July 23rd, 2015
Our book today is John Rowland’s warm and wonderful 1947 classic Cache Lake Country, ostensibly about the author’s small rough-living getaway cabin deep in the vast Ontario North Woods, although as Rowland makes clear at the outset, the quiet and sheer beauty of the place almost abstracts the place from any map or guidebook:
On most maps Cache Lake is only a speck hidden among other blue patches big enough to have names, and unless you know where to look you will never find it. But a place like Cache Lake is seldom discovered on a map. You just come on it – that is if you are lucky. Most men who travel the north woods sooner or later happen on a lake or stream that somehow they cannot forget and always want to go back to. Generally they never do go back.
Fortunately for all his readers (fewer now than back when this great book first appeared and became a small but genuine hit for its author – as far as I know, Cache Lake Country has been out of print for a long time), Rowland often found his way back, and he chronicles his adventures with a genial prose style very similar to the tone struck by Wyman Richardson in his own 1947 classic, The House on Nauset Marsh.
A big part of that similarity in tone comes from the fact that both books are filled with the beautiful black-and-white illustrations by the great Henry Bugbee Kane. The work he did on Cache Lake Country is elaborate: in addition to his customary gorgeous full-page pictures, he also provides dozens of spot illustrations and diagrams for the many do-it-yourself woods projects Rowland details throughout the book (making your own moccasins, creating a buck saw, identifying various animal tracks, etc.). Those diagrams add a very practical element to Rowland’s book, but the heart of the thing is sheer open-hearted wonder at the year’s seasons far from civilization. That sense of wonder is present on virtually every page, and it’s as fresh now as it was half a century ago. “The man who has never walked in the woods and smelled rain and felt it on his face has missed something indescribable,” he writes in a typical passage, both heartfelt and true. “But best of all I like the sound of rain playing on the roof at night about the time I am dropping off to sleep.”
At many points in the book, the folksy power of Rowland’s prose matches up perfectly with the quiet gracefulness of Kane’s illustration of the moment being described:
I knew it wouldn’t be long after the ice went out until the geese would be coming over. And sure enough, I heard them! The night was still and clear, the stars were sparkling like splintered crystal, and the cool white moon was loafing high over Snow Goose Lake when it came – that wonderful sound all men of the woods wait for every year – the hoarse honking of the big gray Canada geese. In clear weather they often fly right through the night and just hearing them does me a world of good. You can be sure there was a wise old gander at the point of that great flight wedge leading them on to the lonely salt marshes that stretch along the low shores of James Bay.
John Rowlands was of course entirely right: most people who’ve travelled lake and stream and wood have a place like Cache Lake held somewhere warm and energizing in their memories. Not many such people manage to make magic of their treasured getaway open and visible to everybody, but both Wyman Richardson and John Rowlands – both with enormous help from Henry Kane – managed to do it, and we’re all in their debt for it.
July 22nd, 2015
When it comes to genre fiction, could there be any words more encouraging than “First in a New Series”? Mysteries, sci-fi, and especially fantasy and romance tend to favor books-in-series to an absolutely exorbitant extent, to the point where by the time you happen to run across a series that might want to read, you immediately find out that it’s #126 in a tightly-woven sequence. And Crom pity you if you try to read it anyway! You stumble through unreferenced proper names for thirty pages until a character blurts out “asparagus!” and while all the series’ long-time fans are rejoicing in this shout-out to a pivotal event in book #87, you quietly slink off, defeated (perhaps to the many wonderful titles in the always-reliable Harlequin monthly lines, all of which are stand-alone stories designed to beguile an idle hour). So encountering, for instance, a new romance novel that proudly proclaims itself “First in a New Series” can be quite refreshing.
I encountered no less than three such novels in my latest Romance Roundup:
Desperado by Lisa Bingham – this novel is the first in the “Taggart Brothers” series revolving around, you guessed it, the three Taggart brothers of Bliss, Utah, three handsome wranglers who, true to form in almost all romance novels involving brothers, don’t actually act like brothers at all (one suspects that in just this one instance, the fact that the authors of these novels are always women works against them – the brothers in almost all romance novels act more like rival businessmen in a cutthroat corporation than they do like brothers, and who knows? Maybe that’s how it looks to people who might have the strongest imaginations in the world but have never actually been a brother). The focus-brother of this first book is brooding, wounded Elam Taggart, but the real star of the book is our feisty heroine, who’s introduced straight off:
P. D. Raines had learned early in life that she couldn’t give up, couldn’t give in – even though it sometimes felt as if the world was out to get her. Take her name, for instance. The moment P. D announced she was Prairie Dawn Raines, it was a foregone conclusion that strangers would assume she was a stripper or a fanatical, tree-hugging activist. Even worse, with such a fanciful name, they assumed she didn’t have a brain in her head – and she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Time and time again, she’d been told she would never amount to anything.
Even from such a thin slice of the opening, it’s clear that Desperado is going to be fairly heavy sledding for a romance novel (and that’s not even factoring in all the tragic stuff that’s happened to poor Elam before we even meet him). The “Taggart Brothers” series will be about seriously wounded hearts doing some serious mending, and although Bingham handles this first installment with a fair degree of intelligence, this degree of somber might not be what all romance readers are looking for in the middle of their summer reading. Fortunately, if that’s the case, another “First in a New Series” is right to hand promising less heartache and more alcohol intake:
The Best Medicine by Elizabeth Hayley – This first book stars master’s level psychology student Lauren Hastings, who hits a bad turn in life and retreats to a job at Trinity Hospital in her home state of Virginia, where she falls in love with super-hottie doctor Scott Jacobs, although when we first meet her, she’s crammed into a noisy bar with her closest friends:
“If one more douche bag bets handsy with me tonight, I’m going to go ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ on his ass,” Lauren yelled over the blaring techno and raucous crowd.
“Tell me about it,” Simone argreed. “I haven’t been groped this unappealingly since I was in the back of Todd Grady’s care in eleventh grade.”
“Doesn’t he go by ‘Tina’ now?” Cassidy asked.
Simone widened her eyes and slowly nodded her head. The girls instantly broke out in hysterics.
Lauren relished these nights with her girlfriends – casually drinking in Mickey’s Bar and Grill and flouncing around the dance floor like deranged Riverdance rejects. The four of them – Lauren, Simone, Cassidy, and Quinn – had been the Fantastic Foursome since middle school, though Lauren had known Quinn since kindergarten, when she’d dragged Quinn out of the lunch line so they could go ouside for recess early. They’d been friends ever since.
Hayley offers no acoustic advice on how to make things like “I haven’t been groped this unappealingly” intelligible while yelling, and such reserve is typical of the whole novel, which is entirely lighter on the attention-span than Desperado. We watch a temporary disgrace overtake Hayley, we watch her friends rally to her side (as she’ll no doubt rally to theirs, in upcoming novels), and we watch dreamy Doctor Scott loom larger and larger in her, um, affections. But if even that light dusting of meaningful redemption is still a bit too heavy for a sun-addled reader, well, this Romance Roundup aims to please everybody! Our third and final book today is pretty much pure escapism:
Just a Summer Fling by Cate Cameron – Welcome to Lake Sullivan, Vermont (the geographic spread of these three novels was pure coincidence, by the way – clearly, everybody has a different idea of what constitutes a “dream getaway”), where burnt-out movie star Ashley Carlsen, on vacation and being urged by “Hollywood power player” Jasmine McArthur to forget her troubles by having a mindless fling with a local super-hottie, encounters strapping local handyman Josh Sullivan – after the apparently-requisite opening scene of drunken excess:
Ashley Carlsen was drunk. She’d been drinking at the lake house all afternoon, and then they’d piled into the car and been driven to town where they’d found more delicious alcohol, and now? Drunk. It wasn’t unheard of for Ashley to have a few drinks too many when she was at home with her friends. But she’d never been so reckless as to lose control of herself out in a public place. She had an image to cultivate and maintain. Now that she’d dared to cut loose, though? She thought maybe she liked it.
But young Josh is a bit tired of being treated as eye-candy by bored women looking for a quick buffeting of the wainscoting – he’s a person, dammit, with feelings and self-respect! And just once he’d like to meet a woman who sees past his butt-clinging jeans and washboard abs … but will Ashley be such a woman? Readers are in at the ground floor for finding out.
July 19th, 2015
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.
July 15th, 2015
The Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.
I refer, of course, to corgis.
Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.
Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.
Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this particular owner:
The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”
One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:
“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”
To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.
One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.
Just this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.
Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.
July 10th, 2015
The always-delightful “Summer Reading” issue of The Weekly Standard came out recently (with its typically witty cover, only this one, unlike all the earlier classics of its kind, worries that its central joke will be missed by the general readership – so the punch line, “The Turn of the Screw,” is actually spelled out, just in case), full of book reviews. As usual in such issues, the books involved aren’t particularly “summery” in any way (and unlike the great such issue currently on display here at Open Letters Monthly, there isn’t even any theme in The Weekly Standard‘s round-up), but it’s still a wonderful variety, including Amy Henderson reviewing The Algonquin Round Table New York by Kevin Fitzpatrick, Daniel Heitman reviewing The Prince of Minor Writers, a collection of Max Beerbohm’s writings, edited by Phillip Lopate, and Stephen Smith reviewing Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon, about the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry in Wellington’s army (a book so ably reviewed by OLM freelancer Matt Ray here).
For me, the highlight of the issue was Dominic Green reviewing Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (which I reviewed here) and tossing off some choice zingers. “Only Churchill can coin a phrase, especially when Gibbon and Macaulay have coined it first,” he writes, for instance, and alas, our well-intentioned author doesn’t escape unscathed: “Deborah Cadbury comes from another beloved British dynasty, the Cadbury chocolate maker. Her prose is higher in calories than nutrients, and its velvety smoothness has a honeycomb center of cliché.”
And over in the TLS, there’s a plaintive letter from a dreamer named Christopher Denton, calling forlornly (and in excellent prose) for the return of sanity to modern poetry – and the poetry of the New Yorker in particular:
It would be refreshing if we could have poetry once in a while that makes sense, which contains at least a modicum of rhythm, which eschews narcissism, honours nature as well as humour, elucidates politics and philosophy, presents and element of form which actually differs from prose, avoids profanity at all costs, declines the use of idioms except in dialogue, and respects the language and the reader.
In the same issue, Trev Broughton reviews two George Eliot pastiche novels, Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen and Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl, both trying some kind of re-imagining of Daniel Deronda. At Open Letters, we’re lucky enough to have the services of our very own Victorianist, Rohan Maitzen, who, among other things, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the works of George Eliot – and who wasn’t all that impressed with Souhami’s book, as you can see here. I thought Broughton’s piece was very good, especially his own glimpses at what might have been:
These two books share a desire common since Eliot’s earliest readers exchanged notes, to spring the spirited Gwendolen Harleth from Eliot’s final novel: to salvage her story from its wordy, worthy Zionist co-plot, and to save her from the most unerotic of erotic triangles between the priggish Daniel and the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt.
Of course, neither Gwendolen nor Sophie and the Sibyl nor Daniel Deronda itself are what most people (pace Professor Maitzen) would consider “summer” books, but I guess not everybody can have Jackie Collins right there on their nightstand.
July 6th, 2015
Our book today is an amplified edition of Obiter Dicta, which English politician Augustine Birrell first published in 1885 but had occasion to re-issue a couple of times between 1885 and 1890. The book is a collection of some of the literary pieces Birrell was always working on while also serving in various governments at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Birrell worked on these pieces in part because he was genuinely bookish but also because such things were expected of Victorian statesmen, who weren’t expected to be joyless grinds who go from official post to official post, constantly running for office, then retiring, having a vague and defensive memoir ghost-written, then dying. Instead, good form consisted of at least some pretense of an actual intellectual life.
In Birrell’s case, it was passion rather than social expectation: he was a thorough bookworm, and his essays collected in Obiter Dicta sparkle with his wit and wide-ranging curiosity (“In order to enjoy the pleasure of reading your own books over and over again,” he quips at one point, “it is essential that they should be written either wholly or in part by somebody else”). He writes wonderful long essays about Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Pope, and others, always sharp in his opinions, almost always illuminating even in his quick rants:
Burke was no prating optimist: it was his very knowledge how much could be said against society that quickened his fears for it. There is no shallower criticism than that which accuses Burke in his later years of apostasy from so-called Liberal opinions. Burke was all his life though a passionate maintainer of the established order of things, and a ferocious hater of abstractions and metaphysical politics. The same ideas that explode like bombs through his diatribes against the French Revolution are to be found shining with mild effulgence in the comparative calm of his earlier writings.
He also writes about broader subjects – “The Muse of History,” “The Office of Literature,” and a splendid discussion called “Book-Buying” in which he mentions that his long-time friend and enemy William Gladstone was often heard to grumble about how far fewer bookstores there were in the present than there were in his youth – and then launches into another little rant, one that will ruffle the feathers of both most living authors and all living Barnes & Noble employees:
Mr. Gladstone was, of course, referring to second-hand bookshops. Nether he nor any othe sensible man puts himself out about new books. When a new book is published, read an old one, was the advice of a sound though surly critic. It is one of the boasts of letters to have glorified the term ‘second-hand,’ which other crafts have ‘soiled to all ignoble use.’ But why it has been able to do this is obvious. All the best books are necessarily second-hand.
Birrell’s personal life was at times very hard, and reading these essays it’s easy to see what a haven literature and the reading life were to him. Every chapter of this book glows with the quiet smile of a man retreating to his study. And smiles like that are contagious, even a century later.
July 5th, 2015
I’m one of many periodical readers, I suspect, who read Usman Malik’s superb mini-essay “Rockets, Robots, and Reckless Imagination” in The Herald magazine out of Pakistan; the piece has been linked and shared liberally since it appeared a couple of days ago, and deservedly so. In a little over 2000 words, Malik manages to write a piece that’s equal parts manifesto, celebration, and slightly agonized cry from the heart.
On one level, his subject what he perceives as the brain-dead pedagogy of his native Pakistan, its schools and teachers lacking imagination. But, wonderfully, he expands this to embrace the genre of imagination: science fiction (stipulating that by this term he means to include all branches of speculative literature or fantastika). He concedes (just a touch too glancingly, but still) that “mimetic” fiction, the stuff of realism and the like, has its purposes and joys, but for him, science fiction opens doors to wonder that are closed to all other genres:
Mimetic or realist literature has its own uses, but mimetic fiction doesn’t always explore alternative ways of living, learning and growing as individuals or peoples. It doesn’t necessarily evoke a sense of awe that could take us back to an age of innocence when the stars were a million hot eyes in the sky, the moon a silver sickle dangling from God’s Hand and the world a place filled with mystery.
For me, the most interesting part of his essay wasn’t the obvious fact that he himself has had his mind “lit up with revelation” after reading works of science fiction – in ways that no other genre quite does – but rather his call for a greater incorporation of the literature of science fiction into the various reading lists of the Pakistani educational system. Reading along in complete agreement with him, I was struck by the wonderfully bizarre company of names he invokes:
Writers like Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, M A Rahat, Ray Bradbury, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Vandana Singh, Samuel R Delany, Mazhar Kaleem, A Hameed, and Anil Menon should be discussed and celebrated alongside Hemingway, Mohsin Hamid, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Bapsi Sidhwa and other (predominantly) realist writers.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to read that roster and immediately think: Hemingway? Is Hemingway that big in Pakistan?
But mainly I was nodding enthusiastically, because I’ve felt that key core of wonder that Malik describes. I’ve felt the particularly strong wavelength of that wonder that emanates only from the world of science fiction, that feeling of having the boundaries of your imagination abruptly stretched and redefined. I’ve experienced it with works ranging from A Princess of Mars to Dune to A Million Open Doors – indeed, it’s what keeps me coming back to speculative fiction. I’ve been reading a larger than average amount of science fiction and fantasy so far this summer, and a dozen times since April (when Boston still had ten feet of snow on the ground, so I guess it only technically counts as anything close to summer), I’ve found myself wondering a question very near to Malik’s: why isn’t this stuff taught more often in schools, especially high schools where kindling the wonder of reading is more difficult and more important than ever?
So hats off to Usman Malik! Here’s hoping lots of teachers – in Pakistan and well beyond – were paying attention.
July 4th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have perfect timing. Not many, as you’d expect, since the line deals primarily in works of literature that are specifically timeless – but in some cases, the when can mean a lot even alongside the what, and today is one of those case: a pretty new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Paine’s quite literally revolutionary 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” here reprinted with the first installment of Paine’s “American Crisis” pamphlets, the whole thing edited and introduced by Revolutionary War historian Richard Beeman (whose 2013 book Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor was a lively retelling of the saga of American Independence), who rightly reminds us that “the publication of Common Sense would wholly change the debate over America’s relationship with England and with England’s vaunted ‘constitution.’”
The pamphlet spread through the colonies faster than dysentery; the first edition of Common Sense appeared right at the beginning of 1776, and within weeks, it seemed, every colonist was chattering about it, debating it, hashing choice quotes from it back and forth with increasing fervor. Beeman is far from the first to contend that this little booklet was as effective at stirring colonial hearts to rebellion as were any of the more overt physical provocations of the Sons of Liberty, and the contention might just be correct; a man haranguing you in a tavern can be agreed with and then forgotten, but a booklet enters the mind of its readers, where it can stay and work and replicate.
And the pamphlet’s success was of course entirely born of Paine’s ability to write gripping exhortatory prose at white-hot speed. His key device is to make everything immediately personal to his readers (and hearers – this text was much-declaimed in town squares), whether it be his ridicule of the idea that a small island could have pretensions to rule a sprawling continent, or his lampooning of the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, or his hard, squinting look at the various stances colonists took to his incendiary subject:
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.
Re-reading Common Sense is always electrifying, not least because Paine is so uncannily prescient about so many things (although not about everything; is there an American today, for instance, who doesn’t wince a little at the line, “But the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars”?). And while I might quibble with Penguin’s decision to include so little of Paine’s writings in this slim volume (adding the rest of The American Crisis would have killed them?), there’s no arguing with how well the skimpy size of the volume cannily echoes the slight, passed-hand-to-hand nature of the original.
I’m hoping there are at least a few copies of Common Sense in the pockets of the many thousands of spectators who’ll gather on Boston’s Charles River this evening to watch the 4th of July fireworks. The pamphlet was an atom bomb in the Patriot arsenal – it would be nice if reading it were a small part of basking in the independence it did so much to bring about.
July 3rd, 2015
Our book today is Old Friends, a 1909 collection of typically syrupy reminiscences put down on paper by the then-legendary drama critic and theater historian William Winter, who immediately sets about answering the charge of a Boston book-critic that he was a “mere maunder, sodden with lazy idolatry for days gone by.” “Let not those readers suppose that I write as a praiser of the Past, in detraction of the present,” he opens his book by writing, “Reverence for that which is old, only because it is old, has often been imputed to me, always without reason or justice.” But the reassured reader can’t go ten steps without stumbling upon passages like this one:
As I think of those times and persons – serene in a halo of poetic distance and reverie – I breathe once more the fragrant syringa and lilac in the half-forgotten springtime that never can return, and hear the patter of the falling leaf in burnished autumn woods of Long Ago.
But for all the highfalutin airs Winter put on as his years lengthened and his career flourished – there were whole decades during which he was always under contract for two or three books at a time – Winter remained at heart what he’d been in his early days in the early 1850s: one of many deadline hacks working for Dan Haskell, the muttery-voiced, utterly fearless managing editor (and then editor) of the dear old Boston Transcript in its glory days, which Haskell did so much to create. The managing editor kept stacks of new and forthcoming books on a shelf in what passed for his office, and smart young reviewers like Winter were encouraged to pick likely volumes and get straight to work (Haskell had already set aside both the volumes he wanted for himself and the garbage he skimmed for sale). And Winter could certainly work: he turned out reviews at a steady clip and over time met and befriended quite a few of the authors he wrote about – hence the germ of this book.
Here he describes the great and near-great literary figures of his day, and like many a professional prose-appraiser, he’s as often wrong as right about which is which. He praises for undying verse and eternal prose men whose entire works have sunk beneath the years without a trace, whether justly – as in the case of Albert Henry Smyth or Arthur Sketchley – or unjustly, as in the case of Bayard Taylor or James Russell Lowell or Thomas Bailey Aldrich or even the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, who’s drawn with wonderful fidelity:
His countenance, pleasingly eccentric rather than conventionally handsome, and more remarkable for intensity and variety of expression than for regularity of feature, would, at such moments, glow with fervency of emotion; his brilliant eyes would blaze, as with interior light; his little, fragile person, quivering with the passionate vitality of his spirit, would tower with intrinsic majesty; and his voice, clear and sympathetic but neither strong nor deep, would tremble, and sometimes momentarily break, with ardor and impetuosity of feeling, while yet he never lost control of either his metrical fabric, his theme, his sensibility, or his hearers. He was a consummate artist, whether in words or in speech.
Precisely because he was sodden with lazy idolatry for days gone by, Winter can often read like a relic-hungry saint on the road to Compostella. The great figures from his literary past – Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and the like – are illuminated in these pages with devotional candles, although even I have to admit two things: a) Winter got very, very good at striking that particular tone, and b) sometimes, just a little, it actually worked:
I worshipped at the shrine of ideal intellect and beauty. It was a lovely night in May. The river Charles, flowing dreamily in burnished darkness under the faint light of the stars. The winds were hushed. The soft air was laden with the fragrance of lilac and woodbine. At some distance the clock in the old church tower was striking midnight; and I stood at the gate of Longfellow, whither I had come, a stranger and a pilgrim, to lay my hand upon the latch that the poet’s hand had touched.
But the best thing about these sketches (and the same is true ten times over for the huge body of writing about the theater that he generated over fifty years – his book Other Days is worth the search for any dyed-in-the-wool theater buff) is Winter’s journalistic – he would have called it poetic – knack for capturing single moments before they vanish like soap bubbles. I’ve noticed how rare such moments are in the big 800-page biographies of some of the more famous men Winter describes here, which just strengthens me in my opinion that Winter’s books are well and truly forgotten (rather than being “imperishable,” as he himself sometimes called them). These unguarded little moments are scattered liberally throughout Old Friends, and to give him credit, Winter is perfectly aware of their value:
Much can be learned, if you have the privilege of looking at a great man when he is alone, wrapt in thought, and unconscious of observation. I once saw Daniel Webster, a little after dawn of a summer morning, pacing to and fro – no other person in sight and no movement anywhere – at the extreme end of the Long Wharf, in Boston; and the image of that noble figure and leonine face, with its gloomy, glorious eyes, has never faded out of my memory.
Nobody saw that moment in Daniel Webster’s life except Winter, and we owe him a real debt for recording it. The wealth of such moments in Old Friends readily makes up for the Great Man’s pomposity, and for his readiness to forget that he was for years just one avid book-reader and equally avid freelance book-reviewer in Dan Haskell’s wonderful little stable, getting great sandwiches at the shop around the corner, being called “Willy” by his disheveled comrades, selling review copies at the Brattle, and crushing a cup of wine on Friday nights over hot food and cheap wine. It’s a shame that young book-hound didn’t think to write a memoir at the time, but Old Friends, though not as good as young friends, are certainly better than no friends at all.
July 1st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – including this, the final entrant in our little parade this time around – are eye-opening in a way that a single reprint of a single classic seldom is. Medievalists Ad Putter and Myra Stokes have taken one of keystone works of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, beloved by generations of students for its sex and gore but above all for its brevity – and built it into a mighty thousand-page volume that would have undergraduates muttering grimly while they popped their Hello Kitty-flavored grey market antidepressants. A thousand pages! This rapturous new Penguin Classic isn’t Sir Gawain and the Green Night – it’s The Works of the Gawain Poet.
The capstone of those works is of course still Sir Gawain and the Green Night, but this volume also includes the dreamy, haunting, oddly sad poems Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (it doesn’t include the poem St. Erkenwald, because our editors declare “the evidence for common authorship is inconclusive” – but that evidence is a whole lot more conclusive in this case, on the linguistic and stylistic level, than it is for a quarter of the plays routinely ascribed to Shakespeare; I say it should be included in this volume – I think it’s virtually impossible that the Gawain poet didn’t have at the very least a preponderant hand in St.Erkenwald‘s composition – but I’ll count my blessings either way). Putter and Stokes positively load the texts with footnotes and endnotes pitched at such a perfect range that they will simultaneously help the student and intrigue the expert. And at every stage, they’re careful to illuminate the actual working time period of the Gawain poet a thousand years ago:
Of his personal life, he tells us two things, one probably, the other certainly, true. He indicates in Patience that he had known poverty, which would not be surprising for a cleric who could not progress beyond minor orders. The claim functions partly as a captatio benevolentiae [courting the good will of the hearer], for the poet does not want to dis-implicate himself from the patient endurance of adversity which he preaches. But the rhetorical stratagem would sadly backfire if he were known to be in comfortable circumstances. For things at this period were not as they are today, when a dust jacket can give information on an actual author, between whom and the ‘I’ of his fiction there can be wide discrepancies. Such inconsistencies at this time would have caused confusion to no artistic purpose.
All of the poems are presented, rather daringly, in their original Middle English (very slightly cleaned up), and the array of critical materials dart very nimbly around the Gawain poet’s wide reading – though anonymous, this poet was surely one of the best-read writers of his age – and the end-product effect is to provide readers with something very close to a fourteenth century First Folio. It’s a marvelous performance all around.