Posts from September 2006

September 30th, 2006

comics! Pepito’s pile o’ crap!

My nemesis Pepito is, as has been said before, an odd duck, especially in his comic-buying habits. You’d expect that somebody who knew enough to LIKE good titles would also know enough to AVOID bad ones, but no! There Pepito is, trawling the new-release shelves of the Android’s Dungeon with all the indifference of a Russian shrimp-ship.

Take this latest batch, for instance. In order to get to the good bits, you have to wade through Grade A crapola like Moon Knight and Ion and Checkmate and this new Heroes for Hire title that reeks so much of ass you come away from it with a craving for pee.

True, the pile includes 52, which is consistently good. And the latest issue of the Flash which has a wonderful scene starring Jay Garrick, the original Flash. He’s attempting to stop a couple of crooks making a getaway when he’s upstaged by a new character called the Griffin, who very nearly kills the bad guys in the act of stopping them. Jay Garrick takes him to task, telling him “A real superhero can stop crime without leaving a trail of corpses.”

But still, it’s a long journey to Birds of Prey and Robin, both of which are excellent. And at the end of the road is Justice League of America #2.

I just recently met the writer, Brad Meltzer, and a nicer guy you couldn’t ask to find. It will make bitching about his book just that much harder.

Nevertheless, bitch I shall! This issue was just as well-written as the first one, and the artwork is just as good, but the flush of the new has worn off – cracks are starting to show.

Crack #1: As a framing device in the first issue, it worked just fine … but – Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are STILL sitting around a table talking about trading cards? I know this is all taking place in Inevitable Graphic Novel time, but still – it’s starting to look a little silly.

Crack #2: Vixen’s superpowers come from a piece of JEWELRY. And she’s dumb enough to let a super-villain TAKE it. But we’re supposed to believe this is League material?

Crack #3: While we’re on the subject – I’m assuming that the lineup on this issue’s cover will end up being the lineup of the team when this Inevitable Graphic Novel is concluded – which leaves me wondering what kind of bong was being passed around while the Big Three were playing with their trading cards. Black Lightning? Arsenal? Hawkgirl? Red Tornado? Vixen? Vixen, for gawd’s sake?

There’s a reason we’re not talking about A-listers here. There’s a reason we’re not seeing Green Arrow or the Flash or Hawkman or even Zatanna. The reason is Batman – the new team is noticeably light on members who were involved in Batman’s mind-wipe from last year’s Identity Crisis. I just wish Meltzer would MENTION that fact, maybe have the Big Three TALK about it.

Crack #4: Vixen? So we turn down Captain Marvel and Power Girl, but we definitely WANT somebody who gets lured to a bar for a booty-call and LOSES the source of her powers to a couple of D-listers nobody’s ever heard of?

I realize some of this is certainly corporate (though Meltzer swore it wasn’t) – DC comics are still doing the whole ‘one year later’ thing, and the ultimate fates of characters like Aquaman, Supergirl, or the Atom have to remain up in the air. But let this entry serve as a silent plea to Meltzer and the DC Powers That Be: eventually, might we have back the Magnificent Seven? Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter ARE the League.

Vixen? We’ve been down that road before, remember? It featured the world’s first and only BREAK-DANCING SUPERHERO. Surely once is enough?

September 30th, 2006

comics! Ultimates!

I’ve got a plea for all of you, involving Ultimates #12:

Please let this be the last Mark Millar comic you ever buy.

That’s not just failed anticipation talking, although I WAS looking forward to this issue. No, it’s a broader indictment: ‘comics these days’ only get that way if we LET them.

Some of you are familiar with the storyline so far: angered by the Bush administration’s war-mongering and meddling in the Middle East, the ‘axis of evil’ (aided and abetted by Loki for reasons of his own) developes Middle Eastern equivalents of the Ultimates. These equivalents (wonder if that’s their team name?) lead an army of huge machines and goons in power-suits on a full-out invasion of America. At the end of the last issue, the Ultimates’ cause seemed hopeless, until the last-panel appearance of the Hulk.

OK, flash forward the year it took for this issue to come out, and here we are, Hulk smashing big machines like they were Dixie cups, while the rest of the team faces off with their foreign (= evil) counterparts.

The centerpiece duel is between Captain America and Abdul al-Rahman, but it doesn’t amount to much because in the first second of the fight, Hawkeye, who has infallible aim and two sharp shards of glass, AND who’s out of Abdul’s line of sight, sends one shard into his left ear and one into his right Achilles tendon, crippling him and taking him out of the fight.

Oh wait … that doesn’t happen! Instead, Hawkeye tries to JUMP ON Abdul and gets picked off by the foreign (=evil) version of Quicksilver. So Captain America and Abdul fight.

Meanwhile, the foreign (=evil) version of the Hulk is kicking the crap out of the Ultimates version, crowing the whole time that the key to his ability to do so is that he retains his super-genius intellect, whereas the Hulk has the mind of a brutish thug.

Meanwhile, Hawkeye’s bacon is saved by the real Quicksilver, who grabs onto his foreign (= evil) counterpart and runs so fast the poor SOB is torn apart by the speed. Right before he’s torn apart, he pleads for his life. Right after he’s torn apart, Quicksilver triumphantly says ‘That’s what happens when you threaten my friends’ even though he and Hawkeye hate each other.

Meanwhile, in one of the worst-drawn fight-sequences since Herb Trimpe was still alive, Captain America and Abdul continue to duke it out. Abdul yells at Cap to ‘Stop talking! Stop talking!’ and then talks a bluestreak himself.

Cut to the real Hulk/foreign (= evil) Hulk fight, which is going poorly for the bad guy. We stay just long enough to see that he, too, is begging for his life.

We look away long enough to see Iron Man return to the fight, drunk, blasting away at the bad guys from the middle of his very own stash of WMDs. We know the tide has turned.

Then we return to the Hulk fight, just in time to see the foreign (= evil) Hulk get both his arms ripped off by our hero. The villain whines, “I … I don’t understand. How could you do it, Banner? How could you beat me? When I’m so much smarter? It doesn’t make sense…”

To which our hero replies, “You know your problem, ugly scientist guy? YOU THINK TOO MUCH!’ The last said while Hulk punches his fist clean through the head of his foe.

Meanwhile, Abdul is clearly losing his fight with Captain America, who urges him to give up. To which suggestion Abdul says “And why should I give up? So you can humiliate me and execute me before your fellow officers?” To which Cap replies, “Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not the way we do things in this country.”

Just then a handy crowd of power-suited goons pile on top of Captain America, and Abdul, saying he takes no pleasure in it, prepares to cut his head off. At the last second, the Hulk grabs Captain America’s shield, forgets that he hates the Ultimates, forgets also that Cap’s shield has no sharp edges, and throws it at Abdul, severing both his hands (in a clever bit of scripting, Cap then throws off his goons by saying ‘Hands off, creeps!’)

When Abdul says ‘My God, do you even appreciate why we did this thing?’ Captain America impales him through the heart with his own weapon. You know, the guy who doesn’t have any HANDS anymore? Yeah, that one – that’s the guy Captain America IMPALES.

At one point in the issue, some of our heroes rescue President Bush from the wreckage of Air Force One. As they’re bringing him to safety, he tells them he ain’t gettin’ outta Dodge until he knows the Vice President is safe. You get used to that sort of thing – the President is often portrayed in Ultimates as a dimwitted boob.

But don’t be deceived. This comic comes to you straight from the middle of a GOP wetdream.

I’m not talking about the fact that our heroes not only kill their foes by the bushel when they could just as easily capture. I’m not even talking about the fact that lots of the foes killed are killed in the act of begging for mercy.

I’m talking about the culture of distrust the Bush administration has created in this country. The president is just an ordinary joe, and he actively distrusts ‘eggheads’ of any kind – a fact so beautifully brocheted by Steven Colbert to the President’s face. He believes in simple, dead-or-alive frontier justice, without any nuance or ethic whatsoever.

And he’s found his super-team at last.

Millar wants the dumb, bloodthirsty 13-year-old boys in his audience (regardless of their chronological age) to look at each successive panel in this issue and yell ‘Hell yeah!’ He doesn’t care what he has to have these characters do, as long as he gets that reaction.

But you can’t snort your coke and have it too. If this team is a bunch of fascist stooges who consider morality or thought to be excess baggage, that’s Millar’s choice as a writer. But readers have choices too.

Readers have choices too. When I saw that panel where the Hulk punches his enemy’s head off yelling ‘YOU THINK TOO MUCH!’ (when what’s clearly meant is just ‘YOU THINK!’), I stopped reading Ultimates. Oh, I limped along to the end of the issue (yet another cliffhanger, and one I’ve longed to see). But at that point I was done with Mark Millar.

I urge you all to be so as well. The world doesn’t need any more of this kind of thinking – it needs a whole lot less. You can’t do anything about what’s said at the U.N. … but you can skip buying Ultimates #13.

September 29th, 2006

Poetry Class!

In acknowlegement of the fact that a) some of my readers are also popular young roaring-boy poets and b) my own poetic tastes run to Tennyson and Longfellow and don’t extend much further than Robert Service, I’ll periodically include a poem here at Stevereads.

These won’t be poems like “The Song of Hiawatha,” where I already KNOW that it’s a great work of art. These will be poems that struck some kind of note inside me – and I’ll be inviting you-all to write in and TEACH me about them, for good or ill.

My first example comes from this week’s New Yorker. It’s by somebody named Deborah Digges, and it’s called ‘The Birthing':

Call out the names in the procession of the loved.
Call from the blood the ancestors here to bear witness
to the day he stopped the car,
we on our way to a great banquet in his honor.
In a field a cow groaned lowing, trying to give birth,
what he called front leg presentation,
the calf come out nose first, one front leg dangling from his mother.
A fatal sign he said while rolling up the sleeves
of his dress shirt, and climbed the fence.
I watched him thrust his arm entire
into the yet-to-be, where I imagined holy sparrows scattering
in the hall of souls for his big mortal hands just to make way.
With his whole weight he pushed the calf back in the mother
and grasped the other leg tucked up like a closed wing
against the new one’s shoulder.
And found a way in the warm dark to bring both legs out
into the world together.
Then heaved and pulled, the cow arching her back,
until a bull calf, in a whoosh of blood and water,
came falling whole and still onto the meadow.
We rubbed his blackness, bloodying our hands.
The mother licked the newborn, of us oblivious,
until he moved a little, struggled.
I ran to get our coats, mine a green velvet cloak,
and his tuxedo jacket, and worked to rub the new one dry
while he set out to find the farmer.
When it was over, the new calf suckling his mother,
the farmer soon to lead them to the barn,
leaving our coats just where they lay
we huddled in the car.
And then made love toward eternity,
without a word drove slowly home. And loved some more.

I can see some faults in this thing right away (the willfully erroneous grammar and punctuation, to sound all ‘poety,’ and of course that ‘of us oblivious’), but I kind of like this.

What does everybody else think? Not just the poets, either – did anybody else like this?

September 29th, 2006

In the Penny Press! Foodies and John Donne!

The Penny Press is abuzz this week with Helen Mirren’s performance in ‘The Queen,’ but alas, no echo of that great shout of acclaim will reach this site. This is, after all, Stevereads, and one doesn’t read a movie (what a blessed thing it would be if one could!).

In a perfect world, when you were all done savoring the glories and delights of this site, you’d all click over to and delight in all his thoughts about the movies and tv he’s been watching. The prose would be just as tangy, the jokes would be less dependent on a working knowledge of Latin, and the cultural references would be a little more current. But this is not, as the ever-burgeoning popularity of Rachel Ray demonstrates, a perfect world.

Rachel Ray’s name comes up in one of the latest New Yorker‘s most interesting pieces – Bill Buford’s article on the rise of food TV in America.

We here at Stevereads are indifferent to foodie passions (some of you will have first-hand knowledge of the exact state of our culinary discrimination … kindly keep it to yourselves), but one thing about which we certainly aren’t indifferent is Julia Child. And you can’t write about the current boom in food-tv without pretty much starting your story with Julia Child.

Buford’s tribute to her is too brutally idiosyncratic to be anything but heartfelt:

Child, too, was unlike anything else on television: six-feet-two, virtually hunchbacked, seeming too ungainly for a small screen, with a long, manly face, but one that was also remarkable for its intelligent expressiveness. In it you could see her making connections, finding wonder in the properties of egg whites or the behavior of gelatine, a wonder that was at the heart of what now seems like a natural pedagogical imperative. She made people want to cook, often inspiring them with a single detail.

Buford’s piece winds its way through the usual suspects of successive celebrity chefs – and his narrative comes to a halt once it enters the ever-expanding empire of Rachel Ray. He rightly assesses that her fame rests mainly on her ‘supper in 30 minutes’ tactic, and he tries to be diplomatic.

He talks about media savvy and cross-market appeal, but he avoids one central detail: not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel Ray is, in addition to all her other qualities, an idiot. And the marketing strategy that’s made her into an empire is aimed squarely at an audience composed of other idiots. It’s not ‘supper in 30 minutes’ because everybody’s over-extended these days – it’s not that, no matter how many marketing executives tell you it is. No, it’s ‘supper in 30 minutes’ because the network estimated – and rightly so – that the vast majority of TV-watching Americans are TOO STUPID to handle anything more complex. Rachel Ray is Cooking for Dummies brought to perky everygirl life.

Julia Child would have wept. Like James Burke and Carl Sagan and David Attenborough, she was a populizer in the old, vanished sense of the word, someone who believed you could LEARN anything, that you could stretch your mind to gain any new skill. Rachel Ray and her ilk believe in lopping off parts of that new skill until it’s small enough and simple enough to fit in a Happy Meal box. Gawd forbid you should ask the American public to WORK to learn something.

Fortunately, as has been said here many times, there’s always the mighty TLS.

The cover of this week’s issue sports the 1595 painting of John Donne (the one that bears more than a passing resemblance to my young friend Sebastian), and there are two wonderful pieces on the poet inside.

And there are many other wonderful things inside! You can always count on the TLS reviewers to toss off carefully-considered statements you want to write in some kind of commonplace book. For instance, in a review of three books concerning empires, John Dunn (hee) says this:

No one has ever reflected more deeply about empire as either a cultural artefact or a political enterprise than Gibbon, and no one has ever seen more deeply into the political and economic realities of human collective life on a global scale than Adam Smith.

One thing that WASN’T in this issue was any kind of critical backlash to the lambasting the TLS served out upon the new Oxford Book of American Verse. John Ashbery writes in with a tepid little factual correction, but there are no howls in defense of the work itself. Maybe next issue…

(this issue also features a glowing review of ‘The Queen,’ but again, this isn’t THAT blog …)

September 28th, 2006

in the penny press!

The trifecta of book review organs – the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and of course the mighty Times Literary Supplement – are guaranteed to provide a solid hour of the highest quality mental stimulation when sat down and read in unison.

The highlight of the New York Review this time around, at least for me, was Joan Didion’s forensic examination of Dick Cheney. She strikes an absolutely priceless tone (unintentionally, I assume), mandarin befuddlement threaded all the way through with deep distaste … like a society doyenne hearing a loud, wet crunching sound and finding an unknown creature on the bottom of her shoe, half-crushed but still attempting to squirt venom.

She can’t riddle him out into the light, of course. Morgoth is gone, but even his lieutenant Suaron is still largely incomprehensible to the minds of Men.

But in the process of her bafflement, she runs through the usual story with a wonderful, icey precision that’s a joy to read.

The London Review of Books likewise had a highlight for me: Jerry Fodor’s review of Michael Frayn’s “The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe.” It’s a pan, but the peculiar combination of steep intellect and po-faced humor Fodor uses are more reminiscent of the TLS than the LRB:

As the blurb on the front of Frayn’s book puts it:

‘What would [the] universe be like if we were not here to say something about it? Would there still be numbers, if there were no one to count them? Or scientific laws, if there were no words or numbers in which to express them? Would the universe even be vast, without the very fact of our tininess and insignificance to give it scale?’

Why, yes, it would. (Frayne often treats rhetorical questions as though they were philosophical arguments; it’s a bad tactic.) The universe would still be just the size it is even if there weren’t astronomers to measure it. And water would still be H2O even if there weren’t chemists to analyse it. And water would still run downhill, and there would still be hills for it to run down, even if none of us were here to take note of its doing so. You can’t pin the natural order on me, Frayn; I’m not guilty. I didn’t make the universe; I wasn’t even there at the time.

But it’s the TLS that really comes through, as always. For instance, Oliver Taplin reviews two new books on ancient Greece, and in the course of doing so, he lets his favorite editorial hobbyhorse out into its paddock:

My philhellenism outweighs my admiration for the BM (great though that is), so I shall make up for these omissions. The ultimate legal claim of the Museum, which bought the goods from Lord Elgin, sheltering behind an Act of Parliament, is a fortiori even dodgier than his claim to legality in dismantling large stretches of ancient masonry to get at the frieze and other sculptures. It is a tasty irony that the piranhas of the press cluster round the Getty and other newer Museums who are being hounded to return antiquities that were taken after a certain legalistic date, while the great museums of Europe complacently give pride of place to all the booty that was expropriated before the barrier came down. But there is a crucial and underappreciated point about the Parthenon Marbles, regardless of legal questions. Elgin hacked them off less than twenty years before the beginning of the War of Independence which would liberate the core of Greece from centuries of Ottoman rule. Even as the swell of Hellenism was rising throughout Europe, he took advantage of a declining regime that cared nothing for the heritage of Greece; he snatched them from the outstretching hand of freedom.

Sorry – no sale. The ‘outstretching hand of freedom’ in this case cared no more about Hellenistic treasures than the lazy old Ottomans did. Lord Elgin almost certainly SPARED the Parthenon friezes from destruction. And even if he hadn’t, he still did the right thing.

The British Museum has nothing to apologize for. It spends millions every year on expert restoration, meticulous upkeep, and state of the art climate control for all of its archeological treasures. England’s breathtaking cathedrals are guarded and upkept by a veritable army of caretakers. The same thing is true even moreso in the United States.

As far as I’m concerned, ANY country that can’t say the same should cough up its art treasures. Those treasures, cultural or otherwise, belong to the whole world. Young children yet unborn deserve to experience root wonder-shock of looking up at the Great Pyramids. Hungrily sensitive artists who’re only babies now deserve to stand in silence before every Vermeer there is.

Been to the Hermitage lately? Seen what the rampant smog and pollution (not to mention teenagers with spray-cans) have done to the Acropolis? Anybody know until how recently docents were allowed to smoke in the Sistine Chapel?

Send the big, Atlas-class medivac platform-helicopters to every corner of the globe, as far as I’m concerned. Pluck up every great building and work of art currently being dripped on or cluttered with McDonalds wrappers and deposit them in carefully manicured grounds in Japan, Switzerland, England, and the United States. If Egypt objects to the resulting big parking lot at Gizah, tell them they should have thought of that when they were looking the other way while kids on mopeds took runs half-way up the sides of the pyramids, or while drunken wedding parties were allowed to cavort deep inside them. Then tell them to shaddup. Tell you what – when you go to canopied, climate-controlled Sphinx Pavillion in the gorgeous country of Kent, you can have free admission with proof of your Egyptian citizenship.

Elsewhere in the issue, Eric Griffiths turns in a wonderful review of the new Royal Shakespeare production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ – which, as many of you may know, is one of Stevereads favorite Shakespeare plays. At some point, every halfway creative type who’s been heavily influenced by Homer feels the urge to take a whack at the master’s material, and this is Shakespeare’s (serving double duty as a reference to Chaucer as well, although it’s best not to explicitly compare the two; great as Shakespeare is, he’s no match for Chaucer when they’re both working the same material at the height of their respective powers)(arguers feel free to Comment … and of course any of you who feel like piping up in defense of the artistic merits of Troy War are welcome to do so)

Griffiths largely dislikes the new RSC production, but he has marvellous things to say about the play itself and its dynamics – all good stuff, like this:

Of all Shakespeare’s works, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is set furthest back in time, while it simultaneously bristles with idioms jazzy in their day.

Of course, with all this brilliance comes some trepidation as well. It turns out that virtually all of this edition’s fiction reviews were devoted to historical fiction. This is where the ice water came into the afternoon’s reading, because, as some of you know, I myself am that most improbable of beings, a historical novelist. And I can tell you this: we live in terror of two things: 1) some closeted, micro-obsessive expert calling us on some fact in our books (‘it wasn’t sunny on the 14th of May 1202′), and 2) the TLS (let’s be honest: the only review organ that realistically could) taking us out behind the woodshed. Even seeing this happen to others produces not the faintest hint of schadenfruede.

One of the novels in question, C. J. Sansom’s Sovereign, just barely gets a pass. It’s a Tudor novel (again, a close call – I myself have written a Tudor novel), and although the reviewer, Michael Caines, calls it ‘less demanding’ than such Tudor-fiction classics as The Man on a Donkey or The Blanket of the Dark, he largely absolves it of blame, albeit grudgingly:

Sovereign is sore afflicted with outbreaks of humourless, barking laughter, sighs, frowns, raised eyebrows, and the setting of lips. It has a bad case of ‘Jesu!’ – the expletive for all occasions – and at least one impassioned cry of ‘Fie!’. These are things to make the reader smile and read on.

Two of the other specimens under review are of particular interest to stevereads: Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night because we largely kinda-sorta liked it, and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale because, as some of you may have noticed, Barnes & Noble has decided, for reasons known best to themselves, to strip down to its skivvies and hop into bed with this book – huge, eye-catching displays at the front of every B&N in the whole country, huge amounts of money spent to make this author the next Dan Brown (all based, one likes to believe, on one buyer’s joyful reaction to the book, somewhere way back along the chain of evidence). Sheer human nature prompts a body to want the TLS to savage the book.

Sadly, the dice fall otherwise. Judith Flanders (a psuedonymn) doesn’t exactly savage The Meaning of Night but she doesn’t leave you any reason to go out and buy it either:

The Victorian elements are intensively researched – there are references to Evan’s Supper Rooms, the Toxophilite Society in Regent’s Park, mudlarks scavenging in the Thames – but throughout there is a sense of a list grimly being got through, each item ticked off and out of the way. Glyver does nothing at Evans’s; he visits it simply so that it can be described.

On the other hand, Setterfield’s book gets a sanctioned pass: “Setterfield is singularly successful in her aims.” So those of us wanting to hate The Thirteenth Tale must hold our breath until we’ve actually read the book (I have, and I largely share the verdict of my esteemed colleague The Mama Chan: it’s hyperventilated boilerplate, not entirely without literary merit but two fat fingers’ worth away from actually being good).

Our final item? Druin Burch’s good-cop/bad-cop review of David Wooton’s Bad Medicine and Katrina Firik’s Brain Matters.

Burch loves the first, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s going to USE that love to jump up and down on Firlik’s book, in absolutely delightful fashion:

Katrina Firlik’s Brain Matters makes a stimulating change from all this compelling originality and provocative thoughtfulness. If you have ever suspected that pushing a finger into the soft goo of another person’s brain leads to fresh and startling conclusions about human life, this is the book to disillusion you. Firlik is full of breathless enthusiasm; so full of it, unfortunately, that other qualities are kept at bay. She wants to tell you about her life as a neurosurgeon, and her best point is her infectious eagerness. The style is reminiscent of a teenage essay on ‘what I did during my neurosurgical training’, and the insights are at roughly the same level. She reveals that sick patients are people too, ‘not just a collection of clinical data'; she lets us into the fact that ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’, and that ‘you can’t judge a person’s intelligence by his outward appearance’.

Initially, it’s hard to pin down exactly why her thoughtless and cliched anecdotes are so insufferable. Blind adoration is appealing in its way, but Frilik seems to worship even the most stupid and destructive aspects of the American hospital system. Teaching by humiliation, pointlessly long hours and the infliction of needless operations on damaged patients are all held up for praise. But the source of the real chill gradually becomes apparent. It is Frilik’s conviction of her own superiority, and her misguided overestimation of her own dull, workplace thoughts. At the end of ‘Brain Matters’ she invites us to marvel with her at the superlative intelligence of a group of her colleagues. ‘What might be accomplished,’ she asked, awed at the qualities of people like herself, ‘if the same group lent their collective brain power to, say, improving public health education or homeland security?’ Both books demonstrate the dangers of doctors who think too much of themselves.


And that’s all we have for you at this moment in the penny press … sure, there’s news tonight of a marauding bobcat out in Grafton – and the consequent bobbling-newshead paundering about the THREAT TO OUR SUBURBS, but nevertheless: reading-wise, that’s all you need to worry about.

September 27th, 2006

clarion call

Most of you still haven’t answered my question of a while back (and some of you, oh so charmingly, are STILL answering me privately instead of on this blog): what are you reading at the moment? What have read recently? Granted, it won’t be as exhaustive (or sexy) as mine, but even so – spill!

September 27th, 2006


Will one of you KINDLY tell me why I can’t upload one picture on the left, one picture in the center, and one picture on the right, without the right-hand picture ending up SQUASHED by the center picture? For pete’s sake, I’ve got Ronnie Reagan pass-blocking Sir Isaac Newton! It’s …. it’s downright unseemly!

Why would Blogger even OFFER the different picture-placement options if this combination doesn’t work?

And I swear, the first one of you who says ‘well, maybe you should ask Blogger that’ is getting a basset hound in the mail, first thing …

September 27th, 2006

times of our lives, Part 1

Of course you all know how dearly I love the art of biography. For my money, it’s hands-down the most intrinsically fascinating genre of writing there is. There’s the grandeur of lives lived on a wide stage, and there’s the peculiar satisfaction of the petty human foibles interwoven with all that greatness.

(needless to say, stevereads takes an exceedingly dim view of the current glut of autobiographies written by people who’ve done nothing, experienced nothing, sought after nothing, created nothing … so all you Elizabeth Wurtzel’s out there whose only claim to any kind of fame is that you’re sometimes unhappy? Shaddup and sit down … nobody on Earth is interested in what you have to say about, inevitably, yourself)

So here’s a list! Since I’m tossing it off the top of my head, I’m not willing to call it definitive – I’ll work on that. In the meantime, one axiom to keep in mind: this list doesn’t include memoirs. Moss Hart, Benvenuto Cellini, Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Elias Canetti, Frank Harris … none of them is here. That’ll be another list.

So; here are some great biographies!

* Founding Father – Richard Brookhiser = Brookhiser is an endless talker and loves George Washington of all things, The result is incredibly readable and not a bit hagiographic.

*Longfellow – Newton Arvin – a marvelously empathetic of a great poet you should read more often, ya little bastids.

*The Nature of Alexander – Mary Renault
– Of all the gazillions of Alexander biographies out there, this is the only one written by someone actually in love with the subject. Renault is one of the century’s best novelists, and her biography reads like one (in a very, very good way)

*Robert Louis Stevenson – Frank McLynn
– McLynn is a ‘professional’ biographer, a term of some obbrobrium in academic circles, but I say what’s wrong with somebody deciding the genre they want to write is biography? The point is, McLynn is extremely GOOD at it, and with Stevenson he has a rich mine of great material.

*Some Sort of Epic Grandeur – Matthew Bruccoi – A wonderful biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald

*Power Broker – Robert Caro – a big, blustery biography of Robert Moses, the raper of Manhattan

*Seeing Mary Plain – Frances Kiernan – a fittingly intelligent and scrupulous biography of Mary McCarthy

*The Education of Julius Caesar – Arthur Kahn – Maybe only Jesus and Shakespeare have accrued more biographical crapola than Julius Caesar, but unlike those two other guys, there’s a MOUNTAIN of source material for Caesar. That fact has drawn biographers like flies, and a large number of them are worth reading. I chose Kahn’s because a) it’s sharply, wittily written, and b) it suffers from none of the hindsight-awe that afflicts so many other biographies of the poxy debt-shirker.

*Mary Queen of Scots – Antonia Fraser

*The Queen – Ben Pimlott – believe it or not, the queen in question here is Elizabth II, not I, and there’s not a hint of condescension in any of its 700 pages. Instead, there’s an endless supply of smart, quotable prose and a clear-eyed assessment of what monarchy means in the modern world. It wouldn’t always make comfortable reading for the Queen herself, but I think a copy of this wonderful book should be handed out to every moviegoer who lines up to see Helen Mirren’s magisterial portrayal of the same august personage later this season.

*Leonardo – Serge Bramly – Leonardo too has had his legion of biographers, from Vasari on down, but Bramly’s book beats them all for its sassy, cold, evaluative tone, at once knowing and questing. Bramly strips away all the larger-than-life accretions that have attached to his subject over the centuries, and Bramly seems as surprised as anybody when that doesn’t serve to lessen the man’s stature at all.

*Henry VIII – Francis Hackett – Well, likewise Henry, who’s had hundreds of biographers. But unlike the other such cases, where I’m coming down in favor of my pick on the basis of some stylistic nuance or other, with Hackett things are much simpler: his book is better than any other on the subject. Better researched. Better paced. And hugely, infinitely better written. Those of you who know me are no doubt familiar with the passage I’m going to quote – steel yourselves, my little widgets! This blog is for the world.

So here’s the passage, and oddly enough, it’s not about Henry at all – it’s about the death of Erasmus, and its offhand brilliance lies in the fact that it’s the damn-perfect prettiest summation ever written of Erasmus, one of the hardest men in all history to understand (and damn hard to love, for all the immeasurable worth of doing so):

“Meanwhile rational Europe, trying to keep inflammable passion and mad peasant blood within decent bounds, had lost its greatest spokesman in Erasmus. He died in April. The torch of good reason was for the moment dimmed. Two firebrands, still obscure, were planning the conquest of mankind for a Christ of their own making, each asking their followers to immolate their reason and bind their will. In 1536 John Calvin published his ‘Institutio.’ In the same year a Spanish Basque, to be known as Ignatius Loyola, was finishing the studies at Paris that underlay the Society of Jesus. Henry’s ‘moderation,’ on the terms of his own dominance, would push half-evolved Europeans along the road of the modern state, while Calvin and Loyola, borrowing statecraft and rousing the lust of warfare with the breath of the Eternal, would stir in religion precisely the same appetite for earthly dominance. Beside them Erasmus might seem a feeble creature, sitting by his open fire with a glass of Burgundy in front of him. But Erasmus had made the New Testament his labor of love. He was not a hero, like Loyola or Calvin. He was not an ’emperor’ as Henry now called himself. He was only a humanist. Beside him the Jesuits, affirming liberty and vowing obedience, or the Calvinists, affirming predestination and applying the scourge, recalled very ancient priesthoods and glorious savage instincts that cry out from the caverns to be released, even if they must carry a Bible in their hand.
“Yet the Galilean Jew could not have despised the humanist: if he had rested by the fire with Erasmus, this book of the New Testament on his knees, and a glass of Burgundy before him, perhaps he might have raised those sad eyes to see that truth and charity had lingered for an instant at Basle, finding an honest welcome there, that the word was still alive; that the arm of war and the methods of torture, to which his own thin hands bore witness, were perhaps not the only way to prize the divinity in man.”

He hated fish-suppers and had his doubts about the Jews, he argued with his friends as often as with his enemies and was loved almost equally by both. And that little passage does more than whole biographies to convey the man.

The book is also chock-full of great stuff about Henry. You’ll just have to take my word for it (or ask me to get you a copy).

*The Life & Times of Chaucer by John Gardner – As some of you may know, I consider Gardner one of the 20th Century’s great, neglected authors (some others, being crowded off the podium by Philip Roth and D. H. Lawrence and Doris Lessing? Well, John Barth – Joseph Heller – Anthony Burgess – a list for a future date!). In this case, Gardner responded to a lifelong affection for Chaucer in the same way Mary Renault did: he stepped across the aisle and wrote non-fiction on the subject.

He does a fine, beautiful job. It’s true that he doesn’t have every last detail technically correct in the way that an historical expert on Chaucer would (sit down, Sebastian – I was referring to myself), but there aren’t that many actually interesting details extant in any case. Any ‘life’ of Chaucer will be inextricably bound up in his works, and that’s where it helps to have a novelist doing the writing.

It’s all beautiful, and it could all be quoted here, but some of you out there will know which passage I’m going to single out. It’s the very last paragraph of the book:

“When he finished he handed his quill to Lewis. He could see the boy’s features clearly now, could see everything clearly, his ‘whole soul in his eyes’ – another line out of some old poem, he thought sadly, and then, ironically, more sadly yet, ‘Farewell my bok and my devocioun!’ Then in panic he realized, but only for an instant, that he was dead, falling violently toward Christ.”

There are many, many great biographies of Chaucer out there, but this one is the most touching, the most personal, and the only one that stands as a work of literature in its own right.

*Mrs. Jack by Louise Hall Tharp – A wonderful, friendly biography of Boston’s inimitable Isabella Stewart Gardner. Those of you who might be championing Jack Beatty’s almost equally wonderful book on the same subject, ‘The Art of Scandal’? Shaddup – he gets his place on the list, and in the meantime, there’s a world of importance in that ‘almost.’ Those of you who’ve never read this book? You’re in for a real treat. And: those of you who’ve never been to the Gardner Museum, the magnificent palazzo she built to house all the artworks she looted from around the globe? Shame on you. And if you actually live in Boston and STILL haven’t been? Beyond-the-pale shame on you!

*The Rascal King – Jack Beatty – If ever a perfect subject met a perfect chronicler, this book is it. The ‘rascal king’ in question is of course legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley, and the chronicler is the gleeful, razor-smart Jack Beatty, who would never let history get in the way of a good story. His biography of Curley is magnificently chatty and expansive, and the best thing anybody could say about it is this: its subject would have liked it.

*Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century – James Farrell – much as I hate to give the impression of an ongoing theme, you have to take my word for it: I didn’t plan out the order of these entries before I typed them.

Nevertheless, this is yet another great book about an inimitable Irishman written by an inimitable Irishman.

*Hitler – Joachim Fest – For a bit there, I was worried that Fest’s public personality might overshadow his biographical achievement. Once Gunter Grass announced that he’d been a member of the Waffen SS, Fest jumped up and down on him in public pronouncements, heightening suspicion that Grass only made his announcement in order to drum up interest in his new memoirs. And Fest’s new memoirs, “Not Me,” takes its title from the fact that Fest never joined the Nazis. But Fest just recently croaked, and I needn’t have worried anyway: if ever a book was destined to outlive its author, Fest’s ‘Hitler’ is one of them – this is the best of a very, very big bunch.

*City Poet by Brad Gooch – Gooch is a former model and a good novelist, and here, in a totally fortuitous meeting of author and subject, he writes an entirely winning biography of perennially underestimated American poet Frank O’Hara. Gooch is a sensitive reader of the poems, and he has a wonderful facility for conveying the feel of the times. O’Hara would have, um, scanned Gooch’s verse any day of the week – and more importantly (well, maybe), he’d have liked this book.

*Captain Cook by J.C. Beaglehole – this is a wopping great big book that doen’t have a single boring or thoughtlessly crafted sentence, which is something of a miracle in and of itself. Beaglehole examines every aspect of the life of England’s greatest sea-captain (anybody got a problem with that? Nelson fans? Cochrane fans? Shaddup, alla youse).

*Dutch by Edmund Morris – I said it at the time, and I say it still: this weird and disjointedly garrulous book is, in the end, entirely stunning. No greater literary tribute has ever been given to a living president than this one to President Reagan. It isn’t anything close to a conventional biography, even though all the biographical facts are there. Rather, this is … well, I don’t know what to call it – impressionistic? Pointilistic? Regardless of WHAT we call it, the fevered, almost hallucinogenic sensation of reading it perfectly mirrors the weird experience of living through the Reagan years. And the prose is gorgeous, often for dozens and dozens of pages at a time. That combination of factors wins out for me over the more straightforward books about the Gipper.

*Somebody Else by Charles Nicoll – Nicoll’s masterpiece is undoubtedly ‘The Reckoning,’ his book about the en who murdered Christopher Marlowe. But this book, about the Rimbaud who went to Africa and sold guns and never, so far as we know, wrote a line of poetry again, comes in a very close second (and is more presentably biographical). Nicholl here is at his investigative best, piecing together hundreds of disparate clues about what has to be the starkest literary transformation in the history of literature.

*Tolstoy by Henri Troyat – Troyat too is a professional biographer, and here he has a whopper of a subject and acquits himselfl admirably. It’s no coincidence that Tolstoy’s life reads like something out of one of his own novels (there’s a fruitful dissertation to be written on WHICH authors this is true for and WHY), and Troyat captures that very well.

*Jack Aubrey’s Brief Lives – I know, I know – this isn’t strictly a biography of one person, but I REALLY wanted to plug Aubrey’s book, since it’s one of those endless treasure-troves of a book, a huge collection of sometimes incredibly brief and almost koan-like sketches (sometimes not even a page – Aubrey asked Dryden to supply a page-long biographical sketch of himself, and when the poet didn’t come through, Aubrey dutifully put the blank page in his book). The edition to get here is the Penguin, hands down – the long, introductory essay there is a work of art all by itself.

*Emerson, the Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson – Emerson might very well be the hardest American to biographize … his writings are utterly unforgettable and unlike anything else in the country’s canon, but … and here’s where the problem comes in … he was COMPLETELY BARKING INSANE. Richardson not only tackles this problem, he triumps over it and makes it look easy. Emerson would have … well, he’d have read the first ten pages, misunderstood them, and then parsed them into a 150-page Platonian meditation on the vitality of mortality. But the rest of you will really like it.

*Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell – The story of the Battle of Little Bighorn is inherently dramatic, an endlessly transformable, but even so, nothing can fully prepare the reader for the harrowing, magnificent job Connell does with his subject. His narrative spirals upward toward its pre-ordained climax in several separate strands. As good as they are, none of Connell’s other books (across their charmingly broad spectrum) comes close to this one in sheer, beautiful power.

*Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey – how could we contemplate a biography screed without mentioning Strachey! His book on Queen Victoria is predictably brilliant – wry, incisive, and crammed with more witticisms than a whole season of ‘The Simpsons.’

*In the Presence of the Creator by Gale Christianson – This is a stately, keenly detailed biography of Isaac Newton, and Christianson is especially good at painting a broad background. It’s a shame it’s out of print, but then, you kids are probably all about the eBay, aren’t you? Maybe one of you ungrateful little sprouts will think to shell out an extra $5 to get a copy for old reliable stevereads, who lost his own copy in a HORRENDOUS FIRE that destroyed ALL HIS WORLDLY BELONGINGS…

*Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison – Hard, very hard, to pick from all of Morison’s great biographies, but this one, about Christopher Columbus, wins by an edge, mainly because it’s Morison’s most personal book (you’ll all notice that I obviously consider this an important element of writing biography), even moreso than the ones he wrote about men he actually knew – I think because he felt a kinship with Columbus, voyaging into the unknown on tried vessels using a matchless ability to read the sea. This is one old salt yarning about another, and it really isn’t to be missed.

Well! I’m tossing great biographies off the top of my head, and even so, just LOOK at the size of this entry! Clearly, I’m going to need to revisit this subject!

I’ll do two things: first, I’ll get to work on a definitive ‘top 50′ list, and in the meantime, I’ll come back later on and do another one of THESE, these windbaggy annotated thingees, with a few more titles. Will that satisfy you all, you bloodthirsty little ewoks?

September 24th, 2006

In the penny press!

The only noteworthy thing about this week’s extra-big ‘fashion’ issue of the New Yorker (well, aside from a really offensive Muslim-baiting cartoon about which I’ve already written them) is a little piece up at the front of the issue called ‘Air Kiss.’

The incident recounted took place on an American Airlines flight. Four male friends were reprimanded for kissing each other and resting their heads on each others shoulders. The friends become understandably irate and ask to see the plane’s purser (we won’t digress on what an exceedingly GAY request that is).

When the purser shows up and asks them to identify which stewardess (sorry … flight attendant) did the tsk-tsking, and when the guys point out a beehive-hairdo’d fiftysomething woman, the purser rolls her eyes and sympathizes with them.

Then the men asked ‘if the stewardess would have made the request if the kissers had been a man and a woman,’ at which point the purser stiffened visibly and started toting a no-kissing party line.

I think even at this point we’re still supposed to be sympathizing with the guys, but it was at that point I started sympathizing with the entirely helpful purser, who naturally took offense at the thinly-hidden accusation of bigotry.

SOMETHING happened on that American Airlines flight, but after reading this little account, I’m fairly convinced it was ugly on both sides of the aisle.

(The issue also featured a tribute by Alex Ross to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it’s Ross at his least pompous, because this was a loss that hurt. Most professional singers develop a repertoire and a manner, and more often than not it then becomes them. Pavarotti has been more or less unconscious on stage for the past twenty years. The divine Beverly Sills once, after an evening of sumptuous vocal beauty, was asked by an adoring fan what sublime mindframes she was in during her performance. She chuckled and said, ‘I was going over my taxes.’ Lorraine was different. Her music was endlessly, renewably personal to her. What’s so often said of so many sawhorse hacks was literally true of her: no two performances were ever the same. And that applied to all performances, including the impromptu ones. Like the one more than twenty years ago very close to Christmas, when she and two newly-acquired friends stumbled, a little drunk, down into Boston’s Park Street T-stop around 10 o’clock one snowy night. A raggedy man in fingerless gloves was playing a very clearly-realized version of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, and Lorraine went over to him and listened enraptured exactly as if she’d never heard it before in her life. When he was finished, she shimmied up to him and asked if he knew any OTHER arias from what she called ‘the sacred text’ – he said he knew them all, and she asked for ‘O Thou That Tellest’ … the man’s grimey face brightened a little and he started playing, and a few seconds later she started singing. She started singing, and by the time she was done, the man had stopped playing, the crowds on both platforms had stopped moving, and the train conductors were hanging out of their windows, mesmerized. That voice is gone from the world now, but Ross does a good job of capturing what it was like)

Over in New York magazine, there’s a very nice, openly nostalgic piece by James Atlas on the New York Review of Books, concentrating on the state of that mighty organ in the wake of Barbara Epstein’s death. The piece takes you through all the usual highlights of the Review‘s history – a story’s no less good for being often told – and ends on a somewhat troubling note, wondering if there’s a place in the modern world for something like the New York Review. I read the piece with fond remembrances – how many train trips, how many boring lectures, how many long solitary lunches have been saved, just outright saved, by having a big fat New York Review in my bag? – but also with a little anxiety.

Atlas can’t be right, can he? Surely the world will always need the New York Review of Books? I guess the only way that might change is if the Review itself changed, presumably after Robert Silvers steps down.

If only this blog were frequented by someone with INSIDER KNOWLEDGE of the New York Review!

Plus, the magazine’s Approval Matrix had two items of note, both in the ‘Lowbrow Despicable’ quadrant: first, ‘the Gothification of Jared Leto’ featuring a funny picture of the actor (he DOES still act, right?) in heavy eye-liner. And second, the simple, direct assertion: “Brett Favre should be considering retirement.” Sad, but true. There’s really no POINT to being a quarterback if you’re not Tom Brady.

And in this month’s GQ (the one with roasting tobacco addict Josh Hartnett’s vapid, utterly clueless face on the cover), there’s a wonderful, subtly nasty piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas on self-outed former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey.

Laskas crucifies McGreevey mainly by letting HIM provide the cross and nail himself to it. She asks him frank, simple questions – how did his decision to come out affect his wife, his parents? And then she steps back, turns on the tape recorder, and faithfully recounts how McGreevey – lost in his contemplation of himself – doesn’t actually ANSWER anything.

The picture of McGreevey that emerges from the article is that of a narcissistic creep – gay, straight, or otherwise. Which is a little ironic, given how well his book is selling in the bookstores.

September 24th, 2006

I am well rebuked

Inexcusable, to write about animal bites without including PICTURES!

Pictures, especially, of the MOTHER of all animal bites, brought up by Locke: the brown recluse spider, ladies and gentlemen! The area around its bites DIES and can NEVER BE REVIVED!