September 4th, 2015

Twelve Days of Terror!

twelve days of terror coverOur book today is Twelve Days of Terror, Richard Fernicola’s 2001 history of the famous series of shark attacks that happened at the Jersey Shore in 1916, when four people were killed in July by a shark – probably a single shark, probably a bull shark, since it was able to travel up-river quite a distance in order to wreak some of its havoc. In fact, it was seen swimming up the Matawan creek away from the ocean, seen in the very act of heading inland, seen by seasoned old mariner Captain Cottrell, who was standing on a bridge over the creek when he saw a shadow he recognized well:

When he arrived at the bridge, the captain was surprised to see Mother Carey’s chickens (stormy petrels) resting on the railing of the overpass. The bridge workmen heard him say that he had never see this particular variety of offshore bird so far inland. Looking down toward the flowing creek water, the captain spotted a shape that forced a double take. His aged eyes refocused, and he was frightened to realize that the heat was not playing tricks on his mind or his vision. Cottrell sighted a formidable dark gray shape, approximately eight feet in length, making its way west, up the creek, with the incoming tide. Cottrell recognized the silhouette immediately because he had seen the same kin in the open sea many times before. The object was a shark, and a large one at that.

He tried to raise the alarm and was told “You have a better chance of seeing an elephant cooling off down there than a shark.” Which effectively doomed young Lester Stillwell, who was swimming with some of his friends at their favorite deep-water channel of the creek and had just taken a big dive into the water when the dark shape Captain Cottrell spotted surfaced among them:

Before the airborne water had a chance to rejoin the brown creek, the boys heard a short screech and an even greater splash behind them. The children were momentarily entranced by what they originally believed to be a dark old plank surge toward Lester. Then they saw the dorsal fin and tail fin of the shark and in unison shouted, “Lester’s gone!” As the phantom engulfed Lester’s slight upper body, Lester’s mouth filled with water. The fear-frozen boys saw at once that the beast was not all black but had a white underside and gleaming teeth. Poor Lester struggled briefly amid the reddening water, gurgled a scream once more, and was dragged beneath the surface.

Fernicola rehearses the whole story (the original inspiration for Peter Benchley’s Jaws) expertly and spends a large chunk of his book placing the Matawan shark attacks in their larger historical context of the Wilson presidency and the looming shadow of the First World War. That larger historical canvassing originally hampered my first reading of the book, mainly because that larger historical canvassing is mostly absent from Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore, a far more exciting and slimmer book on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, published at the same time as Twelve Days of Terror. That kind of unholy doubling sometimes happens in the publishing world, and although it can sometimes guarantee a double header-style review (assigning editors being feeble, biddable creatures for the most part), it just as often causes one of the two books to fall into shadow – and I worry that something like that happened in this case.

And if so, that would be quite a shame! In re-reading Fernicola’s book, I was more and more impressed not only with his wider view of things, his consistent decision to avoid mere sensationalism, but also with the vivid way he tells this familiar story – and the sure-handed way he has of grasping the essentials, including the most essential elementlucy terrified of sharks of all:

Of all the predators implicated in man-eating events, none conjures up more intense dread than the shark. It is certainly terrifying to be confronted by a bear deep in the woods, or a tiger in some remote village in India, but it is, perhaps, of some small comfort to know that a single shot from a rifle can thwart the danger from such a visible terrestrial predator. It is quite another issue, however, to imagine being a shipwrecked sailor, a surfer, or a beach bather about to be attacked, dismembered, and consumed by a dark, black-eyed monster with razor-sharp teeth, viselike jaws, and sandpaper-like skin.

2015 has been another “summer of the shark” – there’ve been several attacks off the coast of Florida, and the number of attacks off the coast of Australia has been quadruple what it was last year. Even sainted Cape Cod has been haunted by record-breaking shoals of great white sharks, one of which had the bad manners to spit out a chomped seal onto shore at the feet of sun-bonneted overprivileged tourists. And when you’re reading Fernicola’s book, you see from his careful study how the whole mental framework, the whole idea of the marauding shark, entered the world’s mind frame.

September 1st, 2015

The Cape at Summer’s End!

this quiet place coverOur book today is This Quiet Place, a 1971 book whose author, seasoned journalist and biographer (and Martha’s Vineyard native) Everett Allen subtitled “A Cape Cod Chronicle” – so naturally, on the first of September, my eyes found it on my shelves, since it’s always at this time of year that I find myself thinking about – and particularly missing – that tiny, magical speck of Earth that is the Cape.

I don’t really know why this association should be so strong. As I’ve written here at Stevereads before, I’ve known and loved the Cape (and the Vineyard, and especially Nantucket) in all seasons and all weathers, with all kinds of people and all kinds of dogs. My visits there and stays there haven’t at all been confined to late summer, and yet something about late summer – the barely-noticeable creep of chill around the corners of pre-dawn mornings, the first arrows of migrating birds crossing the sky, and – in purely Cape terms – the mass exodus of the crowds of tourists who fill the place from Sandwich to Provincetown during the summer months and who pack up their plastic souvenirs and vanish like magic over the Labor Day weekend – something about this time of year invariably turns my thoughts to the wonderful Cape Cod times I’ve had.

Allen repaired to the Cape as often as his busy career would allow, and This Quiet Place is his attempt to capture not only the small-town personality of the place but also, of course, its natural moods in all seasons and times of day:

Now over all is morning quietness, except for the sad and raucous two-toned laughter of a gull; or perhaps he is not laughing, I do not know. How bright is the coming sunlight on white boats; on smooth wood it sparkles, and on the sea’s face it is dappled and interspersed with the darkening wind ripples.

He can be a bit of a pompous writer, and he can forget what far too many nonfiction writers of his generation were apt to forget, that is, that there’s only one E. B. White. But his still lucy reads this quiet placesnapshots of essential Cape Cod moments are sharpened by a reporter’s eye:

Not one bird is flying; there is not one cloud in the smoky pearl of the winter sky, which is the color of a coachman’s glove. Halfway to Boston, there is a tanker that also seems motionless on the bright gray bowl of the sea, and the black plume from its stack rises like a thin rod in the windlessness.

Despite the hubbub of tourists for which the Cape is famous, Allen clearly associates it with moments of stillness, and I do too; even my most raucous visits there (for which it’s stately old Orleans and not strutting tomcat Provincetown that should blush for shame), such still moments would offer themselves with happy regularity. This Quiet Place captures many of those kinds of moments perfectly, and it feels nice to experience them, even vicariously, even forty years later, and even so far from Wellfleet.

August 27th, 2015

Comics: Clinging to Art!

superman coverBoth the big superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, are currently in continuity turmoil that would be shocking if it weren’t so crucially boring. And it makes the weekly trip to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston a bit of a trial. Gone beyond reclamation – almost beyond recall – are the days when superhero storylines had a comforting sameness, when Thor was fighting Ulik the Troll and the Justice League was teaming up with the Justice Society. Gone, indeed, are the days when the basic givens of Thor – good guy, hell, even male – or the Justice League were, in fact, givens. Instead, what with Marvel’s Secret Wars and its upshot and DC’s Convergence, every given of previous decades seems to be up for grabs, and the ongoing monthly titles that will arise from both these events very likely won’t resemble anything old or be anything stable themselves. The Fantastic Four? Gone. The X-Men? Split. The Avengers? A quantum astrophysicist couldn’t figure out their current eighteen teams.

It’s lead to bizarre shocks for a stuffy old comics reader such as myself. I had such a shock a superman3few weeks ago when I stumbled into a Superman story that I initially took to be a dark, weird, alternate-reality take on the character: not just possessing, as near as I could tell, his original 1938 power set, but also having had his secret identity as Clark Kent exposed to the world. It turns out this isn’t an alternate-reality isolated story at all – the confusing thing is only that DC is unfolding the story in an odd (perhaps incompetent? I can’t imagine them wanting to roll it out ass-backwards like this) way, giving us the aftermath in Action Comics before giving us the big events themselves in Superman. In Action Comics, we see a bitter, buzz-cut Superman, secret identity already exposed, living an embattled hellboy in hellfugitive existence. In Superman, we see the more ‘traditional’ Superman, still fighting to save his secret identity from an anonymous blackmailer, still abundantly superpowered, etc. Reading these issues week-to-week is an oddly disjointed experience.

But one thing struck me today as I browsed the shelves at Comicopia: comic book artists have to eat. The best of them go where the money is, and their work is every bit as enjoyable as whether or not the stories they serve make much sense. And for a nice stretch of issues now, Superman has been drawn by one of the best comic book artists in the business: John Romita Jr. And hellboy1reading his latest issue – in which it’s Lois Lane herself who reveals Superman’s secret identity to the world, in order to free him from the grip of his blackmailers – was like listening to a comic book symphony … just fantastic work on every page. Fantastic enough, I was happy to discover, to allow me to ignore the nonsense of the story itself.

Of course, it’s nicer not to need to do that, and today’s comics gave me another art-driven opportunity: the great artist/writer Mike Mignola, who’s currently producing (veeery slowly, hellboy2but still) a series starring his signature character, Hellboy, called Hellboy in Hell. It’s a protracted and tangled story in which our demonic hero dies and goes to Hell for his latest series of adventures (once I’ve scrutinized the inevitable graphic novel, I’ll report back on the plot itself), and it features the best artwork Mignola has ever done.

Paging through Hellboy in Hell was in some ways a very different experience from paging through Superman – Mignola has mastered the now-outdated art of making his character consistently interesting while also keeping him consistently the same – but the two comics had that one big thing in common: giants doing the art. And in these chaotic latter days, that’ll have to be good enough.

August 26th, 2015

Hope and Pope in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

 

The latest issue of Harper’s very much wanted me to pay most of my attention to harper'sWilliam Deresiewicz’s cover essay on how colleges and universities these days have been co-opted by a “neo-liberal” agenda that infests institutions of higher learning – and how the students themselves have also been co-opted by this agenda, now solely concerned with what practical, business-world advantages they can get out of their college years instead of, I suppose, wandering the quad in togas contemplating the nature of perfection, as Deresiewicz implies they did in the good old days.

This kind of silliness is the main Harper’s stock-in-trade: Subject X isn’t as good as Subject X used to be back when we were young, and the reasons why are both a) the product of lazy indulgence, and b) not our fault. Deresiewicz uses the formula almost without deviation (the raw chunks of misunderstood or just-plan-wrong information from America’s educational history are a bonus), worrying for thousands of words that students aren’t coming to colleges anymore in order to commune with the Muses but rather to hustle, to make connections, to grab what information they need in order to hurry on to create business start-ups and the like. Whither Pope? Whither Swinburne? “It is not the humanities per se that are under attack,” he writes. “It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” According to him, students aren’t coming to college anymore in order to reflect and think and grow, and the change is having a demoralizing effect on those lonely warriors on the front lines:

All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are lots of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office – rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next – to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

This piece wasn’t the first thing of Deresiewicz’s that made me wish he’d occasionally (maybe out of a sense of intellectual mission?) set one foot off an Ivy League campus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This is an author who can do all the background research necessary to write a piece like this – research about the internationalization of the jobs market, and about the skyrocketing of college costs, and about the increasing deficiencies of high school education – and come away from it all blissfully untouched by any sense of what it means that college costs at least $25,000 a year, or that for most people, $25,000 a year is a lot of money. Come away from it all still content to write a piece carping at young people for not majoring in the Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetic and then, fully ensouled, leaving college and living the rest of their lives on the annuity Grandfather Bigelow set up during the Pierce administration.

As I mentioned, the magazine clearly intended Deresiewicz’s headline piece to grab my attention, but the real goodies were to be found elsewhere in the issue (just as last month readers had to grit their teeth through a headline piece on parenting by loathsomely self-absorbed people like Sarah “Kid or no kid, it’s still all about me” Manguso before they could enjoy a great essay by Sam Sacks on, well, what’s wrong with war fiction today), ranging from Elaine Blair’s fantastic review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel to Matthieu Aikins’ searing piece on a dangerous gangster running the streets of Karachi.

But my favorite thing in this issue was the photo-spread by the great Glenna Gordon,

a detail from one of Glenna Gordon's great Kano photos
a detail from one of Gordon’s great Kano photos

“Romancing Kano,” in which she gives readers a vibrant, complex glimpse into the lives of the women of Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. She concentrates this Harper’s collection around littattafan soyayya, the “love literature” homemade romance novels written by women and bought by women in a city under siege by a strain of mouth-frothing Islam that would forbid women physical freedom, let alone literacy.

I’ve been to Kano, and I’ve experienced the immense hospitality (and utterly infectious laughter) of Nigerian women, and these beautiful photos both brought back memories of those days and also raised old familiar fears about the candles of those lives being snuffed out. One of Gordon’s photos shows a woman laying on a bed in her home, reading one of these Kano-market novels, and it’s a lovely image, and it takes a minute to remember how enragingly, doubly blasphemous (a woman reading, and a woman reading something that’s not the Koran) such a picture is to the armed Islamic fanatics currently destroying 2000-year-old ruins and mass-kidnapping schoolgirls for sex slavery. It was the highlight of this issue, seeing these slender glimpses of hope.

August 25th, 2015

The Cape at Summer’s End!

my own cape codOur book today is My Own Cape Cod, which Gladys Taber wrote in 1971 about her many idyllic seasons at Still Cove, her house on Mill Pond at Orleans on Cape Cod. We’ve met Taber already here at Stevereads as the once-popular author of the Stillmeadow books (hence the name of her cove), and in this book she collects all of her favorite anecdotes and observations from years of summering by her serene little salt water inlet. She tells of watching the fishing boats come in at sunset, of hearing the soft movements of rabbits in the garden under her windows, of wonderful relaxed porch conversations with friends, and of the soul-reviving but stubbornly indescribable brightness of the Cape air:

The Cape sunlight has a clarity I have never seen anywhere else. Perhaps the vast expanse of ocean on all sides and the countless small salt ponds may reflect extra light which woods and fields inland swallow up. It is not a hard diamond-like light but reminds me of melted crystal (if that could be) I spend a great deal of time looking at this sunlight and trying to capture it in words.

She spends enough time there to feel something of the double-edged proprietary feeling that even regular seasonal house-holders begin to experience, a proprietary feeling that comes under siege every season by the very same hordes whose money supports the whole economy of the place:

Full summer means bumper-to-bumper crossing the bridge. It means the beaches bearing a heavy crop of humanity. It means campsites so full not one more car is admitted. It means trailers and old cars made into contraptions with canvas tops and bunks. We have to be realistic, no matter how we feel about the Cape, for it also means that countless people dream of this all year, and save for it, and feel they have a handhold on Heaven even if only for one week or two.

She feels a sympathy for those hordes of summer tourists, and like so many people whose arrangements allow them to stay a little later (or, the lucky few, year round), she comes to equate their packing up and leaving with both the end of noisy congestion and the end of precious summer. The feeling is always abrupt, because the summer lucy reads my own cape codfeels so natural at the Cape:

Summer slides so gently into autumn on Cape Cod that it is easy to believe there will be no end. Day dreams toward twilight, skies are sapphire, the tide ebbs quietly. I begin to think time itself is arrested and the green leaves will stay forever on the trees.

As I’ve written before (here, for example, and here), the last days of summer always make me think of the Cape and of my own wonderful times there over the decades. Taber’s warm, personal book captures quite a few lost details from the best of those long-gone times; if you find My Own Cape Cod – most likely in the “Cape Cod” section of a salt-smelling Cape used bookstore – you can be reminded of those times too.

August 24th, 2015

Mystery Monday: The White Ghost!

mystery monday logo

white ghostOur book today is The White Ghost, the latest historical mystery by James R. Benn starring Bostonian ex-detective and now WWII Lieutenant Billy Boyle. In this tenth Billy Boyle adventure (each one of which easily stands alone for new readers), Boyle and his friend Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, an expatriate Polish count who functions as a more polished thinker and sounding board for Boyle’s rough by tenacious insight into crimes like fraud and especially murder, are summoned in 1943 far, far from the European theater of the war. By a series of military transports, they’re hurried to Guadalcanal, their highly irregular travel sponsored and smoothed by the powerful Kennedy family (Joseph Kennedy, the dismissed but still powerful patriarch of the family, is pulling the strings all the way from the US).

The Kennedys have a vital interest in having their fellow Boston-Irish ward-boy Boyle look into an incident that recently happened in the Solomon Islands: a PT boat was destroyed in a surprise encounter with a Japanese ship, and the PT boat’s young captain, recuperating from his injuries at a naval hospital at Tulagi, has discovered on a nearby beach the body of local Coastwatcher Daniel Tamana. The mystery arises from the fact that the circumstances of the crime scene seem to implicate the young captain, and the Kennedy family’s urgency arises from the fact that the young PT boat captain is one of their own: John F. Kennedy, the former ambassador’s second son – and, we’re quickly told, the boyhood nemesis of young Billy Boyle.

Boyle and Kasimierz no sooner make their way to Jack Kennedy’s hospital room than Boyle is grippingly reminded of both the power and peril of the man even at a young age:

I saw Jack before he spotted me. He had always been skinny, but I wasn’t prepared for how frail and bone-thin he looked. But the smile was there, the same one I remembered. The kind of grin that took you in and swallowed you whole. There was no denying a smiling Jack.

Boyle and Kasimierz aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to deny or affirm in the jack kennedy at guadalcanalcase; as more than one person hints to them, the Navy itself isn’t sure whether to court martial young Kennedy or give him a medal. And the murder of Daniel Tamana only complicates things, since his wounds could easily have been caused by the cane Jack Kennedy now needs while walking on his lacerated feet, and Kennedy himself seems both evasive and combative on the whole subject.

Benn has been steadily growing into this series as the books have come along, and The White Ghost is even stronger than 2014’s The Rest is Silence. His characters are wonderfully drawn, especially his star duo but also in this case also Jack Kennedy, not the easiest historical figure to capture convincingly. And his picture of the world of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War is terrifically evocative, both in its dangers from marauding Japanese and in its natural beauty, so lucy reads white ghostforeign to a kid from South Boston:

As we cruised on, the dusky light at the horizon faded into black, and all that was left was the twinkling of more stars than I’d ever seen. This wasn’t like being offshore on Massachusetts Bay, where the lights of civilization glowed in the distance. This was pure darkness. No moon, no electric lights, nothing but inky-black velvet heavens draped around us, blending into the dark ocean, the play of starlight on the waves making it impossible to see where air and water joined, the horizon an invisible thread.

The narrative tangles up quickly with further murders and with plenty of sly inclusions of walk-ons from a number of historical figures (people familiar with Boston history will be particularly pleased), several of whom, from a charming Lieutenant Cotter to a less-than-charming Air Transport Officer Dick Nixon, would make excellent alternate suspects in the murders. And Benn does such a nicely textured job at the historical novel side of his task that it ends up being just as strong as the murder mystery side of his task. The combination makes The White Ghost a delicious summer hour’s read.

August 21st, 2015

The English Dog at Home!

the english dogOur book today, Felicity Wigan’s oversized 1987 treat The English Dog at Home (with beautiful photographs by Geoffrey Shakerley) might more accurately have been titled The English Dog at the Stately Home, since the dogs in question aren’t exactly the spavined little mutts owned by every Darby and Joan in the tenements of Leeds. No, these are well-to-do dogs, many of them show-dogs and all of them accustomed to a higher standard of living than 99 % of the human beings on Earth. They’re the dogs of the privileged.

And yet, in example after example of the owner profiles Wigan archie, trigger, and bandit at floors castlehas assembled here, that very fact serves to underscore some of the ways that doting dog-owners are exactly the same regardless of how many family estates they happen to own. Almost all of these posh owners are every bit as overly indulgent to their dogs as any naff chav from Bradford East would be – in fact more so, since they have so much more largesse to dispense.

Take the example of Archie, Tigger, and Bandit, the whippets owned by the Duchess of Roxburghe and given the run of Floors Castle in Scotland, and listen to the Duchess recount what’s obviously a favorite tale:

It is in the dining room that Archie’s and Tigger’s manners leave a little to be desired. Janie recalls, ‘When we had the first really big dinner party after we got married, the table was beautifully laid with white damask and I came floating down to dinner all dressed up. I put the dogs out but it was raining and Tigger came back into the house covered in mud, got up on to the dining room table and ate all the butter and toast. There were little paw marks all over the table.’

mitzi at arudel parkFor some of these upper crust owners, the care and wellbeing of not just their own dogs but all the dogs within their considerable ambit has become a load-bearing pillar of their lives. The upper crust doesn’t get any upper or crustier, for instance, than the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the foremost peers in the land, and there under their entry is the late and enormously caring Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk. She was the daughter of the 3rd Baron Belper and married the 16th Duke of Norfolk, became the mistress of his vast estates, and spent the rest of her life tirelessly doing charity work – including caring for the great crowds of dogs that would always be found roaming in and out of Arundel Castle:

Overseeing this unique brood are Bessie, Lavinia Norfolk’s original Labrador, and Lara, a graceful retriever who belonged to a friend of Sarah’s. Bessie came from the Labrador Rescue Society along with two other Labradors, one blind and the other with severe hip displacement, the result of being permanently chained in a kennel. There were severe sores on her legs where she had sat for too long, but the Duchess cured the dog with exercise in Arundel Park.

But did I err and call the Duchess of Norfolk the highest of the high? Heaven forfend! There is, of the queencourse, one rung higher, and it happens to be occupied by one of the world’s most famous dog-lovers – and her savage, stubby-legged entourage:

The Queen is one of the most experienced breeders of Pembrokeshire corgis. She always choose the sire herself, aiming for good looking puppies that maintain the red colour of the original Pembrokes. Owners of suitable studs are asked to bring their dogs to Windsor so that the Queen can make her choice.

And where the dogs themselves might be a little bit excessively mundane, Felicity Wigan steps in with her graceful narrative in order to give them a little boost of interest, as in the case of the lambchop at sledmererather pudgy bull terrier named Lambchop who had the run of the great country house of Sledmere that was designed by Capability Brown (about whom you’ll all hear quite a bit if a copy of Jane Brown’s excellent biography should ever make its way to the Brattle Bookshop bargain carts) in the Yorkshire Wolds. Wigan does her compassionate best to invest Lambchop with rather more, um, bottom than I suspect an objective reading of the facts would allow:

Bull terriers are never slender, but at one point Lambchop swelled to the sense of occasion at Sledmere to such an extent that she weighed four stone. Even slimline, Lambchop is a slow mover. She slinks, which is the most dignified way of doing things, deliberately. During the monthly concert in the library at Sledmere, Lambchop may be seen slinking silently down the grand staircase. johnny demonstrating affectionPausing briefly for breath by the splendid statue of the Apollo Belvedere (a 1780 copy by Wilton, of which the original is in the Vatican), Lambchop cocks an ear to Beethoven and, having deduced that the guests are unlikely to be dispensing chocolate biscuits in her direction, decides the party is not for her. Lambchop’s the american dog-thingexpression implies long and complicated thought processes, all of which are concentrated on food. Having dismissed the concert, she ambles towards the more reliable option of the kitchen.

But alas, some specimens are resistant to any amount of spin-doctoring …

August 20th, 2015

90 Years of New Yorker Cartoons in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

new yorker cartoonsOn newsstands now, as the saying goes, is one of my very favorite semi-regular Penny Press confections: a New Yorker cartoon collection. This one is meant to commemorate the magazine’s 90th anniversary (as unbelievable as that figure must seem to some of us), and (equally unbelievable, in its own way) this seems to be the only such recognition that milestone is going to get in 2015 – a glossy bound magazine rather than a book. Still, for $13 this is one nifty little anniversary item and might just reach more New gluyas williamsYorker fans than a $50 hardcover would have done.

This issue is set up decade by decade, a fairly standard arrangement that’s still irresistible, since it shows the steady evolution of the magazine’s cartoonists efforts to mirror the fads of their society. When you watch that evolution, driven by temporary fads, played against what’s often demonized as the eternal New Yorker “themes” (therapy, class friction, downtrodden workers, over-privileged kids – basically, the Upper East Side), you get a weird and not at all unpleasant suggestion of an institutional brain guiding the whole process, decade after decade, allowing for changes in architecture and clothing styles and argot, but keeping the feel of everything remarkably consistent. It’s a big part of what makes New Yorker cartoons so oddly comforting – at their best, they’re predictable but not boring, socially relevant but also anodyne, simultaneously cutting and coddling. All of which might sound vaguely horrifying to some people (I’ve known various changing guards of such people my entire life), but me? Sign me up! As an old friend discovered just recently, one of the surest ways to make my eyes positively light up on a book-gift is to give me one of those will steigmildewy old hardcover cartoon collections the New Yorker used to publish fairly regularly back when the Cold War was on.

This magazine substitute isn’t half bad either. Most of the New Yorker all-time classics are here, including “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it” and “I don’t care what you say – I’m cold!” and, a personal favorite for obvious reasons (and taped to my old transparent blue desktop computer), “On the Internet, nobody steinerknows you’re a dog.” New Yorker greats like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, George Booth, my beloved Helen Hokinson, Saul Steinberg, and my favorite, Gluyas Williams (whose “The Day the Cake of Soap Sank at Procter & Gamble’s” leads off the collection even though it’ll make no sense whatsoever to most of the issue’s readers) are all represented here, as are newer giants like Dan Shanahan, Joe Dator, and the mighty Roz Chast, although the collection’s “more than 262.5” selections means quite a few favorites are going to be left out, this issue is full of wonderful stuff.

5th avenueAnd by flipping through the pages, you get to see some of those standby New Yorker themes slowly adapt themselves over the decades. The earliest cartoons lean heavily on a semi-affectionate spoofing of the cluelessness of the very uppermost ‘class’ in America in the ’20s and ’30s (you see this quite often in the Saturday Evening Post covers of the time as well), the joshing of the toff. But gradually both toffs and their ribbing disappear from the landscape. The very rich remain (they shall be always with us), but they slowly take on more sinister and cutting tones, especially after President Eisenhower warned the country about the military-industrial complex. Likewise artful innuendo (including a famous “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!” panel by James Thurber) is replaced by explicit talk of sex, and Botox, and Facebook.

I could have hoped for another elaborate hardcover volume like the one the magazine produced to celebrate its 75th anniversary – after all, it’s not every magazine that gets to turn 90 – but this glossy issue will certainly tide me over until the big 100-years hoopla commences in 2025. And in the meantime, there may still be one or two of those mildewy old volumes I haven’t yet discovered …

August 19th, 2015

The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World!

creasyOur book today is Sir Edward Creasy’s durable 1851 classic work of popular military history, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, a worthy work that no 21st-century reader can approach without feeling just about the saddest irony in the world. Creasy, surveying the sunny morning of his Victorian era, with Napoleon Bonaparte long since defeated and with international diplomacy enjoying its golden age, could look upon his subject – warfare – with the complacency of a doctor looking at the last remaining laboratory specimens of a once-rampant disease:

It is an honourable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilised states with gradually increasing aversion. The Universal Peace Society certainly does not, and probably never will, enrol the majority of statesmen among its members. But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried; and when the law of self-defence justifies a State, like an individual, in using force to protect itself from imminent and serious injury.

Still, he concedes immediately, “There is an undeniable greatness in the discipline, courage, and in the love of honour, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.” And through close accounts of fifteen big battles (‘big’ is one of his unapologetic criteria, although he’s much keener to ‘pivotal’ than his critics used to give him credit for being), he gives his readers ample amounts of honor, courage, agony, and destruction.

He’s got a sweet tooth for enormous set-piece affairs, especially if they’ve got a moral twist to them. From the ancient world, he picks the battles of Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, and the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest, where Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions and a great big crowd of auxiliaries through both tactical stupidity and, as something Creasy lays on with a trowel, through a vaguely Asiatic and very un-Roman decadence that the German mercenaries all around watched with steely interest:

For this purpose, the German confederates frequented the head-quarters of Varus, which seem to have been near the centre of the modern country of Westphalia, where the Roman general conducted himself with all the arrogant security of the governor of a perfectly submissive province. There Varus gratified at once his vanity, his rhetorical taste, and his avarice, by holding courts, to which he summoned the Germans for the settlement of all their disputes, while a bar of Roman advocates attended to argue the cases before the tribunal of the Pro-consul; who did not omit the opportunity of exacting court-fees and accepting bribes.

From the Middle Ages, he picks the Battle of Chalons in 451, the Battle of Tours in 732, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (how could he not?), and Joan of Arc’s victories over the English at Orleans in 1429 – the whole while adding a running context that actually makes this a more fluid reading experience than “Fifteen Decisive Battles” might suggest. And as his time-frame inches closer to his own day, he chooses the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Battle of Pultowa in 1709, the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the Battle of Valmy in 1792, and of course he winds things up with the grand finale of Waterloo in 1815. And it’s all done with such quintessential Victorian gusto (and a good deal of very solid research – military historians are a notoriously fussy lot, but several of these accounts hold up in their main lines even today) that the book is immediately readable.

Still, there’s that clinging sad irony, inescapable when Creasy hits his favorite triumphalist note:lucy goes to war

In closing our observations on this the last of the Decisive Battles of the World, it is pleasing to contrast the year which it signalised with the year that is now passing over our heads. We have not (and long may we be without) the stern excitement of martial strife, and we see no captive standards of our European neighbours brought in triumph to our shrines. But we behold an infinitely prouder spectacle. We see the banners of every civilised nation waving over the arena of our competition with each other, in the arts that minister to our race’s support and happiness, and not to its suffering and destruction.

Creasy died in 1878, so he lived long enough to at least begin to see, in names like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, that he and all his fellow club-members had been wrong about the demise of armed warfare. But he was gone to his grave long before he could learn just how wrong he’d been. The horrible roll-call that’s extended since his death – the Somme, Verdun, Kursk, Luzon, Khe Sanh, and on and on – might have been sufficient to curb his armchair enthusiasm for that “undeniable greatness.”

August 18th, 2015

The Height of Fashion in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

details fashionAfter a solid week of Penguin Classics, what better palate-cleanser could there be than a sojourn through the Fall Fashion issues of the glossy magazines? It’s a way to run a quick finger down the ‘content’-xylophone from the deeper notes of Longfellow and Dostoevsky to, well, to the very, very strange world of fashion.

Almost all the big square-bound glossies indulge esquire stylein a Fashion issue at least once a year, doubling their page-length with very lucrative ads from all the biggest designer houses, and usually I avoid these issues like the proverbial plague, mainly because the editors of these issues tend to shelve any serious freelance articles they may have on the docket until later issues, figuring, no doubt, that a probing expose on Salvadoran torture gangs doesn’t exactly mesh well with the latest runway exotica from Paris and Milan.

vf styleI go to these magazines for those serious freelance articles, naturally, but I confess, I always feel a touch of interest in these elaborate fashion digressions, and for the least likely reason: oddly enough, I’ve known a few professional male models in my life, including one who, when he was in the business, was, you could say, fairly prominent. And from these three young men I’ve heard many war-stories from that business, fascinating stories and fascinating theorizing about what high-fashion bizarrities really are. One of these young men offhandedly told me that the weird, other-worldly stuff paraded down the high-profile runways aren’t, of course, meant to be worn in daily life but are instead “what poor people will be imitating in ten years” (what can I say? One of these three young men was a bit of a douche). Another said the big fashion salvatoreshows are meant only as “comic book versions” of the designers’ actual aesthetic vision. All three told tales of clouds of tobacco, rivers of hard liquor, and discreet piles of cocaine (and, incidentally, daily eating habits that even I would consider indulgently bad), as well as horror stories of megalomaniacal show-runners and designers treating models like herd animals. I believe there were a couple of mentions of sex as well.

The fashion issue of Details gives a mighty snapshot of that world on its cover, which features 31 of the top male models working today, and the Details crew devotes their efforts 100 % to their subject – the issue has virtually no editorial content whatsoever (not that it’s ever exactly War and Peace), just display after display of preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.

bottega venetaThe fashion issue of Esquire is a slightly more substantial affair. It has a profile of arrogant young actor Miles Teller (profiled before the box office performance of his starring vehicle, Fantastic Four, gave him a bit less cause for arrogance), an interview with Keith Richards by the redoubtable Scott Raab, and a short but meaty review by Richard Dorment of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. But the issue is nevertheless crammed full of the aforementioned preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.

And then there’s the fashion issue of Vanity Fair, a big fat thing which has a very interesting article about Chelsea marcelo burlonClinton by Evgenia Peretz and a hilariously appalling piece by Nancy Jo Sales on the ‘culture’ of Tindr – but which is mostly just one fashion display after another. And turning through those slick pages, one after another, looking at all these impossible-looking people draped in these impossible-looking clothes, I was struck by two things: the egregious fragility of the fashion items – you can tell just by looking at these things, from the handbags to the sweaters to the blouses, that they’re not constructed to survive even ten uses – and also, guccisecondarily, almost incidentally, their obscene expense. The Salvatore Ferragamo scarf? $450. The Marcelo Burlon shirt? $279 – and the matching poncho? $638. The Bottega Veneta polka-dot dress? $2400. The Haute Dogs lip glosses? $50 per color. The grotesque red Gucci bag? $2980

These figures are only fractions of the price tags you find in the men’s “gear” magazines, where $10,000 wristwatches are not uncommon, but they’re still mighty depressing. The pictures are gaudy and weird and eye-catching, but its depressing to think there are people in the world who’ll pay $3000 for a flimsy shoulder bag that would fall apart if it were asked to carry, say, ten books – not to mention the fact that haute dogs$3000 would buy you 3000 $1 books at the Brattle bargain carts.

The people who are the actual customers for the kinds of clothing in these fashion magazines are the people I sometimes see at the Brattle sale lot – glancing at it in blank, uncomprehending disinterest before passing on without a second thought. It’s a shame – but at least I managed to hook all three of those former model-boys in reading for pleasure! And we’ll get back to that very thing tomorrow, now that we’re done with the camera-flashes and the runways.