Posts from October 2006

October 31st, 2006

Books! A Brattle speciality!

There can be few innocent delights quite as enjoyable as a trip to the Brattle Bookshop on a fine spring day.

Thanks to global warming, that’s exactly what we here at stevereads experienced today, since it was nearly 70 degrees in downtown Boston on the 30th day of October (about 35 degrees warmer than normal).

But we’ve learned to put aside thinking about the viciously incongruous changes in the weather (especially since New England is currently embarking on a season formerly known as ‘winter,’ when daytime temperatures can routinely be expected to dip below 50) and just concentrate on the fact that the absence of cold, wind, or rain means that the Brattle’s bargain carts will be out in all their glory.

Some of you have visited these carts with me in the past, and most of those who have disdained them at first glance. This is understandable: the books are arranged in no special order, and they have a (literally) weatherbeaten look about them. You’ll find no rare first editions here (the shop’s proprietor, Ken Gloss, simply doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes), but if you’re not a book-snob and you’re patient, you will almost certainly find treasure.

A big part of searching the carts involves ENGAGING with them. SO many friends over the years have experienced the same thing: they FIGHT the carts, obdurately waiting for the good books to shout out, grudgingly picking up one or maybe two in the course of fifteen minutes – only to look up and see me with a bulging armload. It’s not that I’m a book-slut; it’s that I squat down and dig around – I don’t only listen to the books, I ask them questions.

Of course, another part of the difference is that at any given time I’m carrying around in my head a MUCH longer list of book-requests and potential book-recipients than most people. This, plus the extremely varied nature of my own reading, mean two things above all others: 1) I’m always going to enjoy myself browsing at the Brattle, and 2) I’m always going to WANT more than I can BUY.

The key is winnowing. As you’re prowling the carts, you pull everything you’re seriously interested in – hence the bulging armload. Don’t leave anything on the cart thinking you’ll come back to it: not only will you need all your potential choices in hand when winnowing-time comes, but anything you leave behind could be snapped up by somebody else (or completely blocked by a grunting, talking-to-himself Bill Knott). Then when you’ve gathered all the potential buys, be ruthless. Which are whims? Which are motivated by some trivial detail (cover design … ulp … edition size … double ulp … UK edition … triple ulp…)? Is everything you buy something you’ll REALLY read, or something a recipient will REALLY read?

Inevitably, there’ll come times when even after you’ve winnowed for all you’re worth, you’re holding more books than you can buy. It happens to me all the time. It happened to me today.

The Brattle bargain shelves are segregated into $1, $3, and $5 sections. Even when I’ve got ducats aplenty in my pockets, I totally ignore the $5 shelves. And it’s on the $3 shelves that the fun begins! I scan the $3 shelves not in order to buy but in order the HANDICAP which volumes might get marked down to $1 before some scab comes along and snatches them up. It’s on the $3 carts that temptation is strongest, because there’s always a voice in the back of your mind (even at your poorest) saying ‘Aw, screw it – it’s only $2 more … buy it now!’

Usually, I’m adamant against that voice. Today I browsed all over, picked out a whole bunch of things – Michael Grant’s little Penguin volume on Roman classics, a nice-looking edition of Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Devil’s Dictionary,’ a satisfyingly plump trade paperback of Elizabeth George’s “Deception on His Mind,” a handy little dictionary of world rulers, a UK edition of Flanagan’s ‘Tenants of Time, a study of American birds …

In the end, I was the bitch of the $3 shelves. This time, anyway.

I picked out a trade paperback of the O.F. Moshead edition of Pepys’ diary, mainly because of Ernest Shepard’s utterly charming illustrations. I already have this edition in hardcover (where it’s called ‘Everybody’s Pepys’), but this is hands-down my favorite edition to give to people, so I reasoned it was good to have a spare lying around. I know, I know – this is in direct violation of the Steve Library Accord of 2005 (no book purchase shall henceforth be made on behalf of speculative future recipients, since this leads to 80,000,000 feckin books covering every square inch of the the apartment)

I also picked out the big fat Running Press trade paperback called ‘The Unabridged Mark Twain,’ even though I’ve variously bought and sold and bought again this same volume countless times over the years, and I couldn’t tell you why. All four of these Running Press volumes (the others are Poe, London, and Shakespeare) are well worth keeping for the sheer overabundant bounty they offer, so I made a mental vow not to dump this one EVER (even though its moronic ‘opening remarks’ are by that moron of all morons, the moronic Kurt Vonnegut).

The third thing I plopped for today was a nice trade paperback of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s biography of Queen Victoria, which I bought because it’s a nice sturdy trade with a Landseer painting on the cover. Woodham-Smith’s version is a lot less bloated and plodding than Elizabeth Longford’s, and it’s a lot less acidic than Lytton Strachey’s – it’s in fact a lucid, delightful read all by itself.

I walked away shamed but happy – the $3 shelves had won this round, but for less than $10 I’d loaded up on three fat, fantastic volumes. It’s only my expertise negotiating the $1 carts that made $9 feel like a lot of money. You gotta love a bookshop like that.

October 30th, 2006

harpers! gawd and mars!

The highlight – well, no, maybe the most noteworthy thing? – about the latest issue of Harper’s is an essay by Marilynne Robinson dealing with “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

As some of you may know, we here at stevereads deeply revere Robinson’s great novel ‘Housekeeping.’ We find far more problematic her second novel ‘Gilead,’ which read like something an extremely intelligent novelist would write if, a couple of years after her first novel, she discovered a lump during a routine breast exam – it wafted of religious hysteria.

In her review of the Dawkins book, she comes close to trotting out Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteriums’ but doesn’t quite do it – for her, I suspect, we’re still in a demon-haunted world.

She chides Dawkins mainly for having a wobbly grasp of history, for having no keen ear for the outermost implications of his own arguments, and for seeming indifferent to the state of science today.

All of which would be to the good if Robinson knew how to write nonfiction. As it is, calling her prose turgid would be an insult to the turgidy memory of John Ruskin:

“I have never seen the suggestion anywhere that the threat of imminent catastrophe on a ‘biblical scale’ – a phrase favored by journalists – wich has hung over the world for more than half a century, might have consequenes for the stability of the global public mind.”

“Yet the image of a deeper reality invoked by [Dawkins] here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elemtents of its physical embodiment.”

“When the Zeitgeist turns Gorgon, the impulses toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.”

If you listen closely to some of these utterances, especially that last one, you’ll hear the whispered matins of a 14th century monk …

However, the piece did have one good effect: it’s prompted me to review the Dawkins book myself, right here at stevereads. Several of you have emailed me wondering what I thought in detail, and it’s wrong for me to deprive you so! Expect it soon!

Also in this issue of Harper’s, we’re informed that a man in Upper Pradesh, India was born with two fully functional penises – and has asked to have one of them cut off.

This story is unbelievable for not one but two reasons. We can only assume it was garbled in transmission, that what the Upper Pradesh man was really asking for was a great deal of alone-time.

And the final item comes from James C. McLane, an associate fellow at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He’s written a detailed proposal about the first manned mission to Mars.

He says the American public has an outdated and often tragic fixation with manned missions, especially missions with multiple passengers. He points out that a modern vessel capable of getting to Mars would only require one operator. And he suggests, for pratical as well as aesthetic reasons, that the trip be one-way.

We here at stevereads whole-heartedly agree. The only task left is to choose the exact right person for the job.

The person should be able to make vital decisions in a pinch – a real take-charge individual, somebody who’s already a leader, a decider.

The person chosen will be travelling a very, very long distance into a total unknown – so they should be armed with the kind of religious faith that gains intensity from being embraced late in life, after many a foray into sin and depravity.

The person chosen will be alone for the long journey and then alone forever on Mars, so they should be extremely comfortable living in a mindset that not only doesn’t require the input of others but actively seeks to avoid it. Our candidate should have a strong go-it-alone componant to their makeup.

Mars’ environment is prone to extremes of harshness – conditions not for the faint of heart. Our candidate should have a bellicose – even glib – attitude toward these dangers, a real ‘bring ’em on’ mentality, even if – especially if – his equipment isn’t equal to the task. Our heroes are larger than life, and/or they dress the part!

And the physical reality of Mars is awe-inspiring – gigantic mountain peaks, nearly bottomless gorges, wind-carved devil-faces, the works! In the face of all this majesty, our candidate should have a certain element of proper humility. So we should find someone who’s been a failure at every job they’ve ever held, preferrably someone who’s failed despite having everything handed to them without any work.

As soon as such a candidate is found, they should be shipped off to Mars without delay. As McLane says, this sacrifice “could well usher in a new age of international cooperation and respect for humanistic values.” Which would certainly be an improvement over the world we live in now, wouldn’t it?

As side note, since everybody else will be feeling the love except our lone Marsonaut, it would probably be best if the person we send HATES both international cooperation and humanistic values. That way they won’t be missing anything.

So stand forth, O brave Marsonaut! Stand forth and do your duty! It’s time for you to cut and run from planet Earth – as Mr. McLane so persuasively argues, once you’re gone, once you’re finally pried off the face of the feckin planet and hurled into space, the rest of us will find ourselves united, not divided. O what a glorious future!

October 30th, 2006

comics! justice and action!

Once upon a time, years ago, when we were both students at State University, my nemesis Pepito came across me rummaging through his midden-heap pile of new comics (if you’re a possession of Pepito’s, there’s a 99 percent probability you’ll end up on the floor around his ankles, unless you require some degree of refrigeration). He said ‘Why don’t chu buy your own comics, puta?’

I apologized gracefully, and I thought the matter was closed. It was only a month later that that Pepito was caught in the lab explosion that disfigured him and turned him to a life of crime and world domination, but I never forgot his earlier question.

In fact, I DO sometimes buy my own comics – always from the good folks at Comicopia (insert hyper/hot link here). The Weekly Dig (ditto) recently voted them the Dig This comic shop of Boston, and I couldn’t agree more. The store’s owner is funny, wry master of realpolitik, his goateed lieutenant knows that successful retail means smiling at everybody even when you don’t feel like it, and best of all, the shop boasts that rarest of subspecies: the FEMALE comic-geek. And the cherry on the pie here is that she’s gorgeous – avid, luminous eyes, rings in her lower lip, and a joyfully adept command of the English language. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lingered in the stacks just to listen to her ‘geek out’ with some customer about some title she loves, just for the joy of hearing passion at work.

The point is, I bought some comics this week. Let’s go issue by issue, shall we?

* The New Avengers #24, written by Brian Michael Bendis and magnificently drawn by Pasqual Ferry – this issue kinda-sorta addresses the question of what you do if you create a half-assed knockoff of Superman (in this case, the Sentry) and need him to take a position in the ongoing Civil War storyline.

Make no mistake, the Sentry is a suckass character, no matter how his various writers decide to gussy him up (psychological problems, basically, are the only thing that stop him from being the only superhero the Marvel universe would ever need).

The problem is generational – i.e. company-based. It’s only in the DC universe that HEROES have Sentry’s kind of virtually unlimited power. Wonder Woman, who’s as strong as Hercules; Green Lantern, who can make anything he imagines happen; Superman; the Spectre.
Marvel has always been different. Its heroes have always been less-powered and more vulnerable (even Thor, a god, reverts to human form if separated from his hammer – and not just any human but, of course, a CRIPPLED human). At Marvel, it’s always been the VILLAINS who were all-powerful (Molecule Man, the Beyonder, Mephisto, Galactus, etc).

So of course it’s awkward that Marvel would invest some weight in this Sentry tool – AND then have no feckin idea how to deal with him when its big crossover event occurs.

The issue finds Sentry on the moon, mooning over whatever. The Inhumans, who live on the moon, attack him and then invite him to dinner. Throughtout the issue, Bendis’ writing is wonderful and adult and evocative, and it’s nothing to Ferry’s fantastic artwork.

The key development of the issue is Iron Hitler’s visit to Attilan, where he tries to make the case for his putsch against super-beings who disagree with him.

I like the sense of restraint. I like the fact that the Inhumans aren’t portrayed as saints (or simps – the important thing to remember about these people is that they aren’t third world refugees: they’re older than mankind, ruled by a man who – despite the somewhat disparaging entry in the Official Handbook – 2 tons indeed!), and, simply, I like the Inhumans

Still, you just KNOW that the ramifications of this issue won’t be played out. If they were, a character who’s able to find and crush any opposition would end the whole Civil War pretty quick.

*Next up is a shame-faced admission of error on the part of the good folk here at stevereads. As you all know by now, we’re usually completely infallible – but for some reason, Alex Ross’ ongoing Justice League title, Justice, sent a crazyworm up our butt pretty much immediately, and it’s stayed there ever since.

I don’t know why the latest issue caught my eye at all. Not only was there the aforementioned crazyworm, but there was also the fact that the cover, thought beautifully drawn, features the Flash bearing down on Captain Cold at super-speed. This was certainly not a mark in its favor: the Flash is a boring character. He runs fast! Big feckin deal! So he has the best rogues gallery in the DC universe, so what? You know how he defeats each of them? By running fast! Yawn.

For whatever reason, I bought the issue – and am well reprimanded for the aforementioned crazyworm resentment of the title. This is fantastic stuff, epic and delightfully true.

This storyline, the big, ungainly storyline, is, I now see, entirely under its writers’ control (Jim Krueger and Alex Ross). And more than that: this is the great, all-encompassing JLA storyline those of us reading the title in the 70s dreamt of.

Everyone’s here. Not just the core magnificent seven, but everybody – the Hawks, Ray Palmer’s Atom, fishnetted Zatanna, Green Arrow and Black Canary, the Elongated Man, even the Phantom Stranger … and there are wonderful additions that we certainly never saw in the 70s: the Doom Patrol, the Metal Men, the Marvel Family, even the hints of Kirby’s Third World.

For me, the best single part of this issue was the very first page, a dialogue between Superman and Batman that’s as deep, as worthy as anything found in our sacred text, Kingdom Come.
Other great moments?

Batman’s interrogation of Captain Cold – again, perfect characterization, in a way we actually seldom saw back in the 70s, when DC was still indecisive about how to ‘do’ Batman: grim avenger the character started out as, or the happy-go-lucky TV goofball from the 60s TV show who put so very much money into DC’s coffers.

Green Lantern’s very stirring rebirth, reciting that dorky oath over his power battery


The final sequence girding of our heroes, realizing they’ll have to fight their own kin and proteges, and furthering the reader’s confidence (some of us belatedly) that this entire thing is under tight control, the ultimate dream-story actually playing out for us every month.

Along the same lines, kinda sorta, was the Geoff Johns/Richard Donner/Adam Kubert relaunch of Action Comics . My hesitations came from three sources: 1) the weird, Freemasonry coincidence of having a Kubert brother apiece drawing Batman and Superman, 2) the fact that arc-relaunches start to get a little tiring when they happen so often, and 3) one of the only aspects of John Byrne’s disasterous reconception of Superman (HOW could DC EVER have been that desperate?) I liked was the idea of Superman being the ONLY survivor of Krypton. In recent years that concept has been seriously blurred (the Eradicator, Krypto, Zod, two or three Supergirls, etc) – and this issue gets even blurrier, introducing a little-kid ‘superboy’ only moments after poor Kon-el’s corpse was in the ground. We’ll see what comes of it, but I’d rather Johns (and Donner, who I’m sure had about as much a part in writing this thing as I did) found some other plot-device to goose up his new graphic-novel-in-the-making.

Still, this is grand stuff. Mainly that’s due to Adam Kubert’s elaborately fantastic artwork. It feels wonderful, actually looking forward to both Action Comics and Superman again – now if only something could be done about the Legion, I’d be one happy blogger.

October 28th, 2006

books! For Everybody!

A VERY disturbing feature of this month’s Atlantic deserves separate mention. Under the heading ‘Reading List,’ Terry Castle gives us: “Post-Brokeback, more gay love stories for straight people.”

What follows is pretty awful stuff. For instance:

“The Charioteer by Mary Renault (1959). A yummy, plummy page-turner – ‘Gone with the Wind’ for the educated-pansy set – by a writer best known for her novels about ancient Greece. Laurie, a young British soldier recovering from devastating wounds suffered at Dunkirk, is loved by two men: Andrew, the beautiful and virginal Quaker orderly who cares for him in the hospital, and Ralph, a schoolmate once exiled for homosexuality, who now resurfaces as a handsome naval officer. Which one to choose? (I myself would go with Ralph, whom I imagine looking like George Clooney.) Lots of bedpans, bandage changing, and poetical blatherings about Plato, but also a hugely satisfying dollop of the creamiest Homo Romance.”

Every entry is like that – breathless, hand-fanning, aesthetically blind (he refers to K.M. Soehnlein’s leaden, soporific novel “The World of Normal Boys” as “deft” and “astonishing,” for intance). One imagines it was meant as humor – most blackface is. But in his final selection he becomes simply odious:

“My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley (1956). Religious fundamentalists frequently condemn homosexuality on the grounds that it leads to bestiality. And right they are! Though an avid devotee of guardsmen and other virile types the British writer J.R.Ackerley found the love of his life in Queenie, a female German shepherd he adopted in the mid-1940s. (She is renamed Tulip in this classic – and hilarious – memoir of their liaison.) Looking at pictures of Queenie’s sexy snout, lithe haunches, and noble, lofting tail, one can see why Ackerley succumbed: she’s a Hot Hot Hottie from Hottsville. Woof.”

This kind of prancing idiocy is better ignored than investigated, I know, I know – but I can’t let this go by in silence. Ackerley’s book is indeed a love story, as deep and true a one as any chronicled in 20th century literature … but it’s not a sex-story, as this moron so heavily implies (aided and abetted by the cartoon at the top of the piece, showing Ackerley in bed with his dog).

Not only does this little squib cast a slur on Ackerley’s name and his wonderful book, but it turns back the clock ever so slightly on the whole field of gay fiction.

‘Gay love stories for straight people’? What does that even mean? If they’re ‘for’ straight people, does that mean they’ll have elements different from if they were ‘for’ gay people? Is ‘Brokeback Mountain’ the template here – that straight people will ‘accept’ a gay love story if you a) never use the word ‘gay’ b) never use the word ‘love’ and c) make damn sure the protagonists (don’t say lovers! that won’t play in Peoria!) are either miserable or beaten to death at the end?

If we’re generous, we might interpret the phrase to mean ‘love stories in which the main characters are gay but that you don’t have to be gay yourself to understand or like’ … still pretty much nonsense (doubt a whole lot of 19th century slave-holders read ‘Gone with the Wind’), but at least then the outcome isn’t necessarily a passive-aggressive morality play for the good folks of Connecticut.

Given such parameters, we can do better than this Castle moron, with his daquiri-waving and his calling his male friends ‘Mary’ and his rolling his eyes and flouncing off in a cloud of Clinique at the first sign of literary complexity. What possessed the Atlantic’s Ben Schwarz to run this little abomination is beyond me.

So here’s a little corrective, courtesy of the right-thinking folks here at stevereads! Six gay love stories ‘for’ straight people – and for gay people, and mostly for reading people.

Hey, Joe by Ben Neihart – There’s no easy way to describe the lazy, lyrical ways of this beautiful, idiosyncratic little novel. It’s title character wanders through its happenings (some random, some intensely thrilling) in a daze of sweet nature, pot fumes, and raging omnivorous sex-urges. The book is bittersweet in its own right, but now, looking back at it and realizing how big a part the living, breathing New Orleans is to the story, the thing is almost heartbreaking, in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault – Have no fear: there’s no Platonic ‘blatherings’- instead, there’s a moving and extremely well-realized historical novel set during the long 25-year war between Athens and Sparta. The heart of Renault’s historical novels is her amazing ability to transport the reader into the mindframe of another time, in this case a time when the love between her two main characters, Alexias and Lysis, was not only condoned by their society but esteemed by it. All of her historical novels are magnificent (something ‘The Charioteer’ most certainly isn’t), and this one is the most poignant, capturing a growing young love against the backdrop of the death of the world’s finest civilization.

Clay’s Way by Blair Mastbaum – This debut novel, the story of a weird, confused relationship between two teen boys on Oahu, is suffused with all the awkwardness and urgency of adolescence. The author has a real knack for creating atmosphere – there’s no hint of the guidebook in his Hawaiian backdrop, and no hint of Hallmark in his depiction of what love can do to young people.

Fool’s Errand by Louis Bayard – Hapless, hoping Patrick falls asleep in a nook of a loud house-party and is half-woken by the vision of a perfect man in a cranberry sweater. He spends the bulk of the novel chasing that half-glimpsed ideal, and it’s all beautifully, acutely done.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann – Set in 17th century England, this very involving novel centers on a young soldier erotically fixated on another soldier – the upheavals in England at the time of the novel are very adroitly made to mirror the unspeakable changes the main character is experiencing.

Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger – a hugely inventive and sweetly sentimental (though it would never admit the fact) novel about a high school jock and a high school geek who make a profound connection and then – years later – test its validity. Kluger is so energetically involved in every single aspect of this book that re-reading is virtually required.

The key to ALL these novels isn’t being gay, or knowing somebody who’s gay – what a poor, pathetic little key that would be for ANY kind of niche-fiction. What a scornful little accolade it would be, to say about a book ‘sci fi fans will love it’ – no, the point of these novels (and they’re just examples) is that READERS will love them. Without the woof.

October 26th, 2006

The Sweet Hereafter

Now that I’ve spent so much time jumping up and down on the very concept of an afterlife, I’d like to speculate on it! Tell me what your personal Heaven would be like – all the details you’d like about what constitutes paradise to you.

October 26th, 2006

More from the London Review!

Though not worthy of inclusion with the Eagleton/Dawkins donnybrook, there were a couple of other things worth mentioning about the latest London Review of Books this time around.

For instance, there’s this letter from Russell Seitz of our own Cambridge Mass.:

Back in Nasa’s glory days, even photographers were kept 17,000 feet away from the Apollo 11 launch pad – about a mile per kiloton of explosive yield were the Saturn V to suffer a mishap. Yet one enterprising colleague of mine slipped away down a canal to a point two miles closer. The lift-off safely hurled the ‘spam in a can’ astronauts moonwards, but the wayward journalist emerged hours later, stone deaf and looking like Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. He recovered sufficiently to take the press bus to the base of the launch pad, which we were aghast to find sprinkled with Saturn V nuts, bolts, and other bits shed during lift-off. Nasa declined to comment, but a Mercury astronaut later explained their significance. Any damn fool can get close to a virtual hydrogen bomb, but it takes the right stuff to climb into one fully aware that it had been built by the lowest bidder.

Bravo, Russell! Thanks for at least trying to convey how an earlier generation looked up to its astronauts …there’s no equivalent today – or rather, I should say today’s society isn’t equivalent.

Also good in this issue was a review by Peter Campbell of the new exhibit at the Tate of Hans Holbein’s drawings and portraits.

Campbell is a very good, very sensitive reader of Holbein’s work – work which has always been deeper and more mischievous than it seems at first blush.

He begins with an extended conceit that’s so irrestible I immediately wanted somebody to WRITE it, as a novella – except I’m the only person I know who could write it, and I’m kind of busy:

Imagine a party attended by sitters from English portraits. The Gainsborough crowd rustle in, a blur of silk and powder. You can’t quite bring their faces into focus, but you seem to recognise them. They are elegant and casual. The people who come with Reynolds are their contemporaries, but the atmosphere changes. The men have more gravitas and fall naturally into classical poses, the women are winsomely theatrical. The aristocratic Van Dycks tend towards the soulful and control the arrangement of their pedigree-revealing features, their gestures and their ringlets with an exquisite care that intimates carelessness. The Lelys tumble through the door from another party – the men’s coats unbuttoned, the women’s bosoms as white as their eyes are bright. The Hogarths, a decent, prosperous lot, are here for the food and drink. The Hilliards – some in allusive fancy dress – are full of poetry. The Freuds, who haven’t dressed up at all, slump in armchairs. Some of them fall asleep.
“Imagine such a party and you see that while individuals differ – and while successful portrait painters must, in getting a likeness, preserve differences – painters also turn their sitters into types, sometimes, but not always, flattering ones…
“What distinguishes the Holbein contingent at the party is that they don’t know there is a party. Holbein doesn’t suggest congeniality by imposing his personality on their personalities. You will remember each face, and would recognise it years later in an identity parade, but as itself, not as one managed by Holbein.

Although none of you care about Holbein portraits any more than you care about Chilean water-additives, I liked this bit. Holbein – volatile, explosive, every inch the ‘tempermental artist’ – would have loved this description.

Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus is a little marvel, we here at Stevereads can attest directly. The great man, the middle-aged world-famous humanist, is sitting bolt upright at his cantilevered writing table. He’s dressed thickly, against the perennial cold of all 16th century houses, but there’s another reason too: the robes and cap he wears are costly things, signs of the commercial bankability of the sitter.

His spatulate hands are at work on some enterprise of the mind or soul, but on his fingers are rings of jewel and gold, remunerable artifacts.

He’s almost smiling, this man who never in life stopped smiling. He’s wearing heavy clothes against the chills that always plagued him. He’s not working, but you can tell from the semi-ironic cast of his long, expressive face that he KNOWS he’s not working, that he knows he’s pretending to work for the sake of the painting. ‘Look,’ the painting says, ‘This is Erasmus; this is what he does, and he’s obviously successful doing it.’

Easily the most impressive thing about the painting is exactly what Campbell says: once you’ve seen it, you know above all just what Erasmus actually LOOKED like. It’s a rare thing to combine that ability with genuine artistic sensibility, so if one of you loyal readers would like to pony up the funds to send me to the Tate, I promise to blog all about when I get back!

October 26th, 2006

me again

And before one of you snotnoses points out that I once again made reference to ‘kids’ as though I weren’t all but one myself, kindly gaze upon my incredibly-young features!

October 26th, 2006

The Penny Press! that damnable Dawkins!

The London Review of Books is a steady, pleasant publication, far more intelligent than the New York Times Book Review, and far less fiercely complex and involved than the mighty TLS. Its articles and reviews amble about comfortably on the midslopes of Parnassus, so when something really firebrandy pops up, it’s immediately noticeable.

This latest issue has one such piece – hoo boy, does it ever.

The piece is by Terry Eagleton, and it’s a review of Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion.

Eagleton begins promisingly:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

He goes on in this vein, much like he’s preparing a case:

If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they [most book reviewers] would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

This is promising stuff, especially if you’ve already read Dawkins’ book, as I have; it looks to be building the case that Dawkins’ latest book is a shoddy, tossed-off affair – this is certainly true, and a beginning like this one makes the prospect of a full-length spanking suddenly appealing.

Alas, the prospect is dashed pretty early on. And what takes its place is weirdly unsatisfying. The reader quickly becomes aware of three facts: 1) Eagleton hasn’t in fact read Dawkins’ book, 2) Eagleton is loopily religious in exactly the same degree and measure that Dawkins is loopily atheist, and 3) Eagleton isn’t even prepared to make a coherent case FOR faith BASED on faith. He’d much rather pontificate:

Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.

Reeling, we move on:

The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God … they had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.

At which point your loyal reader stopped, looked up gasping at his Chinese waitstaff, and said aloud: “Yes they were.”

Transcendence and invisibility are the absolute CORNERSTONES of the Loch Ness monster and the tooth fairy. They’re the cornerstones of EVERY human fantasy big and small through all of history.

I believe in you because I can SEE you. I can watch your behaviors, develope a sense of your patterns, rudimentarily predict your actions (Sebastian will always make some unconscious, incredibly condescending comment to waiters in restaurants – like carefully spelling out the word ‘soup'; Jeff will always have a practical solution to any problem that turns up in company, whether he’s heeded or not; John will always be between ten and three hundred minutes late for any pre-arranged meeting; Pepito will always grow attached to the live chickens he buys for his santeria rituals and end up KEEPING them and giving them snuggly names, etc)

If I couldn’t see you, if nobody I’d ever known had ever seen you, if nobody in any reliable record had ever spent a single moment in your presence, you can be damn sure I WOULDN’T believe in you, and nobody else would either. God is not a celestial super-object or a divine UFO? Both descriptions seem pretty near perfect.

But Eagleton isn’t nearly done:

God is not a person … he is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claims that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.

Oh my.

Oh my, my, my.

At the very least, we know conclusively by now that we are no longer reading a book review. This would be interesting in a stretch of autobiography, but it’s extremely depressing in the London Review of Books.

But Eagleton, somehow getting all this past an editor, has a LOT more to say:

God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying he did not need to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us.

Somehow, ‘oh my’ just doesn’t seem to adequate at this point.

Love? Where did love come into this? Love, the name that humans append to an EXTREMELY narrow bandwidth of an EXTREMELY narrow emotion? Love? What does the universe know of love?

The universe is a beyond-calculation huge expanse of open space and hydrogen one degree above absolute zero. It knows nothing of love, but that’s OK, since Eagleton clearly means ’20/21 st century America’ when he talks about transcendence.

And what about his wild claim that his hippy-granola lower-g god wants nothing more than to be allowed to love ‘us’?

To say the very least, to say the comically least, God – the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God – wants a great deal more from His believers than simply an invitation to a cuddle-puddle. The God of the Jews tells His followers that they are the chosen people and all others are worthy of contempt or pity. The God of the Christians tells His followers to make disciples of all nations. The God of the Muslims (it STRENUOUSLY bears pointing out that we’re talking about the EXACT SAME God here) tells His followers to murder the unbeliever. That’s hardly the same as this Facebook friend folderol Eagleton so blandly calls fact.

All of this would be more endurable if Eagleton had actually read Dawkins’ book, as I said. But if he can write “Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anywhere or anytime, is worthy of any respect whatsoever,” he clearly hasn’t. But it’s even more alarming that he obviously hasn’t read his Bible in quite a while either, as when he writes that Jesus was put to death “because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy, and justice…”

The local lackeys in question (not sure how the Roman-hating elders and chief priests of the Temple would have liked that description, but we’ll skip over that) sought the death of Jesus not because they were buzzkills to his love-jones but because he defied their authority by a) denouncing them publically and b) smashing up their concession stands. And the Romans killed him because he declared himself the King of the Jews, which in the Roman world was treason.

OK, so Eagleton hasn’t read Dawkins’ book, and he hasn’t read the Bible … but what about a feckin newspaper now and then? What but a total ignorance of the world and everything in it could account for a passage like this:

On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion.

Yeesh. Can Eagleton really be this dense? Attributing the swiftly-approaching Apocalypse to technology is like attributing toast to the toaster. The next time a building blows up, or a city is flattened by a suitcase nuke, or cloud of chemical death is loosed, I guarantee you it will be religion that does it – religion merely USING technology. Religious conflict has accounted for more human death and suffering than any other possible factor or all such factors put together. It takes exactly zero mental work to see this.

But Eagleton is so intent on putting Dawkins in his place that he fails to notice that his own idealogy is equally absurd.

As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads are calmly, 100 percent atheist. We say: of course there is no God, no afterlife, no nothing of any kind. There’s this tiny little blip of life, and that’s all.

When people assert that the above is true for all other living things that have ever walked the Earth EXCEPT mankind, who at death sends off a carbon-copy ghost that travels to an alternate dimension and lives there forever with consciousness and personality intact, we calmly point out that if you just sat and THOUGHT about that scenario for a second, you’d see how silly it is.

Humans are afraid of dying. Humans have an enormously complex brain, prone to creating fantasies. Put those two things together and do the math yourself.

So, if Dawkins had written an excoriation of the evils of religion that was GOOD, we’d applaud it. And likewise if Eagleton wrote a either a condemnation of Dawkins’ book or a defense of religion that was GOOD, we’d love reading it, as we love reading C.S. Lewis.

But as it is, the book and the review are equally dumb and irritating. I’ll keep you all posted on the letters page fallout that’s SURE to happen.

October 25th, 2006

Books: Starships and Trojans!

We here at Stevereads are regularly inundated with advance reading copies of all manner of upcoming books, hurled at us by supplicant publishing houses in the faint hope of a mere mention here on this, the hottest site on the Interweb.

Ah, if only that paragraph were true! But we here at Stevereads have done precious little to get the word out to the rest of the world that this little bit of paradise even exists. And none of YOU little marmosets has done enough either – we’re all guilty here.

Instead of being courted as a digital tastemaker, I’m forced to get my advance copies the old fashioned way: a rickety, jury-rigged network of friends and acquaintances seeded throughout every level of the book industry – from lowly booksellers all the way up the food chain (yes, I’m not ashamed to admit it, though it’s a season-ending social stain: I actually know a publisher).

We all keep up a vigorous, vaguely circular current of favors and counter-favors (some of us are worse at it than others, Jack…), and it manages to keep me supplied with a large number of things I want to read nownownow.

Four items from the last four or five days stand out from the muck of rotten novels and featherweight memoirs:

Ships of the Line, edited by Margaret Clark – this is a wonderful, wonderful treat for any Star Trek fan. It’s a hugely detailed, merrily authoritative compendium of all the various vessels featured in all the various incarnations of Star Trek. The cover alone would make a poster lots of fans would like to frame. A great deal of this material has been in print before – in the form of two nearly-identical little paperback volumes, one devoted to smaller vessels, the other to starship-class vessels. These two volumes are almost comically inter-confusable and in any case stupidly hard to find, so this new volume comes as a godsend from the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

Two volumes of military history:

Dunkirk by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore – The author’s writing style is a bit dry, but his research is immense and leaves out no detail or ramification of the gigantic ignominious defeat that is his subject.

The more you know about military tactics and strategy, the more you groan aloud when reading about Dunkirk, and to his credit, Sebag-Montefiore reigns in any outrage he’s feeling. Slogging through this book’s 700 pages, I found myself wishing for a little MORE outrage, a little more fire under the floorboards. As it is, I could only recommend this big book to devotedly avid military history readers. The rest of you would be bored spitless, even though the book deals with an utterly fascinating subject (pull down your Palmer & Colton – I’ve certainly given you a copy over the years – and get more of a Dunkirk THRILL in four pages than this entire book manages to deliver).

Delivery isn’t a problem with Paul Cartledge’s Thermopylae – he knows he has a slam-bang great story to tell, as has everybody else who’s told the same story.

This is a really good book – readable, well-researched, almost fun, about a hugely crucial Western battle that’s equally memorably captured in Frank Miller’s 300, a great hardcover graphic novel about Sparta’s doomed fight against the hordes of Persia.

Thermopylae is well worth your time, as exciting and informative as any book on an entirely relevant 2000-year-old Bronze Age conflict could be to the iPod generation (i.e. completely, although none of you will read the sentence non-ironically..).

The last item on our little tour is the best: Robert Fagles’ new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Fagles is already well-known for successfully pulling off the other two legs of the translation triple crown: he’s already done the Iliad and the Odyssey, to critical acclaim that was perhaps a touch overdone. That acclaim is going to go into overdrive when this book come out.

Like the previous two volumes, this one is adorned with a fantastic, separately anthology-worthy long essay by Bernard Knox. Like with the previous two volumes, I find myself only middle-of-the-line praising Fagles’ translation but absolutely ecstatic about Knox’s introduction. In some scary future world where readers can design every feature of their own books (Japanese scientists are already working on it …), I would transplant the Knox introduction onto some better translation of Virgil.

And which would that be, you all breathlessly wonder? Some of you will know that I accord top Homer-translating honors (for this century) to Robert Fitzgerald, who also did an Aeneid. Or what about good old Stanley Lombardo, whose own Aeneid failed to garner the attention his slightly free-wheeling translations of Homer did? Or what if we range beyond the 20th century? Some of you will already know of my fondness, my more than fondness, for Dryden ….

But no, it would have to go to Allen Mandelbaum. His Aeneid is the best English translation I’ve ever read (and I’ve read every published one, and a couple that very deservedly aren’t published). Mandelbaum comes the closest to capturing all the different moods of the poem – its stately grandeur, its sometimes wild imagery, and most of all the quality that foils so many translators: the beauty of the verse (more than one translator over the centuries has got so caught up in the whole ‘poet of empire’ aspect of Virgil that they seem to forget he wrote some of the most beautiful pastoral verse in the world).

Still, Fagles’ Virgil – like his Homer – is very good, certainly good enough to recommend – and the addition of magnificent opening essay tips the scales well in the book’s favor. This thing will be VERY well-stocked at your local Barnes & Noble when it comes out, although the mind boggles at WHY (other than money changing hands, which is the reason, but still…) – surely there aren’t 30 adults in the country who’d actually relish this as a present come year’s end?

And there you have it! A tiny little crystal-ball peek into a few choice upcoming titles. Many such journeys are possible; let me be your gateway …

October 23rd, 2006

poetry class!

It’s a little distressing, how everybody out there EXCEPT the poets are responding to my ‘poetry class’ posts. Is this because the poets are too busy brooding? Or is it that they consider my choices SO far beyond the pale that they can only feel silent pity for me?

In any case, it’s the New Yorker that ran the poem in question today. Some of you will instantly recognize it as a ‘Steve poem’ – but since the whole purpose of these little tutorials is to broaden that definition, I’m including it anyway:

Memory buries its own,
And of what now forever must be
The longest day of his life
What mostly remained was a blur
Under too bright lights – so he
Could scarcely tell if the things
Sharpest in his mind were
Nothing but fantasies, sewn
Afterwards, out of grief,
And guilt’s imaginings.

Yet it seemed memory called up
(After the interminable birth,
As his finger stroked the arm
Of a child who would not last
Even one whole day
And all of its time on earth
Ministered to by vast
Machines that couldn’t mend the harm
In a single transcription slip
In reams of DNA)

A look so haunted, so
Haunting, he would not confess
(Not even later, to his wife)
How it stayed with him, on him: the slow
Flicker in a watery eye,
The mute call – through all
The exhausted hopefulness
The condemned come to know
In the end – from animal to animal,
Imploring, Please save my life.

That’s called ‘Son’ and it’s by Brad Leithauser, and yes – it’s heartbreakingly sad (and about the death of a child to boot). But I also think it’s GOOD. And in wondering aloud whether or not it really is, I should stress I’d like to hear also from you genuine versifiers out there.