Posts from May 2007

May 31st, 2007

brothers


Our book today is “Brothers – The Untold History of the Kennedy Years” by David Talbot, and it must be said up front that this is a disturbingly silly work of psuedo-history. The disturbing part and the silly part both merit their own discussions, naturally.

The king of a sunlit country appoints his younger brother to be his justiciary. The king is then killed, and the justiciary swears a vow of inhuman intensity to avenge his brother’s death. It’s the stuff that Greek tragedies, medieval morality plays, and Stan Lee comic books are based on.

Talbot has such a scenario in mind when he asks the animating question of his book about the relationship between John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy before and especially after the former’s assassination in Dallas: what steps, if any, did Robert Kennedy take to avenge – or even investigate – is brother’s murder?

Robert Kennedy didn’t become Doctor Doom; the answer to the above question is, damningly and unhelpfully, nothing.
The truth of the matter is simple, though equally unhelpful: Bobby Kennedy, despite the depth of his fierce intellect (a personality trait pumped up by his various biographers as a way to differentiate him from his more famous brother, although in reality JFK was all along the smarter of the two; the ‘fierce intellect’ of RFK was ever and always overcompensation), partook in full measure of his family’s ingrained Irish fatalism. In that medium, the violent death of his brother melded into the violent deaths of so many of the rest of his family before him, most especially his eldest brother young Joe and his older sister Kathleen.

This is where the problem seeps in, for Talbot and anybody else who hasn’t grown up in an Irish Catholic family: the concept of a family’s DOOM pursuing it, regardless of anything anybody can do. Regardless, that is, of anything anybody can commission or investigate. Bobby Kennedy publically endorsed the Warren Commission and refused to talk about the subject beyond that.

David Talbot comes smack up against that wall, and he seems to know that the book he wants to write is on the other side of it. Not ANY book on the relationship between the Kennedy brothers – far from it, several very good books have been written in part or in whole on that subject (although since Talbot refers to their relationship as a ‘life partnership’ and that they were ‘best friends,’ both concepts laughably wide of the mark, he himself was never in any danger of writing such a book). No, HIS book – the one about Doctor Doom clenching his mailed fist to the sky and vowing to hunt down his brother’s killers.

‘Killers’ because Talbot dismisses out of hand what he calls the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone (it bears pointing out here that Vincent Bugliosi, in his crushingly long book ‘Reclaiming History,’ is correct when he says this wasn’t, in fact, the conclusion of the commission – what they really said was that there was no conclusive evidence that Oswald DIDN’T act alone, i.e. no evidence of anybody else acting WITH him). Talbot starts there, which, as Bones McCoy would say, is a Hell of a time-saver.

He has Bobby Kennedy start there too, though he has not a scrap of evidence to do so. Talbot, it turns out, isn’t really big on evidence – he prefers innuendo and badgering octogenarians with leading questions, and when he’s adjusted the truth’s rabbit-ears long enough, he gets just the picture he wants:

“[Robert] Kennedy was trapped in an impossible position. Privately, he contemptuously dismissed the Warren Report as nothing more than a public relations exercise designed to reassure the public. But unwilling at this point to publically challenge it, he was stuck with supporting it. Perfunctorily giving the report his stamp of approval was his way of deflecting any further press inquiries about the assassination. You know my position, let’s move on. In 1964, he was in no political – or emotional – condition to do anything more. ‘He always stood by the Warren Commission in public – he thought that was the right political thing to do,’ said RFK aide Frank Mankiewicz, who knew that Kennedy privately harbored very different views about Dallas. ‘He didn’t want to talk about it. I think he was physically unable to talk about it.'”

We’re still counting – anybody have a quick tally of all he separate suppositions going on in that one paragraph? Not one syllable of it rests on any documentation, except for the quote from Mankiewicz (the requisite badgered octogenarian), and that quote a) is a recollection made fifty years after the fact, and b) speaks only to public behavior. For the rest of it – that RFK ‘contemptuously dimissed’ the Warren Report in private, that he thought it was a ‘public relations exercise,’ that he ever thought or implied anything like ‘you know my position, let’s move on,’ that anything is knowable about his emotional state in 1964, etc., etc. – there is no actual historical evidence at all. Talbot’s just making it up.

In the end, he offers no ‘hidden history,’ nor does he offer any insights into the relationship between these two complicated men (readers wanting that had best go to Arthur Schlesinger’s ‘Robert Kennedy and His Times’), nor does he offer any kind of intelligent assassination conspiracy theory, or any kind of helpful gloss on existing theories.

What he does offer is an excitedly written pile of bootless speculation, third-hand gossip, and sentimental fantasy. And surely, no matter what we think of the Kennedys, we can agree that there’s been far too much of all three of those things already?

May 29th, 2007

Showcase Presents: the Legion of Super-Heroes


Our book today is DC Comics’ Showcase volume featuring the very beginnings of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Several parts of that last sentence have no doubt confused those of you not among the cognoscenti. Allow us to clarify. The Legion we’re referring to was (will be) formed a thousand years from now, after humanity has undergone untold catastrophes and bouts of cultural amnesia. In that time a very rich man well-versed in history gathers three super-powered teenagers around him who remind him of 20th century legends, legends of the famed Superman and his Justice League. The implication of a future devoid of heroism is left unexplored for most of the Legion’s early history (actually, for almost all of the Legion’s history, until an epochal moment in time known as the Giffen Reboot), but then, that rich man and that origin story are also left unmentioned in the Legion’s earliest years, the years chronicled in this marvellous Showcase volume.

We must here distance ourselves from those who reflexively maintain that comics don’t count as literature worthy of comment. We have little patience for such a stance, as some of you may know – anything intelligently created may be intelligently reviewed, without shame of provenance.

No, the real point of interest here in this Showcase volume isn’t the worthiness of its contents but their revolutionary nature, and that revolutionary nature will be largely invisible to readers born after 1960.

Picture the scenario: young Clark Kent, living in rural Smallville, has already launched himself on a career as Superboy. He flies out from a homemade tunnel underneath his parents’ house to fight crime, then flies back to do his homework. His only companion in adventure is his super-powered dog Krypto.

Krypto is his only companion in adventure because there isn’t anybody else in the world who can do the things they do: there are no other teen super-heroes. Looming over the whole story of Superboy is a crushing weight of simple loneliness, and it’s a thing no Superboy writer ever explored directly. But indirectly, they never forgot about it: Krypto was almost certainly dreamt up by the writers to alleviate the stark and slightly unappealing uniqueness of Superbody himself.

And this is true to the Nth degree for the invention of the Legion of Super-Heroes. One day Clark Kent encounters three teens who know his secret identity. They tell him that his career as a crime-fighter served as the inspiration in the future (the writer of the issue, who was Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, although the Showcase editors appear not to know this and don’t credit him, strikes a perfect Superman note in Superboy’s reply to this: “Why … uh … I just do my job”), and they invite him to come forward in time with them and join their club, the Legion of Super-Heroes.
That’s where the loneliness creeps in: Superboy, who’s already experienced con men, mind-readers, and alien imposters, accepts their invitation pretty much instantly. Three fellow teenagers, each with a superpower as amazing as his own (Saturn Girl can read minds, Cosmic Boy controls magnetism, and Lightning Boy – afterward Lightning Lad – can generate electricity), and they want to know him, want to share adventures with him! Our writers (Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, the mighty Edmond Hamilton, and others) have never made Superboy smile so wide.

The irony here is that this future world Superboy finds is the one he SHOULD have crash-landed on in the first place, the one his father Jor-El envisioned for him. Not rural, non-tech, backwater Smallville, Kansas, but the shining super-tech world of the 31st century, so similar to Jor-El’s own vanished world.

But all of that is hindsight, however enriched: in our present volume, there are only smiles and silly menaces and an ever-expanding roster of superpowered teens with whom our hero can pal around.

There’s Triplicate Girl, who can, not surprisingly, split into three hard-fighting separate selves. There’s Shrinking Violet, who can shrink herself down to any minute size. There’s Dream Girl, who’s dreams infallibly predict the future (except for all the plotlines in which they tecnnically don’t). There’s Mon-el, a Daxamite with powers equalling or exceeding that of Superboy himself. There’s Phantom Girl, who can slip effortlessly through any solid object (if, at this point, you’re sensing a certain element of … shall we say, uselessness? in the powers of the Legion’s female members, you should keep two things in mind: 1) this was 195-friggin-8, for cripes sake, and 2) the Legion writers saw this even then, which is why they were so quick to introduce Supergirl into the mythos). There’s Ultra-Boy, who can utilize a wide variety of super-powers, but only one at a time. There’s Bouncing Boy, who can inflate himself like a beach ball and bounce, bounce, bounce. There’s even Matter-Eater Lad, whose super-power couldn’t be easier to gu.ess – rock, steel, anything (in a crossover that’ll likely never happen, that is, humble Matter-Eater Lad could simply EAT Wolverine’s claws … which would make Wolverine look pretty damn silly).

This big fat Showcase volume features this merry band of young adventurers in a wonderful array of adventures. ‘The Legion of Super-Villains!’ ‘The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero!’ ‘The Face behind the Lead Mask!’ ‘The Legion of Substitute Heroes!’ ‘The Legion’s Suicide Squad!’ – these and many more adventures unfold in the clean, happy optimism of the era, long before our teammates take to dressing like ’70s porn stars (in case you’re wondering, ladies and gentlemen, that right there was the exact moment when Beepy began paying attention to this review), long before sad endings, long before introspectionor multiple realities or compulsive, almost comically frequent re-boots. This is the happy beginning to all that.

Don’t get us wrong: Legion history has a half-dozen truly great moments (Legion fans will be in uncanny agreement on most of these), and none of them is in this volume. In a way, that’s fitting – not the best, but the beginnings, which are equally important.

There are those who will say (indeed, who’ve already said on this site) that card-carrying Legion fans are the most twisted, the most obsessive and picayune of all comics fans. Having read such pronouncements, any innocent bystander might wonder if they run some RISK by reading this volume.

Such innocent bystanders needn’t worry – just reading and enjoying these innocent, energetic tales from the ’50s won’t put them in any danger of being able to divulge Chlorophyll Kid’s real name, or the homeworld of Doctor Landro, the galaxy-renowned specialist in fourth dimensional surgery. You won’t be contaminted – but you just might be enchanted. And you might even be tempted to cheer (to yourself, of course, so only Saturn Girl could detect it) “Long Live the Legion!”

May 28th, 2007

five skies


Our book today is Ron Carlson’s “Five Skies,” the author’s first novel in a mind-boggling thirty years. In fact, the length of the interval makes it tempting to chuck the bio, call the slate clean, and just consider this as we would any first novel.

Except that you aren’t five pages into this book before it becomes abundantly clear that this would be a very improbably remarkable first novel indeed. This is the work of a man who’s seen the world and known heartbreak, and it contains sad wisdoms and beautiful insights which for very good reasons aren’t often vouchsafed to the young.

The book is short (really a novella, if by that term we mean what’s customarily meant, which is a work of yearling length capable of being read in the interval between two meals)(where WERE you all, before we here at Stevereads began ladling out these handy definitions?), and its plot is simple: in the gorgeous, forbidding wilderness of the Idaho Rockies, three men are engaged in building a giant ramp for a future daredevil stunt.

The three men are foreman Darwin Gallegos and his two hired hands, enormous, taciturn Arthur Key and young, skinny Ronnie Panelli, and each of them comes to the job from a fractured past. Key and Gallegos come from full-blown tragedies (Key’s is very nearly overwhelming), but in many ways Carlson’s craft is at its best in portraying Ronnie, who’s twenty years younger than his co-workers but considerably scarred by ten years of neglect, indifference, and petty larcenies.

These three men come together to raise a ramp, and in the ensuing months, as they come to know each other, the most delicate flower in the garden of human relationships – adult male friendship – begins to blossom.

As some of you may know, this is a subject of particular interest to us here at Stevereads, not only for its intrinsic human value but also for how seldom it’s been conveyed in fiction with any degree of accuracy. “Lonesome Dove,” of course, does it with a degree of skill probably unsurpassed in the 20th Century, but the epic sweep of that work makes the task seem curiously easy. It’s a very different thing when your fictive scale is as small as that of “Five Skies” – three damaged men brought together in the hinterland to construct a unique oddity.

It’s slowly, gradually, heart-rendingly developed in these comparatively few pages, but it’s developed for the ages. This feels on every page like an an immortal work.

Despite the heavy freight carried by his various subplot flashbacks, the book’s main strength is on display mostly in the little moments, the invisible, almost imperceptible emotional shiftings that take place when friendships are starting to form between strangers. Carlson gets these little moments right every single time.

There’s a lovely scene that illustrates this and very much more. Our three men are high in the Rockies, and there’s a small array of roast beef sandwiches for lunch. After helpfully supplying us with the very true line that “White wine is not for drinking. White wine is something to do with your hands,” Carlson gives us a scene in which Key and Gallegos discover that Panelli has consumed all the food in sight:

“‘What then, you eat the whole damn thing?’ And in a flash Panelli’s face took it as accusation, as it had taken everything said to it for years and years and years, ten years at least of his twenty, but then something happened that had never happened to him before, because he took it in as accusation and it changed to something that showed on his face as pride, really what is called a shit-eating grin rose despite his galled determination to hate Key forever for having thrown him down this morning. There was a half second when Darwin watched and then without deciding to, he led them into the laughter which rang there.

‘You’re goddamn right, I ate it,’ Panelli said. ‘I came back here looking for another’

‘You deserve it,’ Key told him. ‘Look at that house.’ They turned to take in the large white tent, the only edifice in the round world.

‘I know,’ Panelli said. ‘Look at that wood; somebody cut that up.’ Unbidden in his voice were the first naked notes of pride, joyous and sobering. ‘That saw is wild.’ “

This is a very small story set against a very large backdrop – Carlson has a keen eye for describing nature – but it feels all the more poignant for that. If this same story were taking place between three strangers during the heat of battle at Gettsyburg, something important would be missing from the magic.

As it is, this beautiful little novella is a book to be heartily recommended – not to go to your local Barnes & Noble and BUY, mind you, since paying $25 for something so small would be tantamount to an obscenity (you could get TWENTY-FIVE books for that at the Brattle!), but certainly to anticipate in paperback, or even to … ulp … borrow from the library. In the coming weeks, it’s bound to be reviewed glowingly in all the usual outlets, and to those praises you can add the greatest praise of all: the awe-inspiring fact that Stevereads looked upon the work and said, “That’ll do, pig.”

May 27th, 2007

Hitler, a Study in Tyranny


Our book today is Alan Bullock’s big 1953 biography Hitler, A Study in Tyranny. It’s been lauded from all and sundry since the moment of its publication, and although many Hitler books have been published since it appeared, we here at Stevereads still consider it much the best of the bunch.

The reason for this isn’t Bullock’s research, although his research is prodigious. Others, most notably Ian Kershaw, have equalled or surpassed the sheer amount of document-shifting Bullock did half a century ago. No, for our money the book’s supremacy rests on the hard, clear prose Bullock turns out, page after insightful page. He’s an old-fashioned literary stylist of a type rarer and rarer among the ranks of professional historians, most of whom nowadays either resort to slang and simplification or else retreat into academic jargon and specialization.

Although the book’s subtitle is “A Study in Tyranny,” this is a soup-to-nuts biography, starting with the day Hitler is born (when, presumably, he tyrannized nobody – except, as is the way with babies, his mother). The day, and the locale:

The Europe into which he was born, and which he was finally to destroy, gave an unusual impression of stability and permanence at the time of his birth.

It’s neat little piston-strikes like that “which he was finally to destroy” that happen so consistently throughout the book. As in Gibbon or Macaulay or Churchill, they add an indispensable dimesion to mere research. We here at Stevereads are big fans of such writing.

Here’s Bullock on Hitler’s rise to power:

Nazi propaganda later built up a legend which represented Hitler’s coming to power as the upsurge of a great national revival. The truth is more prosaic. Despite the mass support he had won, Hitler came to office in 1933 as the result, not of any irresistible revolutionary or national movement sweeping him into power, nor even of a popular victory at the polls, but as part of a shoddy political deal with the ‘Old Gang’ whom he’d been attacking for months past. Hitler did not seize power; he was jobbed into office by a backstairs intrigue.

Reading such stern, unflappable prose, you can practically hear all the crypto-fascists out there (and you know who you are) sputtering and gnashing their teeth.

Bullock hates his subject, of course (due in part to good taste but also in large part to shameful legal decisions in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere; we are unlikely ever to read a published Hitler biography by somebody who DOESN’T hate him … ominous underscoring of something a very wise man once said, namely that a society which makes laws to forbid its citizens from saying wicked things is one dark day away from being a society which makes laws forbidding its citizens from saying anything), but like William Shirer in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he uses that hatred, paradoxically, to keep him objective. From first to last, he sifts the evidence, does the research, and then actually takes the time to labor over his prose.

The result is unflaggingly interesting, even in a book of some 700 pages. Indeed, the wonderful clear, strong tone follows its subject to the grave, and a little beyond:

The question [of the disposal of Hitler’s remains] would scarcely be of interest had the failure to discover the remains not been used to through doubt on the fact of Hitler’s death. It is, of course, true that no final incontrovertible evidence in the form of Hitler’s dead body has been produced. But the weight of circumstantial evidence set out in Mr. Trevor-Roper’s book [The Last Days of Hitler, 1947], when added to the state of Hitler’s health at the time and the psychological probability that this was the end he would choose, make a sufficiently strong case to convince all but the constitutionally incredulous – or those who have not bothered to study the evidence.

Reading Hitler biographies, even ones as well-written as this one, is straining, staining, and exhausting business. Necessary, but arduous for the sheer amount of evil that such books thread through your mind. We here at Stevereads recommend severe rationing for the rest of you – maybe even just one such biography in your whole lifetime. If so, make it this one.

May 26th, 2007

On Chesil Beach


Our book today is On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, but it’s a ‘book’ only by odd fiat of its publishers, who’ve decided (no doubt for financial reasons) to characterize as a novel what is, in fact, a short story – if by ‘short story’ we mean what’s usually meant, a tale without subplots, readable in one sitting.

In SaturdayMcEwan confined himself to the events of one day. In On Chesil Beach, minus long flashbacks and adumbrations, it’s one single evening. The evening in question is the wedding night of young Edward and Florence who, after a lovely ceremony, have removed themselves to Chesil Beach on the Dorset shore to celebrate the first night of their honeymoon. Edward is from solid working-class stock; Florence is from considerably more money and refinement. Both are virgins, and the problem with that is that the story takes place in 1962. McEwan makes it pretty clear that life in general – and sex in particular – generally stank before the successive waves of the ‘sexual revolution’ that wouldn’t come along until after the night in question. Edward and Florence are basically still bumbling around in the ’50s, which for McEwan might as well be the Victorian era.

Our young couple have a lovely supper (Edward takes in the fare with wonder – it’s implied that he’s never eaten anything except boiled potatoes and fish-n-chips in his whole life), and things are progressing well, and off in the background, like a romantic violinist playing just a trifle too loud, is McEwan trying to make his prose channel Henry James.

Whether or not he succeeds, every reader will judge for themselves. I’ve never been great fan of McEwan’s bland, wan prose in the past – and I’ve never really liked James’ labored orotundities, either. The one trying to channel the other left me grumblingly scanning each page for a rare tossed scrap of dialogue. Florence will utter such a scrap – and then ruminate about it for four pages, and then those four pages will trigger a fourteen-page flashback, and by the time Edward’s reply is given, the reader is halfway tempted to blurt out, “who’s Edward again?”

Since flashbacks don’t count as dramatic incident, it would be tempting to say this is a short story in which nothing happens. But that would be slightly wrong. And hoo-boy, what a slightly.

Because when our young couple retire to their romantic four-poster bed for their first night of connubial bliss, something happens. We’ll let McEwan describe it for himself. Those of you who enjoy the Discovery Channel should have your digital cameras ready:

She found his testicles first, and not at all afraid now, she curled her fingers softly around this extraordinary bristling item she had seen in different forms on dogs and horses, but had never quite believed could fit comfortably on adult humans. Drawing her fingers across its underside, she arrived at the base of his penis, which she held with extreme care, for she had no idea how sensitive or robust it was. She trailed her fingers along its length, noting with interest its silky texture, right to the tip, which she lightly stroked; and then, amazed by her own boldness, she moved back down a little, to take his penis firmly, about halfway along, and pulled it downward, a slight adjustment, until she felt it just touching her labia.

How could she have known what a terrible mistake she was making? Had she pulled on the thing wrong? Had she gripped it too tight? He gave out a wail, a complicated series of agonized, rising vowels, the sort of sound she had heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates.

In horror she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid.

Let’s pause to collect ourselves.

The easy jokes come to mind in swarms, starting with a fairly urgent request from male readers to know exactly where Edward managed to find a virgin who could manage that first paragraph. But McEwan is a serious writer who’s taking a chance here, so we won’t stoop to easy jokes.

Exactly what he’s trying is, however, a bit obscure. The, er, climax above described happens just about dead-center in this short story – but only, er, physically. Its centrality in any other kind of way baffles the reader just a bit. After all, what’s described is basically just a bit of bad timing – and yet it sends Florence running from the room. Running TWO MILES up the beach with Edward’s “slime” hardening all over her. And when he catches up with her, she tells him that what happened was disgusting, and that although she’s still happy to be married to him, she wants it never to happen again.

At which point McEwan doesn’t  have Edward say, “Fine! Come back with me and I’ll show you how it’s supposed to happen.” Instead, she proposes that he leave her alone while they’re married, even if it means he sleeps with other women to relieve his, um, urges.

He’s shocked and appalled, and they split up, and that’s pretty much the end of the story, and it seems damn unlikely. For starters, why would a young lady who could start the, ah, encounter in question with such Fatima Bush-style skill be so revolted by the, er, response her skill evoked? What did she think would happen? Even in 1962, we’re pretty sure she didn’t think Doctor Pepper would come seltzering out.

And what ultimate point is McEwan trying to make, setting the story in 1962 and then having the marriage end, as it were, with a bang? That it sucked to be a sexual being before Woodstock? Here at Stevereads, some of our best friends are women, and we feel fairly certain that even in our present-day age of sexual combustibility, most women would dislike being liberally spooged-upon. It’s doubtful they much enjoyed it in the Middle Ages either, and yet here’s the human race even so.

McEwan, having presented this conundrum to his readers, opts to solve it in the easiest, dumbest way possible: he makes Florence a frigid moron. Not only does the very idea of sexual intimacy revolt her (hard to believe Edward wouldn’t have picked up on that during their year-long courtship), but in the short story’s sparse oases of dialogue, she’s forever thinking one thing and then – for reasons that are never disclosed – saying the exact opposite. No other character in the book is portrayed this way, and by the last page the reader thinks Edward well quit of her.

Hard to see what any of it is supposed to amount to, but we can’t help but think that in McEwan’s mind the date of 1962 is the key. Something about how times change, how attitudes toward sex change, even among the young. But the story never makes it clear, and the reader closes this inflated little book feeling like they’ve just wasted an hour that could have been better spent. Edward probably felt the same way.

May 10th, 2007

Sloppy seconds in the Penny Press!


Whenever we here at Stevereads are feeling a bit beaten up by life (interns peculating paper clips, the Reichmarshal’s rise to power, late night drunken phone calls from Beepy, etc), we can now buck ourselves up with the following mantra: “at least we’re not serving 30 years in a Nicaragua for a crime we didn’t commit.”

Unfortunately, young Eric Volz can’t say the same. His horrifying story is reported in the latest issue of Men’s Journal, and it doesn’t exactly fill one with a burning urge to visit Nicaragua anytime soon.

Volz was an energetic young ex-pat soaking up the sun in the gorgeous seaside town of San Juan del Sur, a town he loved and was trying aggressively to promote, real estate-wise, as the next big ‘undiscovered’ piece of paradise. He was two hours away having lunch with a Nicaraguan journalist when he got a phone call from friends telling him that his beautiful ex-girlfriend had been found brutally murdered.

He rushed to the scene, made inquiries of the police (once they showed up – he beat them to the crime scene), and was amazed a few days later to find himself accused by those same police of having killed the girl. He was arrested, tried (a judge, no jury, and plenty of far more viable suspects), found guilty, and tossed into jail, where he languishes still, despite the efforts of his parents and colleagues to obtain an appeal (the U.S. government, aware of his situation from the start, comes off as curiously impotent).

So things could be worse for us.

A faint wiff of injustice lingers over the latest TLS as well (although without, it should be pointed out, the overtones of prison rape), where Douglas Hofstadter’s new book “I am a Strange Loop” is given a review so forgiving and loving and nurturing it lacked only a bottle of warm milk to make its ministrations complete.

The reviewer, Uriah Kriegel, waits until the very end of the piece to confess that he was sympathetic to Hofstadter before he opened the book, but he needn’t have worried: his predisposition is pretty obvious right from the start.

Hofstadter’s book, as some of you may not know, is yet another manifesto of “the ‘Homo Sapiens Only’ club” (a free book – you hush, Kevin – to the first of you who can identify where the term comes from), musing on and on about the nature of consciousness and what it is that makes human beings so gosh-darn SPECIAL. All throughout the book, the rest of the living thing on Earth are summoned up only to use as paper lions, stalking horses, and judas goats.

Like book, like reviewer. When Kriegel isn’t praising Hofstadter’s ‘approachable’ prose, he’s mirroring his subject’s bland bigotry. He brings up, for instance, the celebrated ‘mark test':

“But the dog’s self-conception is very limited. For example, studies show that dogs do not recognize themselves in the mirror. In these studies, a mark is painted on the animal’s forehead, and when a mirror is brought in, it is observed whether the animal makes any attempt to wipe the mark off. The number of animals who pass the ‘mark test,’ as psychologists call it, is surprisingly small: the chimpanzee, the orang-utan, the bottlenose dolphin, and the Asian elephant are the only ones on record. Even gorillas, baboons and African elephants fail, as do humans younger than eighteen months.”

Given all the smug mis-apprehensions crammed into this one little example, we here at Stevereads are amazed Hofstadter didn’t use it for his own book. The temptation to heave a heavy sigh over the whole of it is well-nigh imperative.

We could start with all the ways in which this ‘test’ is conceptually flawed (the central underlying question of whether or not some species wouldn’t CARE that they had a mark on their forehead is of course never addressed or even raised; dogs, for instance, have been known not only to EAT EACH OTHER’S SHIT but also to ROLL AROUND in pretty much ANYBODY’S shit … it’s possible they’re not the most fastidious beings on Earth), or we could open with the impossibility of actually performing the ‘test’ (we’d like the meet the psychologist who could paint a mark on an African elephant’s forehead in the wild … which means the dolphins, orangutans, elephants, baboons, and eighteen-month-old human babies all had this ‘test’ performed on them IN CAPTIVITY, which immediately invalidates the results, just as a psych-profile conducted right this minute on Eric Volz wouldn’t have a scrap of validity except in that context), but as with Hofstadter’s book, it’s the underlying bigotry of the whole conception that irks us the most.

Humans self-reflect because it’s a side-effect of language, which is a specialized skill they developed over millennia (although if Kriegel and Hofstadter think it’s a universally-practiced skill among all of humankind, they really need to get out more often; your average adult raven or octopus or timber wolf conducts their life with a Hell of a lot more introspection than is ever used by the vast majority of humankind). And human beings are only just beginning to make tiny baby-steps into inquiring whether or not other language-heavy species (the birds and the bees, for instance) have also developed … well, something. Something wondrous and complicated and truly alien, but something no less valid and validating than the specifically human style of self-consciousness.

These inquiries – into what it really means to be a humpback whale or a giant tortoise or, gawd help us, a basset hound – aren’t helped by blinkered books like Hofstadter’s, and they aren’t helped by softball ‘reviews’ like Kriegel’s.

Also of interest: in this issue’s letters page, Professor Jonathan Bate is taken to task for a piece he wrote recently singing the praises of his new Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the collected works of Shakespeare. Jan Piggott writes:

“Jonathan Bates writes, ‘When I was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Random House to prepare the first new complete Shakespeare of the new century … I realized that there was a true gap in the crowded market: a modern-spelling and lightly corrected Folio-based edition.
But Nick de Somogyi’s paperback series of individual plays (Nick Hern Book), begun in 2001 and now including most of the major plays, exactly fills that gap, and better, thanks to de Somogyi’s scholarly, original and witty introductions and careful editing.
Surely someone at the RSC could have told Bate about this sterling precedent edition; a blurb on the back of the ‘Hamlet’ in the series (2001) reads: ‘I would certainly use it, and I can imagine all of my colleagues doing the same – Adrian Noble, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company.’ It is quite wrong of Professor Bate to write as if this series did not exist.”

A hit! A very palpable hit!

Of course, both Bate’s edition of the First Folio and Hofstadter’s book are dealt with at great length over at Open Letters Monthly, as are a great many other matters literary and poetical. But then, the truly cultured among you will know that already …

May 8th, 2007

Real Meat in the Penny Press!


It’s a shame so many otherwise inelligent people dismiss thick glossy magazines like Vanity Fair out of hand. Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire – they’re widely mis-characteized as lightweight vessels for clothing and perfume (ooops, sorry – cologne) ads.

In reality, since the huge amount of advertising they run allows them to pay top dollar for contributors, they routinely attract some pretty talented writers and some satisfyingly hefty subject matter.

Of course, magazines like Vanity Fair don’t help their own cause much, what with bedecking their covers with bimbos and himbos in a never-ending quest to capture that elusive demographic of young men age 18-25. The irony is that the best articles these magazines run would be uninteresting – not to mention incomprehensible – to most members of that demographic. We here at Stevereads are the exception that proves the rule, a stone-cold super-hottie who’s nevertheless wicked smart.

Take the latest issue of Vanity Fair, for instance. In addition to the usual yardage of fluff and nonsense (or, in the case of Graydon Carter’s opening little editorials, an uncanny combination of the two), there’s once again serious, challenging, and even moving content.

The fun starts in the letters page, where the last issue’s collection of West Wing portraits from recent presidencies garnered what can only be called a thunderbolt from Olympus:

“I have never read a more inaccurate summary of the John F. Kennedy presidency than the text accompanying the marvelous picture you published of the surviving members from that team. To say that ‘Kennedy was a hawk … [whose] presidency reeled from calamity to predicament, [including] the Cuban missile crisis,’ ignores virtually everything the man said and did, including his refusal to bomb the Soviet missiles in Cuba, tear down the wall in Berlin, or send combat troops to Vietnam, and overlooks as well his landmark speech on peace at American University. And to say that ‘his leadership on civil rights was compromised by his need to court voters in the South’ ignores the comprehensive civil-rights legislation sent to Congress by Kennedy in 1963, following the first presidential declaration in a century that our nation could no longer permit discrimination and segregation based on race.”

That letter is by Ted Sorenson, special counsel to President Kennedy and one of the last of that ‘team’ around to protest at the glib mis-writing of his time’s history. We have to wonder who’ll write these letters when the last of the Kennedy greyhounds is dead and silent. President Kennedy re-invigorated the dreams of an entire nation, threw a clear light on all the lingering prejudices of the ’50s, and, if everything else wasn’t good enough, saved the world from nuclear war. We’ll have to hope history itself will defend his memory.

Ironically, one of his loudest besmirchers, Chirstopher Hitchens, is also one of the other highlights of this Vanity Fair.

Hitchens’ latest work has been confidence-restoring stuff, and the disturbing piece he turns in for this issue is no exception. The piece is called ‘Londonistan Calling,’ and it was occasioned by Hitchens returning to Finsbury Park, the London neighborhood where he grew up. To say the least, he finds his old neighborhood severely changed:

“There was never much ‘bother,’ as the British say, in Finsbury Park. Greeks and Turks might be fighting one another in Cyprus, but they never lifted a hand to one another in London. Many of the Irish had republican allegiances, but they didn’t take that out on the local Protestants. And, even though both Cyprus and Ireland had all the grievances of partitioned former British colonies, it would have seemed inconceivable – unimaginable – that any of their sons would put a bomb on the bus their neighbors used.”

In place of those old factions, Hitchens finds a huge and variegated crowd of disaffected Algerians, Bangladeshi, and other “losers in battles against Middle Eastern and Asian regimes which they regard as insufficiently Islamic.”

At this point the reader is justifiably apprehensive. This has all the makings of an Archie Bunker-style rant – ‘the neighborhood’s gone to Hell since THOSE people started moving in’ – and the reader would have ample prior evidence to back up these worries, since in the last two or three years, Hitchens has hit tub-thumping lows no self-respecting humanist should ever commit in public (perhaps that’s the problem: perhaps Hitchens needs to be reminded periodically that he IS a humanist, not a political pundit).

But what he turns in here is something very different from worst fears: a thoughtful, probing piece by a man who doesn’t WANT to be Archie Bunker, a man who’s legitimately undecided on the subject he’s writing about – which is a particularly courageous thing to be in front of Gawd, mother, and subscribers.

His lynch-pin is the age-old stereotype of the British as “proud of their tradition of hospitality and asylum,” and the politically correct ‘multi-culturalism’ that “has been the official civic religion for so long that any criticism of any minority group has become the equivalent of profanity,” Hitchens writes, and then he goes on: “And Islamic extremists have long understood that they need only suggest a racial bias – or a hint of the newly invented and meaningless term ‘Islamophobia – in order to make the British cough and shuffle with embarrassment.”

Hitchens goes on:

“Prince Charles himself, the heir to the throne and thus the heir to the headship of the Church of England, has announced his sympathy for Islam and his wish to be the head of all faiths and not just one. This may sound good, if absurd (a chinless prince who becomes head of a church because his mother dies?), but only if you forget that it was Prince Charles who encouraged the late King Fahd, of Saudi Arabia, to contribute more than a million pounds to build … the Finsbury Park Mosque! If you want my opinion, our old district was a lot better off when the crowned heads of the world were busy neglecting it.”

It should be pointed out here that the Prince’s meanderings on the subject of Islam weren’t as crack-brained – or as nefarious – as Hitchens makes them out to be; the Prince has ever been a natural-born conciliator, a uniter, as it were, not a divider. This is a rare enough trait on the throne of England, and so it’s not to be despised even in the chinless (hard to know what exactly this means; the Prince has a noticeably stronger chin than Hitchens himself).

But even so, Hitchens’ point is well taken: he’s trying, with a degree of delicacy unusual for him (probably because it stems from sadess this time), to suggest that the tradition of hospitality to which he alludes is no longer something Britain can afford.

His sense of incomprehension is palpable:

“My colleague Henry Porter sat me down in his West London home and made me watch a documentary that he thought had received far too little attention when shown on Britain’s Channel 4. It is entitled ‘Undercover Mosque,’ and it shows film shot in quite mainstream Islamic centers in Birmingham and London. And there it all is: foaming, bearded preachers calling for the crucifixion of unbelievers, for homosexuals to be thrown off mountaintops, for disobedient or ‘deficient’ women to be beaten into submission, and for Jewish and Indian property and life to be destroyed. ‘You have to bomb the Indian businesses, and as for the Jews, you kill them physically,’ as one sermonizer, calling himself Sheikh al-Faisal, so prettily puts it. This stuff is being inculcated in small children – who are also informed that the age of consent should be nine years old, in honor of the prophet Muhammed’s youngest spouse. Again, these were not tin-roof storefront mosques but well-appointed and well-attended places of worship, often the beneficiaries of Saudi Arabian largesse.”

Hitchens puts his finger on the weird sense of other-ness that has been allowed to flourish by rampant reverence for ‘multi-culturalism':

“The idea of separate schools for separate faiths – the idea that worked so beautifully in Northern Ireland – has meant that children are encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a distinct religious ‘community’ rather than a nation.”

His conclusion sounds a note of irresolution so uncharacteristic that the reader keeps waiting for the second shoe to drop:

“Traditional Islamic law says that Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies must obey the law of the majority. But this does not restrain those who now believe that they can proselytize Islam by force and need not obey kuffar law in the meantime. I find myself haunted by a challenge that was offered on the BBC by a Muslim activist named Anjem Choudary: a man who has praised the 9/11 murders as ‘magnificent’ and proclaimed that ‘Britain belongs to Allah.’ When asked if he might prefer to move to a country which practices Shari’a, he replied: ‘Who says you own Britain anyway?’ A question that will have to be answered one way or another.”

Hitchens doesn’t answer the question, but its answer is nevertheless obvious: the British say Britain belongs to them. What he describes in the new face of invasion in the West: Islamic extremists taking advantage of the open pluralism of free Western nations to preach the physical destruction of those same countries.

Our, er, determined colleague the Reichmarshal would no doubt propose a simple solution: to the work-camps with them all! And he’d no doubt guess that we would say no, that this is exactly the price of free speech, that I may dislike what you say but I’ll defend with my life your right to say it, and all that.

And the Reichmarshal would be wrong. Not on the whole work-camp thing (the beady-eyed little bugger has a fondness for work-camps), no, but on the rest of it? Free speech? Nonsense. Utter and fatally naive nonsense.

These extremists Hitchens writes about are in no way connected with the poor souls suspected of terrorist activity and thrown into bottomless holes in Cuba and Iraq by a blind and baneful American military complex; these people are openly preaching their hatred on film and the internet, cannily playing on their awareness that in some countries you can set up shop, loudly proclaim violence and hatred, and still enjoy protection under the laws of those countries.

Free speech? Nonsense. This is hate-speech, This in encitement. This is insurrection. Free speech is all about valid differences of opinion (or even vaguely in-valid differences, as in the case of the American Nazi party, and other such abominations). If you stand on a box in Times Square or Speakers Corner and loudly declaim that the United States government is corrupt, you can rant to your heart’s content. But if you stand on your box and yell that the government workers in the next building should all be shot, and that you have a gun in your car, and that your car is unlocked and parked right over there, you should be arrested, not tolerated.

The most basic ‘right’ in the animal kingdom is the right to defend the home – the house, the street, the country. In a perfect world, kingdoms and governments – which, after all, exist only as accumulated embodiments of that deepest human priority – would respond as they should. But whether they do or don’t, each individual citizen’s duty is clear. Hitchens’ final conundrum is heartfelt in its implications but staggeringly simple in its practicalities. The minute Anjem Choudary said ‘who says you own Britain anyway?’ the nearest person in the BBC broadcasting booth who had any size or weight on him should have interrupted the show and knocked him to the floor. No apologies, no ‘I respect your opinion but respectfully disagree’ … when somebody says ‘I want to take your home, give it to me,’ discussion is not a valid response. Talk, as much as it pains us here at Stevereads to say it (the old Dutchman who was our most beloved teacher wouldn’t have agreed, but then, he had no homeland), is not a valid response. If somebody says ‘I want your country, give it to me,’ your country’s duty is to arrest them. If your country doesn’t do that, it’s your duty, personally, to reach out and break their mouth. Such are the oddly primitive protocols of the post 9/11 age.

The best – and the most bittersweet – part of this latest issue of Vanity Fair harkens back to a time which, though it didn’t at all seem so at the moment, now has all the willowy suggestions of a lost golden age. We refer, of course, to the Age of Reagan.

The article in question is an excerpt from the forthcoming ‘Reagan Diaries,’ edited with characteristic finesse by Douglas Brinkley. And the excerpts are quietly heartbreaking, bringing alive the image of a man who was both more intelligent and more engaged than many subsequent histories – and all subsequent comedy routines – would have us all believe. The contrast isn’t quite as sharp as it’s done in the immortal ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, but that’s reality versus fantasy. Reality versus reality is another matter, and part of the heartbreak involved here comes from contrasting the smart, humble, charismatic man who comes through so clearly in these diaries with the current occupant of the job. We here at Stevereads feel fairly certain predicting that the world will never see the publication of the Dubya Diaries.

These Reagan diaries were written every day he was in office (except for the handful of days he was in the hospital), and they’re studded with the abbreviations all diarists tend to use – and he was a born diarist: complete unconscious honesty in every entry, the classic diarist’s ability to TURN OFF the part of the brain that worries about the remote possibility of anybody ELSE reading what you’re writing down.

There’s a wonderful un-self-conscious quality to these diaries, but then, the man himself possessed that quality. It’s a quality that’s easily mocked – it comes so close to innocence, after all – but it renders the best diaries almost indispensable. That a sitting president of the United States should be such a natural at this very peculiar kind of writing is a priceless gift to posterity.

Here’s Reagan the surprisingly canny political operative:

“Thurs. May 28. Cabinet meeting. Demos. finally have come up with a counter proposal to our tax program. They want to include a reduction in the inc. tax rate on unearned income from 70 percent to the 50 percent top rate on unearned inc. We wanted that in the 1st place but were sure they’d attack us as favoring the rich. Several of their other proposals are things we wanted. I’ll hail it as a great bipartisan solution. H–l! It’s more than I thought we could get. I’m delighted to get the 70 down to 50.”

Here’s the man on suffering an almost-successful assassination attempt:

“By the time we arrived [at the hospital] I was having trouble getting enough air. We did not know that Tim McCarthy (S.S.) had been shot in the chest, Jim Brady in the head & a policeman Tom Delahanty in the neck.
I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart where I was stripped of my clothes. It was then we learned I’d been shot & had a bullet in my lung.
Getting shot hurts.”

It would be easy to keep quoting, but we’ll limit ourselves to one more: All the geopolitical names are there, just decades shy of morphing into their fraught present-day counterparts, and all of it taking a backseat to the human element:

“Wed. March 4. Our wedding anniversary. 29 years of more happiness than any man could rightly deserve. A Pakistani plane was highjacked and landed in Kabul. The Russians are holding it & 3 or 6 of the passengers are American. We haven’t been able to learn which figure is right but we’re going to let the Soviets know we won’t put up with their games.”

The elder Bush was a modern-day Bourbon, overbred and very nearly inconsequential, although (as his letter-collection from a few years back amply and surpisingly demonstrated) an entirely real person. Clinton was effortlessly, ferociously smarter, but the humility was missing (as was, perhaps not unconnectedly, any personal relationship with his wife).

And the current occupant of the West Wing? No words even serve to approach the topic other than ‘radical disconnect.’ Our current president’s wife’s face is perpetually stretched into the type of grin most commonly found on the faces of wives who’ve lost count of how many years it’s been since they last shared an entirely personal moment over breakfast with the man they married. This occupant is very deliberately and very openly post-literate, if such an abominable term can have any meaning: he doesn’t read, and he has little patience with those who do, even subordinates whose JOB is to read (his daily briefings on matters that involve the health and security of the entire world are so breathtakingly short and cursory that even the worst Ronald Reagan of the caricaturists wouldn’t have had the time or the inclination to nap through them).

In other words, a president for the Apocalypse, the wielder of the greatest power on Earth who understands – and WANTS to understands – neither the world nor power. We can all hope to claw our way back from the abyss, but even if we do (the current candidates on either side of the aisle aren’t exactly inspiring), the bar has been lowered just that bit more. It’s curiously comforting to look back at a president so many of us thought calamitous at the time and find things to like.

May 3rd, 2007

Shot and incident in the Penny Press!


Much shot and incident, in the latest examples of the Penny Press to cross our desk!

In the letters page of the latest Esquire, for instance, there’s a great deal of response to the profile of Robert Downey Jr written in the previous issue by none other than Scott Raab. One letter writer, Rocky Marcelle, has this to say:

Now I know why I have always lost women to guys like Downey. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the stories. So much fun and imagination. And Scott Raab, what a madman. The farting contest? I want to party with that cowboy.

As we here at Stevereads might have mentioned here or there, once upon a time, while most of you reading this were crawling around diapers, Scott Raab was delightedly throwing around rollicking pieces just like this Downey profile, in a po-dunk little corner of nowhere, settled comfortably amidst the cornstalks. And he was joined in the happy sunlight of all that fire-throwing by none other than yours truly – and our frequent commentator Locke. There’s thinking, and there’s writing, and then there’s the absolutely habit-forming thrill of doing both in full public view, daring all and sundry to take their best shot. To those of you who’ve never done it, we can tell you this: there’s nothing like it in the world (even back then, when responses came by something called ‘snail-mail’).

Scott was even then our great prototypical writer-at-large, savaging everything as he saw fit and cowing editors into whatever his latest hairbrained scheme was. In that same bygone era, Locke of course was our movie-guy – writing more perceptively and more hilariously about movies than anybody was then doing (how were we to know that movie-writing, as a genre, would steadily decline into inanity and prepaid boosterism? How were we to know, way back then, that we were publishing the last best movie criticism in the West?). And I? I don’t know – even thirty years ago, Locke was calling my reviews ‘ciceronian’ (and not in a good way) … I always managed to natter on and on about about something.

Like for instance an insufferable new book called Brother One Cell by a young American punk who got caught selling drugs in Korea and sentenced to a jail term. In the latest issue of GQ (which ran an excerpt from the book), there’s an irate letter from yours truly:


You know what I looked for in Cullen Thomas’ piece about his prison time in Korea? Guilt. Not frustration about getting caught. Not irritation with himself for being ‘stupid.’ Not self-congratulation about being ‘strong’ when he had to be. Guilt, over selling a drug that destroy’s people’s lives. Guilt, over trying to sell more of it. Some sense that what he did was not just risky but WRONG. I found no trace of what I was looking for. Thomas’ judges were too lenient: they should have thrown away the key.


Elsewhere in the same issue, subject matters verge closer to our principal bailiwick here at Stevereads, namely reading. The magazine’s editors ask five young writers to name their favorite books, in an attempt to ‘update the canon.’ This naturally smelled of blood in the water, so we sidled up close to the feature called ‘The Seven Books Every Man Should Read.’

Of course the first name on the roster is Jonathan Lethem, the go-to guy of the Sudoku age. Although he has yet to write a good book himself, he’s here free to re-shape the canon. His seven picks are these:

Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Light Years by James Salter
Neighbors by Thomas Berger

To give Lethem due credit, this is a very odd list, obviously a genuinely personal one. Largely misguided, but personal. The Black Prince is a decidedly off-key Murdoch novel, conceptual and not at all successful. Likewise Neighbors, not nearly Berger’s best work. Desperate Characters and The Unconsoled are each, in their very different ways, elaborate pieces of junk. But Dhalgren is a weirdly intelligent masterwork of science fiction, and don’t even get us STARTED on Christina Stead, whose magnificent, acerbic works are just begging for a major revival. The Man Who Loved Children is a book every single one of you bloodthirsty little ewoks should rush right out and read.

Next up is Jennifer Egan, who, like Lethem, has yet to write a good book (although she’s come closer than he has, and with a lot fewer tries). Here’s her list:

Underworld by Don DeLillo
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
The White Album by Joan Didion
The Known World by Edward Jones
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

This is a very confusing list – confusing because it, like Lethem’s, is so obviously heartfelt … and yet so hugely wrongheaded. Unlike Lethem, Egan doesn’t manage even accidentally to include a genuinely good book (although Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise almost makes the grade), but you have to give her points for actually thinking about her choices.

The next name on the list is Patrick Somerville, whose short story collection Trouble is well worth your collective attention, being a very well-done debut story collection about … well, about all the things young writers write about these days: angst, disillusionment, horniness, and the elusive suppleness of hope. He’s a genius, but he’s a YOUNG genius, and that curiously informs his list:

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Music for Torching by A.M. Homes
Like Life by Lorrie Moore
The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders

If we ignore the obligatory genuflections to Homes and Moore, this is a fairly optimism-inducing list. Not only does Somerville give individual write-ups to Johnson’s curious little book and Saunders’ great one (about Civilwarland in Bad Decline he writes: “…I was introduced to an entirely new kind of fiction, one that seemed to be both extraordinarily literary when it had to be, yet unlike what I had read in college, clearly steeped in our time and culture and dedicated to a rich satirical tone that concealed its political acuity with enormous humor”), not only does he mention Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, one of that author’s best books, but how grateful can we be for that nod to Charles Portis, one of the 20th Century’s greatest neglected geniuses?

Our next young luminary is Sam Lipsyte, whose list is doubly disappointing – he’s either intentionally picking obscure authors of modest weight or else he’s following the hipster party line:

Airships by Barry Hannah
Florida by Christine Schutt
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
George Mills by Stanley Elkin
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Nothing there to really detain us, except to point out that when Lipsyte becomes the 9,788th person to parrot Harold Bloom’s misguided veneration of Blood Meridian (a decidedly minor work), he’s not doing his own intellectual credibility any favors.

The last name of the list of canon-revampers is Arthur Phillips, who more than anyone else on this short list bids fair to become a great writer in due time. His list has decided highs and lows:

The Assault by Harry Mulisch
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner
The End of Faith by Sam Harris
Disgrace by J.M. Coetze
Pastoralia by George Saunders
The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky

This last list is notable for two amazing inclusions: The Assault, which is short and harrowing and one of the best works of fiction to come out of World War II, and Pastoralia, a genuinely fantastic short story collection by a sinfully young author.

So we can infer from all GQ‘s shennanigans that the canon is relatively safe from revamping, since the Visigoths are mostly busy getting stoned.

And speaking of which! Our last port of call in this installment of In the Penny Press is a happy one: in the latest issue of the Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens reviews Zachary Leader’s new biography of Kingsley Amis, and the piece is a gossipy, erudite delight. It serves, as nothing has in a very long time (he’ll be living down that ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ fiasco of a piece for some time, we think), as a reminder of why we all liked Hitchens’ writing in the first place.

Here is a Hitchens completely at ease, straining at no gnats, phoning nothing in. Perhaps it helps if he personally knows his subject matter – it certainly helps this piece: it’s heavy-laden with quotable anecdotes and reveries (Leader’s book is hardly mentioned, and as gentlemanly payment for this abuse, Hitchens roundly praises it when it does come up).

Anthony Powell once said great men of letters can never be friends with each other. His own life contradicted this (a free book – shut up, Kevin – to the first of you who can volunteer the name of the great man of letters with whom Powell was himself lifelong friends), and Amis’ life certainly did: Hitchens’ piece is so shot through with boozy, nostalgic love for his subject that the reader comes away wishing HE would write a biography of Amis – or at least write a hefty memoir of his own, if fifty or sixty different weekly hackwork deadlines didn’t preclude it.

Here’s a sample, one among many:

Any dolt can see the connection between the mother-smothered Amis and the later unstoppable tit-man who was also a slave to Bacchic overindulgence. (Patrick in ‘Difficulties with Girls’ has a reverie about the ideal female: ‘wise, compassionate, silent and with enormous breasts': If this young lady had lived in a single bedroom upstairs from a pub, Amis might have questioned his own stiff disbelief in God).

Say what you want about Hitchens – and we here at Stevereads have said plenty -but that very nearly rises to the level of song. We want so bad for ALL of Hitchens to be like this – scrupulously honest, endlessly confiding, knowledgeable in ways only somebody on the front lines of the events in question could be, and above all humble in the face of history.

The high-paid right-wing puppet/commenteer version of our hero appears to have put paid to that more faithful version, but you never know. The urge to make a living and keep making one is, by and large, a thing of youth – or at least of desperate, misspent middle age. Despite his disasterous personal habits, there’s hope yet that we will all be treated to the wise old age of Christopher Hitchens.

May 2nd, 2007

double and treble joy!

It’s May, the lusty month of May, and over at Open Letters Monthly, the staff of sexy young things has once again offered all of you a delightful nosegay of intellectual posies! The site LOOKS better than ever before, thanks to the gentle ministrations of Web-Czar Nick, and it features some of the very best prose you’ll find anywhere, online or off. See John Cotter once again elegantly, feelingly dissect two new volumes of poetry! See young newcomer Garrett Handley take on the Royal Shakespeare Society’s new tome of the Bard’s works! See Sam Sacks stick it to those pesky Christians! See Adam Golaski sing the praises of forgotten poet Paul Hannigan! See Jennifer Knox examine the nature of refuges – real and imagined – in her poem ‘Cabin’! See Steve Donoghue natter on about one damn thing after another! And, of course, try in vain to conquer the site’s monthly quiz! And all of it served up free, under a beautifu photo by Ranjit Doroszkiewicz!

Go feast your brain, and be sure to leave a thoughtful comment or two (that rules you out, Beepy – No Manatee Need Apply!)