Posts from October 2007
October 30th, 2007
Jimmy Steranko stopped by our palatial offices here at Stevereads the other day, and we shot the comic shat over overbrewed coffee. As is his style, he quickly got down to brass tacks:
“Dammit, Stevey, why ain’t ya reviewin’ comics no more? Ya know dad blamed well yers was the only voice a’ truth on th’ whole dad-blamed subject, an’ ya dad-blamed know it!”
To which we replied, ‘Jimmy, why in the Hell are you talking like a ten-penny San Antonio cowpoke?’
But we got his point: since we here at Stevereads have stopped reviewing comics, there’s been a gaping void in the whole comics-reviewing worldframe, a voice, an impartial and highly entertaining voice, something that’s been conspicuously missing since we here at Stevereads stopped cataloging every single screwup Marvel Comics makes from week to week.
It made us nostalgic for the whole scene, so we flew out to Boston’s wonderful, jam-packed comics destination, Comicopia, and picked up a couple of things.
A couple, because the entirety of the Marvel Universe can still be safely ignored (even the two-issue-old and already-stalled Thor relaunch, despite its magnificent artwork, is complicit in the evil plot-foundation of the whole continuity – nothing but the wholesale revocation of that premise can save the franchise, and since that’s not likely anytime soon, we can comfortably ignore Marvel in favor of DC, which is a far bigger and more interesting universe anyway, so no harm done).
So we can concentrate on two issues, one bad (hey, even DC isn’t perfect) and one good.
The bad issue is the latest Justice League of America, a bad issue of a bad run of a badly-conceived revamp. The problem with the revamp in general is that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place – the previous incarnation of the title wasn’t broken, it didn’t need fixing. You take the Big Seven – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter (personally, we here at Stevereads would change that fan-honored roster, bumping off the impossibly derivative Martian Manhunter in favor of Black Canary, who’s always been a great character and who’s been handled better in the last ten years than ever in her sixty year history), and you put them through their paces in both intimate and epic stories. You explore endlessly the interplay of their personalities, but you don’t add members (except for honorary memberships handed out to third-stringers and sick children), and you don’t subtract members, and you don’t have anybody act out of character, not egregiously so, in any case.
That formula was good, well, forever – there was no reason to change it. But if you felt you had to change it, there would still never be any reason imaginable to involve such embarrassingly fourth-rate character ideas as Vixen (she can mimic animal powers! Rwaaarwr!) or to involve the Red Tornado, whose only superpower is being disassembled by every single bad guy who’s ever even looked at him funny.
The new incarnation of the title makes these and innumerable other mistakes, most signally including boneheaded shadow-versions of the iconic central characters. The storyline here is the rebuilding of the Injustice League by Lex Luthor, and in the initial issue Wonder Woman is defeated and taken captive by Doctor Light, the Cheetah, and Killer Frost (Hawkgirl only barely escapes the same fate, but it doesn’t matter – she’s captured about five minutes later, probably by the Dominos pizza delivery guy) – which is the equivalent of Superman being beaten by Iceman, Tigra, and Dazzler, and which should have been the first indication that writer Dwayne McDuffie was going to use the oldest gimmick in the book to make his villains look extra-badass: pit them against shadow-versions of the heroes. In this way the entire team is taken hostage except Superman and Black Lightning, and that’s where things stand when issue #14 opens.
At that opening, our heroes are being taunted by Lex Luthor, who shows them videos of their helpless teammates being tortured, and who admits that the reason he’s doing this is to tick off Superman, to induce him to stop thinking clearly and just act out of rage. After making these taunts, Luthor teleports back to the secret lair of the Injustice League and intones that if he knows Superman, they won’t have to wait long for him to come crashing through the ceiling. But when Superman a bit later does exactly that (having allowed himself, despite clear warning to the contrary, to become ticked off and stop thinking clearly), Luthor is totally surprised and unprepared, and McDuffie doesn’t seem to notice or care about the contradiction. Instead, he’s busy having Superman commit murder.
Which is what happens if, as in this issue, Superman grabs up the power-absorbing Parasite at super-speed and hurls him into the sky before he’s had a chance to absorb anybody’s powers – and which raises the question of why Superman didn’t just vaporize his head via heat vision from a safe distance. Not that this precautionary manslaughter matters – Superman and Black Lightning are quickly and easily dispatched by Cheetah, Poison Ivy, and an elderly UPS guy, setting up the conclusion of this farce next issue, when, we here at Stevereads confidently predict, the League, completely helpless and totally at the mercy of their worst enemies, will manage by a fluke to get the upper hand and save the day, which in this case translates merely into saving their own incompetent asses.
Fortunately, the fact that a major flagship title like Justice League is managing to suck so bad issue after issue is a bizarre rarity at DC, where most of the best titles are being done with skill and very visible enthusiasm every month. Take the newly-revived relaunch of the venerable title The Brave and the Bold. It’s seven issues strong and has been consistently fantastic.
Of course, a large part of this is due to the otherworldly-great artwork of George Perez, here back from his 31st official retirement from drawing comics. His work is so inhumanly detailed, so kinetically gripping, that it can effortlessly carry even a lame story.
And this story is a little on the lame side, hinging on magic possession and centering on the fourth-rate villain Doctor Alchemy, who has managed to place a post-hypnotic suggestion in Power Girl’s mind that, when triggered, will compel her to kill Superman. The issue opens with Wonder Woman and Power Girl in battle together against a horde of killer mummies, and in the aftermath of this fight, while Power Girl is handing Wonder Woman her lasso of truth, she blurts out the buried compulsion, until then unaware that she’d even been carrying it around in her unconscious mind. Of course Power Girl is furious at this violation and wants to charge off and pulverize whoever’s responsible, and when Wonder Woman advises caution and planning, the two almost come to blows (and they do fight later, twice, because that’s what characters in team-up titles do, and the fights are inconclusive, which is probably just as well – after all, despite her retro codename, Power Girl is a full-grown adult, as close to being Superwoman as the DC universe comes; it only makes sense that she’d be able to hold her own against Wonder Woman).
Eventually, they find Doctor Alchemy and foil his plan and save Superman in is Fortress of Solitude. The issue’s ending is quick and easy, its spirit is resolutely upbeat, the characters stay in character, and no violence is done to anybody’s continuity. Once upon a time, ALL comics were like this (only very seldom drawn this well), and there was a reason for that: it works. #7 of Brave and Bold left us hungry for #8.
But alas, despite Jimmy Steranko’s pleading, it’s unlikely we here at Stevereads will be reviewing that or any other issue … there are simply too many demands on our time. Luckily, there are new voices to be heard, new shoulders to take up the burden. We here at Stevereads are happy to recommend one such new voice, that of our colleague Gianni, who is now holding court on all things comics over at The Latest Issue. Give it a look (or, as Jimmy would say, a look-see) and be sure to leave plenty of comments!
October 19th, 2007
Just the other day we were having a delicious No-Name Restaurant lunch with an old friend of ours, a well-known public figure we’ve castigated in print more than once. But all is peace and camaraderie over a heaped plate of fried shrimp, so the subjects flowed. And at one point, our old friend leaned across the table and intoned, “Dammit, I miss In the Penny Press. Can’t you indulge your readers once in a while?”
We informed him of the obvious: apart (perhaps) from himself, our readers hardly DESERVE indulgence. Whether it’s the cock-fighting or the cutting or the tagging, you irresponsible little pishwicks are a 24-7 trial on our otherwise-pure soul.
Still, our old friend was insistent (and, needless to say, picked up the tab), and it HAS been an interesting fortnight in the world of periodical literature. So let’s take a quick stroll In the Penny Press and see what’s been going on, shall we?
For instance, we have a double-dose of the New Yorker. In the 15 October issue, there’s a Talk of the Town piece by Hendrik Hertzberg about something that’s apparently been a main topic in the politblogosphere: as inconsequential a thing as Senator Hillary Clinton’s LAUGH. The furor arose when the candidate’s husband was asked in an interview to mention something the electorate doesn’t know about his wife. His answer? “She has the world’s best laugh.”
This SHOULD be interesting because it’s rather plainly the answer of a man very much in love with his wife – but alas, such is not the world in which we live. Instead, the always-on-call vast right-wing conspiracy commenced its customary hyperventilating, calling the laughter evil and using it as a surefire indicator that the candidate doesn’t take anything seriously and never has, ever. Sigh. Believe it or not, the subject of presidential candidate laughter is an old one with a storied history. Much longer pieces than this one were written about the guffawing of Lyndon Johnson, for instance, and the spasmic explosions of Theodore Roosevelt drew press attention immediately. Nixon and JFK shared a curious similarity in how uncomfortable they both seemed to be with their own public laughing. And then there’s the greatest presidential laugher of them all, William Howard Taft, whose booming, buttery bellylaughs have been the subject of entire book chapters. In none of these cases was the nature of the laugh in question considered or used as a mark against the candidate’s qualifications.
Nor would it be so if the chuckle in question had come from candidate Edwards, or candidate Giuliani, or candidate Obama. Hell, it’s the main foundation of candidate Thompson’s run. But when it comes to a female candidate, a boisterous laugh must be a sign of flightiness, or witchcraft, or both.
And this isn’t even the general election, where the sexist insanity can only get steeper. Make no mistake: we here at Stevereads aren’t saying any attack on candidate Clinton is a priori sexist; every candidate is vulnerable to some legitimate criticism, although the current Republican field is marked by a depth of cronyism, stupidity, and insulting cynicism the like of which the electorate hasn’t seen in several decades. No, the point we’re making is far simpler: Hillary Clinton is the best of all the current candidates for president, and in a perfect republic, she’s be elected for that reason.
It’s embarrassment all around, for the others. Worst of all by far, as any Bostonian will tell you, is the liar Mitt Romney, who thinks nothing, believes nothing, is committed to nothing, and fully understands nothing. But the rest aren’t much better: Rudy Giuliani is a barely-sentient ghoul parasiting off one of the nation’s worst tragedies; John Edwards seems hellbent on continuing the tradition of working out his personal psychoses in the public forum that was started by his equally screwed-up namesake; Barack Obama is, we can only hope, the future, but he is most certainly not the present; Fred Thompson’s disastrously plausible odds of achieving the Oval Office ought to be – and hopefully will be – mitigated by the country’s awareness of what high costs are incurred by having a thoughtless actor in power (the other kind is fine by us! Don Cheadle? Donald Sutherland? Reese Witherspoon – although that would be a bigger loss to the future of American cinema than any of you heathens would readily believe); Hell, even Paul Giamatti, if we’re willing to risk a couple of minor brush-wars in unknown countries, followed pretty quickly by mumbled apologies).
And then there’s Mrs. Clinton. Like her husband was years ago, she’s handily smarter than any of her opponents. That need not detain us, of course – Woodrow Wilson was one of the most intelligent men ever elected to the office, and he was an almost unmitigated disaster. But brains is still a good place to start, and candidate Clinton has a lot more to recommend her. The short list: experience, experience, experience. She’s already experienced first-hand what it’s like to live in the epicenter of world power, and unlike every other candidate, she’s had the immeasurable advantage of talking virtually every day with a working president (those of you tempted to parrot the tired old line that the Clintons hardly ever talked? Take another look at the quote that started this whole shindig: take it from us, the husband who’s able to pay such an intimate compliment to his wife hasn’t forgotten why he fell in love with her in the first place). If the presidency of George W. Bush has taught the country anything, it’s taught the tragedy of electing someone to the highest executive office who has no experience whatsoever. Such a man – such a person – will be as newly-elected President Taft was once described: a perfectly amiable person, surrounded by men who know exactly what they want. So let’s hope the country can force itself not to CARE what Mrs. Clinton’s laugh sounds like.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only lady leader featured in the 15 October issue. There was also a wonderful article by Cynthia Zarin called “Teen Queen,” about the doomed brief reign of poor Lady Jane Grey. More specifically, the piece is about two portraits that’ve surfaced, each of which has scholarly advocates saying it, and not the other, is a true representation of the girl in question. Half the fun of the piece is standing on the sidelines watching these old fogies duke it out, but of course we here at Stevereads have our own reasons for liking the piece.
And what is it that got us smiling, you feverishly wonder? Why, this bit right here:
“In 1548, [Lady Jane’s] father sold her guardianship, for two thousand pounds, to Lord Thomas Seymour, an uncle of Prince Edward’s. Seymour’s plan was to marry Jane to Edward, who that year succeeded Henry VIII. Nothing came of it, although Seymour was executed (his plan involved kidnapping Edward), and Jane was sent back to Bradgate. In June of 1553, however, Edward, adamant that the crown not pass to his Catholic half sister, Mary, secretly drafted a Device of Succession, which made Jane his heir, and disinherited both Mary and his other half sister, Elizabeth. (Disinheriting only Mary, and not Elizabeth – who was also Protestant – was too transparent politically.) Edward was abetted by the president of his Privy Council, the Duke of Northumberland, who had his own agenda: in May, Jane had been married off to his son Guilford Dudley.”
Thank you, Miss Zarin! Far, far too often (most celebratedly in Trevor Nunn’s very entertaining movie “Lady Jane”), we here at Stevereads encounter a version of these and other events in which young Edward is merely a sickly, manipulated dupe of Northumberland. Needless to say, this bugs us. Edward might have been young, but he was a Tudor to his bones, supernaturally intelligent, pigheaded, volatile when provoked, and most of all forceful, as forceful as a hurricane. He it was, not chance-mongering Northumberland, who pushed forward the idea of a wholly Protestant England (there might have been mixed with this the resentment of a bright young man enfamilied with far smarter sisters, but we cannot be certain). He was fully capable until just a few months before his extremely untimely death, and it’s refreshing to have somebody assume that without prodding.
Refreshing also, to put it mildly, to find fine short fiction in the New Yorker, where once upon a time it visited regularly. Even more astonishing that this short story is written by T. Coragahessan Boyle, a sturdy enough writer who has almost always managed to disappoint us here at Stevereads. His short story, “Sin Dolor,” is therefore a surprise, a wrenching little story about a boy who feels no pain. Boyle’s prose here is evocative throughout – our only quibble is that the medical man in his story seems not to know that the physiological condition of ‘deaf nerves’ is a real one, not a fictional conceit. Boyle’s titular character, nicknamed Sin Dolor, feels nothing at all – he walks on shattered legs, for instance. In the real world, the physiological conditions that give rise to this phenomenon have degrees; some feel only a flittery numbness every so often, others are more (or less, as the case may be) developed, feeling no external stiumlae but still experiencing all the internal ones – the misery of agues, the warning of abdominal pains, the agony of broken bones, etc. Only the very worst afflicted – as this boy is – experience no sensory nerve-traffic at all, and of course they seldom live longer than childhood. Still, Boyle’s story brims with a newfound brio, and it makes us wonder – perhaps even hope – that this author might be moving into a new and far deeper stage in his late-life work. It’s woefully rare but not unknown – Bruce Wagner, William Vollmann, even Cormac McCarthy are all exhibiting signs of wanting to grow continuously in their craft (would that we could add Pete Dexter’s name to that list, but who knows? It’s been so long, perhaps something miraculous is slouching toward Yaddo to be born).
An exceptional short story also adorns the previous issue of the New Yorker, from the 8 October issue: Tessa Hadley’s “Married Love” starts out starchy and droll and ends up genuinely touching. Her prose mastery is on display even right up front in the scene-setting, as for example this:
“This was at the breakfast table a her parents’ house one weekend. The kitchen in that house was upstairs, its windows overlooking the garden below. It was a tall, thin, old house, comfortably untidy, worn to fit the shape of the family. The summer morning was rainy, so all the lights were on, the atmosphere close and dreamy, perfumed with toast and coffee.”
That’s good stuff. Who can read such a description and not feel like they’ve lived in such a house? If this, too, is an indication of what Tessa Hadley might go on to do, more power to her, we here at Stevereads say.
Of course, the 8 October New Yorker contained troubling items as well, none moreso than the piece ‘Our Man in Pyongyang,’ detailing how most of the diplomatic overtures made to the regime currently ruling North Korea have been made by … a goomba-wannabe operating out of his barbecue restaurant in Hackensack.
What’s that, you say? Surely you misread the above – this isn’t, after all, 1807 but 2007: amateur adventurers surely no longer work on the world stage?
And yet, you read correct: Bobby Egan, the finger-ringed Hackensack imbecile whose concerns sling roast beef to track-panted Sopranos hopefuls all day long, also enjoys a special friendship with Kim Jong II and all of his highest and mightiest ministers.
This is cause for horror, yes, but perhaps – and just perhaps, mind you all – that horror is vitiated by the fact that, to the extent he can, goomba Egans is aware of the travesty of his unofficial position. Believe it or not, he feels like he’s up against it:
“His efforts on the North Koreans’ behalf, he says, have always been aimed toward a peaceful end that would benefit both countries. As he put it, ‘How can you have fifty years of no diplomatic relations, no low-level talks with a country that shares a peninsula with one of our best allies, South Korea, and that borders our biggest economic adversary and military adversary, China? How could that be?’ Egan says that the very fact that the North Koreans choose to work with a guy like him shows how badly they want to get out of the hole of isolation in which they have buried themselves. ‘Look at what lengths the Koreans would go to – by using a guy with as little credibility as me, because there was nobody else to support them,’ he says.”
Terrifying stuff, considering the volatile nature of the totally insane North Korean leadership. Egan comes across as a relatively decent sort, but it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that the North Koreans like him at least partially because his own status – officially rogue, slightly bellicose, and almost certainly backed by criminal concerns – parallels theirs as a nation. As the stuff of statecraft, it’s a troubling image.
The latest Vanity Fair contains some almost equally troubling images, from the distant past. Specifically, the Camelot years, as captured by Richard Avedon. In this particular instance, we’re talking about a set of black-and-white photos taken in 1961 and not released until this month.
Avedon is brilliant and always has been, but we submit that in that brilliance he met his match in JFK. Not Jackie – she absolutely BLOSSOMS whenever any professional photographer comes near, and this session is no exception: she’s more beautiful, more gracious, more REGAL than any contemporary or follower, most certainly including the princesses Grace and Diana. Unlike those two unfortunate young women, Jackie was the actual helpmeet to an actually powerful man, in fact the most powerful man in the world.
Both sides of that equation are easily visible in these ‘new’ Avedon photos: she smiles and changes expression from shot to shot, she looks either directly at the camera or else tenderly down at young Caroline and little baby John Jr. He, on the other hand, looks pitifully uncomfortable in every shot – not, as his critics might have contended, because his thoughts were on philandering in fields afar, but because the fakery of the photos themselves would have irritated him.
(Robert Dallek, who writes the accompanying text for the article, gets things badly wrong when he suggests it was JFK’s idea to approach Avedon; such a move was pure Jackie).
But as compelling as such images from another age are, they don’t constitute the most compelling article in this issue of Vanity Fair. No, that honor would go to a fantastic but quease-inducing piece by Bryan Burrough titled ‘Mad About the Boys,’ about Lou Pearlman, the fat, balding impresario behind most of the boy bands that plagued the latter days of the 20th century.
Pearlman bilked investors out of upwards of $300 million, and Burrough’s article goes into a great deal of detail on that (there’s a book in all this, and if we’re lucky, Burrough will be the one who writes it), but of course the juice of the story is the other half, the bit that could be ripped from a Jackie Collins potboiler: in an unsurprising turn, it seems the boy band impresario was interested in far more than his young charges’ musical futures: he liked to slab his meaty hands all over their seductive little presents too.
Burroughs does a wonderful job throughout, despite what one immediately senses were unenviable obstacles, reportorial, legal, and otherwise.
The ‘otherwise’ is so deliciously awful that it stalks, it pulses through the piece like an off-tempo brush-stroke. The scenario is like something out of Suetonius: Pearlman was in charge, a one-man conduit between an endless stream of good-looking young men and a million dollar payday. And Pearlman knew it; according to Burroughs, he often told his young victims that ‘next year’ they’d be millionaires. He wasn’t above invoking the various stages of poverty from which they came. He wasn’t above invoking grateful mothers and needy relatives.
And he got what he wanted, that much is certain regardless of how careful Burroughs is in his writing. The gist any alert reader comes away with is this: some of the members of the boy bands of the 90s sacrificed their gorgeous young bodies to gain success. That’s pretty stark.
Pretty stark, and pretty salacious, and Burroughs knows it. His piece is as carefully written as it possibly could be (there’s even a disclaimer about the photos accompanying the piece: “The photos do not imply improper relations between Pearlman and particular boys” – as if the mere act of being photographed with the man is a slur), but the story it tells is a bombshell.
Obviously, most former boy band members refuse to talk with Burroughs or to appear in the piece. One who does is Rich Cronin, as bright (and valiant) a young man as ever crooned on MTV, and he’s a vivid witness to Pearlman’s wandering hands and smarmy talk of soothing ‘auras’:
“That was the line, the ‘aura,’ I definitely heard that aura bullshit. It took everything in me not to laugh. He was like, ‘I know some mystical fricking ancient massage technique that if I massage you and we bond in a certain way, through these special massages, it will strengthen your aura to the point you are irrestitible to people. I had to bite my cheeks to stop from laughing. I mean, I now know what it’s like to be a chick … He was so touchy-feely, always grabbing your shoulders, touching you, rubbing your abs. It was so obvious and disgusting.”
Another cooperative source is Steve Mooney, who in the late ‘90s was an aspiring boy-band wannabe and Pearlman’s assistant, living in his house and therefore in a perfect position to see the various icky goings-on in the wee small hours:
“More than once, he [Mooney] says, he encountered young male singers slipping out of [Pearlman’s bedroom] doors late at night, tucking in their shirts, a sheepish look on their faces. ‘There was one guy in every band – on sacrifice – one guy in every band who takes it for Lou,’ says Mooney, echoing a sentiment I heard from several people. ‘That’s just the way it was.’
And if it’s true (it might not be – if Mooney had ever made it into one of Pearlman’s bands, he might be singing a different tune today), it immediately prompts a rather tawdry guessing game: which member of each band ‘took it for Lou’? Burroughs comes as close as he legally can to saying it was delectable young Nick Carter who was the sacrificial lamb for the Backstreet Boys. But what about the others? Rich Cronin’s candor rules him out as the sacrifice for LFO, which leaves his two band-mates – so was it the doe-eyed Brad Fischetti or the massively-muscled Devin Lima? In Burroughs’ piece, Pearlman is pictured twice with Richie Strigini, the designated ‘cute one’ from US5 – coincidence, or code? Pouty, full-mouthed Ashley Parker Angel seems the likely bet for O-Town, but what if it was brooding, rebellious Jacob instead? And of course there’s the biggest question of them all: what about ‘Nsync? Tiny, picture-perfect JC Chavez had done a stint as Pearlman’s in-house assistant, and Lance Bass has now conspicuously outed himself – both are prime candidates. But what if it was someone else? What if one of the most successful solo performers on the planet paid for his start in the business by dropping to his knees on Lou Pearlman’s shag carpet? If such a thing became known, it would be very difficult indeed to bring the sexy back from that.
In short, this whirlwind of sin and scandal capped off a singularly enjoyable tour through the Penny Press. Our old friend was right to prompt us, and we’ll thank him by giving his next wretched article a free pass here at Stevereads.
October 7th, 2007
Our book today is the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and lest any of you protest that a mere reference work cannot take its place alongside the high (and low) works of literature with which we routinely deal here at Stevereads, pray think again. Think not only of the awful penalties for second-guessing our wisdom, but of your own famously narrow, parochial reading strictures. Why, you’d read the same Tom Clancy potboiler over and over again, if it weren’t for the guidance you receive here at Stevereads.
And today we’re guiding you toward the latest hardcover American Heritage dictionary, the only example of its kind since Doctor Johnson’s that could be read for pleasure.
What a treasure-trove this book is! And yet, what will strike any potential reader first is its sheer physical beauty, a big, heavy volume of impeccable solidity, fit to be chained to a medieval lectern, or to sit much-consulted on a swivel-shelf in some well-paneled study (we here at Stevereads have a volume always at the open in our palatial office to rebuke the vainglory of our grasping interns, but we also have one open in the oak-finished study of our retreat at Montauk, so that in idle moments late of evenings, with the fire crackling and our gigantic dogs Leni and Blondi gazing adoringly upon us, we may flip to a pertinent definition and sigh, ‘yes, we were, after all, entirely correct’). In an age of increasing digitalization (and hence, increasing marginalization), it’s hard not to view this fourth edition as a flag planted at the valiant edge of old technology. Here, this big book seems to say, here is what old-fashioned print-technology can do – a carefully-chosen panel of experts in their chose fields, assembled under the aegis of this great scholarly endeavor. In this age of Wikipedia, in the era of the cult of the amateur, can the doomed valiance such a proclamation be doubted?
Make no mistake: this enormous book is a vast and valorous challenge to that inevitable future. Its panel of experts, its manifold technical expertise, and most of all its restrained aura of intellectual understatement. All but the very bravest of Internet cooperatives wilt before it, as they should. Dictionaries, true dictionaries, are meant to be consulted physically, not browsed electronically.
And the greatest of these is surely our present work, the greatest American dictionary ever compiled (with all due respect to Mr. Webster). The three previous editions were all sterling works of utility; with the fourth, the whole enterprise is elevated to the level of art, from the stylish minimalism of the dust jacket design to the thoroughly reworked interior visuals.
Most big hardcover dictionaries are full of features their purchasers (usually proud parents of off-going college freshmen, who’d much, much rather have the money involved, so they could at least temporarily feed their colossal, near-overwhelming tobacco addictions) that go overlooked by their word-inquiring possessors, and the fourth edition of the American Heritage is no different in kind, merely in the vast wealth of what’s being ignored.
This edition has all the usual ignored frills – the lovingly formatted and explained history of the various strands that have gone into weaving the English language, the various tables of conversion and measurement, etc. But it has added features all its own, and they are remarkable, cropping up on virtually every page of the book in set-aside boxes. There are discursions on grammar, elucidations on syntax, and one of the most fascinating recurring feature is something called ‘Our Living Language,’ which tracks the shifting vagaries of the way people talk, often making telling points along the way:
“Ax, a common nonstandard variant of ask, is often identified as an especially salient feature of African American Vernacular English. While it is true that the form is frequent in the speech of African Americans, it used to be common in the speech of white Americans as well, especially in New England. This should not be surprising since ax is a very old word in English, having been used in England for over 1,000 years … the forms in x arose from the forms in sk by a linguistic process called metathesis, in which two sounds are reversed. The x thus represents (ks), the flipped version of (sk). Metathesis is a common linguistic process around the world and does not arise from a defect in speaking. Nevertheless, ax has become stigmatized as substandard, a fate that has befallen other words, like ain’t, that were once perfectly acceptable in literate circles.”
But the most fascinating feature of the American Heritage is the recurring Usage Note. These Notes crop up on almost every page, and they aren’t tied to wherever in the alphabet we happen to be – they range at random and so, they consistently surprise and delight:
“Strictly speaking, an epithet need not be derogatory, but the term is commonly used as a simple synonym for term of abuse or sur, as in There is no place for racial epithets in a police officer’s vocabulary. This usage is accepted by 80 percent of the Usage Panel.”
And then there’s this:
“Momentarily is widely used in speech to mean ‘in a moment,’ as in The manager is on another line, but she’ll be with you momentarily. This usage rarely leads to ambiguity since the intended sense can usually be determined on the basis of the tense of the verb and the context. Nonetheless, many critics hold that the adverb should be reserved for the senses [sic] ‘for a moment’ and the extended usage is unacceptable to 59 percent of the Usage Panel.”
Even those two examples will have clued you in to the real drama unfolding in the least likely of places, the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. Yes, in an age where 99 percent of all Western people consult the Internet for 100 percent of their informational needs (and fewer than 10 percent, in consequence, even own a print-and-paper dictionary, much less a big, elaborate volume like this one, striving to be timeless), it turns out the battle for the very soul of our linguistic integrity is being waged in the narrow, hithertofore unknown confines of the American Heritage’s Usage Panel. We’re told that the Usage Panel constitutes ‘200 distinguished writers, scholars, scientists, and other respected users and students of the English language.’ And we can see by any random sampling of Usage Notes that these users and students are not only in serial disagreement but are, in fact, writhing in turmoil.
And a glance at the membership of the Usage Panel (of course, being devoted to helpfulness, the American Heritage lists their names) gives us a glimpse into this epic Manichean war being waged on our behalf, on behalf of the sanctity of the written word, which comprises so much of who we’ve come to be.
Like we said, they post the membership. And the ledger is an ominous thing, not least because so many past members have died and had their definitions rendered obsolete. No, the real reason for the element of quease involved is obvious from the composition of this Usage Panel, past and present. There are angels and demons in the ranks, my dears, and they are fighting over the very essentials of who we say we are.
We won’t name names here at Stevereads; far be it for us to subscribe monickers to the Band of Angels or the Legion of the Damned. We merely lay their names before you – we trust you’ll readily see which side is which:
On the one hand, we have Roy Blount, Letitia Baldridge, Jacques Barzun, Annie Dillard, Howard Fast, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Hass, Sue Hubbell, Molly Ivins, Alfred Kahn, Justin Kaplan, Garrison Keillor, Jean Kirkpatrick, William Least-Heat Moon, David Leavitt, Lois Lowry, William Manchester, Richard Rhodes, Frank Rich, Arthur Schlesinger, Elaine Showalter, Ted Sorensen, Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Randall, Eudora Welty, A. Bart Giamatti, Alfred Kazin, Walter Kerr, J. Anthony Lukas, Wallace Stegner, and the mighty Helen Vendler.
And on the other: Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Robin Cook, Pat Conroy, Louise Erdrich, Henry Louis Gates Jr, James Gleick, Stephen Greenblatt, Mark Helprin, Oscar Hijuelos, Douglas Hofstadter, Erica Jong, Tracy Kidder, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maxine Kumin, Armistead Maupin, Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Steven Pinker, Robert Pinsky, E. Annie Proulx, Judith Rossner, Antonin Scalia, Mona Simpson, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Anne Tyler, Fay Weldon, and David Foster Wallace.
Underneath the erudition and the pages so bright they seem illuminated, this epic battle is the real draw in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. Who knew such important drama lay behind the staid façade of a full-dress dictionary?
Your soul is being fought over, just as your grandmothers averred. So go to your local library and alot an hour or two to crawl over it with the attention it deserves. And for the rest of you? Go to your local Barnes & Noble and plunk for the measly $50 for the full-dress hardcover. It’s an essential addition to your personal library.
October 1st, 2007
Our book today is “Big Weather” by Mark Svenvold, and its subtitle is ‘Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America.’ Which, in this case (a rarity among hyperventilating subtitles), scarcely does the book justice. Because it turns out there are lunatic-fringe mortal men and women who don’t just study tornadoes, don’t just obsessively collect data on them, but actually chase them, for all the world as though they wanted to be CAUGHT by one, even though such an event would almost certainly spell their doom.
Svenvold makes it his business to meet all of these people, and they present an extremely motley assemblage of neurotics, nutjobs, and off-the-grid desperadoes. They’re saved from the taint of simply being latently suicidal by dint of their obvious zest for living, however bent and twisted.
Years ago, there was a great little TV show called “Eerie Indiana” (it starred a 14-year-old roasting tobacco addict named Omri Katz, who, for all we know, is meagerly subsisting on Paypal porn as we speak, but who did absolutely first-rate comedic work as a kid caught on the suspiciously thin boundary between suburbia and the supernatural), and one episode featured the delightfully frenetic Matt Frewer as a gonzo tornado-chaser prone to uttering Ben Kenobi-isms about ‘the big twisties.’ The impression the viewer is left with – aside from the fact that ‘Eerie, Indiana’ was a damn funny show – is that anybody who intentionally chases tornadoes must have a few too many singers in the choir.
And yet, there they all are in Svenvold’s raucous account, gulping down coffee in some no-name South Dakota diner and then hurrying off at news of a late-breaking sighting, the pots, kettles, and ‘seeing stones’ of their previous generation replaced with sleek cell-phones, GPS monitors, and other state-of-the-art gadgetry.
Part of this is, in fact, understandable. It’s not entirely insane to feel the pull of such awe-inspiring phenomena of nature as tornadoes. Their gigantic, unthinking grandeur is compelling, and it can often do funny things to the powers of judgement. Why, even we here at Stevereads have been known to be affected! Once upon a time, in the dinged-up little town of Elk City, Oklahoma, we were minding our own business when we became gradually more aware of all the telltale warning signs – the sickly green overcast the sky takes on, the vacant feel of the air, and more than anything the sound, like the roaring of a freight train, only seeming to emanate from everywhere at once.
And that’s where the lapse of judgement can become almost hypnotic, because even after we’d seen these signs, even after we knew what they meant, we still rushed out into the street in the hopes of seeing the great thing. And we did! Not Hollywood-movie clear, but unmistakable nonetheless, a black stain of pure ferocious kinetic energy, prowling laterally along the horizon on a thick cloud of destruction. And even then, even then, there was the mad urge to move toward that destruction, instead of seeking shelter.
Svenvold’s subjects yield to that mad urge, and he goes along for the ride as much as he dares. His portraits of these nutjobs are unfailingly endearing, but the book’s best, most effective prose concerns the phenomenon itself, rather than the lunatics chasing it. Svenvold, it turns out, is a superb nature-writer, starting with the book’s wonderful first line, “Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its season.”
He’s at his best, hands down, when describing tornadoes themselves. Here he shows the quintessential characteristic of the best nature-writers, the ability to convey scientific information in fluid, energetic prose:
“Tornadoes occur at the ‘storm scale,’ which is an entirely different sort of ball game. Small though they are relative to the mesoscale and synoptic scale forces surrounding them, storms are immense structures, which required a special orienteering savvy. Towering five to ten miles high, often sprawling across several counties, a storm is composed of many different constituent parts, moving rapidly in three dimensions, and often too large to take in. All of it is working as a single process in time, creating its own mini-environments, or boundary layers, which rise and fall, emerge and then vanish.”
He’s virtually exuberant about the sheer impossibility of his central subject:
“A tornado represents many things, beginning with its own extreme unlikelihood. Every tornado represents a supreme, if momentary, trouncing of the second law of thermodynamics, the glum law of entropy that states that all things move from order to chaos. Tornadoes move the other way, from a chaos of cloud swirl, from a mixture of lines of force, density, temperature, lift, speed, and convergence, a set of initiating conditions whose exact ingredients are still unknown, to a near perfect level of order and organization, capable, paradoxically of delivering immense destruction, an order that creates widespread disorder, confusion, and chaos.”
Mark Svenvold has written a powerful little punch of a book, something as energetic and light-footed as the monstrous things that comprise his subject. It’s well worth your time to find and read (we seem to be on an extended roll of such books lately – which will no doubt make the inevitable smackdown of some poor slob’s life-work all the more seismic when it finally happens).
And there’s something else we recommend, although it isn’t anything you can find on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. It’s this: if you should ever find yourself in tornado country (it can be anywhere, although your chances increase significantly if you’re in the United States, south and east of the Dakota badlands) and experience all those telltale warning signs, do yourself a favor you’ll be happy about for the rest of your life (no matter how short it might be as a result!): go outside and look at the horrible, beautiful wonder bearing down on you. Don’t chase it, like Svenvold’s lunatics, but likewise don’t seek shelter until you’ve at least taken a look. After all, as the saying goes, you only live once.