Comics: The Latter Days!

avengescoverI ventured to the comics shop again this week, lured by the prospect of interesting new graphic novel collections (there weren’t any that I could see), and I walked out with two new Marvel comics, Avengers #40, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Stefano Caselli, and Fantastic Four #642, written by James Robinson and drawn by Leonard Kirk. I bought the Avengers issue mainly because I bought the one before it, yet another chapter in Hickman’s years-long storyline about a massive series of ‘incursions’ in which whole realities are colliding with each other. In Hickman’s story, a small group of heroes – the ideological descendant of the original “Illuminati” concept I liked so much years ago, is working to save Earth and the whole of the Marvel universe from destruction, and they’re willing to work together despite considerable bad blood between themselves (particularly between Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Black Panther, whose African kingdom Namor flooded a couple of years ago during another protracted Marvel storyline.

In this issue, lots of these long-simmering plots come to a head – most certainly including the conflict between the Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner – and it all makes for very enjoyable reading if you’re a long-time Marvel reader who’s been following this run of Avengers and makes for utterly incomprehensible reading if you just happened to wander into the comics shop and buy this issue. This is a bit of a problem, and I’ll come back to it.

I bought the Fantastic Four issue because it’s the first chapter in a mini-arc called “The End is Fourever” – an arc that ends in the widely-publicized cancellation of Marvel’s foundational comic book title. As some of you will recall, I’m a long-time fan of the avengers1Fantastic Four and have followed their adventures through good creative times and bad, so there was an active element of nostalgia driving me to read this beginning of the end. And the issue was very satisfying: Leonard Kirk’s artwork is intensely good, and the story itself features a couple of moments that shine with the kind of open sentimentality The Fantastic Four has always done so well. I’ll definitely buy the rest of the installments in this arc, even though I know I’ll be saddened by the ultimate ending.

Or will I? It was only after reading these two issues that I became aware of the news stories that have been ff2circulating for a while now in the comics world – to the effect that Marvel Comics is planning to do a company-wide creative reboot of all its comics this summer, in an echo/craven imitation of DC’s “New 52” reboot from a couple of years ago. According to the news items I’ve read, Marvel’s various writers and artists have known about this plan for a while now, and that may account for the slightly ragged and very savage undertone to both these issues I bought on Wednesday, in which alleged heroes are at each other’s throats and everything feels very end-of-times.

I wasn’t a fan of DC’s “New 52,” needless to say, and the idea of Marvel = a company that’s always prided itself on its long and rich continuity, maintained with so much more scrupulous care than was ever exercised over at DC – well, the idea of ff1Marvel trying the same clean-slate reductivist nonsense doesn’t strike me any better. The irony is that in both these issues I bought the other day, the tremendous vitality of the Marvel system the way it is now was on abundant display. Here, with very few exceptions, we have characters dating from the original 1960s birth of the Marvel Universe sculpted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – and even earlier: one of the heroes duking it out with the Hulk in The Fantastic Four is the original Human Torch, the first superhero of Marvel’s parent company way back in 1939. The very fact that these issues can be starring recognizable – and very much dramatically viable – variations of characters like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans proves that those characters still have enormous amounts of potential that shouldn’t just be retconned out of existence in pursuit of the 18-25 buying demographic.

I made the same objection to the “New 52,” of course, and the event itself did virtually nothing to assure me that I was wrong. So these issues of such venerable titles as Avengers and Fantastic Four may be the last ones in my lifetime where I get to enjoy that long-storied history in all its complexity. I’ll keep buying them to the end, and then I’ll report on what happens after the end.

Book News: Book Club!

book news

One item of book news today is something you’ll all likely have seen: as the second book in his online book club, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has pinker bookchosen Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which Pinker lays out his biggest, most dip-shitty counter-intuitive flap-doodle ever and waits patiently for you to swallow it whole and then start regurgitating it at parties. Zuckerberg’s first book club pick, Moises Naim’s The End of Power from the wonderful folks at Basic Books, although a trifle lightweight, is at least thoughtful and interesting. In case any of you Stevereads readers are wondering whether or not the same is true of Pinker’s book, I thought I’d remind you all of the thunder and lightning that was our Worst Books of the Year for 2011 – as a public service, you could say:

The 20th century was no stranger to the time-tested technique of lying with statistics, but the 21st century is already adding to a streak of naked effrontery that might put even the age of such heavyweight liars as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to shame. In the 21st century, lies alone are no longer quite sufficient – instead, they’ve got to be big lies, the bigger the better. So a U.S. President goes in front of a nation and raises the fear of a ‘mushroom cloud’ about a country that had trouble grinding bread, and a champion U.S. athlete, caught on film illegally partying with minors, not only makes a non-apology (“If my alleged actions were badly misconstrued enough to give a possibly negative impression, then in that extremely unlikely event, I would express regret,” etc.) the following week but does so, as many journalists present attested, while stoned. And a popular … what to call Steven Pinker? ‘Popular scientist’ is clearly wishful thinking; ‘popular researcher’ has palpably never been true – popular self-promoter Steven Pinker in his new book opts to cap a career of smiling mendacity by telling what may very well be the two biggest lies of them all: that mankind is becoming less violent, because mankind is becoming more intelligent. To support both these hysterical claims, Pinker pivots and swoops, cherry-picking delusions and misinterpreting crapulent ‘studies,’ all intent on denying the staggeringly obvious: that humans – fresh from the 20th century, whose barbarisms would have left any previous century slack-jawed in horror – are not only growing plungingly dumber (Pinker proudly brandishes standardized test scores – he needs to get out more; he could learn a lot from eavesdropping on any given Boston subway car for fifteen minutes – and he would clearly benefit in the long run from being vigorously wedgied by somebody who considers that a legitimate argumentative technique) but are also, connectedly, growing breathtakingly more violent. If we define ‘genocide’ as the wilful pursuit to slaughter every individual of a certain group, regardless of immediate military or economic interests (or even in contradiction of those interests)(i.e. an all-consuming, self-consuming hatred), then there were four in the 19th century. In the 20th century there were 15. In the 21st century’s slim extant decade, there have been two – with 90 years still to go. Writing aboutwhy this is happening – bad parenting or the all-pervasive seep of toxic chemicals into human air, food, and water – would be legitimate though pyrrhic. Writing a book – and lyingly buttressing it with cooked-book guestistics – merrily assuring your fellow Cantabridgians that the world their little Ariadnes and Ruggers will inherit isn’t, in fact, a rapidly-devolving ‘Lord of the Flies’ nightmare of violence and stupidity is an endeavor of purest and deepest evil. It’s the product not only of warped science and statistics but warped historicism, a parody of professionalism and a mockery of the sociologist’s craft – and it’s Stevereads Worst Nonfiction Book of the Year.

elephant crap

Comics – The Marvel Star Wars!

star wars coverLast week I naturally succumbed to the hoopla and bought the first issue of Marvel Comics’ new “Star Wars” comic book (my comics-related posts here on Stevereads really do need to be closer to Wednesday – which, for all you non-virgins out there, is New Comics Day here in Boston – and I’ll work on that, but in the meantime), written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Cassaday. And as I went to the register paid my $15 (or whatever a single issue of a comic book costs these days) to the rail-thin four-pack-a-day hipster with the abdomen-length unwashed beard, I couldn’t help but think back fondly to 1977 – fondly not just because that rancid, pretentious, borderline-illiterate tobacco addict hipster undergraduate hadn’t yet been born, but also because that was when I encountered the first Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Wars and liked it very much.

Way back then, I bought that first issue because it was drawn by the great, insane Howard Chaykin (although I also got original star wars coverquite a kick out of the little upper-left-corner issue logo, which showed a picture of heroic Luke Skywalker drawn by John Romita, Sr.)(what can I say? It’s the little things in life), and that was good enough for me even though I knew next to nothing about the actual contents (and even though those first few issues had far too much creeping Carmine Infantino touches for my liking).

Of course, everything has changed here in 2015. In the intervening quarter-century, Star Wars has gone from one fairly enjoyable movie to a franchise of galactic proportions and a cultural reach exceeding that of most religions – complete with a Second Coming in the form of the upcoming new movie in which, for the first time, the whole magilla’s pinch-voiced megalomaniacal creator, George Lucas, has no say.

In fact, Star Wars has now achieved such an absurdly revered status that it’s considered anathema to point out the obvious: that it largely stinks. The reason it stinks isn’t hard to figure out: this shoddy, half-baked little concept is exactly the sort of thing that should have been road-tested as a weekly network TV show long before it ever reached the big screen. Not only would that have served to spotlight its continuity weaknesses (and they are legion) and iron out some of them, but it would also have allowed the strengths of Lucas’s original concepts (few though they are) to be fleshed out by some hired writers of actual talent. This is the sort of piecemeal genesis that worked for Star Trek and – much later and much more critically successfully – for Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars didn’t get it.

As a result, we have a protracted, mostly embarrassing mess that can’t ever be identified as such, for the simple reason that it constitutes the personal religion of the people who would otherwise do the identifying. Those people will tell you – with little to no provocation – that the three ‘prequel’ movies pinch-voiced megalomaniacal George Lucas made in the early 2000s were terrible, that they were travesties, that they were abominations. But the bedrock article of faith implied in their condemnations of the second trilogy of movies is that the first trilogy of movies was great. Oh sure, they might queasily half-joke about the Ewoks, but by and large, they’ll rank the movie now called “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi” as milestones not just in leiacinema but in their own lives.

I once had one of these acolytes look me straight in the face and tell me in all seriousness that “The Empire Strikes Back” was the single greatest science fiction movie ever made. And when I burst out laughing, his face became taut and palely serious.

The original movie – Star Wars to me, A New Hope to the faithful – has a small handful of genuinely good bits. Lightsabers. “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.” The trash compactor scene. Of course, Darth Vader – and that’s it. The rest is an almost-hopeless mish-mash of cliches, bad acting, and bad writing, and no matter what vantage point you look at it all from, no matter how close or distant your focus, none of it makes any sense. But at least, unlike the following five movies, it was enjoyable – and the folks at Marvel must realize that on some level, because this first issue of their new comics series is set immediately in and around the ending of that first movie.

So the Empire is still fully in control of things. Darth Vader is still a fantastic villain rather than anybody’s father, padawan, lover, or crybaby. Han Solo and Princess Leia are still verbal sparring partners rather than sappy lovers. Our scrappy band of heroes is still very much outgunned and outnumbered – in other words, they’re still rebels, facing a vast and seemingly unbeatable tyranny.

That’s very promising material for lots of comic book adventures, and this first issue gives me hope – one might even say a new hope – for the issues to follow. vaderJason Aaron does a pretty good job capturing the admittedly skeletal “characters” of that first movie, and although John Cassaday’s artwork is too often hampered by the need to make his characters look like the actors who portrayed them 30 years ago (it’s surprising how few talented comic book artists are also talented caricaturists, but there you have it), his straightforward sense of visual excitement never abandons him – it’s easily possible to ‘read’ this issue without looking at the words at all and still get everything Aaron means to convey.

I won’t be hurrying to see the new “Star Wars” movie in the theaters; its brainless director has already savaged the sci-fi franchise I actually care about, so I have no desire to watch the also-rans get pillaged. But after reading and re-reading this first Marvel Star Wars issue a couple of times, I must admit: it’s nice to see these characters again in the setting that suits them best. I’ll stick around for a few issues.

Mystery Monday: The Dogs of Rome!

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Our book today is The Dogs of Rome, Conor Fitzgerald’s 2010 debut mystery novel starring Commissario Alec Blume, who was born and raised in America but who, 17 years ago, lost his parents to the gunfire of a violent bank robbery while visiting Rome. A grief-stricken young Blume joined the police force instead of returning to America, rose through the ranks, and is a chief commissioner on the Roman force when we meet him at the beginning of this novel, as much a the dogs of rome coverresident alien in Rome as he would be in America if he were to return.

But he’s not the first person we meet. We’ve talked here on “Mystery Monday” (which I’d have attended to earlier if it weren’t a wretched federal mail-holiday, since wretched federal mail-holidays all feel like Sundays) about the art of the creepy opening scene, and in The Dogs of Rome, Fitzgerald gives us not one but two: first, we meet assured, bombastic animal rights activist Arturo Clemente, who’s dallying in his Rome apartment with his mistress Manuela while his wife, Green Party MP Svena Romagnolo, is out of town. Just after Maneula leaves, Clemente, still in his bathrobe, answers the door and admits a grocery delivery man – who immediately starts acting so strange that Clemente asks him to leave. When it’s clear the man isn’t going to leave, impossible thoughts start to intrude on Clemente’s morning:

Arturo’s mind raced back over the years. An old friend. An old enemy. A debt of some sort. He had never had debts. A more recent encounter, then. Manuela? Surely not. He couldn’t work it out. A joke. They were filming this? He wasn’t famous enough yet.

Not a joke. A theft. This was a home invasion by a robber. Incredible, but obvious, too.

Violence erupts, and Clemente is murdered, but Fitzgerald isn’t done; he next gives us a chapter of the killer in Clemente’s apartment as the body oozes blood – a long enough scene to thoroughly disturb us, but neither long enough nor explicit enough to tell us much about the killer or the crime. This kind of scene is enormously difficult to pull off, and Fitzgerald manages it like a pro.

It’s only after that scene that our hero enters the action, pausing on the threshold to question a cop who got there first:

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is it in there?”

“A scale of one to ten? I don’t know – two, three?”

“That low?”

“No children, no rape, just one body, not even that young. Corpse fresh, so not much of a smell, no wailing relatives, no animals, no public, no reporters yet.”

One thing the cop doesn’t need to add is something Blume can see for himself: the murder has attracted an inordinate share of departmental brass, who are hovering around, walking through the crime scene, because the involvement of Svena Romagnolo, and hence the government, makes the case high-profile. As a result, Blume spends more time in the book’s opening sections trying to unravel the mystery of why his superiors are so concerned about the murder as he does trying to unravel the murder itself.

In Blume, Fitzgerald gives us a close variation on the stolid working stiffs so inexplicably popular in Scandinavian crime fiction, although he stirs in some caustic edges for variety’s sake (speculating that the killer may have had a rough upbringing, Blume says, “I’m always pleased when I find out an assassin had a lousy childhood. It means they got what they deserve, even if they had to pay in advance” – which is a very genuinely Roman-sounding non sequitur). His Blume is fairly observant, and before all sorts of outside influences (politicians! Police administrators! The Mafia!) start to pull him away from the crime,lucy reading the dogs of rome he manages to think through some of its quirky little details, like the fact that the killer apparently stuffed a towel at the bottom of the apartment door:

The killer had placed them there because he thought the blood might run under the door. Someone who watched horror flicks or played video games might think that. If the killer was someone who watched those movies and thought he’d have a go at it in real life, then Clemente was just a random victim.

Blume did not like the idea of total randomness. Yet he did not believe there was anything professional or political in the murder, either. The truth lay somewhere in between.

The Dogs of Rome caught my eye when it first came out, but I didn’t actually get around to reading it until this Christmas-time just ended, when an alter cocker who occasionally reviews fiction for a great metropolitan newspaper found me a copy at Niantic’s mighty Book Barn. The book is extremely satisfying, full of slang and vinegar, refreshingly non-programmatic – the kind of mystery-thriller that you just know will stand up well to re-readings. I don’t know if that’s also true for all the other books in the series, but now I aim to find out.

The Song of Hiawatha – and Other Poems!

readers digest longfellowOur book today is one of the improbable gems from the old Reader’s Digest “World’s Best Reading” series, the 1989 volume The Song of Hiawatha and Other Poems, here decked out with lavish illustrations (lovely textured pictures and spot illustrations of “The Song of Hiawatha” itself by Frederic Remington, for instance, and Howard Chandler Christy’s lovely flapper-era drawings for “The Courtship of Miles Standish”), a pretty gold-highlighted cover, and solid binding. This “World’s Best Reading” series produced quite a few of these gems – their Sherlock Holmes volumes, for instance, and their Moby-Dick … and their editions of Ben-Hur and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad are the best editions of those two books.

A similarly splendid job was done on this collection, which is one of the prettiest volumes of Longfellow ever produced in the United States, and it has a neatly concise and smart Afterword by the excellent but now-forgotten literary critic Edward Wagenknecht, who points out that once upon a time, the American literary landscape was almost entirely dominated by poets, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes … and towering over all of them, Longfellow, whose verses were memorized by schoolchildren, soldiers, statesmen, and ordinary citizens all over the country (indeed, all over the world – Longfellow was hugely popular in Queen Victoria’s England, for instance, and sold extremely robustly in France and the miles standishNetherlands).

Wagenknacht isn’t a blinkered academic; he isn’t under any illusions about the fallen star of his subject:

Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Longfellow’s fame survives intact today. Like many of his contemporaries, Longfellow has suffered from the decline of what came to be called “the genteel tradition.” Another factor is the virtual disappearance of narrative verse and, with it, of the vast poetry-reading public of the 19th century.

That’s a key point, that mention of the disappearance of narrative verse from public reading, the gradual transfer of its narrative energies into the realm of novels and short stories. The times changed right out from underneath great writers like Longfellow, and I’ve always thought, perhaps irrationally, that this sad fact should exempt them from the scorn of the present day. And yet, despite the fact that Wagenknacht thirty years ago could claim that “many of Longfellow’s poems continue to be cherished by readers and esteemed by critics,” this book’s contents are now the curios of a bygone era.

hiawatha art 1They shouldn’t be! Long-time followers of Stevereads will already know I think it shouldn’t be. I could make a doomed case for all of those once-titanic figures Wagenknacht lists, but I love none of them so much as I do Longfellow (my tastes across the Atlantic are equally quixotic, alas; I’m one of the only remaining fans of John Dryden outside of academia), a very generous selection of whose work is conveniently collected in this sturdy volume, from wonderful brooding shorter works like “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls”:

The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curfew calls;

Along the sea sands damp and brown

The traveller hastens toward the town,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on the roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;

The little waves, with their soft, white hands,

Efface the footprints in the sands,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveller to the shore,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

To the signature longer works like “Evangeline,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and, of course, Longfellow’s most powerful, most hypnotic, and most maligned (both in his own day and ever since – indeed, even when the thing was in handed-around drafts, his friends warned him to expect critical squawking), “The Song of lucy reading longfellow 1Hiawatha” with its deliberately stilted, sing-song rhythms, as in the segment called “Hiawatha’s Fishing”:

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,

On the shining big sea water,

With his fishing line of cedar,

Of the twisted bark of cedar,

Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,

Mishe-Nahma, king of fishes,

In his birch canoe exulting

All alone went Hiawatha.

Through the clear, transparent water

He could see the fishes swimming

Far down in the depths below him;

See the yellow perch, the Sahwa,

Like a sunbeam in the water,

See the Shawgashee, the crawfish,

Like a spider on the bottom,

On the white and sandy bottom …

On the white sand of the bottom

Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,

Lay the sturgeon, king of fishes;

Through his gills he breathed the water,

With his fins he fanned and winnowed,

With his tail he swept the sand floor.

That’s so typically Longfellow, that gorgeous visual evocation in every verse, the enormous sturgeon fanning the white sand on the river bottom. No poet in his day could match the sheer cinematic fecundity of Longfellow’s imagination, and the sheer unembarrassed power of it has undimmed power to work if readers drop their cynicism and let it. If you happen to see this pretty volume (at Niantic’s Book Barn, for instance, which I hear has a vast selection of out-of-print books), you might want to start here.

Ink Chorus: The War Against Cliche!

war against clicheOur book today is The War Against Cliche, the bottomlessly entertaining 2001 collection of many of the for-hire literary essays and book reviews the novelist Martin Amis wrote between 1971 and 2000, and taken as a snapshot of the working life of a semi-faineant freelancer (I’d wager that Amis actually only needed the paycheck – or, in the good old days, the pawnable review copy – for the very earliest of these pieces; once the novel-money was steadily coming in, he’d have been more sought-after than seeking), the book, in addition to being enormously re-readable, acts as a protracted comment on the marketplace. Amis reviews plenty of books for plenty of venues, but he’s exclusively a fiction-critic, the poor sot – no wonder he developed such a hang-dog expression so early.

When reviewing Anthony Burgess’s great big masterpiece Earthly Powers (for The New York Times Book Review in 1980), Amis, perhaps pressed for time, resorts to the old “there are two kinds” crutch, only he rescues it via his usual expedient of grabby prose:

There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time. Most long novels are this kind of long novel, especially in America – where writers routinely devastate acres of woodland for their spy thrillers, space operas, family sagas, and so on. Long novels of the second kind, on the other hand, are long because they have to be, earning their amplitude by the complexity of the demands they make on writer and reader alike.

And if we were to turn the gimmick around, we could make a case that there are two kinds of book-reviewers. Most book reviewers (especially if the numberless reviews on Amazon are factored in) are insurance assessors: they faithfully lay out the case for their clients, and then they objectively weigh the pros and cons. But a few book reviewers are scene-stealers: they lure you in with the promise of reviewing that new book you’re thinking of reading, but once they’ve got an audience in front of them, their inner ham takes over and they start performing. The first kind of book-reviewer is reliable and reliably dull; the second kind is more enjoyable but can be less useful (the best of the second kind make a conscientious effort to work a book review into their palavering, I should rather abashedly add – it needn’t all be limelight-hogging). Sometimes, for sternly monetary reasons, the second kind is forced to behave like the first kind (as a tattered book editor for the old Chicago Tribune book section used to scream, “No razzle-dazzle – or you can kiss your thirty bucks goodbye!”), but thanks to a stellar run of editors virtually everywhere he took his wares, Amis almost never had to do that. He was the second type, the scene-stealer, and proud of it.

Or maybe it just boils down to writers who have a lot to say. Certainly I get that impression when re-reading The War Against Cliche; I may know as an objective fact that the majority of these pieces were banged out in thirty minutes on the north slope of their deadlines, but not only does Amis himself incorporate every well-worn gimmick he knows in order to soften that impression (his favorite being the paragraph constructed around the conceit of him living with the book he’s reviewing, carrying it around everywhere, consulting it, really steeping himself in it; anyone who’s ever reviewed books for a living will hoot in open derision at this nonsense, but it definitely adds a certain Pride and Prejudice gentility to the proceedings when it’s done this smoothly), but the results – however achieved – are so uniformly catchy that you quickly stop caring how they were achieved. Take this little aside about the nuts and bolts of V. S. Pritchett’s prose, from a marvelous soup-to-nuts assessment Amis did for the London Review of Books in 1980:

Pritchett’s prose, too, is quirky and nostalgic in its devices. He continues to write in a style that has not noticed the regularizing, the tidying-up that accompanied the concerted push towards naturalism in the middle of the century. His punctuation is tangled, hectic and Victorian. He sometimes uses semi-colons the way Dickens did – as brackets; and he is a hardened exponent of the pause-for-breath comma that is being steadily driven out of English prose…

Or his backhand appreciation of the staggering prolixity of the aforementioned Burgess, talking about Little Wilson and Big God for the Observer in 1987: “The first volume of the Burgess autobiography is only 450 pages long. Accordingly, one would expect it to end when the author is about five.”

For the reviewing rank-and-file who don’t have London Fields royalty checks to look forward to, dutifully reviewing the latest damn Iris Murdoch novel year after year can be grindingly tiring and therefore antithetical to wit. But in Amis there are zingers aplenty; writing in The New Statesmani in 1971 about a new Coleridge biography, he quips, “Inside John Cornwell’s 400-page critical biography of Coleridge there is a 200-page uncritical one trying not nearly hard enough to get out,” for instance, and when he reviews Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal for Talk in 1999, he immortally calls it a “harpoon of unqualified kitsch” and then turns his scorn on members of his own profession:

The publication of Hannibal back in June cut the ribbon on a festival of stupidity. In the US the critical consensus was no more than disgracefully lenient. In the UK, though, the reviews comprised a veritable dunciad. There were exceptions, most of them (significantly, I think) written by women. Elsewhere the book pages all rolled over for Dr Lecter … The eager gullibility felt sinisterly unanimous. Is this the next thing? Philistine hip? The New Inanity?

He can be maddeningly academic in some of his more posh pronouncements, as when, writing in the Observer in 1983 about A. N. Wilson’s new biography of Milton that the book is “by any standards, remarkably headstrong, beleaguered and quaint.” (Is there a need to open things up to any standards here? Is there a way to be un-remarkably headstrong, beleaguered or quaint?) But in piece after piece, he counter-balances this with the wail of the true believer. On the one hand, he can write about a reprint of Brideshead Revisited: “Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence. Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise.” But on the other hand, he can confess with startling honesty to a basically moralistic frustration with the book:

There is something barefaced, even aggressive, in the programmatic way the novel arranges for its three most unregenerate characters – Sebastian, Lord Marchmain and Julia – to claim the highest spiritual honours. Sebastian, whose life has been impartially dedicated to shiftlessness, whimsy and drink, becomes a holy fool, shuffling among lepers and sleeping in his ‘monk’s cell’. Lord Marchmain, who likewise has done nothing in his seventy years but follow his own hackneyed inclinations, snatches salvation in the last seconds of his existence. ‘I’ve known worse cases make beautiful deaths,’ says the priest, rubbing his hands after Marchmain has jeered him from the sick room. And Julia …

And no matter how successful he is in other fields, and no matter how busy, he studiously retains the most essential and refreshing quality of any book-reviewer: his lucy reads the war against clicheability to be surprised. Among other things, it makes his 1995 review of Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest surely among the finest tributes that fine book ever received:

I thought I was wise to all his moves. I knew Vidal would have me frowning and nodding and smiling and smirking – with admiration, and exasperation, and scandlized dissent. I never dreamed Vidal would have me piping my eyes, and staring wanly out of the window, and emitting strange sighs (many of them frail and elderly in timber). Approaching seventy, Vidal now takes cognisance of the human heart, and reveals that he has one. Palimpsest is a tremendous read from start to finish. It is also a proud and serious and truthful book.

As readers of Stevereads will know, I dislike Martin Amis the novelist with a bored irritation that he has scarcely managed to dim in thirty years (a notable exception being The Zone of Interest). But Martin Amis the book critic I like more with every passing year. In fact, a much-enlarged new edition of The War Against Cliche is a book I’d actually buy.

Pulps in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

new yorkerNaturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.

“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback catcher in the rye coverpublishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.

In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:

“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.

She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.

concubine coverAnother of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even parrish covera random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:

We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.

And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of boswell london journalNorwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”

lucy reading pulpsMuch as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.

They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday: Sugawara Akitada!

 

mystery monday header

Our books today are the utterly delightful Sugawara Akitada mysteries of I. J. Parker, set in the Heian heyday of 11th-Century Japan and starring brainy but rashomon gate coverfrustrated Sugawara Akitada, a low-level clerk in the Ministry of Justice whose father died while he was studying at university and who is therefore compelled to act as the family patriarch and breadwinner for his bitter mother, his two younger sisters, and the family’s servants. The family has noble blood and descends from finer prospects, and that, plus the fact that he’s sharper than everybody around him, tends to make Akitada abrupt when he should be patient and outspoken when he should be silent.

Parker, whose debts to Robert Van Gulik’s great Judge Dee novels are too manifest to need detailing, does a similarly understated and wonderful job of bringing to life Akitada’s world – the tensions of his family life, the hyper-regimented tedium of his professional life, and broader world into which he inevitably ventures on various assignments for the Ministry of Justice. Akitada is a young man when we first meet him in 2005′s The Dragon Scroll, eager to prove himself worthy of more than the bureaucratic drudgery of the Ministry’s paperwork, and it’s great fun to watch him grab at more and more opportunities as the series progresses.

Parker is very good at winking give-and-take in dialogue, and she’s also confident and non-showy in constructing the actual whodunits at the heart of her stories. And she possesses one other little skill – something Van Gulik had down to a cold science – that always pleases me when it’s done well: the creepy opening, in which we see the initial crime being committed but have key identifying details tantalizingly left out. I love how the creepy opening emotionally invests us in the crime without spoiling the ensuing guesswork, and Parker is generally first-rate at the gambit, as at the beginning of The Dragon Scroll:

Just past the temple, in an open field where squatters had built their tattered shacks, the second watcher caught up with the young woman.

The human predator had expected his prey to return with her lover, whose long sword he had prepared against by positioning his men close by, but this was far better.

Grinning, he jumped into her path. She stopped and gasped. Just then the clouds parted and the moonlight fell on his face. Recoiling in horror, she screamed.

This time the goddess did not hear.

Or my favorite, from what I consider the best of the dozen or so Akitada novels Parker has written so far, 2002′s Rashomon Gate:lucy reads rashomon gate

The corpse was headless. It lay huddled in a dark corner where only the faint light of the moon filtering through the wooden shutters picked out the paleness of naked skin from the prevailing gloom.

A dark shadow moved in the gray light, and an ancient voice rasped, “Look around for the head!”

“What for?” growled another voice. A second shadow joined the first. “It’s no use to anybody but the rats.” The speaker cackled suddenly. “Or hungry ghosts. For playing kickball.”

“Fool!” the first shadowy creature turned and, for a moment, the moonlight caught a wild mane of tangled white hair. It was a woman, crouching demonlike over the body, her claws quickly tucking some white, soft fabric inside her ragged robe. “I want the hair.”

And through all the novels, we have our same old impetuous Akitada, who “can’t help himself” when piping up to his superiors, typified in a quick scene from 2007′s Island of Exiles when he can’t abide even for courtesy’s sake the flimsy story to high-ranking Imperial envoys give him for why they’ve travelled to a remote prison in the Sea of Japan:

The thin man bit his lip and exchanged a glance with his friend. “We traveled to Sado to verify the facts.”

Akitada shook his head. “I do not think so. The journey to Sado Island from the capital is long and dangerous. In this instance, Your Excellencies appear to have undertaken the journey wihtout escort and incognito. Would a minor squabble between two provinical administrators really cause His Majesty to send his most trusted advisors on such an assignment?”

There’s a subtle thread of wisdom running through most of Parker’s Akitada novels, the sure feel of an author who’s read and studied deeply (this, too, is welcome echo of Van Gulik). We can almost see the sly grin on our author’s face when she has her eager young sleuth decipher a scroll by Meng Tse: “Seek the truth and thou shalt find it! Neglect the truth, and it shall be lost forever! The seeking is within they power, but the finding is in the hands of heaven.”

Book News: The Gatekeepers!

book news

One piece of the day’s book-news comes, unfortunately, in the form of a windy, tweedy, leather elbow-patched throat-clearing in Slate by former Random House poo-bah Daniel Menaker, who’s upset – in his phlegmatic way – about the upshot of the much-publicized contest between Amazon and Hachette and Amazon’s unseemly desire “to have a say in curating literary culture” … and by extension, the desire of anybody to have a say in curating literary culture – anybody, that is, other than the traditional curators, the “gatekeepers” of the Slate piece’s title. Buried under paragraphs of hem-hemming, Menaker wants to make the case that those tried-and-true gatekeepers, the stalwarts of the traditional publishing houses, are the ones who should have the job. Menaker himself was one of those stalwarts for many years, and he strikes an anthem-style tone:

Right now, the principal intermediaries between writers and readers continue to be publishing companies, large and small. They make their choices, pay more or less for them (usually less), more or less support them (usually less), hope that they have good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing. In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who – along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps – have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding – tectonic – friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.

Rich, pungent stuff, as all bullshit is. I’ve known as many of these knights errant as Menaker has, and he does their ranks a considerable favor by thinning out all the alcoholics, all the crowd-followers, all the middlebrow functional illiterates, and all the outright morons. If Menaker is right, those 20 or 30 Justice League members have far more to answer for than to brag about, as even a glance at American publishing over the last couple of decades amply demonstrates. Despite their unsung efforts – or because of them – our life of letters has been so systematically dumbed down and commercialized that the bestseller lists look like childrens’ parodies of their counterparts from, say, the early 1970s and the midlist author as a species has all but vanished from mainstream publishing. You can get a pretty clear impression of the almost-sickening combination of craven fad-following and clubbish exclusivity Menaker is defending by forcing yourself to read this choice bit of insufferability:

Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s – Ahmet, Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler – they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better. Someone new, without the disappointing sales baggage that most authors have to lug around. The one in a hundred or more likely thousand who will go on to have a long and important run as a writer of books. Elmore, Zadie, Alice, J.M.

Not sure what Elmore or Zadie or Alice or J. M. – to say nothing of Phil, John, the other John, or Normie – would make of a ponce who unselfconsciously refers to himself as an “analysand,” but they’d surely spot that telling, damning contradiction over which Menaker blithely sails (since he’s too busy hitting that “new” over and over): if your cultural heroes aren’t taking the phone calls of any authors who are lugging around the “baggage” of previous books, they’re going to be turning away the Elmores and Zadies and Alices you could otherwise smugly name-drop down the line.

slate

Since it scarcely ever happens that such a hidebound piece as this one will run its whole length without a side-swipe at the sweaty proletariat of the Internet, I waited patiently for Menaker to take his turn condescending directly to the hordes outside his gated community, and I didn’t have to wait long:

The modern, often online and anonymous, neo-Levellers who object to the “elitism” of publishing arrive at their position from the other side, the populist. They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books.

*Sigh* Yes, certainly, these new Levellers must be the very same talentless, straining authors who’ve been thwarted by the unsleeping vigilance of these 30 gatekeepers. Or else readers who find “snobby” books just too hard to get through (as opposed to the kind of Proustian masterpieces Menaker’s heroes have managed to park at the top of the bestseller lists – unashamedly complicated tomes like Shit My Dad Says or Fifty Shades of Grey)(whoops – but surely not those two, since they began their august literary lives as the works of grunting, anonymous online muddlers). These people can’t be gatekeepers in their own right, Menaker blandly asserts, because “they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.” Kind of makes you want to throw a brick through the windows of the nearest traditional publisher, doesn’t it?

“It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly,” Menaker says by way of conclusion. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

This is just a flat, fearful pronouncement, of course, not a point much less an argument. But it’s fatuous anyway; the unwashed hordes of Menaker’s nightmares don’t want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves – they want to circumvent them and go more or less directly to the reading public, to take their chances in the open marketplace. The less generous among them might add that they’re not all that impressed with the job those gatekeepers have done in the last couple of decades, industriously following fads, feverishly avoiding risk, contemptuously mocking the slush-pile (and plucking things out of it basically at random, or on the basis of a rumor that something is hot right now), hatefully priding themselves on just exactly the kind of exclusive Elmore, Zadie, Alice inaccessibility Menaker so clearly admires. But the more generous among those gate-crashers are perfectly happy to let the old, manifestly faulty system keep creaking along – they don’t want to have a say in curating the literary culture, they just want to give expression to their life-long dream of writing for an audience.

I deal with more of those gate-crashers in any given week than Menaker has in his entire life. I know first-hand that they’re capable of every bit the genius and power of their carefully-curated counterparts. And I know – as Menaker bloody well should – that even whole armies of those curators and concierges have never stopped gluts of garbage from swamping that literary culture.

So it’s entirely possible we’re talking about a mostly-useless occupation finally getting a little bright sunlight shed on it. And maybe the general readers out there, just like the pampered residents of Upper West Side apartment buildings, don’t need their concierges quite as badly as their concierges need them. If the fruits of MY labors were the collected works of John Grisham, James Baldacci, and James Patterson, I probably wouldn’t preen in Slate.

Yesterday’s News in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.

tlsTake the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).

Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.

And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in atlantic coverboth the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:

Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.

The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:

With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.

True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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