this context that “summer reading” first became something the wealthier Romans might do when they and their households left the stewpot that is summertime Rome; this was the context in which the Better Sort in London might have packed some obscenely long French novels and made their way to their country estates. And it might have applied once upon a time to some sizable portion of the modern Western population.

wswummerrBut it hasn’t applied in a long time. Americans in particular work longer hours and longer years than any group in the nation’s history other than its slaves, and they are never even for an instant truly untethered from their workplaces (as Elizabeth Anderson’s brilliant though demagogic new book Private Government documents in detail). I know half a dozen young professionals who were required to give their bosses their cellphone numbers upon getting hired at their firms – their co-workers chuckled and said, “Yeah, just get a cheap phone with a new number for personal stuff,” and they willingly did so. Their bosses monitor their Facebook posts, their Instagram feeds, and their every peep on Twitter, and they themselves have never even seriously considered objecting, much less refusing – because the money’s good and there are benefits.

I know plenty of people who take vacations nevertheless, but those vacations are cramped, nervous, largely joyless affairs – they’re usually only a week long, they’re usually ruinously expensive, and the omnipresent intrusion of their workplaces isn’t the only thing destroying the allegedly restorative privacy of their time in the time-share: they also destroy it willingly themselves, spending all their time with their eyes locked onto video games or dating apps or the aforementioned social media. One young acquaintance recently booked a week-long beachside vacation with a friend he hadn’t seen in months, spent the entire time ‘swiping’ on quick-sex apps, and upon his return actually sighed and said, “I don’t know, somehow I just don’t feel rested.”

Summers, in other words, have disappeared – so it’s always a bit of a smile-inducing mystery to me that summer reading hasn’t gone with it. And yet it obviously hasn’t: from Southern Living to Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times Book Review, periodicals of all shapes and styles absolutely rely on the old wheeze. Indeed, that wonderful periodical Open Letters Monthly has been putting out a Summer Reading feature for years! The new one is up in the July issue even as we speak, although it’s typically brainy affair this time around, with writers chiming in on that decidedly non-summer subject, politics. Greg Waldmann writes about Dubliners, for instance; Rohan Maitzen writes about Jane Eyre; Sam Sacks writes about Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men; I myself wrote about the political setting of Anthony Trollope’s novel Phineas Finn.

From such a bill of fare it can be fairly observed that OLM is observing only the emptiest Page 1shell of the idea of “summer reading.” There is nothing summery about either our guiding theme or our individual choices; the thing is miserable midwinter reading in all but name. So pass the carefree summers of yesteryear.

In our defense, I notice that we’re not the only ones. The latest issue of the redoubtable Weekly Standard, for instance, bills itself as “summer reading” – and sports a great Mark Summers cover illustration featuring George Bernard Shaw and a raise-your-hand-if-you-got-it allusion to one of his stage plays. The front section of the issue is taken up with the heated political reporting and opinionizing that I now avoid like the Black Death (I get quite enough of it even by accident on social media, thank you very much … enough, anyway, to know that having just experienced their first great President, millennials are now getting a ringside seat for their first Nixon-level evil President – may they profit from the experience as their shaksforebears did). But a large chunk of this issue is devoted to that billed “summer reading,” with reviews of some fourteen books.

It’s great stuff, but it hardly constitutes hammock-and-martini reading material. Douglas Bradburn enthuses over Kevin Hayes’ silly book George Washington: A Life in Books; Lawrence Klepp reviews Peter Ackroyd’s new brief life of Alfred Hitchcock; Andrew Roberts does his usual fantastic job reviewing Christopher Bell’s new book about Winston Churchill and the disastrous Dardanelles campaign; Forrest Gump author Winston Groom reviews Kevin Kosar’s new history of moonshine; Geoffrey Norman turns in a terrific piece about Tom Callahan’s new life of Arnold Palmer; James Gardner writes a strangely ardent and forgiving response to the new book of paintings by former president George W. Bush; Jon Breen writes a dense and fantastic appreciation of Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles; and on and on along those juicy, brainy lines.

You finish the issue brimming with opinions, objections, and the peculiarly definite but low-grade mental buzzing that always results from reading snappy writing about books. I read the thing in one sitting at my hole-in-the-wall lunchtime restaurant and immediately wanted to a) re-read the books under review that I’d already read, b) find and devour the books under review that hadn’t yet come my way, and c) fire off half a dozen emails – to the magazine itself, yes, but also to some of the reviewers and maybe even a couple of the reviewed authors, alerting them to this or that, congratulating them on a good blurb, perhaps consoling them with a reminder that Reviewer X is probably a raving dipsomaniac with the literary taste of a garden vole.

The one thing I didn’t especially want to do when I finished this Summer Reading issue was to refresh my martini and perhaps take a strong down to the beach. Instead, I finished the issue, paid my bill, and got back to work.

June 20th, 2017

Full Wolf Moon!

full wolf moonOur book today is the latest edge-of-your-seat pot-boiler by Lincoln Child: Full Wolf Moon, whose tag-line is “On the trail of a killer who cannot possibly exist …” – in case you had any lingering doubts about whether or not it is, in fact, summer.

Full Wolf Moon – not to be confused with any of the books titled Wolf Moon or Moon of the Wolf, or Full Wolf Moon – is the latest adventure of Jeremy Logan, who’s a self-styled “enigmalogist,” a lone, er, wolf freelance investigator who looks into the strange and surreal, the moon of the wolfstuff on the borders of science, the kinds of things that can’t possibly exist, and in the latest adventure, he’s in the wilds of the Adirondacks, near the tiny, secretive town of Pike Hollow, where two backpackers were recently torn to shreds by … something. Game wardens and local naturalists are conflicted about what that something could have been – a bear? More than one bear? What one of Child’s characters wolf_firebirdrather confusingly refers to as a “feral wolf”?

The chance – the faintest whiff – that it could be something else, something unknown to science, has drawn Logan to Pike Hollow like a pig to unsalted peanut butter (they love it! There’s just no accounting for taste …). And sure, he’s perfectly willing to talk with those game wardens, and with local wilderness expert Laura Feverbridge and her iconoclastic scientist father Chase (he performs unconventional experiments on animals, but move along, nothing to see here folks), but the thing that really gets Logan’s enigmalogist juices flowing is talking with the locals about the reclusive Blakeney clan, whose backwoods compound has been in their family – and, um, nobody else’s family, if you catch my drift – for well over a century.

Those locals are happy to tell Logan about the rumors that have clung to the Blakeneys that whole time – rumors of violence, madness, cannibalism, and … you’ve surely waited long enough … lycanthropy. And Child periodically breaks from Logan’s investigation to give us nighttime scenes of terror that certainly suggest lycanthropic activity, as when a local named Sam gets out of his car on a forlorn little road at night and immediately senses something in the nearby scrub … something not-natural. “There was a long moment when he stood, paralyzed with surprise and fear,” Child writes, adding helpfully: “He felt a warm gush as his bladder let go.” Then all hell WolfMoonbreaks loose:

Suddenly, a hundred things seemed to happen at once. Sam abruptly found his feet again and dashed around the front of the car, literally diving inside as a loud crashing burst from the nearby bracken; at the last possible moment he reached back and pulled the door closed, punching the lock as he did so; his flashlight, falling to the floor of the passenger seat, rolled backward and he saw something outside the window that, temporarily, drove all rational thought from his mind. Neighing in terror and dismay, he cringed back, windmilling with his legs, while the thing outside beat on his car with unimaginable fury. And then the light seemed to grow in intensity; the roaring sound suddenly mingled with another; his car shook once again under the violent assault – and then Sam slumped over the center column of the Civic, fainting, as merciful oblivion overtook him.

Logan, we’re told, has been all over the world and seen all kinds of weird things in his self-made profession – “hidden tombs of Egyptian kings; the watery depths of Scottish lochs; the crumbling crypts of Romanian family tombs” and so on. But the closer he gets to learning the actual secrets of the Blakeneys, the more secrets he uncovers from other quarters, and the whole of it is written with a huge amount of expertly-done momentum, paper-thin characters, and the literary skills of a moderately ambitious eight-year-old. In other words, just the kind of thing plenty of people reach for, once the summer heat moves in …

June 17th, 2017

Extinct!

extinctOur book today is Charles Wilson’s 1997 classic Extinct, in which an intrepid marine biologist finds himself enlisted in the most unlikely contest of all: with the megalodon, a gigantic species of prehistoric shark that could grow to 50 or 60 or even 80 feet but has been considered extinct for millions of years. In Wilson’s book, see, the megalodons have survived unglimpsed by humans for all those millions of years by hiding out in the abysmal depths of the Marianas Trench, where they’ve …

… you’re making that face, and I don’t blame you. Like me, you’re thinking: wait a minute – isn’t that the exact same plot as Steve Alten’s novel Meg, also published in 1997? Intrepid marine biologist? Check. Gigantic prehistoric killer shark? Check? Hiding in the Marianas Trench all this time? Check, check, and check. So what’s going on?

As far as I can tell, mere blind Darwinism is going on. The general reading public was presented in 1997 with two novels about gigantic prehistoric killer sharks, and it picked one of those two and turned it into a cult classic – and it forgot the other one. And that’s a shame, because Charles Wilson’s career shows him to be a reliable old hack of the first order, somebody who can cook up a sturdy plot, populate it with sturdy one-dimensional characters, and stir it like a fine, filling gumbo. And Extinct is not exception: it’s a terrific read, especially in summer, when all thoughts turn to mutilated, half-eaten ocean bathers.

It’s also, of course, an utterly absurd book – and for the same reason Meg is an utterly absurd book: because despite its trappings, it’s as deeply anti-scientific as your average young-Earth creationist church pamphlet. The Marianas Trench is less than 2000 miles long and less than 50 miles wide. It’s about 6 or 7 miles deep at its deepest point – and something that had evolutionarily adapted to life way down there would instantly and grotesquely die if it vacationed up at the ocean’s surface. The Trench is another world: lightless, crushing, confined, and lacking great shoals of prey animals. In other words, the Marianas Trench isn’t your Get Out of Jail card – it’s no more capable of supporting a bunch of breeding populations of 80-foot superpredators for millions of years than Loch Ness is. The scientific illiteracy takes the usual form: the monster somehow exists free of its own population. Your megalodon novels might have one meg or two or four, but they don’t have hundred of thousands of carnivorous super-predators, somehow living on algae in complete darkness for millions of years.

Still, it’s a totally nifty schlock hook: not just an enormous great white shark, but a meg33super-enormous great white shark, something that could swallow its human victims whole, in one gulp. Turn one of those things loose on an unsuspecting coastal community, drag in your heroic marine biologist, contrive your plot so that everybody, and I mean positively everybody spends time waist-deep in the water, imbue the giant killer shark with the intelligence of a particularly evil chimpanzee (instead of a goldfish with a thyroid imbalance), and you’re off to the races.

In the case of Extinct, the heroic marine biologist is Alan Freeman, but he’s not the only one interested in the megalodon that inexplicably begins eating people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast; no, there’s also Admiral Vandiver, a crusty old salt who’s always harbored a crackpot secret theory that the megs somehow survived for millions of years in the deep trenches of the ocean without any human shipping ever suspecting a thing. But why, Vandiver wonders, would the megalodons have retreated to those deep trenches in the first place (“to make novels like Extinct possible” not being an option on the admiral’s table, keep in mind)? What are the possibilities?

Something chasing them from the shallower waters? It was unlikely that there was ever a creature that swam in the seas that was so fearsome that the megalodon had run in fright. Maybe not a creature at all, he thought. Perhaps in the world changing from glacial to tropical climates a hole unimaginable today had appeared in the ozone layer. Maybe somehow the megalodons were sensitive to that. The dim rays of the light spectrum could penetrate to around fifteen hundred feet in water – that might have driven them at least to those depths. Or perhaps a switching of global temperatures created something on the order of an all-encompassing, worldwide poisoning of the shallow waters in the same manner that weather triggered what would be termed a red tide today.

The admiral’s not conclusively sure how this monster is alive today, much less why it isn’t back in its home at the bottom of the sea but is instead willing – and, somehow, able – to lurk in the extremely shallow waters of the coastal marshes (seriously, this thing, which is the size of a city bus, spends the first half of the book hanging out close enough to shore so that it can snatch deer off the bank). And Alan Freeman doesn’t have any answers either. And while the two of them – at cross-purposes, naturally – continue searching for answers, the megalodon continues its demented killing spree – including that signature coup de grace that mere great white sharks can’t manage:

Leonard’s eyes widened in shock.

The bottle fell from his hand.

The shape made a sudden lunge forward. Stella was swallowed whole from the rear to the front. No sound. A last glimpse of her blond hair. The great mouth closed.

The creature, dark and glistening, lay unmoving as the waves crashed around it and against it, its black, round eyes staring directly at Leonard.

Too paralyzed to move, Leonard nearly passed out. With a superhuman effort, he took a step backward. Another step. His body trembling as if he were standing naked in a hundred-degree-below zero wind, he finally managed to turn – and ran.

“Aaaarrrgh!”

meg44“Aaaarrrgh” indeed. No idea why Stella went so quietly; after all, if she’s been swallowed whole then she hasn’t been bitten, right? As far as she’s concerned, she’s been suddenly scooped up into a foul-smelling sleeping bag – she wouldn’t instantly die from that (although the meg might; its mouth might be big enough to swallow a grown woman whole, but its esophagus certainly couldn’t handle anything that size unless it was chewed first), so why wouldn’t she raise a ruckus?

It’s one of many unanswered why-type questions in books like this. Why does this one megalodon come to hang out in Mississippi waters? Why does it concentrate so hard on snapping up grade school kids when it could feast on schools of hefty tuna in the open ocean? Why, once they know there’s a supernaturally big and clever shark in the water, does the book’s entire cast contrive reasons to be out on boats, down on dives, or otherwise splashing around?

Extinct is, even after all these years, quintessential summer reading, and in quintessential summer reading, we don’t ask such questions. Instead, we ask: does this hack novel keep me interested? And it does, dear reader, it most certainly does. Find a copy at your summer getaway’s used bookstore and read it happily on the beach. And then – why not? – toss it aside and plunge into the water for a nice refreshing swim out beyond the breakers.

June 16th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: Thoreau!

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Some Penguin Classics are examples of that peculiar sub-species of literary work that somehow always feels pointedly relevant, no matter the age or era: in this case, the great writings of celebrated New England crackpot, Henry David Thoreau – Walden and Civil Disobedience. This is a new edition, with a simple, arresting cover illustration by Jason Holley and a new Introduction by English professor Kristin Case, who nods in the direction of that weird eternal relevance right away. “The questions that drove Thoreau to Walden Pond in 1845 were the same questions that face young people, particularly recent college graduates, two hundred years after his birth,” she writes. “What should I do for work? How should I spend my life? And how far should I accept the answers arrived at by others?”

Thoreau’s decision to absent himself from decidedly manageable hustle and bustle of mid-19th century Concord and go live in a little shack on a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land gained him a small amount of notoriety in his own day and has been irretrievably enshrined in American cultural mythology ever since, mainly because it was one of those insignificant gestures that seem to signify eighty different things. penguin waldenSomething similar is at work in the pages of Civil Disobedience, even though on the surface the two works look so different that Case is right when she points out that Thoreau scholars have often complained that the two works feel like they were written by two different authors. The feeling is deceptive; in reality, great thematic strands unite these two things and everything else Thoreau wrote. One of those strands is hooey, but Case, ever the true believer, has a different one in mind:

Imagination is among the keys to Thoreau’s enterprise and one of the themes that unites his writing on nature and his writing on politics. To answer, even to earnestly ask, the question of how to live is to engage in the work of imagination. It is to imagine something other than what already exists, something other than what we can see. Here we might think again of that sentence from Walden‘s conclusion: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.”

Not exactly a crystal clear sentence, that, but re-reading this lovely new Penguin edition reminded me of how good Thoreau can be when he’s not woolgathering or posturing. The key, as Case writes, often is that element of imagination, when Thoreau effectively blends his habitual melancholy with a whimsical element that sticks in the memory – like the daydreaming in which he indulges while out working the ground:

As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.

“Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more,” writes Thoreau scholar William Howarth in The American Scholar, painting a now-familiar nightmare scenario: “We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” One federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under attack. Thoreau is too: the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance – or reading him at all – are multiplying swiftly.”

If this is true – and I wouldn’t underestimate the 21st century on such a score, particularly after this last year – then this Penguin Classics re-issue couldn’t be more timely, as appalling a thing as “timely” always is for any classic to be.

June 12th, 2017

Shark Dog!

shark dogOur book today combines the best of both worlds in the animal kingdom: it’s Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson, his fourth and most winning children’s picture book yet, newly released by Harper.

The plucky little girl who narrates Shark Dog wastes no time in telling us that her bug-eyed red-bearded father is a world-famous explorer. In fact, she’s accompanying him to a fantastic land with beautiful butterflies and tortoises as big as cars when something strange happens: late at night, something leaps out of the ocean and thumps on deck. Our little narrator hardly has time to wonder what it might be before she’s face-slurped in a way that only one animal species on Earth has completely mastered.

But the mysterious visitor isn’t a dog – not quite. Rather, he’s a shark dog, an adorable sd2and friendly little guy with four legs, a wet snout … and a fin sticking out of his back.

And the combination isn’t just skin deep. “Sometimes, when he did dog things, he was more like a shark,” we’re told (accompanied by the book’s most priceless visual, of a poor cat being stalked through tall grass), “and sometimes, when he did shark things, he was more sharkd2like a dog” (he brings the famous explorer his slippers during a deep-sea dive).

But the shark dog is clear on one thing: he loves his adventures with his new family. Until, that is, he seems to start pining for his own kind. “Maybe it’s time we took him back,” suggests the famous explorer, so they do (on the plane ride, I was green with envy at the explorer’s in-flight reading material: National Sharkographic).

And anybody who’s ever an odd, ungainly little dog will smile at the book’s outcome.

June 6th, 2017

The Penning Press in the Penny Press!

bunch-of-magazines1

I opened the latest issue of Esquire with very pleasantly modest expectations. I was looking forward to a helping of the smart-but-mostly-vapid entertainments Esquire tends to serve up so well – glossy spreads of $15,000 wrist watches, listicles on the Top 5 Things Your Sternum-Length Beard Says About You (in reality, it’s only one thing: you’re an insecure douche-bucket), that sort of thing. In the past, I’ve sometimes found these things a bit annoying, but they were just what I needed this time around, and for most of the issue, they’re exactly what I got: the Sacred Manly Bond of hand-destroying illegal fireworks, the Country’s Best Steakhouses (which somehow seem to change every three issues), and the cover feature this time around, an engaging interview with 5-foot-tall 6-pack-a-day Game of Thrones starlet Kit Harington on how the success that’s made him a millionaire is a bit inconvenient. So far, so good.

Then I came to a surprise. In the back of the issue was a short piece by novelist Richard Ford – about the book reviews he’s received over the course of his career.

This kind of thing is something of a rarity. Most big-name authors don’t talk about the entire Penny Press industry that depends on their books – much less the entire section of the reading populace that depends on that industry. And there’s a good and self-evident reason why authors avoid those subjects, but self-evidence isn’t always safeguard enough: every once in a while, an author will break ranks (and the fourth wall) and talk about the Kakutani in the room.

It’s never a good idea. Talking about your critics, as a wise man observed almost a century ago, invariably devolves into complaining about your critics, and complaining about your critics is “the surest and fastest way to confirm that they were right about you all along.” So spoke the unsung genius of the Great White Way. Too bad word of it never reached the Great White Wordsmith.

Ford opens his piece, called “Perilous Business,” by telling the story of the first time he read a review of one of his books. The review was by Larry McMurtry, and it was politely negative, and Ford has stewed over it ever since. He tells us that he “can’t make himself” to go and look up just what it was McMurtry wrote – a totally unconvincing gesture of indifference, since it’s pretty obvious he has the thing memorized – but that it was withering, a harbinger of every bad review Ford would ever receive. “The only way I can take a bad review of my book is personally,” Ford writes, “as something bad that’s happened to me.” No thought given to the possibility that his book was something bad that had happened to its readers. I certainly remember the book in question; in his review, McMurtry was being generous.

It almost never fails with stoic, guy’s-guy writers: they’re full of terse, tough kharingtonesquireassessments of all and sundry whenever they’ve got an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face, but the instant they find themselves on the receiving end of such an assessment, they start blubbering like a slapped toddler. In the case of Ford – who’s written one good novel, one good memoir, and a massive sloughing mountain of third-rate junk – the self-pity is mixed with lots of invidious gossip. It’s not just that he’s a great writer who really shouldn’t be handled by pissy little book reviewers in the first place (except for the handful he singles out as “reliable” – reliable! I can’t think of a higher compliment … if it’s coming from an editor. But having a writer call me “reliable” as a reviewer? The skin crawls), no, it’s not just that he’s competent at his job – it’s that book reviewers are incompetent at theirs. He has it on insider authority, you see:

Recently, a highly placed official in a semi-prestigious reviewing organ remarked to me, in a taxi, that in her view all reviewing is completely subjective from the git-go and shouldn’t be worried about. Which was to say that while book reviews may make a big difference to a book’s success in finding readers, they’re mostly all just a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with.

“Book reviews,” he informs us (when he’s not hearing taxi cab confessions, that is), “are always written at the mercy of a reviewer’s williwaw state of mind.” Unlike serious novelists, book reviewers don’t actually sit down and think about what they’re doing. There’s certainly no craft involved. They’re under-educated. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. They’re badly distracted. They’re just so willawashy. That’s why, we’re told, “there’s neither a deep nor a wide recent tradition of high-quality reviewing in the U.S.” (“And there are blogs,” he tells us, adding – although by this point he scarcely needs to: “I don’t know much about them”) See? It’s not just a few reviewers who haven’t been “reliable” when it comes to praising Richard Ford books … it’s the whole gosh-darned field! All these dozens and dozens of book reviewers out there letting the side down, willawallowing in their own petty affairs while serious novelists are trying to create serious novels!

The essential problem with this whinge-fest and others like it is always the same: a willful misunderstanding of what book reviewing actually is. Ford isn’t the first novelist I’ve encountered who seems to think book reviewers are just another arm – a nice “reliable” arm – of their publisher’s publicity department, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Every pouty word in “Perilous Business” shows that Ford no better understands the world of book reviewing than he understands the world of novels written without posturing cliches. “To knock a book down in print,” he tells us, “is like coming upon a hitchhiker on the side of the road and rather than passing him by, deciding to run over him.”

Wrong. Completely wrong, of course. Passing a hitchhiker (“on the side of the road” reminds us that in every single piece of Ford fiction, we’re always, mechanically, informed that meals are cooked “in the kitchen” and sleeping is done “in the bedroom”) is easy; a hitchhiker makes no claims on any individual passing motorist; a hitchhiker has no advertising budget. Therefore, swerving to hit a hitchhiker is an act of motivationless malice. If a novel were a hitchhiker, the only thing printed on its front or back cover would be its price.

mrbeansholidayNovels aren’t hitchhikers on the side of the road. Novels not only want things from you – important things, like your money, your attention, and your acclaim – but they’re also willing to lie to get them. Picture a hitchhiker with a sign saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” You see that and pull over, but the hitchhiker turns out to be a flat-broke cat-lover who may or may not be fizzing with Hepatitis C. You’ll wish somebody had run over that hitchhiker long before you fell for that sign. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d been warned.

I can’t speak for the brainier practitioners of my profession, of course. Book reviewers like my Open Letters colleagues Rohan Maitzen and Sam Sacks are often dealing in deeper verities, pitching at least part of their discussion for states unborn and accents yet unknown (the fact that Ford would dismiss them as “a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with” makes the ol’ Southie blood boil). But for myself, I’m not the guardian to the gates of Parnassus – I’m the watchdog of my readers’ time and money. They’ve got a very limited amount of either to spend on fripperies like new novels, and when they’re browsing the New Releases tables of their local bookstore, they’re confronted with one sign after another saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” So I’m naturally less than effusive in my sympathies when an overpraised novelist starts talking about his paycheck:

Whenever I think about reviews of my books, I usually only think about the bad ones – the ones, again, that drive readers away, take bread out of my children’s mouths, devalue half a decade of honest effort, steal money out of my pocket, and cast a dark shadow over my future … I wonder if those bad-review writers would do it if they knew the chain reaction they’d set in motion. If they would, then they deserve what they get both here and beyond. I wouldn’t want to know too much about these people’s personal habits – how they treat their spouses and pets. I know, I’m way too sensitive.

Too sensitive, yes. Also a blockhead, and yet the implication that book reviewers are being mean is so common as to be almost williwall-to-wall. The idea that a negative review is taking bread out of the mouths of over-privileged children and otherwise dipping into their college funds is so wrong-headed and vain that it just had to be a novelist who first thought it up. It’s like blaming a restaurant’s crappy food on its bad reviews.

A book reviewer – at least, the unreliable kind – doesn’t care about the money in your pocket, or about the bread in your children’s mouths, or about how long it took you to create your latest boring slice of late-middle-age suburban angst. They care about whether or not your latest book is any good. They’ve read all your earlier books – no williwalk in the park, if you happen to be a slog of an author – and they know the claim your name and reputation (“Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies”) make on readers who are trying to decide whether or not to shell out $35 for your latest book. What those readers want in a book reviewer is an ally and advocate. Book reviewers who are thinking about how a novelist is going to make his next pool payment might be reliable, but they’re also bad at their job. And a novelist who complains about critical reviews – especially one who implies that the reviewers who don’t like his books are incompetent – well, that novelist is a bit of a putz.

So: a spike of adrenaline buried in the pages of what I’d hoped would be a nice diverting issue of Esquire. Our regularly-scheduled sushi-shop ratings will resume next issue – I’m devoutly hoping.