February 21st, 2017
Our book today is the paperback release of a history that’s near and dear to my daily routine: Devin Leonard’s utterly delightful Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, brought out Grove Press last year to nerdishly enthusiastic reviews (including one from USA Today that included the simple, true line, “What’s most remarkable is the way [the] book makes you care what happens to its main protagonist, the U.S. Postal Service itself”). I read it and loved it, and I pored through it with the loving attention you might give to the pages of your high school yearbook.
Like many people in the book-world, I live and die by the US Postal Service. I get deliveries from two different USPS stalwarts every single day: in the early afternoon, the mail-truck swings by, with the driver lugging a plastic mail-tub of book-packages up to the porch, chatting for a bit, then driving off, and an hour or two later, the on-foot mail carrier arrives, bringing me now only the day’s harvest of magazines but also any last few stray single book packages that weren’t on the mail truck. And since I also get FedEx and UPS deliveries every day, I’m pretty much the precise target-audience for Devin Leonard’s book; I’m naturally curious about the delivery service that brings me such reliable spikes of enjoyment – not just bookish but also personal enjoyment, since I’ve noticed that my USPS people are friendlier and more outgoing than the others.
Reading Leonard’s book, it’s easy to see why: scarcely any kind of worker in the country deals with more people on a daily face-to-face basis than the men and women who deliver the mail. Six days a week, those workers actually walk out from the 36, 723 post offices in America and make direct physical contact with the homes and businesses of every single person in the country, creating a living webwork of interaction between 300,000 letter carriers and everybody else. The USPS delivers a staggering 513 million pieces of mail every day – according to Leonard, that’s 40 percent of the mail delivered on any given day in the whole world. And as I could attest from those daily rituals of mine, the USPS numbers dwarf those of other carriers:
People often talk about how the postal service is lumbering and inefficient compared with private sector competitors such as UPS and FedEx. But the USPS delivers more items in nine days than UPS does in a year. It transports more in seven days than FedEx brings to its customers in a year. In 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting, an English firm, studied the postal services in developed countries and found that the USPS was by far the most efficient at handling letters, delivering 268,894 per employee – twice as many as the UK’s Royal Mail and five times that of Germany’s Deutsche Post. The USPS refers to the study proudly, though being the world’s most efficient letter handler doesn’t have the same cachet that it did a generation ago.
That elegiac note – of changing times, of falling revenues and slackening importance – sounds throughout Leonard’s book. He gives a very spirited history of the postal system in America, tells all the grand stories of postal triumphs and iniquities, of postal strikes and famous – and infamous – postal workers (the chapter “Going Postal,” which is about just what you think it’s about, makes hilarious if alarming reading), and he’s a very good storyteller, so none of this feels like space-filling exposition. But always in the background there’s the sense that the whole edifice of the USPS is shakier than most people would believe:
Now the USPS is slowly vanishing. It has sold off its historic post offices. It has closed processing plants. A decade and a half ago, the USPS employed 905,766 people; in 2014, it had a workforce of 617, 877. But even as the USPS shrinks, its losses continue to swell. By its own calculations, it owed nearly $71 billion in mid-2015. The possibility of that money being repaid seems unlikely.
By the time I finished Neither Snow Nor Rain (and by the time I finished my in-paperback re-read), that unwanted note was sounding in my head, that almost unthinkable chance that in my lifetime the USPS could go out of business and morph into something very different – and, inevitably, something worse – than the sturdy, trustworthy thing that now makes up such a large part of my day. I’d really hate to think that Devin Leonard’s book is memorial in addition to being a history.
February 15th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics breathe with the towering wisdom of the world’s great literary figures. And then there’s Voltaire.
The voluminous writings of Francois-Marie Arouet have been a mother-quarry of pseudo-profundity for over two centuries, of course, so in that respect this slim new volume from Penguin – a new translation by Desmond Clarke of the Master‘s 1763 book Treatise on Toleration – is unsurprising. The American presidential election campaign of 2016 culminated in a resounding victory for the forces of intolerance, one of a string of such victories being celebrated all around the world in governments both openly repressive and allegedly progressive. The lamps are going out all over the Europe of the still-young 21st Century, so it’s a praiseworthy if predictable move on the part of Penguin, to issue this handy new edition of a short, compacted work in which Voltaire famously makes a case for rational inquiry, balanced consideration, and the toleration in the title.
He had in mind specifically religious toleration. The little treatise was sparked by the notorious case of the Huguenot shopkeeper Jean Calas, who in March of 1762 was sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his own son in the family home. Calas was innocent – his son had committed suicide – but he was also Protestant, and France’s vindictively Catholic authorities tortured Calas to death with extravagant brutality. Voltaire jumped on the bandwagon of the case for posthumously exonerating Calas, and the Treatise on Toleration was the loudest canon-blast in Voltaire’s arsenal. In it, he rails against the intolerance of France’s Catholic Church.
The case is laid out, as much as possible, along lines of logic and common sense. As Clarke summarizes in his perceptive Introduction:
If members of a political community accept the reciprocity of moral obligations and consider a principle such as the following: ‘Do not do what you would not like someone to do to you’, the implications for toleration are obvious. Each religious group or church must grant freedom of thought to others. Otherwise, they would face their fellow citizens with the following demand that cannot be satisfied simultaneously and reciprocally: ‘Believe what I believe and what you cannot believe, or you will die.’
The Master summons the whole history of Christianity to make all of his points about the long and complicated relationship the Church had always had with persecution and toleration – which calls for great chunks of cod-history buttressed with a delightful sub-profusion of footnotes (which Clarke further buttresses with notes of his own). To give him credit, Voltaire can very often make this kind of stuff interesting:
We are told that Nero persecuted Christians. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome and that they were then abandoned to the anger of the people. Has that accusation anything to do with their beliefs? Certainly not. Would we say that the Chinese who were slaughtered by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed for their religion? No matter how much we might wish to deceive ourselves, it is impossible to claim that intolerance was responsible for the disaster that befell a few unfortunate half-Jews and half-Christians during Nero’s reign.
“If a government is not to have a right to punish human errors, those errors must not be crimes,” Voltaire writes. “They are crimes only when they are detrimental to society, and they damage society as soon as they inspire fanaticism. Therefore, in order to deserve toleration, people must begin by avoiding fanaticism.” And against this instance of fanaticism, our author was successful: Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated, and some of the worst of the creatures who broke him were cashiered. It’s enough to make a strong optimist wonder what brave Treatise on Toleration from 2017 Penguin will be reprinting in 2207.
February 13th, 2017
Our book today is the English-language translation of Andrea Molesini’s utterly remarkable debut novel Not All Bastards Are From Vienna. The book originally appeared in 2010 and is here translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh, and although I chuckled about it when the Englished version appeared last year (how could I not chuckle, considering the ridiculous title?), I never actually got around to reading the book, despite the long list of plaudits it received when it was first published. Getting the pretty paperback in the mail from the good folks at Grove Press was a very welcome reminder.
The book’s main action takes place in the autumn of 1917 and concentrates on the Italian country villa of the wealthy and vaguely aristocratic Spada family – including endearingly eccentric grandfather Gugliemo, Donna Maria, the strong-willed leader of the family, enigmatic family servant Renato, and teenager Paolo, an orphan who’s living with his grandparents on the fateful night when a detachment of German soldiers arrives and peremptorily billets itself in and around the family’s great house. “If you think you are unable to fit us in,” the German captain calmly informs Aunt Maria, “you will be obliged to leave the house.”
The family doesn’t leave, of course; instead, under Maria’s steely guidance and with the various species of guile brought to the situation by each family member (and, increasingly, by the initially dazed village priest, Don Lorenzo), they dig in for a long campaign of tacit resistance to the barbarities of war represented by the this group of brutal looters and their stiff, perhaps slightly worthier captain. And in the course of that resistance – including the more formalized paramilitary kind that inevitably takes shape in the village – young Paolo comes of age as we read, gradually learning to parse his own capacity for heroism and gradually coarsening to the prices occupation exacts, the changes it works in every aspect of the world as he formerly knew it:
And then, I personally had learnt something from the war. My bed was now a lumpy mattress, prickly and noisy, the soles and uppers of my shoes were worn out, the few scraps of meat I got to eat were as tough as leather, I drank unsweetened coffee, and everything, absolutely everything, stank. The streets stank of rotting wood, sweat, men, mules, and dung, and there was the stench of clotted blood in bandages, of rotting flesh, of piss, of stagnant water. Even in the garden I smelt cigarettes an tar, diesel oil, burnt rubber and dust. Wartime dust was different from the dust I knew. It got right under your clothes, penetrated curtains and walls, pervaded fields and woods. Even in winter, with the roads half iced over, the columns of lorries and mules managed to raise dust.
And that’s what I found: despite its absurd, damning, Trimalchio in West Egg title, Not All Bastards Are From Vienna is a tremendously moving novel, full of memorable characters and scenes. Even half-way through the book, I was still periodically amazed to remember that it’s a debut – at no point does it read like one, particularly in the place that debuts usually wear like a scarlet “B” (for “Botched”), the ending, which here hurls the reader to a final, brutal page. I wish I’d been on the spot to sing its praises last year, but better late than never: if you see the paperback in your bookstore and find yourself in the mood for first-rate historical fiction, don’t hesitate.
February 13th, 2017
Our book today is a delectable trifle, the perfect thing to brighten up a day-long snowstorm: The Duke, the first of author Kerrigan Byrne’s romance novels to break the lock-step of glottal fricatives that characterized The Highwayman, The Hunter, and The Highlander and strike out into new consonantal territory (will it be followed by The Devil, and The Dermatologist? Only time will tell!).
A historical romp, but not a Regency: Byrne’s latest is a Victorian romance (the stern old sovereign herself makes a decidedly unamused appearance), with a “hero of the empire” at its center: Collin “Cole” Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, a handsome, rich paragon who, by the time we meet him, is weighted down by tragedies: the death of his family, the betrayal of his friend, and the serious wound he receives on the battlefield. It’s that hospital stay that brings him back into contact with Imogen Pritchard, with whom he shares something of a past: years ago, the two dropped their inhibitions and experienced a, erm, passionate interlude. In the present, the wounded, hospital-patient Cole seems to remember neither the interlude nor Imogen herself, but then, he’s been through a lot, and his disappearance has had all of London wondering:
Had he been lost to some Oriental jungle and the savages living there? Killed in the skirmishes between the Ottoman Turks and the Russians? Defected to the obscene wealth of a profligate sultan? Or made his own little tribal kingdom somewhere in the wild desert, complete with a harem to do his bidding?
That last alternative should be all the clue needed for a newcomer to Byrne’s fiction to know the lay of the land, as far as heavy-breathing is concerned. There’s plenty in The Duke to which Victorian prudes would have taken umbrage, but for all the snap of Byrne’s dialogue and for all the prettily-realized pauses that she works into her breakneck narrative, it’s not just the prudes who’ll be taking umbrage to disappointingly large portions of The Duke (and it’s not just the Irish, although they’ll be none too pleased with the quote we’re about to read) – even die-hard romance readers will find themselves bugged right out of the story by weird little speed-bumps like this moment that Imogen first glimpses Cole’s, er, member of Parliament:
He turned around, and Imogen couldn’t have swallowed had liquid been poured straight into her gaping mouth. Somehow, she knew that Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, had never in his life been afflicted with the Irish curse. His sex stood proudly erect from the sinewy definition of his lean hips. He glanced down, rather sheepishly, and flicked her a look full of pure, sinful invitation.
Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her. It wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly fit. Her mind recoiled, but her body … her body responded.
There’s a fine line between the good-natured anachronisms on which the modern historical romance depends and the kind of arch silliness that can spoil even the lightest confection – and that usually marks the work of an amateur. Byrne isn’t an amateur, but that just makes passages like this (and there are plenty throughout the book) all the more puzzling. Two well-raised and unmarried young people would simply never find themselves in such a moment in 1877 London, but such moments must be commonplace in order for modern historical romances to work, and so we content ourselves to suspend our disbelief. But if two young Victorians are going to find themselves in such a moment, it’s crucial that they not make things worse, as it were, by behaving even more anachronistically than the moment itself. Who, reading faithfully to such a moment, won’t feel their faith in an author badly fractured by arch silliness like “Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her”?
The conclusion of The Duke was so endearing (and so well-orchestrated) that I was able to limp around my own reading fracture at all these moments where Byrne’s characters knew as well as I did that they were in a 21st century novel playing costume-dress. But I’d much rather they not know that, so I’m hoping the next book in the “Victorian Rebels” series, The Scot Beds His Wife, will keep it’s fourth-wall mugging to a bare minimum. We shall see.
February 3rd, 2017
Our book today is a bright little thing of wonder housed, this time around, in a brittle package: it’s a selection of the writings of John Burroughs called The Birds of John Burroughs: Keeping a Sharp Lookout, a volume published in 1976 by Hawthorn Books, edited by Jack Kligerman with nice stately black-and-white illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
I was delighted to find it and pay my pittance for it, since John Burroughs is always a happy find in any book-hunting expedition. He was a lyrical nature-essayist of the first order, and he wrote voluminously for his entire long life (“His essays,” we’re told, “have the kind of open-endedness that one finds in winter woods, not the shape that one finds in individual trees or in many of the journal entries of Thoreau”), so you might think that encountering some book or other of his would happen every single time you set foot into a used-book venue of any kind – but it isn’t so. The lovely uniform sets done for this author a century ago proved to be swan-songs; nobody reads John Burroughs anymore, and that’s a shame. In his easy combination of personal focus and lovely prose, he’s a clear precursor of later 20th century writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez:
Getting toward the high tide of summer. The air well warmed up. Nature in her jocund mood, still, all leaf and sap. The days are idyllic. I lie on my back on the grass in the shade of the house and look up to the soft, slowly moving clouds, and to the chimney swallows disporting themselves up there in the breezy depths. No hardening in vegetation yet. The moist, hot, fragrant breath of the fields – mingled order of blossoming grasses, clover, daisies, rye – the locust blossoms dropping. What a humming about the hives; what freshness in the shade of every tree; what contentment in the flocks and herds!
Burroughs is a very intentionally homely writer, usually foregoing the sweepingly large canvas in favor of a much more narrow focus – and stressing that nature’s “procession” will come to those who wait regardless:
One has only to sit down in the woods or the fields, or by the shore of the river or the lake, and nearly everything of interest will come round to him – the birds, the animals, the insects; and presently, after his eye has got accustomed to the place, and to the light and shade, he will probably see some plant or flower that he has sought in vain, and that is a pleasant surprise to him. So, on a large scale, the student and lover of nature has this advantage over people who gad up and down the world, seeking some novelty or excitement; he has only to stay at home and see the procession pass. The great globe swings around to him like a revolving showcase; the change of the seasons is like the passage of strange and new countries; the zones of the earth with all their beauties and marvels pass one’s door, and linger long in the passing. What a voyage is this we make without leaving for one night our own fireside!
I keep waiting for some enterprising publishing imprint like Penguin or Random House to assemble a big, glorious volume of this author, or better yet, a a new uniform set of the man’s complete writings. I day-dream that such a new edition would be filled not only with the wonderful artwork that graced their equivalent pages decades ago but also with the high-detail black-and-white photos of those long-ago editions.
But no such future production would have the bit of artwork I like best from this cheap paperback I bought the other day: a carefully hand-drawn and colored little item somebody pasted onto the book’s first page, with the inscription: “From one owl to another – cutest owl I saw yet … a saw-whet!” Which is why I’ll be keeping this old paperback, fragile as it is.
February 2nd, 2017
Yet another terrific week for DC Comics … which still feels distinctly odd to say. For the last five years or so, while DC’s lineup of iconic superheroes was in the throes of the company’s “New 52” continuity remake, I mostly dreaded seeing the titles on offer every week at Boston’s one-and-only Comicopia. From the New 52, I’d quickly come to expect cold and alienating characters, grim story lines, and messy, lunging plots more concerned with setting up the next tent-pole mega-event than entertaining readers in the here-and-now; I’d fallen into the grim plight of relying on Marvel Comics for my weekly comic book joys, meager as they were.
But DC’s latest tweaking of their New 52 formula seems to have worked wonders pretty much across the board of the company’s marquee titles (I say “pretty much” because I’m holding off on trying more of those titles – things like Green Arrow or Green Lantern until their current story-arcs end). I look forward to the latest issues now, and they never disappoint – in fact, they often rise above my expectations, and lately they’ve been doing that in the same way: in every issue, in the midst of whatever’s going on, the writers pause to give readers a wonderful tight-focus take-a-breath moment of pure character … pretty much exactly the element that was missing from so much of the New 52. All four of the issues I bought this week had such moments, starting off with the issue that could be characterized as one protracted such moment:
Justice League – In this stand-alone issue written and drawn by the deplorable Bryan Hitch, our heroes of the Justice League – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash, Aquaman, and two Green Lanterns – have flown up into low orbit to confront a gigantic alien machine that’s suddenly appeared. It hits them with an energy-blast so powerful it buries them a mile underground, and while they’re pulling themselves together (the issue is called “Regroup”), they talk out many of the issues that have been dividing them and sapping their self-confidence lately. In recent years I’ve lost pretty many all the faith I once had in Bryan Hitch as a storyteller, but in this issue he’s in excellent form: all of the League members are squarely in character, including Batman, whose interaction with the League is very tricky to get right even for writers who give a crap about what they’re doing. There’s very little in the way of action – the whole issue takes place in a hole in the ground – but I loved it. And the comic book-style action was delivered in double dose in the next issue I got:
Superman – This issue, written by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason and drawn by Tony Daniel and Clay Mann, concludes the “Multiplicity” storyline in which the Supermen and Superwomen (and, um, Super-Rabbit) from dozens of alternate dimensions are being hunted by a gigantic mysterious alien who then imprisons them and siphons their superpowers. “Our” Superman deliberately lets himself be captured by this alien so that he can learn about it and spring a trap that will free both himself and his fellow super-prisoners. But before the trap can spring, there’s a moment when Superman takes it upon himself to revive the flagging morale of his comrades: “You’re Supermen and Superwomen. We’re all created equal, because we want to help, and nothing will ever destroy that as long as there’s one person left taking a breath with an ‘S’ on their chest.” A nice simple sentiment, and once again, not the kind of thing readers were likely to encounter in the New 52. And there was an unexpected moment just like that in our next issue:
Aquaman – This issue, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Brad Walker and titled “Peace in Our Time,” comes as a kind of calmer epilogue to the world-shaking events of the multi-part story that preceded it; Aquaman and his fellow Atlanteans are helping the little Massachusetts town of Amnesty Bay pick up the pieces. Back when he was just the odd half-human boy Arthur Curry, Aquaman grew up in Amnesty Bay, and in the course of this issue Abnett gives us a nice feeling of a home-town hero working amongst old friends. But one of those old friends, an Amnesty Bay cop named Erika, has fresh memories of the battles that only just lately concluded, and the moment Abnett provides between her and Aquaman is touching and a little sad. “I saw you, Arthur,” she tells him, “in this crisis, and when that monster tore through here … I saw you put your life on the line. I saw you fight like … like savage stuff trying to stop that thing. I saw what you really are. Not the boy I grew up with. Not the boy I’d crushed on so hard. You kinda scare me.” To which Aquaman, amazed, responds, “I scare you?” “I didn’t mean,” she goes on “… you’re superhuman. I never really took that seriously before. I saw what I saw. It was serious. You were serious.” He tries to reassure her: “Erika … I’m still Arthur Curry.” And she says: “No, you’re not. You never were. I was fooling myself.” It’s a fairly stark moment, and yet there’s none of the bitter angst that would surely once have filled the scene. And when it comes to bitter angst, surely its home in comics is our final title this week:
Batman – This issue, the first chapter of a new “I am Bane” story-arc, is written by Tom King and drawn by David Finch, and it serves mostly as a high-tension prologue to the story of the New 52 Batman’s next bit confrontation with his hulking foe Bane. Batman has learned that Bane is coming to Gotham, and he warns his young proteges (the current incarnation of DC’s Caped Crusader spends a great deal of time hanging out with muscular young men, bless his black little heart) to get out of town and let him deal with the monster himself. But the best moment of the issue comes later, when he delivers the same warning to someone else: he swings down onto the rooftop of the Gotham PD headquarters in answer to the Bat-Signal … only to find not Commissioner Gordon but Catwoman, who’s now wanted for multiple counts of murder. “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be anywhere near here,” he tells her. “I know,” she answers. “And yet. Here I am.” And when Gotham’s finest burst onto the roof with guns drawn, she says, “I have to go,” and adds, “When you need me …” Batman tersely replies, “I don’t need you,” to which she responds “And yet” and leaps into the night, leaving Batman to repeat to himself, “And yet.” It’s a quick moment, a breather before the action commences (as it does in only two pages, with the best cliff-hanger ending I’ve seen in a DC comic in years), but it’s refreshing just the same.
Refreshing’s the word – these issues of DC’s flagship titles have been completely refreshing after years of often murky storytelling. I’ll report back next week.
February 1st, 2017
The first day of February dawns crisp and bright and cold here in Boston, with new-fallen snow still white and undefiled on the ground and lining every tree-branch. It’s the very picture of a new, clean page – what better setting for a new issue of my beloved Open Letters Monthly?
We have a lovely issue this month, a compact thing of a dozen pieces arranged along our usual lines: the top bulk of the Table of Contents devoted to new reviews, essays, columns, and poems, with a smattering of reprinted gems from our enormous back-catalog to round things out. And this month the pickings are sinfully rich:
In “The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing,” Robert Minto writes about Reiner Stach’s magnificent now-completed three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, calling it a masterpiece that belongs on the same shelf as Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, or Hermione Lee’s of Virginia Woolf, or Joseph Frank’s of Dostoevsky.
Editor Justin Hickey reviews Skunks Dance, a surreal new YA novel from Remora House by St. John Karp, and he finds the book – with its hidden corpses, headless statues, rare comics – “filthy, fractious, and gonzo” … but also, underneath the stylized zaniness, genuinely something more.
Editor Zach Rabiroff looks back into history, reviewing Jennifer Roberts’ The Plague of War, about the war that erupted between the Spartans and the Athenians – “the yin and yang of Greek society, each representing the antithesis of the other” – for control of the ancient Greek world. And since it was a time when the fate of nations could turn on the words of self-serving demagogues, it’s just possible that some contemporary resonances creep in.
Paul Goldberg’s bitingly surreal and memorable historical novel The Yid is the subject of a terrific review by A. E. Smith, who sifts through the book’s multiple layers of narrative centering on a small group of aging Jews in Stalinist Russia who are more than they seem. Smith calls the novel “a highly subversive consideration of both the nature of that Soviet enterprise and of the role of Jews in building and sustaining it.”
Another historical novel, The Kid by Ron Hansen (author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), deals with one of the most storied of Americans: Billy the Kid. In his review, Jeff P. Jones (himself the author of the historical novel Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days) finds that Hansen “revels in humanizing his subject while managing, remarkably, to preserve Billy’s fundamentally inscrutable nature.”
Our indefatigable mystery maven Irma Heldman turns her attention to The Death of Kings, the latest in the excellent John Madden series by Rennie Airth. Irma is impressed by the series (as a shiver of relief runs through the whodunnit department of Viking Press) and revisits the run of its novels in order to bring readers up to speed for this latest installment.
And there’s so much more! Yours truly continues his “Year with the Tudors II” with a look at Tracy Borman’s new book The Private Lives of the Tudors, and OLM‘s redoubtable poetry editor Maureen Thorson presents the issue’s two poems, “5 June 2016/Birmingham” by Jessica Smith and “back-door typical” by Theodora Danylevich. And from our archives we reprint three classics: Joanna Scutts on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, Sam Sacks on Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, and John Cotter on Paul Auster’s memoir Winter Journal.
January 16th, 2017
Our book today at first almost seems like a blasphemy: it’s The Travels of Mark Twain from 1961, and its seeming blasphemy comes from the fact that Charles Neider is its editor rather than its author. Rather than a work of history and analysis about Mark Twain’s extensive travels, as its title might indicate, it’s an anthology of highlights from Twain’s accounts of those travels – and since those writings are some of the best stuff he ever produced (and since, for instance, one of those books, Life on the Mississippi, always vied with the unreadable Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in Twain’s own mind as the best book he ever wrote), the shrill question immediately arises: what kind of barbarian would want to read an anthology of bits and pieces when he could read the whole, unabridged, glorious works themselves?
In one sense, there’s no good answer to that question. Twain was an omnivorously engaging writer, but he had a particular flair for travel-writing, and his many books and collections of it are endlessly enjoyable (and have no dud pages). An anthology of bits and pieces from those book will strike die-hard Twain fans as merely a sacrilegious butchering.
But there are a couple of good answers to the question nevertheless. The first is that die-hard Twain fans have to come from someplace, and for over a hundred years, especially when it comes to books that aren’t Huckleberry Finn, that place is usually an anthology of some kind. And the second is that this particular anthology is superb.
It’s superb thanks to Charles Neider, who was in his day was the best Mark Twain popularizer in the world. He had a complete command of the man’s sprawling life’s work, which put him in the perfect position to assemble selections of that work, selections designed to invite, designed to make die-hard Twain fans out of curious dabblers. Probably the most popular of the anthologies Neider crafted was his “Autobiography” of Twain, but this generous 1961 volume, with its thick pages and deckled edges, does excellent service for its readers, despite some ominously phlegmy moments in the Introduction, as when Neider writes about The Innocents Abroad, “Nor can one overlook the book’s technical skill – for example, the subtle shifts of tense from past to present to give sudden vividness to scene and description, or the wise, sly avoidance of much use of the first-person pronoun, suggesting that the author’s opinions and reactions are typical.” You can practically hear Twain drawling, “You figure I’m doin’ all that, Seymour?”
But the simple truth is that Twain wrote a great heaping pile of travel-writing, including Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator, and A Tramp Abroad … and an expertly-chosen anthology like this one can come as a godsend, especially to the bewildered newcomer to Twain, wondering where to start.
It’s more than that, also: Neider isn’t just making things easy. Thanks to his amazing knowledge of Twain’s writing, he’s able to zero in on one especially outstanding excerpt after another and fit them all smoothly into an over-arching narrative of his own construction. And some of the aspects of Twain’s relationship to his subject might come as a surprise even to those die-hard Twain fans. Neider is surely right to characterize the whole field of writing as something of a job for its author:
He was on the whole a conventional traveler who treasured his comforts and was content to go where others had gone before. One suspects that he went to California mainly because of its proximity to Nevada and that he liked San Francisco largely because he could pursue his trade there while enjoying a society which by the standards of his childhood and youth was extremely cosmopolitan. As far as I know he did not visit Monterey (the old Pacific capital), the missions, Sutter’s fort, or the village of Los Angeles. It is a pity; his impressions would be worth having. He made no effort to penetrate into Africa. He did not bother to record his week in Spain near the end of the Holy Land excursion. In later years, despite many visits to Europe, he did not go to Spain, Greece, Russia or any of the other places where travel was likely to be uncomfortable. He liked the well-padded trails: England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy.
And true to form, he finds the perfect quote from Twain himself, a cold-water quote if ever there was one:
An indefatigable traveller! That’s where I am misunderstood. Now I have mad thirty-four long journeys in my life, and thirty-two of them were made under the spur of absolute compulsion. I mean it – under nothing but sheer compulsion. There always was an imperative reason. I had to gather material for books or sketches. I had to stump around lecturing to make money, or I had to go abroad for the health or education of my family. For love of travel – never any of these thirty-two journeys. There is no man living who cares less about seeing new places and peoples than I. You are surprised – but it’s the gospel truth.
It’s hard to reconcile this kind of dour grousing with the absolutely infectious enthusiasm of the travel-writings themselves, which certainly don’t read like the expressions of somebody who isn’t interested in seeing new places and meeting new people. It’s no doubt one of the reasons why Neider chose to put such a quote right at the beginning of the anthology: so readers can hear the author’s own disclaimer … and then get swept away by the excerpts themselves. And Neider is so good at picking his bits and pieces that a book like this functions as much as a “greatest hits” album as an invitation to newcomers. Either way, it’s a mighty delightful thing to have on the Twain shelf.
January 12th, 2017
I couldn’t help but be charmed by the long essay by Joseph Epstein in last week’s Weekly Standard, despite its barrage of annoying ticks and quirks. The piece is called “Hitting Eighty,” and it’s the latest (and – sad thought – the last?) in what turns out to be a little series of pieces Epstein has written about his own aging. He’s a marvelously companionable writer most of the time, even when navigating a subject like this one, which is bound to make just about anybody sound like an egotistical prig.
Epstein has never needed much help in that department, mainly owing to his Mencken-style habit of industriously mining the nearest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and then trying, without any success ever, to pass it off as a feat of offhanded oh-can’t-everybody-do-it ease. Try to imagine what, for instance, a paragraph like this one would have looked like if you’d shaken its author awake at 4 in the morning to write it:
I’ll accept the “old” part. One of the dangers of being old – for the moment setting death aside – is that one tends to overvalue the past. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes: “Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present … [and] extol the days when they remember their youth to have been spent.” Santayana holds that the reason the old have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that is any good without their being in it. The temptation, when among contemporaries, is to lapse into what I call crank, in which everything in the past turns out to have been superior to anything in the present. Not true, of course, but oddly pleasant to indulge – even though one knows, as Noel Coward, who later in his life himself indulged in crank, had it, “There is no future in the past.”
But when he’s not quoting Santayana, Epstein is time and again insightful on the many little victories and many, many more little defeats of reaching what even the most generous of friends would have to call old age. He tells us that he’s been very lucky in the lottery of general health, and his body of work in the last decade attests to the fact that his literary powers aren’t yet suffering with time. He mentions that he can still pull his pants on while standing up, a great little detail that will seem utterly banal to anybody, say, under 30 but that will resonate just a bit with his dwindling target demographic. He also mentions one of the nice fringe benefits of visible old age: the freedom to compliment young people on their appearance without immediately being the subject of a police inquiry.
In fact, only one passage in the essay gave me pause:
As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen’s majestic four-volume History of Rome. “You don’t read any crappy books, do you?” he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now. I glimpse poems in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and in the few literary quarterlies to which I still subscribe; but none stick in the mind, and poor poetry itself has come to see little more than an intramural sport, restricted in interest largely to those people who continue to write the stuff.
Not only is this, as mentioned, wincingly self-serving (You don’t read any crappy books, do you? Well, do you?), but it’s also genuinely a little alarming. A life-long reader and book-reviewer who can write such a passage has made a great many more concessions to the Grim Reaper than he’s willing to admit, maybe even to himself. No longer worth the effort? When the whole literary life is comprised of just that effort? As I said: alarming.
Fortunately, elsewhere in the Penny Press I was able to find an old duffer firing away on all cylinders, although in this case it was a very old duffer, not quite firing away as echoing the cannon-shot of yesteryear. The mighty TLS reprinted a sparkling piece written by Anthony Burgess back in 1972 in which he writes delightfully about that same aspect of the literary life, the omnipresence of reviews, both the reading of them and the writing of them. For all that I might disagree with him on this and every other subject, I could read Burgess on reviewing until the cows come home:
But of ordinary reviews – those one finds in the Sundays or weeklies – it is hard to say anything good. Even when they praise, they cannot resist cleverness at the expense of the reviewed: they approve, but from a height: they imply that their own prescription for a good piece of writing seems to have been fulfilled: this patient is fit enough, but, of course, he will have to watch his health. When they dispraise, they neither damage the sale of the book – whose quality the reader must find out for himself anyway – nor help the writer to reform his fault. Usually the writer knows far better than the reviewer what his faults are, and if he could get rid of them he would.
Of course he can’t raise the subject without going over yet again the trouble he got into when he reviewed one of his own books under a pen-name, but I’d rather have such artful dodging any day of the week from a dead author than a pallid “I need read no more of them” from a living one.
January 11th, 2017
The week’s comics reflected a very, very old pattern of mine: buying for artists rather than writers. It would be wrong to say that for most of my comics-buying life I cared much more about a title’s artwork than about its writing; far closer to the truth to say I didn’t care about the writing at all – to the point where I’d routinely buy issues or even entire runs of books whose writing, the actual characters and plots, didn’t interest me in the slightest. If John Romita Jr. drew Iron Man, then I’d buy the latest Iron Man, even though the character bored me spitless. If Dave Gibbons drew Green Lantern, I’d buy the latest Green Lantern, even though the character was tedium incarnate. This even applied when my favorite artists were, shall we say, miscast in their latest art chores. When the mighty Gene Colan briefly drew Wonder Woman, I dutifully bought the issues, even though he made Wonder Woman look like Bella Abzug’s older sister. When the sublime artistry of Michael Golden was lavished on Micronauts, or the equally-sublime artistry of José Luis García-López lavished on Atari Force, I not only loyally bought the issues but also loyally write letters praising the artwork.
Friends over the decades pointed out that this could be construed as a standing insult to the very medium I professed to love. “What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the issues are written,” one such friend (who’s since gone on to write some mighty fine comics himself) would argue on fragrant evenings in Madison. “Which means you’re saying they CAN’T be well-written enough to get your money even if you don’t like the artist.”
I confess, at the time and for the longest time afterwards, the very idea of buying a comic for the writing alone – a comic whose artwork did nothing for me – was simply bewildering to me. After all, weren’t comic books an entirely visual medium?
I didn’t quite track the exact period when that predisposition changed, but here in the 21st century, it’s certainly different. The writing in superhero comics has been steadily improving since the 1990s, to the point where the baseline level of complexity and humor in 2017 is easily enough to keep me reading an ongoing title even if it’s drawn by Barry Kitson.
So I was given a little jolt of nostalgia this week when I realized that as random chance would have it, the latest issues I was buying were chosen entirely because of their artwork. For instance, there was the third issue of Marvel’s Occupy Avengers, written by David Walker and drawn by the great Carlos Pacheco. The series seems to be following the Avenger Hawkeye as he travels across America slowly and gradually accumulating a team of weak-ass third-string superheroes to fight local crimes. The writing is slangy and energetic, but Walker inexplicably makes Hawkeye not only a weakling (in this issue he takes a beating from Nighthawk that, as Pacheco draws it, should have left him blind and severely crippled) but a bad shot – but I’ve been buying the issues anyway, because I wouldn’t miss any work done by Pacheco.
Likewise the great Lee Weeks, who does the art for issue #7 of DC’s new Titans title, featuring grown-up “Rebirth”-continuity versions of the Teen Titans. There’s Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Speedy … but the usual messy post “New 52” continuity makes a hash of who knows who, who’s always known who, etc. Luckily, the issue’s writer, Dan Abnett, makes up a lot of this lost ground by crafting instantly likable versions of all these characters – although even that little toe-hold is pried loose in this issue by the appearance of the “Rebirth”-continuity Superman, who hails from the same pre-reboot universe as Kid Flash. The two of them have a muddled and halting talk about it in this issue, just matter-of-factly discussing the fact that they now live in an alternate reality in which none of their old friends and loved ones remember their old relationships. Superman’s best theory? “Something weird is definitely going on.” These characters, the ones readers have followed for decades, would ordinarily be banding together and stopping at nothing to return to their own home reality … but since DC wants the “Rebirth” continuity to further the “New 52” reboot rather than re-write it, our two survivors here simply accept the loss of their earlier lives. Which is pretty maddening.
I expected to be maddened by the third issue under consideration this time around, and it, too, I bought for its art: issue #14 of the “Rebirth” Wonder Woman, written by Greg Rucka and drawn magnificently by Nicola Scott. I hadn’t been reading this title prior to noticing this issue, so I was coming aboard deep inside an ongoing story chronicling the “Rebirth”-version of Wonder Woman’s first year in Man’s World. In this issue, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are fighting the evil war-god Ares, and maybe it’s Rucka’s vision of the early years of the character, but I absolutely loved the issue; the glowering, sword-wielding savage “New 52” version the Amazon princess is nowhere in evidence – this version has the glowing lariat but no sword at all, and her costume is brightly-colored, and her nature is full if caring optimism; it was like getting the best version of the character back again for a single issue … and drawn with delightful grace by Scott.
There were other issues on the stands this week, plenty of them, and given the merry-go-round of creators on most comics these days, the great artists featured in these issues will probably be gone next month. But for now, it was great to snap up some comics for my oldest reason.