Posts from May 2008

May 30th, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


Our book today is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and if your first reaction is anything like ours here at Stevereads, you’re headed out the door with a tightly courteous little rictus on your face. Yes, yes: the book has perhaps the most regrettable title in recent memory – it reeks of twee preciousness, that heavy-handed almost leering juxtaposition of art and quotidia that wants to intrigue you so desperately it almost immediately repulses you.

What can we say? Mistakes happen, and perhaps the monstrous title of this book wasn’t strictly the idea of its two authors – publishers can be a crass lot, and publicists are even worse – gawd only knows the algorithms they use to arrive at the products they push. In any case, disregard the title! Disregard the title and read the book.

The book is just about as charming and heartfelt and utterly involving a work of fiction as any we here at Stevereads have read this year, and we, we need hardly remind you, read lots of novels in any given quarter.

This story takes place in postwar England, in a time of rationing and coupons when everybody has their own memory of the Blitz and the bombings. At least one person made out well from those horrible years: writer Juliet Ashton, whose “Izzie Bickerstaff” columns gave a war-weary populace a few grim laughs at the worst of times. She’s stopped writing those columns now, but their resale in book form has made her comparatively wealthy and sought-after on the admittedly meager postwar book-tour circuit. This is an epistolary novel (gawd help us) that hauls the reader into Juliet’s world so quickly and so confidently that before you know it, you’re every bit as involved in the lives of all the characters as the characters are themselves.

And such characters! Juliet is the best of them, but she’s given some serious competition by the members of the eponymous literary society itself, each one of whom bonded to a love of reading (and bonded to each other) under the grimly capricious rule of the Nazis. Through the letters these characters exchange, the reader is taken on a marvelous journey, one none of you should miss. The book’s two authors are to be hugely congratulated – and urged to collaborate again.

Epistolary novels are the hardest of all to quote in a review, and this book is no exception. Rather than try to give you all a sample of its glories and possibly fail (unthinkable, we know, but still), we here at Stevereads will instead urge you in the strongest possible terms: when The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes out, read it – borrow it, buy it, however you do it, but read it. Ignore the title, and you’ll be very much pleased.

May 21st, 2008

In the Penny Press!


A slightly belated look at the Penny Press here at Stevereads, where we’ve been slightly distracted of late. For instance, we’re only just now getting to last week’s TLS, which had its usual bounty of great stuff and one ominous little note, in Morris Dickstein’s review of Richard Cook’s new Alfred Kazin biography. Dickstein’s piece (oh calm yourself, Beepy) is very good, but it opens with a few declarations that bear refuting:

Literary journalism is usually as perishable as the paper it’s printed on. In times past, the most commanding reviewers might see their work collected in books. Now the general audience for literary essays seems to have disappeared, along with many newspapers and magazines that once published them.
Well, yes and no, right? If Dickstein really believed what he wrote, he wouldn’t be writing literary essays for the TLS, now would he? And besides, his dire predictions fail to take into account the very medium in whose warm glow you’re right this moment bathing: the Internet is, of course, where the ‘general audience’ for literary essays has migrated, and that ‘paper it’s printed on’ reference already feels slightly old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Print had its long golden age, as did steam and whale-oil, and in another generation even the most obstinate holdouts to paper-and-ink reading will have been won over by some innovation or other that soothes their old-fashioned nerves (we here at Stevereads, for instance, got an absolutely frightening amount of use out of our old manual typewriter – indeed, it sits within easy view whenever we write, even to this day – but the homely little detail that won us over to computers was the backspace … the ability to magically undo any and all typing mistakes without the torturous necessity of white-out or retyping, like a gift from Heaven! After that, we kept pecking away on our mechanical typewriter for a while out of misplaced sentimentality, but after a while, we saw how pointless that was and stopped). Dickstein’s lament is not only premature but misplaced, as the meticulous, wonderfully written prose over at Open Letters (among many other such places, although it’s the best of them) shows ever month on the 1st.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t an abundance of good prose still in the print world! Take the latest issue of Esquire, for instance. Not only does it have a really good, really intense short story titled “Nightstand” by Daniel Woodrell, about a man who wakes to find a stranger standing at the foot of his bed, kills the stranger, and then watches his life change as a result, in disturbing ways the reader won’t see coming. It’s always a pleasure when Esquire’s fiction excels, and “Nightstand” is the best thing they’ve published so far this year.

Then there’s Mark Warren’s little insert (oh calm down, Beepy) “Cracking the Code,” part of a longer feature on racism in America. Warren very amusingly posits there’s a code for how public figures talk about racism, and of course he has one particular public figure in mind:

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when administering the code visually, because there’s a much higher probability that it’ll backfire, and you’ll be the one looking like a douchebag. Case in point: Earlier this year, the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton released a picture of Barack Obama, taken a couple of years ago when the senator was visiting Kenya. In the picture, Obama, who was gamely playing along by donning local garb, is wearing a turban and wrapped in a bedsheet over his khakis and polo shirt. Senator Clinton’s people just put the picture out there, for our consideration, and there it hung in the air, like a fart. They of course couldn’t say “Look, he really is a Muslim, and a foreigner, and lookee, he’s so black!” So they said nothing, until the Obama campaign responded, essentially, “What the hell?” Whereupon Clinton’s campaign manager attacked Senator Obama for being divisive. Awkward.

Trenchant stuff, especially considering the fact that as of this writing Candidate Clinton has just won a brace of Racist State Primaries and instead of being ashamed, instead of quietly shushing up the whole thing (like the way every Presidential candidate who gets the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan – and for a hundred years, somebody’s got that endorsement in every race), she’s trumpeted it as a sign the system still works, as a measure of the validity of her campaign.

It won’t matter in the end, obviously. Barring an assassin’s bullet (something Candidate Clinton is all but visibly relying on, which will end up being the least savory detail of her 2008 run), its pretty likely Senator Obama will be the Democrat who get their ass handed to them in the general election against the madman McCain. But it speaks in eloquent counterpoint to Obama’s now famous speech on race relations in this country.

Obama is also the focus of Charles Pierce’s ferocious, intelligent piece “The Cynic and Senator Obama,” which takes as its organizing motif the idea that there’s a segment of the smarter American voting public that still refuses to believe in Obama, to believe that he’s hitting a genuine nerve in a broad spectrum of people – that he is, in other words, answering a need of some kind (it’s worth noting that this isn’t exclusively a good thing, needs being weak, after all). Pierce strikes an unashamedly partisan note throughout:

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost. More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is – or, as a right, ought to be – about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country’s name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.
In the article, the Cynic fights hard to retain his cynicism and in the end remains unconvinced by Obama and any of his various messages, but the prose is bracing throughout.

(in an associated point, John Richardson turns in a piece titled “Is This Man a Monster?” about former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the author of the infamous ‘torture memos’ that will forever guarantee President George W. Bush a place, however dark, in history. Richardson’s title question, about an innocent-faced, career-minded creature who conceived the memorandum that are this country’s darkest moments embodied, can be answered with a simple ‘yes,’ but that doesn’t make his article any the less compelling)

And surely for readers everywhere, the highlight of this particular issue of Esquire was its one-page interview with legendary author Gore Vidal. Those of us who’ve loved Vidal’s work in the past have been universally troubled in the present, where our author has seemed to lose his way a bit. His latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, was touching but ultimately saddening, something akin to the world’s longest death notice.

There’s something of that tone in Mike Sager’s brief interview here, but it’s delivered with more fire and wit. And the quips flow like Chianti:

I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him. For a writer, memory is everything. But then you have to test it; how good is it, really? Whether it’s wrong or not, I’m beyond caring. It is what it is. As Norman Mailer would say, “It’s existential.” He went to his grave without knowing what that word meant.

But the troublingly mortuary note is still struck here as well, as in this little revelation:

There was more of a flow to my output of writing in the past, certainly. Having no contemporaries left means you cannot say, “Well, so-and-so will like this,” which you do when you’re younger. You realize there is no so-and-so anymore. You are your own so-and-so. There is a bleak side to it.

Well, yes, there is a bleak side to it, but fortunately this is a problem with an easy solution, and we here at Stevereads offer it to Mr. Vidal free of charge, in complete confidence as to its efficacy because we’ve repeatedly tested it ourselves: make young friends! Find new so-and-so’s! Not only is it invigorating, but it keeps you on your toes, stops you from thinking you have all the answers (stops you, essentially, from masturbating in public). The English Department of any handy university could provide you with such new blood, or, failing that, we’re sure the boys and girls over at Open Letters would be happy to volunteer! Merely click on the link and drop them a line!

Over in the Atlantic, there are two standout pieces this month, and neither one is by Christopher Hitchens (although he does write a lovely essay about Saki)! The first is called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” and it’s written by “Professor X” (as in anonymous, not as in mutant) – and reading the piece, you can see why its author would want to remain anonymous: the thing is a bracing wake-up call about the over-proliferation of college students in this country, and the drastic failures of the pre-college educational system – first by utterly failing to prepare them for higher learning, and second by simultaneously filling their heads with the desirability of that goal.

Professor X is the guy standing between that goal and reality, as he ruefully writes:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it – try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades. For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of the work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less college.

The fault here, of course, lies not in the laudable goal of sending everybody to college; it lies with the criminally substandard state into which Americans have allowed their grade schools and high schools to fall. We here at Stevereads know a dozen teachers at such levels, and all of them routinely spend their own money on supplies, offer up their own time for private tutoring, try their best to reach classes sometimes numbering in the 30s, and doing all of this with virtually no support from local communities and businesses, despite the fact that such support is certainly in their long-term best interests. The reason Professor X is dealing with so many barely literate, intellectually incurious students in college is because they were allowed to pass that way out of high school. His despair at being the guy who hands out the failing grades is a visible symptom of a much more widespread rot.

Of course, none of it might ultimately matter, if the second Atlantic article turns out to be true. Gregg Easterbrook turns in a curiously flat piece about the end of life on Earth, as a result of a catastrophic meteor-collision. His piece, “The Sky is Falling,” has some fascinating details lodged in a scattershot general approach (there’s a long digression on the feasibility of building a lunar base that any first-year editor should have yanked out of the piece), and the star of the show is 99942 Apophis, our darling girl:

Right now, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036. Apophis is also small by asteroid standards, perhaps 300 meters across, but it could hit with about 60,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb – enough to destroy an area the size of France.

That destruction would only be the beginning, as all you fans of Armageddon can attest: following it would be shockwaves, tsunamis, earthquakes, and choking dust clouds. As Easterbrook puts it:

…the combination of shock waves and extreme heating at the point of impact generates nitric and nitrous acids, producing rain as corrosive as battery acid.

Hee.

As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads aren’t terribly big fans of the human race (even though some of our best friends are humans). Mankind has proven itself to be a savage and spreading cancer across the face of the planet, a species whose defining action seems to be destruction. Diseases do little to cull the murderous herd, and wars are equally small-fry. A monstrous asteroid striking the planet would, it’s true, wipe out all non-human life … but if it also wiped out humanity, well, that would be a bargain even so. So we’ll be watching closely in 2036, with fingers crossed.

And in the meantime, we’ll be blogging. So there’s karma still in the world!

May 20th, 2008

Me Comic Read Good!


A bright new star arises in the blogospheric firmament! We here at Stevereads have been neglecting all you little knowledge-thirsty marmots, we know, and we apologize – affairs of state have called us away. But in the meantime, we strongly urge you all to cast your eyes on the latest in our link-roll to the right: Me Comic Read Good, which is, as of this writing, only one posting old and is already, fantastically, the opinion-setting high bar of comics reviewing anywhere online. Not since the heady days of Amazing Heroes has prose so zippy been lavished on prose so crappy, so even those of you who never read comics will want to tune in.

And those of us who DO have a new place to go for some high-flying opinionating!

May 11th, 2008

dreadnought

Our book today is Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie, and it underscores one of our preoccupations here at Stevereads: the build-up to the end of the 19th century. An entire world began to end in 1914, as we’ve always maintained, but an old world can start to end long before a new one is fully formed.

The important thing to remember about that transition – indeed, the important thing to remember about all history – is that the past was populated by real people. A self-evident observation, one might think, but we here at Stevereads have many times seen otherwise intelligent young people confront a work of history – even one as magnificently engaging as Dreadnought – and respond with helpless despair, or complete indifference. Neither reaction would be possible if those young people knew, really felt that history books contained living, breathing people, some of whom were as young as they are themselves.

Massie succeeds better than anybody writing on the First World War in showing us those living, breathing people, people caught up in the whirlwind of changes that precipitated a cataclysm such as the world hadn’t seen in two thousand years. Just look at that great monstrous thing pictured on the front of Massie’s book; it (well, close to it – a free book to the first person who can spot the problem) is a picture of that cataclysm, in miniature – arm run amok, reaching for a global scale. The people living in the world of such new things grappled with them as unsurely as people today grapple with suitcase nukes or bioweapons considerably more advanced than mustard gas. They were no different in this regard than people are today – often young, often clueless, often afraid. Approaching history with that in mind reveals it for what it’s always been: the best thing in the world to read. Massie’s kind of narrative zeal makes it easy to see this.

Of course, his story also contains two individuals who weren’t young, two people posterity has come to think of as never having been young. The first of these is Otto von Bismarck, Prussia’s “Iron Chancellor” and cold-eyed designer of the calibrated steel spring-trap that would in 1914 snap closed on all of Europe. Massie has a field day with this most congenial of villains, painting a wonderful portrait of the man who so often cowed his nominal superior, Kaiser Wilhelm – as in the contest of wills they had over Bismarck’s proposed savage antisocialist measures:

William pleaded that he did not wish to begin his reign by shooting his subjects. He appealed to the ministers, but they, not daring in Bismarck’s presence to challenge him, meekly supported the Chancellor. What the young Emperor might do if they failed to support him, they did not know. What Bismarck would do if they opposed him, they knew exactly: he would destroy them.

The second of these never-young individuals is Queen Victoria, whose matriarchal presence on the English throne held all the simmering forces of chaos throughout the West in check. Her death, it could be argued, did more to ensure the eventual outbreak of an unprecedented kind of war than any other single factor, but despite this, and despite the way she’s become frozen in the popular mind as a “we are not amused” monument, Massie never fails to ferret out just the right anecdote to show us the actual living person who wore the crown:

At dinner one night at Osborne House, the Queen entertained a famous admiral whose hearing was impaired. Politely, Victoria had asked about his fleet and its activities; then, shifting the subject, she asked about the admiral’s sister, an elderly dowager of awesome dignity. The admiral thought she was inquiring about his flagship, which was in need of overhaul. “Well, ma’am,” he said, “as soon as I get back I’m going to have her hauled out, roll her on her side, and have the barnacles scraped off her bottom.” Victoria stared at him for a second, and then, for minutes afterward, the dining room shook with her unstoppable peals of laughter.

There are gems like this scattered liberally throughout Dreadnought, despite its somber main subject. This book – and its equally-spellbinding sequel, Castles of Steel, are still in print and very much worth your time and attention, especially if you can’t in any way picture yourself reading an 800-page history of pre-WWI Europe. Especially if that’s true, peak into this book and be happily persuaded otherwise.

May 10th, 2008

The Nocturnal Naturalist


Our book today is The Nocturnal Naturalist by Cathy Johnson, and it’s both a gorgeous little gem in its own right and a happy reminder from a seasoned, passionate naturalist to the rest of us: all the good stuff happens at night.

Those of us who’ve been familiar with the quiet of late, late night know that the whole feel of the nearest big park changes completely from that of the day. Animals of sizes and varieties you’d never guess make their appearance and go about their business – if you’re very still, they won’t notice you, because they’ve got lots to do before the hated sun returns. In our own neighborhood, skunks abound; in an earlier neighborhood, the pristine quiet of 2 a.m. was disturbed once by a loud, prolonged brawl between two enormous raccoons; in the wooded areas of Boston’s Olmsted Park, house cats who’re pampered all day long by their unsuspecting owners viciously fish naked chipmunk babies from their tree-bowls; in Central Park, gigantic owls glide noiselessly over paths squawky tourists crowd by day. It’s all unbelievably fascinating.

Johnson’s book captures that fascination perfectly, and she captures also the beauty of it all. She has the naturalist’s perfect ear for the nature of sounds, and her prose is almost as alive as the lush world it describes:

There is a kind of texture to the darkness, a substance, a heft. It has rained and drizzled and rained again, late afternoon into evening. At last. It has been dry too long. Now, at 10 p.m., the darkness is almost tactile. The quiet is woven with the sound of dogs. I hear them call from neighborhood to neighborhood in their varied voices. A random non-rhythm directs the sounds, a chaotic symphony of small-town Saturday night.

I hear cars out on the highway, singly or in convoys, heading for the city – heading anywhere but this backwater bedroom community, twenty-eight miles from Kansas City.

Let them go. Let them all go. When they are gone, the sound of cars and trucks will be reeled in behind them, leaving silence. Wonderful silence, woven with dog’s voices and the syncopated plop and splatter of moisture that has gathered on tree limbs to roll in silver mercury drops to the ground.

Johnson’s wandering observations take in all seasons, and she sprinkles them with scientific facts about the creatures she hears and sees, but such concrete information isn’t really what she’s meaning to convey in The Nocturnal Naturalist. Rather, the book is filled with the author’s love of this other world so many people give no thought to at all. And her luminous lookings extend well past the borders of that world, encompassing much that is wonderful by day, like this note about a random dawn:

A solitary robin – the first to return to my territory, our shared domain – repeats his descending-note sequence, his spring song, as distinctive as a fingerprint. A long winter may have passed without hearing from him, but I know the voice of an old friend.

The Nocturnal Naturalist is filled with the author’s quite lovely woodcuts (all the best slim volumes of natural history have copious, heartfelt illustrations), and we here at Stevereads whole-heartedly recommend it to soothe your harried souls. It was published in 1989 and is today out of print, but thanks to our new, updated links-list here on the site, you all now have instant access to Alibris.com, the single greatest book-acquiring site on the Internet. Our habit here at Stevereads to recommend out-of-print books need no longer result in a barrage of bleated requests that we SEND you a copy of each! Just click on over to Alibris, and tell ’em Stevereads sent you!

May 9th, 2008

300!


Well, with this post Stevereads turns 300, and what better book to feature on such an occasion than Frank Miller’s comic book reshaping of the famous incident from Herodotus about how a handful of Spartans and their allies stood at the ‘Hot Gates’ of Thermopylae against the vast hordes of the Persian Empire under the despotic rule of Xerxes?

Of course, the Persian Empire doesn’t come off all that well in Miller’s telling – this is a comic book, after all, and comics (except for the current continuity over at Marvel, that is) need both heroes and villains. The heroes in Miller’s book are the super-buff Spartans (despite hailing from a professional warrior culture, Miller’s Spartans fancy going into battle with no clothes on) led by King Leonides. They’re all uniformly fit and shapely, coolly competent at killing their enemies (the one Spartan in the book who’s isn’t physically fit is, of course, a villainous traitor). The villains are twofold: first, the seemingly endless force of overdressed (i.e. dressed) Persians who want to conquer the whole world, and second (because this is a Miller book and he’s a grade-A paranoid crackpot) the shadowy Powers That Be who manipulate everything from the shadows.

Miller’s Persians are a hoot (their weirdness is only amplified in the famous movie adaptation – amplified and added to: those of you coming to the graphic novel expecting to see the Giant Bestial Gym Teacher or the Guy With Swords For Arms will be disappointed), especially his Xerxes, who manages to be both effeminate and nine feet tall. They are decadent and weak, and the Spartan allies aren’t much better, all being conscripts from other professions instead of hoo-rah professionals.

Actual women are hardly present in the book (except for Leonides’ wife, she of the “come back with your shield or on it” ultimatum), which certainly introduces the waft of homoeroticism that always clings to warrior cultures. This effect is gigantically multiplied in the movie, which is practically a soft-core porn love-letter to Solo-flex.

And you all already know the ending: Go and tell the Spartans and all that, every warrior dying right there in the pass. But Miller’s arresting visuals (so eerily transposed wholesale to the movie) are totally winning, especially given the book’s extra-wide format. His battle-scenes convey multi-layered chaos, and Lynn Varley’s coloring work is, as always, superb. And when all the bloodletting is over, Miller drops in a note suggesting his readers check out this Herodotus guy – something we here at Stevereads must always approve! You could scarcely have a more enjoyable introduction to that extremely enjoyable historian than Miller’s 300, so we happily recommend it to both newcomer and seasoned (but hopefully clothed) veteran as well!

And as far as our 300th anniversary goes, we here at Stevereads would like to thank you all for stopping by so regularly and making this so much fun. For the next 300 postings, you can expect more of the same wisdom and sexiness you’ve always found here – plus a whole lot more, as we experiment with new ideas. Our new head of accounting has suggested, for instance, an unobtrusive Google Ads bar floating somewhere on the site, and you can look for a long-overdue overhaul of the links over there on the right-hand margin. Movies, TV, comics, the daily news, the sprawling content of the Internet … all will be represented, plus our customary infallible book reviews!

So keep on looking in, and tell your friends! There’s enough mockery here for everybody!

May 9th, 2008

In the Penny Press!

There can be little doubt: The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane gets the prize for the week’s most flat-out hilarious chunk of prose, the opening of his review of the Wachowski brothers’ new movie adaptation of “Speed Racer”:

Gluttons for “Duck Soup” will remember the scene in which Groucho is faced with an official document. “Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report,” he says. “Run out and find me a four-year-old child.” My sentiments exactly, as I sat in a cathedral-sized auditorium wreathed in the ineffable mysteries of “Speed Racer.” This is the latest offering from Andy and Larry Wachowski, bringers of “The Matrix,” and, if it is about anything, it is about the quest to overwhelm a particular stratum of the masses. A four-year-old will be reduced to a gibbering but highly gratified wreck; an eight-year-old will wander around wearing a look that was last seen on the face of Dante after he met Beatrice. But what about the rest of us? True, our eyeballs will slowly, though never completely, recover, but what of our souls?

Even before the Dante reference, it’s obvious that Lane is way, way too smart to be writing pro forma movie reviews like this. Hilarious as they are, they’re way too good for the humble little art form they adorn.

Lane’s piece is the best thing in this current New Yorker, but only by a hair: Margaret Talbot’s piece on animal intelligence, “Birdbrain,” is also uniformly excellent. Talbot’s a wonderful writer, and here she’s sinking her teeth into a big, burgeoning subject: the cognitive abilities of animals other than man. This is a fantastic piece, in which Talbot surveys, in pitch-perfect prose, the whole fraught subject. Here’s a sample:

If instinct could explain why your dog growled at your suitcase, then there was no need to cast about for a richer interpretation, one that might, as Morgan put it, “savour of the prattle of the parlour tea table rather than the sober discussion of the study.” As sensible as Morgan’s canon sounded, it essentially censored the question: “Do animals think?”

They do, of course, although virtually none of them think in human terms, and that’s interesting for a couple of reasons, not least of which is that all of you will find the whole subject of animal intelligence ably laid out and debated in the June issue of Open Letters Monthly (this New Yorker issue also features a brief Jeffrey Toobin notice about the hardships Ted Sorensen faced writing his new memoir, Counsellora book you’ll find also ably reviewed, in that same June issue of Open Letters).


Meanwhile, over in the TLS, the great Jonathan Bate offers us a fantastic long piece on the criminally overlooked Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton. Bate’s essay is a model of all that’s best in the form: it’s effortlessly authoritative but also fluidly readable. Our only quibble (and you just knew we had one, right?) arose from some of the offhand assertions Bate tosses around in his final paragraph, which we’ll quote in full:

The decision [on the part of Middleton’s latest editors to note every textual variation in Middleton’s various early editions] may, however, prove counter-productive: will this self-consciously post-modern Middleton Folio have the impact it deserves in the absence of a pre-modern or just a plain modern one? Taylor could, with the assistance of a co-editor and a few graduate students, have dashed out a modern-spelling edition of Middleton’s complete plays in five years, winning his hero a more prominent place both in the college classroom and on the classical stage. He would probably have finished that in about 1993, the year of the World Wide Web. He would then have seen that the internet’s hypertext facility provided the perfect medium for a deconstructive edition with full scholarly bells and whistles. By the mid-1990s, the Arden Shakespeare team had developed an electronic edition that made it possible to move onscreen between modern-spelling texts, facsimiles of original quartos, editorial variants, commentary notes, sources and part-books for individual roles. This is what is now needed for Middleton. It is good news that Gary Taylor’s principal co-editor, John Lavagnino, is a computer expert and that they are even now at work on an electronic edition (the initial website accompanying the print edition is perfunctory in the extreme). Thomas Middleton has been monumentalized in print at the very moment when print is ceasing to be our primary medium of literary monumentalization. He might just have missed the boat again.

Needless to say, we here at Stevereads, despite being ourselves an Internet phenomenon, don’t agree with this cavalier avowal of the print world’s demise. But it’s a small quibble, and it certainly didn’t diminish our appreciation of the piece as a whole – Middleton has always been one of our favorite dramatists, and Bate is right in diagnosing why you’re unlikely to find a standard collection of his works in your local bookstore: the problem, to paraphrase a former U.S. President, is what your definition of ‘his’ is. Middleton was a great collaborator, a great and creative hack willing to work with anybody. He could brush up dialog until it sparkled; he could come up with plot-twists that had his collaborators scratching their heads trying to figure out why they didn’t think of that; he had a very good ear for how to work a crowd, and there was no job he thought himself too good for.

As a result, he’s all over the drama map, and chasing down exactly which works he had a hand in – and to what extent – is something of a chore.

So where do you start, you ask? Start with “The Changeling,” which Middleton mostly wrote himself (Will Rowley also had a hand in it, but trust us, it was a very small hand). It’ll hook you immediately, and it’s as good as anything in Shakespeare. If you can, find the 1993 production Simon Curtis did … it will not only entertain you, it’ll drastically increase your estimate of the acting abilities of Bob Hoskins, Elizabeth McGovern, and especially Hugh Grant. Hoskins especially does a marvelously disturbing job as the villainous DeFlores.

But by far the most disturbing thing in this go-round of In the Penny Press is a brief article in the latest Asimov’s by Carl Frederick called “The Challenge of the Anthropic Universe,” in which the author, a quantum theoretician and thus not a crackpot (well, not a religious crackpot, anyway) examines Australian physicist Brandon Carter’s assertion that “the Universe, and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends, must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.”

Frederick goes on:

The depth of the anthropic problem is, I think, well described by the cosmologist responsible for the Steady State theory of the universe (and noted science fiction author), Sir Fred Hoyle. His appreciation for the almost miraculous coincidences in enabling carbon to be produced in stars caused him to change his very perception of the universe. He wrote, “A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintendent has monkeyed with the physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. I do not believe that any physicist who examined the evidence could fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside stars.”

These are physicists talking, keep in mind. The gist of the matter is that, to many such physicists, the physical constants of the universe seem too finely ‘tuned’ to be the random products of cosmological development. They don’t leap from this observation to God – Frederick is quick to point out that such a leap is neither the scientific community’s preferred solution nor his own. But even so … it’s mighty disturbing to read about scientists working on the leading edges of the quantum field saying the things they’re working on seem like they were made by somebody. Even worse, that they look like they were made specifically for humans.

Here’s hoping the right-wing Christian nutjobs who currently control this country don’t read Frederick’s article …

May 8th, 2008

The Serpent’s Tale


Our book today is The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin, her follow-up to 2006’s Mistress of the Arts of Death, one of the best historical novels we here at Stevereads have read in many, many years. You’d think that fact would have made us eager to read The Serpent’s Tale, but truth be told, it initially had the opposite effect.

Our esteemed colleague the Empress put it best: when a book grabs you the way Mistress of the Arts of Death does, you dread the follow-up because you’re worried it won’t – worried not only about a limp reading experience in the sequel, but worried that it’ll lower your opinion of the original, which will now seem like a random fluke, unworthy of all the admiration you thought it deserved.

Fortunately, such doubts are dispelled about five minutes into reading The Serpent’s Tale. It’s every bit as perfectly plotted, every bit as beautifully written, and every bit as refreshingly intelligent as its predecessor. It’s a marvel, and one we can’t recommend strongly enough.

The scene is medieval England under the mostly-benevolent rule of Henry II, and the story features the return of one of the greatest detective-story protagonists of them all, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, our Mistress Adelia, who was trained at the School of Medicine at Salerno and so has little patience for the primitive witch-doctoring that passes for medical science in the rest of the West. She has little patience for that world’s treatment of women, either, but to forestall accusations of witchcraft (or simple, sexist assault) while in England, she must pretend to be the assistant to her bodyguard Mansur, who must pose as the actual doctor in the duo.

(Setting her story in an age of such brutal and universal misogyny might have prompted Franklin to get up on her soap box about women’s rights, but she’s too smart for that. Mistress Adelia is all the more perfect a focal point for thinking about such issues specifically because she’s so humanly less than perfect, and that in itself is quite a feat: Franklin has created a character the reader must get to know, and the process is infinitely rewarding)

Mistress Adelia, accompanied by her steadfast friend Gyltha, by Ward, her malodorous dog, by Mansur, and by her infant daughter Allie, is called upon by Henry to probe into the death of Rosamund Clifford, Henry’s mistress. Almost immediately, this mission brings Adelia and her friends into contact with Rowley Picot, little Allie’s father, now made a bishop by his friend and patron Henry, and this increases the tension: Rowley would have stayed with Adelia, but she insisted that he leave her to serve his king, and he let himself be convinced. It’s a sign of Adelia’s wonderfully believable complexity that she’s both grateful that Rowley is helping a mostly-worthy king and resentful that he would leave her, even at her own insistence.

The scene where now-Bishop Rowley first lays eyes on his tiny daughter shows with rapid-fire ease a great many of the writerly things Franklin does perfectly:

There was a sudden shout from the bedroom. “It’s here? She’s brought it here?” Now down to his tunic, a man who looked younger and thinner but still very large stood in the doorway, staring around him. He loped to the basket on the table. “My God,” he said. “My God.”

You dare, Adelia thought. You dare ask whose it is.

But the bishop was staring downward with the awe of Pharaoh’s daughter glimpsing baby Moses in the reeds. “Is this him? My God, he looks just like me.”

“She,” Gyltha said. “She looks just like you.”

How typical of church gossips, Adelia thought viciously, that they would be quick to tell him she’d had his baby without mentioning its sex.

“A daughter.” Rowley scooped up the child and held her high. The baby blinked with sleep and then crowed with him. “Any fool can have a son,” he said. “It takes a man to conceive a daughter.”

That’s why I loved him.

Who’s her daddy’s little moppet, then,” he was saying, “who’s got eyes like cornflowers, so she has – yes, she has – just like her daddy’s. And teeny-weeny toes. Yumm, yumm, yumm. Does she like that? Yes she does.”

Adelia was helplessly aware of Father Paton regarding the scene. She wanted to tell Rowley he was giving himself away; this delight was not episcopal. But presumably a secretary was privy to all his master’s secrets – and it was too late now, anyway.

The bishop looked up. “Is she going to be bald? Or will this fuzz on her head grow? What’s her name?”

“Allie,” Gyltha said.

Ali?”

“Almeisan.” Adelia spoke for the first time, reluctantly. “Mansur named her. Almeisan is a star.”

Naturally, as the king’s man, Rowley wants the question of who killed Rosamund cleared up as soon as possible. And as an Englishman – one of countless whose lives were torn apart by the civil war fought between King Stephen and the Empress Maud – he’d like a solution that doesn’t plunge the country into civil war again. But such a solution at first seems unlikely in the extreme, since the prime suspect is none other than Henry’s estranged wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine.

Franklin’s chosen a perfect backdrop against which to set her independent-minded female doctor; English history would have to wait five more centuries before its affairs would be so deeply marked by the destinies of great women; Empress Maud, Rosamund Clifford, Eleanor of Acquitaine .. Adelia belongs in such company, and Franklin expertly extends this awareness everywhere, including her description of the nuns who tend to Godstow Abbey, where pivotal pieces of the action unfold:

If asked, its twenty-four nuns and their female pensioners would have insisted that it was the Lord God who had called them to abandon the world, but their air of contentment suggested that the Lord’s wish had coincided exactly with their own. Some were widows with money who’d heard God’s call at their husbands’ graveside and hurried to answer it at Godstow before they could be married off again. Some were maidens who, glimpsing the husbands selected for them, had been overwhelmed by a sudden vocation for chastity and had taken their dowries with them into the convent instead. Here they could administer a sizable, growing fiefdom efficiently and with a liberal hand – and they could do it without male interference.

The Serpent’s Tale is an utterly engrossing book, the kind of novel-reading experience you hope for always but so seldom actually get. You’ll miss subway stops, you’ll sit in parked cars, and you’ll put off TV and the like, as it weaves its spell and draws you deeper and deeper into the mystery of who poisoned fair Rosamund. And when you’re done, just as in Mistress of the Arts of Death, you’ll feel like you lived the book’s events, instead of merely reading them. We here at Stevereads urge you to put both books at the top of your list and waste no time in reading them.

May 8th, 2008

worse than myself!

“I do so like it when one of my friends gets published,” great American novelist Dawn Powell once said, “it feels like a cause being furthered.”

We here at Stevereads couldn’t agree more, and so it’s with considerable pleasure that we notify (for those of you who didn’t know it) and remind (for those of you who did) you all that our friend and unindicted co-conspirator Adam Golaski’s book Worse Than Myself has just been published by the incredibly-poorly-named Raw Dog Screaming Press.

Those of you with long memories may recall that Adam’s ongoing literary concern, New Genre, holds the singular distinction of being the only small press periodical we here at Stevereads have ever reviewed (and that to generally positive result, if memory serves). If that periodical is any indication of what’s in this new book (a copy of which, inexplicably, has yet to arrive at our palatial offices here at Stevereads – we suspect a thieving intern and are planning a random firing-pogrom in response), readers who favor dark, introspective, challengingly intricate stories will not be disappointed.

So let’s have a congratulating round of applause for Adam, and here’s hoping those of you with a yen for the darker corners of genre-bending fiction will click on over to your favorite giant online bookselling combine and order up a copy of Worse Than Myself. We’d tell you to ‘tell ’em Stevereads sent you,’ but then they’d be so worshipfully nervous they’d probably screw up your order, so you’ll have to go it alone!

May 1st, 2008

May at Open Letters Monthly!


It’s that jubilant time of the month again – the first, when an eager world gets to feast its eyes on a brand-new update of Open Letters Monthly! And boy, what a feast it is this time around! We have a poem from two-time National Book Award winner Clayton Eshelman, and we have the latest installment of Adam Golaski’s brilliant translation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Green. Newcomer Amelia Glaser makes a unique and fervent plea to Dmitri Nabokov regarding his father’s last manuscript. Megan Doll reviews the latest from Siri Hustvedt, and John Rodwan confronts possible imperfections in one of his literary heroes. Redoubtable regulars Chad Reynolds, Karen Vanuska, and Thom Daly all turn in solid, delightful pieces, and Carolyn Grantham reviews a book purporting to be a collection of great blogs (our name doesn’t come up, strangely). And of course there are the two main attractions: Sam Sacks doing a classic review/retrospective of the great Peter Matthiessen, and, after an absence from the Table of Contents, poetry editor John Cotter returning with a smart and deft review of the latest collection from August Kleizahler. And we’re there as well, nattering on about one damn thing or another (including the ongoing ‘Year with the Tudors,’ which this month features videos, for those of you who like bright moving pictures!).

It’s a veritable feast, so set aside an idle hour and dig in!