October 8th, 2015
Among the spread of new comics on the wall at Comicopia this week were two first issues: Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and of course I bought them both. I liked the pairing in this case; back when I first started reading the adventures of these two characters, neither one had his own book, so seeing these two first issues together had an innate appeal.
This first new issue of Spider-Man is something of an anthology, with bits and snippets and teasers from upcoming Spider-Titles in what appears to be an enormous franchise. I think such expanded franchises are a very bad habit both Marvel and DC have picked up; I’m sure featuring their most popular characters in multiple monthly titles helps both companies to pay their bills, but I’ve virtually never seen the practice yield much in the way of quality storytelling. Multiple Batman titles have in the past served to water down the dramatic singularity of the character (he’s now the head of a large and loving family of costumed boys and girls, as absurd as that concept is and always has been); multiple X-Men titles brought about the terminal narrative congestion from which they still suffer today; neither I nor anybody else in the world could make any sense of the bewildering proliferation of Avengers titles and rosters that spread over half a dozen monthly comics. Who’s on the team? Who’s not? Who knows?
Luckily, this first issue does have a self-contained opening story that’s meant to introduce readers to this new iteration of the character. Gone is the awkward teenage web-slinger of years past, and gone is the lovable loser of later incarnations; instead, we get a grown-up self-assured Peter Parker, wealthy CEO of Parker Industries, who has the world convinced that Spider-Man is his bodyguard. This Peter Parker is a philanthropist and model employer, but he also finds time to fight crime as Spider-Man (although he also employs a separate Spider-Man, or maybe more than one).
The issue won’t make much sense to readers who weren’t following the last three years of the character’s old title run, but it’ fairly entertaining even so. There’s a feeling of cautious, tepid re-invention to the whole industrialist-by-day crimefighter-by-night setup – a needlessly complicated setup, but who knows what some clever writers won’t be able to make out of it?
A very different situation obtains in the first issue of the new Doctor Strange: this is indeed a soup-to-nuts re-introduction for readers, and it works fantastically well, thanks in no small part to the incredible artwork of Chris Bachalo. We get Doctor Strange’s origin from way back in 1963 – a sturdy classic in no need of revamping – and we jump right into his mystical adventures in the present day. His look is unchanged (except that the grey hair at his temples has been colored in – after all, a fairly young man will be playing him in the Marvel movie next year) – the Eye of Agamatto, the Cloak of Levitation, the mustache, etc. By sticking to the basics and doing them with such infectious gusto, Marvel has put one of their flagship characters right back on the ‘must read’ list. Not a gimmicky gender-change in sight.
October 5th, 2015
Our book today is a classic of popular natural history from 1975, Among the Elephants by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who are now old and wrinkled but who were once lithe and limber back forty years ago when they first set out to study the elephant herds in the vicinity of Lake Manyara in the great Manyara National Park in Tanzania.
Iain went out first and received all the standard warnings in advance from the wise old-timers of the era (the exact same kind of warnings that were dispensed to a young Jane Goodall): don’t get emotionally involved with the animals you’re studying, don’t name them, don’t anthropomorphize them. How much poorer this book – and science’s understanding of the nature of wild elephant societies – would have been if Hamilton had followed such advice!
Instead, while studying the ways elephant societies help to dictate the movements of elephant herds, he came to know the different members of those herds as well as the humans he was living with and working with. He collected an elaborate identification system for the Manyara elephants and named them all – Slender Tusks, Two Holes, little calf N’Dume, mighty matriarch Boadicea, and many others – and when Oria originally comes out to join him (they’ll go on to raise a family in the bush, always within sight of elephants raising their own families), she narrates a hair-raising little initiation:
We must have been less than twenty yards away from them. The elephants hardly moved. Only the young ones turned inwards with their backs towards us, the big cows just looked at us, their heads still, trunks down and ears perked up. Then suddenly one great beast emerged, her head held high and her ears stretched out to such and extent that they looked like wings. Her tusks pointing at us, she advanced four terrifying steps, loomed up beside us, shook her head from side to side, slapped her ears against each other with a cloud clap, kicked up the dust with one of her forefeet, crossed them and stopped. I nearly died of fright.
Then she let out a shrilling trumpet, flipped her trunk forwards, kicked up more dust, turned and ambled off in that amusing baggy-pants trot so characteristic of elephants; finally she pushed herself back into the group, causing a lot of commotion. There were more trumpets and growlings and rumbling noises and then she stood side-on to us, with her head held high, fixing us with a piercing eye.
Turning to Iain I asked him, as coolly as I could, ‘Isn’t that a little dangerous?’ He just smiled, signalling me to keep quiet, and started taking down notes and observing the other elephants who were standing under the trees.
‘Don’t worry about Boadicea,’ he whispered, ‘she’s an extremely nervous elephant, but she’s only bluffing. I wanted you to meet her because she is the most important lady in this Park, the grand matriarch of the largest family.’
There are close calls and tense moments with the elephants (one extremely assertive cadre of sisters in particular), although one of the most perilous moments involves not an elephant but a touchy rhinoceros who chases Iain and very nearly kills him:
Out of the corner of my eye I saw it turn after me, and I ran for my life. Twisting and dodging round the bushes, I could not shake it off. Every time I looked round it was withing a few feet and closing in. It was incredible. Bushes were tearing at my clothes as I searched for a way through, I must have covered fifty yards when they formed a blank wall. A strap snapped on my sandal and I pitched headlong at high speed on my face. As I fell I twisted and saw a huge dark shape with its long sharp horn bearing down over me. The thought flashed through my mind that in the next instant I would be killed or spared.
With every passing year it grows a little more jarring to re-read In the Company of Elephants, since the Iain Douglas-Hamilton in these pages is a woolly-headed rubber-bodied young man, not the flinty sage he is today. The Manyara elephant herds have been devastated by poaching many times since the author first wrote this bestselling and groundbreaking book, and through all those years of blood and loss – and with the occasional modest triumph thrown in – Iain Douglas-Hamilton has been a tireless advocate for this slow, impressive species that first claimed his heart half a century ago. This is my favorite of his books in large part, I realized after this latest re-reading, because it’s the one where the bedazzlement of that initial encounter is the freshest.
October 3rd, 2015
The morning dawned chilly and grey under a low ceiling of clouds, and after spending a few hours reading in bed and catching up on the dolorous news of the day, I decided to venture out to the Boston Public Library’s book sale, since I missed the previous one and there won’t be another one until December, when Boston will be frozen solid under ten feet of snow.
So I went to my beloved BPL and climbed the stairs to the Cushman Room, its doorway glowing under the glorious John Singer Sargent murals, the Cushman room casting its warm light out onto the cold stone, and I plunged in.
I was alone this time around, alas. I dearly love going to book sales like this in the company of friends (in fact, since I was raised by an even more intensely social species than Homo sapiens, it’s fair to say I like to do pretty much everything in the company of friends), but no friends were available – one deserted me for the casinos and bordellos of the Colorado frontier; another prefers the refined atmosphere of Central Park; one lives in the icebound Maritimes; another, an alluring manatee, spends her time doing whatever it is that alluring manatees do. One friend even became a robot, sworn off both book-buying and normal human hob-nobbing. And so on down the line, so it was just me climbing those stone stairs and just me attempting to navigate the cramped and crowded confines of the room the BPL now uses for its bimonthly book sales.
I remember when the sales were far more frequent, and when they were held in a much larger first floor room, and when if I wanted company I simply brought my beagles. They were quiet, well-behaved boys, not outgoingly friendly but not intrusive either, but my long era of beagles is over, and in any case the times when I could take them practically everywhere have clearly changed.
And it’s not like there would have been any extra space for them in the Cushman Room anyway! What with the book-laden tables and the crowd of book-lovers, there was scarcely room for me. Once again the stalwart City-Wide Friend of the Boston Public Library did a fine job of keeping things just on the respectable side of complete chaos, and with a little creative hip-swerving, I was able to make a slow progress around the room and see just about everything on display.
One of the nagging little disappointments of a cramped indoor library book sale like this – or of any library book sale, really – is the knowledge that you won’t end up seeing more than a small fraction of the books that will appear on those shelves in the course of the day’s sale. The stock rolls out continuously for the whole day, and the customer activity is intense. So I steeled myself to make one comprehensive, thorough go-through of every book on every shelf, stop when I had picked out as many books as I could carry, and then pay and meekly leave. No hanging around to catch shelf-restocking, and especially no return trips. I limited myself to how many books I could fit in my bags and carry on the subway, and when I reached that limit (fairly quickly this time, since my picks included a positively masochistic number of 700-page hardcovers), I was finished.
The nicest thing about any big offering of good used books is that there’ll be as many reasons to pick a book as there are books on the shelves, and this was certainly the case in the Cushman room this time around. Here’s a sampling of the haul:
Warlord by Carol D’Este – I’ve always been a fan of D’Este’s breezy, readable way of writing popular history, and that would have been reason enough to pick this 2008 book about Winston Churchill’s long career as a military commander. But there was also the fact that I’d somehow missed reading it back when it first came out – Open Letters Monthly was still a fairly new journal, my beloved Open Letters Weekly niche didn’t as yet exist, so back then I just noted the book, deplored it, and moved on. Finding it at the BPL sale was a little reminder to rectify a gap, however much the actual contents of the book are almost guaranteed to annoy the snot out of me, since I’m fairly certain D’Este comes not to bury Caesar but to praise him.
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser – I’ve made no secret over the decades that this brilliant 1969 book is one of my favorite biographies of the latter half of the 20th century. Even if it weren’t so graceful and searching, I’d love it just for the wonderful memories it evokes of a long hot beautiful summer in Iowa a long time ago. But just last month when I took out my battered mass market paperback to re-read a section, I realized with sad dismay that I just really don’t like reading small paperbacks anymore. It’s not eye strain – thankfully, my eyes are just as good now as they were thirty years ago – it’s generosity of dimensions. In the last half-decade, I’ve come to love reading on my nice big bright iPad, and although that has left untouched my enjoyment of reading hardcovers and trade paperbacks, it’s really served to highlight just how cramped and miserly – how Cushman-like! – is the mass market reading experience. Back when I originally had that disappointing encounter with the mass market of Fraser’s book, I made a mental note to snatch up the first cheap hardcover I found – and here it was.
The Likeness of Venice – This big biography by Dennis Romano of the famous Venetian doge Francesco Foscari was a thing very similar to the D’Este book: a gap that existed mainly because the book came out – in this case in 2007 – when Open Letters as a book-reviewing enterprise was in its infancy. Publishers had never heard of us, we received virtually no books at our scrappy little Post Office box, and we had only our slender monthly issues to offer the reading world … no panoply of great blogs, no Open Letters Weekly, no presence on Facebook or Twitter, etc. This Foscari biography is a perfect example of the gaps that opened as a result: it was published by Yale University Press – now, in 2015, I would have been in busy chatter with its publicist long before the advance copies were available, I’d have received an advance copy, I’d have received a finished copy, and I’d have reviewed the daylights out of it. But back in 2007? Not so much. So it was a little joy to find it.
Snow & Steel by Peter Caddick-Adams – Quite a different story in the case of this big history of the Battle of the Bulge! I was aware of it during its entire coming-out process in 2014, but through some lamentable glitch with Oxford University Press, Open Letters received neither a review copy nor a finished copy of the book – if it hadn’t been for the kind offices of a reviewer friend of mine, I would have had to – buy – a copy in order to read it before the year was out. But I did read it, and I absolutely loved it; Caddick-Adams is an even better writer than he is a public speaker, which is no mean praise if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing him give a talk. But the ARC my reviewer friend gave me, though perfectly fine for consuming in two sittings, looked a little provisional on my shelves – I was delighted to find this finished hardcover at the BPL sale.
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom – I ordinarily try to steer clear of fiction at book sales (or even at my darling Brattle Bookshop), especially if there’s a question of egregious book-lugging involved (there are exceptions, of course – like the BPL sale at which I found the whole run of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels at a shot), but this series of Tudor-era murder mysteries starring the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake are so good, and they’re one of the few such mystery series in which the hardcover design of the books is much more attractive than the paperbacks – and in the case of this copy of Lamentation especially so, since it’s the UK hardcover put out by Mantle and featuring not only a matte-textured dust jacket but one of those sewn-in cloth bookmarks! It was an easy pick.
The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard – This big yellow paperback was an easy pick too, although an abashed one, since I couldn’t immediately tell you what happened to the copy of it I used to own, back in 2004 when it first came out. I love Leonard’s Westerns (his 1970 novel Valdez is Coming is an all-time classic of the genre), and I love them especially because he wrote the huge majority of them long before he’d achieved the status of a Hollywood go-to writer. Something about the historical setting keeps him more honest (and gives perfect cover to his root-and-branch misogyny … plenty of these stories have no speaking parts for women at all), and his editors back in the ’50s were, most of them, no-nonsense relics of the pulp era; they knew exactly what they wanted, and it was Leonard’s job to provide it, and to work in whatever stylistic innovations he himself wanted under the strictest of guidelines. That kind of arrangement will either make or break a writer, and I remember how fascinating it was in the course of this chronologically-arranged volume to watch it make Leonard. And whatever happened to my original copy, I was glad to find this replacement in the Cushman room.
I bought more books than these (including a handful of Penguin Classics, in my ongoing quest to have all the Penguins), and when I had as much as I could stagger away with, I staggered away – back through the chilly spitting rain to my sleepy old dogs, who wouldn’t have enjoyed accompanying me even if they’d been physically equal to the task. But who knows? Maybe in December I’ll have human company for the next sale – I’ll likely trek through the ice and snow either way. Library book sales really shouldn’t be missed.
October 3rd, 2015
Our book today, a winner of a thing by Thomas Kohnstamm from 2008, asks the always-pertinent question, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? – and like almost all books with questions in the title, the answer is obvious.
The book follows Kohnstamm on his transformation from an ordinary white-collar worker – with a steady girlfriend, an office-job income, and a Manhattan apartment – to an itinerant professional freelance travel-writer whose more poetic or sensitive appreciations of his far-flung destinations are now a bit circumscribed by the dictates of the parent company:
Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent top-end. I also need to keep I mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view. The company does not think that this will dilute the content or voice of the book.
He travels over large swaths of South America, meets a great many vivid individuals, and has a great many seedy, over-the-top adventures. He tells his readers at the beginning of his book that he’s not intending to write an expose of the travel-writing industry, and in part he’s right, since the stories in his book are ultimately too affectionate to have the sting of a real tell-all. But he’s nevertheless writing a book very much at odds with the more stereotypical travel-writing accounts that are so full of picturesque local color and harmless local anecdotes. As he and his girlfriend Meg quickly discover during one excursion, picturesque is just the lure most places use to get you there, after which they set to work disillusioning you:
We arrived in Fortaleza with the idealistic notions of young students who were busy reading Cervantes, Borges, and Neruda, paired with the history and rhetoric of Castro, Allende, and Guevara. We were fully open to spontaneity and planned to sleep on the beaches and take in the culture of pan-American understanding and camaraderie. When we arrived in Fortaleza, we found that no one could follow our Portu-no and that it was nearly impossible to find an ATM or change traveler’s checks. Our dreams of sleeping on peaceful tropical beaches were overshadowed by the faint glow of a McDonald’s sign as rats scurried past and crews of adolescents roamed the sand looking for aluminum cans.
And yet, unaccountably (or accounted for only by Kohnstamm’s wonderfully energetic prose), by the end of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell there IS a kind of picturesque local allure creeping in around the edges of these pages. The book is a necessary corrective to the kind of enticingly rosy picture conveyed by the glossy travel magazines, but it ends up enticing just the same, in its seedy way.
October 2nd, 2015
This week’s comics presented a stark juxtaposition between old and new, tradition and innovation, and as much as I tend to hate the new and the innovative when it comes to superhero comics, my reactions this time around were tempered by quality, which is always a nice way to have your reactions tempered.
The ‘tradition’ side of the coin came in the form of the second issue of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s mini-series “Captain America: White” (they have a color fixation, these two – thank Rao they didn’t use it with classic “Superman For All Seasons”), which is, as far as I can tell, a completely straightforward four-square adventure featuring Captain America and his sidekick Bucky during World War II, fighting alongside Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos. I read the first issue with a strange kind of wariness – a wariness born of the fact that Marvel Comics is currently in the midst of a veritable lumbar-spasm of pointless, frantic, lunging, caterwauling “innovation” that’s giving rise to new series after imbecile new series and laying waste to virtually every old or established title they’ve ever done. There’s virtually no solid ground to stand on anymore in the once-rich Marvel Universe, so when I saw that first issue of “Captain America: White” at my beloved Comicopia here in Boston, I cringed a little, reflexively wondering if some writer’s new take on Cap was going to be that he’s a coke head, or a white supremacist.
It turns out I needn’t have worried – this Loeb & Sale schtick is so commercially and artistically successful that they’re obviously allowed to do it in all weathers, regardless of the lunacy prevailing in the rest of the company. The story they’re telling is just a fairly simple paean to the friendship that’s taken root between Captain America and his sidekick – with a healthy dose of rapid-fire exchanges between superhumanly idealistic Cap and gruffer, more pragmatic Nick Fury, who in this second issue quips that he’s fighting Hitler alongside Little Orphan Annie.
Our heroes were shot out of the sky over a stretch of ocean at the end of the previous issue, and as this issue opens, Bucky must make a tough choice to lug the drowning Cap to the surface: he has to cut loose Cap’s famous shield and let it float to the bottom. He expects Cap to be furious at losing his one-of-a-kind weapon (in the series’ only nod to the all-powerful Marvel movie franchise, Bucky comments on how Howard Stark invented it), but Jeph Loeb’s pitch-perfect characterization of Captain America makes such a reaction unthinkable: this Cap is every inch what he’s been for Marvel Comics for so many decades: their paragon of right. When he later gets his shield returned to him in a nifty splash page featuring Tim Sale’s rendition of the Sub-Mariner, all is set aright (although the Sub-Mariner then apparently disappears, neither helping his comrade up the side of an enormous mountain nor sticking around to help fight what’s at the top of it – it’s literally Atlantean-ex-machina).
Despite their very different power-levels and background-stories, the Captain America equivalent over at DC Comics – in terms of being a paragon of right – has always been Superman. That characterization has taken some serious dings in the last few years during the company’s “New 52” continuity reboot (the “New 52” Superman could never in a million years be suspected of standing for truth, justice, and the American way – more like arrogance, popped collars, and dating Wonder Woman), and those dings have only increased lately, since DC’s entire run of superhero comics is every bit as much of a flailing, screeching, foaming, raving pancreas-discharge of “innovation” as Marvel is, with virtually no characters or titles escaping radical and disastrously misconceived changes.
No one has been more affected by this than Superman, the company’s flagship character. At some editorial meeting somewhere, several writers who really should have known better obviously got together and said, “Let’s strip away everything that makes Superman Superman” – and the ongoing “Truth” plot line unfolding across all of the character’s monthly titles is the result: gone are the bulk of the superpowers; gone is the big red cape; gone is the ability to fly; gone is the secret identity of Clark Kent – Superman is outed to the world and is therefore forced, in this latest issue of Superman (with a variant cover by Kevin Nowlan in honor of the 75th anniversary of Green Lantern, showing the pre-reboot incarnations of both characters, to the melancholy pang of readers like me), to make an online video telling all his enemies that if they attack his friends and family, he’ll retaliate a thousandfold (the specific thing prompting the warning is that Perry White gets shot by a man in retaliation for a crime he believes Superman committed, and this in turn prompts the issue’s best moment, when an angry, convalescing Perry White slaps the glasses off Clark Kent’s face – the John Romita Jr. artwork is typically brilliant)(although it competes throughout the issue with full-page ad after full-page ad for DC’s live-action TV series about Green Arrow, once again the all-powerful cinematic franchise wagging the dog of the comics that made it possible in the first place). When Lois Lane desperately reminds him that “an eye for an eye isn’t how Superman is supposed to work,” this former paragon of right tells her, “Maybe not before.”
Which is sacrilege, of course, but while I was reading this issue, I was struck by just how well-done a version of sacrilege it is. Writer Gene Luen Yang in this issue – and the writers of Superman’s other titles – are busily telling a story that should never be told … the Clark Kent secret identity, the cape, the powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, these things aren’t obstacles to telling Superman stories, if you’re creative enough … but as I was reading this issue and thinking back to all the earlier issues of “Truth” I’ve read this summer, I couldn’t miss how good it all is. As a tale of Superman’s world tearing apart, it’s intelligently and dramatically done.
And it’s not like this version of the character is my version anyway. We saw the last of that version earlier this year – except for this quick issue-cover glimpse.
October 1st, 2015
Our book today is George Reiger’s 1983 book Wanderer On My Native Shore, a wonderfully personal work of natural history sub-titled “A Personal Guide & Tribute to the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast” which we’ve met before here at Stevereads, but I read it again recently in a kind of commemoration of that pleasant melancholy that always comes to me at summer’s end – a melancholy that’s been enormously extended in 2015 by the fact that mid-80s heat and humidity has stayed and stayed and stayed here in Boston. The calendar has said summer is ending, but September had not one but two heat waves, and even now, on the doorstep of October, the weather outside is mild and chokingly humid, perfect for shorts and sandals. So I’ve kept revisiting these books of summer, and Reiger’s book – with graceful illustrations by Bob Hines – has been a battered favorite of mine since I first bought it in a Cape Cod bookshop when it first came out.
Reiger doesn’t concentrate on the Cape but rather on Eastern seacoasts in general, starting in Maine and working his way down the coast to Key West. Reiger was an extensively-published nature writer and a hugely influential nature-editor at magazines like Field & Stream, National Wildlife, and Audubon, and all through his leisurely tour in this book, he stops to indulge in discourses on the natural history of the places he visits, like the lovely area of Sandy Hook, New Jersey:
The Army’s occupation of this pivotal piece of real estate during the decades of northern New Jersey’s most frenetic growth saved this peninsula from a fate that can be seen most everywhere else along the neighboring coast. Although a sunny June day will bring more than 50,000 bathers to the Hook’s seaside beaches, horseshoe crabs, identical to their arachnoid ancestors which steered with their telson tail spikes between the feet of wading dinosaurs, spawn on the peninsula’s bayside flats while gulls and shorebirds crowd around to gobble the greenish eggs. In the fall, monarch butterflies pause on their migration to Mexico to feed on seaside goldenrod blooming in the dunes, while sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks hunt robins in a three-hundred-year-old holly grove just north of Spermaceti Cove – named in 1668 after a sperm whale stranded and was salvaged there.
It often seems like Reiger has read every work of popular natural history from Aristotle to the week his book went to press, but there’s also a persistently personal note running through the book. Reiger knows quite a bit about the nature of the places he’s visiting, but he always takes care to place himself in his stories, mixed in with the natural history:
All eagles seem to be half-vulture. Although as ornithologist Alexander Sprunt, Jr., points out in his North American Birds of Prey, “eagles can attain considerable speed when the necessity arises – certainly enough to capture some of the ducks,” bald eagles prefer picking off sick or crippled waterfowl rather than chasing down healthy birds. One December afternoon not many years ago, retired Fish and Wildlife Service director John Gottschalk, artist Ned Smith, and I watched a pair of bald eagles hunt a Virginia marsh for crippled black ducks when there were pods of healthy diving ducks in the open channels around the marsh. During several decades of eagle watching, Alexander Sprunt saw a bald eagle take only one uninjured game bird – a hen mallard – besides an occasional coot, which normally fly like they are crippled!
I love re-reading Wanderer On My Native Shore, love revisiting Reiger’s stories and re-examining the bright drawings of Hines. In the past, those re-readings had always connoted summer’s waning days to me, but I’ll still keep re-reading it even if I have to recalibrate that.
September 25th, 2015
He had the hair, the Mona Lisa smile, the subtle hands, the loudly fashionable clothing, the bad-boy attitude – it’s little wonder that Christopher Marlowe has been an extremely popular subject for fiction-writers over the years (especially blossoming after 1952, when the portrait we all so badly want to be a 21-year-old Marlowe was discovered). My own personal library has two shelves devoted to Marlowe books, and one whole shelf of those are novels rather than biographies, although the two genres symbiotically share the same skinny 61 known facts of Marlowe’s life, including the key ones: that the young man was to become a flashy, enormously popular playwright, that he was purported to have scandalous, heretically opinions, that he performed some kind of service for the Crown while still in college, and of course that he was stabbed to death in Deptford.
You can see immediately the appeal for novelists: there are so many tantalizingly open mysteries! What did Marlowe do for the Crown? What were his real controversial opinions, if any? And maybe most of all, what prompted his murder, if we discount the possibility that it was all a drunken brawl? These are the kinds of questions novelists were born to answer, and dozens and dozens of them have taken up the challenge. I’m fairly certain I’ve read all the resulting books, give or take one or two, and here I’m presenting just a smattering of those:
Prove a Villain by K. C. Warwick (2010) – Since one of the things a friend-then-enemy of Marlowe’s gossiped that he once said dealt with a partiality for boys, the playwright has very, very often been adopted as a kind of neck-ruffed patron saint of outed homosexuality. The writers who’ve embraced that version of Marlowe aren’t especially interested in learning that public accusations of buggering were very popular in Shakespeare’s day, a slander chosen for its stickiness rather than its factual accuracy. No, these writers want a gay hero who’s not hiding – indeed, who’s not only open but famous and formidable, and Marlowe (rather than fawning, opaque Shakespeare, several of whose sonnets actually are openly homosexual) is their man. K. C. Warwick is one such author, and in Prove a Villain, tailor Hugh Seaton, back in London after an absence of two years, is happy to return to the acting troupe he used to work with, even though it might mean more encounters with his former lover-boyfriend, you guessed it:
He stood for a moment, resting his hand on the curved wooden wall as it it were the flank of a favorite hound – but that was a mistake because it brought to mind the last time he had stood there, his shoulder blades pressed against the hard wood by the weight of Kit’s body. The other man’s breath had been warm against his cheek as he whispered angrily, “Don’t tell me you care more for some woman than you do for me! That’s a falsehood!” Even though it was two years ago, Hugh could remember exactly how it had felt. How, despite his anger, he had enjoyed being pinned with Kit’s warm strength holding him …
Prove a Villain absolutely must carry on as an explicit fantasy, naturally. Gay men couldn’t hope for open happiness in Elizabethan times (there’s some real historical doubt that they could have had even private happiness, psychologically), and Marlowe can’t hope for happiness in any case. As we’ll see with upcoming books on this little list, that brick wall in the narrative, that looming doom in Deptford, bedevils almost all attempts to dramatize this dramatist.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (2004) – The fragmentary nature of Marlowe’s life – those tantalizing gaps at key points and key periods – prompts some writers of Marlowe fiction to mirror the terrain in their books, and Louise Welsh’s pretty little novella is the best of that impressionistic lot. It’s raw and raunchy, wasting no time plunging its readers into both Marlowe’s mind and the seedy, back-stabbing nature of his age:
I am of an adventurous nature. I have often invited danger and have even goaded men to violence for the sake of excitement. I like best what lies beyond my reach, and admit to using friendship, State and Church to my own ends. I acknowledge breaking God’s laws and man’s with few regrets. But if I die tomorrow, I will go to my grave a wronged man. Were this fate of my own doing, I would greet it not gladly, but with a nod to virtue’s victory. As it is, if I meet death tomorrow I promise to face him cursing man and God.
In fact, Tamburlaine Must Die was at times so telegraphic and sensory that I often wanted it to be more fragmentary, not less, a full-blown fantasia rather than anything connected to plot. As a result (no doubt unintended by the author), I always find the actual plot of the story a bit silly, especially in its concluding scenes. But the bulk of this slim volume is composed of scenes and flashes that will stick in your memory.
Blood and Ink by D. K. Marley (2010) – Some Marlowe novelists, as noted, opt for what essentially amounts to a bells-and-whistles fictional version of the straight-up biographies historians like Park Honan produce; they ransack the registers of famous Elizabethans and crowd them all into as many street-and-tavern scenes as possible. Marley’s tale is one such, lavishing the outline of Marlowe’s life with a 21st-century version of the purple overwriting that made the playwright a star:
Kit looked over his shoulder. Through the haze of the candlelight, Richard Burbage entered, and following him, another man in a simple brown doublet and worn boots. Marlowe recognized him straightaway as the man whom he had seen with Burbage near the Curtain theatre, yet not only then; before him stood the boy from Kenilworth and the Stratford actor, William Shakespeare. Kit felt an illness creep about his heart.
As is the case with many Marlowe novels, there’s a good deal to overlook in Blood and Ink; its excesses can be wretched indeed, and it too often opts to omit the kinds of subtlety for which Marlowe even today doesn’t quite get his due. As an adventure story, it’s very Edwardian-style arch, which will prevent it from being everybody’s cup of sack.
The Marlowe Conspiracy by M. G. Scarsbrook (2010) – Scarsbrook opts for a plain old rather than arch adventure story: this Marlowe, both a famous working playwright and a busily-working spy, comes under official suspicion of atheism and sedition and has only a small window of time to clear himself. He’s helped by his friend and colleague William Shakespeare, and Scarsbrook does a very attentive job in helping readers to see the dramatis personae:
Kit was tall, with lithe arms and compact shoulders. Oval of face, he wore his long brown hair pulled back from his brow, and he grew a faint moustache over his lip and a thin beard on his chin. Dark, sun-stained eyes stared back at him from the looking glass. Between his slanted eyebrows lay a small crease worn into the skin through frowning. In his late twenties, he was a man fully in his prime. He was also a man of hidden tension: focused yet undisciplined: alert but frustrated; confident yet racked by anxiety.
The Marlowe Conspiracy is inevitably bottlenecked by its own premise, as are so many Marlowe novels (but not our next one!): we know that no long life of happy endings awaits our hero. But Scarsbrook is a talented enough author to make us temporarily forget.
The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (2014) – Some Marlowe novels are, of course, more ambitious than others, and this one by Ros Barber is doubly so: not only does it commit itself fully to the idea that Marlowe faked his death in Deptford, moved to the Continent, and wrote all the plays we now attribute to William Shakespeare, but it tells that story in verse! Verse that’s fluid and always readable, even if it won’t give either Marlowe or Shakespeare much cause for envy:
From all this, I am dead. Reduced to ink
that magicks up my spirit from the page:
a voice who knows what mortals cannot think of;
a ghost, whose words ring deeper from the grave.
Corpse-dead. A gory stab-hole for an eye;
and that’s what they must think. No, must believe,
those thug-head pursers bent on gagging speech,
if I’m to slip their noose and stay alive.
Now I’m as dead as any to the world,
the foulest rain of blackened corpses on
the body that is entered in my name:
the plague pit where Kit Marlowe now belongs.
Barber has since gone on to mount some very good, very exhaustive assaults on the validity of Shakespeare’s authorship of the works we read under his name, and this novel-in-verse is clearly her Iliad along those lines. It stands out in every way from most other Marlowe novels, which is, as we’ve seen, high praise on its own.
Entered from the Sun by George Garrett (1990) – Nothing stands out quite so well or so naturally as genius, however, and that word certainly applies to George Garrett’s greatest historical novel, a Marlowe story in which Marlowe never appears and is long since dead – though no less present in the recollections of Garrett’s smart, troubled main character, Joseph Hunnyman:
It is true that I am … or, more truthfully, that I have been from time to time a player. And I think it would be truly remarkable to find any player alive in England who s altogether ignorant of Marlowe’s plays. Is there any company, large or small, celebrated or obscure, which has not, one way or another and in one version or another, performed his plays and earned both profit and general applause for their efforts? I doubt it. Is there a living poet in England who has not flattered Marlowe and honored his memory by trying to imitate the matter of his plays and the thunder and lightning, the drums and trumpets and gunpowder blasts of his words? Not to my knowledge. There was a time, believe me, sir, and it has not yet fully dissipated, either, when all that the managers wished to see and to consider for performance was something or other, anything really, which had at least the counterfeit sound and echo of Marlowe in the lines and some shadowy copy of the astonishing spectacle of his fables.
Garrett’s novel is the pinnacle of his life-long immersion in Elizabethan times; it rings with the poetry of the age and strides and swaggers and staggers like the age. And like all of Garrett’s books, its plotting is deceptively laconic, revealing its steel and snapping closed only toward the very end (in the case of this book, in part in the very last paragraph). In the realm of fiction, Christopher Marlowe has inspired hundreds of books but only one real masterpiece, and this is it.
September 24th, 2015
Any batch of new romance novels will certainly feature a few whose narratives are grounded not on people but on places. Their covers feature landscapes and promise to be “A [Location X] Novel,” and a newcomer to the phenomenon might wonder at the appeal. When we look at three of them chosen at random, that appeal ends up seeming curiously elusive:
One of These Nights by Kendra Leigh Castle – In this third volume in the Harvest Cove series, after For the Longest Time and Every Little Kiss, Castle’s main character, Zoe Watson, moves from Atlanta, Georgia, to the idyllic small New England town of Harvest Cove, where she runs an art gallery and seeks to soak up the small-town peace and quiet of the place … until her new life is upended when ultra-handsome park ranger Jason Evans breaks his leg and suddenly needs her help despite irritating her:
Even now, laid up with one leg in a clunky cast and wearing a pair of ragged old cargo shorts and a T-shirt that had seen better days, Jason was too appealing for his own good. Nasty, miserable, inappropriately attractive dirt farmer. He lifted his face from his hands to look at her, and it was hard not to feel sorry for him. Well, a little sorry. The rest of her was too busy being furious with him right now.
Castle does a peppy job with the sparks that fly between Zoe and and Jason, and that chemistry carries the book, with Harvest Cove itself, its nature as a place, fading almost completely into the background – to the point where a newcomer to the series might wonder why the whole series is centered in one place at all.
All of Me by Kelly Moran – This is the second volume in Moran’s series set in Covington Cove on the beautiful North Carolina coast, and here the location seems to move much closer to center stage. Novelist Alec Winston is living in New York City and banging his head against a crippling case of writer’s block and yearning for some small-town mystique:
He had to admit, people recognized him wherever he went. He brushed elbows with producers and screenwriters. Booksellers and editors and marketing people, all willing to bend over backward to accommodate him. Adoring fans with blogs and websites and Facebook pages. But there was no one he could tall at two a. m. just because. No one to argue with over a bad call in the Yankees game or grab a beer to discuss their day.
Naturally, the simplicity he’s hoping for gets complicated – in this case, in the person of Faith Armstrong, who’s likewise come to Covington Cove in hopes that the small-town comforts of the place will help her reinvent herself. All of Me is a bit somnolent, but at least it works a bit harder to justify the prominence of its geography than One of These Nights.
In Moondance Beach, Susan Donovan’s new “Bayberry Island” novel, we zing right back to New England, in this case Bayberry Island off the coast of Massachusetts, where Navy SEAL Duncan Flynn returns home to recuperate from an injury. Donovan does a good job consistently touching back to the Nantucket-style atmosphere of the place:
It was a recent June evening on Bayberry Island. Shop lights flickered. The old-fashioned gas streetlamps cast a warm glow over the bricks of Fountain Square. A crescent moon peeked over the horizon. And right on schedule, the last passenger ferry of the day made its unhurried approach toward the public dock.
But once again, once Flynn meets reclusive painter Adelena Silva and they begin a fairly standard romantic give-and-take, the island setting itself (and its wacky Mermaid Festival) becomes increasingly irrelevant to the story. It’s a strange thing – a rhetorical gesture that quite a few romance writers feel they need in order to start their books but not that they need in order to keep those books going. On one level, it’s predictable and understandable: locations anchor memories and quite often put a floor under nostalgia, and nostalgia powers so many romance novels in the bookstores today. But on another level, I almost always find it puzzling; I don’t quite understand why Zoe Watson can’t find satisfying romance in Atlanta, or Alec Winston in New York, or even crusty Duncan Flynn back at his base’s hospital. There’s a low-key delusion of Eden running through these books, a persistent implication that urban complexity is antithetical to emotional health – and that where you are can overcome who you are. Personally, I’m not holding out much hope for any of these couples.
September 23rd, 2015
How could I not make mention of the fact that Esquire, one of my most steadfast glossy lad-mags, hits its 1000th issue this month? To put it mildly, it’s not every magazine that reaches one thousand issues – hell, there aren’t many writing endeavors of any kind that reach such a milestone (blushing modesty prevents me from dwelling on the fact that over at the “Weekly” section of Open Letters Monthly, I recently ran my 1000th signed book review).
The issue features a blizzard of quotes and excerpts from pieces dating all the way back to 1933, some arranged by topic (war, sex, etc.), others arranged alphabetically, and all accompanied by an eye-popping selection of the artwork and photos that have filled the magazine every month for all that time. There’s the famous quote from Gay Talese’s 1966 piece “The Silent Season of the Hero”:
“Joe,” said Marilyn Monroe, just back from Korea, “you never heard such cheering.” “Yes I have,” DiMaggio answered.
And there’s Chris Jones writing a brief paragraph about famous NFL cheater Tom Brady:
The ultimate survivor. Tom Brady will always win. I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean it in the sense that if Lucifer walked the earth, he would be someone very much like Tom Brady and he would be impossible to kill.
We get an excerpt from “The Shooter,” the deplorable first-hand account of the Navy SEAL execution of Osama bin Laden in 2012:
There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his younger wife, Amal …
He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting … he was holding her in front of him. Maybe as a shield, I don’t know …
In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time he was going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! Same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath.
And the always-dependable Stephen Marche turns in “The Ghost of Hemingway,” an original – and haltingly sad – quick profile of the patron saint of Esquire‘s founding, Ernest Hemingway:
Of all the great modernist writers, Hemingway is the least admired but the most imitated. Serious readers worship James Joyce. They worship Kafka. They worship Borges. But nobody tries to write like them, not in America, anyway. And yet every section of the bookstore shows Hemingway’s influence. “When you find a good line, cut it, “ was Hemingway’s advice to writers of the future. In his lack of metaphors, strong active verbs, and masses of dialogue, he has had more influence on someone like Elmore Leonard than on even Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. Two of the greatest film noir novels of all time – The Killers and To Have and Have Not – are Hemingway stories.
Of course, despite the rather uncanny extent to which Esquire has remained true to its men’s-men ethos over the decades even while that ethos was in some ways warping out of all recognition of its former self, some things have definitely changed. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, the full-page ad featuring young director-hottie tobacco addict Xavier Dolan and a new Louis Vuitton “Cartable” leather satchel. A quick consultation with the Louis Vuitton website confirms that the bag sells for $4,850 – roughly four times the annual income of the average American man in 1933. I guess the high culture messenger bags will cost around $13,000 when Esquire hits issue #2000. I’ll report back.
September 22nd, 2015
Our book today is On the Vineyard, a 1980 collection of short essays and reflections about Martha’s Vineyard, accompanied by stunning black-and-white photos by Peter Simon, and the impulse that drove me to take it down from my shelf is akin to the impulse that always makes me think of Cape Cod at summer’s end. The “summer’s end” part has been exceedingly grudging here in Boston, which has had two separate heat waves in September and where, here in the last week of the month, the days just routinely warm up into the mid-80s. But it’s an illusion, naturally – winter will come, although we can hope it’ll be gentler than last winter – and the gathering chill in the early mornings when I’m standing outside with two sleepy old dogs, well, that early-morning chill speaks more clearly about the changes coming than any aberrant daytime high temperature could do. The summer is ending, and that always makes me think of the Cape and the islands.
The Vineyard has always been, for me, the third in rank – behind Nantucket, and behind the Cape itself – and I don’t really know why. I’ve had many wonderful experiences at the Vineyard, walked its wildernesses with many friends and many, many dogs, even attended two weddings there (my final two such attendances, I’ve gradually come to realize), and yet I’ve always found Nantucket the more beautiful and the more inviting, and even exotic Nantucket has always paled for me beside the quiet glories of Cape Cod, where I have sailed and trekked and napped and laughed and lounged and gorged on sea-shack food so many times that its towns and inlets and scrappy woods feel like a part of me.
Paging through On the Vineyard therefore served as a very good reminder to me of all the memories that come from there as well, that rise from its marshes and lakes and farm pastures and shade-dappled forest floors and endless beaches. There’s an undeniable magic to taking the Port Authority ferry to the island (I’ve only reached it three times by other means) and then watching the passengers scatter each to their separate havens, for however long they’re lucky enough to be staying.
The essays in On the Vineyard capture quite a few of those havens, from sybarite author Vance Packard’s evocation of Chappaquiddick, a beautiful little island whose name is now tarnished forever by one act of panicked cowardice:
Most of Chappaquiddick is covered with dense woodland: scrub pine and oak. Near the shore there is much sea grass, wild grapes, beach plums, blueberries, wild roses. A few dozen deer roam the interior. The alarmed flutter of ring-necked pheasants is a common sound. Along the beaches, in addition to the gulls and the terns, are egrets, yellowlegs, and great blue herons. In the fall the waters fill with squadrons of diving ducks.
To columnist and ex-paratrooper Nelson Bryant’s ode to Chappaquiddick’s Cape Poge:
In winter, when a northwest gale shrieks across the bay, piling whitecaps, eelgrass, codium, scallops, quahogs and other shells on the shore, and carrying the indescribable aroma of the salt flats when the tide is down, the first ranks of cedars shudder and reel. But beyond them, deeper in the grove, so dense and intricate in their design, no wind invades. Often the outer trees are killed, but their writhing and sun-bleached forms stand for many years.
Chickadees and other songbirds hide in that sanctuary all winter, and deer are also frequent sojourners there.
To the great Boston bookman Stan Hart, who’s here given the honor of the last word even over Vineyard legend Henry Beetle Hough, and whose life-long love of the Vineyard extends to all havens in all seasons:
And beauty there was. The up-Island South Beach, as an example, was heavy with beach grass and Sahara-like with its dunes and hollows. The upper and lower Chilmark ponds were connected by a navigable stream, which I used to canoe on moonlit nights. Slipping along those still waters right inside the edge of the ocean, I could hear the plangent thud of surf breaking on hard sand to my left and the rustling of herons in the marsh grass on my right. The mosquitoes could be awful but it was like finding a Northwest Passage slipping along those lambent waters. And when I entered Chilmark Pond it was always a discovery, consumed with raw nature, each ripple of the pond picking up the moonbeams, and the ocean white from the light above. I used to think then that I could never leave the Island no matter what.
Many of the short recollections in this book lament how ‘built up’ the Vineyard is becoming, and in the thirty years since this book was on the New Books display in the Edgartown bookstore, that process has only accelerated (back in the 1990s, one New York investment broker was confronted by locals about his plan to build an enormous, landscape-blotting mansion and his announced intention to use it only two or three weeks a year; when the locals complained that his mansion – the very first of the so-called ‘McMansions,’ if I recall correctly – would blight the beautiful natural surroundings, he said, “I want it to be ugly”). But even in reading these old complaints, there’s a perverse element of comfort: I’ve visited the Vineyard many times since the year this book was published, and I’ve been relieved every time to discover that its soul is untouched. It’s still easily possible to sit at a shady pine-smelling picnic table with an old friend; still easily possible to walk the long beaches in the late afternoon when the sky is a deeper blue than the sea; still easily possible to bike along quiet broadlands and watch a hawk lazily circling up on the sky.
Peter Simon’s photos catch quite a bit of that soul, and like so much of the best photography, they don’t need color to work their magic. And in On the Vineyard there’s an extra bit of magic for me personally: this is certainly the book that contains the most photos of people I actually knew myself – by uncanny coincidence (or maybe not quite coincidence – maybe it’s an unintended token of how much time I spent on the Vineyard in the 1970s), the book’s photos contain five people I knew personally, laughed with, walked with, and four of whom I later corresponded with for years (the fifth wasn’t lazy – just not human). It adds an element of sweet melancholy to the book, especially since I knew so many of those people in the thinning light of late summer.