March 27th, 2017
The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived on my doorstep last week, and it quickly became the saddest issue of the NYRB I’ve ever read – because this was the first issue I read after the death of the journal’s legendary editor, Bob Silvers. He’d been there from the beginning, and he was there for this issue too … but it had already crossed the shadow-line: I read it knowing that after he’d talked about all these pieces with his editors and writers, after (sometimes long after) he’d decided which ideas were worth shaping into publication, and I finished the issue not thinking “he must be proud of an issue that good” but rather “he’ll never see this issue, nor any other.” The New York Review of Books will go on – but the Silvers era, the only era it’s ever known, is now over.
The writers and editors of the NYRB will, I trust, do the very thing Silvers would have railed against and devote the bulk of an entire issue to remembering and honoring him. But in the meantime, reading this issue, I couldn’t help but think of it in a sudden terminal sense, looking back at half a century.
The Silvers era defined the journal with its shopping-around ethos of eclectically trying to match the perfect reviewer with the perfect book. Over the years, Silvers assembled one of the greatest stables of perfect reviewers in the history of literary journalism, and half the fun of every new issue was the anticipation of how these big guns would be deployed – and which puny little pop-guns would get a chance to fire off not because they knew anything about anything but rather because Silvers liked them enough to keep going back to them.
This issue is, of course, a perfect illustration. Its roster of writers contains some mighty talents – Christopher Benfrey, Geoffrey O’Brien, Fintan O’Toole, Vivian Gornick, Michael Tomasky – and some decidedly less-than-mighty talents, like the omnipresent Nathaniel Rich, here offering some deftly-worded platitudes about Paul Auster’s deftly-worded platitudinous novel 4 3 2 1:
One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.
The NYRB this time around got the worst novelist currently working in English, Cathleen Schine, to review the worst English-language novel of the season, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and this, too, was a magical pairing in its own dark, ominous way, with Schine barking up the wrong tree right from her first paragraph. “Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny,” she writes. “It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.”
Not a word of that is true – Batuman’s novel is wretchedly boring and narcissistic – but there’s an NYRB-specific horror of fascination in reading Schine lurch and fumble her way all around it. And on half a dozen levels, that horror of fascination always hovered over every Bob Silvers issue of the NYRB, that feeling of not quite knowing when the sharp elbows would be thrown, of never quite guessing when the tacit nod of permission had been given for a hatchet-job, or worse, a principled, convincing take-down.
A heated disagreement has been unfolding in the letters page, for instance, between Edward Jay Epstein and Charlie Savage about the reliability of Epstein’s book How America Lost Its Secrets (long-time NYRB readers will each have their own favorite such protracted exchange) is a good example of the kind of scholarly infighting Silvers seemed to encourage as part of a healthy intellectual exchange, and the excitement of the spectacle arose from the fact that the participants were always evenly matched. The intellectual evisceration Michael Ignatieff performs in this issue on Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, for instance, was riveting to me not only because I liked Mishra’s book but also because I like Ignatieff’s attacks:
Mishra doesn’t bother with such distinctions, it seems, because he sympathizes with the anger of the jihadists and believes it has some justification. At one point, for example, he says of the ISIS terrorists that they have “aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.” Never, so far as I know, has a free and freedom-loving intellectual handed a gang of killers such a lofty worldview. Mishra would not justify terrorist acts – he would recoil at the very idea – yet in seeing its perpetrators as holy warriors against “modernity” he justifies their arguments.
Right from its beginning, The New York Review of Books was meant to provide just this sense of the sheer high-stakes excitement of reading, and this latest issue conveys that excitement as well as every issue before it. And the NYRB’s offices are still crammed with some of the smartest, most passionate people in the business of literary journalism, so that quality of every issue likely won’t disappear now that its architect has died. But it will certainly change – how could it not? – and although I wouldn’t miss those changes for all the mud in Egypt, it’s a new era with a mighty sad beginning.
March 22nd, 2017
Both DC and Marvel Comics have always had their flagship Big Guy in a Red Cape – with DC it’s of course been Superman, the strongest and most powerful of all the DC superheroes, and with Marvel it’s been the thunder god Thor, the Asgardian warrior-god sojourning on Earth and adventuring with Earth’s superheroes. And in this week’s latest comics offerings, both these Big Guys in Red Capes undergo remarkably similar adventures – but with disappointingly different outcomes.
In Action Comics #976, the “Superman Reborn” storyline comes to a high-flying if very nearly incomprehensible conclusion, written by Dan Jurgens and drawn with real energy by Doug Mahnke. The story seems to have been conceived in order to address some of the roughly 1 million problems created by DC’s “New 52” company-wide reboot from years ago, a reboot that took the traditional iteration of Superman – a fairly square, intensely human superbeing who fights for what’s right and is in love with Lois Lane – and transformed him into a shallow, omnipotent jerkwad with a pipped uniform, popped collars, and no romantic interest in any puny weakling human woman (instead, he falls in lust with Wonder Woman because she has an impressive dead-lift). This substitute Superman was, of course, intensely unsatisfying as a dramatic character, and as fan clamoring over the years grew louder on that point, DC finally decided to wipe out that new Superman and restore the old one, complete with his beloved wife Lois Lane and – in a new and wonderful twist – they have a young son named Jon.
In this latest issue’s whirlwind conclusion, those two Supermen merge somehow, for some unknown reason, and Mahnke illustrates the outcome with a two-page spread that’s clearly meant to establish at single visual stroke the new, smoothed-over past and present of this Man of Steel, and Jurgens provides the appropriate narration:
“This changes everything. A new, existence-wide, single reality, rebuilt from two. A timeline and history both familiar … and new. With lives realigned. Consistent with the memories and experiences of all. Everything solidified. Locked in … so it all fits.”
There’s a very similar narrative arc coming to its conclusion over in Marvel’s five-issue mini-series The Unworthy Thor, which likewise deals with the fallout of an ill-conceived earlier comics “event” storyline. In that earlier event, the mighty Thor lost ownership of his mystic hammer … which then came into the possession of a human woman who assumed both the powers and – bewilderingly, irritatingly – the very name of Thor, leaving our original character saddled with the lackluster name “Odinson.” It was all completely ridiculous, a puling sop tossed to some addled idea of “inclusivity” – and at a stroke it both created a watered-down ersatz echo of Thor and set adrift the original Thor, who we find in The Unworthy Thor striving to come to terms with crippling self-doubt and regain possession of a mystic hammer.
When he finally comes to grip that hammer, writer Jason Aaron and artist Olivier Coipel present a wonderfully uplifting moment, the moment when Thor regains his nobility and seems poised to regain his mantle. “I am Thor,” he says, overlaid on a two-page spread showing the character’s history in Marvel Comics. “I am the mighty Thor. The god of thunder.”
But he doesn’t take up the hammer. He stays the hammerless Odinson. So although I was pleased by the ending of “Superman Reborn” because it at least partially restored my favorite DC superhero to his natural state (not quite all the way, but at least partially), I got no such satisfaction when it came to my favorite Marvel superhero. So next month I’ll have the adventures of something very much like “my” Superman … but no Thor in sight, alas.
March 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics have to walk a very fine line in order to exist at all. Not all of them manage it, of course: there’s been no Penguin Classic of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, nor will there ever be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Penguin Classic reprint of My Life and Loves, or a nice annotated edition of Roger Casement’s diaries, or any of the many electrifying books by Robert Ingersoll. There’s politics as well as cowardice at work here, or rather there’s the cowardice of politics: reprint volumes keep one eye fixed steadily on institutional sales.
It’s hard therefore to guess the fate of something like Brian Copenhaver’s big, brilliant new Penguin volume The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, since it treads for its entire 650-page length the finest of troublesome fine lines: religion. After all, if you’re compiling an anthology of excerpts about magic from the course of Western literature, you’ll scarcely be able to avoid tripping over living religious faith at almost every turn. Copenhaver’s eloquent Introduction is hardly off the starting-block before it’s beginning to parse its way around the question:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
Given the drift of this sort of thing, it’s inevitable that Max Weber will come up, and he does smartly:
Magic is ritual where religion is ethical, according to Weber. Magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Magic goes to particulars, religion generalizes. Magic is emotional, religion rational. Deeply learned, writing in patience and finesse, Weber knows that these facile dichotomies cannot stand. By his lights, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were magicians. If those heroes of the Abrahamic faiths were all magicians, how can magic be distinct from religion on axes like ethics v. ritual, reason v. emotion, and so on? No such distinctions can hold, as Weber concedes again and again. But then – on the trail of ‘typical pure magicians’ and something ‘essentially magical’ – he applies the distinctions again, seduced by ‘always’ and ‘all’, words meant to distinguish all magic always from religion – or the reverse – in order to isolate an essence.
The anthology itself, this tremendously entertaining book Copenhaver has created, bolts away from such torturous equivocation the instant it can. In these sections – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, the philosophers and commenters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a delightful array of names parades before the reader: Strabo, Pausanius, Philostratus, Iamblichus, Lactantius, Origen, and of course the mighty St. Augustine, Marsilio Ficino in abundance, reliable old John Dee, and that gold mine of arresting quotation, The Hammer of Witches … Copenhaver presents this great crowd in mostly new and vigorous translations (the book is, among all its other virtues, a monument of erudition), and he provides along the way unfailingly helpful notes to everything.
The sum of the whole actually manages to rise above the ideological contortions that start the whole thing off, contortions made necessary by that most dangerous of all fine lines: the inability to call all religion magic. Jesus casting out demons Copenhaver somewhat bravely includes, but Jesus rising from the dead will never appear in books like this one, because millions of people still believe in that magic, and it’s possible that Penguin Classics would like to sell some copies to those millions. Even so, it’s unlikely that copies of The Book of Magic will be stacked for sale in the Bible bookstores that dot vast swaths of the American heartland – which is a shame on two or three different levels.
March 13th, 2017
Our books today are a trio of delights from the good folks at Avon Books, and they come at just the right moment: despite the calendar showing a mid-March date, and despite Springlike temperatures only a few days ago, a monstrous blizzard is grinding its way toward Boston at this moment, threatening to bury budding plants, snarl traffic, and crush every spirit that had dared to hope for a change of season. Since these days I’m taking a pair of elderly dogs outside every hour all night every night, this year I definitely count myself among that number, and now, according to the latest prediction models (and according to the gossip amongst my sparrows out on the lilac bushes), we’re going to be slogging through a foot of snow on those potty-breaks.
It’s inordinately depressing, and it made me all the more grateful for these little bursts of color on my nightstand:
My Fair Duchess by Megan Frampton is just such a summery thing, starting right on the cover with a heroine being ravished in a bright yellow dress redolent of picnics among daisies (anyone attempting a picnic on Boston Common during this monster storm would instantly die). The heroine in question is, one presumes, the book’s main character, Genevieve, Duchess of Blakesley, who’s in an awkward position when the novel opens since she’s only just recently become the Duchess of Blakesley and hasn’t the first idea what to do or how to do it. Although she would balk at the concept, what she needs is shaping in her new status – hence the Shavian echo of the book’s title. Genevieve has a sharp mind and a winningly irreverent sense of humor but no idea what’s expected of her as a newly-minted duchess; in other words, as a delightful twist in Frampton’s long-running “Dukes Behaving Badly” series (which included 2015’s Put Up Your Duke), what we have here, at least at first, is a duchess behaving badly.
Enter Archibald Salisbury, a disinherited viscount’s son and war hero with a penchant for organization – and a longing for Genevieve that’s as deep as it is unspoken. He takes on the task of teaching her the rules of her new lot in life, and he goes about it with a steadfast concentration:
He needed to focus on the work. Not the work of getting to know her, either. The work of doing the job he had sent himself here to do, the one that would mean she was presentable to her world, a world he had only barely ever belonged in, and didn’t belong in at all now. And now that he thought more about it, it wasn’t just that she needed help in knowing how to behave; she also needed help in knowing what to do. From what she’d said, her father hadn’t known what to do, and so the duchy was suffering. It was important that she knew, and that he help her.
As in all the “Dukes” books, the main pleasure of My Fair Duchess is the light and knowing touch Frampton has when it comes to dramatizing the simple process of two people coming to care for each other in ways they didn’t expect – which may seem like a somewhat prosaic skill, until you try duplicating it. And the book’s added bonus – very funnily-rendered selections from the correspondence between the duchess and her steadfast Pygmalion – is like getting an extra hour of warm sunlight at that Boston Common picnic.
At first glance, the tranquility of a summer picnic seems alien to the hectic goings-on in The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (whose 2013 novel When the Marquess Met His Match was so delightful), although that very tranquility is the daily dream of the book’s hero:
Henry Cavanaugh longed for a well-ordered life. As the Duke of Torquil, he had many responsibilities, and they would have been easier to managed with a private life that was well-ordered and predictable. Unfortunately for Henry, he had two unmarried sisters, an impecunious younger brother, and a hopelessly indolent brother-in-law. He also had a pair of nephews who adoring driving nannies away and a mother with artistic inclinations. A well-ordered life never seemed quite within hi grasp. Henry mourned this fact on a daily basis.
In The Truth About Love and Dukes, the duke’s tranquility is shattered by one other thing too: the scandalous (and scandalously popular) anonymous London newspaper column “Dear Lady Truelove,” in which the dirty laundry of the rich and powerful is hung out and examined for the titillation of the paying Penny Press crowd. When an installment of the column provokes the duke’s own mother to a rash course of action, he decides to exact his revenge by finding the anonymous author of “Dear Lady Truelove” and doing a little exposing of his own. And although there are no clear leads to the author’s identity, Torquil suspects that Irene Deverill, the column’s publisher, might also be its author.
There follows a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse of the type this author does so well: the more our hero and heroine spar with each other, the more they come to fascinate each other. Torquil uses his vast reserves to squelch Irene’s whole operation, and yet even when the contest appears at its most lopsided, he can still say to her, “You have more power than I care to contemplate, Miss Deverill” – and mean it. And another of this author’s strengths, the gut-punchingly happy ending (talk about a lack of tranquility), doesn’t desert her here: the last twenty pages of The Truth About Love and Dukes will have you smiling as though you’d just stepped outside to the first afternoon of Spring.
It’s a full-blown beautiful English summe day on the cover and step-back of Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James, and the story she tells this time around is a typically summery affair, regardless of when the book is appearing in bookstores. It’s the story of Eugenia Snowe, the proprietress of Snowe’s Registry Office for Select Governesses, the wonder of the Ton for the quality and discretion of the governesses it supplies to the wealthy and powerful of London. Training these young women is a round-the-clock job, as is dealing with the logistics of placing them; all manner of complications can arise, as Eugenia’s assistant makes clear in one of book’s countless peppy exchanges:
“You have the Duchess of Villiers, and I squeezed in Lady Cogley after that.”
“Is there a problem in Her Grace’s nursery? I thought Sally Bennifer was very happy there.”
“Sally has accepted a proposal from the vicar. He must have behaved in a most unvicarish fashion, because she needs to marry spit-spot. Ergo, the duchess needs a replacement.”
“Is ‘unvicarishly’ a word?”
“I suppose not,” Susan said. “But the man took his post only a few months ago, so he must have jumped on Sally like a cat on raw liver.”
One person who’s got the nerve to find fault with one of Eugenia’s girls is Theodore Edward Braxton Reeve, known to his friends as Ward. He’s the son of the Earl of Gryffyn, and he’s committed the incredible act of firing a Snowe governess. He’s come to Eugenia’s agency in search of a new one, and the predictable chemistry strikes up between them, despite the fact that initially Ward is insufferably high-handed in his dealings with non-aristocratic folk like Eugenia, who reflects, “It was unfortunate that the conjunction of a penis and privilege had such an unfortunate effect on boys …”
The admitted failure of that line to land – the two key words would be funnier if they were transposed, and there’s that thudding repetition – is very unlike Eloisa James, and it’s the kind of thing that shows up with dismaying frequency throughout Seven Minutes in Heaven, which often feels a bit dashed-off. But even dashed-off Eloisa James is still a pure summery delight – especially when weighed against the backdrop of an oncoming snow-monsoon.
March 7th, 2017
Our book today is a towering classic of ecological literature: The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the book she wrote in 1947 in protest to a whole slate of proposed (and encroaching) drainage and construction projects designed to “improve” the vast waterlands of the Everglades. Douglas was a pint-sized force of nature, an utterly uncompromising advocate of the Everglades, a carping Cato in a big straw hat, and her book, complete with its famous opening line (“There are no other Everglades in the world”), sparked an entire conservation movement in much the same way Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring did, only on a much broader stage.
So immense was the impact of The Everglades: River of Grass as an ecological wake-up call, in fact, that its many wonders as a book have always been in danger of being overshadowed. I was reminded of those many wonders just recently, when I found a copy of the book’s revised 1988 edition at the Brattle and gave it a careful re-reading. That clarion-call opening line, for example, was known and quoted throughout the conservation movement of a generation ago, but it’s followed by a lovely bit of general description:
They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.
That kind of soaring prose fills the book and, I like to think, would have guaranteed it a place on the shelf of great works of natural history even if an ecological movement hadn’t grown up around it. The book – with black-and-white illustrations by Martin Fink – is passionate but also lovely, uncompromising but also full of wonder.
This 1988 revised edition ends with “Forty More Years of Crisis,” a doomsaying new chapter Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote with Miami Herald writer Randy Lee Loftis, in which readers leaving the book are left with no doubt that the work of saving the Everglades was accomplished – or ever would be. Loftis ticks off all the ongoing catastrophes, including the surest bellwether of all:
Nowhere has the continuing crisis of the Everglades become more apparent than in the disappearance of entire populations of animals. The Everglades mink, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the Miami blackheaded snake are pushed to lines of last defense. The snail kite, an agile hunter that seeks so specialized a prey – the apple snale, no bigger than a quarter – has stabilized after many years of decline, yet the stabilization comes at a low number, perhaps 700 birds scattered around the emergent marshes and open sloughs where they feed.
Even a generation ago, there were cynical critics who wondered if The Everglades: River of Grass might actually out-last the embattled ecosystem it champions. I certainly hope not (though I’ve never had an experience in the Everglades that wasn’t thoroughly miserable in every way), but re-reading this great book certainly reminded me of all the reasons it’s stayed in print for so long.
March 2nd, 2017
Our book today is Brazilian illustrator Vin Vogel’s follow-up to his 2015 classic The Thing About Yetis – joyful news to those of us who loved that book and its roly-poly head-tufted version of the famed Himalayan snow-man. The new book from Penguin’s Dial Books imprint is called BedTime for Yeti, and it opens by revealing a fact that’s eluded cryptozoologists but that I myself have long suspected: “Yetis and their stuffed friends stick together like peanut butter and jelly.”
Our Yeti takes this stuffed friend everywhere: birdwatching, butterfly-netting, playground-swinging, even partnering at the lucrative Yeti lemonade stand. They read comics together, eat cookies together, and even brave the dreaded Yeti bath-time together. And most especially, they’re together at bedtime every night.
But fans of Mo Willems’ indispensable Knuffle Bunny will be able to anticipate the main peril of such a close friendship – is there a well-rounded reader anywhere in the world who isn’t familiar with the look on little Trixie’s face when she realizes that her beloved Knuffle Bunny has been misplaced?
This happens to Yeti: the little suffed friend goes missing, and Yeti pandemonium results: the basement is searched, as is the toy box and the garbage, all to no avail. And to make matters worse, an inevitable trial is drawing nearer: facing bedtime alone. This can be a problem, we’re told, because “The thing about yetis is that (sometimes) they’re afraid of the dark.”
The night is not only dark but stormy, and our Yeti is terrified of every creeping shadow on the bedroom walls (astute readers will recall the main character of Greg Long’s 2013 Yeti Turn Out the Light having similar problems). But just when courage seems hardest to find, our Yeti sees a chance to save his little stuffed friend from danger and promptly forgets about his own fears in order to save the day.
The toddlers who will love this book for Vogel’s bright, happy digital artwork very likely won’t notice those messages of friendship and overcoming the fear of a dark bedroom, try though their designated book-reading adults might to emphasize them. But every toddler who flips these pages will immediately understand the underlying and far more important message: hold onto your little stuffed friend until you’re 70.
March 1st, 2017
A ten-year anniversary is a milestone for any kind of monthly publication. The meshing of personalities, the jostling of priorities, and the unpredictable vagaries of the work-flow might be expected to hang together for a little while, a year maybe, and it might be hoped they could work for a little longer than that, perhaps five years, before personal and impersonal forces pulled the whole thing apart like saltwater taffy. So ten years is a nice impressive lifespan for such an endeavor – and how much more so for something created by a small handful of people who a) live in different cities, states, and countries, b) don’t get paid for their work, and c) have to fit their efforts into lives already crowded with work, family, other writing commitments, and the ever-present demands of the New Orleans nightlife?
And yet, for ten years the cast of editors behind the scenes at Open Letters Monthly have been doing just that: month after month putting out one of the finest little literary journals in the English-speaking world, issues full of reviews, poems, and essays, issues pulled and cajoled and compromised and argued together by editors who are also writers, and writers who are voracious readers.
March marks the 10-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, and I couldn’t let the first day of that anniversary pass without singing its praises here at Stevereads. It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to be a part of this ramshackle, striving, wonderful collective project. Here’s to ten more years!
February 27th, 2017
Our book today is a gutsy historical thriller from 2011 called Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, the eighth novel featuring his scuffed and downtrodden detective – and reluctant SS member – Bernie Gunther, solving crimes and trying to keep his morals clean in WWII-era Germany. In this particular installment, he’s been summoned to Prague by Reinhard Heydrich, the newly-installed Reichsprotector of what was once Czechoslovakia, who worries that his new prominence may end up attracting the kind of trouble he know our hero Bernie understands with deep, unwilling insight. Bernie obeys because he has no choice – he hates the stupidity and venality of the Nazis, but he’s also a pragmatist and in several key ways a coward. He’s also just about the least believable Lothario in all of crime fiction, and sultry woman’s name in this case is Arianne.
I first encountered Kerr’s Bernie Gunther twenty-five years ago when I read Berlin Noir, an omnibus containing the first three novellas featuring the character, and although I liked some of the descriptions, the novellas themselves made no deep impression on me. I could sense Kerr’s intelligence easily on the page – easily enough for me to recommend the omnibus to bookstore customers who were looking for something to satisfy their Dashiell Hammett sweet-tooth – but I didn’t think much of the books themselves, and I didn’t think about poor down-on-his-luck Bernie Gunther at all once I’d put Berlin Noir aside.
Both the author and the character came rushing back to me only comparatively recently due to one of the best possible reasons: they were recommended to me, and not by just anybody, although that would be sweet enough, but by one of my colleagues right here at Open Letters Monthly: our indefatigable mystery columnist Irma Heldman, it turns out, has always been a big fan of Philip Kerr. As I was doing my own thing at OLM, I couldn’t help but notice Irma taking every opportunity to praise the Bernie Gunther series enthusiastically, starting with 2009’s stylish reprint of 2006’s The One from the Other, and it all reminded me of the good things I enjoyed about Berlin Noir, to which this book was a long-awaited sequel. Back in 2009 Open Letters had only been in existence for a couple of years, but already by that point I’d been pleased by some of Irma’s recommendations, so I read The One from the Other and A Quiet Flame and realized immediately that Kerr is that rare bird among genre authors: somebody who gets more readable when he’s got more elbow-room. I thought they were terrific, much better than the stories on offer in Berlin Noir, and after that I tried never to miss a Kerr new release.
And yet, I somehow missed Prague Fatale in 2011, so I was delighted to find a copy for 50 cents – I burned right through this multi-layered and yet manifestly predictable story, in which Kerr sets an old-fashioned locked-door mystery inside an atmospheric war novel about the perils and tensions of occupied Prague, which is described over and over again with very dark, sharp energy:
To see Prague in the autumn of 1941 was to see a crown of thorns with extra points, as painted by Lucas Cranach. A city of church spires it certainly was. Even the spires had smaller spires of their own, the way little carrots sometimes grow bigger ones. These lent the unfeasibly tall Bohemian capital an unexpectedly sharp, jagged feel. Everywhere you looked it was like seeing a Swiss halberd in an umbrella stand. This sense of medieval discomfort was accentuated by the city’s omnipresent statuary. All over Prague there were statues of Jesuit bishops spearing pagans, heavily muscled Titans stabbing each other with swords, agonized Christian saints horribly martyred, or ferocious wild animals tearing each other to pieces. To that extent Prague appeared to suit the cruelty and violence of the Nazis in a way Berlin never did. The Nazis seemed to belong here – especially the tall, spindly figure of Heydrich, whose austere, pale features brought to mind the face of a flayed-alive saint.
Of course, some of the author’s ticks reminded me of everything I’d disliked in the pages of Berlin Noir, foremost being the incredibly hokey dialogue Kerr sometimes puts in Bernie’s mouth – dialogue that says nothing so clearly as that its speaker knows he’s in a hard-boiled detective novel:
“These are the times we live in, I’m afraid. All sorts of things make me suspicious, angel. Two aces in a row. Double sixes. A sure thing for the state lottery. A kind word or a compliment. Venus rising from the sea. I’m the kind of Fritz who’s apt to look for a maker’s mark on the scallop shell.”
It bothered me a bit this time around, even with Irma’s recommendations ringing in my ears. That’s the tricky thing about book recommendations: one size doesn’t fit all, and you can sometimes gain more insight into the recommender than the recommended. Prague Fatale, for example, reminded me on a few occasions of something I’ve noticed from ten years of reading her columns: Irma is often willing to overlook a great deal if an author will give her genuinely snappy prose. And it reminded me that I will too, so everything worked out just fine! Heydrich has been a figure of fascination for me since I read Edouard Callic’s biography of him back in the 1980s (and the English-language translation of Laurent Binet’s book about him back in 2012), and I loved Kerr’s portrayal of him, ice-cold and yet somehow also creepily magnetic, the star of the novel even though Bernie secretly loathes him.
Once I finished Prague Fatale, I considered creating a bookshelf here at Hyde Cottage dedicated to the books or authors I’ve taken up solely due to the recommendations or prodding of fellow Open Letters people. I may still do it, although the shelf would have to be fairly wide …
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.