Posts from December 2006

December 31st, 2006

Happy New Year! 2006!


We here at Stevereads began this whole web-experiment with a fair amount of scepticism. The Interweb? We scoffed at it – a gigantic, amorphous collection of mouth-breathing virgins in black concert T-shirts, too busy-handed to settle down of a candlelit evening with a good long book.

But our admirers insisted, and eventually we conceded and started this blog-spot. Almost immediately, we were convinced it was a bad idea, a losing proposition. We’d post and post, and there’d be no reply at all – just a bunch of well-wishers calling me on the phone and telling me how much they enjoyed what I’d written the day before.

And we complained about it, liberally! Many’s the time we’d catch Sebastian just before he left for yet another late dinner at the Drones Club and yak his ear off, only to have him plaintively commisserate, “I KNOW! I KNOW! The world just ISN’T fair!”

Wiser heads, such as our aforementioned dear John, counselled us in patience. We were told over and over that blogs build their audiences slowly, by word of mouth, one reader at a time.

And so we kept posting, and gradually we drew responses – including those maddening few who insist of remaining anonymous. Gradually, something like a DIALOGUE came into being, and here at the close of 2006, this is a very satisfying state of affairs. (Also a HUGELY satisfying state of affairs: being able to Google ourselves!)

In 2007, we hope to elaborate Stevereads in every way: more entries, mastering that damned elusive hot-linking technique, aggressively inviting various and sundry other web-addresses to link back to this one, and of course, a steady supply of photos of stone-cold super-hottie moi!

But in the meantime, we here at Stevereads want to thank all of you who’ve waded into the comments field and made this so much fun! It’s surely a small sign of success that so young an undertaking can already boast of such a rich gallery of distinct voices: steadfast Jeff; Kevin, who’s self-evidently sweet despite being wrong about everything, all the time; dear Beepy, who occasionally drifts in from her shallow lagoon to share her manatee-thoughts; John, adding a touch of class to our sweaty endeavors; the always-peppy Sam, still the only person to use the word ‘pullulate’ on this site; semi-feral Elmo; the magnificent Hippolyta, who graces us all with her comments but who pines only for John; Sebastian, posting his comments from various Cambridge cafes because the sprawling home estate has no Internet access; acerbic, winning Locke, who’s been sparring with me on aesthetic matters since most of you were in diapers; and yes, even the Reichmarshal (who is not, I assure you all of you who’ve wondered, me), who got piled on but good and still stood his ground.

And then there’s the silent chorus out there! Honorees who get mentioned in these entries and who sometimes read them, but who’ve as yet refrained from making themselves heard – such celebrities as my esteemed colleague Cy, or The Mama Chan, or Party Grrrl, or the Nose, or My Lady Disdain, or TS Bacon, or my archnemesis Pepito, or Shy Guy, or the enigmatic Boopella. May 2007 be the year when we hear from ALL of you!

This has been great fun, and you may rest assured, we here at Stevereads are marshalling many more marvels for your mastication in the upcoming months! Tonight we head off to our little cabin at Montauk Point (with Leni and Blondi sitting quietly and obediently in the back seat, and then reposing gracefully by the roaring fire), but we shall return!

In the meantime, we wish a Happy New Year to all of you. See you on the other side!

December 28th, 2006

poetry class! 2006!

We here at Stevereads thought we’d resurrect one more time our Poetry Class, with a culling of three poems from our archives. We know that at least three accomplished poets read this blog, and yet most of them (in fact, all of them except our dear John, the fourth truly wonderful poet by that Christian name we’ve known) have refrained from any comment whatsoever on the poems we’ve posted here.

We’re painfully aware of the reason why. Yes, yes, our aesthetic sensibilities are a bit … well, perhaps challenged? At any rate they pretty much stopped with Kipling and Service, so we give added weight to clear merical lines and perhaps some openly celebrated sentiment.

In any case, the tradition deserved, we thought, one last hurrah. So here they are, in no particular order:

Untitled

Past midnight, and my umpteenth Zinfandel.
I type the Science Spotlight for tomorrow’s
edition of the Global Sentinel:

The earth is losing species at a rate
comparable with the mass extinctions of the Cambrian, Devonian, Permian,
Triassi, and Cretaceous. The Gilded Toad
lived on a mountain range in Costa Rica,
and has not been seen for 15 years.
The Hawaiian Thrush was extirpated by
destruction of its forest habitat,
pathogens brought by introduced mosquitoes,
and competition from non-native species.
The Hawaiian Crow is also now extinct.
Pantandon madagascariensis
(a fish from Malagasy) disappeared
when swamps it lived in were converted to
fields to grow rice. A ‘new’ Brazilian
amphibian has not been sighted since
it was discovered 80 years ago.
What’s happening now is more than can be seen
anywhere in the fossil record. These
annihilations, taking place for reasons
of climate change and new disease emergence,
are indications of climacteric things
which will affect us and our frailly balanced
productive economic systems, SOON.

In my same column thirty-eight years back:
the earth is threatened by its own pollution …
Western Industrial Man is facing, NOW,
not just a challenge but a climacteric …
(Those in the front seats should have paid attention.)

Peter Reading

Prayer to Persephone for Mazy

Lady, please welcome our dog.
She comes alone and is easily scared. She never wanted
to be separated from us. Once in New Hampshire,
We climbed a look-out tower and left her.

at the bottom, by the flimsy metal ladder.
As I gazed at mountains and valleys,
someone yelled, ‘Is that your dog?’
I looked down and saw her poised

On a rung, a trembling paw reaching
for the next, all that scary space
in between, and I flew down the ladder
and hugged her as she trembled and licked my face.

She likes to be scratched behind her ears,
Lady, will you hold her if she trembles?

Nan Fry

By Small and Small: Midnight to 4 a.m.

For eleven years I have regretted it
regretted that I did not do what
I wanted to do as I sat there those
four hours watching her die. I wanted
to crawl in among the machinery
and hold her in my arms, knowing
the elementary, leftover bit of her
mind would dimly recognize it was me
carrying her to where she was going.

Jack Gilbert

December 27th, 2006

The Best Books of 2006!


We here at Stevereads are familiar with all the old adages about it being easier to throw stones than to build houses. Certainly we’ve made no secret of our FONDNESS for throwing stones. The world is full of crap, and all of it deserves condemnation, and there are only so many hours in a day.

But nevertheless, we’d like to think that those who know us well associate us first with book-ENTHUSIASM, not book-contempt. We read a large amount (a year-end scrutiny of accounts puts the total for 2006 – as of this writing – at somewhere around 730 books, give or take a few re-reads), and most of what we read ends up being anything from merely average to downright terrible.

This has the effect of making us jump all the higher for joy at encountering something good, and thus was born the first annual Stevereads Best Books of 2006! Enjoy!

Big Bam by Leigh Montville – Hand down the best, most judicious, yet most boisterously readable biography of Babe Ruth ever written. ‘Readable’ is a word that will crop often in this list, and Montville has mastered the science of it.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – This touching, sad, completely accomplished novel (calling it ‘young adult’ feels so dumb, so marketing-advised … ‘adult’ novels should be so wonderful), narrated by Death and centering on the Holocaust, is a huge leap forward for Zusak’s already-redoubtable talent.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald – Set in India’s near-future and featuring a bewildering array of characters from all stripes of society, this is an absorbing reading experience and easily the best science fiction novel of the year.

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris – 21 centuries of Christian obscurantism are not easily brushed aside. You’d think it would require a doorstop tomb even to attempt it, but you’d be wrong: Harris’ book is as slender as a knife and just as lethal – every single prop, every single justification, moral or otherwise, for … well, for following any organized religion … is serially skewered, in the minimum number of words, to the maximum effect. St. Augustine would have been furious – proud, but furious.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max – ‘Raucous’ doesn’t do this one justice, not by a long shot. This scabrous, disgusting, laugh-out-loud hilarious memoir by our Rabelesian young narrator is quite possibly the funniest book ever written by a hopelessly hardened alcoholic.

Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn – An apocalyptically dysfunctional family, rendered in gorgeous, acerbic prose. We here at Stevereads are beginning to suspect that St. Aubyn’s literary talent extends no further than these somewhat autobiographical turns (his previous collection of novellas, “Some Hope,” was stunning and similar), but if so, so what? This is fantastic writing and deserves a wider audience.

Grief by Andrew Holleran – Holleran has survived everything (Stonewall, AIDS, Reagan, and even the writing of a great book, his iconic Dancer from the Dance), and he takes all that and crafts here an indelibly sad book, as cleansing and cathartic as a day of throwing up. Which is, um, meant as praise …

Fish – When he looked through this coffee table book’s big, elegantly designed pages, each two-page spread displaying a beautifully detailed color illustration of one of America’s major fish species (each with a brief but intensely informative write-up), my esteemed colleague Cy, in his booming Midwestern voice, said: “That’s some book!” We can think of no higher praise.

Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (translated by Dick Davis) – The Persian Book of Kings, epic tales from pre-Islam Iran, is here fully translated and annotated for the first time, in a very attractive volume from Viking. Like all of the world’s great epics, it carries within it a living, breathing civilization that’s now mostly vanished. And the stories make good reading, too.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn – edited by Caroline Moorehead – These letters (Moorehead gives us a generous amount) render up the whole person: the gigantic intellect, the almost ungovernable passions, the rollicking sense of humor, the unerring eye. We here at Stevereads often frown on posthumus collections of letters, but this case is different – Gellhorn (like her erstwhile husband) never really wrote anything private, as almost all of these letters demonstrate so wonderfully.

Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel – the author decides to go in quest of the tigers of China, and what she finds both alarms and inspires her. She starts off as just another feckless freelancer with a nifty idea, but in the course of her many, many interviews with all manner of people connected with the cause of tigers in China, she changes – she becomes involved, and so will her readers. This isn’t precisely natural history (not, for instance, in the way the fish book is), it’s more natural-reporting … but it’s no less interesting for that.

Mussolini’s Italy by Richard Bosworth – easily one of the best works of formal history published this year, and yet that ‘formal’ (meant to denote an impeccable critical apparatus) belies Bosworth’s delightful narrative gifts. Bosworth gets at the heart and soul of the country, instead of just the nuts and bolts of the dictator’s palace, and the result is an extremely good work of history.

Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan – we here at Stevereads couldn’t keep ourselves awake while reading Harrigan’s historical novel Gates of the Alamo, so we were as surprised as anybody that we couldn’t put down this novel, set in contemporary times and indeed centering around the space program. There’s some subtle writing going on here, and none moreso than in the depiction of Lucy Kincheole – mother, astronaut, and one of the most three-dimensional female characters in modern memory. Here’s our vote that Harrigan sticks with the present day for all his future novels.

Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose – this thorough examination of all the various spy-networks used by General Washington and his staff (vital work, in an age before Mapquest could tell you what your enemies were doing on and off the field) is groundbreaking in the sheer amount of its research and really enjoyable in the jaunty tone of its narrative – the best book published on the American Revolution this year.

Bats at the Beach by Brian Lies – Quite possibly the most sublime work of fiction published this year, and hands-down the best picture book. Again, calling this a ‘kids’ book feels misleading … certainly kids will love this tale of how much fun bats have at the beach after all the sun-worshipping humans have left, but there’s an undecurrent of whimsy here that would be totally inaccessible to any child. Probably the easiest resolution is to say this delightful book can be enjoyed by all ages and anybody with the capacity to smile.

An Irish History of Civilization by Don Akenson – the format of this weird, incredible book – two very large, expensive hardcovers – no doubt warned off nine-tenths of its potential readership, and that’s a shame, because even long-time readers of history have never read anything like this work. It’s a massive collection of glimpses, vignettes, extended scenes, and increasingly exasperated screeds on all possible facets of Irish history. It’s a bawling, defiant, opinionated work such as we here at Stevereads have never quite encountered, and we sincerely hope its format in paperback is sufficiently changed to draw to it the readers it richly deserves.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery – of all the books out there on global warming (and there are more every week, it seems), Flannery’s is the most balanced and the most fun to read. As a natural history reporter, Flannery likes taking on the big subjects, and he has a knack for pulling his readers along. This is a continuously enjoyable book, albeit on the darkest of all possible subjects.

And lastly, that most enviable item, the Stevereads Best Book of 2006:

World War Z by Max Brooks – This entirely engrossing novel about mankind’s death-struggle with a quick-spreading zombie plague is not only the ultimate homage to every zombie movie ever made – it’s also the ur-text of zombie fiction, joining, for instance, Dracula for vampires or Jaws for killer sharks. And most of all, it’s a ripping good yarn, the kind of book that any reader in the land would end up loving – if you can only get around their genre-prejudices and get them to read it, that is.

So there you have it – the literary highlights of 2006! We read many, many books this year, but these are the ones that stayed with us, the ones we can picture ourselves re-reading and recommending years from now. We here at Stevereads vouch for their quality and heartily recommend them to you!

December 27th, 2006

The Worst Books of 2006!


We here at Stevereads are as annoyed as anybody (OK, maybe a smidge moreso, but only because we annoy so dang EASILY) by the trite nature of most year-end year-in-books summary pieces. Such pieces only tend (unintentionally, one presumes) to highlight the fact that their writers spent the year doing Sudoku and are only copying the same titles from each other at the last minute. They Google up titles from the last three months and then toss reviewer-speak at each one: ‘breathtaking’ ‘rich and colorful’ ‘a trenchant commentary on man’s inhumanity to man’ and so forth.

Of course, SOME amount of phrasifying is necessary when you’re only saying a little about a lot of books. And phrases get repeated, there’s no avoiding that.

What really bugs us about such lists (the Boston Globe’s Gail Cauldwell is by yards and yards the worst offender) is the presumption they all seem to make that literature is a closed and stately procession, where established authors can never be bad, where midlist authors will always be interesting, and where newcomers will never simply outwrite their elders. There’s a continuum, these pieces inevitably imply, and we’re all agreed on it.

Part of this is, I guess, understandable. Most people – even most smart people – tend to read by herd instinct. Reading time is usually scarce, and reading speeds are usually slow – most readers have neither the time nor the inclination to go foraging much on their own. So they read what’s being talked about, what other people are reading.

And sometimes what other people are reading is WORTH reading. But more often than not, it’s just CALLED worth reading, with Olympian certainty, since it’s easy to be sure of yourself when you’re in a like-minded crowd.

Not all of this literary herd mentality is necessarily wrong. Nobody here at Stevereads is going to maintain that, for instance, Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise” isn’t worth everybody’s attention, or David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green,” or Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

But quite a few things that got the clamor were crap. And quite a lot of crap went undetected. And quite a few things that everybody called crap deserves to be called crap again, here at the end of the year.

So, without further ado, we present our first annual Stevereads Worst Books of the Year roundup! Here’s our rogues gallery:

Cesar’s Way by Cesar Milan – Of course, we all know Rule #4 here at Stevereads (after Steve is Always Right, Kevin is Always Wrong, and Beepy is Always Sleepy): Only Steve is Qualified to Write about Dogs. That having been said, there are degrees of incompetence, and Milan is right up there. The cover says it all: the dogs looked terrified of this squat creature hunkered down in their midst.

Digging to America by Ann Tyler – America’s Laziest Novelist turns in a room-temperature tray of saline in which she’d really like the NAMES THEMSELVES to do most of the writing work, so she doesn’t have to be bothered. Let’s see: two white people named BRAD and BITSY want to adopt a KOREAN girl. Surely that’s all I’m required to do? Wake me when the royalty checks start piling up. Yeesh.

Collected Stories by Amy Hempel – Whining, meandering, plotless, perkily morose amblings about, well, not much of anything at all. The fact that this bloated piece of Wonderbread has made so many end-of-year lists is, we firmly believe, because most Americans like the name ‘Amy.’

Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski – a big book (but ‘book’ only in the sense that it’s a pile of pages bound between covers) that could only be written while heavily stoned, only read while heavily stoned, only liked while heavily stoned and only remembered … wait, what were we talking about? Dude, I so totally don’t remember …

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose – of all the pompous books written by pompous writers about the wonders of books (their own books, primarily), this one is by a wide margin the most pompous of the year. Prose’s fiction never really rose to the level of annoying before, but this chunk of self-admiration takes the cake this year – and then pontificates about the cake. A smart 13-year-old could give you a better idea of how to read prose.

High Lonesome by Joyce Carol Oates – a collection of short stories in which there is accurately expressed not one human emotion, not one thought process, and especially not one line of dialogue. The point of these stories is ONLY who’s doing the writing – submitted anonymously to any writing workshop in the country, they’d be savaged by undergrads.

Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – Watchers of the Booker Prize cried nepotism, and they were right! Oh, not about such paltry matters as who wins the prize – nine-tenths of the time, the Booker goes to crap in any case – but certainly in terms of literary ability. Young Kiran, it turns out, is every bit as frumpy and talky and narratively clueless as her mum. Literary dynasties are built on such creaky stuff…

Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen – this rotten little book has been much-condemned already, but a few more spadefuls of dirt can’t hurt. This book is one of a handful of disgustingly self-absorbed feats of authorial whining this year, and in many ways it’s the worst of the bunch. Franzen is the worst kind of dorm-floor windbag, the good-looking kid who has everything and never stops complaining about it.

Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper – another example of the whineography, and a worse one because it’s painted on a bigger canvas: the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, war in the Middle East, famine in Niger … reading this turgid, awful book, you’re constantly reminded of how much SHIT has happened to Cooper, how much INCONVENIENCE he’s had to put up with in order to get his dreamy pout beamed into our living rooms on a regular basis. The book leaves you wishing that SOME enterprising sandanista or survivor or simple citizen would interrupt a heartfelt (well, after three takes) interview and POP him one, right in the middle of that oh-so-pretty face. You never know – it could still happen! That would be a LOCK for next year’s bestseller list!

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal – surely the Everest of the type of book I’m talking about, the whineography. For the person who’s so badly let down Vidal isn’t his provincial father, and it isn’t a world stingy with its disasters … no, it’s the whole friggin 20th century and everyone in it, ALL of whom would have been better off … repeat after us here, children … If They’d Only Listened to Gore. The nominal prequel to this book, Palimsest, at least had the bite of true (albeit demented) desire in it. This thing has nothing but endless self-justification, as well as many anecdotes that struck this reader (and others! my young friend Sebastian commented ‘I believe he’s plagiarizing HIMSELF’ – in a tone that suggested there should be some sort of legal action) as a bit familiar. The deepest sadness here is imagining what Last Memoir Gore Vidal COULD have written, if he’d all along remained in control of his powers and his ego. It would have been a book to reckon with, but we’ll never see it now, and ‘Point to Point Navigation’ is its cartoon.

For two contemptible books we here at Stevereads refer you to another voice entirely. Oh, we could savage them in a sentence or two, certainly – but why should we give you only that when we (well, not ‘we’ precisely, but surely SOME well-meaning reader) can hot-link you to my young friend Sam’s currently quiescent blog-site, What Do We Believe? (right here at blogspot.com) – where you can read truly stellar leave-nothing-out reviews of both books, written with all my sentiments intact, but in what some of you might find a refreshing change of tone (less rabid, more rabbinical, as it were). So look there for full-length condemnations of Philip Roth’s “Everyman” and Bernard-Henri Levi’s “American Vertigo” – I think these books suck, but I would be far less evaluative about them than young Sam is, so go read him.

Godless by Ann Coulter – oh, I know, I know … some of you will say that surely SOME books are ENGINEERED to be beneath the contempt of serious readers. But I’d respond that ALL books are books, capable of being handed to anybody, at any time, for any reason. All are capable of enormous good, or enormous evil. And regardless of your political persuasion, this is a deeply evil book, so full of snide, bullying lies that the words themselves cease to resemble coherent English.

For One Day More by Mitch Albom – Once again, it could be argued that such a book should be beneath even our contempt, but we repeat: any book that can foist such treacle on so many people in so many copies must perforce make a list such as this. It’s not like this pap is self-published and seen only by the author’s family – it’s in millions of homes, softening millions of minds like candy-rot.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro – In which, for about 700 pages, Hettie and Eleanor argue about who owns the curio left them by their great aunt Flora. Nobody knows how the argument turns out, since nobody has ever finished the book, the latest work from the World’s Most Tedious Writer.

And lastly, the single worst book of 2006:

Good Dog by Jon Katz – Those of you who’ve been reading this blog regularly already know how I feel about this loathesome, contemptible piece of hypocrisy. Katz takes in a dog, windily nominates him his ‘lifetime’ dog, then has him put to death when he becomes inconvenient – and then goes right on windifying, without the slightest trace of guilt. That this thing could be marketed as a book that would in any way appeal to dog-lovers is proof positive that marketing agencies are fairly soulless covens.

So there you have it, the very lowest of the low for 2006, the surest wastes of your money and reading time. There were many, many other worthless books published, of course, but these were the ones that tried that extra bit harder, that stunk that little bit more.

December 23rd, 2006

Penny Press! GQ and POROUS BORDERS!




Three things of interest in the new GQ, each a little more interesting than the last.

First, a breezy one-page appreciation of Peter O’Toole that manages, accidentally it seems, to hit a few right notes. As many of you may know, we here at Stevereads consider O’Toole to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, and we never tire of championing his good works to all and sundry.

The problem is, his good work forms only about 25 percent of his total work, and the other 75 percent of the time, he’s not only not great – he stinks. That ratio of success (which he shares in almost exact proportion with his acting coevals, Michael Caine, Richard Burton, David Warner, and Richard Harris … out of the group, the only exception is Albert Finney. In his entire career, Albert Finney has never given a performance that was anything but perfect. Go figure) is tough to sell to the Gameboy generation.

All these current magazine puff-pieces don’t make things any easier. Yes, they all mention ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and yes, O’Toole is good in it (and it’s a great movie in its own right). But then they ALL seem to blather on and on about O’Toole’s COMEDIES, which is confusing. OK, the man had near-perfect comedic timing – but nevertheless, most of his comedies (‘My Favorite Year’ notwithstanding) are pretty thin soup.

This piece is no different, singing the praises of ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ in the same breath that it refers to ‘Becket’ as a ‘fantastic hamfest’ … for those of you reading this (and really, who ISN’T reading this?), be advised: ‘Becket’ is a brilliantly written, brilliantly acted movie – it is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘hamfest.’ We here at Stevereads can’t STAND it when hipster-doofuses dismiss all passionate non-method acting as ‘scenery-chewing.’ Just because you’ve lived your whole videogame-playing 20 years believing that feeling passion for ANYTHING is, like, lame doesn’t make it so. If you’re looking for the key to good acting, think Zach Braff in ‘Scrubs’ and not Zach Braff in ‘Garden State,’ ya pill-popping little tools.

This piece cites O’Toole’s new movie ‘Venus’ as a strong bet to win him Best Actor. This is doubtful (most of our industry-watchers say it’s a train wreck), but can’t take anything away from O’Toole’s performances in ‘Good-Bye Mr. Chips’ or ‘The Director’ or ‘Masada,’ or, of course, ‘The Lion in Winter.’

Elsewhere in the issue, there’s a fairly moving piece by Rob Sheffield about how he married young – and then was widowed young, when his young wife Renee suddenly collapses one day and is dead in minutes.

Sheffield’s account of their courtship and married life is quite touching (including their adoption of a young beagle from the pound), and his narration of his reactions on the day she died will strike a true and painful chord with anybody who’s ever lost someone they loved:

“That was the first moment anyone said anything about Renee dying. It seemed like such a long time before I heard my stupid voice asking, ‘She died?’ The sun was streaking through the leaves in the yard next door. The upstairs neighbors’ air conditioner was right over my head, drip, drip, drip. The EMT said something about God, but she was just trying to be kind. Maybe it was a heart attack, she said; it was too soon to tell. I was sure they would find something in Richmond they hadn’t found here, and I knew they would be bringing Renee back later that day.”

And later:

“I didn’t want to get up off the floor, because I wanted to be there when Renee called and said she was coming home.”

The piece is an excerpt from an forthcoming book. We here at Stevereads hope the book, unlike the excerpt, has something good to say about what happened to the beagle.

Ah, but the big piece in this issue, the real prize-winner, is about that always-fraught subject: the US-Mexican border!

Specifically, the so-called ‘Minutemen’ who patrol chunks of the border looking to catch-and-release ‘illegals’ streaming over from Mexico. The author of the piece (at first, as is my custom, I intentionally didn’t look at the name – I like to pre-empt any personal predilections that way, so no hapless freelancer is hindered by his past strike-out ratio) spends two weeks with a group of these Minutemen and gets them to open up about themselves.

The piece is immediately compulsive, pulling you in with a perfect blend of fact and anecdote. Take this, for example:

“Some National Guardsmen come in and sit nearby, and this gets us on the subject of Iraq. Brian, a smart, articulate Minuteman, originally from Massachusetts, who has traveled all over the world – Brazil, Japan, India – says Fallujah should have been leveled. He sends this out like a blustering trial balloon. Is he nuts? I ask. How many women and children would that have required killing? Well, he says, that happens once, it doesn’t happen again. Hello? I say. Are you really saying that? Little kids, old ladies? Well, he says, you order them out first. Come on, I say, think about New Orleans. People in Fallujah are much poorer than that, how do they ‘get out’? What do they do, rent cars? Call taxis? Could you give that order? I don’t think you could, and I don’t think you would.
‘He looks chastened and does a remarkable thing, given that he’s arguing with a Liberal, in front of his own people: He reverses position.
“‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t, no.'”

Right about that point, I thought: not only is this an interesting article, but this writer is really pretty good. He has a slangy command of mood that struck me as vaguely familiar.

Then I read this:

“The Minutemen cannot detain an illegal. They cannot harass. All they can do is call the Border Patrol. So why the guns? They don’t, they say, want to be overrun by the cartel. Has a Minuteman ever been shot, or shot at, by the cartel? No. But conceptualizing the cartel dudes as Scarfacian monsters, the Minutemen come out armed to meet them in the night and thereby rev themselves up, and yet there’s no training – Art is the most experienced Minuteman on our Team (Lance and Scott are both first-timers).
“So, a prediction: Eventually, somebody’s going to get shot. It may be a Minuteman, it may be a cartel dude, it may be some little kid standing scared at the back of a group of migrants – but eventually, I tell Art, all this tension and drama is going to lead to something tragic.
“‘You don’t come into my house, man,’ Art says.”
“‘This isn’t your house,’ I say.
“‘Oh, it sure is,’ he says. ‘This is my country.’
“‘Your house is your house,’ I say. ‘This is some dude’s ranch.'”

It was at this point that I flipped back to see just who it was I was reading, and I shouldn’t have been surprised: George Saunders, one of our very best new-ish writers. Almost his whole piece is quotable and sharp, but in addition to liking it for those qualities, I couldn’t help but think about it too, since the piece is a veritable dossier of Liberal soft-think on the question of porous borders. Right around the point where Saunders starts musing about the beauty of the landscape, I pictured my colleague the Reichmarshal’s head popping off in outrage.

I think it would be only fair to say that the Reichmarshal, like Saunders’ Minutemen (and indeed like most Americans, especially in the Southwest), is intensely xenophobic. There should be an immense and forbidding wall – like the gates of Mordor, one imagines – across the whole length of the border, and the movement through it should be only one-way: hunted-down and rounded-up ‘illegals’ being sent back to their own country.

Our views here at Stevereads have already been aired and outraged-upon: the United States should solve its border problems with Mexico by conquering the country (with or without – but most likely with – the cooperation of the Mexican power-structure already intact).

But that’s only in a perfect world, one dominated by the Roman empire! Here in the practical world, we need practical solutions, and really don’t think the Minutemen are it. A bunch of redneck yahoos roaming around in the shrubbery armed to the teeth? Yeah – what could possibly go wrong with THAT?

But neither is the Reichmarshal’s solution practical. The wall, quite apart from its moral shortcomings, would require ten years and several billion dollars to build and maintain – but it’s the moral shortcomings that really put it beyond the pale. Where would the Reichmarshal be, after all, if such a wall had been in place when his Junker forefathers first came to this country? Where would we here at Stevereads be, if the border had turned away our grandparents from Ireland? Where, really, would any of us be (kindly keep yer perky mouth shut, My Lady Disdain! None of us want to hear about the friggin Mayflower, ya blue-blooded pop tart!)?

No, closed borders aren’t the answer either. I’m not in favor of Saunders’ hippy-dippy live-and-let-live stance, not by a long shot: there aren’t enough jobs to go around for actual US citizens, without adding millions of ‘illegals’ to the mix. But for a country with so much to take people from a country with so little and TURN THEM BACK … well, that seems fundamentally wrong.

Perhaps we should open the question up to the vast array of minds available here at Stevereads (posters and lurkers alike)? What approach should be taken – say, by the next President – to the problem of the ‘porous’ US-Mexican border?

And just to pre-empt the predictable ‘Mayflower 400′ response: no, My Lady Disdain, “personally, we’re not thrilled that ANY of you are here” is not an acceptable answer….

December 22nd, 2006

Penny Press! Puggles and Winter Fiction!


Naturally, we here at Stevereads turned to the letters page of this week’s New York magazine expecting to see many expressions of outrage over that ‘Bonfire of the Puggle’ piece they ran recently, in which an overprivileged yuppie made a kabuki show out of her search for her ‘beloved’ dog, who escaped her apartment while she was away because she took no more steps to PREVENT that than she would have with a pet rock.

But alas, the only outrage was our own. There was only one letter on the piece, and this is it:

“After reading ‘Bonfire of the Puggle,’ I was sent back in time to when I lost my dog Spencer. I identify with Cricket’s emotional crash: there were no words to express my grief. I too posted a huge reward and didn’t give up, and it paid off: Spencer was found safe and sound 200 yards from our house. Unfortunately, bad decisions cost us $16,000 in rewards and a new fence. Was it worth it? Of course.”

That’s from Jennifer Handler, and it’s sort of a mini-version of the piece to which it’s responding: just as nauseating, only shorter. The ostentatious reward amount is meant to impress, and of course that mention of a new fence (obviously meant to do the job the OLD fence failed, a job otherwise known as JENNIFER’S fucking job) guarantees a repeat of the story down the line. Pretty obviously, the word she couldn’t find to express her grief is the same as Cricket’s: “ooops.”

But at least we were able to get a chuckle out of the same issue, in the ‘Party Lines’ section where celebrities are asked questions at gala events. At the Nike celebration commemorating the 25th year of Air Force 1, Queen Latifah is asked how she got her first pair. Here’s her response:

“Boosted them, like everybody else! No, but 1982 was a broke year. I wanted white on whites, and I was 12 and on an allowance. So I got a job at Burger King, paid my dues, bought my sneakers. An honest story.”

An honest story indeed, but you can’t help but smile: you just KNOW her first answer was true.

Surely, we figured, our puggle-inspired doldrums will be swept away over in the latest New Yorker, the double-length ‘Winter Fiction’ issue … yeesh, we should have known better.

Wotta load of crap. For reasons passing understanding, they dug up a two-page squib by Marguerite Duras and titled it ‘The Bible,’ for instance. This could only have been done to get Duras’ name in the table of contents, because this … thing isn’t anything – it’s not short story (there’s no dialogue, no plot, nothing changes at all), merely the premise for one, and not even a particularly good one. And it’s technically inept. It takes a great deal of incompetence to show a lot of technical ineptitude in only two pages, but Duras manages it over and over. “They made love together. She liked to make love. It was one of the things that she liked” is a fairly typical ghastly stretch.

One paragraph begins “Sometimes he took her out to dinner, but always to cheap restaurants. He confessed one night that he was buying, on layway, a Hebrew Bible from the sixteenth century. His father was rich, but gave him very little money.” The very next paragraph begins, “Even after they’d known each other for three weeks, they still hadn’t talked about anything other than the Bible and Islam.” Sigh.

We don’t begrudge the New Yorker the attempt to lure in Duras nugget-seekers, but what’s the POINT of this? Virtually ANY of my young friends, if given two hours, could write a story of similar length that would be FANTASTIC. The New Yorker would benefit in stature for ‘discovering’ such voices. New Yorker readers would benefit by finding new and vigorous voices. And these young writers themselves would of course benefit in any number of ways Duras cannot. It’s frustrating.

No other item in the issue is as bad as that one, but some of them come pretty damn close, particularly Paul Theroux’s ‘Monkey Hill,’ which manages to be condescending, derivative, and silly all at the same time.

The condescension comes in because the story is set in India – so naturally all of Theroux’s characters come right out of central casting. The Americans are braying, overmoneyed children, and the Indians are pidgin-spouting quaintly priapic savages. The derivative comes from the fact that nobody seems to be able to write any story about foreigners in India without that story being “A Passage to India,” which gets a little tiresome. And the silly comes in because Theroux’s new mistress must really love cabbing it uptown for her yoga classes – in fact, it’s pretty evident she’s dragged him along (probably making it a condition of sex): every single character in this story not only practices yoga but is a fact-quoting enthusiast, including, I think, some of the titular monkeys.

True, Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ had a little more substance to it, but not bloody much. McEwan is typical of a whole raft of current novelists (Jonathan Franzen comes to mind) who … well, who tend to blabber on. Long paragraph after long paragraph, all devoted to minutely describing the pottery. When he’s not fucking Greta Garbo or Lana Turner, somewhere in Hell Ernest Hemingway is spinning in his grave.

McEwan’s piece (it also is not a story in any commonly recognized definition of the word – it’s a premise only: nothing changes, nothing moves at all, nothing much is ever at stake, and nobody evolves, retards, dies, or inherits) is about two young newlyweds on their honeymoon who, being virgins, are nervous about screwing for the first time.

And I know what you’re thinking right about now – you’re thinking, ‘and then what?’ Well, so was I, and you’ll be equally disappointed. McEwan’s piece is about two young newlyweds on their honeymoon who, being virgins, are nervous about screwing for the first time. Aaaannnnnnd …. scene.

But at least McEwan can put together half-way decent prose. We particularly liked this little bit:

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or a means of sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring.’ Edward had been pleased to discover the term. He was born too late in the century, in 1940, to believe he was abusing his body, that his sight would be impaired, or that God watched with stern incredulity as he bent daily to his task. Or even that everyone knew about it from his pale and inward look. All the same, a certain ill-defined disgrace hung over his efforts, a sense of failure and waste, and, of course, loneliness. And pleasure was really an incidental benefit. The goal was release – from the urgent, thought-confining desire for what could not be immediately had. How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

Turgid, yes. Leadenly overwritten, yes. But at least it has a certain quality of intelligence, a faint hint that its author didn’t just indifferently throw shit into a word processor and then send off whatever came out.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fiction on display in this ‘Winter Fiction’ issue, but it’s going to have to do, at least until next winter.

December 22nd, 2006

Comics! New Avengers and Illuminati!



Every so often, I like to give the good folks at Comicopia a treat and actually show up in person, instead of using Elmo or my archnemesis Pepito as catspaws. Like the rest of you, the staff at Comicopia rejoices in a little Steve face-time, so this week I indulged.

I passed on all the crap Pepito will surely snatch up, and I passed on all the good stuff Elmo will get. Instead, I walked out with only two issues, but boy! Were they choice!

The first is the latest issue of New Avengers, which features the return of both the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye (who’s returning from the dead for the what? Fourth time in two years?). The issue is written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn with amazing deftness by Alex Maleev, and it’s really, really good.

Part of the reason for that is the low-key nature of the proceedings. There are no skintight costumes here, no posturing, none of the one-note emoting that so turns my young friend Sebastian off of superhero comics (‘Everyone’s always gritting their teeth,’ he once lamented. ‘I don’t think I’ve EVER gritted my teeth. It looks appallingly painful.’)(One refrained from pointing out that he’s also never levitated the Brooklyn Bridge – Hell, he can scarcely levitate himself out of bed before 2 in the afternoon – which feat might call for a little teeth-clenching). Maleev’s artwork is reposed but not static, making it the perfect furniture over which Bendis can drape his dialogue.

Finding himself alive yet again, Hawkeye does what any sensible superhero would do – he goes to Doctor Strange for a mystical checkup. The good doctor pronounces him very much alive and tells him he has no idea where the Scarlet Witch currently is. Hawkeye decides to go looking, and eventually he ends up on Wundagore Mountain, where he helps a young woman whose bag has been snatched – and who turns out to be the Scarlet Witch.

Only she calls herself Wanda Maximoff and appears to remember nothing of her previous life. Finding himself confronted with an insanely hot old friend who has no memory of their friendship, Hawkeye does the only sensible thing: he sleeps with her (I mean, he’s been DEAD, for pete’s sake! And really, when’s he going to get a chance like this again?).

The issue leaves everything, er, hanging, but no matter – in itself, it’s a sweet little delight. Our only plea here at Stevereads? Let’s not kill off Hawkeye again, ever, OK? Any good storyteller should be able to find another way to goose up a plot, and besides – you don’t want people to start giggling, like they are over Grant Morrison’s killing off Jean Grey every three months over in X-Men.

The second issue of the week was the first issue of Illuminati, also written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by the great, the mighty Jim Cheung. This mini-series will follow the doings of a secret cabal of Marvel’s movers and shakers, who meet in private to oversee the entire super-folk community. There’s of course everybody’s favorite clandestine control-freak Iron Man, there’s X-Men leader Professor X, there’s the ever-volatile Prince Namor, there’s Black Bolt of the Inhumans, there’s Reed Richards, here without the knowledge of the rest of the Fantastic Four, and there’s Doctor Strange.

They meet in secret, they make high-level backroom decisions, they don’t tell anybody about it. The whole concept was set up in a wonderful issue of New Avengers (or was it Young Avengers? Young New Avengers?) earlier this year, and I guess we’re supposed to think it’s mainly Iron Man’s paranoia that holds the whole thing together.

As for me, I’m a little confused about the membership. Professor X, yes – leader of a super-hero team and de facto representative of all mutants. And Black Bolt’s an easy call, since he’s the ruler of an entire populace of super-powered beings (although I have no idea why Bendis excludes Medusa, since she’s not only Black Bolt’s queen but his interpreter)(well, that is to say I have no idea BESIDES Bendis’ quite evident sexism …. I guess I mean to say HE puts forward no explanation, other than Namor’s out of the blue pronouncement ‘No wives! I refuse to discuss this with wives!’)(actually, that wasn’t Namor’s exact quote – but a free book goes to anybody who can tell me who DID say those immortal lines!). Iron Man ditto – he represents the Earth’s most powerful superhero team. But why Doctor Strange? Not only is he aloof from most super-hero goings on, he’s also mostly aloof from this friggin plane of reality. Why would he even be interested? And what about Namor? Unlike everybody else here, he’s not exactly bright. True, he rules Atlantis, but so what?

I guess what I’m getting at is this: why no Thor? Not only is he a powerhouse in his own right, but he’s an Asgardian god, fer cripes sake.

I think Bendis’ rationale is secrecy. Who in the Marvel Universe can you picture keeping secrets from his nearest and dearest? That clearly rules both Thor and Hercules out, but it suits Namor right down to the ground.

And besides, I’m not complaining! Bendis has a wonderfully sure grasp of how to write Namor, and it’s a positive joy to see Cheung draw him – and everybody else. This is a crisply, beautifully drawn issue, and I look forward to all the rest.

So if I’m not complaining about that, you all ask, what AM I complaining about? Wellllll …. since you ask! I DO have one or two quibbles with this otherwise wonderful issue. For instance, although the two-page spread where Black Bolt destroys the Skrull ship with a spoken word is certainly COOL to look at, it does raise the question of how the Skrull king, who’s sitting about five feet away when it happens, could still be alive to show up on the issue’s final page – instead of a thin smear of sonically-smushed poo.

But these are only small quibbles with what is in fact a spiffy first issue! The comic book snobs among you (you know who you are) should hie thee hence at once and pick it up!

And speaking of which, what would a comics entry be without another QUIZ for all and sundry to fail miserably? So here it is:

PRIOR to this whole ‘House of M’ business, how many times has Hawkeye been missing and presumed dead? Anyone care to name the circumstances?

and:

Even going by Bendis’ somewhat selective criteria for inclusion in his Illuminati, there’s an obvious candidate who’s been inexplicably left out. Any guesses? And if guessed correctly, any explanations?

December 22nd, 2006

Penny Press! Spies in the London Review!




Several interesting items in the latest London Review of Books, as the year winds down and we all slow to a stop under the Christmas tree.

First up is a tiny thing, a small fraction of a long poem by Tom Lowenstein called ‘Conversation with Murasaki’ (the poem itself is flaccid and largely misfired … which is annoying, since a very good poem with that same title COULD be written). The poem itself isn’t worth quoting, but here’s the line that caught my eye:

“You would be astonished
at the squalor of European history.
But you would have liked Jane Austen.”

Trite, perhaps, but I liked the moment’s pondering it afforded me, wondering either of the two great novelists would have thought of each other (two great women novelists from a depressingly long list …).

Also in this issue is Stefan Collini’s review of the new Kingsley Amis biography by Zachary Leader, a long, detailed, extremely satisfying review that completely eleminiates any desire one might have to go out and read the book.

Leader comes across as a faithful chronicler, and Amis comes across as a hopeless, helpless alcoholic who devoted as much of his life as possible to being unpleasant.

The thing that strikes you about this account of Amis’ life is the same thing that strikes you about so many 20th century British writers (Anthony Burgess comes to mind): the staggering sheer AMOUNT they drank – amounts so regular and titanic that you inevitably wonder how they ever got ANY work done, much less the large amounts they did (not to mention how they managed to LIVE even as long as they did).

But the most interesting (albeit frustrating) piece in this issue is John Bossy’s review of “Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy” by Park Honan.

Bossy is stern headmaster, and he starts off his review with a laundry list of Honan’s factual errors. Well and good, this is a reviewer’s office (and factual errors are what have always bugged us most about Honan’s books). But Bossy seems determined not only to revoke Honan’s credentials but also to destroy the printing press on which they were made. One wonders if he was tetchy when he wrote his review.

The crux of it all is that ‘poet and spy’ part of Honan’s title. Bossy takes issue with it all throughout his review, saying there’s no ‘proper evidence’ at all that Marlowe was ever any kind of spy. “It is virtually certain that he had not been to Rheims,” Bossy writes, “and reasonably certin that he had not been doing any spying anywhere, since espionage tends to leave records.”

That last assertion is a trifle dubious, but even if we grant it, we’re driven to conclude that Bossy is being just a bit fussy about what constitutes historical evidence. Marlowe never stood on a crate in Cheapside and yelled ‘I am a spy!’ But then, more famously, Shakespeare never signed a single play.

I doubt severely that Bossy would fail to credit Shakespeare with the authorship of the plays known by his name, but for some reason he’s unwilling to make that leap with Marlowe and espionage.

First there’s the letter. In 1587, the Queen’s Council sent a letter to Cambridge, summarily ordering the college to award Marlowe his degree – even though he’d been absent for nearly the whole of his last term. In the letter, Marlowe’s Cambridge masters are told that he was engaged in ‘matters touching the benefit of the country.’ Bossy dismisses the Cambridge speculation at the time – that Marlowe was spying on the Catholic seminary at Reims – and suggests that he was in the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission.

And that’s just fine – he can offer any alternate theory he likes. Since espionage usually DOESN’T leave records (um, duh), we’ll never have the documents we need to say for sure. What we’re left with is inference, and that’s a shame, because Bossy seems to have had his inference gland removed.

Marlowe had a long connection with Thomas Walsingham, whose cousin Francis was the head of Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. Bossy gets around this by rather pedantically pointing out that there’s no evidence Thomas ever took up the family business. This again begs the question of what constitutes evidence.

Thomas was placed in charge of his cousin’s London home in Seething Lane. We have no records of what he did there (Bossy renders him as some kind of groundskeeper), but when he left he was replaced by Walter William, and we have plenty of records of what HE did there: he worked as a spy for Francis. It’s on occasions such as this that a bit of inference is the moral duty of anybody with a brain in his head.

But OK, let’s say Thomas really was just a groundskeeper and had nothing to do with the dark underworld his cousin navigated so adroitly. We should then expect to find his record clear of … ooops! Nope! Even Bossy is forced to admit that he had dealings with “the actual spy Robert Poley,” who was often an operative of Francis. The Elizabethan record books are full of harmless Kentish landowners who had no dealings whatsoever with spies. Again, a little inference is called for.

But the real corker here, the part of Bossy’s review that tips from stubborn to deceitful, is this:

“…there is no proper evidence at all to show that Marlowe was ever part of what is foolishly called the Elizabethan secret service. This conclusion ought to guide inquirers into what has become another cause of speculation, Marlowe’s death in a hostelry in Deptford on 30 May 1593. The coroner’s report, that it was the result of a dispute between Marlowe and one Ingram Frizer about paying the bill for their dinner, has been treated as a cover-up by several writers convinced that the government of Elizabeth practised a ‘culture of surveillance’ and maintained itself in power by dirty tricks.”

Just look at the pristine neatness of that little summary: Marlowe and another man quarrel over the bill for dinner, the quarrel gets out of hand, and Marlowe gets stabbed to death. Sort of thing happens all the time.

Except for the truckload of stuff Bossy is leaving out or glossing over. My personal favorite is that ‘one Ingram Frizer,’ as though he were a name plucked from the Deptford phone book. In fact Ingram Frizer had a long and well-documented history as a … wait for it … spy. But there’s also the fact that the fight took place after a whole DAY spent at this ‘hostelry’ – not just for a meal, but for many hours of quiet, intense conversation. Or the most interesting tidbit of all, something Bossy must have found too inconsequential to mention: that there were two other man with Marlowe that day, two other men present during the fight that ended Marlowe’s life … and one of those men was Robert Poley, who we’ve already established was a … wait for it … spy.

There’s no evidence at all that Marlowe was a spy, says Bossy. And on one level, he’s right: we don’t have stamped W2 forms. But that doesn’t mean all the historians who’ve speculated he was are gullible scandal-mongers. Hell, Bossy would probably raise doubts that I’m actually typing any of this … is there any evidence that I am, after all? Sure, the words appear, but ANYBODY could be typing them!

Guess you’ll all just have to do some inferring!

December 18th, 2006

Books! a small selection from the pile!




We here at Stevereads are aware that some of you think we spend all our time either arbitrating lovers’ spats between Hippolyta and Sebastian, or slapping down Kevin’s comic book snobbery, or asking Jeff to explain something. or making smart-aleck remarks about the colossal failure of Beepy’s one-woman Broadway play (a musical revue of the novel of Fanny Burney? Oh Beepy! This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you …).

But such is not entirely the case. As hinted at in the title of our little community here, we do a fair amount of reading.

A suggestion was recently made that we at least mention – and preferrably review – every single book we read. We viewed the suggestion with a certain amount of doubt, since it seems pretty damn masochistic on the part of the suggester.

Our young friend and comrade in intoxication, TS Bacon, has already made himself merry by jibing at the obscurity we sometimes sink into here at Stevereads (‘What obscure 16th century guy are you writing about now?’ he’s been known to waggishly call across the quad). If we were to annotate every book we read, this site would be SWAMPED with obscurity, and we surely don’t want THAT.

Just the other day, for instance, we read a wonderful examination of the processes of the plebian voting assemblies of the Roman Republic. Days earlier, we read and very much enjoyed a long, annotated analysis of currency debasement in the reign of Queen Mary. Now we ask you: aside from provoking another sarcastic volley from TS Bacon, what good would it do for such books to be reviewed at length here?

Tedium is not our aim, but let’s be honest: we here at Stevereads read deep in history and biography and the classics, just as many of our readers read deep in their own domains. Into what hinterlands of specificity could John lead us all on twentysomething poets, after all? Or Beepy on the complex societies of Guineau Pigs ***? Or Kevin on subatomic birds and beasts and their antics? Or Sebastian on … well, on Sebastian. And so on.

We here at Stevereads read, for instance, every Star Trek novel that’s written. We read every one of the burgeoning (and nauseatingly consistently crappy) line of DC Comics novels, though there’s absolutely no reason to. We read at an enormous ground-clearing speed, and this tempts us into byways of both scintillating erudition and pure crapola so often that it wouldn’t serve anybody’s purpose if we were to dissect every single thing we read.

But that leaves plenty we CAN discuss! SO many books worthy of your consideration! Here are a few:

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton – this wonderful book is all about recent advances in technology, but the catch is that ‘recent technology’ handily includes a great many things that feel like they’ve been around forever.

Edgerton’s tone is wonderful – knowing yet wondering, smart without any condescension. It reminded us here at Stevereads of the calm, funny, wonderful voice of James Burke as he narrated the long-lost mini-series ‘Connections’ (we’d go on at great, detailed length about ‘Connections’ … but alas, this isn’t ‘Stevesees’ so it falls outside our jurisdiction)(on a side note, several of you have urged the CREATION of just such a site as ‘Stevesees’ …. partly because not all of you read nearly as much as you watch stuff, and partly, one assumes, because you just CAN’T GET ENOUGH of my sweet self – so what say the rest of you? That most awesome of all questions is upon you: do you want EVEN MORE Steveblogging in your future, for 2007? We abide by the will of the people)

Likewise there’s an unexpected brio in Simon Baker’s ‘Ancient Rome,’ the companion volume to the upcoming BBC documentary. Oh, don’t get me wrong: these series are always (almost! almost always! We think, of course, of Ken Burns’ magnificent ‘The Civil War’) imbecilic. They freeze-dry the past and then carve it up into pre-digestible packets and serve it up with hammy music and untrustworthy graphics. They’re least-common-denominator history, and usually their book-companions are equally dumb.

But not in this case! Baker’s book is smart and fast-paced and might prove very useful to the general reader who wants a good accessible introduction to ancient Rome.

Of course such an introduction will feature the Second Punic War and its epic confrontation between the Romans and Hannibal, and if that name doesn’t sound right without ‘Lector’ added to it, you’re probably the target audience for Thomas Harris’ latest book, “Hannibal Rising.”

Maybe you’ll approach the book with the excitement, remembering how you enjoyed the good doctor’s three previous appearances. We here at Stevereads thought ‘Red Dragon’ was an extremely well-done thriller. We liked ‘Silence of the Lambs’ even more, found it a broader and more beautiful work. And we thought ‘Hannibal’ was in almost all ways superior to both, a masterfully ambitious book of true wisdom and steep art (except for the wretched, awful, illogical, treacherous conclusion, for which Harris ought to feel ashamed for the rest of his life).

There’s virtually nothing of those books in this one. A well-etched scene here, a sharp turn of phrase there, but that’s quite all. Everything else in it is thin gruel indeed and often inadvertently funny.

Harris here gives us the origin story of Hannibal Lecter, a noble childhood blighted by the barbarity of the Second World War.

Rich stuff, in potential – but the potential is entirely squandered. Hannibal the child is creepy and homicidal. Hannibal the teenager is creepy and homicidal. No attempt is made to probe what makes young people turn into the older men they become. Indeed, the strangest thing about this book might very well be the utter indifference it shows toward human psychology, the very bread and butter of all the previous books.

No, this just a tale of young Hannibal exacting revenge on the men who, during the war, killed and ate his sister. The revenges take all manner of baroque forms, and then the book ends. There’s no life in it at all, and that’s not even its biggest mystery.

No, the biggest mystery of this book is why we’re still hearing about Hannibal Lecter at all. Oh yes, yes, there’s the money being offered to Harris – but dammit, the man WRITES like somebody who values writing over money. Why aren’t we reading about NEW characters from him, perhaps characters even more compelling than Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter? Why are we still reading about this one guy?

The book gives no hint of an answer, and for that reason and many others, it’s the very first Thomas Harris book that’s not worth reading. Let’s hope it’s the last such. We need all the good writers we can get.

Never, never would we have thought we’d ever have cause to segue to Norman Mailer – of all people – upon mention of ‘good writers,’ but facts must be faced.

And the fact confronting us here is this: at the end of his life, in his 80th year, after having mis-fired more often than black market Canadian fireworks, Norman Mailer has written a great book.

It’s achievement enough to write one – all who write yearn to do so, and ninety-nine percent fail. The tiny fraction who succeed almost always succeed only once.

Mailer succeeded twice – first with ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ and then with ‘The Executioner’s Song’ – and the law of diminishing returns demands that’s enough. The same law certainly says no writer is going to hit the top of his game after the age of 60, much less 70. 80 is beyond the pale, and yet here is ‘The Castle in the Forest.’

This is a mighty work, quietly so. It’s a garrulous (this was unavoidable), wise, questioning, extremely detailed, historically acute, and dauntingly eloquent book, exactly the KIND of book so often written by a striving 23-year-old.

It’s nothing short of miraculous that it’s written by our Norman Mailer, in the 8th decade of his life.

But perhaps it’s understandable, that fire should be struck from such an old flint. Not only is Mailer old enough to feel the ultimate motivating force of any writer (my voice is to be heard no more? MY voice? No! It must not be!), but in ‘The Castle in the Forest’ he’s writing to his singular strength.

Mailer has always been a writer of ultimates. He’s sought for them, for some clear and clean vindication of writing at all – the unspoken yearning of the so-called ‘greatest generation’ for …. well, for validation, though they (nor their subsequent advocates) would adamantly deny it.

Here Mailer takes on not God (he’s tried that, disasterously) nor Jesus (he’s tried that too, with results even more embarrassing than those achieved by his erstwhile sparring-partner Gore Vidal) nor even Hitler (though he’s the heart and soul of the book) but Satan himself, Satan and the whole problem of evil in the world.

These are questions best fit for old men of fierce intellect, but I’d have been the last person on Earth to nominate Mailer – vain, posturing, misfiring Mailer – to that cast, until this book. Until this book, I’d have said there’s no more reason for reading Mailer.

And lots of reason for reading Pynchon, but there’s the rub: After a similar period of silence, both our lions have whelped betimes, and their offsprings will groan the bookstore tables side by side.

But Pynchon’s huge book is a false-born monstrosity compared to this thing from Mailer, fierce and long and endlessly, angrily justifying its own length and complexity.

This is a book of an extremely young man. And so, the least likely words in the whole world: God bless you, Norman Mailer. This book took long, long brutal hours to write (at an age when most other men seek only rest), and it instructs and often scintillates. So we here at Stevereads undertake a re-consideration of Mailer’s entire corpus, which is a mighty burden this late in the year.

And we can continue on an equally positive note: Philippa Gregory’s sequel to her bestselling and intensely enthralling ‘The Other Boleyn Girl,’ ‘The Boleyn Inheritance’ is every bit as good as the original, a stunning, wonderful reading experience.

As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads have not only read widely in Tudor fiction but also dipped our own oar into those turbulent waters. We can say with some authority: it’s monstrous horrible hard, to write historical fiction in that particular time period. Everybody knew everybody, everybody intermarried with everybody, and everybody with a little money had three or four titles, and used any one of those titles as NAMES, on a randomly-rotating basis. Keeping it all straight was a burden even while LIVING through it. For the historical novelist, it’s a minefield almost impossible to traverse.

Gregory pulls it off luminously. ‘The Boleyn Inheritance,’ the story of the largely unfortunate women who succeeded Anne Boleyn as Henry’s queen, is a damn fine job. It will please the most exacting Tudor scholar, and like its predecessor, it will equally please someone completely ignorant of the period. One of the delights of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ was watching it WIN OVER people who never saw themselves reading 500-page historical novels. It’s our pleasure to report that the sequel also has this magic about it.

So there you have it! A small nosegay of new, accessible books about non-obscure subjects! I’d go on longer, but I think I hear a ruckus in the comments field – I must go and see who’s pulling whose pigtails …

December 16th, 2006

Comics! 52, FF, and more!



Four comics this week, all quite good (proof positive that they must have come from Elmo, since there’s not an issue of gay-murderer Nightwing or Super-Linebacker, not a piece of crap in the batch … hence, Pepito’s hand is not seen) – and each yields a fervent PLEA to the funny book powers that be.

The current issue of ’52’ maintains that title’s increasingly incredible run of great issues (those of you who a while ago gave up on this book should pick it back up forthwith … not as some sort of ‘prequel’ to the current continuity, but because you’ll scarcely read better DC stories anywhere on the new release shelves)(that last urging was aimed pretty much squarely at you, Kevin, ya snobby slug-a-bed!). It can’t last, this run – next issue promises more of the idiotic new untrained lesbian Batwoman, and that CAN’T be made good.

But we can savor it while it lasts! This issue’s hugely winning highlight is the whining, hapless Ralph Dibny’s discovery of the hidden mountaintop city of Nanda Parbat.

I expected to be bored. I expected, in fact, to be FRUSTRATED and bored, since the Nanda Parbat stories I WANT to be reading star one of the greatest DC superheroes of them all, sharing all the elegant simplicity of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, or the Barry Allen Flash – or indeed Superman and Batman: of course I refer to Deadman. And not whatever stupid-ass relaunch might be out there, but good old Boston Brand, wisecracking circus performer/ghost, who can slip his ghostly form into living bodies and take control of them. THAT character should be on issue #300 of his own title right now, but that’s not the plea associated with this issue (well, it IS – I mean, it’s always been a plea of Stevereads that Deadman be given the treatment he’s due … and yet, apart from that marvellous mini-series two years ago with its stellar artwork by Jose Garcia-Lopez, he hasn’t received it).

No, our plea arises from this issue’s amazing portrayal of one member of ’52’s Chinese super-team, the Great Ten of the Peoples Republic.

When we first encountered the team, we groaned at all the stereotypes herded together in one narrow space. Perhaps unlike the rest of you, we here at Stevereads number among our closest friends a native of China who would cringe equally at all the one-note caricatures it contained.

So imagine our pleasure when, in this issue, we learn that at least one member of the team, the lamentably-named Accomplished Pefect Physician, is revealed to have an actual personality, an individual back-story in which he’s NOT just a mindless Communist party drone.

So our plea is this: more, please! Let’s have a Great Ten mini-series, with equal complexity doled out to each member. With sufficient googling on the part of our writers, it could prove an educational experience for all the comic readers out there whose knowledge of China starts and stops with the Yellow Claw.

Up next is the third issue of Alan Davis’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ‘imaginary’ Fantastic Four story, ‘The End.’ This is the third issue of six, so there’s way too much going on to summarize here. Suffice it to say Davis is continuing to haul in as many characters from the FF (especially the Lee/Kirby era) continuity as he possibly can – Galactus, the Watcher, Ronan the Accuser, Black Panther, and the Sentry this time around. And as with the previous two issues, there’s the distinct feeling that he’s sending out invites before he counts his chairs, if you get my meaning.

Still, this issue has high points – Davis’ artwork is stellar, and John Kalisz contintues to outdo himself with his coloring. And there’s an intriguing attempt to explain something that’s always confused me – why so many of the Inhumans wear masks (Davis comes up with the ingenious idea that it’s done as a sign of public contrition, for still looking human even after exposure to the Terrigan Mists).

(There are low points as well, most notably the ‘cliffhanger’ ending … our heroes are attacked by a Sentry! Now let’s see … the original Sentry was defeated by the Fantastic Four; THIS one is facing the Human Torch, the Thing, the entire Inhuman royal family, and oh yeah – the friggin Silver Surfer. Geez – I’m on the edge of my seat over here!)

And the issue features a great action sequence involving Sue Storm and the Sub-Mariner, which leads us to our PLEA for this issue: could we please have a Namor ongoing series again? It’s been years since the last one flared out in a burst of incoherent Jae Lee nonsense – surely it’s time for one of Marvel’s flagship characters to have his own title again? (and while we’re at it, could somebody really popular propose renovating the continuity of the original Human Torch? So that he’s alive, fully powered, and starring in his own title too? Thanx)

The Justice League shows up twice in this batch – first in the fourth issue of Brad Meltzer’s ongoing relaunch. As you-all have gathered, I’m growing a bit impatient with this title – Meltzer clearly mapped out in his head the big storyline he wanted to tell, but it turns out he payed virtually no attention to breaking that story down into individual issues that are compelling in themselves.

The result has been four issues that feel, each one of them, like prologues. This is very annoying – bad enough we all know this run is going to be graphic novelled before the ink is dry on the last issue, but it sucks to have that fact rubbed in our faces.

This issue is a typical mess. There’s Starro. There’s a new Amazo. There’s the issue’s big reveal, Solomon Grundy – only dressed in a suit, so you know he’s REALLY dangerous this time (where do these size-145 large super-villains get their suits?). But none of it gels at all, and you’re left at the end of the issue same as at the end of all the other issues: wondering when the story’s going to start.

So our plea? Start the story, already! So far, it looks like the new League membership will consist of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Black Lightning, Vixen (just as soon as she gets her friggin jewelry back), Green Lantern, Black Canary, Red Tornado, Hawkgirl, and Roy Harper, rather disasterously renamed Red Arrow (it’s the color-league!) – but it still feels like we’re light-years away from actually seeing them all together.

(the issue also features a little mystery: on the bottom of page 11, the panel where Black Canary is hunched menacingly over Professor Ivor is clearly drawn by Adam Kubert, not Ed Benes … but he’s not credited. What the eff?)

Our last comic this time around is Justice League Unlimited, and there our plea is pretty simple: everybody should read this title! Month after month, it’s the happy little antithesis of the ‘adult’ team books: a jam-packed story, great art, and the whole thing wraps up neatly at the end of every issue. Speaking for those of us who remember when ALL comics were like that, it can be pretty darn refreshing.

And what would a comic entry be without a Kevinator quiz? Let’s try two this time around, and see who steps up:

1) The Sub-Mariner and Deadman share, by my counting, three major things in common as characters … anybody care to guess what they are?

2) Davis’ idea about why some Inhumans wear masks is good, but three things in Marvel continuity contradict it … anybody?