March 30th, 2015

Mystery Monday: Dry Bones in the Valley!

mystery monday header

dry bones coverOur book today is a lean, moody debut mystery novel, Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman, and it’s the latest in an ominously popular new sub-sub-genre, “rural noir”: dark and sordid murder-and-violence plot lines taking place not in far-flung exotic locales but rather just forty miles off the interstate, in the most depressed parts of the poorest states in the richest country in the world. On the macro level, few literary developments could more chillingly reflect the widening income gap than this whole strand of fiction, but in the micro level, there’s no denying how enjoyable a lot of these books are. Earlier this year we say Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, featuring, among other things, violence and reprisals in the Appalachians, and Tom Bouman’s book takes us back to the Appalachians, this time to the forgotten hills and woods of rural Pennsylvania, to Wild Thyme Township in Holebrook County, which our narrator Officer Henry Farrell describes with his signature Big-Picture sarcasm:

Holebrook County is on the western edge of the Endless Mountain region. The term is a poetic one; what people mean is that it’s hilly. We’re part of the Appalachian Range, which formed almost five hundred million years ago, along with a vast inland sea to the west. Creatures in the sea died and sank, and the mountains eroded, and over a hundred million years this mix of sediment and organic matter was buried and turned into shale, the Marcellus Shale. Because of the once-living things in it, the Marcellus contains a lot of natural gas, all wrapped up in layers of rock like a present to America.

The county is changing in rapid convulsions: the “gas boom” is making sudden millionaires out of people Farrell grew up with dirt poor and happy before he struck out on his own, saw military service, and finally returned to take a job most of his constituent aren’t even sure should exist (“Why does a small rural community need not one but two law enforcement officers?” … Why should we pay taxes for a service we don’t want, when there’s a state police barracks nearby?”). The picture of country simplicity has been supplanted by fly-by-night meth labs, duplicitous government agents, and a scattered populace with a lot to hide.

A mutilated body turns up on the property of a bitter, angry old man, and Officer Farrell hasn’tlucy reading dry bones been investigating it very long when a second dead body is found. Bouman unfolds his suspect-upon-suspect story with an ease that’s surprising for a first novel, but his real strength is in capturing both the furtive atmosphere and the strung-out beauty of the Pennsylvania mountains – a not entirely surprising strength, since Bouman grew up in those hills and has said in interviews that he and his family have recently returned to live there. That’s certainly what I call suffering for your art, but if it makes the rest of the books in this series as entertaining as the first one, that’s very good news.

March 29th, 2015

The Green Dragoon!

the green dragoonOur book today is The Green Dragoon, a 1957 book by Robert Bass, and it illustrates a very good impromptu rule of book-buying: never pass up a book with a title like The Green Dragoon.

This particular Green Dragoon is about Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who commanded the so-called British Legion during the American Revolution (and wore a distinctive green frock, hence the book’s title), reporting to Lord Cornwallis and operating mainly in the Carolinas. Virtually every war has produced troop commanders like Tarleton: cavalrymen who could cut a dash with dramatic maneuvers and preposterous headgear, flashy figures whose own vanity and freedom of movement, you sense, counted for much more to them than The Cause or any chain of command.

But even in such a company of brigands, Tarleton stood out as among the worst. He was born in Liverpool in 1764 to a well-off merchant family that had made its money in the slave trade; the family had enough money to send him to reputable schools – London’s Middle Temple and then Oxford – where his earlier lack of promise was abundantly confirmed: young “Ban” was powerfully built, handsome, ruthless, and a smooth talker, but he was utterly uninterested in school or learning anything. From a very, very early age, the only subject that interested him was himself, and he worked hard for his entire life to advance that subject.

In 1775 he became a cavalry officer in the 1st Dragoon Guards and shipped out as soon as he could to American in order to see action (and, as he loudly proclaimed in cafes and drawing rooms all throughout London, to bring back the head of General Charles Lee in a bag), and the plentiful action he saw there allowed him to realize two things fully about himself: first, that he had genuine tactical ability as a cavalry commander, and second, that he was a bloodthirsty homicidal maniac, a twitching, dead-eyed serial killer in the disguise of a London dandy.

He did capture General Lee (didn’t decapitate him, though), and he engaged in a dozen major battles besides. He had half a hand shot away (which is why in his most famous portrait by Joshua Reynolds he’s artistically using it to reach for his sword, thus keeping it out of sight), and he famously had his forces decimated at the Battle of Cowpens, and he chased American guerrilla leaders without noticeable success, and Bass researches all of this with a comprehensive thoroughness that no previous writer had been able to match, since it was Bass himself who found a huge trove of Tarleton’s personal papers in 1956 and quickly incorporated them into his book. We get dozens and dozens of the polished dispatches Tarleton sent to Cornwallis and received from him – so many, in fact, that no subsequent biography of Tarleton is possible without a heavy debt to this book.

All the more odd, then, that it should be so incomplete. Tarleton the tactician and horseman is here in abundance, but during the portions of the book dealing with the American Revolution, Tarleton the sadistic killer is virtually invisible. The man who ordered his men to maim farmers, then had the farmers’ wives dig their graves, then ordered the wives to finish off their husbands in front of their children or the children themselves would be massacred – then massacred the children anyway, ordered the gang-raping of the wives, then massacred them too … that Tarleton, though well-attested at the time, makes no appearance in Bass’s book. It was that Tarleton, the taut-faced stormtrooper who came up with new and more diabolical means of torturing the hapless civilians who fell into his hands, doesn’t square well with the high-living swell who’s going to feature so prominently in the second half of The Green Dragoon, so he’s excised from the first half.

That second-half Tarleton is the lyric-quoting Beau Brummell who seduces Mary “Perdita” Robinson on a bet and is always living beyond his means in the more rarefied company:

Tarleton was constantly with the royal brothers. Cricket, horse racing, musicals, and card playing consumed their time and energy. “Last Friday a match at Cricket was played, on the Flat near Brighton; the Duke of York on one side, and Colonel Tarleton on the other; who chose eleven each,” said the Oracle of August 20 [1789]. “The Duke’s side fetched in their inning 292; Colonel Tarleton’s 7, having five wickets to do down.” The game was not played out for lack of time, but “The same gentlemen will play again on Wednesday for 100 guineas; Colonel Tarleton is to have Street the Miller.”

The Green Dragoon is full of such details. The more you read through its undeniably entertaining pages, the more you understand why the thing has a title like something you’d find in Georgette Heyer’s backlist.

Of course, there’s no real disguising a creature like Tarleton. It was that creature who was shunned by the convivial victors at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (aggrieved, he took aside the Comte de Rochambeau and asked, “Why? Why am I thus humiliatingly singled out? It was wartime!” to which Rochambeau, recoiling just a bit in that way the French have of forever seeming not to want to get mud on their clothes, replied, “It was wartime. But none was like lucy reads the green dragoonyou”), and it was that Tarleton who was snubbed for promotions later in life and again appealed in squealing outrage (this time to the Prince Regent, who eventually awarded him a baronetcy). And it was that Tarleton who loudly and mockingly resisted the efforts of Charles James Fox and others to urge Parliament to abolish the slave trade – and by that point in his book, Bass is so accustomed to defending his subject that he repeats his lines without commentary, refraining even from mentioning the personal financial stake Tarleton had in that vast industry of human misery:

General Tarleton had the greatest objections to this bill. He spoke of the rise of the commercial city of Liverpool. He told again of her ships in the African trade. Again he proclaimed Liverpool the nursery of England’s seamen. And again – and for the last time – he lamented the value of her property about to be destroyed.

There haven’t been many biographies of Banastre Tarleton, and the man’s own memoir defending his military service in America is thankfully long ago and permanently out of print. But The Green Dragoon makes wonderful reading despite the creature at its center. For $1 at the Brattle Bookshop, it was the right choice.

March 28th, 2015

Yours Ever!

yours everOur book today is Thomas Mallon’s 2009 love-letter to letters, Yours Ever, and it was brought to my mind by the sudden realization that I myself am now finished with postal correspondence. A good friend of mine, a little old lady who reviews the same novel every week for the Silver Spring Scold, has moved out of the little book-filled apartment where she’s lived since the Crimean War (she’s gone into managed care, where a strapping young live-in nurse will make sure she eats her vegetables), and although she and I haven’t exchanged “snail mail” letters in many years, it was to that old now-vacated address of hers that I sent a stream of such letters, in the last years of Life Before Email.

That Life Before Email is given a great narrative testimonial in Mallon’s book, which is far more than a simple anthology of letters – instead, it’s a running chronology and biography of all the things letters were to the people who wrote them, grouped under such broad headings as “Friendship,” “Confession,” “War,” and of course “Love,” and it’s extremely touching that he’s bookish enough to both start and finish his account with references to one of the greatest snail-mail correspondents of them all, our old friend Charles Lamb:

Letters have always defeated distance, but with the coming of e-mail, time seemed to be vanquished as well. It’s worth spending a minute or two pondering the physics of the thing, which interested Charles Lamb even early in the nineteenth century. Domestic mail was already a marvel – “One drops a packet at Lombard Street, and in twenty-four hours a friend in Cumberland gets it as fresh as if it came in ice” – but in his essay “Distant Correspondents” (1822), Lamb seemed to regard remoteness and delay as inherent, vexing elements of the whole epistolary enterprise. Considering the gap between the dispatch and receipt of a far-traveling letter, he wrote: “Not only does truth, in these long intervals, unessence herself, but (what is harder) one cannot venture a crude fiction, for fear that it may ripen into a truth upon the voyage.”

He references lots of other people too, from Oscar Wilde to F. Scott Fitzgerald to the irrepressible Mitford Sisters (another titan of letter-writing, the Dutch humanist Erasmus, is entirely ignored, a fact that will hardly surprise his two or three living partisans), always threading his narratives through rapid-fire quotations of their letters rather than simply block-quoting. That way, we get deliciously dense paragraphs like this one when he’s discussing another champion letter-writer, Lord Byron:

Eight years after his famous swim across the Hellespont, Byron can inform his friend John Hobhouse that he has now swum “from Lido right to the end of the Grand Canal” – though in a modest P. S., he notes: “The wind and tide were both with me.” Shelley, by contrast, cannot swim at all, a fact that Byron imparts to the publisher John Murray on May 15, 1819. Three years later he will be posting news of Shelley’s drowning and funeral to Thomas Moore, composing his famous description of the pyre (“All of Shelley was consumed, except his heart, which would not take the flame”) only after he has described his own sunburn: “I have suffered much pain; not being able to lie on my back, or even side.” The difference is simple: he is alive and Shelley is dead. He writes one letter to Moore at four a. m., while “dawn gleams over the Grand Canal, and unshadows the Rialto. I must to bed; up all night – but, as George Philpot says, ‘it’s life, though, damme it’s life!’”

Any veteran letter-writer will be nodding as they read that mention of how the fact that dawn is breaking after a long night in no way means the letter-writing should be postponed. No, snail-mail letters were atmospheric creations, meant as much to capture the moments of their inscription as to tell the tale of their tidings. I wrote letters to that little old lady while riding on buses, while stalled on the subway, while reveling in the stateliness of Bates Hall, while sitting in an endless succession of waiting rooms, and in new apartments surrounded by a hundred unopened boxes of books. And in return I got letters written in cafes, in parks, and on journeys far and wide. Without any sense of contradiction or superfluity, we would telephone each other in order to announce that we’d just posted a nice long letter, and a demographic entirely raised on email and Skype will have no ready realization of the sharp surge of joy that used to accompany getting one of those letters in the mail. Suddenly, in the midst of the strife and disappointment of the day, a distant friend was right there with you, in a tactile immediacy (a few days before, they had hand-written the words you’re reading, sometimes pausing to tap the pen on their teeth, or pet a cat, or look out a window) that emails, however miraculous, don’t share. It’s a quality that was put quite centuries ago, by Heloise writing to poor maimed Peter Abelard:

If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all the force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present.

Yours Ever captures great swathes of that epistolary passion as no other book I know quite lucy reads yours everdoes (the hack reviewer for the Los Angeles Times gets the prize for best blurb: “Puts the belle back in belles-lettres”), and it made for bittersweet re-reading this morning. Not bittersweet for any explicit loss – after all, that little old lady and I email several times every day, as I do with a great many of my former snail-mail correspondents. Email is instantaneous; email carries with it none of the agonizing frustration of waiting for the mail; email can include photos (and those photos don’t – won’t ever again – require walking to the photo shop, dropping off the film, and waiting until you have pictures; no more specifying that you want double-prints specifically so that you can send some in letters); email is superior, plain and simple, to the lumbering process it replaced. But I loved that process, and I was very good at it, and it was bittersweet to think that the new tenants of that space my friend vacated will never know the sublime joy of getting a letter in the mail.

March 26th, 2015

Ink Chorus: Days of Reading!

james franco typing

days of reading coverOur book today is a pretty little thing from the Penguin “Great Ideas” series, Days of Reading by Marcel Proust, here translated and abridged and pasted together by John Sturrock back in 1988. These “Great Ideas” volumes wonderfully relished in the narrow focus: a few essays, a few excerpts along key themes, and they were beautifully-designed enough to suggest that they themselves were great ideas, perfect little pocket-ponderings chipped from the larger works of some of the world’s greatest authors.

In this case, since we’re talking about Marcel Proust, the chips are chunks. Sturrock serves up some choice slabs of the Master ruminating on John Ruskin (specifically Ruskin’s gorgeous lecture “Of Kings’ Treasuries” about the glories of libraries and beetle-close readings of texts) and on the bright centrality of books and reading in his own childhood. It should come as no surprise to anybody who’s read Proust or tried to that in his childhood the call of the written word was significantly stronger than any of the more typical siren songs of boyhood, and needless to say, his reminiscences of those years are as much about reminiscing as they are about the years themselves:

There are no days of my childhood which I lived so fully perhaps as those I thought I had left behind without living them, those I spent with a favourite book. Everything which, it seemed, filled them for others, but which I pushed aside as a vulgar impediment to a heavenly pleasure: the game for which a friend came to fetch me at the most interesting passage, the troublesome bee or the shaft of sunlight which forced me to look up from the page or to change my position, the provisions for tea which I had been made to bring an which I had left beside me on the seat, untouched, while, above my head, the sun was declining in strength in the blue sky, the dinner for which I had had to return home and during which my one thought was to go upstairs straight away afterwards, and finish the rest of the chapter; reading should have prevented me from seeing all this as anything except importunity, but, on the contrary, so sweet is the memory it engraved in me (and so much more precious in my present estimation than what I then read so lovingly) that if still, today, I chance to leaf through these books from the past, it is simply as the only calendars I have preserved of those bygone days, and in the hope of finding reflected in their pages the houses and the ponds which no longer exist.

But re-reading Days of Reading just recently, I was struck by a greater seam of humanity in Proust than I’d tended to notice before. This is an author venerated to the point of idolatry by at least a dozen serious readers I’ve known in my life, and yet his magic has never worked on me, and the monstrous-whopping work for which he’s famous has always struck me as impenetrably dull. And yet, there were many points in Days of Reading where I found myself not only agreeing with him but liking him in ways I never had before, as a section where he almost grows irate at the callous ways authors sometimes dispense with their own characters, lucy reads proustwhich have grown into real people in the mind of the receptive reader:

Was there no more to the book than this, then? These creatures on whom one had bestowed more attention an affection than on those in real life, not always daring to admit to what extent you loved them, and even, when my parents found e reading and seemed to smile at my emotion, closing the book with studied indifference or a pretence of boredom; never again would one see these people for whom one had sobbed and yearned, never again hear of them. Already, in the last few pages, the author himself, in his cruel ‘Epilogue’, had been careful to ‘space them out’ with an indifference not to be credited by anyone who knew the interest with which he had followed them hitherto, step by step. The occupation of each hour of their lives had been narrated to us. Then, all of a sudden: ‘Twenty years after thee events an old man might have been met with in the rue des Fourgeres, still erect, etc.’

Days of Reading reminded me that I very much liked Proust’s On Reading Ruskin when I read it a lifetime ago and made me wonder, for the hundredth time, if the hour had come for me to re-attack this author with a will and purpose … very much including that monstrous-whopping work for which he’s famous. No matter how that goes, Days of Reading, in its skimpy 100 pages, certainly always pleases.

March 25th, 2015

Rome for Ourselves!

rome for ourselvesOur book today is a charmer from the coffee tables of yesteryear: it’s Rome for Ourselves by Aubrey Menen, a delightful, highly personal 1960 look at the history of the Eternal City, written by one of its most remarkable citizens at the time.

Menen was born in London in 1912, the son of an Indian father and an Irish mother. He went to University College and immediately started writing, and he didn’t stop writing until shortly before his death in 1989. His career was helped along by none other than H. G. Wells, but it would have flourished anyway: he was simply too indefatigable, writing plays, essays, a torrent of book reviews, a series of clever and very readable novels, and a nonfiction collection called Dead Man in the Silver Market that would be the next high-profile New York Review of Books reprint if there were any justice among New York’s hipsterati.

And along the way, he wrote this odd, erudite, opinionated romp through the long history of Rome – its various eras, its standout personalities, its artists, its high points and copious low points, all of it lavishly illustrated in this oversized McGraw-Hill edition. Most of the pictures are reproduced in black-and-white, and even the color ones are curiously pleasantly offset by the book’s war-ration beige pulp paper. But of course the foremost joy of the book is AubreyMenen himself, quipping left, right, and center about emperors, Medici, and popes. About the august Pax Romana, for example, he’s firmly sardonic:

The object of all empires is theft, whether it be through taxes, concessions or plain looting. Most thieves think stealing is clever, but the Romans, when their larceny began to embrace all the nations of the Mediterranean, began to feel that robbery on such a scale had a certain moral grandeur.

The exotic details of his own upbringing color so many of his anecdotes that you quickly begin to feel he’s the perfect guide to a story of great concentrations of ruling power – and such great crowds of those dependent on it. “Twenty or more years ago, I had spent some time as the guest of ruling princes,” he tells us, and how many authors can open a line like that? “This was in India, but all over the world courtiers are alike. They all suffer, with dignity, a tyrannous employer.”

He’s excellent on all the stages of Rome’s greatness, from the emperors to the medieval scholars to the Renaissance and onward (so excellent, in fact, that I’m always willing to overlook his barbarous dismissal of Canova and the easily-maligned glories of Neoclassicism), but he’s particularly shrewd about the rulers of Rome in his own day – the popes – and one in lucy reads aubrey menenparticular, the greatest of them all:

All the world saw the crowning of Pope John XXIII. Most of it thought, under the tutelage of the newspaper correspondents, that he was being crowned Pope. But popes do not need a crown. John XXIII, an hour before his crowning, had already taken his place upon the throne of St. Peter. He had already, as Supreme Pontiff and St. Peter’s successor, said Mass at the papal altar over the Apostle’s tomb. His cardinals had already twice done obeisance before him. Then, and only then, as the acknowledged Pope, did he go to the balcony of the basilica and permit a cardinal to place a crown on his head.

Even if Aubrey Menen were some day to be the object of one of these literary revivals that periodically sweep the Republic of Letters in a nine days wonder (before leaving Henry Green once again every bit as forgotten as he rightfully should be), this big wonderful Rome for Ourselves wouldn’t be a part of it – the arcana governing the production of picture books like this one usually precludes them from reprinting, alas. But if you should ever spot a copy, battered and wavy with snowmelt, at your local used bookstore, keep in mind that you once heard it very strenuously recommended!

March 22nd, 2015

The Second Stevereads Book Outlet Box-Haul!

book outlet boxOur books today are the proceeds from my latest Book Outlet haul, done in my ongoing pining hopes of someday being cool enough to be on BookTube, where such hauls are a standard part of the landscape! Even this early in my association with the site, my shopping has developed certain rules: first, the price I pay for any book has to be no more than the price I’d be willing to pay if I found the same book at my beloved Brattle Bookshop; second, the book can’t be a whim – the Brattle can supply those well enough for several book outlet haul 17 march 15lifetimes, after all – but something I actually want, and third, I’ve got to remain fairly open-minded in my choices, picking what appeals rather than following a plan. Although this time around, a plan seemed to come looking for me! This time turned out to be a chance to stock up on my science fiction and fantasy titles from the very recent past:

black prism coverThe Black Prism by Brent Weeks – This 2010 first installment in the Lightbringer series actually got some razzing for his molten, suggestive cover illustration by Richard Jones, but I think it’s great – certainly much better than the bland, almost conceptual cover of the book’s sequel, The Blinding Knife. I thought this book – set in a world where the magic derives from light – was terrific; in it, Weeks really indulges himself in unlikeable characters (always something of a specialty of his), and the world-building and magic-systems didn’t bother me nearly as much as they did some of Weeks’ legion of loyal fans.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins – This 2013 novel, with its wolfhound century coverstark and brooding cover by Lauren Panepinto, struck me as tremendously impressive when I first read it, so of course I was relieved when my Open Letters colleague Justin Hickey, much smarter than I am and a better judge of sci-fi/fantasy, liked it too and reviewed it glowingly. It’s a story so brimming with gonzo creativity as to be almost impossible to summarize faithfully, but it’s set in a weird, alternate-reality Soviet Union filled to the rooftops with off-kilter magics, through which our suitably stoic hero, Investigator Vissarion Lom, must navigate to solve a series of terrorist outrages and catch the people responsible – even if they’re not really people. Higgins fills his steampunk Russia with dark wonders, and since I gave my original copy to Justin, I was glad to snap up a paperback for myself.

fallen blade coverThe Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood – This 2011 first book in the Assassini trilogy impressed me when I read and Exhiled Blade_1.inddreviewed it a few years ago; I liked it even from the stark, atmospheric cover (also by Lauren Panepinto – it’s no surprise to me that the people at Orbit Books kept her well employed), and I loved its setting of an alternate-reality 15th century Venice in which sorcerers and vampires vie for power with bravos and politicians, and I loved Grimwood’s best creation, the boy Tycho, a fierce combination of Locke Lamorna and the vampire Lestat. I also got the third book in the series, The Exiled Blade, in which Tycho’s adventures reach a kind of climax; that means I’m only missing the middle book, The Outcast Blade, which I didn’t seem to find on Book Outlet, at least this time around.

iceforgedcover2Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin – this 2013 first book in the Ascendant Kingdoms saga intrigued me back when I first read and reviewed it (foolishly calling fierce Boston snowstorms a thing of the past – but then, how could I or anybody have predicted the Fell Winter of February 2015?), this story about a valiant man condemned to penal servitude in his world’s frozen northern wastelands who becomes a pivotal figure in a land where the background-radiation magic tapped by mountebanks and wizards alike is becoming fitful and unpredictable. And I’ll be glad to re-read it in this Book Outlet paperback, still sporting its Larry Rostant cover that’s both dramatic and nonsensical (you don’t go bare-armed, bare-throated, and bare-headed in arctic cold, and you don’t rest a naked double-edged longsword on your shoulder).

Charming by Elliott James – This 2013 first installment in the “Pax Arcana” series (with acharming cover cover design by the hugely-talented Wendy Chan and a sultry, pouting cover photo by Shirley Green) slipped my notice when it first appeared – maybe there’s still enough of the SFF purist-geek in me to make the Romance-ish cover a bit off-putting (or maybe it doesn’t feature the right model?). But when I saw it at Book Outlet, it seemed to fit perfectly with the overall theme of this shopping cart! It’s the story of the latest in a long line of Prince Charmings, this one spurning his heroic destiny to tend bar in Virginia, far from the supernatural menaces his line was created to fight … until those menaces find him. A not terrifically original premise, but I figured since I like Kevin Hearne’s “Iron Druid” chronicles, I’d give this a try.

the emperor's blades coverThe Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley – I loved this 2013 first book in the “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series back when I read and reviewed it, drawn not only by Richard Anderson‘s somber, evocative cover and by the fact that a book this good, this textured, could be Staveley’s debut. It’s the story of three very dissimilar siblings in the empire of Annur who are forced to fight their way to the capital when their father the emperor is mysteriously murdered, and since – as usual – I have no idea what happened to the hardcover I originally owned, I gladly added this paperback to my list.

Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon – I tried in vain to get this big fathawk quest cover historical novel from Hachette when it first appeared in 2012, and I waited in vain for it to appear on the bargain carts of the trusty Brattle Bookshop ever since, so seeing it for a Brattle-like price at Book Outlet was all the nudge I needed. Unlike all the other books in this haul, it’s not sci-fi or fantasy: it’s a straight-up historical novel about a brave, clever 11th-century warrior and his allies who must undertake a quest spanning the entire known world, and several writers I respect (most of them purveyors of fine historical fiction themselves) have praised it. And it’s a nice long thing, nearly 700 pages – and as if that weren’t enough, it’s got a nifty cover by that by-now familiar name, Lauren Panepinto! What more could I ask?

godless coverThe Godless by Ben Peek – Ervin Serrano’s cover design for this 2014 book might be a bit simple and lackluster (it’s a flaming sword, with a background of mountains … it could literally belong to any SFF book ever written), but the book itself is intensely good, the story of a world where the gods annihilated themselves in battle thousands of years prior to the story’s beginning, and now the world is littered with their giant, rotting skeletons – the radiation from which gives some poor mortals unpredictable superpowers. It’s against such a fascinating backdrop that Peek weaves a rousing tale of violence and treachery, and I loved the book so much when I first got it in the mail that you’d think I’d have, I don’t know, kept it … but nooooo.

Forever Rumpole by John Mortimer – This final book of my latest Book Outlet book haul is forever rumpole cover– quite fittingly – entirely unlike the others! It’s a compilation of some of the best of Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” stories, and I read and reviewed it back in 2011 when it first appeared but somehow – contain your surprise, now – lost the nice heavy hardcover I had at the time. The paperback, with its winningly simple design by the great David Adel, works just fine for me.

And there you have it! My March 2015 Book Outlet book-haul, delivered through blinding snowstorms and heavily leaning toward sci-fi and fantasy! Will there be such a theme for my April haul from this website to which I’m now devoted? Tune in next month and see!

lucy's third book outlet haul

March 20th, 2015

Supergirl!

showcase supergirlOur book today is the 2007 Supergirl volume of DC Comics’ “Showcase Presents,” which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement of a live-action WB TV “Supergirl” series coming up soon, starring a pleasant-faced young woman named Melissa Benoist (and also starring, in a bit of a casting coup, Dean Cain, who played Superman on TV, and the beautiful Helen Slater, who played Supergirl – opposite Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway, no less – on the big screen) as the Girl of Steel – a show that might very well end up enjoying as long and healthy a life as the WB’s “Smallville” series about Clark Kent’s life before donning his costume.

The prospect of a new incarnation of Supergirl gaining a new generation of fans naturally sent me back to this volume, which collects the first few dozen appearances of the character, from the famous “The Supergirl from Krypton!” by Otto Binder way back in 1959, in which a cruising-by Superman spots a rocket ship crashing to Earth. He gets there too late and assumes that the crew must all be dead, but instead, out pops a cheerful teenage girl wearing a skirted version of his own costume!

curt swan supergirl
Curt Swan’s Supergirl

Superman, naturally, has lots of questions. What’s up with the costume? The invulnerability? How can she be from his lost homeworld of Krypton when she’s a teenager and it blew up around 30 years ago (33 and a half, in the old-DC reckoning)? How can she know English? How can she know who he is?

Smiling and well-prepared (did she guide her rocket ship straight to him? Did she rehearse?), she explains: when Krypton exploded, her entire home town – and the chunk of real estate on which it was built – was blasted intact into space. The townspeople erected a dome to protect themselves (and, presumably, they had similar ways to restore gravity and manufacture a breathable atmosphere, etc.), and when the very ground under their feet turned to deadly radioactive kryptonite (no explanation there – probably Binder was told by his editors that ‘all chunks of Krypton after the explosion of Krypton became kryptonite”), it was discovered that – through sheer luck – Supergirl’s scientist father just happened to have, rolled up in his basement, enough lead sheeting to cover every inch of ground in the entire town – parks, sidewalks, streets, sewers … all of it! A rather large amount of lead sheeting to have in your basement, but there you have it – population saved!

superman family1
Nick Cardy’s Supergirl

For a time, everything’s fine. The marooned city flies through space, and a little baby girl is born, grows up, and becomes a perky teenager. But then the city is hit by a meteor storm that damages the lead sheeting, exposing the population to deadly kryptonite radiation again. In desperation, the teenage girl’s father builds a rocket capable of allowing her to escape from the town: “We have a month before Kryptonite radiations slowly poison the air!” he says. “But before that fatal hour, this rocket will send our daughter to another world!”

“But which world?” his wife asks. “I’ll use the Super-Space Telescope to find some civilized world where Kara can grow up safely!”

After an indeterminate amount of time looking, it’s the girl who spots something unusual: “Look, Mother! Who is that flying man?”

“I … I don’t know, dear!” her mother replies. “But that is a civilized world! I’ll pick up their broadcasts with our space radio, and decipher their language!” And this is what they hear:

“The city of Metropolis pays tribute today to Superman who originally came from the planet

DC's Top 3 by Jose Garcia-Lopez
DC’s Top 3 by Jose Garcia-Lopez

Krypton! He gained his super-powers in earth’s lesser gravity!”

They can’t understand the language, of course – we’re dutifully told they took time to ‘decipher’ it. At which point the fate of the girl, Kara, is sealed: “Then you too would have super-powers on Earth, Kara! We’ll send you there to meet Superman, who is one of our people!”

So, Kara tells Superman, that’s how her heroic father, Zor-El, saved her life. Zor-El! Superman is astounded yet again: his own father was JOR-El! He and Kara are first cousins!

He straightaway tests her superpowers, then parks her in an orphanage and orders her to assume a secret identity, and she proceeds to have lots and lots of adventures. And reading these earliest stories again for the first time in decades, I’m struck anew by just how awfully, incredibly, nauseatingly bad the whole character-story is from start to finish.

Don’t get me wrong, most female super-hero character-stories are incredibly bad. But they’re usually harmlessly so. For every actually original concept – like Wonder Woman – you’ve got ten that are only straight-up female derivatives of established male characters: Hawkgirl, Batgirl, Bulletgirl, She-Hulk, etc. But in most of those cases, at least the derivation baseline works. Gamma radiation, Nth metal, cowl-and-utility belt … these things can be transferred. It’s dumb and lazy and sexist, but it’s at least plausible.

Steve Rude's Supergirl
Steve Rude’s Supergirl

But there’s a lot more to Superman’s character-story than the fact that Earth’s lesser gravity and yellow sun give him superpowers. In the classic version of his origin, his father Jor-El is the only planetary scientist smart enough and visionary enough to see that Krypton is doomed, and when he rails at the Science Council (telling them, among other things, that they must begin work on a fleet of space-arks immediately), they consider him insane. He has a baby son and no choice but to work in secret to create a rocket that will send his child safely off-world – and it works: infant Kal-El is safely on his way to Earth when vain, oblivious Krypton explodes. It’s an elegant, even elemental story.

And it doesn’t transfer. It’s not that it doesn’t transfer well, it’s that it doesn’t transfer at all. Even if we credit that Kara Zor-El’s home town would have been miraculously jettisoned intact rather than destroyed by Krypton’s explosion, the one thing every single person in that town would now believe beyond a shadow of a doubt was the very thing poor Jor-El couldn’t get anybody to believe: planets explode.

But what do the space-stranded Kryptonians of Kara’s home town do, once they find themselves sailing through the galaxy? Do they attempt to find an actual world to live on? No. Do they manufacture more lead sheeting, in case anything happens to the flooring on which all their lives depend? Apparently not. Do they build … a fleet of space-arks?

Well, one of them does. Zor-El specifically says “WE” have a month before the deadly

Darwyn Cooke's Supergirl
Darwyn Cooke’s Supergirl

kryptonite radiation seeps through the damaged flooring and kills everybody in town … but not only does he not use that time to repair the damage, he clearly doesn’t tell any other townspeople that he’s working on a rocketship to save his daughter. HE has the equipment to manufacture such a thing – surely other people in town might too? Surely there are other teenagers, equally brimming with life, who’d be every bit as enthusiastic about the idea of going to Earth and getting superpowers? But for that entire month, during outings and trips to the grocery store and the bookstore and to Mass, Zor-El and his wife and his teenage daughter smile and chat and don’t mention to any of their worried, terrified friends and neighbors that Kara’s got a one-way ticket to safety. It’s the exact opposite of Jor-El’s doomed bravery; it’s positively grotesque villainy, worse than anything Lex Luthor would ever dream of doing.

Adam Hughes' Supergirl
Adam Hughes’ Supergirl

And when the big day comes, Kara blasts off safely, the roar of her personal rocket ship drowning out the screams of her irradiated parents and friends and neighbors and teachers. Young Superman is rocketed alone because Jor-El doesn’t have time to build a vessel big enough for all three of them – the planet’s breakup accelerates with a speed that catches even him off-guard. Zor-El has a full month and knows it – we’re never given an explanation why he doesn’t at least save his whole family, especially since they wouldn’t exactly be wretched immigrants at Ellis Island – they’d all have superpowers.

Even way back when I first encountered this origin story, I detested it. Not only did it completely undercut the conceptual originality of the character of Superman (and those of you weisenheimers eager to point out that Krypto the Superdog had already done that, kindly stifle yourselves), but it plastered over with white bread American smiles the fact that Kara Zor-El’s parents were out-and-out monsters – and so was she. She knew for an entire month that her parents were planning on saving her from her doomed city, and that they weren’t planning on saving anybody else, or even telling anybody else that salvation was possible. It’s despicable.

And on top of all that, the character herself was so, you’ll forgive the term, unoriginal. All the

Melissa Benoist's Supergirl
Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl

infinite possibilities for personality and appearance, and Otto Binder decides to give us a grinning, hyper-earnest, incorruptibly good duplicate of Superman himself.

Of course, that’s changed a few times over the decades, and it’s certainly different now, in DC’s “New 52” lineup of comics, in which young Supergirl is much of a piece with all their other characters: grim, joyless, ultra-violent, calmly homicidal – a floating sociopath in a G-string and a red cape.

my little Supergirl
my little Supergirl

Which makes this upcoming WB incarnation of the character a bit interesting: in a couple of the publicity shots, she’s smiling. That might be something DC heroes on the WB do fairly regularly, but it’s actually forbidden in the comics themselves. It’s possible this WB version of the character will at least be watchable … even if she is encumbered by a sheer amount of baggage so large it might be tough even for Supergirl to carry it all. We shall see. My guess is that the uber-geeks at the WB comics-shows division (booming right now, with half a dozen more ‘properties’ in the works) have already noticed, over endless Red Bulls, all the problems I point out here and are intending to give their Kara Zor-El a very different origin story from the one Otto Binder gave his all those years ago.

March 18th, 2015

Quacks and Pingbacks in the Penny Press!

bunch-of-magazines1

I’ve had occasion to comment many times here at Stevereads about some of the contradictions that seem hard-wired into the particular magazine sub-genre of the lad-mag “men’s” titles. They routinely feature ‘back to basics’ articles teaching their audience of over-salaried mjdouche-dudes how to strip away the clutter from their lives and live simply and organically, but they also feature glossy product-endorsements for $25,000 bicycles and $70,000 wristwatches. They line up the most enticing recipes for healthy salads and smoothies, but their pages are loaded with color ads for cigars and chewing tobacco. And as a persistent curiosity, although they notify their readers of all the various health problems they’ll face once they’re their editors’ ages, they also feel the need to have an in-house doctor to answer emailed questions. And the doctors are always, always quacks.

Probably this is because real doctors, responsible ones, are both too busy and too smart to try trash-compacting meaningful scientific answers into bite-sized ‘Hey Bro’ two-sentence answers, but that just makes the whole phenomenon more troubling, since it means the quacks who end up taking the job – who’ll very likely be the only medical authority these young readers consult until their prostates drop through the kitchen floor – pretty much have the field to themselves. The resultant reading can be entertaining, as long as you don’t take any of it too seriously.

A perfect case in point would be the – and I’m not making this up – “Ask Dr. Bob” feature of my beloved Men’s Journal. The feature promises: “Our in-house doc answers your questions about health, fitness, and living adventurously,” and this latest issue starts off with a pretty simple question: “Every spring, my asthma gets worse. What can I do?”

Dr. Bob always has an answer at the ready, and his first lines are usually geared along the Superfreakonomics line of “What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed … wow! tell me more!” And this is no exception: he fires back, “Get some sunshine.”

Sunshine? But I thought we were talking about asthma? Huh? Dr. Bob explains:

A recent study from Tel Aviv University of more than 20,000 asthmatics found that those with a vitamin D deficiency were 25 percent more likely to have flare-ups. Asthma causes inflammation in, and narrowing of, the airways; vitamin D may counter these ill effects by bolstering the immune system and reducing inflammation. Natural light is the best way for your body to synthesize the vitamin, and you should aim for 15 minutes of rays – or about half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink – two or three times a week (you can find out exactly how much sun you need for your skin type and location with the app Dminder). And if you can’t get outside, take a vitamin D supplement of at least 2,000 IU daily.

Sunshine! What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed …

The Tel Aviv study Dr. Bob mentions of course turns out to be less than useless, except for its counter-intuitive value. It involved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of patient records … but no living patients, and certainly no actual testing: in other words, it was just an extended exercise in computer algorithms. And computer algorithms from only one study. Given the base numbers, the same ‘study’ could also have found a correlation between asthma flare-up and being left-handed. Want to help your asthma? Try switching your writing hand! A recent study shows … What? My writing hand? But I thought  – I mean, I always assumed … So what’s the point of the blithe reply? My guess would be to root around in that Dminder app (who helped develop it, who has financial stakes in Dr. Bob recommending it, who’s helping its developer – RobCo., Inc, to publicize it, etc.), but it hardly matters – Dr. Bob has plenty more advice to dispense. Like to this poor sufferer:

I recently broke my arm skiing. Is there anything I can do to stay in decent shape while I recover?

And Dr. Bob’s answer?

First, keep exercising your good arm. Doing shoulder presses and raises, triceps extensions, and biceps curls with your non-injured arm will actually prevent your bad arm from getting weaker. That’s thanks to a process called the contralateral strength training effect – when one side gets stronger, it helps the other side retain strength, too. (A recent study found this can actually help you gain 8 percent of strength in your injured limb.)

What? A kind of exercise that strengthens muscles you aren’t working? But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …

Fortunately, there’s always the mighty TLS as a respite from quackery … to ping-backery! In online parlance, a ‘pingback’ happens when something you wrote is linked-to from somewhere out there in cyberspace. I don’t have any use for that definition here, since Stevereads is still, after all these years, the best-kept secret in the book-circles of the Internet, but in lieu of actual, you know, popularity, I’ve devised a different definition: for me, a ‘pingback’ happens when a literary journal to which I subscribe publishes a review of a book I myself have likewise reviewed.

That happened not once, not twice, but three times in the 6 March issue of the TLS. Gerald Butt tlstook care of two of those three times all by himself, reviewing in one piece both Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig and Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel. He found both books very worthy, as did I, reviewing the Ihrig here and the Motadel here. And Sumita Mukherjee turned in a shorter but very tight review of Anita Anand’s delightful Sophia, about the Sikh princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who became a suffragette during the reign of her godmother Queen Victoria. I reviewed the book for a newspaper on the other side of the world and had a grand time doing it, so I was pleased that Mukherjee categorizes it as “necessary” – grudging though such a term tends to sound.

And when I was done enjoying those pingbacks, I cut them out of the issue, crumpled them up, and ate them with a chaser of prune juice. I read a Yelp review that mentioned somebody mentioning a study somewhere that said crumpled-up book reviews help you re-grow your baby teeth, you see, and I really miss those little guys.

Re-grow baby teeth!!! But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …

March 14th, 2015

On Crime Writing!

on crime writingOur book today is another skimpy little thing, a 1973 Capra chapbook combining two essays by the crime fiction writer who worked under the pen name of Ross MacDonald, and although it fits in with our deep-breath respite from enormous whopping volumes, it’s also undeniable in this case that we probably don’t want this particular booklet to be much longer than it is. MacDonald led a storied life, and he wrote two dozen murder mystery novels starring his stoical, capable, boring gumshoe Lew Archer. Those novels tended to be over-praised in MacDonald’s lifetime, and some of his stuff has been ushered into the Library of America in our own time, but like so many of his fellow hardboiled-detective authors, the man could overestimate his professorial capabilities.

The two pieces in this chapbook, The Writer as Detective Hero and Writing the Galton Case, form perfect cases-in-point. In the second, MacDonald takes us through an interesting but fairly standard account of the genesis of one of his most popular novels, The Galton Case, but where his hero Raymond Chandler might have made such an essay crackle with pointed anecdotes, MacDonald hauls in Freud and Oedipus and just generally overdoes things.

He’s far more bearable in the first essay, The Writer as Detective Hero, in which he traces the autobiographical elements in the genre’s most popular characters, from Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Hammett’s Spade to Chandler’s Marlowe. And although this lucy reading ross macdonaldanalysis would be a lot more enjoyable if it weren’t so clearly encouraging the reader to end that sequence with “to MacDonald’s Lew Archer,” it’s still plenty enjoyable, with some neat observations about the nature of the genre’s gimmicks:

Nostalgia for a privileged society accounts for one of the prime attractions of the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts. Neither wars nor the dissolution of governments and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world.

At one point MacDonald writes, “Detective story writers are often asked why we devote our talents to working in a mere popular convention.” And then he answers his own posed question: “One answer is that there may be more to our use of the convention than meets the eye.” It never seems to occur to him that another answer – more plausible and more obvious to many of his readers, then or now, is: “Because ‘mere popular convention’ is just about as much as your talents can handle.” But maybe that’s a tale for another chapbook.

March 13th, 2015

The Fur Hat!

the fur hatOur book today is a bit of an antidote to the massive doorstops we’ve been dealing with recently here on Stevereads: it’s The Fur Hat, a 120-page 1989 novella by caustic and sometimes brilliant Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich, here translated into English by Susan Brownsberger.

The book is a treat of hangdog sarcasm. It tells the story of Soviet writer Yefim Rakhlin, a popular hack author who’s been a member of the Writers’ Union for eighteen years and has spent all of that time churning out one new book a year, non-political adventure stories starring decent, heroic people facing and overcoming natural disasters in order to perform selfless deeds. His books – with titles like Avalanche! Operation! And Ore! (“It’s not just the ore in the earth, it’s the ore in each of us …”) – are all bestsellers, and although we’re told that “in his heart of hearts, he always wanted to write something obscure and even impenetrable,” Rakhlin usually sets his literary sites at more mundane levels:

After typing the title of the novel, Operation!, Yefim stopped to ponder. He pictured the word displayed vertically. The fact that his more recent novels all had titles consisting of only one word was no accident. Yefim had noticed that the popularization of literary works was greatly facilitated if the titles could be used in crossword puzzles. The puzzles were a form of free advertisement that had been scorned by those authors who gave their works such long and many-worded titles as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment.

When he discovers that the Literary Fund has decided to honor the country’s writers by presenting them with fur hats, and that the quality of the fur hats will reflect the Fund’s estimation of the prose-quality of the recipients – reindeer fawn for the best, muskrat for the next echelon, marmot below that, and so on – Rahklin is first outraged and then obsessed over the fact that he himself will be getting a hat made of common tomcat.

In a series of deftly-handled comic escalations, Voinovich quickly intensifies this absurd premise to lucy reading the fur hathilarious extents. As Rahklin’s outrage mounts, he gains more attention and becomes something of a cause celebre, seen as a defiant rebel against the Writers’ Union where he’d before been such a faithful member. His notoriety extends even abroad (when a Voice of America broadcast refers to him as a “leading” Russian writer, he can’t help but preen), and Voinovich keeps things so funny that his readers will need to remind themselves that they’re also taking in some fairly acidic observations about envy, state censorship, and of course celebrity culture.

And all in forty-five minutes of reading! It’s like a taste of Spring.