August 2nd, 2015

The Book of Dogs!

book of dogsOur book today is The Book of Dogs, a lovely leatherbound thing put out by the National Geographic Society back in 1919, subtitled “An Intimate Study of Mankind’s Best Friend.” The text is by Ernest Harold Baynes, with plenty of black-and-white photographs supplementing color illustrations by Louise Agassiz Fuertes and Hashime Murayama, and although semi-official dog breed books are in plentiful supply today (in support of a multi-billion dollar dog industry), they were fairly thin on the ground a century ago – this book was one of the Society’s earliest bestsellers.

It was no doubt helped considerably in reaching that status by the renown of its author. Nobody remembers Ernest Baynes today, but at the turn of the last century he enjoyed nation-wide fame as a friend to animals and what we would now call a conservationist. He was soft-spoken and shy in person (a bellicose friend of his working at the dear old Boston Evening Transcript once warned him that these retiring traits would hurt his career – then Baynes sold his first piece to Harper’s, and his friend promptly shut up and went back to hacking out 800-word book reviews for the Penny Press), but when he made an impression, that impression stuck – which is one reason he had so many devoted friends in his life, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

ernest harold baynesBaynes devoted himself to animals. He worked tirelessly to save the American bison, which would almost certainly have gone extinct without him. He took aim at the millinery fashion of the day, the mania for elaborate bird plumage in ladies’ hats that was devastating whole justicepopulations of bird species – and his energy, plus a gift for publicity that he’d never have admitted he possessed, actually helped to change the fashion. He also took in stray animals to live in his various homes – including stray wild animals who seemed to forget their ferocity when they were snuggling next to Baynes in front of an evening fireplace.

And he wrote. Since there’s been no biography of him in nearly a century and since so far as I know his papers and letters have never been collected, we may never know quite how much he wrote. But he could generate a line of strong, stringy prose very quickly, and because of the aforementioned damn sweet personality, he never met a commissioning editor who didn’t want to hear from him.

The text for something like The Book of Dogs very likely took him a leisurely weekend or two (and probably netted him a nice hefty $400 at a stroke), and to be fair, that text contains neither stunning insights nor exactly poetical language. The product is very much cut to order: a potted history of the dog, starting (naturally) with its creation-through-domestication:

The dog is the oldest friend man has among the animals – very much the oldest. Compared with him the cat and the horse are new acquaintances. Probably we shall never know when the friendship began, but the bones of dogs lying side by side with the bones of primitive men tend to show that it was in very, very remote times.

beagle and bassetHe gives his readers a fairly standard run-through of famous dog-anecdotes from history, ranging from Babylon to Egypt to Rome to Greece in a little less than a dozen breezily readable pages. And then he gets to the heart of the book’s purpose: a breed-by-breed rundown, for an American dog-buying public that was growing in size, in spending money, and, since the end of the Great War, in international outlook.

For these readers he laid out the basic breeding and behavioral standards of a few dozen kindspointer of dogs, from breeds that were already familiar to Americans on the East Coast, like the beagle:

He should be an active, intelligent, well proportioned, and capable little dog, with plenty of tenacity of purpose, though great speed is not to be expected. He must have no Terrier traits, either physical or temperamental, nor any throaty tendency or flews. The expression is just like that of a very alert Foxhound.

To breeds that were mainly found in England and Europe and were only just recently making inroads in the United States, like a strange-looking creature called the basset hound:

With its keen scent, extremely short legs, and very slow movements, it was well equipped for finding game in dense cover. The face of the rough Basset is often very wistful.

Unlike any dog-breed book today, in The Book of Dogs the basset hound is immediately followed by none other than the pointer, a juxtaposition that naturally caught my attention! And what about the pointer? Well:

He must be keen of eye and nose, obedient, teachable, and staunch. Many otherwise fine Pointers lack the courage of their convictions, and it is easy to spoil a good dog either by too gentle or too rough handling.

lucy reads about dogsSome of the talk in these entries was the merest bluster on Baynes’ part, although most of his readers probably never knew it. He himself had almost no stomach for game-hunting (even when hosting a President who sometimes seemed to have a stomach for little else), and that stuff about the dangers of “too gentle” handling is particularly funny, coming from the pen of a man who once endured innumerable nips and scratches in order to nurse an abandoned baby fox to healthy adulthood.

The world of purebred dog breeding has mushroomed into big business, as mentioned; no book as digressive and ramshackle as The Book of Dogs would find a publisher today. But it was great fun to turn these pages again, and think back to those happy days when certain kinds of dog breeds were unknown to unsuspecting America …

August 1st, 2015

The Five of Hearts!

the five of hearts coverOur book today is Patricia O’Toole’s wonderful 1990 biography of a set, The Five of Hearts, subtitled “An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918.” The five in question are Adams himself, his wife Clover, John Hay and his wife Clara, and Clarence King, an effusive and flamboyant “entrepreneur” who shines just a touch brighter than the others in this book.

There’s a lot of shining all around, however, thanks to O’Toole’s very lively prose. I’ve found that most multi-part biographies tend to suffer from fatal distractions inherent in their outline – they tend to end up doing nobody much justice. But O’Toole’s book is a very happy exception; she takes this intensely magnetic small cast of characters and manages to imbue each one of them with almost as much personality as they might get in their own solo biographies. Henry Adams, Clover Adams, and especially John Hay stand out in all their multi-faceted glory, but O’Toole’s narrative enthusiasm extends to all parts of her story, even place descriptions, as when she mentions the old State, War and Navy Building, now called the Old Executive Office Building: “Pillared, porticoed, corniced, and capitaled to a fare-thee-well, the edifice looked less like a bastion of state than a playhouse – the sequel, perhaps, to mad King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle in Bavaria.”

Her quick thumbnail sketches of hosts of secondary characters are also masterful: “Squinting at the world through steely blue eyes, Benjamin Harrison, lawyer and Sunday school teacher, radiated all the warmth of Mount Shasta’s glaciers,” she writes. “A campaign joke had it that everyone who shook his hand went away a Democrat.”

And she takes her readers through all the major scandals and controversies that convulsed the Five of Hearts, again especially Hay, who seemed always to find himself embroiled in spats, as when his masterful negotiations in 1900 about the construction and control of the Panama Canal, met with “a storm of abuse” from the Senate, including one senator in particular:lucy and the five of hearts

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Hay noted acidly, was “the first to flop.” The American people, Senator Lodge told the secretary, “can never be made to understand that if they build a canal at their own expense and at vast cost, which they are afterwards to guard and maintain at their own cost, and keep open and secure for the commerce of the world at equal rates, they can never be made to understand, I repeat, that the control of such a canal should not be absolutely within their own power.” Despite years of Nannie’s tutelage, Pinky Lodge still could not turn a graceful sentence, but he knew where he stood.

Adams and Hay and their wider social circle lived during a golden age of Lafayette Square personal politics, and although it’s a golden age that’s been chronicled hundreds of times, accounts often miss the peculiar sparkle of the time. O’Toole captures that sparkle perfectly.

July 23rd, 2015

Cache Lake Country!

cache lake countryOur book today is John Rowland’s warm and wonderful 1947 classic Cache Lake Country, ostensibly about the author’s small rough-living getaway cabin deep in the vast Ontario North Woods, although as Rowland makes clear at the outset, the quiet and sheer beauty of the place almost abstracts the place from any map or guidebook:

On most maps Cache Lake is only a speck hidden among other blue patches big enough to have names, and unless you know where to look you will never find it. But a place like Cache Lake is seldom discovered on a map. You just come on it – that is if you are lucky. Most men who travel the north woods sooner or later happen on a lake or stream that somehow they cannot forget and always want to go back to. Generally they never do go back.

Fortunately for all his readers (fewer now than back when this great book first appeared and cache lakebecame a small but genuine hit for its author – as far as I know, Cache Lake Country has been out of print for a long time), Rowland often found his way back, and he chronicles his adventures with a genial prose style very similar to the tone struck by Wyman Richardson in his own 1947 classic, The House on Nauset Marsh.

A big part of that similarity in tone comes from the fact that both books are filled with the beautiful black-and-white illustrations by the great Henry Bugbee Kane. The work he did on Cache Lake Country is elaborate: in addition to his customary gorgeous full-page pictures, he also provides dozens of spot illustrations and diagrams for the many do-it-yourself woods projects Rowland beaver lodgedetails throughout the book (making your own moccasins, creating a buck saw, identifying various animal tracks, etc.). Those diagrams add a very practical element to Rowland’s book, but the heart of the thing is sheer open-hearted wonder at the year’s seasons far from civilization. That sense of wonder is present on virtually every page, and it’s as fresh now as it was half a century ago. “The man who has never walked in the woods and smelled rain and felt it on his face has missed something indescribable,” he writes in a typical passage, both heartfelt and true. “But best of all I like the sound of rain playing on the roof at night about the time I am dropping off to sleep.”

At many points in the book, the folksy power of Rowland’s prose matches up perfectly with thegeese over marsh quiet gracefulness of Kane’s illustration of the moment being described:

I knew it wouldn’t be long after the ice went out until the geese would be coming over. And sure enough, I heard them! The night was still and clear, the stars were sparkling like splintered crystal, and the cool white moon was loafing high over Snow Goose Lake when it came – lucy reads lake countrythat wonderful sound all men of the woods wait for every year – the hoarse honking of the big gray Canada geese. In clear weather they often fly right through the night and just hearing them does me a world of good. You can be sure there was a wise old gander at the point of that great flight wedge leading them on to the lonely salt marshes that stretch along the low shores of James Bay.

John Rowlands was of course entirely right: most people who’ve travelled lake and stream and wood have a place like Cache Lake held somewhere warm and energizing in their memories. Not many such people manage to make magic of their treasured getaway open and visible to everybody, but both Wyman Richardson and John Rowlands – both with enormous help from Henry Kane – managed to do it, and we’re all in their debt for it.

July 22nd, 2015

Romance Roundup: July 2015!

romance roundup

When it comes to genre fiction, could there be any words more encouraging than “First in a New Series”? Mysteries, sci-fi, and especially fantasy and romance tend to favor books-in-series to an absolutely exorbitant extent, to the point where by the time you happen to run across a series that might want to read, you immediately find out that it’s #126 in a tightly-woven sequence. And Crom pity you if you try to read it anyway! You stumble through unreferenced proper names for thirty pages until a character blurts out “asparagus!” and while all the series’ long-time fans are rejoicing in this shout-out to a pivotal event in book #87, you quietly slink off, defeated (perhaps to the many wonderful titles in the always-reliable Harlequin monthly lines, all of which are stand-alone stories designed to beguile an idle hour). So encountering, for instance, a new romance novel that proudly proclaims itself “First in a New Series” can be quite refreshing.

I encountered no less than three such novels in my latest Romance Roundup:

desperadoDesperado by Lisa Bingham – this novel is the first in the “Taggart Brothers” series revolving around, you guessed it, the three Taggart brothers of Bliss, Utah, three handsome wranglers who, true to form in almost all romance novels involving brothers, don’t actually act like brothers at all (one suspects that in just this one instance, the fact that the authors of these novels are always women works against them – the brothers in almost all romance novels act more like rival businessmen in a cutthroat corporation than they do like brothers, and who knows? Maybe that’s how it looks to people who might have the strongest imaginations in the world but have never actually been a brother). The focus-brother of this first book is brooding, wounded Elam Taggart, but the real star of the book is our feisty heroine, who’s introduced straight off:

P. D. Raines had learned early in life that she couldn’t give up, couldn’t give in – even though it sometimes felt as if the world was out to get her. Take her name, for instance. The moment P. D announced she was Prairie Dawn Raines, it was a foregone conclusion that strangers would assume she was a stripper or a fanatical, tree-hugging activist. Even worse, with such a fanciful name, they assumed she didn’t have a brain in her head – and she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Time and time again, she’d been told she would never amount to anything.

Even from such a thin slice of the opening, it’s clear that Desperado is going to be fairly heavy sledding for a romance novel (and that’s not even factoring in all the tragic stuff that’s happened to poor Elam before we even meet him). The “Taggart Brothers” series will be about seriously wounded hearts doing some serious mending, and although Bingham handles this first installment with a fair degree of intelligence, this degree of somber might not be what all romance readers are looking for in the middle of their summer reading. Fortunately, if that’s the case, another “First in a New Series” is right to hand promising less heartache and more alcohol intake:

The Best Medicine by Elizabeth Hayley – This first book stars master’s level psychology the best medicinestudent Lauren Hastings, who hits a bad turn in life and retreats to a job at Trinity Hospital in her home state of Virginia, where she falls in love with super-hottie doctor Scott Jacobs, although when we first meet her, she’s crammed into a noisy bar with her closest friends:

“If one more douche bag bets handsy with me tonight, I’m going to go ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ on his ass,” Lauren yelled over the blaring techno and raucous crowd.

“Tell me about it,” Simone argreed. “I haven’t been groped this unappealingly since I was in the back of Todd Grady’s care in eleventh grade.”

“Doesn’t he go by ‘Tina’ now?” Cassidy asked.

Simone widened her eyes and slowly nodded her head. The girls instantly broke out in hysterics.

Lauren relished these nights with her girlfriends – casually drinking in Mickey’s Bar and Grill and flouncing around the dance floor like deranged Riverdance rejects. The four of them – Lauren, Simone, Cassidy, and Quinn – had been the Fantastic Foursome since middle school, though Lauren had known Quinn since kindergarten, when she’d dragged Quinn out of the lunch line so they could go ouside for recess early. They’d been friends ever since.

Hayley offers no acoustic advice on how to make things like “I haven’t been groped this unappealingly” intelligible while yelling, and such reserve is typical of the whole novel, which is entirely lighter on the attention-span than Desperado. We watch a temporary disgrace overtake Hayley, we watch her friends rally to her side (as she’ll no doubt rally to theirs, in upcoming novels), and we watch dreamy Doctor Scott loom larger and larger in her, um, affections. But if even that light dusting of meaningful redemption is still a bit too heavy for a sun-addled reader, well, this Romance Roundup aims to please everybody! Our third and final book today is pretty much pure escapism:

just a summer flingJust a Summer Fling by Cate Cameron – Welcome to Lake Sullivan, Vermont (the geographic spread of these three novels was pure coincidence, by the way – clearly, everybody has a different idea of what constitutes a “dream getaway”), where burnt-out movie star Ashley Carlsen, on vacation and being urged by “Hollywood power player” Jasmine McArthur to forget her troubles by having a mindless fling with a local super-hottie, encounters strapping local handyman Josh Sullivan – after the apparently-requisite opening lucy and modern lovescene of drunken excess:

Ashley Carlsen was drunk. She’d been drinking at the lake house all afternoon, and then they’d piled into the car and been driven to town where they’d found more delicious alcohol, and now? Drunk. It wasn’t unheard of for Ashley to have a few drinks too many when she was at home with her friends. But she’d never been so reckless as to lose control of herself out in a public place. She had an image to cultivate and maintain. Now that she’d dared to cut loose, though? She thought maybe she liked it.

But young Josh is a bit tired of being treated as eye-candy by bored women looking for a quick buffeting of the wainscoting – he’s a person, dammit, with feelings and self-respect! And just once he’d like to meet a woman who sees past his butt-clinging jeans and washboard abs … but will Ashley be such a woman? Readers are in at the ground floor for finding out.

July 19th, 2015

Critical Venting in the Penny Press!


As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have lrbsometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).

My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.

One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?

I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:

I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.

Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court fortunes of francis barberjudge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”

And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.

And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:

What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.

franco's cryptAnd then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)

You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:

I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.

“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.

July 15th, 2015

Disasters Big and Small in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

vf channing tatumThe Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.

I refer, of course, to corgis.

Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.

Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.

Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this queen's corgisparticular owner:

The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”

One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:

“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”

To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.

One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.

jj sempe under the same hatJust this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.

Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.

July 10th, 2015

Summer – kinda – reading in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

weekly standard summer reading15The always-delightful “Summer Reading” issue of The Weekly Standard came out recently (with its typically witty cover, only this one, unlike all the earlier classics of its kind, worries that its central joke will be missed by the general readership – so the punch line, “The Turn of the Screw,” is actually spelled out, just in case), full of book reviews. As usual in such issues, the books involved aren’t particularly “summery” in any way (and unlike the great such issue currently on display here at Open Letters Monthly, there isn’t even any theme in The Weekly Standard‘s round-up), but it’s still a wonderful variety, including Amy Henderson reviewing The Algonquin Round Table New York by Kevin Fitzpatrick, Daniel Heitman reviewing The Prince of Minor Writers, a collection of Max Beerbohm’s writings, edited by Phillip Lopate, and Stephen Smith reviewing Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon, about the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry in Wellington’s army (a book so ably reviewed by OLM freelancer Matt Ray here).

For me, the highlight of the issue was Dominic Green reviewing Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (which I reviewed here) and tossing off some choice zingers. “Only Churchill can coin a phrase, especially when Gibbon and Macaulay have coined it first,” he writes, for instance, and alas, our well-intentioned author doesn’t escape unscathed: “Deborah Cadbury comes from another beloved British dynasty, the Cadbury chocolate maker. Her prose is higher in calories than nutrients, and its velvety smoothness has a honeycomb center of cliché.”

And over in the TLS, there’s a plaintive letter from a dreamer named Christopher Denton, calling forlornly (and in excellent prose) for the return of sanity to modern poetry – and the poetry of the New Yorker in particular:

It would be refreshing if we could have poetry once in a while that makes sense, which contains at least a modicum of rhythm, which eschews narcissism, honours nature as well as humour, elucidates politics and philosophy, presents and element of form which actually differs from prose, avoids profanity at all costs, declines the use of idioms except in dialogue, and respects the language and the reader.

In the same issue, Trev Broughton reviews two George Eliot pastiche novels, Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen and Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl, both trying some kind of re-imagining of Daniel Deronda. At Open Letters, we’re lucky enough to have the tlsservices of our very own Victorianist, Rohan Maitzen, who, among other things, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the works of George Eliot – and who wasn’t all that impressed with Souhami’s book, as you can see here. I thought Broughton’s piece was very good, especially his own glimpses at what might have been:

These two books share a desire common since Eliot’s earliest readers exchanged notes, to spring the spirited Gwendolen Harleth from Eliot’s final novel: to salvage her story from its wordy, worthy Zionist co-plot, and to save her from the most unerotic of erotic triangles between the priggish Daniel and the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt.

Of course, neither Gwendolen nor Sophie and the Sibyl nor Daniel Deronda itself are what most people (pace Professor Maitzen) would consider “summer” books, but I guess not everybody can have Jackie Collins right there on their nightstand.

July 6th, 2015

Obiter Dicta!

obiter dictaOur book today is an amplified edition of Obiter Dicta, which English politician Augustine Birrell first published in 1885 but had occasion to re-issue a couple of times between 1885 and 1890. The book is a collection of some of the literary pieces Birrell was always working on while also serving in various governments at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Birrell worked on these pieces in part because he was genuinely bookish but also because such things were expected of Victorian statesmen, who weren’t expected to be joyless grinds who go from official post to official post, constantly running for office, then retiring, having a vague and defensive memoir ghost-written, then dying. Instead, good form consisted of at least some pretense of an actual intellectual life.

In Birrell’s case, it was passion rather than social expectation: he was a thorough bookworm, and his essays collected in Obiter Dicta sparkle with his wit and wide-ranging curiosity (“In order to enjoy the pleasure of reading your own books over and over again,” he quips at one point, “it is essential that they should be written either wholly or in part by somebody else”). He writes wonderful long essays about Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Pope, and others, always sharp in his opinions, almost always illuminating even in his quick rants:

Burke was no prating optimist: it was his very knowledge how much could be said against society that quickened his fears for it. There is no shallower criticism than that which accuses Burke in his later years of apostasy from so-called Liberal opinions. Burke was all his life though a passionate maintainer of the established order of things, and a ferocious hater of abstractions and metaphysical politics. The same ideas that explode like bombs through his diatribes against the French Revolution are to be found shining with mild effulgence in the comparative calm of his earlier writings.

He also writes about broader subjects – “The Muse of History,” “The Office of Literature,” and a splendid discussion called “Book-Buying” in which he mentions that his long-time friend and enemy William Gladstone was often heard to grumble about how far fewer bookstores there were in the present than there were in his youth – and then launches into another little rant, one thatlucy impresses obiter dicta will ruffle the feathers of both most living authors and all living Barnes & Noble employees:

Mr. Gladstone was, of course, referring to second-hand bookshops. Nether he nor any othe sensible man puts himself out about new books. When a new book is published, read an old one, was the advice of a sound though surly critic. It is one of the boasts of letters to have glorified the term ‘second-hand,’ which other crafts have ‘soiled to all ignoble use.’ But why it has been able to do this is obvious. All the best books are necessarily second-hand.

Birrell’s personal life was at times very hard, and reading these essays it’s easy to see what a haven literature and the reading life were to him. Every chapter of this book glows with the quiet smile of a man retreating to his study. And smiles like that are contagious, even a century later.

July 5th, 2015

Wonder in Pakistan in the Penny Press!


heraldI’m one of many periodical readers, I suspect, who read Usman Malik’s superb mini-essay “Rockets, Robots, and Reckless Imagination” in The Herald magazine out of Pakistan; the piece has been linked and shared liberally since it appeared a couple of days ago, and deservedly so. In a little over 2000 words, Malik manages to write a piece that’s equal parts manifesto, celebration, and slightly agonized cry from the heart.

On one level, his subject what he perceives as the brain-dead pedagogy of his native Pakistan, its schools and teachers lacking imagination. But, wonderfully, he expands this to embrace the genre of imagination: science fiction (stipulating that by this term he means to include all branches of speculative literature or fantastika). He concedes (just a touch too glancingly, but still) that “mimetic” fiction, the stuff of realism and the like, has its purposes and joys, but for him, science fiction opens doors to wonder that are closed to all other genres:

Mimetic or realist literature has its own uses, but mimetic fiction doesn’t always explore alternative ways of living, learning and growing as individuals or peoples. It doesn’t necessarily evoke a sense of awe that could take us back to an age of innocence when the stars were a million hot eyes in the sky, the moon a silver sickle dangling from God’s Hand and the world a place filled with mystery.

For me, the most interesting part of his essay wasn’t the obvious fact that he himself has had his mind “lit up with revelation” after reading works of science fiction – in ways that no other genre quite does – but rather his call for a greater incorporation of the literature of science fiction into the various reading lists of the Pakistani educational system. Reading along in complete agreement with him, I was struck by the wonderfully bizarre company of names he invokes:

Writers like Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, M A Rahat, Ray Bradbury, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Vandana Singh, Samuel R Delany, Mazhar Kaleem, A Hameed, and Anil Menon should be discussed and celebrated alongside Hemingway, Mohsin Hamid, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Bapsi Sidhwa and other (predominantly) realist writers.

I’m sure I won’t be the only person to read that roster and immediately think: Hemingway? Is Hemingway that big in Pakistan?

But mainly I was nodding enthusiastically, because I’ve felt that key core of wonder that Malik usmandescribes. I’ve felt the particularly strong wavelength of that wonder that emanates only from the world of science fiction, that feeling of having the boundaries of your imagination abruptly stretched and redefined. I’ve experienced it with works ranging from A Princess of Mars to Dune to A Million Open Doors – indeed, it’s what keeps me coming back to speculative fiction. I’ve been reading a larger than average amount of science fiction and fantasy so far this summer, and a dozen times since April (when Boston still had ten feet of snow on the ground, so I guess it only technically counts as anything close to summer), I’ve found myself wondering a question very near to Malik’s: why isn’t this stuff taught more often in schools, especially high schools where kindling the wonder of reading is more difficult and more important than ever?

So hats off to Usman Malik! Here’s hoping lots of teachers – in Pakistan and well beyond – were paying attention.

July 4th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Common Sense!


penguin common senseSome Penguin Classics have perfect timing. Not many, as you’d expect, since the line deals primarily in works of literature that are specifically timeless – but in some cases, the when can mean a lot even alongside the what, and today is one of those case: a pretty new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Paine’s quite literally revolutionary 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” here reprinted with the first installment of Paine’s “American Crisis” pamphlets, the whole thing edited and introduced by Revolutionary War historian Richard Beeman (whose 2013 book Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor was a lively retelling of the saga of American Independence), who rightly reminds us that “the publication of Common Sense would wholly change the debate over America’s relationship with England and with England’s vaunted ‘constitution.’”

The pamphlet spread through the colonies faster than dysentery; the first edition of Common Sense appeared right at the beginning of 1776, and within weeks, it seemed, every colonist was chattering about it, debating it, hashing choice quotes from it back and forth with increasing fervor. Beeman is far from the first to contend that this little booklet was as effective at stirring colonial hearts to rebellion as were any of the more overt physical provocations of the Sons of Liberty, and the contention might just be correct; a man haranguing you in a tavern can be agreed with and then forgotten, but a booklet enters the mind of its readers, where it can stay and work and replicate.

And the pamphlet’s success was of course entirely born of Paine’s ability to write gripping exhortatory prose at white-hot speed. His key device is to make everything immediately personal to his readers (and hearers – this text was much-declaimed in town squares), whether it be his ridicule of the idea that a small island could have pretensions to rule a sprawling continent, or his lampooning of the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, or his hard, squinting look at the various stances colonists took to his incendiary subject:

Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.

Re-reading Common Sense is always electrifying, not least because Paine is so uncannily prescient about so many things (although not about everything; is there an American today, for instance, who doesn’t wince a little at the line, “But the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the lucy and tom painecontinent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars”?). And while I might quibble with Penguin’s decision to include so little of Paine’s writings in this slim volume (adding the rest of The American Crisis would have killed them?), there’s no arguing with how well the skimpy size of the volume cannily echoes the slight, passed-hand-to-hand nature of the original.

I’m hoping there are at least a few copies of Common Sense in the pockets of the many thousands of spectators who’ll gather on Boston’s Charles River this evening to watch the 4th of July fireworks. The pamphlet was an atom bomb in the Patriot arsenal – it would be nice if reading it were a small part of basking in the independence it did so much to bring about.