Posts from October 2009

October 31st, 2009

Happy Hallowe’en!

Happy Hallowe’en everybody! In the spooky spirit of the occasion, I offer you all this shot of a suburban dog park in which SOMETHING has gone horribly, horribly wrong …

October 30th, 2009

The Mummy!


Our book today is The Mummy by Anne Rice, and it raises that old familiar question: what exactly is Anne Rice, as a literary phenomenon? She’s been writing for decades, steadily turning out best-selling books starring various supernatural creatures (vampires, witches, demons, Messiahs), she’s got a rabidly loyal fan following, and she’s spawned not only countless imitators and a couple of Hollywood movies but another writer, her son Christopher.

The entire time, she’s been considered the female equivalent of Stephen King – a guilty pleasure of negligible literary quality. In both authors, there’s a very visible sense of writing too much, too fast – the sense that if they paused and really concentrated, the fewer books they produce would be much better books.

So despite her popularity, it’s rare to find an Anne Rice novel that’s actually any good. Her Mayfair witches novels are boggy and dull; her later vampire novels are breathlessly vapid (they read like the jottings in a high school yearbook); her ongoing Jesus novels are excruciating. It’s often hard to remember, reading her today, that Interview with the Vampire is actually quite good, that The Vampire Lestat is often very exciting reading, and that Queen of the Damned is one of the best-plotted horror novels of its decade.

My favorite of this small shelf of good books is her 1989 novel The Mummy. It opens in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, where amateur British archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has spent years excavating tombs and ruins rather than run his family’s shipping business, which he leaves to his brother Randolph. Lawrence has made an astounding discovery: a mummy whose inscriptions claim to be Ramses the Great, even though the body of that famous pharaoh is supposed to be in the Cairo Museum. And even more mysterious: this Ramses seems to have lived on hundreds of years, to have survived the Middle Kingdom and eventually come to love Cleopatra. Lawrence is so ecstatic translating the notebooks found with the mummy that he’s only annoyed by the arrival of his shifty, evil nephew Henry, who wants him to liquidate some family stock to cover Henry’s gambling debts.

In one of the book’s first scenes, Henry confronts Lawrence in the hot, cramped burial chamber where the mummy of Ramses rests propped against a wall, and while Lawrence is distracted, Henry slips poison in his coffee. Lawrence dies almost instantly, and Henry can’t shake the feeling that the mummy was watching everything.

Lawrence’s grief-stricken daughter Julie has the entire contents of the dig shipped to her house in London, where it’s scheduled to go on private display before it’s given to the British Museum. And shortly after this event at her home, Julie finds herself sitting in sunny exhibit room with Henry, who’s bitter over the fact that Stratford Shipping was left to Julie. While she’s distracted, Henry actually tries the same trick twice: he slips poison into her coffee and urbanely urges her to drink up. And she’s about to – with the reader yelling at her not to – when the mummy in its case across the room starts to move! It shuffles over and grabs Henry weakly, spilling the poisoned coffee. Henry flees, and gradually Julie realizes that the steadily-strengthening being struggling free of his dusty bandages is indeed Ramses.

He’s immortal, and he’s got a knack for languages, and very quickly they’re conversing – and falling in love. The refreshing part of all this is that Rice does it with uncharacteristically sparse, sometimes lyrical prose – there’s none of the annoying rococo flourishes of her weaker books. And Ramses himself is a fascinating fictional creation, a man outside of time, a being who’s seen so much and yet is confronted with a thousand new sights in the modern world. Rice does a wonderful job of juxtaposing his learning curve with his certainties, as when Julie tries to tell him about the courts and the justice system that will eventually catch up with the perfidious Henry:

She took him by the hand and led him up the stairs. Once again, he studied everything about him. Only this time he paused to examine the porcelain whatnots on the shelf. He stopped beneath her father’s portrait in the upstairs hall.

“Lawrence,” he said. Then, looking intently at her: “Henry? Where is Henry?”

“I shall take care of Henry,” she said. “Time and the courts of law … judicium … justice shall take care of Henry.”

He indicated he was not satisfied with this answer. He drew the paring knife out of his pocket and ran his thumb along the blade. “I, Ramses, shall kill Henry.”

“No!” Her hands flew to her lips. “No. Justice. Law!” she said. “We are a people of courts and laws. When the time comes …” But she broke down. She could say no more. The tears welled in her eyes. It was hitting her again. Henry robbed Father of this triumph, this mystery, this very moment. “No,” she said as he tried to steady her.

He put his hand on his chest. “I, Ramses, am justice,” he said. “King, court, justice.”

Well, OK – maybe one or two rococo flourishes, here and there! But still: The Mummy is mighty satisfying.

October 29th, 2009

Great moments in comics! The Punisher disarms!


Marvel’s “Dark Reign” continues, with slick super-villain Norman Osborn convincing everybody (including the President) that he’s not only a good guy but the right man to be in charge of the super-C.I.A. that is H.A.M.M.E.R.

Norman Osborn keeps a list of things he wants to get done during his open-ended time in office, and one of those things is: exterminate the Punisher. Naturally, I agree.

This is and always has been one dumbass character, the fetishization of stupid brutish revenge, the anti-Batman. Frank Castiglione’s family is gunned down by the mob, and he swears an oath to punish the criminal underworld for the rest of his life. Yawn. If the character hadn’t been plucked from obscurity by Frank Miller during his epic run on Daredevil and given some choice scenes (including a naked-fighting-in-prison-shower scene that so impressed a certain filmmaker that he put it in a movie last year without so much as a tip of the hat), he’d have been remembered about as long as Fool-Killer or Mad Dog. But no! Instead, we get not one, not two, but three crappy movies and who knows how many crappy comic book series, all dedicated to convincing us that some dumb thug with lots of guns can ever be worth attention.

It makes sense that a control-freak like Norman Osborn would want to simply eliminate somebody like the Punisher. And you know what? It makes sense that he’d succeed. Thousands of mobilized, well-armed soldiers, infallible surveillance equipment, and, in this case, Wolverine’s claw-sporting mutant son Daken … Osborn’s got all this, and the Punisher has a couple of rifles, a couple of knives, and a couple of wet-washed one-liners that would’ve made Clint Eastwood blush with embarrassment. It’s no contest – and it shouldn’t be. If Marvel’s “Dark Reign” story line is going to have any bite to it at all, the bad guys have got to win a few rounds – and win big.

So of course I was expecting the worst from this issue, despite the fact that it’s penciled by John Romita Jr., one of the most talented artists in the business and definitely the guy you want drawing a nasty brawl (he has, to put it mildly, a very direct sense of violence). I expected that the Punisher would easily evade or defeat Osborn’s troops, and I expected he’d find a way to beat Wolverine’s son, even though Daken has claws popping out of his knuckles, extra-fast reflexes, and a mutant healing factor that, apparently, allows him to re-grow an entire arm (complete with tattoos!) in about a minute. When the writers of the Punisher’s own comics titles started having him mix it up with actual super-powered folk, that should have been the end – Spider-Man tackles thugs with guns all the time, after all, and so do all the other heroes – but nevertheless, nothing exceeds like success, and the Punisher is, gawd help us, a fan favorite character.


And in page after gloriously choreographed page, he seems to be keeping the upper hand. He defeats Daken in the sewers and is ready for his standoff against Osborn’s army – when suddenly Daken reappears (I know virtually nothing about this character, but I’m fairly certain writer Rick Remender gives his fast-healing powers way too much kick), lunges at the Punisher – and proceeds to carve him up like a Thanksgiving turkey, including (but not culminating in!) this Great Moment scene:


There’s no last minute miracle, no mistaken identity – some guy with guns and knives faces off against an expertly-trained super-powered mutant killer on a rainy rooftop and gets viciously dismembered. Osborn gets to cross one more thing off his list. As depressing as it is to read a comic book in which there’s no heroism and absolutely nothing good happen, it felt great to see a dark, well-thought story line advance by such an important step.

You can sense a ‘but’ coming on, can’t you? You know me so well by now!

BUT …. the issue doesn’t stop there. In frantic little back-up features, readers are reassured that this isn’t the end of the Punisher’s story! Something about gathering up the sliced and diced pieces of his body, stitching them together, and making some kind of Franken-Punisher? I don’t know, and I’m sure whatever actually gets written and drawn will appall me even more than the teasers do. Not only because it’s a stupid idea, but also because this issue, this sequence right here, is exactly right – a violent, sordid, unpredictable end for a peripheral character in the whole “Dark Reign” saga, one further chapter in making Norman Osborn’s de facto dictatorship feel real. The Punisher’s story should just stop here – but some things (Franken-Punishers are the least of them) just can’t be killed …

October 27th, 2009

Jaws!

Our book today is Peter Benchley’s 1974 mega-bestseller Jaws, which was flying out of bookstores even before it was turned into a damn fine movie and given one of the single most world-famous cover illustrations any book has ever carried.

The story is roughly the same: a great white shark homes in on the peaceful little summer vacation town of Amity and begins a pattern of tightly focused feeding on humans. The plot is just that simple: what happens if a shark decides to do that? And the gimmick driving the plot is equally simple: this great white shark is huge (and, in the book and even more in the movie, seems oddly bright, despite Benchley’s repeated scientific assurances throughout the novel that it’s a dumb creature of pure instinct).

The town elders of Amity don’t want to hurt their summer rentals by announcing the presence of a killer shark off their beaches, and at first they manage to convince Police Chief Brody not only to cover up the cause of the mysterious deaths cropping up offshore but also to keep the beaches open for swimmers. It’s only once the attacks continue that Brody is forced to act on his conscience, and Benchley does a very good job of portraying the way the tension begins to eat at Brody’s relationship with his wife Ellen:

“You’ll wake the children.”

“I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to let you stand there and work out your own hang-ups by telling me I’m a shit.”

Ellen smiled bitterly. “You see? There you go again.”

Where do I go again? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Just like that. You don’t want to talk about it. Look … okay, I was wrong about the goddam meat. I shouldn’t have blown my stack. I’m sorry. Now …”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

Brody was ready for a fight, but he backed off, sober enough to realize that his only weapons were cruelty and innuendo, and that Ellen was close to tears. And tears, whether shed in orgasm or in anger, disconcerted him. So he said only, “Well, I’m sorry about that.” He walked out of the kitchen and climbed the stairs.

In the bedroom, as he was undressing, the thought occurred to him that the cause of all the unpleasantness, the source of the whole mess, was a fish: a mindless beast that he had never seen. The ludicrousness of the thought made him smile.

He crawled into bed and, almost simultaneous with the touch of his head to the pillow, fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the novel, the town hires the crusty old shark-catcher Quint to deal with the problem, and Brody brings in Matt Hooper, whose brother used to date Ellen years ago in her life before she married Brody (a life she looks upon wistfully even while she chastises herself for doing so). Quint is as pure and simple a predator as the fish he’s chasing, and Hooper has predatory designs of his own – on Ellen Brody. One of the notes Benchley strikes over and over throughout the book is that the “great fish” marauding out in the ocean is just a cleaner, more honest physical manifestation of the kind of cold-blooded hunting that goes on everywhere. Jaws is thickly populated by sharks – and only one of them lives in the ocean.

Benchley, a life-long ocean-goer and frequent visitor to Nantucket, fills his book unobtrusively but plentifully with shark-lore, and some of the most effective moments in Jaws are descriptions of the shark itself, its motions, its sensory world. This is a much, much stronger novel than it’s usually given credit for being – not only Benchley’s masterpiece but a fine addition to the ‘men and the sea’ sub-genre whose Everest is Moby Dick.

I’ve recommended Jaws to countless people, and doubtless I’ve personally given a copy to many of you reading this. If so (and even if not), you’ll have heard me make one of my favorite points about the book: there are many scenes in it that are not only superior to anything found in the blockbuster movie but superior to anything that could be filmed. There are dreads, agonies, and swift little moments that defy cinematography – but good, lean prose can capture them if it’s smart enough to know where they are.

Take the book’s opening scene. It’s the same as in the movie – a young man and woman go down to the beach in the hour before dawn, and she goes for an impromptu swim. Her strokes in the water attract the attention of the shark a hundred yards offshore, and it closes in on her movements. The movie harrowingly depicts her death-agonies, because that’s what it can show us. In the novel, there’s no such struggle – she feels a sharp tug on her leg, reaches down with groping fingers in the dark water and feels that her foot is missing, that bone is protruding (pain hasn’t hit her yet). She screams, but in the next instant the shark catapults up from directly beneath her and instantly destroys her with a couple of enormous bites.

But the genius of the scene is in the delicate moment right before this:

The fish closed on the woman and hurtled past, a dozen feet to the side and six feet below the surface. The woman felt only a wave of pressure that seemed to lift her up in the water and ease her down again. She stopped swimming and held her breath. Feeling nothing further, she resumed her lurching stroke.

The fish smelled her now, and the vibrations – erratic and sharp – signaled distress. The fish began to circle close to the surface. Its dorsal fin broke water, and its tail, thrashing back and forth, cut the glassy surface with a hiss. A series of tremors shook its body.

For the first time, the woman felt fear, though she did not know why. Adrenaline shot through her trunk and her limbs, generating a tingling heat and urging her to swim faster. She guessed that she was fifty yards from shore. She could see the line of white foam where the waves broke on the beach. She saw the lights in the house, and for a comforting moment, she thought she saw someone pass by one of the windows.

Putting us so heartbreakingly inside her head in the moments before she dies (or letting us hear Brody’s mirthless, contradictory little chuckle in his bedroom alone) – is something Benchley the novelist can do – and does often in Jaws – that no movie director can duplicate or would want to. Its a good reason to find a 20 cent thrift store copy of Jaws and give yourself a good afternoon’s read. Given the recent world-wide rise in shark attacks, you’d be crazy to go swimming in the ocean anyway … so why not enjoy yourself on land?

October 25th, 2009

Star Trek Then and Now!

Our books today are The Prometheus Design by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath and The Fearful Summons by Denny Martin Flinn, and together they span 13 years of Star Trek fiction – a fact which even casual movie-fans can detect immediately from their respective covers, which display our Starfleet heroes at the age and in the costume of whatever Star Trek movie happened to be in theaters near the time of publication. The Prometheus Design was written in 1982 and shows Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the trim-line gray uniforms of Star Trek:The Motion Picture, whereas The Fearful Summons was written in 1995 and shows an older, stouter Captain Kirk – and a Mr. (now Captain) Sulu who’s himself approaching middle age.

When The Prometheus Design was written, it was one of only a handful of Star Trek novels in print – it’s got the Pocket Books logo on its spine, and Greg Benford’s dear, departed “Timescape” design on the top of its cover, signifying that somebody, somewhere considered it science fiction first and fan fiction second. By contrast, The Fearful Summons, still technically a Pocket Books imprint, has the Paramount Movie Studios logo outside and inside, along with the telling cover proclamation: “A stunning sequel to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country by one of the writers of the film!” In 1982, Pocket Books was putting out books about Star Trek. In 1995, they were producing book-sequels to film-movies. All sorts of subterranean changes can be justifiably suspected, but hoo-boy, there are changes right on the surface too!


The Prometheus Design takes place right after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so to some extent it, too, is a sequel to a movie – a movie in which young Captain Decker is ultimately absorbed into a higher, collective consciousness (in one of film’s most unabashedly prolonged orgasm scenes). Captain Kirk is helming the Enterprise again, and he and his stalwart crew of regulars – McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, and of course Spock – are investigating an escalation in violence among the Helvans. The book starts with a street riot (Marshak and Culbreath are masters of the rip-snorting plot) – and with Kirk & Co. starting to realize that a mysterious alien race (don’t act surprised – this IS Star Trek, after all) is experimenting on the Helvans like lab animals. When the suspicion arises that the Enterprise crew might also be experiencing tampering without their knowledge, Starfleet sends the legendary Vulcan Admiral Savaj (I know, I know … just ignore it … we were all much younger then …) to assume command if Spock refuses (Vulcans are immune to the mental coercion of the villains, called the Designers).

The plot is full of great cheesy dialogue and sharp, snappy action – and with a fair-sized helping of good old-fashioned moralizing, especially when McCoy, Spock, and Savaj bat around the subject of animal experimentation in general:

“Spock [says McCoy], I don’t mean them. I mean us. Billions of little lives. For research alone. When the antivivisectionists tried to stop research on live animals in the nineteenth century, it was maybe a thousand animals in the world. I remember some figures from twenty years before the year two thousand. One hundred million laboratory animals per year in the then United States alone – driven insane, suffocated, poisoned, battered, scalded, blinded, radiated, crushed – to death. And eighty-five percent of it was done without any anesthetic. Much of it was for research that was crude, repetitive, the answers already known in school. And it didn’t stop there. Food. Furs. And the incalculable cruelty of our own kind. Spock, maybe there really is a flaw in the mechanism in us, all of us – a fatal flaw. The inhumanity … I’ve done it too, Spock. With my own two hands.”

McCoy held up his surgeon’s hands and they were shaking. Spock covered them with one of his own. “There is nothing in those hands, Doctor, but the antidote for whatever flaw we fight here. I am not certain what answer we will find, but I know it requires your survival.” Spock paused a moment, then added quietly, “As do I.”

A great little moment, which is then rudely interrupted:

Savaj also looked sharply at Spock. “Indeed, your recent behavior is virtually a catalog of Human influence on a Vulcan – down to a certain release of aggression and other emotions. Perhaps you had better let me attend the Doctor” Spock made no comment, but permitted himself to be displaced. “In all logic, Doctor,” Savaj said, “your predecessors were dealing at that period with a rate of cancer that had gone in decades from negligible to one out of four. It was to to go to one out of two – in places nearly to one out of one – before environmental and medical research – sometimes on animals – reversed the trend. The increase of other diseases was also epidemic. Certain environmental trends, if not detected through animal and other research, would swiftly have rendered the planet uninhabitable for your life form and all others – and all of the little lives would have died with you in their hundreds of trillions. The same is true of most worlds at some point. That is the Designers’ position now. And if they go, we go. We must, in logic, offer them some other argument than the pain of mice – when their children are dying.”

This is strong, pointed stuff – Marshak and Culbreath wrote four Star Trek novels when the sub-genre was at its very beginning (indeed, two of them take place before the beginning, which is now officially marked with the publication of Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and all of them bristle with this kind of ideological hip-wading – their plots revolve not just around action but issues, and they give their principals lots and lots of juicy scenes and lines.

Six movies and several hundred million (perhaps a billion, world-wide? Studios don’t divulge, but how many times have you rented at least one of the various Original Cast Star Trek movies in the last 15 years?) later, how things have changed! What was once an ignored little backwater of the publicity department has by 1995 become a publishing industry with nearly 200 titles in its backlist and a bulging studio-dictated “bible” of characters and settings, from which no author is allowed to deviate (unless that author is the proverbial – almost literal – 800 pound gorilla; William Shatner and his ghostwriters were able to write a series of “non-canonical” Star Trek novels in the mid and late-1990s).


The events in The Fearful Summons take place shortly after the sixth Star Trek movie; Kirk is retired from Starfleet, as are the rest of his crew – all except Captain Sulu, who commands the Excelsior and, at the novel’s start, gets himself and his command crew taken hostage on a backwater planet by religious fundamentalists who then try strong-arm the Federation for their release. The retired Kirk learns about this and is outraged at Starfleet’s apparent inactivity – why isn’t anyone riding to the rescue of his old shipmate?

Naturally, he decides to do it himself. He sets the big personal computer in his apartment to tell him whenever ‘Sulu’ or ‘hostage crisis’ pops up in a news story, and he goes to the big computer at Starfleet Headquarters to hunt down the location of his former crew (1995 – the present reach of the Internet still unglimpsed, the staggering sophistication of cellphones undreamt … you can pretty accurately date when any Star Trek novel was written by looking at what things aren’t yet possible in the 23rd century), and they all agree to charter a private luxury space yacht and fly off to attempt a rescue on their own. They encounter no resistance from Starfleet or Earth government; they don’t get picked off by pirates en route, and when they reach their destination, they meet with Sencus, the Vulcan officer Sulu left in charge of the Excelsior before he was taken hostage.

Long before this point, readers have been bucketed over the head with the fearful prose in The Fearful Summons. It isn’t just that it’s wooden and free of any spark of life – it’s that it’s careful, mincing in a way that smacks of committee approval. None of the characters sound like people – instead, they sound like the very worst writing workshop homonculi, and none worse than Kirk himself, the nominal star of the book. Not that he isn’t given a run for his money in some places! Look at this conversation between Spock and Sencus – two Vulcans, mind you – and see if you can count all the different cliches and Earth-idioms:

“A rally?” Spock said. “To what purpose?”

“An anti-Federation gathering jointly sponsored by the Clerics and Klingons. An antigovernment rally, in fact, possibly to put pressure on the Ruling Family.”

“Have they always been political bedfellows?”

“Not at all. It is an unholy alliance, to be sure. But they seem to have found common ground this week. They are going to fan the flames of hatred.”

Yeesh.

There’s no excuse for writing that lazy, but there is an explanation for it: the writer doesn’t really think he’s writing science fiction anymore, and he’s long since absolved himself of the responsibility for it being smart, fast-paced, or interesting. In other words, he’s writing for fans, not readers. And in turn those fans aren’t actually reading the book, they’re checking items off a list: continuity? check. Correct designation of hardware? check? proper protocol sequence followed for engine start-up? check.

Even in the midst of this flab, some hint of Star Trek occasionally shines through. Perhaps Flinn was at some point a fan – and it should be said that the movie he helped to write is quite good. When the aging Captain Kirk at one point muses on the vastness of space, we get a little bit that Marshak and Culbreath might have liked:

Billions of stars, uncountable planets, he thought. How many more to explore? Another five-year mission? It would take a lifetime. It took mine. And we barely scratched the surface. I don’t mind leaving the task incomplete. No, but I mind leaving it to others. How selfish of me. As if there weren’t enough star systems to go around.

That’s pretty good, but it certainly isn’t good enough to carry a novel, and it’s hard not to blame Paramount Studios for the drastic change. Good Star Trek novels that are actually good science fiction novels simply aren’t published anymore, and I can’t help but think it’s due to the success of the movies.

One of the biggest surprises attendant that success is that Alan Dean Foster’s trade paperback script adaptation of the latest financially successful Star Trek movie is so far the only novel set in that universe (which, as you fans will know, is not the same universe as all the other Star Trek incarnations – the director’s canny way of making it all new for new fans). Surely this too is due to craven corporate thinking? Bad idea to have some writer coming up with a story-book that might conflict with what we’ll see on the screen in 2012. Given things like The Fearful Summons, maybe the lack of such books is a mercy.

October 22nd, 2009

The Norton Book!


Our books today are the Norton Books that this venerable publisher has put out for most of the last century, a generally excellent series of anthologies well fit to share shelf-space with the Oxford Books we briefly mentioned a little while ago (what can I say? You Stevereads readers might not be big on leaving comments – even though it would please me greatly! – but you definitely make your wishes known privately, for which I’m of course grateful). When I was wandering down my bookshelves trying to decide which Oxford Books to highlight in that earlier entry, I kept encountering Norton Books as well – I’ve got several, and for the same reason: thanks to superior editing (and packaging – Norton Books are slightly thinner than other trade paperbacks, which makes them fit nicer in the hand).

Of course the Norton Books aren’t to be confused with the Norton Anthologies! The latter are the cinderblock-sized classroom-ready volumes designed to torment college freshmen … they come with plentiful extraneous footnotes and study-prompts, and they have their own charms, but they’re more dutiful than the Norton Books, more concerned with leaving absolutely nothing out (except for The Rise of Silas Lapham, that is, since it was notoriously dumped from the Norton Anthology of American Literature a few years ago) than with the artistry of what they leave in. The Norton Books are intended more for the general reader, and there’ve been some very successful volumes.

Probably the most commercially successful volume we’ll be dealing with today is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, and that’s mainly because I have the College Edition, which taps into Norton’s license to print money by requiring these things for college courses. The college editions have virtually no introductory essays to speak of, and they’re PACKED with excerpts, the better to suit the atrophied attention spans of today’s youth. But this volume still has choice bits ranging the spectrum – there’s Gilbert White, David Thompson, Meriwether Lewis, John James Audobon, Thoreau, John Muir, and all the moderns – including the always-readable Diane Ackerman:

Where do the colors come from? Sunlight rules most living things with its golden edicts. When the days begin to shorten, soon after the summer solstice on June 21, a tree reconsiders its leaves. All summer it feeds them so they can process sunlight, but in the dog days of summer the tree begins pulling nutrients back into its trunk and roots, pares down, and gradually chokes off its leaves. A corky layer of cells forms at the leaves’ slender petioles, then scars over. Undernourished, the leaves stop producing the pigment chlorophyll, and photosynthesis ceases. Animals can migrate, hibernate, or store food to prepare for winter. But where can a tree go? It survives by dropping its leaves, and by the end of autumn only a few fragile threads of fluid-carrying xylem hold leaves to their stems.


A much less frantic and much stronger volume is Joseph Epstein’s The Norton Book of Personal Essays from 1997. Epstein is a heck of a writer, and his introductory essay on the nature of the essay is, as we saw in Jonathan Raban’s Oxford Book of the Sea, worth being considered alongside some of the ones he selects. For him, essays are little acts of discovery – not only for the reader but for the writer:

For example, I plan before long to write an essay on the subject of talent. Just know I know very little about the subject apart from the fact that it fascinates me. “We need a word between talent and genius,” Valery once said. He may well be correct, but just now I am myself not even clear on the precise definition of the word “talent.” I know only that talent tends to be something magical, or at least confers magic on its possessors, no matter in what realm: art, athletics, crime. In this essay, I intend to speak of my own admiration for the talented, question the extent to which I may myself have any spark of talent, try to figure out the meaning of talent in the larger scheme of existence. Through this essay I hope to learn what I really think about this complex subject and, while doing so, to learn perhaps something new about myself and the world.

That’s very fluid and very honest, and those two qualities sparkle in all the classic pieces he anthologizes here. We have Virginia Woolf, of course, and Rebecca West, and Dorothy Parker – and Edmund Wilson, his much-anthologized and exquisite “A Preface to Persius,” in which the conceit is that he buys an old translation of the Roman poet Persius (by a man named William Drummond) and reads it while he dines out alone (on a meal big enough and rich enough to get him thrown in jail were he to attempt to eat it today). The food and the wine work their magic on him as he reads, and the magic of the essay is that we feel the artificiality of it all and yet don’t mind, even when he’s working it like a carnival barker:

I had finished the apple, the Brie cheese and the little black demi-tasse, and I turned to the book again: “I cannot conclude this Preface, without lamenting that an early and untimely death should have prevented the Poet, whom I have translated, from giving a more finished appearance to his works.” How extraordinary that William Drummond, almost two thousand years after Christ, should have felt this solidarity with Persius, that, bridging the ruins of Rome, bridging the confusion of the Middle Ages, we should find him lamenting this early death as if it were that of some able young man who had been educated at the same institutions and shared with him the same values. This discord of chaos and reality!

Equally good and a good deal more magisterial is the 1993 Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by the mighty Bernard Knox, whose panoramic Introduction is a soaring triumph of compression, giving his readers an accurate thumbnail sketch of all the literature of classical antiquity. The sweep of the piece is its charm, but it’s great in particular too, as when he writes of Horace’s Odes, “It is significant that just as he had no real predecessor in these experiments, he had few followers; his success is unique.”

And he picks some choice bits from the classics – if the entirety of the Loeb Classical Library were to disappear tomorrow, we’d still be in fair shape with this one volume. This is the particular genius of Norton Books: even while they’re touring their subjects, they’re encapsulating them. The chronologies of all authors and styles are fairly touched upon, and gems abound. Here’s Catullus to sing us on our way, until next time:

If ever anyone anywhere, Lesbia, is looking
for what he knows will not happen
and then unexpectedly it happens –
the soul is astonished,
as we are now in each other,
an event dearer than gold,
for you have restored yourself, Lesbia, desired
restored yourself, longed for, unlooked for,
brought yourself back
to me. White day in the calendar!
Who happier than I?
What more can life offer
than the longed for unlooked for event when it happens?

October 22nd, 2009

Geographica: November 2009!


Don’t get me wrong: November’s issue of National Geographic has the usual incredible roster of articles, from a haunting (almost literally) look at all the animals the ancient Egyptians mummified to greet them on the other side of eternity, to a lively (and, alas, all too accurate) piece on India’s water-woes.

But sometimes, an issue’s visuals just overwhelm the text, and this is one of those times. There’s the joyous shot of a human swimming with a curious, even playful young sperm whale off the coast of Dominica


And there’s the blood-curdling picture of a hummingbird freshly murdered by a big ol’ praying mantis (note the super-long hummingbird tongue hanging out)


There’s the shot heard round the world, this hilarious vacation shot of Melissa and Jackson Brandts that was rudely commandeered by a curious squirrel (the squirrel-bomb quickly ‘went viral’ on the Internet, and rightly so: it’s one of those pictures that just makes you laugh out loud)


And then there’s what has to be the single most disturbing photo I’ve ever seen in National Geographic (that wasn’t an actual in-the-moment shot of an animal being murdered, that is – fortunately, the magazine doesn’t run many of those anymore): a chimpanzee in a Bangalore zoo who’s lost all his hair and sits forlornly in the crook of a tree branch looking pathetically human – not human-like, but entirely human. Try to tell me your first visual impression of this isn’t ‘man covered in mud’

Throughout its long history, National Geographic has been doing this: not just presenting us with colorful and detailed expert reporting from every nook of the world, not just assembling the latest scientific thought on every subject confronting society, but also this – showing it all to us, with the finest photography in the world. The fact that these shots were all taken by Geographic readers goes a long way toward proving two things: that cameras are now everywhere, and that perhaps to a larger extent than we think, we owe our eyesight when viewing nature to this great magazine.

The issue’s eminently worth reading (and has lots and lots of further great photos, of course), but be prepared to close it thinking about the photos, not the text, this time around.

October 19th, 2009

The Oxford Book!


We talk about another book-series today, the great Oxford Books which have now all but disappeared from bookstore shelves but which for a brief while sported a title-list of impressive and joy-inducing variety and reach. Of course the jewel in the crown of these volumes is also the one that started it all and one of the greatest anthologies in literature: The Oxford Book of Verse (the Helen Gardner edition, with all due respect to the purists who prefer the weirdly idiosyncratic Quiller-Couch edition). Anthologies of anything are a dime a dozen, but it’s in that revered volume that we can spot the overwhelming strength characteristic of the Oxford Books – the wisdom and activity of the editing.

It can be a tricky balance, of course. You want any editor to logical when surveying their subject – each time period fairly represented despite personal preferences, each school or format fairly represented, etc. But at the same time, you want any editor to be an involved guide – and that takes not only individuality but sometimes fierce iconoclasm. The ideal editor should be strongly opinionated but not excluding – he should acknowledge without rancor that some figures in a canon are more important than others, and he shouldn’t let ennui prompt him to include trifles from titans and novellas from nobodies. The best kind of anthology should feel like following along while somebody who’s read everything on the subject scans the library shelves and excitedly pulls down only a handful of volumes, reading out their best bits. They should send the reader on a perfect potted cruise, not trap them in the cellar of somebody’s hobbyhorse rants.

You’d think that last part would rule out Auden, but no! His 1938 volume The Oxford Book of Light Verse is an endless delight, not least for its charming, informative, and entirely fascinating introductory essay by our illustrious host, whose critical acumen I’ve not always had occasion to praise. You can only nod when he writes something like this:

Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de societe, triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes.

And the book itself employs such a wide definition of what constitutes light verse that we get heaping servings of everything from Chaucer to limericks, and all sorts of things in between:

Ireland never was contented.
Say you so? You are demented.
Ireland was contented when
All could use the sword and pen,
And when Tara rose so high
That her turrets split the sky,
And about her courts were seen
Liveried angels robed in green,
Wearing, by Saint Patrick’s bounty,
Emeralds big as half the county.

An almost equally ‘big’ name – V. S. Pritchett – helmed the 1981 volume The Oxford Book of Short Stories, and there are just as many pleasant surprises here, although one very pleasant part isn’t a surprise at all: Pritchett is usually a better prose writer than Auden, and his own introduction to this volume is a short, quietly intelligent meditation not only on the agonies of selecting from such a vast field but also on the nature of the short story in general:

A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation – frequently the celebration of character at at bursting point: it approaches the mythical. Above all, more than the novelist who is sustained by his discursive manner, the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once and not only by the novelty of his people and scene but by the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design: for what we ask for is the sense that our now restless lives achieve shape at times and that our emotions have their architecture. Particularly in the writers of this century we also notice the sense of people as strangers. A modern story comes to an open end. People are left carrying the aftermath of their tale into a new day of which, alarmingly, they can as yet know nothing.

In this volume we get several old familiar standards (“The Rocking Horse Winner,” “The Open Boat,” “Flowering Judas”) but also several rarer choices (Walter De La Mare and the mighty Mary Lavin are not so anthologized today as they once were), and all of it gathered together by what one feels to be an exacting, exquisite unifying sensibility.

And sometimes, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that this sensibility itself is the main reason we own a particular Oxford Book. Certainly this is the case with the hugely entertaining 1992 Oxford Book of the Sea. This volume has great and perfectly-chosen representations of everything from Hakluyt to Dryden to Joshua Slocum to Samuel Eliot Morison, but the Main Event is nevertheless the 30-page Introduction by Jonathan Raban, which is so filled with vitality and lightly-worn erudition that it serves as an entry in this anthology, rather than merely an entrance to it. Here he is on the different realities the sea represented for British v.s. American sensibilities:

In the United States, as not in Britain, writing about the sea has been contiguous with ‘nature writing’, as if the sea offered not so much a counterworld as a liquid extension of the green fields and forests within the land itself.The classic British opposition between wild sea and tame land, between nature and culture, has simply not applied to the American experience. The great transfixing stories of cannibalism in Britain (of man gone savage through too much contact with unrefined nature), like the fate of the crew of the Mignonette, all took place at sea. In the United States, their locations were inland – in the Rocky Mountains, with Alfred Packer, who ate five of the six Democrats in Hinsdale County, Colorado, or the Donner Party. When Joshua Slocum left Boston in 1895 to sail alone around the world in Spray, the sea did not offer the only path available of solitary adventure, is it did to the British. Slocum could have packed his bags and taken the train to Oregon or New Mexico. It is an important difference.

For a brief moment in the 1990s, there was a whole shelf of various Oxford Books (Adventure Stories and Sea Stories seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye), and many of them were very nearly as good, as meaty and motivating, as these three. They’re not much in evidence anymore, and it isn’t that the audience for this type of endeavor disappeared (the Mammoth Book series – which we’ll get to in the fullness of time here at Stevereads – just keeps adding titles to an already enormous backlist). I hope for a day when Oxford announces a wide raft of Oxford Book reprints – on cheap paper, affordable, with nice covers, only lightly updated if at all. These fat little treasure-troves deserve to be always in print.

October 19th, 2009

Playing the Ponies in the Penny Press!


One of the surest signs that the British take literature and reading more seriously than America (not that there’s enough doubt on the point to warrant many signs) is the betting action surrounding the Man Booker Prize. There are bookies; there are long-shot odds; there are reports of both in the London press. That kind of quotidian penetration is a sure sign that actual people actually care about something. Weather reports run in every edition of every newspaper; fluctuations in the Van Allen radiation belts don’t.

There’s nothing like that in the general literary life of America. Most of the United States’ 4.2 hundred readers think nothing about the winners of major literary awards, and even those who do can scarcely work up the enthusiasm to bet on the outcomes. True, the little gold “Himmelfarb Award Winner” stickers that adorn the lucky authors’ book covers tend to increase sales, but handicapping the ins and outs of the awarding itself isn’t done by the man in the street. The millions of people who hang on every development in So You Think You Can Dance couldn’t pick Walt Whitman out of a police lineup and infinitely prefer Salma Hayek to Salman Rushdie.

So you have to give Liesl Schillinger points for trying to stir the pot in today’s New York Times. She writes a column given the title “Words Without Borders” all the upcoming National Book Award bestowal, and her faith that more than a couple-dozen of her readers give a crap is touching.

I certainly give a crap. I like the National Book Award. A great many of their choices for history and nonfiction have been hugely worthy of the honor, and the list of fiction winners includes some magnificent volumes that also richly deserved being singled out.

The problem here is that the vast majority of National Book Award recipients for fiction haven’t been worth the paper they were printed on. Schillinger, after discussing this year’s finalists, writes, “And yet … not all fiction rises to this level,” and when I read that, I wanted to say “Yes, quite a bit of it rises several levels higher.” For every Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty the National Book Award praises, there are a dozen talentless makeweights who’ve also got the prize for fiction. That ratio gives me butterflies for this year’s announcement.

So let’s do a little bit of bookie-style handicapping ourselves, shall we? Here are the nominees:

Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin
Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage
Jayne Anne Phillips for Lark And Termite
Daniyal Mueenuddin for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Marcel Theroux for Far North

The first thing you notice right away are the omissions: no Philip Roth, no E. L. Doctorow, no Mary Gaitskill, no Philip Caputo, no James Ellroy, no Ron Carlson, no Arthur Phillips, no Wells Tower, no Colson Whitehead, no John Irving, and so on. Some omissions are as disappointing as they are predictable (John Wray’s Lowboy and Philippe Meyer’s American Rust deserve to be on this list).

But let’s concentrate on the names we do have – a mixed bunch, as Schillinger points out. McCann’s Irish-born, and his book is, as Schillinger very kindly puts it, “a kaleidoscope of New York City lives set in the 1970s but doubling as a 9/11 allegory.” Campbell is from Michigan, and this is her debut story collection. Mueenuddin was born in Pakistan, and his, too, is a debut story collection. Phillips is from West Virginia and is of course the author of the extremely good Machine Dreams (one of the National Book Award’s other conspicuous snubs), and here she’s nominated for her rather pat and unfilling (but beautifully written) latest novel. And Theroux (whose author photo puts him at right about the same age his father, the writer Paul Theroux, will always be in my mind) is up for Far North, which Schillinger describes as “a post-apocalyptic fable … written in an American idiom but set in Siberia.”

The diversity here might be part of the selection committee’s point. The article raises again the specter of Horace Engdahl’s studied comment last year that American fiction tended to be “too isolated, too insular.” Although it should have been obvious to any five-year-old with a Google news-feed that Engdahl was displacedly attacking George W. Bush, his comment nevertheless sent huge neighborhoods of the American literary and academic communities into existential tailspins, orgies of self-doubt and self-evaluation (followed by doubt of the evaluation and evaluation of the doubt). It’s not too big a stretch to see this list of nominations as a response to that comment, despite Schillinger’s opinion that time has cooled its sting.

After all, this list can’t be called insular! Three out of the five weren’t born in this country! Two out of the five don’t even currently live here!

If we operate on the assumption that such nonsense actually motivated the nominations, then it’s safe to say it will motivate the choice of a winner. So Phillips and Campbell are out. The PEN/Faulkner Award was just won by Netherland, another gawd-awful novel pimping out the tragedy of 9/11 for shamefully cynical purposes – major literary awards apparently don’t mind that kind of ghoulish self-aggrandizing, but they hate being seen to copy one another. So McCann is out.

That leaves Theroux, for a science fiction novel nobody’s read, and Mueenuddin, for a genuinely decent collection of short stories every publishing critical journal on Earth (with one or two notable exceptions) has read and praised. And it’s a debut collection, which shows the Award is open-minded. And he’s from Pakistan, which sure as Hell shows the Award isn’t insular.

I think it’s safe to call it: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will win the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.

Which means, given my track record with any kind of prognostication, Jayne Anne Phillips should probably start clearing a space on her awards shelf …

October 15th, 2009

Following the Water


Our book today is Following the Water by David Carroll, the latest of his thin, beautiful meditations on life and nature … and turtles.

I’ve praised Carroll’s work here before, and Following the Water is another miniaturist masterpiece. Carroll’s work-approach hasn’t changed in the last thirty years: put on some waders, fill a camera, pack a sturdy journal, and go out into the streams and wetlands where the turtles are.

He encounters all kinds of creatures, of course, not just turtles (this latest book has a mesmerizing little encounter with a deer, for instance – just two living creatures accidentally happening upon each other in the landscape, regarding each other with neither fear nor violence), and he mostly does this by slipping out of frenzied human time and into the more fluid, less restrictive time of the natural world. Following the Water is full of descriptions of what that shift feels like, and the good things it can do for your soul (I know that state intimately, having spent a great deal of time in it thanks to a lifelong close association with dogs – but far too few people I know in today’s harried society seem ever to have felt it).

Not that Carroll is always meandering in his latest book – since he spends a great deal of time out of doors, he can describe with perfect accuracy one inevitable hazard, sudden rain:

Running, that is, hurrying in my turtlelike imitation of running,up the last fifty yards of the gentle incline of the old logging road, I just beat a heavy downpour to my car. My history of turtle-nesting time is marked by dodging thunderstorms, twice being overtaken by swift and violent ones, and being pinned to the earth by them. I had heard this one coming for a few minutes, that roar like a sudden wind, an almost trainlike sound in the trees, though all around me was breathlessly still. Though not far off, the sound came from the south, and I thought the east-west drift of the rain would have it pass by me. But then, seeing the near landscape go silver with heavy rain, I made my move just in time.

This is a sadder book than Carroll’s previous ones – the wild places he so loves are, after all, extremely delicate ecosystems, and mankind is always encroaching. Time and again, Carroll hits a note of impending doom:

I have long witnessed the invasion that takes the heart from the landscape, and it has taken much of the heart from me. Increasingly in my later years of following the water, following the turtles, I have had to turn away. Sometimes I stay away for an extended time, and there are places to which I cannot return at all.

Luckily for all of us, no matter how clearly he sees this darkening future, his heart is too much a part of those delicate wild places to abandon them, or to abandon the gorgeous chronicle he’s built of them over the decades. “But where wildness lingers” he writes “and turtles hold within it, that original searching, that early unquestioned need to be there, draws me back.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping he keeps getting drawn back. These books are among the finest and most sensitively intelligent examples of natural history-writing currently being written in English. If his beloved turtles can hold on long enough to give Carroll fuel for a few more books, maybe those books themselves will help to make the doom a little less looming. Certainly few animals have ever had such a perfect champion.