Posts from August 2006

August 31st, 2006

Books! Stoopid Sci-Fi!



You know, the main enemies of science fiction aren’t the genre-snobs who think it starts and stops with Philip K. Dick (or that Margaret Atwood has ever written a word of it).

The real enemies of science fiction are the writers of it who’ve bought into the mainstream idea that genre readers are a little dim.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s dumb genre writing. As if genre fiction doesn’t have enough handicaps to getting any respect in the literary world.

Mainstream fiction is another matter altogether. It’s already accepted, so it doesn’t need to prove itself. James Patterson’s novels are pitched – intentionally or otherwise – at about a seventh grade level of literacy, and they sell millions of copies each, regular as clockwork. Every single one of Earth’s 10.3 billion inhabitants has read The DaVinci Code, and it was so dumb the movie version was an IMPROVEMENT.

Mainstream fiction is so complacent in its stupidity that writers who are at best mediocre are lauded as its literary lions (I’m guessing most of you could append my usual list here). Margaret Drabble’s latest indescribably dull novel goes on the best-seller list. Gilbert Sorrentino barely merits a one-paragraph obituary in the Dogwood Dispatch.

Science fiction has the potential to be the most relevant, the most challenging of all the genres. Exotic, killer diseases, staggering sights beamed to Earth from far-voyaging probes, the unlocking of the genome, the miniaturization and saturation of computers … these developments aren’t coming once every fifty or hundred years, like with Darwin and Mendel. Science fiction is happening in every morning’s newscast (and not just in the technologically developed West – the meanest sub-Saharan village will be cast into turmoil right alongside London and Cairo by the destruction of the environment or the spread of mutated super-diseases).

So it’s all the more frustrating that I recently read two stupid science fiction novels.

Not just stupid novels – although they were, good Gawd they were – but novels that ASSUMED stupidity on the part of their readers.

That assumption might help to sell more books, but it’s certainly NOT something science fiction should learn from James Patterson.

This isn’t to say that dumb science fiction can’t be enjoyable (dumb pretty much anything can be enjoyable, although some things – like newscasts or commentary ‘discussion’ shows – nonetheless should never, ever be dumb).

No, the problem is that the two science fiction books I read recently have two distinct but equally compelling reasons NOT to be stupid, and yet stupid they are, stupid, stupid, stupid. Which is frustrating.

The first of the two books is titled … well, I have no idea WHAT it’s titled. The front cover (which, traditionally, gives the reader a clue or two as to the title of what they’re reading) has two possible candidates, but I see no instinctive way to pick between them: either Crucible: McCoy or Provenance of Shadows. (I’m hoping it’s the former, since the latter sucks like hard vacuum)

I can HEAR you rolling your eyes from here! Let me quote you: “A STAR TREK novel? Well OF COURSE that’s going to be dumb! What did you expect?” Close enough?

That’s this book’s compelling reason NOT to be stupid. Because even genre fiction has its ghettos, and although ‘Star Trek’ ranks higher than ‘Star Wars’ (which ranks higher than ‘Dragonquest,’ which ranks higher than ‘Warhammer’), it definitely constitutes a ghetto.

I stand for the ghetto. The entire ‘Star Trek’ phenomenon has attracted a tribble-trove of howling nutjobs over its forty year existence, it’s true. But it’s also attracted a whole lot of really smart, really passionate people, and: it’s produced some really good books.

David George’s “Crucible McCoy Provenance of Shadows” sure as Hell ain’t one of them.

Good novels, really. It’s a shame so many of you will never believe that, but it’s understandable. For every Federation or Ship of the Line or Strangers from the Sky, there’ll be books like this one, confirming every prejudice you have.

That doesn’t mean I don’t hate each such book with undimmed energy, as they come down the pike.

George takes as the fulcrum of his storyline (‘plot’ would be WAY too complimentary) the great ‘classic’ Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which, as many of you will not need reminding, a drug-addled McCoy goes back in time to 1930s Earth and Kirk & Spock go after him.

McCoy alters the timeline by saving the life of Edith Keeler, and Kirk & Spock restore it by preventing him from doing that.

Only NOT! Turns out the timeline in which McCoy saves Edith Keeler and changes Earth history happened after all, spooling out in mind-numbingly tedious daily detail in which McCoy is never rescued by his friends and never returns to the 23rd Century.

The separate timeline – in which Kirk & Spock rescue McCoy – turns out not to have erased the other one at all. They go on right next to each other, and the saved McCoy feels connected somehow to the unsaved one throughout his life.

That’s really it. The saved McCoy doesn’t somehow save the unsaved McCoy. And the unsaved McCoy doesn’t somehow save the future. Nope. They both just live out their lives.

As was, I imagine, his goal, George takes us through most of the McCoy ‘highlights’ on the original series, the movies, and the character’s brief cameo in the premiere of ‘The Next Generation.’

Balancing this, we also get the life & times of the unsaved McCoy, who finds himself in the 20th Century with no ID and no background.

I guess I should point out, in case any of you missed it, that this premise a) makes no friggin sense whatsoever and b) could have made an absolutely RIVETING parallel-lives novel anyway, in the hand of a good writer.

The A part is obvious to anybody who’s actually SEEN ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’ For those of you who might need your memory’s refreshed (or who’ll CLAIM you do – stand up and take a bow, Harlan!), allow me to walk you down memory lane:

Kirk & Spock follow their ailing comrade into the past. They meet Edith Keeler (there’s that sublime scene in the basement, where she needs only a second to intuit that where Spock belongs is “at your side, like he always has been and always will be”), and Kirk falls in love with her.

(Decades of fan fiction have asserted that Edith Keeler is the great love of Kirk’s life – something George seems to agree with, and maybe something that will salvage his upcoming Kirk novel)

Kirk is escorting Edith to the movies when she makes incidental mention of McCoy, that he’s living back in the Mission they’ve just left. Kirk, electrified by the news, turns immediately to go back and find his friend. He sternly tells Edith to stay right where she is (Shatner’s very good, showing a Kirk a little desperate to hold on to everything, old and new).

Just as Kirk is reaching the Mission’s front doors, McCoy comes out – the friends have found each other! The rescue is a success!

Edith, seeing this joyful reunion, naturally walks toward it, intrigued. She doesn’t notice the truck bearing down on her until it’s too late. McCoy tries to save her, but Kirk, mindful of restoring the timeline, stops him. Edith is struck and killed.

In other words, McCoy CAN’T FAIL to save her unless he’s ALREADY BEEN saved himself. The one follows the other. So there can’t be any alternate timeline in which he grows old in the past. Either he grows old in the future, or he grows old in the past WITH Kirk and Spock (assuming here that the restoration of the timeline is what prompts the Guardian of Forever to return them to their present … the story is a little vague on that point, with all due respect to its author!).

Still, I would have been willing to swallow a plot inconsistency of that size if the storytelling had been up to the task. Even Homer makes plot gaffes (a free book to the first of you loyal readers to give me an example! And again, don’t send it to me privately! Share it with your legion of fellow Stevereads acolytes!)

But the storytelling is dumb. George is a leaden, endlessly repetitive writer who fundamentally distrusts his readers to pay attention for more than a page or two. PARAGRAPHS of exposition are repeated with only minimal variation EVERY SINGLE TIME their object is mentioned. It becomes mind-deadeningly dull.

And he’s so self-conscious of writing intentionally ‘canonical’ Star Trek novels that you can virtually HEAR him flipping pages in the ‘Star Trek Encyclopedia’ every time he even so much as mentions a character.

The most ludicrous example of this? At one point, while he’s performing the minor miracle of making a Federation/Klingon starship battle DULL, he contorts the action into balloon-animal shapes because of one tiny little line of dialogue. One of the Klingon ships the Enterprise is facing is commanded by Captain Koloth, and damn if George doesn’t feel BEHOLDEN to Jadzia Dax’s comment (a free book to the first person to tell me where!) that Koloth never faced Kirk in battle! Guess being AT the same battle on opposite sides but never actually exchanging phaser-fire honors that restriction!

This is EXACTLY the kind of crap that causes even science fiction fans to roll their eyes at ‘Star Trek’ novels. Continuity over drama. Fanboys over readers.

And it doesn’t help any that his characterizations are unfailingly wooden. One excrutiating example should suffice. Spock suggests to McCoy that Kirk is hiding from his grief over Edith Keeler. And McCoy replies:

“I wasn’t aware of what transpired between Jim and Edith Keeler. But do you really think his refusal to really deal with his loss is impacting the captain’s ability to command?”

To paraphrase a wonderful bit of snark, that’s prose written on a computer BY a computer. It would sound stupidly formal and verbose even put in a Vulcan’s mouth – does any ‘Star Trek’ reader (aside, I guess, from George) for a moment picture McCoy sounding like that?

I’m sure all this venting is mostly wasted effort. Most of you wouldn’t read a ‘Star Trek’ novel with a phaser pointed at your head (although I know at least three of you, like myself, have lots of fond memories of earlier ones that were actually good).

My frustration comes from the fact that stupid novels like this – where distrust of the audience’s intelligence is the bedrock starting point – not only betray the intelligences that created ‘Star Trek’ in the first place but also make it that much harder for ANYBODY to take these novels seriously.

The exact same state of affairs pertains to the ‘new’ “Dune” novel, Hunters of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson. The same state of affairs: stupid writing, pitched to coddle stupid readers.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the five greatest science fiction novels of all time. It’s a crowning example of how smart, sharp, and moving the genre’s fiction can be. It’s a magnificent reading experience, and I’m of the opinion (not shared by all of you, I know) that all of Herbert’s subsequent “Dune” novels are almost equally great (God Emperor is my personal favorite).

One of the fundamental REASONS they’re great is because Herbert always assumes his readers are as intelligent as he is (since his intellect was up in Elmo’s slightly-creepy range, this isn’t always the case, and some of most delicious sensations in Dune come from the reader scrambling to KEEP UP).

Herbert’s son, who for some reason seems to think his filial devotion is best demonstrated by exhuming his father’s literary corpse every year and sodomizing it for all the world to see, holds just the opposite view. He assumes his readers are video-addled pre-adolescent boys, and he writes accordingly.

How many travesties has it been? Five? Six? But bad as they’ve been, they haven’t been as bad as they COULD be. One thing prevented it: none of them were explicitly SEQUELS.

Brian’s writing a thick, laborious version of the Butlerian Jihad? Well, that’s appalling of course, but hey – Frank never wrote about it. Brian’s free to envision it any way he likes, I guess. And I’m free not to pay that much attention. Even with the “House Atriedes” trilogy of prequels, it was just barely possible to convince yourself that it didn’t ‘really’ concern Dune at all.

Hunters of Dune takes that all away. Its plot – and its HUGE marketing campaign – entirely DEPEND on it being the sequel to Frank Herbert’s final Dune novel, Chapterhouse: Dune. It picks up exactly where that book ends.

The marketing campaign – and Brian’s self-serving preface – assert repeatedly that the ending of Chapterhouse is a cliff-hanger that’s gone unresolved for twenty years. Brian hauls out that oldest of fraud-chestnuts – the lost manuscript locked in a bottom desk drawer (how many such drawers has Hemingway had so far? Four?), and tries to cloak his ‘sequel’ in legitimacy by claiming it’s just the fulfillment of a book Frank meant to write.

I read and loved Chapterhouse back in 1985, and I’ve re-read it several times since (Herbert’s books REALLY repay re-reading, in a way even those of his smart contemporaries often don’t). At no point did I feel I was reading a cliff-hangingly incomplete novel. Nor do I believe Herbert thought he was writing one (writing a book that was not an aesthetic whole would have been anathema to him, as his son should bloody well know).

The scene at the close of Chapterhouse is tense and precarious, yes, but by no means incomplete. The savage Honored Matres – in the person of their Bene Gesserit-trained new leader Murbella – have reached a fragile, suspicious accord with the Sisterhood. True, some dissenters have stolen a spaceship and disappeared out into the Scattering beyond the Empire, but Murbella is still holding her tentative alliance together, and there’s a note of hope for the future.

The book ends on this note, followed, as all readers of the book know, by a heart-breaking tribute from Herbert to his late wife. This personal coda actually informs the novel, which is populated with one of the richest and most varied cast of female characters in all of fiction, let alone science fiction.

It’s spare and unapolgetically intelligent: in life, there are no pat and simple conclusions – we adapt as best we can and move forward with what tools we have, always true to our larger purpose (it’s obvious from his tribute that Herbert’s wife both embodied this philosophy and served as its inspiration)(in other words, what the fuck is wrong with a son who thinks it’s a good idea to screw with that kind of end-note?)

Herbert’s novel, like George’s, is lumpy and endlessly repetitive – as one reader pointed out, just how many frickin times do we need to be told what ‘the spice melange’ is?

At every turn, characters are re-introduced and their comments carefully explained. The action – such as it is – is done so poorly it sometimes takes you a couple of pages to realize that anything has happened at all. On every page, Frank Herbert’s literary legacy is despoiled, by the only person on Earth with the legal ability to do so.

It’s extremely depressing to think this is just going to keep happening (as that same reader lamented, “Can’t we just PAY him to stop writing?”), but the book’s opening clarion call, “the saga of Dune is far from over!” makes it pretty clear the son is going to go right on doing this to his father’s creation.

My solution, and my recommendation to all of you? Go back and read the real “Dune” books again. You’ll find gems buried in them you missed before, no matter how many times you’ve read them.

And of course if you HAVEN’T read them, you should ignore Hunters of Dune and do so at once. They’ll amply show you what SMART science fiction can be like.

August 30th, 2006

In the Penny Press! the TLS!




This week’s issue of the mighty TLS is a double issue, which immediately prompts the wintry knowledge that there’ll be no TLS NEXT week. But at least for now, we can dig in and feast!

Ah, the TLS! The smartest, meatiest literary publication on Earth (Stevereads yields the honor!) – and yet, as enjoyable as it always is, it has its prejudices … like a beloved grandparent whose well-worn anecdotes sometimes feature ‘japs’ or ‘kikes.’ The discordant notes cause a bit of an internal wince, but they don’t kill the affection.

And so it is with Adam Kuper’s review of the University of Illinois’ Killing Animals in this current issue. The TLS’ house line regarding books about what could sloppily be termed ‘animal rights’ can be summed up as bemusedly Tory: the people who write such books are obviously a little dotty, but they aren’t doing anybody any harm, so we might as well pat them on the head from time to time with a review or two.

These are the only occasions when the TLS makes me sigh.

Kuper treats this anthology of animal rights essays with the strained toleration of a parent for a slightly wayward child, and you can tell right from the start that his condescension will cause him to mis-state and oversimplify everything in the book. You know going into the review that you won’t be reading a fair review of the book under consideration, but you read it anyway – hoping, I guess.

But there’s no hope here. The review is full of snide parenthetical asides (one hopes the book’s editors won’t stoop to respond) and mandarin deplorings of touchy-feely enthusiasms gone too far. This ought to suffice as an example, though it’s distasteful to quote so much of it:

Clare Palmer’s essay on the killing of cats and dogs in animal shelters is somewhat out of place here, since her facts are relevant to the United States. Palmer tells us that pets in America are kept for an average of only two years (does this include goldfish?), and gently mocks a new politically correct vocabulary in which pets are referred to as companion animals, while owners are termed guardians. On average, six out of ten stray dogs and eight out of ten stray cats are killed in animal shelters in the US because they are difficult or cannot be placed with new owners. But what is to be done with the stream of animals that are brought to these shelters? As Palmer herself asks, are we supposed to fund an animal welfare state? While she advocates a programme of education for companion animal guardians, it may be that sex educations for pets will be required.

… at which point, everyone at the squire’s table burbled over with laughter … and then Mimsy mentioned something about flower-children over in Pennington-by-the-Marsh …

Ecch.

There’s no end of things wrong with that passage, but note for instance how the reader is invited to read ‘because they are difficult AND cannot be placed with new owners” … the not-so-subtle BLAMING of the glut in animal shelters on the animals themselves, who, if they tried a little harder, might be less ‘difficult.’

And that oh-so-clever little bit of mockery about sex education for pets – which manages not only to mock the idea of sex education for HUMANS but also to willfully ignore the possibility that human ‘guardians’ might take responsibility for the problem. Gawd forbid.

The review of course quotes Dr. Johnson (the calm-tide safe haven for all idiot quote-hunters): “There is much talk of the misery which we cause to the brute creation, but they are recompensed by existence. If they were not useful to man, and therefore protected by him, they would not be nearly so numerous.”

To which Kuper adds: “Should everyone adopt the Jewish and Muslim taboo on eating pigs, there would soon be only a handful of pigs in existence, and they would be in zoos.”

Spoken, it need hardly be pointed out, like a human. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that those few pigs wandering around in future zoos – fed every day, washed every week, able to cavort for the cameras of paying customers, wouldn’t MIND being the only pigs left on Earth, if the alternative were to live their entire lives in a pen the size of a mailbox, unable to turn around, pumped full of steroids, skin burned off their hind legs by the urine they can’t avoid spraying on themselves, never seeing or touching another pig (or another living being) – at least until the last four hours of their lives, where those behind get to hear those in front screaming while they’re being slaughtered.

But at least they’re ALIVE …

Luckily, the rest of the issue isn’t nearly so bad, although there are dim spots elsewhere as well.

Take, for instance, John Taylor Bonner’s review of two massive Darwin compendiums, From So Simple a Beginning and The Indelible Stamp.

Bonner writes that Darwin’s theory of natural selection met with mixed responses even among biologists of the time: “There was a strong feeling, not always openly expressed, that despite the obvious common sense of natural selection, there must be something else … the fact that evolution went from simple to complex made it seem that there was something more than directionless natural selection.”

He goes on:

What I find fascinating is that this is no more of a scientific explanation than saying it was ordained by God. In both cases there is a mystical force that is beyond the reach of science. It is a quirk of the human mind: there are some things, such as the intricate marvels of evolution, that need more than a bare Darwinian explanation. Natural selection is too simple a principle to account for the vastness of organic evolution. We think today that the current advocates of William Paley’s intelligent design err in confusing science and religion, but some biologists over the years, and maybe even now, commit the same sin.

Bonner claims to be a scientist himself, so he ought to know better than to say so glibly that evolution goes from simple to complex. I’m sure my young friend Elmo would leap to the same example that occurred to me: the three-toed tree-sloth. Today, after millions of years of evolution, it a) can barely see, b) can barely move, and c) can only live on one kind of leaf from one kind of tree. Things don’t get any simpler than that. Judging from tree sloth dental developement, its evolutionary ancestors were wild and crazy guys. In this case – as in so many cases (they’re virtually innumerable in the insect kingdom) – natural selection worked from complex to simple, in order to exploit a very specific niche.

And of course Bonner is right to chide present-day evolutionary biologists who’ve lost sight of the fact that evolution by natural selection is an entirely BLIND process. Or rather, purblind – it addresses any organism’s immediate needs, often (in fact, in the overall track-record of life on Earth) with fatal long-term results. Almost nothing is dinosaur-and-meteor. Almost everything is evolution-and-dead end.

Actually, looking over our table of contents, I’m forced to realize that quite a few reviewers this time around irked the daylights out of me. Take John Ray’s review of Rescuing the Past, a book about the whole question of whether or not countries can demand back their great works of art currently housed elsewhere. I’m glad Ray is an amusing writer, but he’s still as irritating as a late-night drunken phone call:

One of my favorite paintings is the view by Monet of Antibes which is now in the galleries of the Courtland Institute in Somerset House. I would like the original, and would try my best to dust it regularly. It may be that if I hire some teams of private investigators, and then sex up a dossier or two, I can demonstrate publicly, or at any rate to myself, that there are academics in the world of London art-history whose ethical lives sometimes fall short of that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I think I can see the pine tree in the middle of the painting hanging its branches in dejection, waiting to be rescued from all the mediocrity and sleaze. Clearly Monet’s work of beauty would be better off in a purer environment, namely on the walls of somebody like me. In practice this will not happen, but what if I had the money and political influence to seriously challenge ownership of works of art on moral grounds which just happen to benefit me?

He goes on (and hence, so do I, ya attention-deficited little twerps …):

Suppose I find a toddler clutching a teddy bear. I recognize the bear as one of an extremely rare transitional design, which perfectly fills the remaining gap in my collection. Intellectually, I can make sense of that bear in a way that the toddler cannot. Obviously my claim to ownership of the toy is superior, because I am a philosopher of these things. Can we demand that he sell it to me, on the grounds that he does not know what he is carrying, and the bear does not deserve such a fate?

Ray, obviously, comes down squarely against the idea that there can ever be a superior RIGHT to ownership – while deploring the author’s insinuation that artworks’ home countries are rude, undeveloped places, Ray unconsciously AGREES with the author by representing such countries as a child with a teddy bear. The upshot of his analogy goes something like this: OK, I accept that the child doesn’t understand the significance – or even, on most levels, the beauty (and, by implication, the fragility) of what he’s got … but nevertheless! It’s HIS, and we can’t up and take it from him under any circumstances, even if it means we have to stand by and watch him rip it to shreds.

To which I say: horsepoop.

The world’s great works of art belong to the world. If the country wherein they just so happen to originate can’t PRESERVE them (and failure here is exceedingly easy to determine: you turn your head, open your eyes, and LOOK at the fucking thing), they forfeit the right to KEEP them. Any other viewpoint – especially if it involves the words ‘cultural imperialism” – is just nonsense. What, there’s supposed to be some kind of VIRTUE in watching a masterpiece disintegrate?

Nope, Ray is wrong. Screw the little kid – snatch that teddy bear away!

But look! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel! The only other irritating thing in this TLS is a review of Roger Scruton’s new memoir Gentle Regrets by A.N.Wilson.

I’m sorry – did I call it a review? I meant something closer to a sweaty, urgent, yearning hand-job. Words can be so funny, huh?

I honestly don’t know what would possess the ordinarily-astute Wilson to go on at such enormous length so fulsomely praising such a monumental boob as Scruton. I assume there were Polaroids in Scruton’s possession, and I assume they’ve now been destroyed.

Audiences were “awestruck” by his opera ‘Violet’? Iris Murdoch “especially admired” his novel “Fortnight’s Anger”? Scruton is “much better than Bertrand Russell at summarizing other philosophers’ viewpoints”? “Professor Scruton draws a portrait of that most fascinating of beings, himself”?

What the Hell did Wilson DO, anyway? Even sheep-shagging wouldn’t account for this kind of genuflection. The world may never know.

Ah, but other authors bring joy! Ruth Scurr turns in a delightful review of the diary of John Evelyn, a book you should all read (although not before you read Pepys!).

There are excellent pieces on Christopher Marlowe’s poetry, and on the life and trials of Edmund Campion (including a delightful foray into whether or not Philip Sidney was a secret Catholic) … EVER so much to delight the serious reader of history and literature, in an age where the most you can expect from most other readers along those lines will be their appreciation of Undaunted Courage or DaVinci Code.

And of course the dessert is J.C.’s “NB” column, where dry wit reigns supreme. For instance, in sampling the contents of the latest Whitaker’s Almanack Pocket Reference, there’s this:

The Almanack offers a catalogue of over sixty phobias, all relating to things you felt fine about until you learned of the existence of a phobia. Here are some, concerning which we invite you to provide real-life cases:

venustaphobia – fear of beautiful women
pogonophobia – fear of beards
oenophobia – fear of wine
peladophobia – fear of baldness
chorophobia – fear of dancing

Ergasiophobia (fear of work), dentophobia (the dentist) and gamophobia (marriage) are more plausible; given that rhytiphobia (fear of getting wrinkles) is practically universal, we are surprised not to have seen the word before.

To which I join J.C. in asking for examples – but from you, my legion of loyal readers! Confession time! How many of the phobias J.C. lists have haunted your darkest hours? Or what other fears might take their place (you can browse the list at www.phobialist.com)?

In the spirit of cooperation, I’ll admit that I myself sometimes experience touches of two of the phobias listed (and, needless to say, I very much do NOT ever experience one of those on the list!). And judging from previous comments, my friend Beepy has at least begun to deal with the heartbreak of pogonophobia…

August 30th, 2006

In the Penny Press! Outside and Men’s Journal! Grrr!




Lick your lips and get ready to gulp down a tankard of testosterone, boys and girls, because this installment of In the Penny Press belongs to Outside and Men’s Journal!

But we’ll start off, boringly enough, with a literary note. In an eensy-weensy sidebar in the middle of an article about what a great place Iceland is to visit (the article – heavy sigh for Outside – spends a LOT of breathless prose on Reykjavik’s swinging nightlife, but still…), somebody’s mother thought it would be a good idea to mention CULTURE.

The plug goes something like this: “Icelanders all read the Norse sagas, the equivalent of Greek epics.” (It goes on immediately with “if you don’t have time to cram them in …” but we’ll content ourselves with another heavy sigh – where is it written that everybody fond of hiking must be a literature-phobic boob? – and return to our regularly scheduled program).

To this eensy-weensy little blurb I can only append a hearty ‘I agree!’ With minimal hunting-effort, each and every one of you could probably track down the seven or eight slim old Penguin volumes of the Icelandic sagas (one presumes these are what the blurb’s author meant by ‘Norse,’ rather than the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda … almost sighing a third time here …), or get thee to the nearest Barnes & Noble and seek out a big fat Penguin volume (physically beautiful too) called “The Sagas of the Icelanders.” These stories are richer and more varied and more enthralling than any other national literature extant (except for Ireland, of course) – you’ll be glad you entered their world.

The other two points of interest in this issue both revolve around far more likely vacation-spots, both of which have been sampled and wholly enjoyed by your humble scribe.

The first is the Delmarva peninsula down at the Chesapeake Bay – the article is, of course, heavy on the gearhead stuff (and the beer … sigh …), but nevertheless: ghosting down Snow Creek and Nassawango Creek and all the byways of the beautiful Pocomoke River – especially in the company of friends – is a helluva nice way to spend a week. Even in a country full of natural beauty, this place is beautiful.

Likewise the second piece, about hiking (no drinking this time, so no sighing) California’s harsh, gorgeous High Sierra – also a thing made infinitely more pleasant by the company of good and tried friends (dogs, in my case, but I’ve heard rumors that humans can be good company too).

Of course, the publication of articles like these two – and the unbelievable proliferation of ‘outfits’ that will get you there, fill you with beer, guide you all around, and then get you back in one piece (innumerable ads for such services, in the back of both these magazines) – virtually guarantee they’ll be overrun with boobs who’ll leave their beer cans behind and call you ‘dude’ when they meet you on the trail. These days, if you’re looking for a place where that WON’T happen, you should start thinking about offworld destinations.

Over in Men’s Journal, there’s slightly more variety. The letters page had this funny little exchange:

“After reading Jan Nesset’s negative review of the Deuter Hydro Exp 12 hydration pack in the June issue, I realized that Nesset was unaware that the way to eliminate sloshing in all hydration reservoirs is to remove the excess air from the bladder by turning it upside down and squeezing it. It’s kinda sad to think that she had to stand still to enjoy the sounds of nature because common sense (or a good friend with some) did not reveal the way to properly fill a hydration pack.”

Douglas Roether
Tempe, Arizona

To which the editors replied:

“We couldn’t agree more – but we’ve never heard of Jan Nesset or reviewed the Deuter Hydro Exp 12.”

Hee.

On a far funnier (albeit unintentionally) note, the Dispatches section features a question about whether or not any living organism can survive in outer space, to which the editors give this answer:

“‘A free-floating bacteria wouldn’t last long,’ says Max Bernstein, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California. ‘But give it a bit of shielding, like a comet, where it can escape some rays, and it might endure thousands of years.’ Several controversial theories hold that such superbugs introduced life to Earth via comets or meteors.”

To which we here at Stevereads say: complete and utter balderdash! Quasi-immortal organisms blasting to Earth’s surface inside meteors? And what would they do when they got here – take host in living things? Why, the heat of atmospheric entry would fry any living thing to a crisp! What could Outside’s editors have been thinking?

Still, not all judgement has left them, because the two-page ‘Exposure’ photo they present in this issue is nothing short of jaw-dropping: a solitary human diver floating just thirty feet from a semi-sleeping female humpback whale – if I had the requisite technical/hacker abilities, I’d somehow find that image online and post it here for all of you to marvel at – but I don’t, so you might want to marvel at it yourself, if you happen to be browsing the September isue.

But the issue’s two main highlights article-wise were a very BIG story and a very LITTLE one.

The little one is a very enjoyable piece by Jennifer Kahn on mosquitoes, their biology, their history, and their life & times today. This is an eminently clippable article, full of quotable stuff. I’ll tempt you with just one:

“Expecting that any one of these schemes [for eliminating mosquitoes] will eventually pan out takes some effort. But I wanted to believe there was hope. We’re smarter than mosquitoes, after all, and you have to root for the home team. Besides, we’re still the underdogs: a species with skin like a baby zucchini, pitted against perfect killing machines, tiny airborne disease carriers equipped with a hypodermic snout and sensory equipment capable of detecting a person 50 yards away.”

The big one marked the ten-year anniversary of the murderous 1996 Everest climbing season (the worst days of which were so memorably chronicled in John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”) by taking a hard, critical look at the mishaps, legal squabbling, and deaths that have marked the 2006 season.

It’s hard to read the piece and not come to the conclusion that the aforementioned adventure-packaging firms are the villain here (one in particular, Asian Trekking, keeps cropping up, like Snidely Whiplash, all through the piece). They complain, as the article points out: “No one calls it a problem when people pay guides to climb Mount McKinley, they point out, so why all the fuss about Everest?”

The venality of which stands out nice and bright, doesn’t it? Needless to say, Everest is not McKinley – it’s another world, or as close to one as you can get and still be on THIS world. The piece is full of stories of day-traders and thrill-seekers paying guide-companies to overlook their climbing inexperience – people willing to pay top dollar simply to DO Everest. I guess that part’s understandable – certainly summiting Everest is #1 on everybody’s fantasy-life-list. And gawd forbid I should decry any trends that are resulting in more and more human casualties! But in the process of dying, all these humans are junking up Everest in the process, and that’s a shame.

Even so, some good can come out of it all: it gives me the perfect opportunity to POLL you all!

So tell me YOUR life’s fantasy-list! Tell me some (or all) of the things you dream about doing before you take ship for the West! It’s a question that’s always fascinated me, and now I get to be openly snoopy about it!

August 28th, 2006

in the penny press! new york all over!



This week’s installment of In the Penny Press will focus on the current New Yorker and the current New York magazine. I thought it might be a good idea to write about them now, since they’ll very shortly be LAST week’s issues. I never claimed stevereads would be as cutting-edge prompt as towelroad or pink is the new blog, but there’s no excuse for lollygagging.

The New Yorker was a mixed bag, as always. The normally intolerable ‘Shouts & Murmurs’ feature was this week temporarily turned over to somebody who’s actually funny, the mighty George Saunders, who turns in a hilarious little piece on the recent proclamation by Iran’s President Whackjob that Persian words or constructions should be found to replace all foreign words.

As with all true humor essays, this one can’t be summarized or excerpted without killing it dead, so I’ll have to rest on doing two things: telling you it’s really good and urging you to snap up the issue before it disappears.

I won’t say Saunders is worth the price of admission alone, because there are one or two other things to warrant your attention. For instance, there’s a spry, lively piece on Upton Sinclair that gains points by not skirting away from what a bombastic mo-ron Sinclair could be. Here’s a good quote, although the whole thing is good:

“The shock created by ‘The Jungle’ was extraordinary, but it didn’t produce what Sinclair hoped for – outrage over the exploitation of workers, and the first steps toward the defeat of capitalism. ‘I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,’ he later said, in perhaps his sole public witticism. Roosevelt brushed off the call for socialist revolution, and though he acted vigorously on contaminated food, his measures were neither as vigorous nor as comprehensive as Sinclair wanted. The writer, hanging around Washington, pestered the President with cables and protests, until Roosevelt, losing patience, wrote to Frank Doubleday, Sinclair’s publisher, ‘Tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.'”

Hee. Even after all this time, he still has all the best lines.

The piece’s best feature is its honesty: Sinclair, like so many authors (‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ anyone?), is remembered only because he struck a nerve in the zeitgeist – his actual writings are entirely without literary merit. The rant I’ll avoid here (because you’ve all likely heard it before) is the one about how countless schoolkids are forced to read a piece of crap like “The Jungle” every year, and because they have crappy, ignorant teachers, they have NO IDEA that what they’re reading ISN’T GOOD. It poisons their entire idea of reading, and where is there the help, the countervailing force, to set that aright? I myself am such a force, but Hell! I can’t be personally present in every dorm room all across the country!

Unfortunately, the issue also featured a short story by Richard Ford, an author who has, on infrequent occasion, been kinda-sorta good. Alas, this present short story, “How Was It To Be Dead?” was wretched – swamped with cliches couched so cleverly that you get the immediate and dismaying impression the author has somehow convinced himself they AREN’T cliches, that he’s voor-trekking in virgin territory.

Honestly, what are we supposed to DO with stories like this? Ford is a known name, like Updike or Munro, and the New Yorker can’t rightly refuse their refuse. But when it’s served up to the rest of us, all unsuspecting, on glossy paper at premium price, what are we to make of it? I wasted exactly four minutes of my life determining that this story was a steaming pile of self-indulgent horsepoop, and still I forged ahead, spending another 8 minutes actually reading it to its end – because, theoretically, you can’t just up and IGNORE a Richard Ford short story, right?

We need to arrive at a new arithmetic of fame, I think – one in which the more famous you are, the MORE you need to work, not the less … I don’t know … I’ll perfect it and report back.

And of course I read John Lahr’s fascinating piece of stagefright with an extra quiver of enjoyment. Lahr’s piece cites such stratospheric giants as Olivier who were often physically crippled by stagefright. Reading it was fascinating in its own right, made all the moreso by personal connections.

Oh, not personal connections to Olivier – calm down, you frothing maries! no, personel connections because once upon a time, when Dick Burbage was still squeezing every bit of juice out of every shilling he ever saw, I myself acted upon the stage – and of course my young friend Sebastian is, despite his youth, a tried and weathered veteran of the stage – and more than that, the two of us, despite personal differences too numerous to mention (he prefers 57-count multi-weave; I prefer dirt under a thick bush), are utter strangers to stagefright. Just isn’t something either one of us is wired to feel. Which raises interesting questions about exactly what it is, and why giants like Olivier and Holm are prey to it. Surely possessors of such talent are past worrying that it’ll simply wink out on them if enough people are watching?

Over in New York magazine, the Approval Matrix was its usual snarky, wonderful self, pinpointing everything worth pinpointing in the last week on a neat little four-square graph. In the Highbrow Brilliant category, there’s this: “Ryan Gosling in ‘Half Nelson’ – until further notice, he is Hollywood’s best young actor.” In the Lowbrow Brilliant corner, we have this: “Martin Landau on ‘Entourage.'”

In Highbrow Despicable, there’s this: “Google gets snippy about people using ‘google’ as a verb.” And in the always-reliable Lowbrow Despicable: “Hacktastic director Brett Ratner signs on for a remake of ‘The Boys from Brazil.'”

In the Books section, our editors give us the occasional ‘Off the Shelf’ feature where they ask an author to expound on five books in their library.

The author they picked this time around is Jennifer Egan, whose novel ‘The Keep’ is currently featured at the front of every Barnes & Noble store in the entire country. Egan picks “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Beauty Myth,” “Underworld,” “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson,” and “White Teeth.”

Two things are simultaneously obvious from the piece. First (thanks to a photo inserted): Egan is beautiful. Second (thanks to all the words appended): Egan’s … well, she ain’t Virginia Woolf.

Although for all that, it’s her breathless elevation of “White Teeth” (‘masterful’ for cripes sake, with Emily Dickinson sitting right there in the room) that left the worst taste in my mouth. When the Hell will that negligible piece of unplotted hackery stop being praised?

And lastly, there’s David Edelstein’s review of the new movie “Mutual Appreciation,” which none of you will see and all of you should, and which stars, among others, Justin Rice – a smart young man who’s a) oddly addictive to know in person and b) one-half of the rock band BishopAllen (whose music, alas, I still don’t like at all, but you might). In this movie, about a feckless blackout-alcoholic talented loser, Justin’s thesbian talents aren’t seriously taxed … but just you wait! If he can be lured from the ranks of rock-stardom-in-waiting, he’ll make a big name for himself as an actor. Kid’s got mineshafts of talent.

And there you have it! The nuts and bolts of two very-nearly-oudated magazines! More to come!

August 26th, 2006

comics! wolverine and JLA!


Only two comics this week, although my nemesis Pepito just recently returned from an exclusive tour of Europe and the subcontinent, so I’ll doubtless be rooting through a pile of poop sometime soon.

In the meantime, I bought Justice League of America #1 and the latest issue of Wolverine. Both were meticulously well-done (fantastic artwork in both cases), and both irritated the piss out of me.

Wolverine #45, written by Marc Guggenheim and drawn by Humberto Ramos, is a Civil War tie-in, and I confess I bought it because the cover showed Wolverine duking it out with the Sub-Mariner, and Namor fascinates me these days. Not only does he LOOK like DC’s Black Adam, but nowadays, with Namor having no ongoing title of his own, he’s being WRITTEN like Black Adam – not a super-villain, but something much rarer in the comics world: a powerful badass who just doesn’t happen to AGREE with the normal way super-heroes act.

Never bought an issue of Wolverine in my life. As many of you might already know, the character as he’s always written torques me off no end. The pinnacle of that torsion had to be that John Romita Jr.-illustrated storyline a few years back where the writer (the perp’s name escapes me at the moment) had a mind-controlled Wolverine take on – and BEAT – the frickin Fantastic Four.

This issue isn’t as bad as that. But almost.

Guggenheim is a really good writer, and Ramos is a great artist, better all the time. And that keeps the issue interesting, well worth the offensive $3 price tag. I was brought up to speed quick: Nitro, the super-villain whose explosion killed Namorita and started the whole Civil War, has been hunted down by Namor’s operatives. But Wolverine wants to know who was supplying Nitro with the drugs he was high on when he detonated, so he’s in the odd position of needing to defend the guy against the Atlanteans. As this issue opens, that pits him against Namor himself, and that’s where I started to get irritated.

I want you to picture something along with me. Picture yourself pitted in combat against a little toddler, a toddler who just a month ago learned to walk. This toddler, despite his outward appearance, has years of combat experience – and to top it all off, he’s got super-tough bones and two hands full of razor sharp knives.

In this scenario, you’re a fully-grown male Navy SEAL.

Yep, you anticipate me. There is one, and I goddam mean only ONE way such a fight progresses. You are ONE HUNDRED TIMES stronger and faster than the toddler in question. There is NO CHANCE WHATSOEVER that the toddler will WIN the fight. There won’t BE a fight.

Now guess what happens in issue #45?

On page 2, Wolverine a) takes a direct punch to the head and b) IN THE NEXT PANEL kicks the Sub-Mariner’s feet out from under him.

That’s just on Page 2. Not only would Namor’s punch have blown Wolverine’s eyeballs out of his head (bet they’re a bitch to grow back, huh?), but Wolverine shouldn’t be able to kick Namor’s legs out from underneath him under any circumstances, even with a backhoe to help him out.

I mean, what’s the POINT of having these characters in the first place, of endowing them with a rich continuous history, if you’ll disregard it to make the little toddler look cool?

But I’m not sure the issue’s ending doesn’t bother me even more. Wolverine borrows a suit of armor from Iron Man to track Nitro to Atlantis (no attempt is made to explain why Iron Man doesn’t just go himself, except that if he did, it would fuck this issue’s storyline up the wazoo), where he fights Namor again and – surrealistically absurdly – comes even closer to being his equal. And then Wolverine has a change of heart and LEAVES Nitro to the Atlanteans. Knowing full well that they’re going to torture him for a very, very long time before they kill him. Having been told of these methods by Iron Man.

So they both know about it. Iron Man and Wolverine know they’re handing Nitro over to a society that’ll TORTURE HIM TO DEATH.

That’s my growing problem with the whole Civil War storyline: it’s making half of all Marvel’s super-heroes into SUPER-VILLAINS. The appeal Wolverine used to have was that he might kill people, but he had a code of ethics – that deep down, he was a super-hero. And Iron Man? OUR Iron Man, leaving a super-villain in the hands of people who he knows will torture him to death?
I find I don’t mind the idea that Civil War might radically change everything in the Marvel universe forever. I find I can live with the idea that half our erstwhile heroes are now … well, if not super-villains maybe then certainly something more complex than they were before.

Oddly enough, the thing that bothers me is that the ‘bad’ guys include not only Spider-Man but … worst of all … the Fantastic Four.

So we move across the aisle to DC for a much bigger event: Justice League of America #1! Written by fourth-rate hack novelist Brad Meltzer and drawn by the great, the mighty Ed Benes.

There’s a lot going on in this issue, and a lot of it is wonderful. Meltzer gives us a very mature multi-layer narrative, the hands-down best part of which is the strand where we see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman standing around in the Batcave discussing who they should invite to join the new League. Oh, how I wish we’d been given EVER so much more of that! It’s wonderfully done – Batman obsessing about security issues, Superman exuding hope and inspiration, and Wonder Woman balancing it all out with tactical considerations.

From their deliberations, I’m gathering the new League’s lineup will include at least Hal Jordan (a boring but predictable choice), Power Girl (an INSPIRED choice, if only for the interplay possible between her and Wonder Woman), Arsenal (mystifying, plain and simple – over in Outsiders, hasn’t Arsenal been beaten up, tied up, throat-slit, chest-shot and just generally bitched-up by every single enemy they’ve faced?), Black Lightning (a welcome choice, not only a character with a rich history but also the very rare black super-hero who’s not a pale imitation of some earlier white character) (but let’s have his electrical powers substantially AMPED, shall we?), Vixen (a character with great potential, but still a fewkin lightweight), and Red Tornado (but a very altered version of the same, potentially not the same old boring android-striving-to-be-human yutz of old).

Alas, the rest of the issue ain’t s’good.

There’s Black Lightning’s plotline, in which we learn that the old Flash villain is now an addict, addicted to Psycho-Pirate making him feel ecstatic. This bothers me because it links uncomfortabtly with Nitro over in Wolverine – so what, super-villains are now going to be drug addicts? But no HERO drug addicts (except maybe poor old Rex Tyler)?

And then there’s Vixen’s plotline. Urrgh, where to start? Actually, I’ll start where the plotline starts – with Vixen, responding to a hand-written note, showing up at a bar for a BOOTY CALL. For some quickie-sex with the Question. Yeesh. So her code-name is Vixen, and she’s Latina, and on top of that … she’s a drooling nympho. What’s next, in the parade of stereotypes? She’s got a brother upstate?

Then there’s Arsenal’s plotline, which is good in its own right but raises one HUGE question that Meltzer of course doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone answer: why would you WANT Arsenal if, as the issue makes abundantly clear, Green Frickin Arrow is available? I mean, I’m all for new blood (Power Girl would be an inspired choice, as would Black Lightning), but why aren’t we talking about re-assembling such core members as Green Arrow, Zatanna, SOME Flash, Martian Manhunter, etc?

And then there’s Red Tornado’s plotline, wherein the character’s soul – ushered by Deadman (ALWAYS a pleasure to see, and a much brighter writer would have explored means of having HIM on the new team … wouldn’t THAT have been fun? DC’s best character in 30 years … why not at least try?) – eventually enters a genuine flesh-and-blood human body, although he gets to keep his powers. This bugged me less than other storylines – Red Tornado has needed re-defining for some time now, and this seems as good a start as any.

So, a hit-or-miss issue for me, but it might have worked OK, since it IS intelligently done and DOES leave the reader wanting a whole Hell of a lot MORE … but no, I finished it with the pulpy feel of vomit in my mouth, and can you guess WHY?

YEP! The pages and pages of The Book of Fate, Meltzer’s forthcoming novel … pages that are tacked on at the end of the issue like a Cleveland whore’s early-morning slurred demand of payment for service rendered.

So what are we supposed to think? That Meltzer demanded the pages appear, or he wouldn’t write for the title? Or that the DC powers that be voluntarily appeased him, to woo his compliance? Either way, it’s disgusting, and not just for the rank feeling of being manipulated.

No, the main reason it’s disgusting is one not many comic fans will stomach easily, and that’s the acknowledgement that they are children of a lesser god.

Comic book writers sometimes forget this and make inevitably disastrous forays into actual book-writing. They forget that nine-tenths of their comic book work is shouldered by the artists with whom they work – sequential art aimed at the eye does SO much of the work of words aimed at the brain. And so E.S! Maggin or Chris Claremont write novels fogged over with hyperbolic prose and phantom-limb longings for pictures that aren’t there.

This is kin to the same thing. The only reason Meltzer writes a (very) decent Justice League issue is because he can’t HACK it in any bigger leagues. He stoops to conquer, but in so doing (i.e. following up the issue with a frickin novel-excerpt), he gives ample sighting of his wide fat bum.

Don’t get me wrong – comics these days are producing some mighty fine writers. What bugs me here are the one or two who have stupid, condescending ulterior motives for writing comics … so my question is: is Meltzer in or out? I wouldn’t have asked before this issue’s noxious excerpt-inclusion, but I’m asking now.

Still, no matter how any of that works out, I was pleased to see the new JLA launched with such multi-layered intelligence. Let’s hope DC’s other, even more venerable flagship team title, Justice Society, is launched with equal care.

August 24th, 2006

abundance


This evening’s book was Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund, a great big historical novel about Marie Antoinette.

Naslund has a pretty good track record with me. Not only did she write Ahab’s Wife, which has its moments, very distinctly has its moments (although its version of Ahab is woefully anemic), but she wrote Sherlock in Love, which is a very good Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel (trust me, I’ve read ’em all, and good ones are hard to come by).

The whole Louis and Marie milieu has never done much for me. I’ve read a wheelbarrow full of Marie Antoinette novels, and almost all of them seemed … well, lazy. Like they were resting heavily on the inherent drama of their subject. And I don’t really SEE that drama – a corrupt, venal, attenuated monarchy was overthrown by a people prone to doing just that. Big deal. Louis himself had about a dozen ancestors who suffered identical fates.

There’s not even a special concentration of personal characteristics. No matter what Naslund would have you believe, neither Marie nor her Dauphin were particularly intelligent or charismatic, and on top of that, they were cowards – they fled their kingdom, were caught running away.

The most degenerate Plantagenet would have spat in their faces.

Nevertheless, legend focuses where it will. And if you write a Marie Antoinette novel, you’re mining pure legend. Naslund must know this – she starts and ends her novel with historical bracketing (just like Dark Angels, only in this case the research is both deeper and worn lighter).

Abundance wlll be easy to recommend. It’s intelligent, free of fat despite its length, and extremely atmospheric. I’m not in complete command of untranslated French novels (calm yourself, my little turnips! I have, sometimes, feet of clay), but absent that, I’d be willing to say Abundance is the best Marie Antoinette novel ever written.

It’s an awful burden, Antoinettists have to shoulder: she was a twit, a clothes horse, and, beyond any doubt, a complete stone-cold moron. This is the tragedy of Readers Digest women’s history – the iconic figures Amelia Nettleships always light on (Joan of Arc, Bouadicea, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scotts, Marie Antoinette) are almost always either propped-up hand-puppets of the strong men around them or else twits whose legends have prospered despite reality (Princess Diana, anyone?)

This novel gets around those limitations with an ease that looks easy. The novel is told in short, almost telegraphic mini-chapters in Marie’s own first-person voice. That makes us all accomplices in a bit of authorial oversight, since the novel extends right to the moment the blade comes down, and little Marie could scarcely be telling us the whole story if that were so.

That’s another little problem historical novelists (which Naslund seems intent on being, although I’m not sure why – I get the plentiful impression she’d kick ass as a contemporary novelist): HOW do we get the story? Hidden codicils? Related testimony? Undocumented personal survival? Every historical novelist faces the question: HOW do I tell my story?

Naslund simply avoids it. She has Marie tell her story in the immediate first-person right up until the end, right up until the blade falls, without ever any gesture in the direction of HOW we could be reading these thoughts. In order to enjoy the novel (and there’s plenty here to enjoy, make no mistake), you just have to keep your mind quiet on the MEANS of TRANSMISSION.

(it might seem like a little point to all of you who’ve never written a historical novel, but believe it or not, MEANS of TRANSMISSION positively obesses those of us who have).

Oddly enough, one of the book’s passages I liked the most in the whole book was the very last one, the one in the crucible of Means of Transmmission. Our Marie is on the plank, seconds from execution:

I kneel in order to lie upon their board, and they help my body to lie straight. So lay my noble husband nine months ago; I but follow. Through a crack between the planks – a man squats beneath on the balls of his feet. He has the dirty, upturned face of madness. Ah, he is waiting to bathe in my blood. I meet his wild eyes. The sled slide forward – the basket – no need to hold on – I open my hands resting on the small of my back – the basket – I had friends, loving friends (I am not afraid).

There’s something in that. It’s overwritten, yes, but there’s something in that – the lightning-quick incoherent image-shifting that comes right before death when the moment is pre-ordained. ‘I had friends, loving friends (I am not afraid)’ – that’s good.

All the familiar names are here in this big novel – not just Marie and her (surprisingly well-delineated) husband, but Robespierre, Marat, Danton, Mirabeau, and even ‘our’ very own Thomas Paine (who, it should be remembered, wanted the young French king and queen to be exiled to America, where I honestly don’t know what the Hell we would have done with them). They’re all perfectly delineated, a delight for any reader.

So I’ve got an equal-weight thumb-on-the-scale recommendation for this big book Abundance. If you want a sprawling, involving historical novel, well … they very seldom get better than this one, Means of Transmission notwithstanding.

August 23rd, 2006

one last Masefield note


In case any of you were wondering what my weird fascination with this Masefield character is, I can tell you: it’s ‘Star Trek’!

Masefield is one of the only poets mentioned by name in the ‘Star Trek’ universe, specifically in the much-maligned ‘Star Trek V’ when Kirk quotes from a line of the poem herein posted. Kirk quotes the line, McCoy misidentifies it as Melville, and Spock corrects him with Masefield.

Now be on your guard, fellow Trek-geeks! Tell me this:

1. ‘Star Trek V’ is the first time Masefield is named in Star Trek, but it’s not the first time Kirk REFERENCES the poet – who can tell me the other time?

2. Who can tell me three other poets mentioned by name in ‘Star Trek’? Excluding Shakespeare, of course, and also excluding non-human poets, ya frickin nerds …

You can draw from the movies or any of the series, and the first person to get 1 and 2 gets a free book!

(and also, for those of you who seem intent on emailing me privately about every post: feel free to actually post a comment for all to see! Much as I like all the new friends I’m making, this IS supposed to be a place where I talk and you all talk too, right? So don’t be bashful …)

August 23rd, 2006

ladies and gentlemen, John Masefield

“Sea-Fever”

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

By John Masefield (1878-1967).

August 23rd, 2006

In the Penny Press! Ovid and John Masefield!


Some fun and interesting things in this week’s London Review of Books and the TLS.

Mark Kishlansky writes a very good, succinct piece on the Restoration, reviewing a new massive two-volume history by Tim Harris. Kishlansky’s review is negative, which is surely not something an author wants to read after spending 1100 pages on his subject (we’ll see what other critical organs have to say about the books), and one thing he writes distracted me from the rest of his review:

Kings refused to justify their actions, or, as in the case of the secret Treaty of Dover (signed by Charles and Louis in 1670), were deliberately misleading about them. Divine-right monarchs didn’t always care about the opinions of their citizens. Kings reigned, a concept so out of fashion as to be almost unrecoverable.

A ruler who believes he acts on God’s wishes, who deliberately misleads, and who does what he does without reference to the opinions of even the majority of his people? Such a concept may be “unrecoverable” in the UK, but who in present-day America wouldn’t offer a rueful little laugh at the suggestion that it’s gone from the world entirely?

Also in this issue, Denis Feeney has a very good, verp penetrating piece on Ovid’s exile years. He’s reviewing Peter Green’s new and excellent translation of Ovid’s exile poems, but he takes the opportunity to examine many facets of Ovid’s time at Tomis, at the furthest edge of the Roman world.

My only quibble? Feeney writes that Ovid’s tragedy ‘Medea’ is “the only work of his that did not survive to the age of printing.” This is hardly the case. Not only does Feeney ignore the raft of little or occasional poems alluded to in Ovid’s extant works, but he overlooks the fact that Ovid himself mentions one other work of his we don’t have, potentially the most interesting thing he ever wrote: a work in the language of Tomis. For me the idea has always been fascinating – the picture of this most cosmopolitan of poets, exiled from the greatest city in the world and fetched up at the ass-end of nowhere, but still compelled to write – and not only to write, but to seek an immediate audience, even if he had to learn an entirely new language to do it. There’s no doubt at all that the world of literature is markedly less for the lack of the great works Ovid would have created if he’d been allowed to remain in Rome (or even if he’d been allowed to return). But even so, the exile poems are weird and sad and a little crazed and ultimately very beautiful, I think, though in a very bleak vein.

Over in the TLS, in addition to a long and masterful damnation by Brian Vickers of the new Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare (after ten or fifteen paragraphs, reading it had all the visceral fascination of watching a bloodsport), there were two fun little bits.

The first was in the letters page, where Richard Boston writes in response to the disclosure last time that Poet Laureate John Masefield would always submit his poems with stamped, addressed envelopes – in case of rejection. Boston writes:

Near the end of Masefield’s life, I was working for your predecessor, the late Arthur Crook, on the TLS. One day, A.P. Ryan, who had the not very onerous job of editing the Times’s sole book page, sought our advice on what to do about the bard’s latest contribution. Masefield had written about a royal visit to Australia. Unfortunately, the old boy had got his wires crossed.
The visit had been to Austria. An easy mistake: the names of both countries begin and end with ‘A’. Easy solution: remove the ‘al’ from ‘Australia’. This proved not to be enough. The people of Vienna would still have been not the only ones puzzled by the references to kangaroos and boomerangs.
This may well have been the only occasion on which the stamped addressed envelope had to be used. I have the idea that it may also have been, sadly, the last time Masefield sent in a poem. I do hope that someone, somewhere, somehow has a copy of the Australia poem.


I’d bet my last farthing this plea either turns up the long-lost Australia poem or turns up some egghead clarifying the poet’s mistake. I’ll keep you posted.

And of course there’s the main attraction of the TLS, at least for me: the magisterial smackdown. This is not a sunny, bird-chirping book review where everybody is presumed to be doing their best and if you can’t say something nice about somebody, you don’t say anything at all. This is the NFL, and sometimes it can be delightful (like, for instance, if you hated your older brother and his book received just such a spanking).

Take the case of Lisa Chiu’s new book When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish – and other tales about the genes in your body

Jonathan Hodgkin spends two paragraphs of his three-paragraph review summarizing and describing, and then he finishes with this:

This survey of human genetics, written for a general audience, is readable and sometimes engaging, but it is carelessly written and inconsistent in the level of explanation used. Technical terms are introduced before being adequately explained, and several of the stories are left dangling unsatisfactorily, or ended with a labored pun. Chiu also misses some key points – for example, she writes about the discovery of FOX2P, the first candidate for the ‘gene for language’, but fails to mention one of its most exciting and suggestive properties, namely its remarkably rapid evolution. Better books of this type have been written, such as Matt Ridley’s Genome and Armand Leroi’s Mutants. When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish has the advantage of being reasonably up to date, but otherwise there is not much to recommend it.

Hee.

The review stops, as they all do, just one step short of advising the author to go out and kill themselves.

Aside from those two wonderful publications, the only ITPP news comes from this morning’s Metro, which has a one-paragraph (naturally) blurb enthusiing about World War Z. So now that all the STUPID people in Boston have been made aware of the book, it only remains for the Globe to tell all the ordinary people and the Phoenix to tell all the smart people. Fingers crossed …

August 22nd, 2006

books! crocodiles and kings!



Two books in our interval, both continuing my little streak of good reads.

Karleen Koen’s big book Dark Angels turned out to be a quite enjoyable piece of Restoration historical fiction. This was a relief, since the Restoration, worse than any period (except of course the Regency), tends to bring out the Amelia Nettleship in so many writers (for those of you who don’t know the name, it refers to a lady novelist and “bottler of historical bilge-water” in John Mortimer’s immortal story “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation”). Certainly Koen herself gave me cause to worry, since right there in her Author’s Note she refers to Charles II as “the merry monarch.” That’s usually a sign of trouble.

But Dark Angels is almost entirely free of trouble! Happily, Koen has done a large amount of research – a student of the Restoration (such as myself, for instance) will find comparatively little to wince at in this book. Of course the squalor possible even at the highest levels of court is omitted (Regency novels are especially guilty of this), and I can assure you all that never in his life did Charles II ever utter the word “gadzooks.” But these are minor things – the overall feel of the book is historically accurate.

The book is a prequel to Through a Glass Darkly. It tells the adventures of one of that book’s best-drawn characters, Alice Verney, when she was a girl at the court of the King, and it moves along with a surprisingly light touch. The King, the Queen, Monmouth, Clarendon, Nell Gwynn – they’re all here, and Koen brings a very enjoyable freshness to her portrayal of all of them.

Charles himself is the toughest nut to crack, for historians and novelists both. He was extremely intelligent but also lazy and doubting and self-doubting, and the overall combination is almost impossible to catch in all its facets. Rose Tremain gives a very good modern spin to it all in her novel Restoration, and of course the gold standard here is the mighty Forever Amber, so far unequalled and certainly not seriously challenged by Dark Angels. Kathleen Winsor’s huge, bawdy, funny, smart novel hangs over almost every page of Koen’s book – not in a bad way, but impossible not to notice.

Fortunately, Dark Angels succeeds on enough of its own terms to avoid being hurt by the comparison. This is a big, readable novel set in a perennially favorite time period: it’ll be a snap to recommend.

Likewise the second book here, Beast by Ally Kennen. It’s the story of young Stephen, living in foster care, not all that bright, lunatic mother and seedy, criminal father, working jobs he hates in order to afford the biggest secret of his life: that he’s keeping an enormous salt water crocodile captive in an abandoned reservoir.

The crocodile is huge and always hungry, and of course the secret gets out and of course the crocodile gets out, and all of it is just begging to be made into a movie starring Zach Efron.

Nevertheless, it’s a very good read – utterly unpretentious and utterly without cutesy-poo preciousness. No attempt is made to polish up the fact that Stephen, though a decent enough kid, is a loser from a family of losers. And the crocodile itself is never in any danger of being turned cutesy or wise – it’s just a big vicious animal that’ll do anything to survive.

I resisted the urge at any point in the novel to consider the crocodile a metaphor for something else, and I’m grateful to Kennen that the book ALLOWED me to refuse to do that. With all due apologies to Kafka, extended metaphors like that virtually never work. Despite whatever other levels are operating in it, this is very much the story of a kid who’s secretly keeping a giant crocodile caged and fed, period.

And of course my liking of the book was increased by one little sub-plot handled well. At one point early in the novel, Stephen comes into possession of a miserable little stray dog he names Malackie. Almost as soon as he acquires the dog he gives him to his derelict father, which caused me as a reader to clench my teeth. The whole time I was reading the book, the whole while I was following the building tensions involving the crocodile, I was praying Kennen wouldn’t simply forget about the dog. But I got all the way to the end and there was no mention of it, and I was prepared to hate the book on that account alone. Then I reached the last page, where Stephen goes back to his father’s abandoned shack:

I see him.
He’s so thin he looks like a starvation victim. He’s too weak to move far, but there’s a stagnant bucket of water he must have been drinking from. Just enough to keep him alive. There’s rubbish all around. Turds and food, a broken-open box of cookies, a wrapper of ham. A bread bag.
“Poor old bugger,” I say gently, and touch his head. He looks up at me and sighs. His coat is wet through. I wonder how he hasn’t died of exposure. I reckon he’s been out her for nearly two weeks. I untie my top from around my waist and wrap it around him.
I loosen the rope. It’s so tight it’s bitten right into him. The skin is red and raw underneath. I only allow myself to think briefly about what it must have been like tied up out here, day after day, night after night, slowly starving to death.
“It’s going to be alright,” I say. “I’m back. I’m looking after you now.”
I pick him up and hug him to my chest. He’s so light.
“Come on, Malackie, my boy,” I say. “Let’s go.”

That’s the way I like books to end (although it was, of course, the water and not the bucket that was stagnant) … although it’ll be tricky recommending this to people, since it’s a hardcover and I’m still a little unclear on exactly who buys hardcover teen novels.

Up next? Why, I’m not really sure! Tonight I’ll be re-reading Chapterhouse: Dune in preparation for reading – gigantically against my better judgement – the new ‘sequel’ to it by Frank Herbert’s son. But my next brand-new book? It eludes me at the moment! I expect by this time tomorrow I’ll have read it, and your faithful scribe shall divulge!