Posts from February 2009

February 21st, 2009

Poetry Class!

From the 9 & 16 February New Yorker:

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.
What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?
The boy playing his intricate horn in Mahler’s Fifth,
in the gaps between playing,
turns it and turns it, dismantles a section,
shakes from it the condensation
of human passage. He is perhaps twenty.
Later he takes his four bows, his face deepening red,
while a girl holds a viola’s spruce wood and maple
in one half-opened hand and looks at him hard.
Let others clap.
These two, their ears still ringing, hear nothing.
Not the shouts of bravo, bravo,
not the timpanic clamor inside their bodies.
As the plum’s blossoms do not hear the bee
nor taste themselves turned into storable honey
by that sumptuous disturbance.

“French Horn” by Jane Hirshfield

February 15th, 2009

Outwitting Squirrels!


Our book today is Bill Adler’s immortal backyard nature classic Outwitting Squirrels, which can be considered the tactical and strategic equal of such seminal military manuals as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Clausewitz’s On War … except that in Adler’s tense, vigilant world, there’s always the added danger that his readers might eventually come to think of their adversaries as just too cute, which, needless to say, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz never had to worry about (although we’ve seen it here at Stevereads).

Adler’s great theme is that a man’s backyard bird feeder is his castle, and his Moby-Dick weighs a pound. There is a low-boil mania simmering throughout this great book (potential readers who’ve steered clear of it because they think it’s a topical how-to manual are robbing themselves of enormous pleasure – this is a book you’ll read over and over with increasing pleasure, even if you’ve never owned a bird feeder or fed a squirrel), a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and the little guys who want to steal the birdseed the forces of light just spent good money on. Life’s conflicts don’t get more elemental than that.

One of the most satisfying pleasures of Outwitting Squirrels is the schadenfreude of watching his endless war drive Adler, shall we say, a little nuts:

It was time for heavy artillery. I bought a squirt gun and blasted the squirrel every time he came near the feeder. Naturally, this meant that I didn’t get much work accomplished, but so what? War requires sacrifice.

And although the book rates a wide variety of commercial bird-feeders on the market in 1996 when the updated version (“Revised and Even Craftier”) came out, assessing each for its ability not to feed birds but to repel squirrels, anybody who’s ever watched Saturday morning cartoons will be able to predict the winner in most of these encounters:

So there we were: a standoff. Yes, I know, it wasn’t exactly a standoff. Actually, the squirrel had won. The electric current idea seemed more attractive than ever, and I even went as far as visiting my local Radio Shack to explore the various paraphernalia, capacitors, more bell wire, waterproof batteries – that would make it work. It was tempting, but deep down I knew that even though the squirrel would be only scared, not electrocuted, by such a system, it wasn’t right. Besides, despite my best efforts, I might accidentally zap a cardinal.

I was angry! Frustrated! Not since college, when one of my hallmates stole my towell and room keys while I was in the shower, had I been outwitted by a creature with a brain the size of a walnut.

According to the cover copy of Outwitting Squirrels, the League of Squirrel Voters declares Bill Adler “our Public Enemy Number One,” and certainly the feeling is mutual, since the book sports chapters with titles like “Advanced Antisquirrel Stratagems,” “The Unbearable Persistence of Suirrel Appetites,” “Know the Enemy,” and, tragically, “What to Do if You Think Squirrels Are Cute.” And the prose inside those chapters can be pretty heated stuff, as you’d expect from a man who knows his enemy so well:

Squirrels have only one thing to do all day long: eat. Practically every activity they’re involved in concerns food. Their physical makeup allows them to be perpetual eating machines. A mere 2 percent of a squirrel’s energy goes into making babies. Just about all of the remaining 98 percent focuses on food. Your food. Squirrels are land sharks, living eating machines.

If Adler is aware of how accurate that line “practically every activity they’re involved in concerns food” applies to a certain other species, he keeps it to himself. And in the meantime, the war goes on.

February 8th, 2009

The Gentle People!


Our book today is The Gentle People by Era Zistel, her remarkable and utterly memorable slim 1961 book about her longstanding habit of taking wild and semi-wild animals into her home. She forced Eric, the love of her life, to put up with this habit (although as we’ll see, he didn’t really need to be forced), and she reserved nothing but starchy contempt for the disapproval of others, as she makes clear in the book’s wonderful opening salvo:

On occasion a woman will say to me, in some short interval between denying, admonishing, threatening, screaming, yanking, punishing, and wiping the runny noses of her contribution to the human explosion, “Ah, but no children,” then shake her head commiseratively or nod knowingly, thus implying, or even audibly suggesting, that this sad lack must be the reason for my otherwise unaccountable love for animals. She couldn’t be more in error; the way I have invested the second best life given me has not been second choice. Clicking her tongue, this same dogmatist might add, “But what a shame to waste all that money,” as if, having squandered my life, I ought to at least refrain from doing the same with my meager funds.

Zistel is such an immediately captivating narrator precisely for the reason so abundantly clear in that trumpet-blast: she has no illusions about anything. This clarity of vision might at first seem cold, but this is precisely opposite: there’s passion aplenty here – there’s just no bathos. Take her description of meeting Eric:

I was racketing around in Harlem, having a wonderful time and hating life, when I met Eric. At first I didn’t like him; then I liked him a little; then I was in love, for the first time and, as it turned out, the last.

The precision of that ‘as it turned out’ is a little masterwork of anti-hysteria, and the whole of The Gentle People is like that; what could have been an unending series of Thomas Kinkade vignettes is saved and utterly ennobled by the rock-ribbed Midwestern pragmatism of the author. It’s not that she doesn’t feel the raw emotions of reaching out to various wild animals and linking as much of her life to theirs as they’ll allow – it’s that she refuses to serve the experiences raw, as 100 percent all such memoir-writers do today. Instead, she refines her experiences to present them to us for maximum effect. This isn’t as haughty or manipulative as it sounds (well, OK, I admit: Zistel can be pretty haughty – but it’s so damn winning that you don’t mind! Picture a nature book written by Katharine Hepburn’s character in …. well, in any Katharine Hepburn movie), mainly because Zistel doesn’t exempt herself from that same unblinking pragmatic estimating eye:

In middle youth one becomes most acutely aware of the passage of time, the need to hurry toward something other that routine old age. Where was I, I asked myself, and why? I didn’t know. For years I didn’t know, until I faced up to inflexible reality: there is no greatness in me, none at all. I am small and can do only small things. I hold in my hands an insignificant, desperate, terrified sickness, give what relief is in my power, either renewed being or non-being, and no longer question my purpose. Tomorrow’s death can be met with equanimity because today I have been not entirely useless.

That purpose took her and Eric to a house in the country, where Zistel proceeded to invite an every-increasing number and variety of “gentle people” into her life. The book is a fascinating, fast-paced parade of cats, pigs, rabbits, birds, deer, squirrels, possums, goats, chipmunks, and – in the book’s most memorable chapter – a pair of orphaned raccoons named Hansel and Gretel. Naturally there’s also a dog, Muff, whose final days and death are rendered as beautifully as any such scene with which I’m familiar:

Sitting with her on the steps in the warm sunlight, her body leaning against mine, my hand on her tousled head, I saw the way her hair was graying and contemplated, dreaded, life without her. A milky film came into her eyes, those mirrors of my moods that were sympathetically reproachful when I sorrowed and danced with joy when I laughed; gradually the film thickened, until only white showed where there had been depth to read her thoughts. Then it was time for more lessons.

Up, Muff. Down, Muff. She acquired a vocabulary of nearly a hundred words, more than she needed to find her way through the dark. Left, Muff. Right, Muff. There is a kitty, don’t bump into her. Here is a dog. Good dog, one of your friends. Say hello. Watch out! Stand still. Come, I’ll lead you around the tree …

She obeyed with precision, as always, and at my command would stop with one paw already lifted for the next step. She was much cleverer than I. I had only four words to learn, and could not: Goodbye, Muff, sleep well.

She lay at my feet, breathing slowly and more slowly, and then she was not breathing anymore. That was how she left us.

That ‘us’ is a consistent, subtle refrain in The Gentle People – gradually, in deceptively informative minimal brush strokes, we get a clear glimpse of this complicated, giving man who shared Zistel’s odd passion until he died:

When the house was packed with the dog and all the cats, the hutches with rabbits, the barn with goats, Eric looked from our bank balance to a sheaf of bills and said, “No more animals, now. There’s a limit.” Even when Bert told us about the raccoons, Eric said, “No more animals. However,” he added, “I don’t suppose it would do any harm to go look at them.” And Bert grinned knowingly.

Those raccoons turn out to be Hansel and Gretel, and their portrait is endlessly charming and even instructive. It’s a constant reassurance with Zistel: she might be a loving observer, but you know beyond question she’s also an accurate one – if she says one of ‘her’ animals did something, you can take it as fact that things happened as described. It’s because of this that Hansel and Gretel come across as genuine characters in the book, as in the passage describing Gretel at play:

The rest of the day she napped, or played quietly with toys I had given her, an assortment of buttons, spools, bits of metal, and, most prized of all, a long hollow bone handed down from Muff. Her favorite game was to but a button in one end of the bone and retrieve it from the other. If an overlarge button got stuck in the middle she was delighted: here was a problem to work on. Upending the bone, she would shake it, and if neither this strategy nor the efforts of her nimble fingers dislodged the button, she would blow through the bone, to her great glee making a hooting noise that sounded something like a foghorn.

Happy little observations like that one are scattered all throughout The Gentle People, even though its primary mood is melancholy – after all, Zistel’s guests most often choose to go back out into the wilderness, which is outside the reach of her various mercies. She knows this as well as anybody, knows it with the calibration of someone who must will herself to hope for anything more. The book’s sublime closing is a pragmatist’s grudging hymn to hope, with a single ‘should’ placed as precisely, as impeccably, as a chess piece:

Once I asked a wise person about survival and received the reply, “All those who are loved live on.” All. I like that. Somewhere are they waiting, Abbie, Muff, Gretel, Bobs, the squirrel that perched on my shoulder, the mouse that beat like a heart against the palm of my hand? All of them, and among them, Eric, surrounded by them, shaking his head reproachfully, but grinning to give the lie to disapproval?

Yes, I should like that. Meanwhile there are others, always others, coming to the upturned hand.

Zistel might have disagreed, but that sounds like greatness to me.

February 7th, 2009

The Americans!


Our book today is the mammoth The Americans, written by the great American historian Daniel Boorstin in three volumes over the course of years, from 1958 to 1973, and that ‘great’ doesn’t come easy: Boorstin could be intolerably smug, and he was as often wrong as right about, well, virtually everything he ever thought or spoke about. And it’s hard to skirt the specters of hypocrisy when talking about him, since he railed his whole life against the American drift of shallow reductivism, but he himself was one of the best popularizers of the 20th century. He worked blazingly fast – reading, writing, drawing connections, almost instinctively coming up with the perfect way into any subject, no matter how abstruse, the perfect path not for himself but for others to follow. He was a born teacher, and in more than forty years as a public intellectual, he scarcely ever wrote a boring line.

He had his saws, and when he got to sawing, he didn’t always pay close attention to the quality of the wood under his blade. He virtually single-handedly invented the vocabulary with which to describe – and condemn – what we now know as celebrity culture, but he was sometimes (especially in later life) overly casual about equating those who’ve stepped into celebrity with those who’ve devoted their lives to seeking it. I guarantee he’d have misunderstood President Obama for a solid seven or eight months before he stopped talking and started paying attention. Naturally, there was this same tendency when it came to President Kennedy, whom Boorstin, tottering quickly across Cambridge Common one beautiful autumn afternoon, once dismissed as “hair, teeth, and tonic-water” (the feeling was mutual: Kennedy once referred to him, in one grunt, as “smart; weak”).

But he’s gone now, and his works are left behind, and none of them even remotely approach The Americans for offhand genius, eye-opening new perspectives, and utterly memorable insights. Boorstin read everything and remembered a disenheartening amount of it all, and reading The Americans is like sharing a series of evenings with him as the two of you review the entire course of American history, with him frequently wandering off-topic and chasing down every digression he finds fascinating – and like all great teachers, he could convey fascination in a virtually one-to-one ratio. The Americans is a three-volume page-turner.

Volume One is The Colonial Experience, and it excavates the mindframes and collective experiences of a nation that was becoming all kinds of things it couldn’t foresee. Indeed, it was that uncertain future – the way the new country warped, elevated, and sometimes perverted the aims and identities of all those who came here – that he singled out as his theme:

America began as a sobering experience. The colonies were a disproving ground for utopias. In the following chapters we will illustrate how dreams made in Europe – the dreams of the zionist, the perfectionist, the philanthropist, and the transplanter – were dissipated or transformed by the American reality. A new civilization was being born less out of plans and purposes than out of the unsettlement which the New World brought to the ways of the Old.

Boorstin was trained as a lawyer – he always referred to himself as an ‘interloper’ historian, a passionate amateur. But his summaries, even when you didn’t agree with them, could cause that signature intake of breath that always accompanies watching a first-rate analyst at work. Just listen to this, never before said so pithily:

The virtues, like the vices, of any age bear its peculiar flavor. The swashbuckling grandeur of the projects of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake expressed the aspirations and daring of Elizabethan England. The clarity, simplicity, and doggedness of the purposes of William Bradford and John Winthrop were that special combination of grand end and commonplace means which characterized the England of Oliver Cromwell. Similarly the altruism of the founders of the Georgia colony of 1732 was a touchstone of the limited aspiration of the England of that day.

And here he is on the smallpox epidemic that gripped New England in 1721, and the heroic efforts of a few brave men and women who advocated the new process of inoculation to turn it around:

In March 1722, after the worst of the epidemic was over, [Cotton] Mather pointed out to the Secretary of the Royal Society in London that of the nearly 300 inoculated in Boston only five or six had died (and perhaps these had already been naturally infected before their inoculation), while of the more than 5000 who caught the disease naturally, nearly 900 had died. This meant that there was about nine times as much chance of death if one caught the smallpox in the ordinary course of infection as compared with the danger from inoculation. The fact that about half the population of Boston had contracted smallpox during the epidemic showed that from the point of view of the community as a whole the risk of inoculation was very much worth taking.

1965’s volume of The Americans was The National Experience, charting the new nation as it grew and continued to morph into one identity after another. Boorstin points out that this morphing happened very fast and veined out along rapidly expanding railway lines, which were built – literally and figuratively – on a radically different philosophy than that which had governed the Old World:

By building rapidly and flimsily, Americans refused hostages to the future. They affirmed their faith that, in America, everything would change – including, of course, the techniques of railroad building. For them, railroads were by no means “a final improvement in the means of locomotion.” The British confidence in the future, and in its resemblance to the present, made it hard for Britishers even to imagine obsolescence. But belief in obsolescence became an article of American faith.

And naturally, for a man who could manage to find a smile in even the worst of times, Boorstin’s books are shot through with humor – he’s always willing to linger a bit on a funny story, and the course of American history gives him plenty to choose from. Like, for instance, the sorry saga of the massive George Washington statue commissioned from Horatio Greenough in 1832. Greenough was, like all sculptors since Pygmalion, a thorough-going scoundrel, and in addition to bilking the government whenever he could, he intentionally produced something he knew would cause his commissioners to hit the roof. In this case, it was a statue of a seated Washington that had two problems: first, it was so big and so massive it cracked the floor of the Capitol rotunda when it was placed their … and second, Greenough’s Washington was practically goddam naked, sitting there in a vaguely Roman half-toga with his entire torso bare. You can just hear Boorstin chuckling over the sanctimonious outcry this display produced, like the New Yorker who wrote, “Washington was too prudent, and careful of his health, to expose himself thus in a climate so uncertain as ours,” and he duly reports Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous cry, “Did anybody ever see Washington nude? It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

The third volume of The Americans, The Democratic Experience, came out in 1973 and won Boorstin the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s the first volume in the book that allows its author to talk directly about the multi-faceted affects modern technology has on society. Boorstin was fascinated by this, which is a little saddening to those who knew him: this was one Librarian of Congress whose thoughts on the Internet (and especially collective experiments like Wikipedia) we would very much like to have known)(history is replete with such bad timing; Erasmus, more than any human being who ever lived, would have loved email). He was sensitive to the nuances of technology in ways few writers were at the time:

By the time the fifty-millionth telephone was ceremoniously placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk, it was unusual for any American family to be out of reach of the telephone. The business of government was conducted by phone. The United States possessed more than half the telephones in the world, and by 1972 nearly a half-billion telephone conversations were being carried on in the United States each day. Still, the telephone was only a convenience, permitting Americans to do more casually and with less effort what they had already been doing before. People found it easier to get their message to other individuals whom they wanted to reach.

Television was a revolution, or more precisely, a cataclysm. For nobody “wanted” television, and it would create its own market as it transformed everyday life. It extended simultaneous experience, created anonymous audiences even vaster and more universal than those of radio …

The Americans goes on endlessly like this, page after page of captivating reading, the very best that so-called ‘popular’ history can be. It’s an inquiry in the finest sense of the word, a long, rambling, extremely intelligent meditation on the nature of the American nation, and it should be required reading for everybody from the President on down. A nice sturdy Library of America volume wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

February 6th, 2009

Comics! Legion of Three Worlds!


Even before the first issue of Legion of Three Worlds came out, five years ago, I knew it was essentially unbloggable for a non-fan audience. It’s a six-part mini-series written by fanboy favorite Geoff Johns and drawn by living legend George Perez, and it brings together many different incarnations of extremely long-time fan favorite superteam, the Legion of Super-Heroes; it travels across space and time, it’s got a demented villain (an alternate version of Superboy, here as elsewhere portrayed as having about ten times the power such an alternate version would have, with no explanation given), it’s got tons and tons of inside details decipherable only to those few basement-dwelling virginal nerdwoks who’ve been slavishly following every detail of Legion lore for the last twenty years, and it’s all building toward some kind of mystic-cosmic-speed forcic mega-climax of a type DC Comics really should avoid for the next couple of decades.

In other words, despite Johns’ admittedly considerable talents as a comics writer, and despite boasting some of Perez’s most energetic artwork in weeks, Legion of Three Worlds is comprehensible to about three people on Earth – and Johns and Perez aren’t two of them. I don’t know who those three people are, but I’m in no hurry to meet them.

This demented Superboy – called Superboy Prime – is an all-purpose psycho who runs rampant in the 31st century, the time period of the Legion of Super-Heroes. He assembles almost all of the Legion’s worst super-foes, and they proceed to wreak general havoc. Superman travels from the 21st century to help, and he brings along two entire Legions from two separate alternate realities. There follows an awful lot of hyper-detailed fight panels like this one:


A visual delight to fans, yes, but not much of it makes any sense. And there’s a good reason for that: DC Comics has allowed the continuity of the Legion to degenerate into a state nothing short of madness. In other titles, a total ground-up overhaul is a momentous occasion, something writers and editors ponder long and hard, something that’s executed with at least some degree of foresight and dedication, something that takes root and developes to at least some of its potential.

Not so the Legion. Since writer/artist Keith Giffen rebooted the title thirty years ago – in an inspired 30-issue run that ranks as one of the greatest in the Legion’s long history (and which is still, to DC’s shame, uncollected into any format) – the Legion has been unmade and remade half a dozen times, and each time virtually all of its forty-odd characters underwent major changes in costume, powers, origin, etc. There was a clone Legion; there was an adult Legion; there was a dystopian Legion; there was a youth-movement Legion … and none of these versions was allowed either to live to its full potential or to be quietly swept under the rug. Instead, each of them was violently and dramatically un-created in some ever-vaguer cosmic calamity. Zero Hour. Four different Crises. Various Invasions. I think Legion even got retooled during the last Mutant Massacre.


To say the least, this isn’t how a company should treat one of its oldest, best intellectual properties, much less one with the, er, devoted fan-following of the Legion. This back-to-the-drawing-board crap should have been halted a long time ago, and DC – preferrably after listening to lots and lots of the aforementioned fans – should have picked one version of the Legion and stuck with it. They should still do that.


And according to my young friend Elmo, they might yet. Apparently, Johns has condescended to give the Legion yet another revamp – and given his popularity with fans, it’s bound to be hyped all over the comics world. Which means it might have a chance of actually sticking around for a year or two. In which case, I have my own humble suggestion as to what that revamp should be. See how this concept grabs you:

It’s Earth of the 31st century. Mankind has tamed fantastic technology and spread to worlds throughout the galaxy, but there is still evil everywhere, and it’s been a thousand years since the last Age of Heroes (the time of the legendary Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). On a routine business trip, billionaire industrialist (and history buff) R. J. Brande is the victim of an attempted kidnapping. He’s saved by three teenagers – Garth Ranzz of Winath (who possesses the ability to throw around electrical discharges), Rokk Krinn of Braal (who possesses the magnetic ability to control metal), and Irma Ardeen of Titan (who’s a powerful telepath) – who just happen to be in the vicinity. Their actions give him a great idea: why not band them together as the nucleus of a super-team, to jump-start a whole new Age of Heroes? And so the Legion of Super-Heroes is born, quickly expanding as more and more super-powered young people flock to its banner. Cut to their various adventures in the 31st century. Perhaps mix in a time-travelling Superman or Superboy. Perhaps kill off a member every four or five years, in some big storyline. Turn no member into a giant friggin snake. Let the whole thing run for … oh, let’s say forty years.

I’d buy it. Hell, I already have, for about forty years.

I’m hoping I’ll get the chance again, and it’s really quite annoying that whether or not I have the opportunity will entirely rely on one overworked (and undercommitted) hot-ticket writer and what he decides to do or not do. It should rely on DC Comics knowing enough not to fix something that isn’t broken.


And in the meantime, there’s the world-class confusion-bomb that is the finale of Legion of Three Worlds to look forward to/dread. I’ll keep you posted when it comes out, in about two years.

February 5th, 2009

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!


Our book today is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte’s taut little 1848 masterpiece, and it completes yet another organic trilogy of a type I’ve noticed crops up on Stevereads with fair regularity. This one was a Bronte-trilogy, centering on that weird, unprecedentedly brilliant family of siblings living out in the middle of nowhere, competently but rustically educated and yet producing a stunning complement of toweringly great works of English prose.

The Brontes have always held a fascination for me, and not only because their novels are uniformly marked with a moor-and-storm-touched bleakness I very much like in novels (the Brontes, a good Irish family, came by this good Irish trait honestly) – no, they also fascinate because the specter of ‘what if’ hovers around them more closely than it does almost any other figures in Western literature. And the ‘what if’ here is wrenchingly simple: what if they’d all lived? What if premature death hadn’t killed every single one of them? What works unguessed by all of us might we now have, shattering our comforts far more effectively even than the half-dozen books that are all we’ll ever have from this family?

We’ll never know the answer to that, but it could be worse: the sisters could have taken to drink and drugs like their brother, in which case fragments are all we’d have. As it is, we have Villette, Wuthering Heights, Shirley, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, The Professor … and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

We’ve already touched on the events that gave rise to this book – the five-year stint Anne did as governess for the Robinson family at Thorp Green, including the much shorter time poor tortured Branwell spent there as tutor to the Robinson boy. Anne’s experiences at Thorp Green informed both her novels, although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a more ragged, more artificially staged, and altogether more powerful work than Agnes Grey. Both are titanically scathing of polite society and the various savageries lurking beneath its veneer, but Tenant is by far the more savage work in itself. Here is the story of earnest, moralizing Helen, who is fatally infatuated with the licentious rake Mr. Huntington (and equally infatuated, one sees early on, with the possibility of reforming him), even though all their earliest meetings give the reader a decidedly ominous feeling about him. He’s brutal, opportunistic, and psychologically paring even before he’s physically so. In one dinner party scene, Helen is showing guests some of her drawings when Mr. Huntington gives her an unpleasant shock:

So far, so good; – but hearing him pronounce sotto voce, but with peculiar emphasis concerning one of the pieces, ‘THIS is better than all!’ – I looked up, curious to see which it was, and, to my horror, beheld him gazing complacently at the back of the picture – it was his own face that I had sketched there and forgotten to rub out! To make matters worse, in the agony of the moment, I attempted to snatch it from his hand; – but he prevented me, and exclaiming ‘No, by George, I’ll keep it!’ placed it against his waistcoat, and buttoned his coat upon it with a delighted chuckle.

Helen eventually marries Huntington, and they descend by quick passages to all-out domestic warfare … a cause into which Huntington enlists their child as soon as the boy is old enough to walk and talk on his own. It’s a squalid, darkly horrible portrait of a relationship that’s in every way poisonous, yet despite how awful it is to read about, the reading itself is so compelling that you can’t stop. The most amazing thing about it all is that Anne never flinches, she never tenders things up or draws curtains over anything; “she must be honest,” Charlotte once wrote about her, and it’s nowhere more true than in this book.

But Anne was also young, and so it’s no surprise that a much better love is always waiting in the wings – in the form of doe-eyed young simp Gilbert Markham, who’s in love with Helen through everything. At one point late in the novel, they have a dialogue I find more mind-bendingly weird and touching than almost any I know from the literature of the period; it’s about the permanence of love in the face of its greatest obstacle – eternal bliss! Here’s a representative snippet:

‘And must we never meet again?’ I murmured in the anguish of my soul.

‘We shall meet in Heaven. Let us think of that,’ said she in a tone of desperate calmness; but her eyes glittered wildly, and her face was deadly pale.

‘But not as we are now,’ I could not help replying. ‘It gives me little consolation to think I shall next behold you as a disembodied spirit, or an altered being, with a frame perfect and glorious, but not like this! – and a heart, perhaps, entirely estranged from me.’

‘No, Gilbert, there is perfect love in Heaven!’

So perfect, I suppose, that it soars above distinctions, and you will have no closer sympathy with me than with any one of the ten thousand angels and the innumerable multitude of happy spirits round us.’

‘Whatever I am, you will be the same, and therefore, cannot possibly regret it; and whatever that change may be, we know it must be for the better.’

‘But if I am to be so changed that I shall cease to adore you with my whole heart and soul, and love you beyond every other creature, I shall not be myself; and, though, if ever I win Heaven at all, I must, I know, be infinitely better and happier than I am now, my earthly nature cannot rejoice in the anticipation of such beatitude, from which itself and its chief joy must be excluded.’

‘Is your love all earthly then?’

‘No, but I am supposing we shall have no more intimate communion with each other, than with the rest.’

‘If so, it will be because we love them more and not each other less. Increase of love brings increase of happiness, when it is mutual, and pure as that will be.’

‘But can you, Helen, contemplate with delight that prospect of losing me in a sea of glory?’

If Western literature provides a more bitterly accurate picture of the tragic mental and emotional distortions organized religion (to say nothing of fantasies about an eternal afterlife) can produce in the human brain, I can’t readily recall it. And all of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is like this: weirdly intelligent, oddly refracted, a rudely staring raw chunk of observational genius, served up by a young woman not yet thirty. What such a young woman might have written at 50, what her brother might have written, what any of them might have written – the literature’s loss of that – quiets the imagination for a time.

February 4th, 2009

Abinger Harvest!


Our book today is E. M. Forster’s great essay collection Abinger Harvest, first published in 1936. My Penguin paperback is stamped “Bradford, Faculty of Architecture, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria” but is still in good shape for all that, and certainly the wear-and-tear it received in its travels from Africa has been equalled over the years by the handling I’ve given it myself – because this is a book to read and re-read, and I have done so.

Books like Abinger Harvest serve as salient reminders that occasional prose written on deadline and often for money can still constitute art. Forster wrote almost all of the pieces in this collection on spec of some kind – to satisfy an importuning editor friend, to produce a quick check, even to assuage the minor guilt of having a stack of publisher copies of books sitting on the desk unreviewed. And yet every word in this book is worth reading, which proves the depth of Forster’s soil, rather than the strength of his fertilizer.

The book is split up into discrete sections – books, current events, the past in general, the East in particular – and none of the separate essays comprising those sections is very long … browsing here is as easy as falling out of a tree, and happy, aimless wandering to and fro is positively encouraged. You can skip from ruminations on Babur to chess to a frolicsome celebration of the author’s own centenary (“There can be no doubt that his contemporaries did not recognize the greatness of Forster. Immersed in their own little affairs, they either ignored him, or forgot him, or confused him, or, strangest of all, discussed him as if he were their equal. We may smile at their blindness, but for him it can have been no laughing matter, he must have had much to bear, and indeed he could scarcely have endured to put forth masterpiece after masterpiece had he not felt assured of the verdict of posterity …”). There is a great encomium on his friend T. E. Lawrence that ends with a humble enough hope:

Now that he is gone away, he has to come into the open, which he dreaded, he has to be analysed, estimated, claimed. A legend will probably flourish, and, twisted from his true bearings even further than Nelson, Lawrence of Arabia may turn into a tattoo master’s asset, the boy scout’s hero and the girl guide’s dream. Committees have already been formed by his more influential friends, directing public enthusiasm about him into suitable channels. They will protect him from the sharks, and this is a good thing, and let us hope that they will save him from the governesses as well.

There is his self-consciously breathless outburst on Jane Austen:

I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and the airs of personal immunity – how ill they set on the face of, say, a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favourite author! I read and re-read, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her in the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers.

And there is a magisterial dismissal of Marco Polo that’s hard to refute:

Yet it is not a first-rate book, for the reason that its author is interested in novelties, to the exclusion of human beings. Herodotus was interested in both, and he is a great traveller in consequence. Marco Polo is only a little traveller. He could bring back thrilling statistics, he could also discourse quaintly about oddities … but he could not differentiate between men and make them come alive, and the East that he evoked is only a land of strange customs. He could manage men and conciliate them and outwit them, but they never fascinated him.

And there is the famous essay on young Captain Edward Gibbon in 1761, marching across Kent in formation:

The garden where I am writing slopes down to a field, the field to a road, and along that road exactly a hundred and seventy years ago passed a young officer with a rather large head. If he had turned the head to the right, he would have seen not me, not the garden, but he would have seen the elms that still border the garden – they were already recognizable trees. And on his left, outrunning him as it had outlived him, ran a little stream called the Tillingbourne. The gorse and the may were just over when he passed, the dog-roses coming out, the bracken rising, but although he was unusually observant he has left no record of these events. ‘June was absolutely lost’ is his only comment; June, which he might have spent reading Stabo, he was condemned to spend marching across Kent, Surrey, and Hants.

And so on – the quoting could go on for the whole of the book. “A miscellany can have no value as an offering,” Forster claims in his introductory note, but he’s wrong: this has been one of my favorite extended exercises in literary journalism for a long, long time, and it still repays re-reading. Forster writes, “The individual who has been rendered sensitive by education will not be deserted by it in his hour of need.” I’d like to think he’s right about that, but even if he’s wrong, that individual will never be deserted by him. His polite little roster of novels give perpetual joy, and for its flash and lightly-worn learning, Abinger Harvest stands as the equal of any of them in also imparting joy – and it’s a better, more flexible joy, constantly widening as you read not only what he’s written but what he’s written about. This is a book to grow with through your whole reading life; find yourself a copy, if you haven’t already made its acquaintance.

February 3rd, 2009

Tales of Angria!


A loyal Stevereads reader (who never comments – the Silent Majority, as it were) has pointed out, in response to my recent posting on Branwell Bronte, that something very close to a ‘Works’ of that talented, tormented young man has indeed been brought into print in an authoritative, attractive, and affordable version – naturally, by Penguin Classics. It’s called Tales of Angria, and it contains several of the longer, more polished dark social comedies set in the titular imaginary land. I found the book at my local Barnes & Noble, and as you can see, it was filed under Charlotte Bronte, even though Branwell was the presiding genius and main creative force behind the Angria tales, as all three of his sisters – even including the headstrong and slightly imperious Charlotte – were the first to admit when they were alive.

So it’s a wonderful thing that Penguin Classics has produced this volume, but in subsequent reprintings, they should have the courage to ignore all the various academic quibbles – and the pecuniary allure of associative selling – and put ‘Branwell Bronte’ on the cover instead of ‘Charlotte Bronte.’

Not many things ever brought that family much happiness, but if they could come forward in time just long enough to see such a volume, they would cast off their genetic melancholy and clap their hands for joy. The sisters would, if anything, be happier to see it than Branwell would. Let’s hope Penguin makes the change; and in the meantime, go to their website and order yourself a copy of this weird, enjoyable, and slightly heartbreaking glimpse of what might have been.

February 1st, 2009

February 2009 in Open Letters!

It’s a bright new morning on the first of February, and that means a new issue of Open Letters! As usual, we have a vital and varied feast prepared – subjects drawn from all the corners of creation, united only in the sterling quality of their prose. We have essays on how Melville and Liebling digress, how the Soviets bungled their invasion of Afghanistan, how 1930s London was overrun by Bright Young People, how various New Yorkers cope with living in the food capital of the world, how modern pundits can blame Alexander Hamilton for everything that bothers them, and how a Norwegian crime writer’s mysteries can captivate the rest of the world. We have a tribute to Harold Pinter. We have Political Editor Greg Waldmann visiting his wrath upon the first history of the Obama presidential campaign. We have Fiction Editor Sam Sacks talking about Jayne Anne Phillips’ new novel. We have me, nattering on about one thing or another (and contiuing my “Year with the Romans”). And to round things off, we have a poem by Paul Violi and a photo by frequent Stevereads commentator Jeff Eaton.

So calm down, control your elation, and click on over for the feast that is February 2009 in Open Letters!