Posts from March 2009

March 30th, 2009

Owl Moon!


Our book today is the 1987 children’s classic Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr. It’s the story – told in Schoenherr’s gorgeous watercolors and Yolen’s spare, beautiful prose-poetry – of a father and child who go out “owling” late, late one cold winter night. Once the lonely sound of a distant train whistle (and the dog-calls that respond to it) have stopped, everything is “quiet as a dream,” and the two make their way to the forest, with the father stopping every so often to make owl-calls into the black.

Finally they come to a space:

Then we came to a clearing
in the dark woods.
The moon was high above us.
It seemed to fit
exactly
over the center of the clearing
and the snow below it
was whiter than the milk
in a cereal bowl.

Here the father calls again, and this time his call is answered from deep in the woods. A large shadow detaches itself from the forest and glides closer:

Pa turned on
his big flashlight
and caught the owl
just as it was landing
on a branch.

“For one minute,” the child breathlessly recalls, “three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes, we stared at one another.”

Then the owl pumps its wings and flies silently away, and the father and child are left alone. They turn, hand-in-hand, and start to make their way back to the warmth of home with its one light on in the window. “When you go owling,” we’re told,

you don’t need words
or warm
or anything but hope.
That’s what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining
Owl Moon.

Naturally, Owl Moon is highly recommended for owl-fans of any age.

March 28th, 2009

The Life of the Pond!


Our book today is The Life of the Pond by a wise and able man named William Amos about that single most charming of all natural phenomena: the pond.

Some of that charm surely derives from the fact that ponds are viable little worlds unto themselves, featuring all the topographical variation of full biospheres, only compressed into a space you can easily walk around. A typical pond features land-life, shore-life, and water-life, and with a good pair of waders or a light flat-bottomed boat, you can tour in an hour different zones that exist to some extent independently of each other.


The most familiar of these areas for the casual pond-observer is the littoral zone, the shore of any pond. The appearance of this zone can vary enormously from pond to pond, depending on how rich the water is in life. Warmer, shallower ponds are usually eutrophic, meaning they’re rich in oxygen, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen compounds – so their littoral zones are choked with plants, and their water is murky with plankton. Colder and deeper ponds tend to be oligotrophic, with clear water and little or no littoral growth.

The big zone that comprises the bulk of the rest of any pond is the limnetic, which is basically the open water and deep-bottom away from shore. Here your larger predators like snapping turtles and pickerel or bullhead will patrol, and this is where eagles and hawks will do their fishing if they’re so inclined.


Both the littoral and the limnetic zones – as well as the other pond-areas, like the water’s surface and the muck at the bottom – are entirely ruled by the seasons, which affect a pond more strongly than they do less self-contained ecosystems. And all of these zones have one thing in common that gives ponds their unique appeal: they change visibly over time.


As Amos points out, the pond is one of the only ecosystems whose entire life-cycle can be watched by a reasonably long-lived human being. Ponds are amazingly fertile (their equivalents almost certainly spawned the first life on Earth) – they start attracting organisms almost immediately upon formation (even large rain puddles sometimes do this). Within a few years, all their zones are fully inhabited. Within a decade or two, the extension of the littoral vegetation and the silting of the bottom begin to shrink the limnetic zone. A decade or so after that, such an overgrown pond can be entirely silted up – you can walk over what you once needed a boat to cross. And a decade after that, you can watch this rich-soiled meadow begin to host young trees.


Which isn’t to say all ponds are so temporary – it really depends on the specific nature of your pond. And that ‘your pond’ is the key to another part of the pond’s charm: how personal they are. You don’t just observe a pond – you adopt one. People who see no intrinsic interest in ponds (and you know who you are) are always people who have no direct daily access to one – the rest of us are hooked over and over again, because once you first adopt a pond, you keep doing it in every new place you live. As Amos observes:

When you begin to study ponds, it is best to choose one small body of water and learn all you can about it. Such a concentrated approach is far better than skipping from pond to pond, stopping to look only at what is obvious, and never staying long enough to understand the complex community each one harbors.

And these communities are deceptively vast! Amos again, on a typical specimen:

The pond itself is less than an acre in extent and is no more than five feet deep in the center, yet it harbors a concentration of life far exceeding that of any lake and rivaling that of a tropical coral reef. A few miles away there is another pond about the same size; yet the plants and animals that it contains are different from those in this pond. No two ponds are exactly the same.

There are roughly two million ponds in the continental United States alone, comprising some 2.5 million acres of water – that’s a lot of ponds, and yet the majority of the people I know have either never had the opportunity or never taken the time to get to know a pond well. In order to do that, you have to experience the pond the way it should be experienced: leisurely, minutely, daily, and in all seasons – so of course pond-watching is an excellent adjunct to dog-walking. I’ve known many ponds, in the company of many, many beagles (or, lately, in the company of a) a pointer who wants to kill-and-transport every water bird she sees, and b) a basset hound who wants to make herself sexually available to every water bird she sees)(sigh).

My first pond is long since gone, but that’s the nature of most ponds, especially eutrophic ones where the profusion of growing thing speeds along the change. My pond now is another kettle of fish altogether – literally! It’s the mighty Jamaica Pond, a kettle pond left behind by receding glaciers. Jamaica Pond is very much of the oligotrophic persuasion: its waters are clear and cool – and deep, down to 50 feet, the deepest pond-water in Massachusetts – and they’re artificially stocked with fish every season (not to mention having two large dog-hating swans trucked in every spring).


But Jamaica Pond is the big show – I have a backup pond, as it were, that I visit virtually every day. It’s a tiny fraction of Jamaica Pond’s size (much more suitable for increasingly-reluctant basset-waddling), and it’s committedly eutrophic, teeming with littoral life. And it’s intensely, gloriously seasonal – it often freezes solid in winter, and summer droughts can leave it looking a little dry. But as Spring slowly approaches, it begins to tremble. The ground is softening, and the organisms who’ve been sleeping in the earth since last autumn are beginning to stir. Raccoons are regular visitors to this little postage stamp, as is some kind of water-rat or vole (as is the case with all the best visitors, I never actually see them), and soon there will be a riot of birds.

A pond of such minuscule size and lush growth is doomed to a short life – but it’s a beautiful life, and I’m glad I’m there to see it. I strongly encourage everybody to find a pond of their own (even if other people know about it, you’ll see it differently – it’ll still be yours) and do likewise. You’ll be amazed how quickly – and how wonderfully – it can put the rest of your life in perspective.

March 27th, 2009

Conan the Derivative!


I’ve said it before: has any fictional character ever been so poorly served as Conan the Barbarian? His creator, Robert E. Howard, gave him birth in a slapdash way, ping-ponging around a character chronology he kept largely in his head, and then abandoning that chronology when he blew that selfsame head off his body. The first Conan short story was a rewritten version of an earlier tale originally starring another Howard creation, King Kull of Atlantis (the Kull stories are fantastic in their own right, and although they tend to lack the signature vigor of the Conan stories – where Howard’s heart very much resided – they do have something Conan never has: a steady, engaging supporting cast), and after Howard’s suicide, the character passed from hand to creative hand like a church collection plate.

A thousand times as many people have seen the Conan movies and watched the various Conan cartoons as have ever actually read one of Howard’s stories (the forthcoming big-budget Hollywood version will only multiply this), and for decades reading one of Howard’s stories wasn’t always as easy a thing as it sounds. Throughout the 1970s, a stream of Conan books were published (many of them “co-written” or “finished” by the great journeyman sci-fi writer L. Sprague deCamp, whose novel Lest Darkness Fall is well worth your time to find and read), many of the sporting now-iconic Frank Frazetta covers, and all of them making fine, fun reading – but they hardly represented Howard’s character as Howard meant to write him.


That lack was finally supplied in 2003, when Del Rey began publishing its epic, incredible trade paperback editions of the works of Robert E. Howard, including three volumes of the Conan stories (in a wonderful nod to the pulp-fiction origins of the characters, every volume is heavily illustrated) presented in exactly the order Howard first presented them way back in the ’30s.

Here you get the glories (slightly hyperventilating glories, but glories all the same) of some of Howard’s best work, including such stories as “Rogues in the House,” “Black Colossus,” and of course “The Tower of the Elephant.” Here you get that particular mixture of heady description and wry self-awareness that shines in even Howard’s most, um, titillating passages:

Tanada shook back her long black disheveled hair and faced Conan. She was bleeding from a score of scratches on her breasts and thighs, her locks fell in confusion down her back, and she was as naked as the day she was born; but she stared at him without perturbation or uncertainty, and he gave back her stare, frank admiration in his expression of her cool bearing, and the ripeness of her brown limbs.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Conan, a Cimmerian,” he answered.

“What are you doing in Shumballa?”

“I came here to seek my fortune. I was formerly a corsair.”

These volumes do great work, but they fight an uphill battle against all the popular entertainment conceptions of Conan, most especially the atrocious movies that launched the “acting” career of a future American president. The problem is that Howard originally envisioned the Conan stories as shards of a single mosaic, random glimpses of one man’s whole remarkable life – as freebooter, mercenary, corsair, general, husband, father, and king – but movies, cartoons, and comic books have tended to plop their derivative adventures down squarely in Conan’s earliest days as the sword-wielding all-purpose barbarian the general public knows (a welcome exception in the comics world, “Conan the King,” was short-lived and unenthusiastically received by fandom). The aforementioned Hollywood movie will continue this – the current rumored front-runner for the lead is Alan Richtson, an incredibly nice kid with lots of untapped screen charisma but who’ll land the role for one reason: his muscular body (it’s a risk I myself would be willing to run for the chance to get Richtson in the part, since he’s especially good at the sardonic-humor-in-the-midst-of-action that is the quintessential Conan trait).

And what of books, you ask? What of the innumerable Conan spin-off pastiche novels that have come and gone since Howard blew his brains out? Well, as you can imagine, they’ve all stuck to the same formula mentioned above: their Conan is uniformly young, often in his early teens, and reading the books, you get the impression this is done in large part so the respective pastiche writers don’t have to bog themselves down with mastering the detailed timeline that governs Conan’s more adult life (was Belit after Zamora, or before? That kind of thing).


Robert Jordan’s Conan novels are every bit as turgid and boring as his “Wheel of Time” books. The seasoned veteran hack Steve Perry became seasoned in large part through writing Conan books, and his are always reliably entertaining, as in a scene from the less-than-stirringly titled Conan the Formidable (guess Conan the Above Average was taken) where our young barbarian faces a group of would-be robbers on the road:

“Ah” [says the leader of the robbers]. Well, that sword you wave about so dangerously might be worth something. We could sell it.”

“I am not disposed to give it up.”

The man waved the morning star at his band. “There are six of us and but one of you. Give us the sword and whatever valuables you carry and you may leave here unharmed.”

“Pardon me for not trusting you, but I think not.”

“There are still six of us to your one.”

“That can be changed.”

But alas, most of these knock-off novels are ruinously dreadful. The ongoing Conan comic book series is a bright light in this regard, always excellent and well worth your time, but a truly great Conan novel has never been written, not even by the creator of the character himself. This is an odd but consistent failing Conan has in common with a surprising number of other characters from the pulp era – there’s no one stand-out great novel of Doc Savage either, or the Shadow. Tarzan has both Tarzan of the Apes and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, but all three of Robert E. Howard’s great creations, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Conan, live most fully in the short stories he crafted for them. And until the creative bar is raised – until Conan comes to stand in the reading imagination for more than quaffing ale and beheading people – that’s likely to remain the case. Maybe someday a visionary director will come along and make the great, exciting, heartbreaking movie “The Tower of the Elephant” begs to be, and suddenly the character will undergo a renaissance.


But in the meantime, the forthcoming movie has at least one thing going for it: Nicholas Cage won’t be playing Conan.

March 24th, 2009

Geographica: um, Svarlbad!


The latest National Geographic is out, and as usual it’s stuffed full of great articles and fantastic photos. There’s the cover essay on the ruler Hatshepsut, and there’s a grim but fascinating look at the worldwide plague of frog-deaths (and what it means for the rest of the food chain), and there’s a profile of religion in modern-day Russia that managed to go on for about 200 pages without saying a single interesting thing (OK, that last part wasn’t exactly fantastic, but if Homer can occasionally nod, so can the world’s greatest magazine).

The article that grabbed me most this time around was an engaging profile of an exotic land I’d never even heard of: the far-off frozen realm of Svarlbad, where night descends for a crushing unbroken string of months, where polar bears and walrus rule a titanic landscape of tundra and semi-frozen sea. The article is written by Bruce Barcott, with absolutely stunning photography by Paul Nicklen (my favorite shot is of a massive walrus methodically plodding toward the camera underwater), and it portrayed Svarlbad as a pristine land (65 percent of its islands and 75 percent of its local seas are inside national wildlife preserves) of natural wonders, with a sparse human population struggling to find a balance between the demands of the modern world and the need to protect those natural wonders for future generations of Svarlbaders. Most of the article is devoted to the wildlife that fills Svarlbad – foxes, thousands of shorebirds, reindeer, polar bears, walrus, seals, and bowhead and other whales who sport and feed in the food-rich waters around this frozen land. Most of these animals are experiencing growth and health in their protected populations. “A remarkable thing happens when you give animals habitat and peace,” Barcott writes with rather dry wit. “They thrive.”


I was thrilled while reading the article (it’s not National Geographic‘s fault, but still – the world being what it is, they rarely have opportunity to report a picture this rosy), and out of old habit I naturally started yearning to visit this cold, beautiful realm of Svarlbad (I’m very much in favor of anyplace where the sun disappears entirely for months at a time), as once upon a time I visited many such distant lands. And I was puzzled why I’d never even heard of this untroubled little pocket of the planet.

Then I took a closer look at the map provided in the issue and got a distinct Arctic chill of deja vu: Svarlbad is Norway! Apparently, in the years since I was there, the same nefarious forces of multi-culturalism that robbed the world of Burma and Ceylon have now deprived it of Norway as well, replacing it with something that sounds like the title of a Klingon opera. An old friend of mine once told me you could measure how long you’ve been on this planet by the number of countries you’ve visited that no longer exist, and I’m beginning to think she was right.

This National Geographic also has another installment of a feature I hope they continue for the rest of time: it’s a single-page factoid report called “Wildlife,” and it features a quick meditation on some new scientific finding, accompanied by a fantastic old-fashioned colored illustration (like the kind magazines – and books – had to use all the time, back before the advent of easily-reproduced photography). This time around, the article is about how scientists unraveling various avian DNA are discovering some unexpected kinships in the bird world – like between hummingbirds and nightjars, who look quite different to the naked eye. But the real attraction of the feature is the artwork of the mighty Aldo Chiappe, whose work is characterized by thin, graceful linework. I’m hoping that after a few years the magazine collects these pages into a book of their own.

And in the meantime, there’s always next issue to look forward to! Expect a report here when the stork drops it off!

March 21st, 2009

Comic Snobbery in the Penny Press!

Well, despite its grotesque cover (that’s Robert Pattison, star of the hit movie Twilight, and for the occasion of his photo-shoot, he decided to show up a) unshaven, b) unwashed (hair helmet-hard with filth and, I’m guessing, live vermin), and c) very visibly high as a kite), I of course perused the latest GQ. How can I not, when I so often find gems of quality in each issue? This time around is no exception, although the cover interview itself is a standard chunk of bald-faced lying in virtually its every word. There are two things a celebrity interviewer must do in order to stay in the job, apparently: first, you have to create the impression in your piece that you’ve become part of your subject’s world, that you’ve bonded somehow (the most common way to do this is the old ‘there I was writing my piece two days later when the phone rang – it was Famous Person X, just calling to see how I was doing’ … pay attention to the next few full-length celebrity interviews you read: you’ll see it everywhere, including in the Ben Affleck interview in this month’s Esquire), and second, you have to hide your subject’s dirty laundry from view, even if it means airing fake dirty laundry in its place (take this interview, for instance: before the meal the two share, during the meal, in between bites of food during the meal, instantly after the meal, and for every moment until they parted, Pattison was continuously smoking cigarettes – but our writer, Alex Pappademas, never mentions it, because although some smoking might be spinnable as cool … there’s one photo to that effect, accompanying the article … constant smoking might suggest the star is addicted or something, and that might hurt tween box office – but instead of simply remaining silent on the whole subject – because who knows what twitching, amputated stump of journalistic integrity Pappademas might still retain? – he transmorgrifies the smoking into coffee-drinking and has that be the compulsive thing, and the only compulsive thing, Pattison does the whole time they’re together)(although it’s not all bad: when Pattison ass-shits on and on about not being able to lie, about not understanding, just plain not understanding where all these rumors about his incessant late-night partying come from, Pappademas’ writing makes it clear he, at least, wasn’t fooled by the enormously transparent liar sitting across from him) (needless to say, this lying applies extra-strong to your subject’s sexual secrets … if, for instance, you’re interviewing, say, one of the macho young stars of Baywatch back in the ’90s and he begins groping and then French-kissing your male waiter, you’d better make with some snappy patter about unnamed Brazilian actresses and the like).

Fortunately, I wasn’t totally reliant on chain-smoking pygmy vampires to carry the issue! There’s a really good piece on the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, and of course any profile of the comic genius that is Amy Poehler is welcome. And then there’s the article that most caught my eye: it’s Alex Pappademas yet again, but he’s not redeeming himself in my eyes one little bit (except with honest-to-gosh work ethic! For that, he gets two thumbs up and an invite to write for Open Letters!), because his second article, “The 20 Graphic Novels You Should Read (after ‘Watchmen’),” is so choked with lame pretension and latent contempt for the comics genre that only sheer, seething rage kept me reading. Pappademas co-wrote this piece with Kevin Sintumaung, but somewhere our very own Kevin the Comic Snob is smiling, because the 20-graphic novel list here is absolutely fraught with the kind of plotless, narcissistic, “indie,” too-cool-for-school sequential garbage that can be relied upon to get Kevin’s Flexographic press running.

When Kevin indulges in his weird love of this crap, I cut him some slack (I know it’s not exactly noticeable when I do this; it’s more of an interior thing), because he himself is a talented comic artist. When Pappademas and his co-conspirator the great Steve Ditko Doctor Strange supervillain the Merciless Maung do it, I declare Open Season on pretentious Android’s Dungeon nersteins everywhere.

If you know anything about the comics world (aaaaaaand Beepy just began drifting away toward a different bed of seaweed …), you’ll be able to guess most of the titles on the Dastardly Duo’s list. Just keep the criteria in mind: no action, preferably done in black and white, copious sexual dysfunction, endless fetishizing of one’s own childhood, and absolutely, positively no superpowers. If you need more specifics, just go to your nearest comic book specialty shop, try your best to shrug off the projected contempt of the sales staff (trust me: The Simpsons understates the matter entirely), pick up the latest issue of Croatian Lesbian Cancer Victim (it’s a year late, but if you even so much as notice that, you’re an intolerant lesbo-hating Communist), turn to the in-house ads (in this issue, as in every issue, they’ll be the last 15 pages of a 25-page comic that’s, as we’ve already noted, one year late), and there you’ll find most of the titles Pappademas and the Merciless Maung want to take to the prom.

There’s Charles Burns’ craptastic Black Hole, of course, and that bane of my existence, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. There’s Concrete and Pyongyang (because the purpose of comics should always be to remind us how much life sucks). Saturday Night Live comedian Bill Hader recommends Jason Aaron’s Scalped, even though if he actually grew up liking comics, those comics certainly bore no resemblance whatsoever to Scalped. The wan and pointless Bottomless Belly Button (I mentioned dysfunctional families already, didn’t I?) of course makes the list, as does It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, about which the Dastardly Duo actually write “Ignore the title – this is not the indie mope-fest you’d expect” – even though that’s precisely what it is, for page after interminable page. Y the Last Man wanders into the article even though it was mostly good, and there’s one single super-hero: the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely All-Star Superman, and don’t kid yourself that this is on the list despite the fact that it not-very subtly mocks the very superhero conventions it’s appearing to honor – it’s on the list because of that fact (the book itself is worthless, from Morrison’s cavalierly continuity-screwing ‘I swallowed a baby universe and it allowed me to recover memories that show that not only am I a fallen angel rather than a Kryptonian but that I actually killed Jesus Christ’ insano-plots to Quitely’s endless parade of eensy-weensy heads stuck on top of fat bodies).

So I thought I’d append here a list of my own, a morning-after remedy if you would. The following graphic novels are brought to you all in color for a dime!

First, three about the greatest superhero of ’em all:

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Perez, and Kurt Schaffenberger – Way back in the mid-’80s, when DC Comics decided to revamp the entire Superman concept, they published this two-part ‘what if’ story about the way you might write a finale to the career of the old, traditional Superman (prompting some critics to point out that if the character had been done this well all along, no revamp would have been necessary). The result is a tender, thrilling comic about the costs of heroism.

Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu – Cynical souls might see this 2004 production as DC Comics’ response to the ratings of the successful TV series Smallville, since here we have a Ma and Pa Kent who look a lot like their TV counterparts, here we have the same premise of a farmboy/football star named Clark Kent who’s secretly possessed of unearthly powers, and here we have a brilliant, outcast Lex Luthor who’s initially Clark’s friend. But many such elements handily pre-date both the TV series and the aforementioned character revamp, and Waid and Yu breathe new life into them. This is the ultimate retelling of the mythologically familiar Superman origin story – and it’s got a lump-in-the-throat ending for good measure.

Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuard Immonen – what would happen if you lived in the everyday real world and your name was Clark Kent? And what if, after years of suffering all the lame jokes by friends, classmates, and co-workers, you actually developed Superman-style superpowers? Busiek and Immonen (his best artwork to date) take the one-issue throwaway pre-Crisis concept of the so-called ‘Earth-X’ Superboy and flesh it out in glorious detail, as the story of what might happen if somebody actually developed the powers of Superman in the real world.

Now let’s go from one character to a big ensemble:


Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross – the ultimate Marvel Comics graphic novel, this book tells the story of the rise of Marvel superheroes, from the likes of Captain America and the Sub-Mariner during the days of World War II to the mutant X-Men to the company’s flagship character, Spider-Man. Busiek’s writing and Ross’ painted artwork combine to form a perfect extended tribute to all the creators who made the Marvel mythos – and the book also tells a touching story, of one man’s grappling with the phenomenon of super-heroes.

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross – I’ve praised this book before (just follow the labels at the bottom, people! they’ll lead you to a treasure-house of wit and wisdom!), and it certainly belongs on any list like this one, no matter what the Dastardly Duo might say. Set in a near future in which the line between hero and villain has become irretrievably blurred, Busiek’s sharp writing and Ross’ stunning visuals dramatize the return of classic heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman to a world they may no longer understand. No matter how many times I read it, the powerful climax still gets to me.


The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart – Another killer premise: what if the story of DC Comics superheroes unfolded in real time, running from the 1940s to the present, complete with the Cold War and the Space Race and Vietnam? Cooke and Stewart re-imagine the icons of DC continuity (virtually everybody makes an appearance in the two parts of this book) set firmly in the real world, and the result is incredibly entertaining – with one panel at the very end that’s worth the price of admission alone.

And how about some single-character focus for a change:


Blood & Judgment by Howard Chaykin – Comics great Chaykin does a four-chapter update on the classic pulp character of the Shadow, with stunningly entertaining (not to mention violent and just a bit sexist) results. DC Comics hasn’t seen fit to re-issue this classic for a long, long time (nor have they collected the first ten issues of the monthly comic it spawned, despite the fact that those issues are drawn with flair and enigmatic style by Bill Sienkiewicz), but if you attend Boston’s Comic Con in the first week of April, I’m certain you’ll be able to find a copy, and it’s well worth the effort (and the disdain you’ll endure from people like the Dastardly Duo).


Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli – Miller of course achieved comics fame by creating one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, Dark Knight Returns, but this story-arc featuring Marvel’s blind superhero Daredevil is every bit as good and considerably less hammy. It’s a superb character-study of Matt Murdock, who fights crime as Daredevil and who, in this book, watches his life entirely fall apart. As the title implies, this is fundamentally a story of redemption, and it’s one you’ll find yourself re-reading.


The Frost Giant’s Daughter and Other Stories by Kurt Busiek (him again! and yet, the Dastardly Duo has apparently never heard of him) and Cary Nord – Here are some classic Robert E. Howard short stories of Conan the Barbarian, brought fantastically to life by Busiek’s extremely restrained scripting on top of Nord’s gorgeous artwork. The Conan character has never been handled better than this, and that’s a tough thing for me to say, considering how fond I am of the long run Marvel did on the character in the ’70s.

And as a sop to all the Jimmy Corrigan loseroids out there – and to Kevin the Comic Snob, who never met a non-superpowered character he didn’t love – I suppose I should include two more-or-less “indie” choices that, unlike those of the Dastardly Duo, are actually good:

Bone by Jeff Smith – in page after page of stunning black-and-white artwork, Smith tells the story of Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone, three cousins who find themselves in a fantasy kingdom full of complex characters and even more complex politics. Some of Bone is pure slapstick, some of Bone is pure high fantasy, and lots of Bone is socio-political commentary ala Cerebus the Aardvark, only here brought to life by somebody who isn’t a raging A-hole. Bone has it all: an appealing heroine, some props given to Moby-Dick, and two of the flat-out funniest villains in all of comicdom. The big fat one-volume collection is the best money you’ll spend all month.

Hard Times, once again by Howard Chaykin – in this case, his seminal science fiction creation, American Flagg! Chaykin paints an enjoyably bleak and fragmented near-future of gangs and high-tech crime, and he adds his usual standards: sexy gun molls, one tough-but-fair central character, lots of fast, brutal action, and a talking cat. The other American Flagg! story-arcs are just as good as this one, but this is the place to start.

And so, too, is this short list a good place to start! It at least gives you an alternative to page after poorly-drawn page of hapless losers standing out in the rain, the victim of the consequences of their own inexplicable life-choices. Virtually every graphic novel chosen by the Dastardly Duo brims not only with pointless anomie but with the unspoken assumption that comics – sequential art, sorry – can only be good if they entirely forget where they came from … in other words, that no good can ever come from superhero stories. Needless to say, as a big fan of both fantasy and mythology, I completely disagree with such snobbery, and this partial list is offered as an antidote. Like it or not, the comics genre is and always will be – and should be – about heroes and villains, about right versus wrong … and those things can be complexly and richly done even without grotesquely late and overrated Croatian lesbian cancer victims.

March 20th, 2009

Notes Toward A Shakespeare Library


When it comes to a fish as big as Shakespeare, you need help. Simply picking up a copy of one of his plays and reading it will leave you floundering with rhetorical bones stuck in your throat. You need help locating him, landing him, and dissecting him if you’re going to end up consuming and enjoying him. You need gear.

You need, in short, a Shakespeare library. Of the roughly 1,000,000 books in English that have been written about the Bard since he died in 1616, about 5,000 are worth reading. Of that 5,000, about 500 are worth re-reading. Of that 500, about 200 are worth studying. And of that 200, about 100 are worth owning and consulting frequently.

Obviously, we can’t go through all 100 of those today, but we can make some general notes toward building a Shakespeare library. Let’s start by setting up the basics of what you need:

You need an ur-text.

Just as Shakespeare’s original editors Heminge and Condell first envisioned a big, elaborately produced and definitive door-stopper of a Shakespeare collection, the so-called First Folio, so too must you have such a collection – although it shouldn’t be theirs (it’s got no scholarship, it’s incomplete, and besides, it can be a bit pricey). Your ur-text will be a massive volume that contains everything Shakespeare wrote, the plays, poems, and sonnets. It will be a book too big to carry around in park and promenade – it will reside on some honored shelf, often consulted, the final word. For this purpose I can’t recommend highly enough the brown-covered second edition of The Riverside Shakespeare. Its notes are incredible, its essays are enjoyable in their own right, and its editorial underpinnings have never been equalled. It belongs on the shelves of every person who cares about literature. It’s quite simply the greatest Shakespeare edition of them all.

You need a beater text.

Greatest Shakespeare edition of them all, yes, but as noted: you won’t be carrying it around anywhere (although I myself have! On many a long trip from Iowa to Boston – one hour’s drive from Iowa’ City to Cedar Rapids, one hour’s puddle-jumping flight from Cedar Rapids to Chicago, three hours’ flight from Chicago to Boston, then one hour’s drive to Lowell, the whole of a long afternoon – I’ve lugged The Riverside Shakespeare as my sole companion, simply because of how inexhaustibly fascinating it is). You need a beater-collected, a fat one-volume Shakespeare minus the parade of scholarly essays, minus the swarm of footnotes and endnotes – just all the plays (or better yet, all the plays, poems, and sonnets) in one sturdy book that you can cart with you onto subways and into parks. This isn’t pretension: sometimes you need the rest of the works right there at your fingertips, to leaf from play to play or from sonnet to play and back. Your beater Shakespeare becomes your best friend, the one book sure to satisfy when all others fail (a beater Bible and – for me, anyway – a beater Plutarch are equally reliable). For this purpose might I recommend the extremely sturdy leatherbound collected Shakespeare volume currently being sold by your local Barnes & Noble? It’s got sewn pages, a sturdy spine, and it’s a reprint of a pretty good old Oxford edition. It’s got a glossary of the murkier Jacobean terminology in the back and – in a nice touch you don’t always find – several blank pages for you to fill up with your favorite lines. And it’s a very satisfying weight in the hand.

You need pocket versions.



With Shakespeare, it’s of course essential to focus. The only way to incorporate all the best of him is to steep yourself in play after play, poem after poem. And the only way to do that is to carry each of them around with you individually – and for that you need a good set of pocket versions. In the last hundred years, there have been hundreds of such versions, and there are merits scattered among them. Currently, the field is a little narrower: the Ardens are too abstruse, the Folgers are too intrusively explanatory, the Bantams slightly under-annotated. The Penguins (in those thin and surprisingly cheap trade paperbacks) are good, and the Oxfords are too (although the quality of the individual introductions varies wildly), but my recommendation would be the Signet mass market paperbacks. They have attractive editions of everything, with extremely handy footnotes, and each work is accompanied by a collection of essays about that work, culled from the scholarship of the last four centuries – indeed, the essays are always an education in themselves.

You need a guide.

And my, my, you’ve got no shortage of candidates for the job! Almost as long as there’s been a Shakespeare, there’s been an industry of people explaining Shakespeare, and the choices can be bewildering. I suggest three to start things off: from 1957, Margaret Webster’s chatty, cheerful Shakespeare Without Tears, from 1990, the great Sam Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare: His Life, His Language, His Theater, and from 2004 The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, which is packed with great archival photos of stage-performances from the past (although a handful of attributions are wrong – always double-check before leaning too heavily on them). All three of these books will thoroughly ground you in the facts and details of Shakespeare’s life, time, and works – and all three do a wonderful job of making those works less intimidating to beginners.

You need some teachers.

In this you’ll be luckiest if there’s an actual flesh-and-blood person you can consult, but lacking that, books will do nicely! And the teaching here will always be temporary – you need the push and pull of somebody’s specific gravity in order to develop leg-muscles and balance, but once you’ve got those things, you’ll go leaping off in your own direction soon enough. But while you’re still wobbly, it helps immensely to work with some opinionated expert, helps to read their opinions and test them out against your own readings, and against your own viewings (since, we should remember, the only way to really know Shakespeare is to see Shakespeare … whether it’s high school performances, free rehearsals, community theater – however you do it, you should do whatever you can to see every performance of every Shakespeare play you can, as often as you can). A great many fantastic Shakespeare teachers have published good books on their subject; might I recommend among the throng both A.C. Bradley’s venerable, oft-mocked, but still stunningly absorbing Shakespearean Tragedy from 1904 and Marjorie Garber’s almost equally-good 2005 volume Shakespeare After All? And of course what may very well be the single shrewdest teacher-book ever written on the Bard, Anthony Burgess’ Shakespeare (also available as a cheap hardcover from your local Barnes & Noble).

You need a union card.

This one may not seem as intuitive as the rest, but another thing you really need in your Shakespeare library are a few volumes on the man’s day job, on the actual mechanics of what it meant to be a working playwright in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. There’ve been many very good, very lively volumes published on this subject (with lots of invigorating scholarship keeping everybody on their toes even as we speak), but to my mind, one of the best is still G. B. Harrison’s Shakespeare at Work: 1592-1603 (originally published in 1933 under the hilarious and quickly-discarded title Shakespeare Under Elizabeth)(although I have no doubt that is, indeed, how it happened). Volumes like this give you an invaluable conception of what theater was like in that very different age, the conditions and restrictions every playwright had to contend with, and the varyingly effective ways those obstacles were overcome. Trust me: after reading a couple of these books, you’ll see Shakespeare in a wholly different light, quite independently of how you interpret his works.

And lastly for now, you need a little fantasy.

Since Shakespeare did so much to enlarge the world of fiction, it’s not surprising that he himself has appeared in a gazillion novels, short stories, plays, movies, and TV productions. There are large swaths of the Bard’s life that remain opaque to scholarly inquiry, and as maddening as that might be to historians, it’s mother’s milk to novelists, who are free to fill in those blanks however they like. I think something very valuable is added to any Shakespeare library by including a dozen or so of these fantasies. Of course Anthony Burgess must get mentioned again, for his brilliant novel Nothing Like the Sun, but as I’ve mentioned here before, my own personal favorite is Will Shakespeare, the 1977 novel John Mortimer (of Rumpole of the Bailey fame) wrote to accompany the quite-good BBC production that starred a hairy young Tim Curry as Shakespeare and a hairy young Ian McShane as Marlowe.

These are merely sketches, notes toward a full Shakespeare library – each of these categories deserves a long, long essay of its own, and there are more categories besides (the history of Shakespeare studies, for instance, which would include Schoenbaum’s towering Shakespeare’s Lives, or the study of Shakespeare’s source materials, or the whole vexed question of “Shakespearean authorship”), but we have to start somewhere! In due time we’ll return to the subject and keep building your Shakespeare library.

And in the meantime, you could just pick up a copy of one of his plays and start reading. Plenty of Shakespeare fans started just like that.

March 18th, 2009

Poetry Class!


Giant Sable Antelope Would Like a Word with History

At night the savannah comes to claim me.
Thirty females and their calves
in search of a leader. Shaggy manes

down each nape. White cheeks
and that dagger of kohl down the nose.
Vibrissae, strands of black glass

under a pure white chin. Nefertiti eyelashes,
each aching hair standing proud
from each whiffy pelt. That ready-to-flee gaze

which unleashes the epinephrin
in me – and in my phantom rival, who drops
to his knees among the black icicles

of our own shadows – antler, hock and severed tip,
sheath and core of twisted tissue, bony spike
and tine like a bifurcation diagram

in chaos theory. What does he know, this slack
Minotaur, challenging me
in my forest of petrified keratin?

I am invincible, being extinct. He brandishes
his pair of ring-ridged horns, arcing back
like sabres. I force him further down,

rough him up a bit
and suddenly as he came he is gone
like a conjurer’s rabbit

and around me is my old horizon, filtering
grey sand and puddled stare
of mirages like bubbles in quartz.

There are no windows here. But in our silent
company of Victorian glass eyes
we know that this is night.

You can’t fool us, the seen-it-all
and past-all-care, inured to managed air
turned cold to keep the straw in us pest-free,

the DNA of our lost hide and bone intact.
We know that hiss-crack on the roof
is rain. We understand its knack

of conjuring the succulence
we’d dream of still, if they’d preserved
our neural systems. All that inflorescence,

ligule, rhizome; floret, auricle and bract.
Lace blades, foaming in each lewd breeze.
The tremble of rising sap.

– Ruth Padel

March 7th, 2009

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights!


Our book today is John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, the bulk of which was written toward the end of the author’s life, and the collected parts of which were published in 1976 after his death. The Steinbeck Arthur has recently been republished in one of those very nice Penguin Classic “deluxe” editions with a Foreward by bestselling teenaged fantasy writer Christopher Paolini – a curious act of faith on Penguin’s part, not only to hope that The Acts of King Arthur – surely the despised stepchild of all Steinbeck’s writings – will find an audience among modern readers, but to entrust the introduction of such a work to Paolini, who is eighteen or so and would likely have met with some harsh words from Steinbeck himself on the subject of presumption.

And, alas, there’s presumption aplenty on display in the lad’s brief essay. Steinbeck is more pitied than praised for his well-intentioned but bumbling efforts in his Arthur, although Paolini does notice that the book gets better as it goes along (this would turn up a red flag for older readers, most of whom will have learned that when an odd or complex book seems to get better as it goes along, the improvement is almost always happening in the reader, not the book). At one point Paolini muses interestingly on a might-have-been I hadn’t thought of: what Steinbeck might have written had he decided to indulge in the fad of the late 60s and write a fantasy epic. But mostly Paolini is writing out of his depth and trying not to sound it:

As it stands, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights is an incomplete collection of first and second drafts. For writers and Steinbeck scholars, it provides a valuable glimpse into the inner workings of Steinbeck’s creative process, and reveals difficulties that even the best authors can encounter. For everyone else – and especially nine-year-old boys who love accounts of “kyngs and knyghtes and grete deeds” – it is a worthy addition to one’s library.

I wish I had read Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights when I was nine.

The immediate tempting rejoinder to that last line is: you mean eight years ago? But there’s more wrong here than typical teenager arrogance (although that “one’s” is precious, as is the above-it-all perspective of that “even the best authors”); the main problem with Paolini’s Foreward is that it assumes Steinbeck’s Arthur is for children. At least, I can’t think of a more charitable explanation for that bewildering admission that our baby-faced author wishes he’d read the book when he was little more than an infant – certainly it seems and odd thing to wish about reading any Steinbeck, one of the most unapologetically adult of all 20th century American authors.

And Paolini’s not alone – a great deal of the initial reaction to the book was deeply puzzled, and more than one person assumed that since the work was opaque to them, it must be intended for children. Even Steinbeck’s wife was slow to see its deeper currents, although she eventually did see them, or some of them. Part of the problem is cyclical and therefore mysterious: the Arhurian urge strikes a surprising number of authors who are otherwise busily going about their normal writing activities – we don’t know whence the urge comes or whither it goes, but while it’s on an author, he’ll seclude himself, he’ll visit Stonehenge, he’ll bore dinner guests with tales of genealogical research – and he’ll often produce a book unlike any of his others.


This has happened to more authors than you’d think – and a wider variety, from great writers like John Cowper Powys to crappy drivelers like Deepak Chopra. Even some of our most shrewdly cosmopolitan writers (John Berger and Anthony Burgess come to mind) have felt the pull and written weird stuff as a result, and the urge has entirely taken over, mind-control-style, a convention hall full of science fiction authors who were not able to break free. I wholesale guarantee there’s an Arthur novel sitting in J. D. Salinger’s house right now (or … shudder … 200 of them – could the urge be the reason he went silent?), and of course there’s the 20th century’s greatest example, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Even a casual reader of Steinbeck will see at once that he had one eye on White’s towering achievement the whole time he was writing his own book – which is a fatal enough hindrance in a writer of Steinbeck’s own native strengths. Hence his Arthur‘s odd uneven texture.

Although, pace perky presumptuous Paolini, there’s so much of that native strength on display here! Take for instance the joy with which knightly popinjay Gawain is mocked out of his own mouth as he leads a less-than-appreciative damsel through the forest:

“How fortunate that you fell to me,” he said. “If it had not been so, I would have contended for you. You do not answer. That is easily explained. You are very young and you had never the company of a gallant knight from the great world. You are blushing, I know, although I cannot see your face. Well, that is proper in so young a damsel. Perhaps your tongue is tied with confusion at the honor you have been paid – or maybe you were taught to keep silence when a knight speaks. That is the good old-fashioned way. Too seldom practiced now. You must not be afraid or too impressed with me. You will see that beneath my royal position and the aura of my knighthood I am as human as you are, a man, in fact, in spite of appearance. You are dazzled, my dear, and I can easily understand that.”

And much later in the book (right around the part where Paolini allows that Steinbeck is, you know, starting to write well), there’s a tossed-off meditation on the animal kingdom that’s as clear a statement of the late-Steinbeck world-view as anything:

As though the unanswered challenge of the chief bird had cleared the air of suspicion, the small and quiet emerged from the wood, but their smallness did not mean that they were meek – only cautious. Each one had war against others and endless difficulties with his fellows: matters of property, treasure trove, violations of respect for size and age and strength – mice and moles, ferrets, weasels, and small snakes, hurrying to some shelter now the night was coming. Government among a single kind was hard enough. Among many kinds it was impossible, and always had been, for the small creatures were not peaceful or kindly or cooperative. They were as quarrelsome and as selfish, as greedy and vainglorious, as sneaky and pompous and unpredictable as humans, wherefore it is hard to understand how they get their eating and breeding done at all, let alone increasing, building nests and burrows, preening fur and feathers, sharpening beak and claw, storing food and guarding it, and still having time to quarrel and snap and curse one another, and only occasionally taking time to love and to die.

The main thing that goes wrong with Steinbeck’s Arthur – although it goes less wrong less often than some critics have always maintained – is that it sometimes tries to out-White White, which is inevitably disastrous, since The Once and Future King towers too steep and solitary to be attempted by other authors, however talented. But such portions of the book are infrequent – the main body of the work glitters with great prose. Penguin is to be commended for bringing The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights before a forgetful reading public in such a fine, sturdy format. The choice of cover art is markedly odd – the clumsy sketch appears to be the work of a visually-impaired small child, when surely a who’s who of contemporary fantasy artists would have loved a chance to strut their Arthurian stuff (the last edition of the book featured art by fan favorite Darrell Sweet) – but the book itself is a great addition to the Penguin “deluxe” series.

I very much enjoyed re-reading it, and I’m glad I wasn’t nine years old to do it, but rather a twenty-something stone cold hottie. Maybe that’s Paolini’s problem: maybe he’s just not attractive enough to appreciate Steinbeck’s book. He should hit the freeweights and then try again.

March 7th, 2009

The state of letters in the Penny Press!


When you read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ mordant, damning dispatch from the Frankfurt Book Fair in the latest issue of Harper’s, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that the lunatics are running the asylum. Lewis-Kraus wanders around the Fair as a kind of cynical note-taking ghost, showing up at the tables of all the major publishers, managing to have conversations with most of the major figures in the publishing world. Through him, we’re able to eavesdrop on the relatively tiny handful of people whose decisions determine the shape of book-publishing in the world today.

Lewis-Kraus depicts such a world in the midst of unprecedented crisis – and boy, the chattering idiots at the helms of the various publishing houses and literary agencies aren’t helping things any. It’s not that a publishing industry rapidly growing dumber and dumber has had increasing need for dumber and dumber executives … it’s that dumber and dumber executives have succeeded in making the industry dumber and dumber.

The problem here is the same one that plagues most corporate structures: the delusion held by the religious believers in such structures that all qualities rise to the top. According to this viewpoint, if you’re, say, a senior group manager, you’ll be better in every way than a senior manager (and incalculably better, it only follows, than a rank-and-file employee) – you’ll be smarter, sharper, funnier, more worldly-wise, more empathetic, more insightful, more creative, etc. The articulation of this religious belief goes something like this: if you weren’t superior in all those ways, you wouldn’t be senior group manager.

In reality, as everyone who sojourns in reality already knows, the fact that somebody is senior group manager only guarantees a few traits they’ve got to have in greater degree than their subordinates – and all of those traits are negative, ghastly, horrible things. That senior group manager will be more brittle, more willing to sacrifice the basic aspects of humanity (compassion, free time, family or familiarity with family) that no normal person would even consider sacrificing, and most of all more of an asshole – meaning, more able to live with themselves while routinely treating everyone they safely can like dirt. Hardly creamy, what rises to the top.

But that’s never how any corporate authority-chain sees things – delusion always obtains. And the publishing industry, especially according to Lewis-Kraus’ picture here, is no different: its senior executives not only believe themselves better capable of reading the whims of the buying public (which, after all, might actually be true), better able to negotiate the often cutthroat world of author acquisition, but also better at all the other things connected with the world of books. Time and again in Lewis-Kraus’ article, we come across powerful agents or heads of publishing houses who believe themselves to be the best, most dedicated book-readers in the world, by virtue of their position at the top of their fields, regardless of the glaringly obvious fact that most of them have the intellectual probity of a glass of ice water. The anecdotes come fast and furious, managing to be both Facebook-breathless and faux-jaded at the same time:

The previous evening, when I first met Jamie [Byng, publisher of Canongate], I told him that the only galley I wanted to take away from the Fair was Geoff Dyer’s forthcoming novel, which Canongate will publish this spring, and Jamie took one out of his distressed satchel and gave it to me, along with a CD of his favorite Nick Cave songs. He said that he and Dyer play tennis together, and that he read the first sixty pages of the acetate-wrapped, gold-and-black FSG hardcover of Out of Sheer Rage while half-drunk one late night in his library, standing up by the shelves, then sat down on the couch and finished the whole book in a “one-er.”

Only very occasionally in the piece (which makes great, if disturbing, reading and is well worth the price of the issue) are random notes of sanity struck, usually in passing:

As Ira [Silverberg, an agent] says, maybe the best thing for books would be wholesale corporate divestment. There wouldn’t be nearly the same amount of money paid out, but neither would there be the same inequalities and neuroses. Literary careers would be more modest, but they would almost certainly be more sustainable.

(Some of you will recall that the great Ursula LeGuin, in an essay a couple of years ago about the state of the book industry, called for just this kind of corporate divestment … she was right then, and she’s even more right, as it were, now)

But most of the time, reading the piece reminds you again and again that the people at the very apex of the publishing world are by a wide majority idiots who never actually read anything, morons who are entirely caught up in talking and acting like their entire lives are ruled by their love of the printed word, but who haven’t sat down and done any reading since they were forced to in high school. The combination of stupidity and blitheness is especially galling when it’s connected with something as important and life-changing as books can be:

I leave and make my way alone past the banks, along the dingy pedestrian thoroughfare of central Frankfurt to the Frankfurter Hof, which, due to its proximity to the villainous scalene fortress of the Commerzbank, whose yellow and red spires flash like the eye of Sauron, is easy to find. Right outside the door is Jamie again, and we’re in medias torrentes as usual: “I’m at a stag party in Reykjavik thrown by DBC Pierre and it’s been a few days and I’m really just totally torched, and on the flight home I’m reading the manuscript Ali Smith had sent us and I’m just weeping uncontrollable tears – I love that book!”

Lewis-Kraus winds up his article on a guardedly hopeful note, saying that the book industry seems, at least for now and at least on the strength of the Fair, to be surviving, but there’s one absolutely vital part of the book industry he neglects to mention at all: book reviews.

Most of the publishers he meets are still going forward with the making of many books, and those titles join a great teeming mass of books already crowding bookstore shelves. Lewis-Kraus makes glancing mention of the fact that mean, evil chain bookstores sell the crucial real display space at the front of their stores to publishers eager to snag that all-important first fifteen seconds of the shopper’s attention, and he briefly sketches the many modern distractions from reading anything at all – but he doesn’t seem to want to make the connection between all of those books, all of those distractions, and the great-than-ever need the book-buying public has for guidance.

They’re desperate for this guidance – much more desperate than either publishers or most bookstores have fully realized (hell, they’ll not only look at but actually base purchases on that ‘customers who bought this also bought this’ tab on most commercial bookselling websites – even though such correlates are purely computer-generated and more often than not don’t reflect any similarity at all between the titles listed (because the previous buyers were shopping for both little Timmy and grandma, for instance). Books are expensive and profuse – your average book-reader, even your smarter-than-average book-reader, is often at a loss as to what direction to take. They love to read (and unlike nitwit publishers, they do it well and energetically), but they don’t spend their entire waking lives reading book-reviews and tracking titles, nor should they. What they need is advice they can trust.

Naturally, Lewis-Kraus’ article got me thinking about Open Letters Monthly, which as of March has been dispensing such advice for two years now. You know that painfully thin college undergraduate you see absorbedly reading in the coffee house, making you wonder when the last time was you read anything with that particular combination of scrutiny and abandonment? That’s the Open Letters Fiction Editor. You know that honey-voiced guy at the party who seems to have all the poetry in the room’s books at his mental fingertips, the one who not only knows all the poetry but wants to find just the right poems for you, personally? That’s the Open Letters Poetry Editor. You know that vaguely subterranean grind who knows all about the politics of the day, all about their immediate antecedents, and can quickly and vividly draw the connections for you, with a maximum of enthusiasm and a minimum of partisan mania? That’s the Open Letters Political Editor. And some of you know me: I read a lot, I have lots of strong opinions about the things I read, but above all that, I really do personally want to connect you with good books you’ll genuinely love.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus needs to read Open Letters, but more importantly, so do all those dedicated book-readers out there who want knowing, spirited guidance. It’s too late for the publishers and agents who are so in love with the sound of their own passion for the watery crap they produce – but their more down-to-earth counterparts, the small company of knowledgeable, hard-working book-people out there in all areas of the field – they need to read Open Letters too, so they know they’re that much less alone.

Until that happy day dawns, however, I guess we’ll always have Frankfurt.

March 2nd, 2009

March 2009 in Open Letters!

It’s the first of March, and among other things (like, in Boston anyway, snow), that means another jam-packed issue of Open Letters Monthly! This month is no different: thorough, thoughtful articles on a wide variety of topics, from Notorious B. I. G. to video games to the ancient River Thames. The infamous Gardner Museum robbery gets a detailed look, as do the terrific short stories of Mavis Gallant, as do many other subjects both popular and abstruse! The issue has a nifty photo, some original sketches by the redoubtable Rachel Burgess, a poem by the legendary poet Charles Jodoin, and, to mark the two-year birthday of Open Letters, a duality-themed quiz designed to test your knowledge of useless trivia!

So click on over to Open Letters and feast your brain on the banquet provided! And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out the OLM BLOG, which is updated every day with all kinds of interesting things, including more honest-to-gosh book reviews than you’ll find anywhere else! And, as usual, feel free to leave comments on anything that strikes your fancy!