Posts from January 2007

January 29th, 2007

Penny Press Posturing Pouting Poseurs!



The latest issue of GQ features a bracing, thought-provoking essay by Tom Carson called “You Actin’ Like Me?” It’s a heartfelt condemnation of the cult of high (and, though Carson doesn’t mention it, Method) seriousness that’s pervaded the ranks of Hollywood’s leading men since the early days of Robert DeNiro’s career, when he took ‘brooding intensity’ to new depths.

Carson is aggrieved that so many of Hollywood’s leading men seem so intent on being seriously devoted to their craft that they’ve forgotten – or worse, chosen not – to entertain:

‘I was caught in the leading man trap,’ Brad Pitt told Entertainment Weekly in November, expressing thanks for the ordeal Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu put him through on “Babel.” Fine, more power to him. But it’s not as if we’ve got a surplus of genuine leading men, and Pitt’s impression that he is or was one just proves the category’s decline (Sorry, Brad – you were beefcake, astounding women with your apparent ability to doze off with your eyes open.) His pal George Clooney may be the only current marquee name who fits the bill, and even Clooney has been bitten by the solemnity bug. He’ll never believe “Ocean’s Eleven” was a better movie than “Syriana.”‘

The ‘solemnity bug’ has bothered me for a while now too. Its ubiquity has curdled my enjoyment even of movies that seemed guaranteed to please me. I thought the central flaw of Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” (signalled by the omission of ‘the Great’ from the title … of all the ‘the Great’s handed down by history, that one is the most secure, the most necessary, the most synonymous with the name) was the casting of pretty brooder Colin Farrell in the lead part, and the result? A portrait without charisma, a three hour movie about a pouty whiner whose men wouldn’t have followed him across the street, much less across the world.

(I thought Wolfgang Peterson’s “Troy” escaped similar fate by immediately establishing its central character, Brad Pitt’s Achilles, as unsympathetic – as somebody other people dislike BECAUSE of his one-dimensional seriousness)

Naturally when talking about today’s leading men, Carson brings up Leonardo DiCaprio … and naturally, if you bring up Leonardo DiCaprio, you bring up “Titanic.” As some of you will already know, I think “Titanic” is a much better movie than it’s usually credited, and I think DiCaprio’s performance in it is strikingly good. And I think Carson is spot-on in his assessment of post-“Titanic” Leo:

‘Yet ever since “Titanic,” he [DiCaprio]’s been treating his participation in that great pop event as a misunderstanding he’s got to live down. I know I’m supposed to admire the grown-up Leo’s dedication, and up to a point, I do. But he’s turned into yet another resolutely uningratiating, morbidly self-serious actor who never taints his talent by providing anything as corrupt as entertainment value. He’s calling attention to his craft to distract us from his magnetism, when any idiot can see it ought to be the other way around.’

DiCaprio is on Carson’s mind because of “Blood Diamond,” of course – a movie, a TYPE of movie, I wouldn’t watch if it were being projected onto the wall of my bedroom and all I had to do was turn my head to see it. At the core of my aversion to such ‘serious’ movies is how BORING they almost always are, but I see now that another part might be the very phenomenon Carson is here excoriating: a certain Sunday school humorlessness.

Talking specifically about “Blood Diamond,” Carson invokes the ghosts of Hollywood past:

‘Expert as he [DiCaprio] is, he spends the movie preoccupied with the technical demands and emotional nuances of role Errol Flynn wouldn’t have even bothered to sober up to play.’

The mention of Flynn is a telling one, especially since Carson mentions the technically still-living Peter O’Toole as a stellar example of … well, of the anti-DeNiro. The context, of course, is O’Toole’s current starring role in Roger Michell’s “Venus,” and I think Carson gets it exactly right:

“Treating any resemblance between the character’s gallant decreptitude and his own as blessedly irrelevant, he just assumes he’s been hired to amuse and enlighten us about somebody [screenwriter Hanif] Kureishi has made up, and gets to work devising dozens of tiny accentuations of the man’s foibles for our benefit. His only interest in the hero is to make the characterization as entertainingly accessible as he can, and wow … how unambitious, right?”

As you all know, I consider O’Toole to be the best actor of the 20th century (I’m enormously hoping he wins an Oscar for ‘Venus’) – very nearly the last of his kind – and Carson’s article got me thinking about the wider cast of young culprits whose work is before us. The solemnity bug seems to have bitten just about all of them, from Daniel Day Lewis on down. I mean, look at Ryan Gosling’s performance in “The United States of Leland” – it’s literally nothing BUT brooding, from start to finish.

In fact, thinking of the damage DeNiro hath wrought, I found myself appreciating all afresh the talents of none other than Hugh Grant. It’s positively wince-inducing to imagine, say, Clive Owen trying to do what Grant does so perfectly in “About a Boy.”

That’s my only real point of difference with Carson, in fact: he implies throughout his piece that the young actors he condemns for oh-so-seriously hamming it up make that choice entirely voluntarily. I myself am of the opinion most of those young actors CAN’T do anything but stare and glare. I doubt Liev Schriber could do a pratfall if his life depended on it.

As if in full-color illustration of Carson’s points, the issue’s cover feature is an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal written in pitch-perfect fawning imbecility by Marshall Sella.

There’s Gyllenhaal on the cover, looking bored and stoned. And all through the interview, he indulges in cheap sarcasms at his interviewer’s expense, in which he uncorks inanity after inanity, in which he fairly thoroughly demonstrates that he’s an overprivileged twit.

I have no doubt that studio-dictated publicity rounds (in this case, for his upcoming movie “Zodiac”) are probably arduous and boring. But Gyllenhaal, like so many of his peers, owes his extremely lucrative career in very large part to his physical appearance – something over which he, after all, had no say. That ought to instill a certain undertone of humility, but it never seems to, not in today’s crop of young stars.

Gyllenhaal’s own seminal piece of broodery, the notorious “Donnie Darko,” certainly rivals “The United States of Leland” for contentless pouting. And apart from his rather forceful singing (…), his turn on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was almost entirely free of comic timing. I doubt he’ll even so much as smile during the entire course of “Zodiac,” and I shudder to think about the rumor I heard from a friend of mine in the business – that young Jake is considering the Dustin Hoffman part in a remake of “All the President’s Men”

Although even if he is, things could be worse: the same rumor-source said Heath Ledger was approached about the Robert Redford part and guffawed the approacher out of the room.

January 28th, 2007

TLS! Opporunists, Favorites, and Scolds in Winter!



The nicest thing about each issue of the TLS (well, apart from the satisfyingly steep levels of erudition always on display) is the unpredictability of it all – you never know what each issue is going to throw at you, you only know it’ll almost certainly be worth your attention.

Take last week’s issue. It begins with a very entertaining roundup review by John North on a trio of books on environmental history. In the midst of this review, there comes this wonderful tidbit: apparently, once upon a time an Oxford don paleontologist named William Buckland had an idea:

“He imported a hyena, ‘Billy,’ from Africa, intending to dissect it for its stomach contents and skeleton, after it had done its work. The deed was too much. Billy continued to live a comfortable Oxford life for the next twenty-five years, known to guests as the family pet that chewed guinea pigs while they dined on other fare.”

See that? How can you beat a literary review that opens with a guinea pig-chomping half-domesticated Oxford hyena? The most the New York Times Book Review can muster is the occasional housecat.

Of course, one of the benefits of being the TLS is the patina of ‘final word’ that clings (usually justifiably, only occasionally not, as in their reviews of all three ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, where at least an argument could be made that film is not their primary area of expertise) to everything on which they pronounce word.

Take, for instance, Gore Vidal’s new memoir “Point to Point Navigation.” Like many of our young friends, we have a complicated relationship with Gore Vidal the author, and so we’ve made it our business to read every notice the book has received. But it wasn’t until James Murphy’s full-length review in this issue of the TLS that we felt we’d seen the book given its full critical due.

Expectedly, it’s a largely negative appraisal. We’ve read “Point to Point Navigation,” and so have others we’ve known, and the verdicts have all been lukewarm to negative. But we read Murphy’s review with avid interest.

In fact, we couldn’t help but crack a wry smile at Murphy’s characterization of Vidal’s socio-political views. Whether or not he’s accurate in his estimation, the phrasing reminds us, inevitably, of our angry young colleague the Reichmarshal:

“… homegrown isolationism – a world-view that is more complex than it has sometimes been painted, and is still potent political medicine in what are now called the ‘flyover states.’ It is an attitude marked by fear of central government and loathing for the elites which control it; suspicion, warring with indifference, about all things foreign and a tendency to believe that the devil walks abroad and belongs to the opposition.”

Personally, we don’t think Vidal actually still believes much if any of that, but it’s fun thinking about those who do. And in the meantime, Murphy makes a serious case:

“Whether it is Gore Vidal’s stature as a novelist that established him as a political pundit, or his panache as partisan scourge that won him the following he has as a writer, is something on which both admirers and critics are unlikely ever to agree. Whatever the case, it seems that his widespread fame (or infamy) today rests more on his career as controversialist than as man of letters however much he might argue they amount to the same thing.”

Of course, as our whip-smart young friends would tell us, Vidal wouldn’t equate those two things (except, perhaps, while drunk, which may end up being the point, although we’ll never really know). But it got us thinking about what Gore Vidal’s actual literary legacy will be.

We realized immediatetly that we’d always pinned our unthinking hopes for such on his literary productions. After all, this was the firebrand who’d written ‘The City and the Pillar.’ This was the sure-footed entertainer who wrote ‘Julian’ and ‘Creation’ … hell, for all its imperfections, ‘Burr’ was written by a profound political questioner. We here at Stevereads feel funny about the prospect of such works simply disappearing. ‘I, Claudius’ is certainly no more worthy of immortality than ‘Julian,’ for instance – the mind conjures with the possibilities, if the BBC had mounted an elaborate mini-series based on the latter rather than the former book, with the same stellar cast bringing an entirely different list of historical characters to life (only maybe John Hurt in the main role, rather than Derek Jacobi – just a thought).

Murphy is well-versed in his subject, which makes him impossible to dismiss out of hand (weird to think, however, that some of our regular readers actually know handily more about Vidal than this seasoned professional reviewer, but that’s the way it is … nothing but the best, here at Stevereads). He centers his sights, unfortunately, on Vidal’s later, loopier conspiracy-theoried rants and raves (unfortunately, but not unfairly – if you’re not sensible enough to retire from the arena of public writing after a certain age and level of coherence, your words are fair game … it might make Vidal’s fans squirm a bit, but until the man stops squirting out op-ed pieces, there it is), with predictable outcomes – especially since ‘Point to Point Navigation’ is in every sense of the word a late work. Murphy minces no words:

“Stuff does not just happen in Vidal’s world: with the focus and perserverance of the autodidact, he will show us how it all fits together, and get in a few swipes at opponants while trying.”

Vidal’s own writing sets up Murphy’s most damning summation:

“Rebutting innuendo, however, is a black hole of discourse; if you ask a rhetorical question, you’ll probably get a rhetorical answer. And conspiracy historiography will always have a part to play in populist democratic culture for, without it, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Eventually those searching intelligent design (sic, apparently) in human affairs tend to nudge each other farther out on a limb, and wind up rubbing shoulders with Rosicrucians, racists, and ‘Da Vinci Code’ cryptographers. Meanwhile, as Harold Macmillan famously pointed out, the rest of us are left to deal with events.”

Still, we here at Stevereads wonder if this isn’t a bit simplistic. For good or ill, and regardless of future opinionizing, at the very least Gore Vidal is the author of the essay collection ‘United States’ – an immortal work whether or not ‘Julian’ or ‘Burr’ or ‘Creation’ sink beneath the waves. That alone is cause to treat Vidal’s legacy – if not the man himself – slightly more respectfully. Luckily, in the end Murphy senses this and ends his review with an acknowledgement of the book’s most touching matter, the death of Vidal’s longtime companion Howard Austin and the effect it had on our author:

“Austin’s dignity and courage in the last days, and his friend’s heartbreak in witnessing them, turn these pages of the memoir into literature, reminding us of the respect we all owe to grief and those who endure it. Whatever the book as a whole may lack in purpose or direction, it finds in these pages a voice that speaks to the heart.”

We aren’t quite sure how Vidal would feel about this (it sounds a lot like a pat dismissal); the reflex is to wait a year for his next peppy, eloquent collection of essays and rebuttals. It’s a very melancholy thought, that we may never see another such book from Gore Vidal.

One more item of interest from our quick survey: Peter Holbrook’s review of Curtis Perry’s book “Literature and Favoritism in Early Modern England.” It’s a short and wholly positive review of a fascinating subject: royal favorites, their pros and cons.

Apparently, having read Perry’s book, Holbrook can find precious few pros regarding these men he refers to as ‘greasy careerists':

“The favourite is a monster, then, a deformation of monarchy. But he is also commonplace: every prince has one. Edward II’s Gaveston, Elizabeth’s Leicester and Essex, James I’s Somerset, and James I’s and Charles I’s Buckingham all sabotage normal princely rule. But what is normal about a system that keeps throwing up such monsters?”

He goes one step further:

“Royal favourites are inevitable – which may just indicate something wrong with royalty.”

We here at Stevereads are quite well-versed on the topic of royal favorites, and we have to disagree: there’d be something wrong with personal monarchy if the monarchs DIDN’T developed favorites. The favorite, for good or ill (only ill cases are listed above, but there were very many good ones), reminds the monarch of their humanity. Kings and queens almost always knew (and usually loved) their favorites long before they gained the throne – the favorite thereby becomes a living reminder of days that were often more perilous and always more carefree. Often, monarchs need that reminder, in order not to become monsters – or worse, weak.

So, let’s close things up for now with an impromptu Stevereads quiz! Anybody out there ‘up’ enough on their British history to name a royal favorite who WASN’T a ‘greasy’ monster? A monarch who unequivocally BENEFITTED from maintaining a favorite?

January 26th, 2007

Comics! The highs and lows of Pepito!




Plenty of highs and lows in our most recent batch of comics, certainly enough UNcertainty to justify the periodic swearing-off that even die-hard comics fans have been known to do. There’s a handful of really good titles being published every month, but they’re surrounded every week by such vibrating piles of poop that even the faithful find themselves doubting.

It’s always been so, of course. Here at Stevreads we have a rather sadly OLD intern – he’s an oddity at whom the others point and sneer – who remembers a time DECADES ago when the only good monthly titles being published were John Buscema’s run on Conan and Mike Golden’s run on Micronauts. But knowing ahead of time the tedious features of the landscape doesn’t make it any easier to pass them on the road.

Part of the problem, as you’re all guessing by now, is my archnemesis Pepito. When he’s not seeding the globe with robotic duplicates of himself (unfortunately they’re EXACT duplicates, meaning they don’t get up until 2 in the afternoon and they’re constantly forgetting where they left their keys, so the whole world-domination thing is likely still a ways off), he’s out there routinely buying equal weights crap and good stuff.

For crap, take the latest issue of Wolverine. Actually, take the whole IDEA of a Wolverine comic, but this issue certainly isn’t helping any. It features some very spiffy art by Simone Bianchi and a howlingly (no pun intended) ridiculous plot by Jeph Loeb.

The plot involves yet another re-imagining of the relationship between Wolverine and Sabertooth, this one looking to feature, disasterously, some pre-historic tribe of wolf-people called the Lupine (no need to follow up on it, since we won’t be dumb enough to read the next issue).

But as if that weren’t bad enough, the issue starts with Wolverine using one of his claws to pick his way into Professor Xavier’s mansion (no explanation of WHY he does this, since presumably he has a key or pass-card, but hey). Rogue is standing there when he walks in (she points out the key business too, but hey), and our hero right off tells her: “This is between me and him, Rogue. You wanna make it about you and me, pick a different night.”

Then Rogue says, “Well gosh, sugah, it sure looks to me like you came here to coldly, premeditatedly kill one of my teammates, so I’m gonna hafta use my super-strength, super-speed, and life-absorbing powers to slap you down like a daddy-longlegs.” There follows a thirty-second battle, and afterwards, when Wolverine wakes up, she and him spend the rest of the issue debating the pros and cons of vigilante justice.
Oooops. That’s how the issue went in its first draft, before Loeb hoovered up a saucerful of coke. In the issue before us, Rogue says “You could’ve knocked” and frickin WALKS AWAY, after which Wolverine tries his hardest to cold-bloodedly murder her teammate.

Yech.

Luckily, for every sweaty-adolescent power-fantasy in the batch, we’ve got a comic written for actual thinkng adults, like for instance the penultimate installment of ‘Doctor Strange – The Oath,’ which is hands-down the best Marvel book currently being published. If there were any justice in the comics world, this mature, intelligent, funny version of Stephen Strange would become the new definitive version and run for 50 issues – when this storyline is collected in a graphic novel, it will be that rarest of rarities: a book you can hand to anybody, confident they’ll like it. Our sources tell us that this mini-series isn’t selling out every month – which means it should be possible for you-all to toddle on down to the Android’s Dungeon and catch up on all four extant issues. Hint hint.

Alas, our little pile of comics doesn’t stop there. Up next is the first issue of another Marvel mini-series, “Silent War,” written by David Hine and drawn by Frazer Irving.

We’re all in favor of the concept of the mini-series, here at Stevereads. Open-ended comic titles are almost always deficient in plot; their soap-opera nature prevents them from delivering the climax and payoff that close-ended short-runs can (this applies even to mini-series that are gargantuan in their scope, like ‘Cerebus’ or ‘Bone,’ since they were – at least according to their creators – plotted out ahead of time).

Yep, we like mini-series. Except when they suck. Which brings us to ‘Silent War.’

First, a little background: the Inhumans are a reclusive super-race who gain their powers by entering a chamber full of genetic-code-altering Terrigan Mists. Inhumans go through the Mists as a cultural event, and no two end up with the same powers. In a recent storyline, the US government came into possession of the Terrigan Mists, and when the country refused to return them, Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans, declared war on the United States.

So far so good, mainly because so far ‘Silent War’ hasn’t started yet.

Once it does, major and minor annoyances start piling up pretty quick. What is the plan of the Inhumans, you wonder? Looks like it’s this: they send four of their number (Gorgon, whose hoof-stamps trigger mini-earthquakes, Jolen, who controls all plant-life, Kurani, who can cast lifelike illusions, and Nahrees, who seems to have electrical powers) to America, where they commandeer the stage during a black-tie Shakespeare performance and issue a declaration of war on live TV.

Problem #1: as we covered at the beginning of class, Black Bolt has already declared war. Problem #2: Manhattan is, like, CRAWLING with super-heroes.

Then the plan goes awry: instead of merely restraining the audience (as Gorgon tells us repeatedly their king ordered him to do), Jolen decides to have his plants start KILLING them. Gorgon puts a quick stop to this, but not before dozens have been killed.

The four of them leave the theater and return to their hotel, where they’re confronted by the Fantastic Four (meaning, I guess, that this mini-series falls into the very, very narrow gap between the events of ‘House of M’ and ‘Civil War’). When Gorgon asks how they were detected, Ben Grimm supplies this answer: “Four visitors from Eastern Europe fly halfway around the world to sit in a crummy hotel room for a week. First time they go out, there’s a terrorist attack on a theater half dozen blocks away.”

Okaaaay. Problem #3: Why did the Inhumans reserve a hotel room at all, when they could have had any one of their people’s teleporters wisk them in and out? Problem #4: Even assuming they take a hotel room, why not have their cover-illusion be that of a wholesome American family (or, Hell, one person and three pieces of luggage)? Problem #5: why wait a week, increasing the likelihood of detection? Why not strike some venue right away? And Problem #6: we’re told a hotel clerk called Homeland Security AFTER the attack, having become suspicious beforehand. But Gorgon and crew walk straight from the theater to their hotel … where the Fantastic Four are already waiting. That kind of split-second timing just begs to be laughed at.

Except that it’s nothing compared to what follows. The next few pages are take up with one of the all-time suckiest comic-book battles we here at Stevereads have ever seen. Despite the fact that the powers of each Inhuman are formidable in their own right (and despite the fact that Gorgon himself has fought the team better all by his lonesome), the Fantastic Four wins without breaking a sweat. And depite the fact that one of the Inhumans present is an illusion-caster, and despite the fact that Black Bolt’s evil brother is a mind-controller, and despite the fact that the Fantastic Four and the Inhumans have been friends and allies and practically family forever, the Fantastic Four then hand them over to face-masked rifle-toting government agents without hesitation.

What follows reads like a cheap knock-off of ‘Civil War’ (which, as Elmo has pointed out, itself reads like a cheap knock-off): Gorgon is stripped (eww), interrogated, declared an ‘enemy combatant’ with no right whatsoever, and then EXPERIMENTED upon, all in the space of seven quick and easy pages. Not by Maximus the Mad or by Kang the Conqueror or by Doctor Doom, but by the U.S. government, which, in the current grossly cynical Marvel universe, has apparently replaced the Nazis as the go-to villain for sadistic torture-sequences. Yeesh.

Ironic, then, that our final highlight from this batch of comics also features the Fantastic Four. In the latest issue of their own book (writer Dwayne McDuffie’s first), one of the things that’s bugged us most about the whole
‘Civil War’ storyline is finally addressed: why the hell would Reed Richards support the Registration Act?

The issue begins with Reed agreeing to meet Johnny Storm in a coffee shop so Johnny can pose that very question to him. Reed prevaricates in all the ways we’ve seen before – that it’s the law, that it’s a good law, etc. – and when Johnny asks him if he’s sure he’s right about that, Reed tells him ‘to a mathematical certainty.’

And then, for the first time, we see him doubt that certainty.

He does what any super-genius would do: he enlists another super-genius to check his math. The super-genius in question is the Mad Thinker, here wonderfully characterized. Reed takes him back to the Baxter Building, where construction teams are assessing the costs of repairing the damage Sue Richards did last issue (there’s a delicious bit of political commentary here, when the head of damage control thanks Reed for his patronage, noting that Halliburton’s been getting all the work lately. Reed’s response? “But they always go substantially over estimate” Hee … that would have been grimly funny even before they went some 20,000 ‘over estimate’ …).

Reed shows him the equations he’s been using, the equations that have prompted him to believe supporting the Registration Act is the only way to stave off unspecified future disasters. The Mad Thinker examines the work with nicely understated envy (“No wonder I never beat you. I was a caveman, bragging about fire, and you were splitting the atom”) and then reveals that Sue has been with them all along, invisible and listening. Once she hears the real explanation for Reed’s actions, she storms off.

The issue is wonderfully done, but hey – it wouldn’t be a Stevereads write-up without a few bricks being hurled, now would it?

For instance, when – and more importantly why – did Sue contact the Mad Thinker? Was she with him as they entered the Baxter Building, where presumably there’d be security sensors to detect her? And what, Reed can predict ‘societal trends’ to a high degree of accuracy, but he can’t anticipate the actions of his own wife? (actually, those of you out there who are married might give him a pass on that, come to think of it)

And most of all: why is everybody in the issue so fat? I mean, it’s the Fantastic Four: I expect the Thing to be fat, and certainly the Red Ghost looks like he’s had a few too many blinis. But for some reason artist Mike McKone is drawing EVERYBODY as shapeless and doughy. What, our heroes haven’t ever heard of ‘You on a Diet’ or ‘The JuiceMan Cometh’?

Either way, a singularly uneven batch of comics this time around – but hey, what can you expect, when dealing with megalomaniacal euro-trash such as Pepito? Maybe we’ll have better luck next time …

January 23rd, 2007

in the penny press! dodos and Ramsey Clark!



Interesting tidbits in the penny press this time around, starting with the latest issue of Esquire.

We here at Stevereads have a certain fond indulgence for Esquire – it’s resolutely moronic and reductive in tone (its endless style tips and lifestyle guides only reinforce what the rest of us have suspected all along: that all those interchangeable-looking young business-suited drones we see crowded at the crosswalks on our way to work really ARE interchangeable – not that they’re extremely similar to each other, but that they are, in fact, the SAME PERSON, cheaply mimeographed hundreds of times), but it has the financial clout to commission some first-rate pieces. And since hunting for first-rate pieces is the first duty of truffle-sniffing in the penny press, we must go everywhere, even to the depths of cash-and-titty-worshipping magazines like Esquire.

And it’s not all uphill! Every issue of Esquire is guaranteed to produce something eminently worth reading. Fortunately for the rest of you, we here at Stevereads do the soup-straining.

One quick bit of fun comes from the always-reliable Answer Fella, who gets a peculiarly theological question: a reader asks if a cloned human being would have a soul.

The Answer Fella gathers testimony from various experts and comes down in the affimative. To quote one of them: “If humans have souls, then clones will have them, too.”

Well, not hardly. As many of you know, we here at Stevereads were trained in our youth by Jesuits – and so we are, in young adulthood, completely atheistic. There are no gods, and all their appurtenances are and always have been mortal folly.

But…. that having been said, if we allow the premise, the Answer Fella and his experts are still well and truly wrong.

The problem lies in an all-consuming faith in the powers of science, alas. These experts say that if you reproduce the biology with complete fidelity, the soul must surely follow. The fallacy of this is obvious: it mistakes the soul for being a PRODUCT of biology.

Of course, from a theological standpoint (we have our own experts on this, in addition to knowing the enemy’s territory quite well in our own right), this misses one crucial point: the soul is not a product of biology. It comes from God – it is the singular gift that God gives to human (and, according to Holy Scripture, only human) beings. It’s not biological – it, like God, stands outside the biological process.

Fortunately, not everything in this issue is fraught with theological implications. For instance, John Richardson’s wonderful piece “How the Attorney General of the United States Became Saddam Hussein’s Lawyer” is purely secular, a delightful piece of research and extrapolation regarding former attorney general Ramsey Clark.

Before reading this article, we here at Stevereads would have assumed the present age had long since forgotten Ramsey Clark. Once upon a time, in a long-lost age, he was one of a brace of fearless greyhounds in the kennel of the Kennedys. He caught from them the bug of doing good work, and he pushed on with that good work even after they were gone (and new boss, Lyndon Johnson, was, shall we say, considerably less interested in doing good work).

Surprised therefore at finding Ramsey Clark in the latest issue of Esquire, of all places, we dispatched one of our Stevereads interns to conduct a thorough search of the Interweb in order to confirm the stuff we read in the article.

Turns out it’s all true. He’s been defending Nazis, the PLO, Lyndon Larouche … and Saddam Hussein. And there in the article is Clark’s face, once matinee-handsome, now suddenly old. Through the rice-paper skin can be seen one last flickering of the light that was Camelot.

Ramsey Clark is a virtuous man, but this has become an almost unbelievably wicked world. He looks like an anachronism, jetting from one self-evidently guilty client to another, always self-effacing, always quietly reposing his deepest faith in the rule of law. Robert Bolt’s Thomas More in ‘A Man for All Seasons’ was written with a different person in mind, but his most famous bit of dialogue might well have been spoken by Clark.

It’s no mystery in our current world that pundits and commentators would feel free to mock and malign Clark. We live in a vicious, ‘Mission Accomplished’ world in which the powerful routinely break the law, where they’re the FIRST to break it, and then sneer transparent lies to a fawning media.

We here at Stevereads wish him well. There’s nothing he can do about the way of the world, except keep doing what he’s always done, even though virtually nobody believes in doing it anymore.

We took that slight feeling of disenchantment with us when we moved over to the latest issue of New York magazine, which (amidst its usual gathering of great stuff) featured an article in which writer William Georgiades tries Allen Carr’s celebrated ‘method’ to quit smoking. Georgiades is a smart, savvy writer, so we were happy to watch him explode the manipulative myth that Carr’s book has been slinging since its publication.

You don’t need to do much more than attach ‘the easy way’ to ANYTHING to make it bestseller in America. ‘Lose Weight in 10 Days – And Eat as Much as You Want!’- and such titles crowd the bookstore shelves and trumpet the quintessentially American mindframe that results should never be bought at the cost of work – surely nowadays, a pill or a program will suffice?

Contrary to the jejune speculations afloat here at Stevereads (that we were tormented with cigarettes as a small child, or even that we ourselves were once addicted), our hatred of tobacco addicts stems from the particular TACK they’ve always taken in rationalizing their addiction, the particular TACK the 10 billion-dollar tobacco adverstising industry always takes – i.e. that tobacco addiction is the THINKER’S addiction, that standing outside philosophically dragging on a cigarette is somehow synomymous with … well, with pausing, with re-assessing, and most of all with ADULTHOOD. Those bitter minutes we adults take outside, burning our own lungs and bestenching ourselves for hours afterwards, are what SEPARATE us from more shallow thinkers, goes the advertising. We’re not callow anymore; we realize that THIS is the price we pay for being adult, artistic, realistic, REAL.

Needless to say, any pretence that presumes superiority is guaranteed to tick us off (the typical pothead assertion that they hear music ‘better’ when high comes close to being the same thing). So we were glad to read Georgieades tear the program to pieces. It doesn’t work for Georgiades, and his backgrounding for the article reveals how many others have been similarly let down. This only makes sense: tobacco addiction is the fiercest of all addictions to even barely control, much less ‘beat.’ Now if only ‘The Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ would stop selling so well …

And lastly, over in the New Yorker, there’s an interesting article by Ian Parker on the long, strange afterlife of the famously extinct great Mauritius dodo. Parker very gently, very forgivingly writes about the eccentrics and, to speak plainly, the lunatics who staff the 2006 Mauritius Dodo Expedition.

The picture is that of a hopeless muddle, a pathetic tangle of island politics, petty scientific rivalries, and of course the money-guys getting everything wrong (at one point they half-seriously joke about cloning a dodo, and you can just hear all the scientists within earshot cringe).

The story is ultimately sad – reading Parker’s piece, you get the distinct impression that it’s way, way too late for any kind of clear-eyed science to take root on Mauritius. But then, the dodo’s story is a sad one anyway – you picture these big fat birds so docile and unaccustomed to mankind that they were all dead within just a century of their first contact with humans.

But there’s one silver lining in the story: it gives us here at Stevereads a chance to offer a shameless plug for one of the best science fiction short stories ever written: “The Ugly Chickens” by the criminally underrated Howard Waldrop. We have yet to quiz our interns on whether or not this gem of a story is available on the Interweb, but if it is, oh, you should all read it! It’s a smart, playful, pitch-perfect exercise in adumbration and irony.

Needless to say, if the story ISN’T available online, we here at Stevereads will provide as many copies for my little guppies as they require … I am, as always, their humble servant …

January 20th, 2007

Books! Women in History!


An intriguing, maddening boxed-set came our way late in the last year, and it served as a reminder of how much we here at Stevereads do love a good boxed set.

Part of this is practical, naturally – boxed sets are more convenient than loose books: self-contained, independent of bookends, even stackable. But more of our appreciation stems from the wonderful ideological unity boxed sets promise (And sometimes disunity! 20 years ago, for instance, Penguin published ‘War and Peace’ in a handy two-volume boxed set, with the split happening right before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Readers encountering Tolstoy’s masterpiece for the first time in such a format couldn’t help but read a different book from those who slogged all the way through one volume, bailing it together with rubber bands and fetishistically counting both pages read and pages remaining)

On those grounds, the boxed set before us now, “Women in History,” isn’t a total success. It makes a bunch of dumb mistakes we’re itching to correct.

Seven volumes in this squat box: ‘The Courtesans’ by Joanna Richardson (the most famed dozen courtesans in Second Empire Paris), ‘Unnatural Murder’ by Anne Somerset (the Earl and Countess of Somerset’s involvement in the 17th Century murder of Sir Thomas Overbury), Lesley Branch’s edition of the Regency memoirs of Harriette Wilson, H.F.M. Prescott’s biography of Mary Tudor, Michael Grant’s biography of Cleopatra, Maria Bellonci’s biography of Lucrezia Borgia, and Elizabeth Jenkins’ biography of Elizabeth I.

Some of our problems with this particular boxed set are obvious even from the recitation of that roster. ‘Women in History’ is a big, juicy subject, after all – is it really best served by not one but two books on courtesans? (Richardson’s book is very nearly worthless, and we’ll get to Blanch’s book shortly) Or, for that matter, two Tudor queens?

But the problems go deeper than that, naturally. Except on purely commercial grounds (that ‘except’ will, perhaps, earn us a Lockean ‘Ya think?’ – but even so!), we here at Stevereads would challenge the right of many of these titles to be in a set called ‘Women in History.’

It goes without saying that in a world where three of the four greatest novelists of all frickin time are women, where virtually every nation that’s ever existed has at some point been ruled by a woman (a free book to the first of you to tell me one of the times this was true of America!), and where the fight for women’s rights contains a roster of some of the bravest people in history … well, let’s just say that in such a world, we probably shouldn’t be spending so much time reading about courtesans.

Cleopatra? Yes, probably – not only for iconic name-recognition reasons, but because an argument could be made that Roman resentment of the lavish treatment she received from Julius Caesar helped to precipitate the man’s assassination. There’s absolutely no historical evidence that she was anything more than a war trophy with moxy (mytho-historiographers jumped on her – so to speak- pretty quick, so our surviving historical record is not to be trusted), but thanks to Shakespeare (and Liz Taylor), she’s the most recognizable female name in history, so she probably deserves a place here.

But Mary Tudor? True, she has a popular drink named after her, but she was a boring failure as a queen, and what’s worse, she wasn’t a very good Tudor. Oh, she had the weird brain-wattage so typical of the breed, and like the rest of the family she was utterly fearless of her own safety. But her reign was a failure in main part because she was too stiffly doctrinaire and too inept at politics – very un-Tudorlike failings for which there’s nobody to blame but the lady herself.

Elizabeth I of course (although it’s not for any contemporary historian to bestow the sobriquet of ‘the great’ … true, there’s a long and fascinating thesis to be written on the whys whynots of how that title gets bestowed, but it’s history’s to give or withhold …. In the history of English monarchs, only Alfred gets it – not Henry VIII, not Victoria, not Edward III, and not Elizabeth) – true, she benefitted more from happenstance than most of her advocates would like to admit (she faced a uniquely weak coalition of potential European foes, and she was smarter than every single one of the men in her realm, and, not incidentally, a massive freak storm scattered the famed Spanish Armada before its soldiers could overrun the island), but her claim to prominence is undisputed.

(undisputed, yes, but nevertheless – we here at Stevereads maintain that the greatest English queen of all time was Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI and mother of the present queen)

But Lucrezia Borgia? If a (totally spurious) reputation as a serial poisoner didn’t cling to her name still, would anybody but Renaissance scholars know who she was? And who she was, frankly, doesn’t warrant her a place in this set – just another devout Renaissance barter-wife, sold by men to other men in order to make male heirs. No, what we want for this collection are women whose lives are defined by more than bad marriages (or good ones, for that matter). No Catherine of Aragon, no Mary Queen of Scots, and (once you strip away the whole poisoner canard) no Lucrezia Borgia.

That leaves us with two problem cases. The first, ‘Unnatural Murder,’ is fairly easy to deal with: as interesting as the Overbury mystery is (did the Earl and Countess really poison him? Were there deeper motives involved than simple jockeying among James I’s favorites at court?), it nevertheless remains a footnote in history. Anne Somerset’s book is wonderful, make no mistake: this is exactly how history should be written. But we’ve only got seven spots here, so it has to go.

The second is an equally easy call, but it wrenches a good deal more. The scandalous memoirs of Harriette Wilson are divinely fun to read, and Lesley Blanch’s edition deserves the widest possible audience. Wilson’s memoirs were notorious in her day mainly because she very candidly offered all her former clients – including some of the most prestigious figures of Regency England – a chance to buy themselves OUT of her tell-all before it went to press. For the low, low price of 200 pounds, she would remove the name (and save the reputation) of any of her former paramours, including the Duke of Wellington, who refused and uttered his famous line “publish and be damned!”

The memoirs are hypnotically fantastic reading. Wilson wrote a number of now totally forgotten (unjustly so, in our opinion) novels, but this, no less novelistic in execution, is her masterpiece. Everywhere it glitters with her sly, piercing wit, as in this exchange with Wellington:

“I wonder you do not get married, Harriette!”
(By the by, ignorant people are always wondering).
“Why so?”
Wellington, however, gives no reasons for anything unconnected with fighting, at least since the convention of Cintra; and he, therefore, again became silent. Another burst of attic sentiment blazed forth:
“I was thinking of you last night, after I got into bed,” resumed Wellington.
“How very polite to the Duchess,” I observed.

Nevertheless, however clever and intelligent our memoirist is, and however much it pains us to set aside so attractive an edition of a book with which the common reader should be more familiar, Harriette Wilson has to go. The competition for her spot is simply too fierce.

And that leaves us where? We’re keeping Cleopatra on a long surmise. We’re keeping Elizabeth I for state reasons (although I might substitute J.E. Neale’s more scholarly and more readable biography of the queen). And we’re dumping everybody else – which leaves five open spaces! And this is where one of the most enjoybable aspects of boxed sets comes in: imagining them with different contents (how often have we imagined a ‘military history’ set, or a ‘science fiction’ set, and many other themes too nerdy to mention!).

We nominate the following:

Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Four Kings by Mary Kelly – Kelly’s writing is a trifle mundane, but oh! Her subject certainly isn’t! Instead of merely being a pawn in dynastic intrigues, Eleanor over time became adept and powerful enough to play them herself, at a time when most women in England lived lives indistinguishable from those of the livestock they tended.

Aphra Behn by Vita Sackville-West – Behn is an altogether remarkable figure in history, unprecedently living by her pen as a novelist and playwright in an age and craft thoroughly dominated by men, and Sackville-West’s typically gorgeous prose does her full justice.

Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin – Unlike most Austen biographers, Tomalin controls herself admirably … easy on the petticoats, generous with the textual appreciations. The result is a very readable account of the woman who is the most unlikely of all the world’s great novelists.

Empress Maria Theresa by Mary Moffat – How wonderful it would be to see Moffat’s long-gone book decked out in the fine colors of this boxed set! And how wonderful it would be if more readers knew the fascinating life of this woman, who lowered taxes, raised literacy rates, put Austria in the front rank of nations, AND went toe-to-toe with Frederick the Great on the battlefield.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Those of you who know us could probably see this coming a mile off, but we can’t help ourselves! Not only is Woolf’s extended essay one of the finest works of English prose in existence, but it’s ABOUT women in history – and so the perfect capstone to our imaginary set!

And there you have it! Wouldn’t those seven volumes be a set to conjure with! A good balance of prose, politics, and personalities, with nary a courtesan in sight.

January 19th, 2007

In the Penny Press! Heroes and Villains!


There’s a horrible circular pattern that holds, stalled, over virtually all the major fiction outlets these days: the long-established names get published in their every jot and tittle, and everybody else must wait until physical infirmity or extreme decrepitude force openings in the calendar. Louise Erdrich getting a bowel-resection? Fine – let’s look at the slush pile! Philip Roth’s off-track betting covering his balloon payment this month? Fine – let’s beat the workshop bushes!

It isn’t fair, naturally, and it results in a frightful piling-up of jots and tittles. The unfairness stems from the fact that in a perfect world, EVERY SINGLE short story submitted to any major publishing venue would be read anonymously – not only so that every story would be read on its merits alone, but also so that literary dinosaurs wouldn’t continue to view places like Harper’s or the New Yorker as their private fiefdoms.

Two egregious examples this time around, one in the New Yorker and one in Harper’s.

The case in the New Yorker is a short story called ‘Bravado’ by William Trevor. The title alone is warning enough: Trevor is approximately 115 years old and has never in his life written about anything closer to ‘bravado’ than the kitchen sink. But even so, we are trained by this damned wretched pattern to give every dog its day, and so we read ‘the latest’ by Alice Munro or John Updike, even though there’s nothing any ‘later’ in them than the Crimean War.

That ‘Bravado’ is a shapeless, meandering mess of a thing will come as no shocking news to anybody who’s watched Trevor’s slow (and, it should be said, at times almost imperceptible) decline over the years. But what drew us up short, over and over, was the technical ineptitude creeping in at the edges.

Take one paragraph chosen at random:

“Less than half a mile away, the night was different. Young people prowled about outside the Star night club, it’s band – Big City – taking a break. A late shop was still open, a watchful Indian at the door noting who came and went. A few cars drew away, but more remained. Then, with a thump of such suddenness that for a moment it might have been taken for a warning of emergency or disaster, music again burst from the Star night club.”

Just counting up the infelicities in that single paragraph filled me with the urge to find some undergrad writing class and SUBMIT it, just to see what the smart ones would do to whip it into shape.

And it’s not just the leaden repitition of ‘the Star night club,’ although there are at least ten ways to get around that. And maybe that ‘late shop’ (as opposed to ‘shop open late’) is some kind of UK colloquialism. And although that ‘its band – Big City – taking a break,’ the way it’s written here, freezes the band forever on hiatus in the context of ‘the night,’ maybe Trevor was going for compression and just misstepped. But ‘a watchful Indian at the door noting who came and went’? ‘A few cars drew away, but more remained’? What are the redundant clarifications there, except sure signs of a) authorial laziness and b) an empty hole where an editor should be?

Over in Harper’s we have our resident bete noir, Alice Munro, turning in yet another endless story in which two provincial female characters (usually, as in this case, the narrator and her sister – although this story intensifies the miasmic horror of it all by having the two women be identical twins… as if anybody would read a Munro story and think otherwise) natter on for 90 pages. For all we know here at Stevereads, they may natter on a good deal longer than that – 90 pages is the longest we’ve ever been able to subsist without light or air.

In this latest story, “Child’s Play,” there are no technical clunkers quite so bad as those littering Trevor’s piece (at 75, Munro is, after all, 40 years younger). But she more than makes up for it by troweling on the sententious sentimentality until you’re accidentally slopping it all over the coffee table:

“Every year, when you’re a child, you become a different person. Generally it’s in the fall, when you re-enter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That’s when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year, but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and, it would seem, automatically, properly. Its scenes don’t vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there’s a switchback, what’s been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it’s plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.”

Nevermind the laziness here (that ‘it would seem’ is so quintessentially Munro, an author so devoid of emotion that she can’t even wholly trust her reportage of it), or the contradictions (if you notice the timing of this self-changing in childhood and then afterwards don’t, then those changes cleary don’t go on ‘just the same,’ etc) – no, it’s the dunderheaded weirdness of the passage, the alien wrong-notedness that has always characterized Munro’s prose. Honestly, has anyone ever viscerally felt anything CLOSE to what this passage describes? (Bertrand, Beepy, kindly put your hands down, ya mewling tools – the question was rhetorical)

Fortunately, not all was likewise bleak and bloated in this installment of In the Penny Press! For instance, in the same issue of Harper’s, Jonathan Lethem turns in a very good, very comprehensive look at the phenomenon of plagiarism (for which we might also recommend – though it pains us to do so – Judge Posner’s new booklet, “The Little Book of Plagiarism”). Of course, Lethem being Lethem, he can’t do the job without a clever twist – this time in the not-quite-as-original-as-he-seems-to-think form of documenting all the plagiarisms he committed in the writing of the article.

We’ve seen this particular trick before (it was rife in the wake of the ‘Opal Mehta’ flap), and although Lethem does it more entertainingly than anybody else, we’re not sure we like the implications of the gimmick itself. By persnicketishly documenting every word and echo, the writers in question seem to be implying that ANY uproar about plagiarism is, well, much ado about nothing. That if ‘we’ all dug around enough, we’d find that ALL of us are filching stuff from EVERYBODY all the time, so why bother getting so worked up about it? Look what you originality-Nazis are making me do, the joke seems to say – OK, I’ve noted every little thing I lifted from somebody else, are you HAPPY now?

Still, the piece was fun.

Also a great deal of fun in this same Harper’s issue was a column of excerpts from the Chicago Manual of Style’s website – poor souls writing in for grammar and style usage-tips and getting some unexpectedly spry responses:

“Q: A friend and I were looking at a poster that read ‘guys apartment.’ I believe it should read ‘guys’ apartment.’ She claims it should read ‘guys’s apartment’ and that the CMOS specifically gives the example of ‘guys’s’ to make ‘guy’ possessive. I looked through every section on possessives and did not find the word ‘guys’s’ or any rule that would make this correct.

A: ‘Guys’s’ is acceptable in the way that ‘youse guys’ is acceptable; that is, neither is yet recognized as standard prose, and if your friend can find it in CMOS, I’ll eat my hat. And shame on your friend. It must make you wonder what else she’s capable of.

Q: O English language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing?

A: In formal writing, we allow both marks only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no.”

Hee. Grammar is so much fun!

And lastly, of course those of you who saw it will have guessed already our thorough-going approval of Robert Kaplan’s piece in the latest Atlantic – he writes in praise of Herodotus, and although he shoe-horns in one or two too many references to the quaqmire in Iraq, his main point bears repeating: reading Herodotus is entirely more enjoyable than reading Thucydides.

Which gives us the perfect opportunity to close with an unabashed plug: currently featured at a Barnes & Noble near you is the ‘Barnes & Noble Classics’ version of Herodotus, and it’s an extremely worthy candidate for your $7 (yep, a wopping $7). Not only is it a surprisingly well put-together volume, pleasingly hefty and prettily designed, but it features the sturdy, resonant G.C. Macaulay translation, here given a well-deserved second life.

But the best feature of this edition is the editorial presence of Donald Lateiner. By some happy chance, B&N got lucky in finding Professor Lateiner, and you get to share in that luck for less than the cost of lunch. Lateiner’s introduction is that perfect kind of academic prose that’s bright and conversational enough to appeal equally to students and experts alike, and his notes throughout are a marvel of unobtrusive lucidity.

Nobody’s classics shelf can be without Aubrey de Selincourt’s seminal edition of Herodotus, but this, what can fairly be called the Lateiner edition (pace Macaulay), is certainly the first runner-up and almost equally mandatory (since everybody should have at least two different translations of any ancient classic). Our good professor also masterfully annotated the B&N edition of Thucydides, but as Kaplan (and we here at Stevereads) has already pointed out, Herodotus is where the fun is.

January 15th, 2007

Books! One Big Damn Puzzler!


As some of you may already know, our esteemed colleague The Mama Chan (proud mother of that oddest and most adorable feline, The Baby Chan) reads, well, pretty much everything. People see – indeed, people are given no choice but to see – her outsized public persona, but what people don’t see are the endless hours she devotes in solitude (well, there’s the Baby Chan, smiling up at her and bumping into furniture) to the high holy act of reading.

The Mama Chan recently cornered us here in the palatial confines of Stevereads and gently persuaded us (translation: shrilly shrieked “NO! Nonononono, you need to READ this, y’heathen!”) to examine a forthcoming new novel.

The Mama Chan views recommending books as a sacred calling, an act of deep personal significance – and so, when she passes on a plug, it’s not to be taken lightly.

More often than not, she hits the mark – and this is one of those times. Oh, this is certainly one of those times.

For weeks (The Mama Chan gets word of these things long before normal mortals), she’s been urging upon us a forthcoming novel by John Harding called ‘One Big Damn Puzzler,’ saying cryptic things like ‘it’s just your sort of thing,’

We’re not exactly sure how it’s our ‘sort of thing,’ except in the sense that it’s EVERYBODY’s sort of thing, because this is one very, very good novel – intelligent, wise, agile, and funny.

The plot revolves around a South Pacific island so remote and undeveloped that the reader quickly suspects it of being paradise. Its inhabitants are quirky enough to make the reader cringe at the thought of condescension, and the author’s elaborate use of pidgin English only increases the worry – but needlessly. Harding has his story firmly in hand, and its lynchpin is the pidgin-fallibility of everybody, whether they trade in yen or yams.

The moral authority on this island is an old man named Managua, who is engaged in the task of rendering ‘Hamlet’ into the pidgin English of his people. Harding’s clearly fonder of him than of any of his other characters, and his gentle rendition of Managua’s fairly high estimation of his own literary (and later acting) ability is the book’s most charming aspect.

It’s also the source of the novel’s title, for Managua’s sincere efforts to render Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy come out thus: “Is be or is be not, is be one damn big puzzler.”

Harding makes it clear from the outset that the elements of ‘Hamlet’ will interweave heavily through this book – and this is certainly true, in ways both silly and serious. Not only is there an abudance of ghosts and fatal indecisions (and at least one heartfelt love gone wrong), but there’s some well-chosen ribbing sent Shakespeare’s way: Managua’s copy of ‘Hamlet’ is missing a few pages, and he naively assumes that those pages must contain the key to understanding the contradictions of this supremely contradictory play.

Into this quirky, idyllic world comes young, beautiful William Hardt, an American lawyer with grand claims of financial reparations for the islanders.

Fans of ‘Northern Exposure’ will be able to guess what happens next (we can just hear The Mama Chan braying ‘What? What’s that? Northern what? What are you talking about? Tell me, TELL ME! I’m talking to you, do you hear me, y’heathen?’ The Mama Chan neither owns a TV nor knows how to operate her lonely, neglected computer). Hardt – afflicted with OCD – is overcome and borne aloft by the simple ways of this honest island (and by the allures of the predictable visiting white woman).

At its heart, Harding’s book is about the inherent, unavoidable violence involved when any culture first meets another.

Complications ensue, and a wonderful novel unfolds. The book is plot-heavy (in the sense that it HAS one, unlike so much contemporary fiction) and totally free of authorial filigree (it’s scarcely possible for a neutral reader to credit that Harding and, for instance, Jonathan Franzen are native writers of the same language), and we suspect these things were on The Mama Chan’s mind when she described it as our ‘kind of thing.’ This is a meat-and-potatoes foursquare novel of the type you could hand to any intelligent reader, confident that they would like it.

We here at Stevereads have a sweet-tooth for ghost scenes, we admit it. Unlike perhaps the rest of you young people, we find ourselves utterly arrested by old King Hamlet’s scenes in ‘Hamlet,’ and we find tears starting in our eyes during Mrs Landingham’s appearance in ‘The Two Cathedrals’ (and don’t even get us STARTED on the harrowing reunion scene from ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’). So of course we approved of the two pivotal ghost scenes in ‘One Big Damn Puzzler,’ especially the one between Hardt and his father (it goes a lot better than Hamlet’s chats with his own dad). In less confident hands, this element could easily go awry, but Harding knows what he’s doing.

Not that the book is without flaws. Hardt’s OCD, for instance, feels tacked on, more the product of the author’s momentary interest than an integral part of the plot. And this goes double for Harding’s shoe-horning in 9/11 – it’s possible that he may be the first author to treat that event lightly (the chaos forces Hardt to take a later flight) – or worse: “The President of the United States called the terrorists cowards. William couldn’t agree. You could call the attacks underhand, targeting defenceless civilians without warning, but how could an attack in which you were definitely going to perish be cowardly? Sneaky, yes. Insane, mistaken, inhumane, yes, yes, yes, but lacking in courage, no.”

But this are comparatively minor marks when set against the whole book, which is something you should put on your list for 2007. Really good, upretentious novels come along seldom enough, after all; it would be a shame to miss one.

And, of course, reading ‘One Big Damn Puzzler’ will keep you on the good side of The Mama Chan. Which is always a good thing.

January 14th, 2007

Comics! 52, GLC, and JSA!




A comics-heavy time here at Stevereads, and it’s Elmo who’s to blame! Every three or four days, he slips me a small package of comics, and every such package manages to have stuff demanding to be written about. This time, it was just three issues – but they were three issues of such joy-inducing merit that we here at Stevereads can’t let them pass in silence, even though some of you are, you know, girls, and so not interested in comics (especially with Kevin out there earnestly recommending crap).

Our first issue under consideration is the latest issue of 52, a rip-snortin hootenanny of an issue mainly due to DC’s most consistently hilarious character, Lobo. The fun is increased here because in this series we’ve been presented with a Lobo who’s convinced himself that he’s converted to pacifism – we readers have known all along what a running joke that was, and in this issue it all comes crashing down.

In this issue Lobo and Starfire and Animal Man are brought into the presence of our new cosmic super-villain, the Lady Styx. Lobo’s pretended to be turning the other two in for a bounty (in order to get them all inside Lady Styx’s lair), but when he demands it, what he gets isn’t to his liking one little bit. She tells him (through interpreters, of course) that he’s not getting any bounty, that he AND his supposed prisoners are going to be chopped up into chuckroast and FED to her.

The killer part is that even that isn’t enough to tip him over the edge. Sure, the idea of being served for brunch irritates him, but it’s the final taunt that really gets to him:

“She says … she says your god’s … gulp … a big, fat prancing coward who licks his own! Just … just like you, main man!”

Naturally, right after that follows a whole heaping LOT of decapitations. Lobo informs our villainess that he killed everybody on his homeworld AND Santa Claus (this last is true and hilariously so – the issue where Santa gets his smackdown is, quite possibly, the comic book comic highlight of the last quarter-century), and he proceeds to basically hurl her into a Sun-Eater.

There were other interesting parts of the issue, don’t mistake: Animal Man DIES, for instance, and more importantly, we all get a GLORIOUS four-page demonstration that there should be a monthly Power Girl comic, and that it should be drawn by Adam Hughes. Not OUR Adam Hughes, who’s perhaps the slowest comic book penciller in the entire world (we surely don’t know any OTHER candidates, do we Kevin?) – no, some altenate-universe Hughes who pencils one issue in the same amount of time it took Jack Kirby to do Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes, and Rawhide Kid. Every month. For years.

But the main attraction here is Lobo handled exactly as he should be – hilarious, over the top, and as a guest star (his regular monthly role in the otherwise-fantastic and severely underrated ‘L.E.G.I.O.N.’ series very nearly torpedoed it).

The second issue of our trio is the latest issue of ‘Green Lantern Corps,’ written for adults by Keith Champagne and drawn with weird, wonderful nuance by Patrick Gleason.

We here at Stevereads are as shocked as anybody by how much we love this title – and not just this one! ‘Green Lantern’ AND ‘Guy Gardner’ are every bit as great, constituting a genuine high-point renaissance in the whole mythos of Green Lantern.

The surprise-factor here comes from the fact that the whole Green Lantern concept has always left us fairly flat. The rings can do virtually anything, yah, yah – makes for convenient exposition in the odd Justice League issue, but beyond that? We never really got it.

Clear now what the problem has always been: Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan, the handsome, wavy-haired Wonderbread so-called ‘greatest Green Lantern of ’em all.’ I see now that the problems I’ve had with the whole Green Lantern concept have derived from my boredom with just this one individual guy.

The central Green Lantern concept, though, the idea of a galactic police force, is and always has been rock-solid (naturally so! It was stolen from an impeccable source, and the first of you to name it gets a fun gift in the mail! Shall we call it a Steve-prize?). For the first time, the concept of the Green Lantern Corps is being given the gritty, operatic, thrilling treatment it deserves.

‘Green Lantern Corps’ is, at least for this current Champagne/Gleason ‘Dark Side of Green’ story-arc, the hands-down best title DC is currently publishing. You should go to your nearest comics shop and buy both issues of this arc and savor them.

This issue features a deliciously hissable new villain who rips apart Green Lanterns like CD wrapping, and it also features Guy Gardner, who, when handled correctly (here and in Howard Chaykin’s recent two-part mini-series, he’s handled perfectly), is the ultimate antidote to Hal Jordan-style bland perfection: he’s the Ben Grimm of DC comics, wonderfully flawed and brutishly heroic.

But as good as those two titles are, neither one of them holds a candle to the second issue of Geoff Johns’ relaunch of ‘Justice Society of America.’

It’s a little disenheartening, actually, watching this title unfold with such amazing confidence and vigor while Brad Meltzer’s Justice League relaunch continues to struggle in its own mire, going nowhere.

Still, pity only mutes so much, and it doesn’t take a bit from this magnificent issue. In the first issue, we saw the Society trying to pull itself together after the events of the latest Crisis … recruiting new members, undergoing a new, mysterious assault (so far on one of its potential recruits, the lamely-named but wonderfully-rendered Mr. America), and grappling with the mysteries of its own new members.

This issue has too many good things to enumerate – Hell, the artwork alone is worth an aria of praise, and there are lots of other factors in play. Johns’ writing is sharp and note-perfect, and the action of the plot is convincingly moved along on multiple fronts. As noted, there’s a sad, melancholy comparison to be made between this title and Brad Meltzer’s efforts over in Justice League – in both books, a broken team must gather old and new members in the shadow of a growing threat. In JLA, the gathering takes a comically long time, and the threat is almost instantly mockable. In JSA, the new recruits are in place at the end of the first issue, and the threat – well, the threat here is twofold: Nazis (considering that this is the team that actually fought in DC’s WWII, this is a delightful given)(although please, Powers That Be over at DC – give us a JSA book SET during the war! It’s been more than 20 years since you did, and all us fans are wanting to see these great characters in their prime) and a nebulous approaching future threat.

‘Future’ being the key word. Because of course the, as Elmo would put it, pants-wettingly good ‘big surprise’ in this issue is the final-page revelation that our Cosmic Boy is THE Cosmic Boy, and not the version we know from the Legion of Super-Heroes but the adult version we all saw in the background of our most holy text, ‘Kingdom Come.’

‘Kingdom Come’ of course being the fantastic ‘imaginary story’ of a future DC universe in which the super-heroes have retired from the world stage and super-powered anarchy reigns unchecked. That graphic novel stands as one of the six greatest superhero books ever made (and the single best portrait of Superman – in words and pictures – ever made, with the possible exception of ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, and George Perez). In this possible future, we glimpse this grown-up version of Cosmic Boy in the backgrounds, and maybe we wondered what his story was (disregarding, of course, whatever story was given in any of the million pages of ‘Kingdom Come’s supporting materials over the years and concentrating only on what’s in the book itself).

This issue’s final page introduces the mouth-watering prospect not only of Legion involvement but of dipping back into that potential future universe.

In short, ‘Justice Society of America’ is ripping forward on all cylinders! We shall certainly report on its next issue!

It’s been brought to our attention here at Stevereads that our thoughtless omission of the patented Stevereads comics-quiz from our comic book posts caused consternation in certain quarters. In truth, we omitted it in order to give Kevin time to re-assemble the tattered shards of his dignity, but we see now that we must serve higher ends than the self-regard of one bosom friend! So here are a few puzzlers for you all!

First: well, it seems that serving in the Legion of Super-Heroes can be hazardous to your mental health! Cosmic Boy is of course the nutjob in question in the latest Justice Society, and here’s our question: name three Legionaires who’ve pulled a nutty! Your only restrictions? A: it can’t be FAKE insanity, and B: it can’t, of course, be Brainiac 5, whose predilection for insanity has been a standard Legion plot-device since the Crimean War.

Second: for all its strengths, this latest issue of JSA contains one salient MISTAKE. Be the first to name it and win a Steve-prize!

Third: Speaking of the Legion, who among you can offer decipherments for the largest number of Cosmic Boy’s cryptic utterances? One in this issue is easy as pie, two others not so much so – any takers?

In any case, many thanks to Elmo for providing this wonderful little batch of comics! We should all give thanks that he’s not Pepito!

January 11th, 2007

Books! Birds and Bea!




As some of you doubtless know, we here at Stevereads love a good animal-book. Not formal, documented natural history – although Gawd knows we love those too – but those which for want of a better word we’ll call anecdotal. Of these there are three kinds, one of each of which recently crossed our path: the kind where the animal in question is a domesticated pet, the kind where a wild animal is taken into benign captivity, and the kind where some enterprising human goes out to live with an alien species.

The first kind is the most accessible – everybody’s had a pet at some point, and many pet-owners believe it would be duck soup to write such a book. Every year, some new bestseller will come along with an adorable dust jacket picture of the dog, cat, parrot, or pig in question. These stories are perforce of a type – that’s their appeal, and exceptions are generally unwelcome (as was the case with Jon Katz’ execrable “A Good Dog,” in which he broke with formula by executing the star of his story in mid-book). These books comfort by offering a mirror to their readers’ experience.

Our example today of this first kind is “For Bea – The Story of the Beagle Who Changed My Life” by Kristin Von Kreisler, the story of a woman who comes into possession of a slightly broken-down beagle who’d been the subject of lab research. Some of you will no doubt guess our feelings here at Stevereads about medical research conducted on dogs, especially beagles. Von Kreisler got off comparatively easy: her beagle hadn’t lost her eyes to cosmetics acidity testing, hadn’t lost her legs to stress-fracture tests, hadn’t lost huge chunks of skin to artificially induced tumors.

No, as far as Von Kreisler could determine, poor Bea was ‘only’ used for repeated breeding of other victims. She’s a sweet-natured, long-suffering dog whose nervous reluctance to trust or love her new human caretakers is both understandable and movingly described. I especially liked how Von Kreisler risks the ridicule of her readers by unhesitatingly referring to the ‘conversations’ she has with Bea. Dog-owners will know that such ‘conversations’ really happen – and beagle owners will know that with this particular breed, they practically happen in English.

This is a warm, untaxing book that can be whole-heartedly recommended to any dog-owner. Von Kreisler’s tone is a bit overwrought and dippy, but self-consciously and thus endearingly so. Dog people will be nodding in agreement the whole time they’re reading it.

Our current example of the second kind is that perennial little classic, Margaret Stanger’s “That Quail, Robert,” the story of a Cape Cod couple who find a quail egg (probably Laprodus laprodus, although nobody’s counting), take it home as a curiosity, and are as surprised as anybody when it hatches into a noisy, needy little chick.

As the book’s many thousands of readers already know, there follows a quintessential story of inter-species exploration. That quail, Robert (so dubbed by accident, even though he turned out to be a she), quickly takes command of the household, quirkily investigating everything and everyone.

This type of anecdotal account has its predictable joys – foremost of which is watching the little alien being try to understand all the mundane realities of our daily lives. The animal in question – whether it’s a tiny quail or Elsa, the lioness from “Born Free,” perhaps the quintessential exemplar of the type – takes nothing for granted and understands nothing of human life, so we are allowed through them to see ourselves anew and re-assess our daily priorities. Those daily priorities never look more adorable – and negotiable (it’s always amazing how many parts of their former lives our host recipients appear willing to sacrifice, upon demand) than when someone like Robert is turning them upside-down.

The third kind of animal-book is represented here by a new and altogether remarkable work by Joe Hutto called “Illumination in the Flatwoods.” Hutto ‘imprinted’ two dozen wild turkeys and parented them to adulthood, taking meticulous observations along the way. The result, told in fine clear prose and copiously illustrated by the author, is quietly, unassumingly unforgettable.

Hutto spends a great deal of his time just out walking (‘foraging,’ he puts it, often making it sound like he himself is out grubbing for termites) with his brood, encountering all the things they encounter (creeks, rotting logs, and a disconcerting number of rattlesnakes) and noting all their behavior. I’d like to say it would be impossible to think of turkeys the same way again after reading this book – utterly unthinkable to EAT one, for instance – but I’ve met my share of dedicated fowlers, and I know this wonderful, heartfelt book would only serve to make them hungry.

But the REST of you will find it fascinating and involving! Hutto carefully reigns in his sentimentality and just writes about what he sees, but you end up attached to his brood anyway.

Of course, the problem with all three kinds of animal-books is their inevitable ending. To speak plain, the animal always dies. With Bea and that quail, Robert, the scenes are written with deeply moving sensitivity – with Hutto’s turkeys, the end is less conclusive: animals prefer to die in private (if given the chance, even domesticated pets will do so), so the natural observer like Hutto will most often only be able to note the last time he saw an individual. The feeling of inevitability is still there, but it’s softened by the chance, however long, that you’ll run into that individual at the head of the trail one of these days.

In any case, these are three excellent examples of their kind! They come with the Stevereads stamp of approval, if you’re in the mood for animal-books!

January 10th, 2007

More comics! To heal the rift!



It was a rainy day here in Palo Alto, and we wandered into the Android’s Dungeon looking to be amused. As a result, we walked out with a small batch of comics bought with our own ducats, not borrowed from Elmo or filched from my arch-nemesis Pepito.

A winning batch of comics! On the strength of its Civil War tie-in cred alone, I stooped to buying an … ick … Punisher title: ‘Punisher War Journal.’ And boy! Am I glad I did! The luminous scripting by Matt Fraction and the incredible artwork by Ariel Olivetti, the combination, is just stunning (stunning enough to insure that I go back and buy the first issue of ‘Punisher War Journal’ and every subsequent one that features this pair) but also perfectly distinct: at no point did I feel like I was reading any other comic on the market.

The plot of course revolves around where the Punisher fits in with the overall Civil War storyline – specifically, whether or not Captain America can trust the most notorious and ruthless vigilante in the Marvel Universe.

The best thing about Fraction’s writing is that he can write dialogue for these two men – the polar opposites of the Marvel Universe – in which both are completely in character.

My favorite part of the issue was the way Fraction consistently portrays a Frank Castle who knows that Captain America is every bit as tough and brave as he is, but who’s somehow managed to hold on to all the higher intangibles he himself believes he can’t afford.

I have only one question about the issue, one point I liked but didn’t derive. At one point, a gigantic retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says something to himself as a kind of private mantra: “Whatever he commands along the way … we must without recalcitrance obey.” I confess, I can’t place the quotation – I wonder even if Fraction invented it. It has the ring of dependency-prose, but I kind of like it nonetheless: any of you out there recognize it?

The second issue we bought on that rainy afternoon was the latest issue of Spider-Man, with wonderful scripting by J. Michael Straczynski and fantastic artwork by Ron Garney (he gets better and better with every issue, but he’s not at all right for Spider-Man … but I can’t quite figure out where he WOULD be perfect – any thoughts? Not a team book, certainly, but still … the perfect match eludes me…).

The centerpiece of this issue is the rooftop heart-to-heart between Captain America and Spider-Man. Naturally, having defected from the government’s fold, Spider-Man is looking for some consolation from the man running the opposition. Cue a standard-issue Captain America set-piece, but despite Spider-Man’s wonderfully delineated awestruck reaction (“Can I, like, carry your book to school? For the rest of my life?”), this is like no Captain America set-piece ever written.

He recalls a passage from Mark Twain, about what constitutes ‘the country’ – it’s a long passage, and I couldn’t help but be grateful for its quotation, since, for very different reasons, I’ve always treasured it too (it was the favorite of a friend of mine, a long time ago). It’s a call for individual responsibility, and it ends with this:

“If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Cap finishes and then adds this on his own: “Doesn’t matter what the press says, doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mob say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world … no, you move.”

This is something new, a Captain America who basically equates politicians with the mob, a Captain America who disavows duty to elected officials, presumably including the President, a Captain America, in other words, who no longer espouses patriotism in any of the ways it’s been previously understood.

I submit that this is a Captain America set-piece specifically tailored for the age of W.

This isn’t just a speech Captain America gives when Reed Richards and Iron Man are spearheading a Registration Act with which he disagrees – this is a speech Captain America makes when his writers feel their own participation in the democracy of their birth has been violated – violated not by the other guys being in power, darn them, not by lawful legislation with which they whole-heartedly disagree, but … well, by EVIL being done in their name.

I’m not completely sure that isn’t what the entire Civil War storyline is and has always been about: the particular tension felt by all thinking Americans living under the unelected rule of a crude, stupid man who maintains without irony that he receives governmental instructions from God. The country awoke one morning and found that the Supreme Court had awarded the presidency to this man (by a majority composed entirely of justices who owed their appointments to Republicans), and ever since there’s been a schism, a rent in the psyche of the country.

Certainly the ur-text of this little theory of mine would have to be the Civil War mini-series itself, and the latest issue is a textbook case.

My twitchy, hyper-intelligent young friend Elmo scalded this issue, saying he’s eager for the NEXT issue so the whole thing can be over and we can wait ten years for ‘some smart writer to undo it all,’ and I can see his point of view.

Because this is more and more looking like a mistake, this entire plotline. And it’s a mistake because it can’t GO anywhere good. That wouldn’t be a problem in a novel – novels thrive on such plotlines – but comics are all about GOING somewhere … the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, these aren’t limited mini-series featuring new characters.

You can see the incredible appeal of the initial idea. Super-heroes fight super-villains in downtown Manhattan, doing massive amounts of property damage before the heroes win – what if the government decided to crack down on the whole business? Demand that super-heroes register, etc? (that step right there is where W. comes in – that the government would force you to register, and that it would incarcerate you if you refused AND say it was because you weren’t being patriotic … ). Easily understandable that a bunch of writers would think the idea had enormous potential and want to leap at it.

But this is starting to look like a story that shouldn’t have been told. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew that such stories existed, of course: they flirted with the mother of ’em all – what if our heroes are faced with a foe who’s simply too powerful for them to beat? Stan and Jack did it with Galactus and treated us to three issues of the Fantastic Four getting protractedly, indisputably beat.

But then they hauled out the Ultimate Nullifier (if ever a plot device were more aptly named…), a thingamagig even Galactus feared, and he packed his bags and left town.

Back then, we all concentrated on how NEATO the concept of an ‘ultimate nullifier’ was – but today’s comic audience rightfully demands more. Any variation of a deus ex machina for this Civil War storyline will, I think, be met with pitchforks and torches.

For the longest time, I assumed the ultimate nullifier in this case would be Doctor Strange. But there he is in this latest issue, vowing (to his close personal friend the Watcher – when did THAT happen?) to stay above it all. The only other possibility for a solution (because the storyline obviously NEEDS a solution, not a conclusion – the Marvel universe can’t go on if half its heroes, including Captain America, are hunted fugitives) that’s arisen so far is in the latest issue of ‘Frontline,’ where ace reporter Ben Urich says he’s figured out the ‘real reason’ for the Civil War. We’ll see what that turns out to be.

In the meantime, those of us who DO expect more complexity from our comic-stories will have to cross our fingers that in a month’s time we don’t encounter a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story …