Posts from March 2010

March 30th, 2010

The Bishop Must Die!

Our book today is The Bishop Must Die by Michael Jecks (Headline Publishing Group), like a newborn basset hound, it’s got many handicaps to overcome in life. Right there on the cover, it’s called a ‘Knights Templar mystery,’ which in all right-thinking people will summon up specters of right-wing weirdness, ‘birther’ madness, ‘tea parties,’ and Tom Cruise conspiracy theories. With the possible exception of the Scottish Highlanders, no small historical sub-group has been the subject of so much contemporary distortion as the Templars, a do-nothing band of nincompoops (at the best of times) who’ve recently been transformed by thriller writers into a super-sect charged with guarding every ‘last’ secret known (unknown?) to man, from the Holy Grail to the True Cross to the Baby Jesus Diapers.

Even if prospective readers manage to ignore that banner of conspiratorial weirdness, they’ve still got many a hurdle to leap. They’ll be informed early on, for instance, that it is Michael Jecks’ twenty-eighth installment in his Knights Templar series. Twenty-eight! Readers not already following the series can expect Ozark-level inbreeding by this point, with whole chapters composed of in-joke references to conversations the author had with chosen half-dozen super-fans he met through his long-defunct website discussion forum and with whom he now meets regularly in the back room of the local pub, with a sign on the door that says “No admittance.” Joe Weber, Lois Bujold, Terry Pratchett – so many writers have followed this path of degeneration, slowly revealing over time that what they really wanted from their writing careers was not readers but a court (one of Pratchett’s 450 books, Guards! Guards! will stand for many decades as the ultimate example of this kind of prostitution).

But let’s say an adventurous reader manages to ignore both those potential warning signs and press on. They next come to a Cast of Characters that’s over 30 names long. They come to a two-page glossary featuring terms like annuellar, corrody, seisin, and paindemaigne. There may even have been a line saying “you will be tested on this” – I’m not sure.

And the first line of the book itself is “The stench was unbelievable.”

So you might be forgiven for thinking that The Bishop Must Die is a pure Jecks-fest written exclusively for his (presumably) many fans, that between those fans, libraries, and various historical societies, Headline figures they’ll recoup enough of their publishing costs to justify printing the thing in the first place. You might be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a book you can simply pick up and read.

Happily, I can report that this isn’t the case (happily because I hate the idea of such ‘no admittance’ books – hate the fact that they take space, time, and money away from books and authors who really deserve all three, hate that the most vital of creative activities could become so onanistic, and hate especially the gritty, defensive Chihuahua pride of the practitioners). Despite those 27 previous books closing in all around him, Michael Jecks is somehow still writing for a general audience, and the members of that general audience who fancy historical murder mysteries set in medieval England could do much, much worse than to give The Bishop Must Die a try.

It’s true that there’s exposition aplenty, but given how Insider Baseball this thing could be by its 28th installment, wouldn’t you rather have some well-incorporated exposition than the reverse? Jecks has a sure hand at working clarifications like this into his ongoing narrative:

The past year had seen confusion over England’s control of the French possessions. There had been wrangling for a long time over the rights of the King of France to the King of England’s great Duchy of Aquitaine. The bitter enmity between the French and the English sprang from ancient causes; ever since the Duke of Normandy’ had invaded and taken the English crown for his own, the French Kings had deprecated the presumption of England’s kings. The presumption was escalated by the warmonger Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion, who forced the French King to build his magnificent fortress, the Louvre, in order to protect his city against a potential attack from Richard’s Norman territory.

That narrative takes place in 1326 during the sixteent year of the reign of King Edward II. His queen Isabella, ensconced in France with her lover Roger Mortimer, is threatening invasion, and Edward summons all his faithful knights to readiness – including Sir Baldwin, Keeper of the King’s Peace and hero of many Jecks novels. But Sir Baldwin has other things on his plate – it turns out someone is sending anonymous threats against the Treasurer of England, Bishop Stapledon, who (in cahoots with the infamous Hugh Despenser) has disgraced and pauperized many a good man in his career. Too many, in fact: the Bishop (Jecks makes the extremely intelligent move of keeping this character thoroughly unlikeable – justice seems so much more heroic when it’s offered to someone so undeserving) himself sardonically points out to Baldwin how hopeless his task is:

“Sir Baldwin,” the bishop expostulated, his hands thrown out in a gesture of openness, “how can I count them? Be reasonable! In London alone, I was hated by the commonality. All loathed me for I was the man who instigated the Grand Eyre [“this was the term for the circuit of a king’ judge as he travelled from one county to the next” – cf the glossary] of five years ago. It wasn’t my fault, but it was imposed on London while I had the position of Treasurer, so all blamed me. It is natural. Now, do you wish me to bring you a list of all the thousands of men who live in London? Of course not! Perhaps you would like me to compile a full audit of those who have cause to dislike my exactions in York, or Winchester? It would leave you with many tens of thousands. That is the scale of the problem, you see. Any number could seek to assassinate me.”

No, despite all the obstacles, this is a very entertaining book. If you see it on a bookstore table (I believe it’s published in June in America) or at the library, don’t be put off by inbreeding, Knights Templar, or a touch of paindemaigne.

March 28th, 2010

Howards End!

Our book today is, naturally enough, Howards End, E.M. Forster’s signature masterpiece that’s an unbelievable 100 years old in 2010. The selection of Howards End was probably inevitable from the moment I found that paperback porcupined with post-its – after all, any book that could lead an attentive reader to consider so many pages vital is a book deserving of mention on Stevereads, but it’s more than that: you know there’s something special about a novel when after reading it you find it nearly impossible to believe its age.

Booth Tarkington’s short, pithy novel Seventeen was written in 1916 and feels every single one of those years. Even the greatest novels of William Dean Howells are very firmly products of their time. They’re like great weather-beaten rocks in the river: they part the waters on either side, you paddle your kayak around them with respect and even aesthetic appreciation, and then you leave them behind, and eventually the turn of the river hides them from sight. There’s nothing wrong with such books – to extend the simile, their very solidity helps to shape the riverbed and the shores on either side, and that’s important.

But some books are the flowing water itself, and Howards End is one of those books. Reading it is brightly, personally thrilling, every time. It’s the story of the artistic, free-thinking Schlegel girls and their unplanned but extensive encounter with the pragmatic, harebrained (and moneyed) Wilcox family, the owners of the lovely house-and-grounds of the book’s title. Even new readers to the book will instinctively cringe when the Schlegel girls’ blustery, well-meaning Aunt Juley mistakenly calls the place “Howards Lodge,” and they’re not cringing over her dim wit – the reaction comes from the almost instinctive feeling that Howards End is an archetypal place in the imagination, a place, like Camelot or Brideshead, that you simply don’t get wrong.

Brideshead indeed. As in Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, the representatives of two English families of different social classes meet in unplanned ways – and the lower class gets to watch as the higher class very nearly self-destructs. Like Charles Ryder, Helen, the younger of the Schlegels, falls in love “not with an individual, but with a family,” and for a time it overwhelms her solid liberal intellectual foundation:

The energy of the Wilcoxes had fascinated her, had created new images of beauty in her responsive mind. To be all day with them in the open air, to sleep at night under their roof, had seemed the supreme joy of life, and had led to that abandonment of personality that is a possible prelude to love. She had liked giving in to Mr. Wilcox, or Evie, or Charles; she had liked being told that her notions of life were sheltered or academic … one by one the Schlegel fetiches had been overthrown, and, though professing to defend them, she had rejoiced. When Mr. Wilcox said that one sound man of business did more good to the world than a dozen of your social reformers, she had swallowed the curious assertion without a gasp, and had leant back luxuriously among the cushions of his motor-car. When Charles had said: “Why be so polite to servants? They don’t understand it,” she had not given the Schlegel retort of: “If they don’t understand it, I do.” No; she had vowed to be less polite to servants in the future. “I am swathed in cant,” she thought, “and it is good for me to be stripped of it.”

She eventually recalls herself to most of the well-grounded gentle and considered ideas that her Wilcox-infatuation at first prompts her to consider ‘cant,’ but only after a great deal of the particular kind of intellectual hashing and re-hashing that make Howards End such an endlessly invigorating novel. The Schlegels are forever mouth-piecing philosophical set-pieces of Forster himself – and forever commenting on it when they do, as when Magaret, the older and wiser Schlegel sister, opines in haste:

“Of course I have everything to learn – absolutely everything – just as much as Helen. Life’s very difficult and full of surprises. At any event, I’ve got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged – well, one can’t do all these things at once, worse luck, because they’re so contradictory. It’s then that proportion comes in – to live by proportion. Don’t Begin with proportion. Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed, and a deadlock – Gracious me, I’ve started preaching!”

Yes she has, and readers wouldn’t have it any other way. Everybody in Howards End preaches (with the possible exception of the powerfully-drawn and saintly Wilcox materfamilias Ruth, although even she gets in her fair share of stem-winding), and that most certainly includes Forster himself. In a heroically rococo gesture (one that would have been immediately recognizable to Fielding but must leave people like Ishiguro completely befuddled), the narrative voice of Forster’s novel, in addition to telling us what’s happening, is forever interrupting to tell us – well, whatever’s on its mind at the moment. Most of these interruptions are also well-worn and oft-practiced Forsterisms, and all of them are intellectually evocative:

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all been issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature – for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.

Here, at least as far as it goes, the narrator is wrong (or, more likely, willfully coy): the great mythology of England is its novels, that imaginative geography unequalled by the literature of any nation, past or present, in the history of the world. The road to Canterbury … Elsinore … Utopia …Wuthering Heights … Barsetshire … Northanger Abbey … Middlemarch … Totleigh Towers … Brideshead … the Shire … How poor the literary world would be, if not for the ‘great mythology’ bestowed on it by England. One hundred years ago, that mythology received the hugely vital addition of Howards End, and that anonymous post-itter was right: virtually every single page of it is worth treasuring. Those of you who haven’t read it should put it on your shortest list. And those of you who have read it can take it from me: the re-reading is marvelous.

March 25th, 2010

From the Used Bookstore!

Hmmmm …. which parts of E. M. Forster’s masterpiece Howards End did its previous owner like the most?

Why, ALL of them, of course!

(Somewhere, Forster is very, very happy)

March 24th, 2010

The Last Governor!

Our book today is Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1997work The Last Governor, and it raises questions as old as Thucydides about the nature of writing history. Dimbleby’s subject is that thoroughly honorable rogue Chris Patten, who served as the last governor of Hong Kong and presided over the end of its long and storied life as a British colony. In the frenzied months leading up to the British consulate handing over control of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, Patten (whose walking tours of the city enchanted many residents and infuriated the British press back home) did considerable public and behind-the-scenes scrambling on behalf of the citizens and merchants of Hong Kong – trying to ready them for the shock of the coming transition, and trying to wrangle the best ‘deals’ for them from their impending autocratic overlords.

Patten’s task was unprecedented in British history. Although some governors had overseen the transition of colonies to freedom, no previous governor had overseen the transition of a colony to another power (on such a large scale as the teeming, near-overwhelming city of Hong Kong, this has scarcely been done by any government in the history of the world – a free book to the first of you who mentions the most obvious parallel in history!). Patten did this with a minimum of pomp – he eschewed the governor’s elaborate ceremonial costume, much to the chagrin of traditionalists – and he faced several formidable obstacles, including the most formidable of all:

The trigger for the next stage was the official visit the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was due to make to Beijing in September 1982. Rather late in the day, the Foreign Office briefed her for the first time on the unappetising options facing her government. Three years into her premiership, Thatcher was not only viscerally opposed to communism but, fresh from leading Britain to victory against the Argentinian junta, she had also become the most charismatic leader of the ‘free world.’ In the view of one of her closest advisors on China, ‘This had left her with a great disposition to military solutions, tough solutions and a certain degree of suspicion of the Foreign Office.’ According to Sir Percy Cradock, Thatcher’s attitude towards the policy of the Foreign Office on Hong Kong was essentially: ‘Here is another colonial outpost they want to sell off.’

When the idea of simply signing over Hong Kong to mainland China was first brought to her attention, Thatcher teetered on the brink of outright refusal (of telling the Chinese to take a running jump, as one bemused insider put it at the time) – she only gradually came to realize that the island of Hong Kong could not possibly be defended militarily, let alone supplied daily with the food, water, and energy it got from the mainland. Necessity was, as always, the mother of intervention – Britain had to let go, and the goal became letting go with as much grace and control as possible.

This goal was at every step of the way rendered that much more difficult by China itself. The massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 only underscored a fact that Patten was never at luxury to forget: the Chinese authorities were not quirky or idiosyncratic – they were vicious and repressive. And they played a very twisty, very tricky brand of foreign policy, running hot then cold then neutral on virtually every measure Patten and his team introduced to insure the people of Hong Kong some kind of voice – some measure of freedom – in their new country.

In these efforts, Patten met with some grudging measures of success – and storms of criticism, which is where Thucydides comes in. Writing ‘contemporary history’ is an endeavor that’s always been fraught with peril – as Dimbleby is the first to point out. The author in this case was not only present in Hong Kong for much of what he describes, but he’s a friend of Patten and willingly admits the possibility that this has leaned a bit on his assessment of the last governor’s successes and failures. The book is a fantastic, utterly absorbing reading experience, and part of the fascination (a much smaller part, I think, than the author worried) is wondering just how much skepticism should accompany every page.

And as in the case of Thucydides (and the many later examples that have come along), ‘contemporary history’ has a salutary vulnerability: most of the participants in the events described are still alive to write letters to the editor, write rival accounts, and sue, sue, sue. Dimbleby writes with verve and hugely appealing humor about a sprawling cast of characters, from Thatcher (whom he thanks in a fulsome opening note) to Britain’s formidable ambassador to China, Sir Robin McLaren, to Deng Xiaoping to Tony Blair – and most of all about Patten himself, whose accomplishments he praises openly:

The transparency with which, for the first time in their history, a governor had conducted diplomacy on their behalf, had both exposed them to the arguments and included them in the dialogue. Again and again they had endorsed his stance, despite the verbal abuse Beijing had rained down on his head. By no stretch of a patronising imagination could they now be thought to be ‘sleepwalking’ into the unknown. Yet there was no evidence of panic; no rush for the boats.

So the Thucydidean question becomes: how much of The Last Governor do we believe? How much of it will stand as actual history, in twenty, thirty, or a hundred years? Patten is now Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Margaret Thatcher is now Baroness Thatcher (and not expected to live out the year), and raucous, sinful old Hong Kong still benefits enormously from some of the systems Chris Patten helped to put in place. Our author believed in his man, as did some of the rest of us. We’ll just have to wait and see what future generations say. My money’s on Dimbleby; we still read Thucydides.

March 21st, 2010

A New Voice at Open Letters!

Regular OLM readers will notice a change this morning! No, nothing’s changed in our March issue, which is still on glorious display for all the world to read and enjoy (I was re-reading Laura Kolbe’s wonderful piece on Chekhov’s brother this morning – I highly recommend it). And nothing’s changed with Jeff Eaton’s marvelous cover photo ‘Snoverkill,’ although in many parts of the U.S. it feels as bygone now as it felt relevant at March’s beginning (that’s the single neatest feature of March, as a month). And your daily entertainment hasn’t changed in Lisa Peet’s antic, unpredictable signature blog Like Fire, or in the regular highfalutin’ complaints of that Walt Whitman guy, or in my own periodic musings and abusing here at Stevereads.

But you’ll all notice that the blog-roll has been expanded! A new name has been added to the players who will regularly strut and fret upon this stage in their efforts to delight and provoke you (and, to be honest, delight and provoke themselves too): please join me in welcoming Rohan Maitzen and her blog Novel Readings to the Open Letters ‘family’ of blogs.

Rohan is a professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia (and she was not, as some of you –and you know who you are – will no doubt initially guess, a shield-maiden during the siege of Minas Tirith)(although that would be kinda cool…), and that’s what makes her writing so amazing: it bears none of the deformities we’ve come to associate with academic prose – far from it! Her prose – and the delightful ongoing discussion that is Novel Readings – virtually sings with an open-minded, jargon-free love of inquiry, of discussion, and most of all, of reading. Popular literary essays (like the kind we work to provide you at Open Letters) have been called the world’s most influential ‘unofficial university,’ and Rohan excels at that kind of essay (as her pieces for OLM amply prove) – but she’s also an emissary of sorts from the world of the official university, and one of the most fascinating ongoing threads of Novel Readings are her dispatches from that world.

Open Letters is proud to have her joining us, so bookmark Novel Readings, comment liberally, and of course, enjoy!

March 21st, 2010

An Auspicious Debut in the Penny Press!

It’s an opening that would sit more comfortably at one of our estimable sister-blogs like PopWired or Pink is the New Blog, but nevertheless, it must be stated up front: actor James Franco (whom some of you might remember as the world’s bitchiest Green Goblin, or the world’s mumbliest Tristan, or the world’s least animated American WWI fighter ace, or as Robert DeNiro’s most hysterical co-star, but who is, nonetheless, a better thespian than you give him credit) is a nice guy. This is worth mentioning because a) he’s very handsome, and that can stop young men from bothering to be nice even if they remain obscure bank employees in Carol Stream their whole lives, b) he’s famous, which is a state notoriously lethal towards any kind of genuine niceness. Franco has avoided the pitfalls of nature and nurture and remained the nice guy I suspect he’s always been.

Which isn’t to say he walks on water; he can be filthy, and he does his requisite time as a partygoing lounge lizard, and more endemically, he routinely tries on and discards all the usual ridiculous rags of reinvention intellectually curious young men have always wasted time on throughout the ages – in this he’s no different than Alcibiades was at his age. Young actors are particularly vulnerable to this chameleon phase, and it’s never helped – or shortened – by having an excess of money.

That chameleon phase has lately prompted Franco to make some idiosyncratic movie-role choices, and, in a move that’s flatly baffled the Entertainment Tonight crowd, it motivated him to go back to school (his fellow actor Martin Sheen – with whom he has more in common than he’s so far allowed himself to see – did the same thing). Not to pursue acting, but to write fiction. And the fact that he’s famous – coupled with the fact that he’s not only nice but largely perceived to be friendly – creates a blurring cloud of preset reactions among those who will be the critics of that fiction: either they’ll like it because Franco’s a star, or they’ll like it regardless and be called sycophants, or they’ll hate it because he’s a star, or they’ll hate it regardless and be called jealous. It can make you feel sorry for the guy: he’s got to be wondering if this stuff he’s sweated and labored and cared over creating can get a fair hearing anywhere.

And it’s not just a question of venue, it’s a question of timing. His world-debut short story “Just Before the Black,” comes out this week in Esquire, which arrives in subscribers’ mailboxes at the same time as the 22 March issue of the New Yorker.

This would ordinarily be just another coincidence of publishing – after all, no matter when it arrives, it’s going to overlap with an issue of the New Yorker. But the 22 March issue of the New Yorker is one of those rare issues I’ve mentioned here in which every single thing goes right, in which the dreams of countless editors and sub-editors and fact-checkers and subscribers for the last hundred years all fulfill simultaneously. The New Yorker has been called the greatest magazine in the history of the world, and in issues like this one, it’s actually true.

Nobody makes a misstep, in the whole length of the thing, and we’re forced to realize that, like them or not, these writers are giants – and they’re creating an almost spooky synergy by working together right at this time. Showboating main editors come and go – several of these writers have worked for several of those editors – but quality like this is, or ought to be, eternal.

There’s the moodily evocative cover by Jorge Colombo; there’s Hendrik Hertzberg writing about nuclear power (“Converting mass to energy by atomic fission in order to achieve temperatures normally found only on the surface of stars like the sun and then using that extraterrestrial heat to boil water – well, it smacks of (to borrow a term from the nuclear dark side) overkill”); there’s an essay – doesn’t really matter on what – by the already-legendary John McPhee; there’s a piece by Jeffrey Toobin, the greatest living chronicler of America’s highest court, this time profiling Justice Stevens (“He’ll say something like ‘This is probably obvious, but I have this one question. Could you help me with this one point?’ An experienced advocate knows that you have to be on your guard, because he’s probably found the one issue that puts your case on the line”); there’s a hilarious, wonkily paranoid cartoon by Roz Chast; there’s a masterful theatre review by Hilton Als; there’s an exhibit review of the weird German artist Otto Dix by one of the greatest working art critics alive today, Peter Schjeldahl (“To truly appreciate Otto Dix, the most shocking major artist, against stiff competition, of Weimer Germany, it may help to loathe him a little … By disliking Dix, you may balance a sense that he dislikes you, too.”); there’s a great overview of the recent ‘unofficial orchestral Olympics’ recently held at Carnegie Hall, all in the mad pursuit of a nonsensical ranking as #1:

Not long ago, the British magazine Gramophone asked music critics to rate the world’s orchestras, and when the results were published there were whoops in some places and laments in others. The burghers of Amsterdam took quiet pride in the fact that the Concertgebouw placed first; their rivals in Berlin and Vienna fumed at being second and third; and Philadelphians were scandalized to find their honey-toned group nowhere in the top twenty. (I participated in the poll, but I am not about to reveal my list, for fear of being detained by the Austrian or Pennsylvanian police).

There’s even stuffy old David Denby, turning in his usual rock-solid dissection of some new movie starring one of his weird bête noirs, the cinematic non-event known as Ben Stiller (like a critical version of Stiller’s grandmother, Denby keeps urging the star, in review after review, to be more Jewish).

And perhaps best of all, perhaps the most tell-tale signal of the strength of this particular issue, is the luminously, almost sloppily brilliant short story by Junot Diaz, who in this kind of company we’re forced to consider as one of our finest living practitioners of fiction. The short story in this issue, “The Pura Principle,” is a wonderful return to form for Diaz, an utterly unsentimental account of a young man dying of leukemia and the predatory girlfriend he marries during a recuperative stay at his mother’s place. The prose is a marvel of sure control and funny as hell – an exciting experience utterly unlike the usual New Yorker angst fest.

So its appearance is great news for readers, but perhaps a bit bittersweet for Franco, because his own debut short story in Esquire is very, very good and would look dominating if it weren’t appearing in the same week as one of our greatest writers at the top of his game.

That’s just unlucky timing, though, and it can’t be held against “Just Before the Black,” which is, on the surface, noticeably Junot-esque: depressed, distracted, down-market characters talking lingo and getting wasted and bullshitting as they aimlessly wander through their lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of fiction – and it’s lucky there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, because it seems hard-wired to be the kind of fiction attractive young men write first, before they start writing the far more individual stuff that will be their literary mark on the world (before they even know if they can write that stuff). Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Richard Farina, Ernest Hemingway … the list is a long one (for all I know, Alcibiades belongs on it), and again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a legitimate enough sub-genre, and only very, very few writers can successfully mine it for longer than the one book, although many try. Nothing becomes derivative faster than simulated anomie and the reason for this is simple: there’s a waiting line a mile long behind every such author. It hardly seems like Bret Easton Ellis has time to sprout a single gray temple-hair before Nick McDonell is elbowing him out of Disaffection Central, and that’s as it should be.

Franco’s story (the whole forthcoming collection from Scribner’s unless I’m much mistaken) is firmly in this mode: two young guys, Michael and Joe, are just hanging out doing nothing at night. Michael is the narrator, and his almost inarticulate dissatisfaction with his life suffuses the whole story almost to the choking point (“I am friends with a slug,” he thinks, “and my other friends are pigs and wolves. I never make friends with nice things. Just the shit”). The portrait of Michael is alarmingly accurate of a certain type of aimless young man who wonders if he even feels anything. His reverie while driving is one many such men have had (indeed, it’s one not-so-young men have had and perhaps shared with the poor saps trapped in the car with them):

I love driving down an empty dark freeway, lit up intermittently by the lights at the side of the road, and when I see the lights, I think of all the little worlds out there, all the little animals living in their habitats out there, and how we could pull over and have an adventure at any one of those forgotten pockets of the world, just nothing zones, backwash refuse property in the wake of the great freeways, and I like passing all of them, racing down the freeway, like a tunnel into the night…

Eventually, Michael and Joe end up getting high with their dealer friend Hector, and in the drifting conversation that follows, Michael introduces into a series of hypotheticals the one hypothetical most young men couldn’t get high enough in their lives to introduce, and it stops both Joe and Hector, and it cracks open a light of revelation on Michael, and the whole of it is accomplished with a sure, caring hand. There’s some very good imagery here, and a palpable sense of longing to change.

Naturally, it’s tempting to read this story and ascribe something of that longing to Franco himself, but the story – and its companion pieces in the upcoming book – is not a psychological hypothetical, it’s a fact. And it’s not some air-thin Hollywood vanity project, as young male movies stars are unfortunately prone to perform (the hollow efforts of Ethan Hawke, the twee little curiosities of Crispin Glover, the shudder-inducing poetry of Craig Sheffer, etc.). Don’t get me wrong: Franco’s celebrity status no doubt made some aspects of this whole process undeservedly easier (getting your first story published in Esquire, for instance), but those things don’t define the end product – readers would have to take a story like “Just Before the Black” seriously no matter who wrote it.

So congratulations are in order for our new young author! A fine inaugural effort, and I, for one, am hoping there’s lots more to come.

March 18th, 2010

Flecks of Gold in the Penny Press!

Since I’m the argumentative sort (this will be no news-flash to most of you), it’s easy for me to get so caught up in yelling at the Penny Press that I overlook one of the biggest reasons to read it – and the biggest single reason why you should all be reading Open Letters every month: it’s only in the admittedly amorphous field of ‘literary journalism’ that you’ll find really smart, really articulate authors cutting loose with wit, acid, accumulated experience, and a certain free-floating brilliance you often won’t see in their more considered (i.e. less deadline-driven) prose. We all revere Edmund Wilson, after all, but who wouldn’t honestly prefer reading him dishing up his thoughts on John Dos Passos than slog through To the Finland Station again? The same thing with Virginia Woolf: the difference between reading one of her novels and reading her glorious, chatty, discursive book-essays is the difference between listening to your parish priest give a sermon during Mass on Sunday morning and listening to him freely discoursing after supper and supper’s cordial glass of wine – the former is no doubt good for your soul, but the latter is good for your mind, for your mercurial heart.

It’s only in literary journalism (a bugboo of a title, I know, by which I essentially mean short essays about somebody else’s art-production: a theater review, an author career-overview, one of Locke Peterseim’s brilliant movie reviews, somebody writing intelligibly about dance, etc) that an author will ask questions for which he doesn’t already have a whole seminar’s worth of answers prepared; it’s only in literary journalism that you’ll find lifelong serious readers actually talking about books, as opposed to lecturing about them. This difference is facilitated – almost necessitated – by the nature of the genre: a book-critic is forcibly reminded that his subject exists on a continuum: the author is still alive (usually – or not usually, in my own case), the work is still ongoing, so not all the answers are in. Great theater reviews can’t avoid this provisional humbling: they’re seeing one, at most two performances of a show before deadline comes calling. Literary journalism – especially the online variety – is more plastic than literature … corrections can be made, debates can flourish in letter columns, and everybody’s still filling all their spare time with reading. It’s thrilling.

Well, it can be, when it’s done well. Which, admittedly, is not all that often. We’ve all read countless book reviews, movie reviews, TV reviews, etc. that were ‘phoned in’ (a rhetorical holdover from when it was literally true, when distant reporters would commandeer a phone line and call in their stories to waiting typists back at the newsroom – the implication of haste has largely scrubbed off the term, but the implication that the resulting prose wasn’t considered at all by its writer is still with us, and still accurate) – a writer will pick up a couple of obvious points off the surface of a work, roll them around for a few paragraphs, then toss off a semi-witty exit-line and call it a day. The goal of any editorial team worth its salt is to use such pieces as seldom as possible, to hunt continuously for better, more lively prose to publish. It can’t always be found in time for deadline, but when it is – oh! Then you can have some great reading experiences!

Take the latest Harper’s – not the place I tend to go for such pith and merit, and my trepidation only increases when the subject of one such potential experience is Arthur Koestler, a boring, overrated author who’s nevertheless managed to snare and hold a certain amount of critical attention for the last fifty years. Literature periodically turns up such people, like rocks in a plowed field, and then you just have to wait patiently for the vogue to die down (which it sometimes doesn’t do – I’m still waiting for the world to wake up to the fact that 90 % of Hemingway is garbage and 100% of Gertrude Stein is too, but thanks to the heedless engines of academia, it isn’t likely to happen).

I was encouraged this time around by the fact that the article in Harper’s was written by Nicholas Fraser, one of the best book-essayists working today. And he didn’t disappoint: his review of Michael Scammell’s mammoth new biography of Koestler is infinitely better reading than the 200 pages of that book I managed to wade through before feeding it to my dogs – hell, it’s infinitely better than almost everything Koestler himself wrote. And the joy here, as I opened so many windy paragraphs ago, is that of great prose finely honed against the ticking clock:

… he repaired to the English countryside and played chess, preferring the company of his dogs to that of humans. In his later years, he wrote many books in which he alternately proffered science as a solution to the ills of mankind and attacked scientific pretensions on the grounds that science had become an orthodoxy as powerful and misleading as the Communism of his youth. Some of these books sold well, but without exception they have aged badly. Koestler attained brief moments of notoriety in the late 1960s when he said that man’s violence might be tamed by the development of a drug that diminished aggression. He became famous for encouraging and even attending unsuccessful spoon-bending sessions. Koestler insisted that his later work was important; he was wrong, of course, but one must appreciate in the aging, cranky Koestler the true skeptic’s disposition to overthrow any orthodoxy in sight.

That ought to stand as the final word on the author – at least until some equally talented writer comes along and offers a spirited challenge to that ‘he was wrong, of course’ – I hope it happens in Harper’s: the symmetry would be appealing.

Still, it’s not usually Harper’s where I go to find such great stuff; usually, I start with those twin titans of the literary-criticism world: the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.

In the latter, Tim Dee writes a very lively “Diary” essay about bird-watching (with a tip of the hat to Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes, which also got a favorable review at Open Letters) – or rather, bird-watching versus birders:

It’s easy to distinguish between the two types. Birders are the green-clad, kit-festooned action men of blasted headlands, sewage farms and reservoir causeways. They take pelagic trips and dribble a bucket of rancid bouillabaisse behind a boat to entice rare petrels: this is called ‘chumming’. What is crucial for them is the moment between sighting a bird and identifying it. There is a potent second or two (this can extend to hours if a tricky rarity is glimpsed) when the bird is wrested from a backdrop of wind or sea or marsh, or singled out from a cloud of lookalikes, and then named. In their itch to tag the wild, birders travel through the world as if they were closing it down.

But the prettiest gem this time around comes from the TLS, where Juliet Fleming turns in one of the most delightful, insightful theater reviews I’ve read so far this year. She’s writing about Peter Hall’s new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Rose Theatre, and practically every line of her review is ebulliently quotable, starting with the very first, which made me laugh out loud:

Could it be that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a very good play?

She’s talking about what a poorly-constructed, scatterbrained, ultimately silly play it is, but she’s mindful of the fact that a play – especially one by Shakespeare – can be all of those things and still work incredibly well, and she’s absolutely right that this is a defining characteristic of the play in question:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in particular, celebrates the power of theatre to move audiences in ways for which there is no accounting.

This is wonderful stuff (as is her throwaway quip while narrating the performance’s action: “So far, so adequate”), and yet it will likely never be anthologized anywhere or reprinted in any venue – it enjoys its only brief lifespan right here, in this evanescent staging where so much fine, fun writing happens. Like I said: thrilling.

March 18th, 2010

Comics: The Penultimates!

Marvel Comics served up two pivotal chapters in its “Siege” storyline this week – the penultimate chapter of “Dark Avengers” (a series in which psychotic government hatchet-man Norman Osborn, with duped official sanction, creates his own team of Avengers using bad guys costumed as good guys), and the penultimate chapter of “Siege” (a series in which the aforementioned Osborn and his ‘dark’ Avengers and their storm troopers launch a full-scale attack on the fabled city of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, which at the moment is hovering about twenty feet over some empty badlands in Oklahoma). The tension – as events that have been percolating for a couple of years now start to boil over – is extremely well-handled by all involved, and the feat of these two issues, which tell very closely interlinked stories in perfect cooperation, is, to put it mildly, not Marvel’s usual way of doing things.

“Dark Avengers” should be read first, if only for the enormous pleasure of seeing Norman Osborn’s secret ally finally revealed. Some of you may recall that I made a prediction about this ally’s identity waaay back when this whole adventure was starting, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong – happy mainly because the actual identity of that mysterious ally is so perfect, so plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face that I laughed a bit when it was revealed: I should have seen this, the simplest possible answer, coming.

Of course the secret ally is the same ultra-powerful secret ally Osborn’s always had: the super-strong energy-wielding Sentry – only in his Edward Hyde persona as ‘the Void.’ Brilliant.

In the previous issue, readers saw Norman Osborn talk the Sentry down from a tantrum in which he might have destroyed Manhattan, and in a moment of criminal insight worthy of the former Green Goblin, Osborn realizes that the Sentry’s terrified, traumatized wife might be the disruptive element in Osborn’s control over her husband. He orders his ‘dark’ Hawkeye (actually the murderous Daredevil villain Bullseye) to make Mrs. Sentry disappear.

In this issue that happens. Under the pretext of flying her to a safe house to wait out the current crisis, Bullseye gets her alone in an auto-piloted plane and proceeds with his trademark snide mind-games:

You’re husband, he’s almost a god – and you – you’re kind of, well, frumpy is the best word I can think of. I mean, he can have anybody.I mean, I can have anybody and all I do is kill people. And I swear, I can get any girl I want. Imagine the ass he’s missing out on because he’s married to you. And look at you. Do you even own a brush? Or a mirror?

This is great, ghoulish stuff, perfectly in character for everybody, despite how ugly those characters are. The issue’s only weird element comes not from the writing but from the artwork. Artist Mike Deodato has been doing the best work of his career on “Dark Avengers,” and that continues here (even the bare-bones horizontal sequence in which Bullseye kills Mrs. Sentry is a homage to the similar linearity other artists have used in some of Bullseye’s more famous murders in other comics), but every so often there are panels that were constructed entirely on a computer, and the contrast between them and Deodato’s regular work is jarring.

The issue segues perfectly into the big-scale goings-on in “Siege,” Marvel’s breakout hit (sales are running at almost three times Marvel’s own exuberantly pumped expectations), in which all Hell is breaking loose during the aforementioned Osborn invasion of Asgard. This issue features more fantastic Oliver Coipel artwork, and it’s a great thrill-ride, despite multiple oddnesses in the storytelling (one minute Thor is furiously fighting the Sentry, the next he’s calmly standing over a defeated Norman Osborn, for instance, and a newly-returned Iron Man (Tony Stark) is able to remotely shut down Osborn’s own super-armor even though we were specifically told many, many issues ago that Osborn had all the Stark-technology suits replaced with his own armor and weapons-tech).

We get some absolutely great, glad-you-waited-for-it moments, the best of which is certainly comes from the fact that writer Brian Michael Bendis remembered which Marvel character should have the payoff moment of finally decking Norman Osborn (and he gives that character a perfect line while doing it, a ‘real person’ line instead of a comic book slogan)(and there’s the fitting little image of Captain America putting a calming hand on his shoulder the moment after). And of course Coipel’s action-sequences are spectacular, especially the fight – such as we see of it – between Thor and the Sentry. When Coipel draws Thor hammering the Sentry with lightning, you can practically feel it (and he’s one of the only working artists who could have convincingly portrayed what happens to the city of Asgard in this issue). But for me, the neatest such little moment passes so quick you almost don’t notice it: in the midst of the melee, Captain America and his former WWII sidekick Bucky are bantering, just as they did in the Jack Kirby-drawn comics of seventy years ago. I smiled.

Oddly, the issue is almost as full of missed moments too – after all, this is the issue where Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man are reunited on the same side after years of separation, alienation, and heartbreak, and yet in this issue they just take up fighting the bad guys with nary a word or look exchanged. I presume such payoff moments will come later, but considering the fact that five pages of this issue are a text-only backup feature, I wonder that room couldn’t have been found to work in just a single panel or two in the main issue, showing how these three react to seeing each other again.

But picky comics fans can’t have everything (!), and this issue delivers a lot, including a slam-bang cliffhanger that sets up what promises to be a very exciting conclusion. You can read all about that here when it ships to comic stores, I’m guessing  sometime in August.

March 17th, 2010

The Red Hourglass!

Our book today is Gordon Grice’s mesmerizing 1998 thriller The Red Hourglass: The Lives of Predators. This is electrifying, horrifying stuff – Grice takes a close look at the predatory tactics and the encounter-lore of a few common predators in the natural world: spiders, snakes, mantids, and, interestingly, pigs and dogs. We get brief, intense natural histories of the black widow, the tarantula, the rattlesnake, and – in this great book’s most indelible chapter, the brown recluse spider. And like all the best strong, impressive writing, it has unintended side-effects: after you finish The Red Hourglass, you won’t pay an anxiety-free visit to your basement, patio, or attic – to say nothing of the great outdoors – for about a year. And this effect is evergreen: reread the book after many months, and you’ll still be out for another full year.

Part of the secret to this dark magic is the fact that Grice picks omnipresent creatures as his subjects, rather than, say, the great white shark or the grizzly bear. He picks animals you often don’t have to make any special effort to meet (especially if you live in the American West and Southwest). In fact, reading his book you’re reminded of that old saw of natural history books, that no matter where you’re doing your reading, you’re probably not more than five feet from a spider of one variety or another. In the grip of The Red Hourglass, you’ll become certain all of those watching spiders are venomous.

He studies the black widow spider as a passionate amateur who’s caught and kept several throughout his life and never been bitten. He recounts in fearful detail the agonies healthy adults tend to experience upon being bitten, and you can tell he revels in the fact that genuine mysteries lurk in the exact method of that agony:

The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight – in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.

There’s the same grisly, respectful fascination in the chapter on rattlesnakes – he points out what anybody who’s spent any time in out west will confirm: each rattler’s personality is different. Some will go out of their way to avoid even indirect proximity with humans, while others will seek out a confrontation. Some are meek, others flagrantly aggressive (although Grice keeps his focus pretty much squarely on the United States, this same dichotomy is true of the cobras of India – except for the part about any of them being meek). And all are potentially harmful, even the young:

Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. My father once reached into a patch of grass and was struck on the fingernail by a baby rattlesnake. The nail eventually blackened and fell off. He suffered no other effects. Some people claim young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. Possibly the explanation for this paradox is that young rattlesnakes show less restraint in using up their supplies of venom when biting defensively. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it is that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers.

The curveball of The Red Hourglass is its inclusion of pigs and dogs, two species most people might not at first classify as predators. The chapter on pigs does scarce justice to their gentle intelligence, but to be fair, Grice spends most of its pages talking about wild boars. And the chapter on dogs … well, it has some interesting personal recollections about sharing a town with a large pack of feral dogs, but as for the rest-let’s just say Man’s Best Friend continues to be one of natural history’s most persistent mysteries (which is another way of saying what we’ve said many times before here at Stevereads: dog-writing done by people who aren’t me tends to have lots of problems). My biggest chuckle is always the part where Grice interviews a man in Special Forces training who talks to him about facing a canine guard dog in mano-a-pawo combat:

Your big dogs go for the throat. I’m talking Doberman, German shepherd, most of the ones used as attack dogs. You put your arm up to protect your throat. You let him bite your arm, but you fall back with his momentum. As you fall, you put your other forearm just behind his head. As your back hits the ground, you’re bringing your knees and feet up to push him up over your head. Basically you’re giving him a monkey flip, and you’re holding your arms rigid. His mouth is hooked onto one arm, the other’s behind his neck, and as he flips his momentum snaps his spine. One dead dog. Not hard to do, but you have to sacrifice your arm. You’re okay if you’re wearing a thick jacket. If not, your arm gets pretty torn up. You could bleed to death.

Hee. See? I’m chuckling again. So the thing you learn in Special Forces training is that when you’re attacked by a large guard dog (the elasticity of whose neck muscles and tendons is roughly four times that of a human), the first thing you should do is lay down on your back and expose your abdomen and genitals. Why, that’s downright sensible! You know, sometimes I think the much-vaunted ‘Special Forces training’ we civilians hear so much about consists entirely of learning how to bullshit on epic levels. I’m 100 percent certain no Special Forces op ever used this preposterous ‘let me wrestle with you before you disembowel me’ tactic, but I’m equally certain the guy Grice interviewed told it all to him with a straight face and an earnest voice. That’s expert training for you.

Grice accurately reports that dogs are second only to humans as killers of humans – their sheer ubiquity makes virtually every human around them careless, so the fatalities are much higher than those of black widows or tarantulas or rattlesnakes. And fatalities aren’t really even the main issue in the book’s most grotesque and striking chapter, on the humble brown recluse spider. The brown recluse is exactly the kind of crack-and-crevice-dwelling creature you could almost certainly find in your room right there at home, if you were foolish enough to go looking. It’s a shy, retiring creature, but its venom contains an even bigger mystery than the extreme toxicity of the black widow’s bite. The bite of the brown recluse doesn’t poison flesh: it kills it. And the toxins involved somehow prevent the body’s natural systems from cleaning the wound – with the result that bite victims often have an open, suppurating gap of dead flesh to deal with for the rest of their lives, from a bite so tiny nobody ever remembers getting bitten. Grice finishes his gruesome, hypnotic book with his account of this animal and its bizarre defense:

The flesh affected by a recluse’s necrosis never heals. Somehow, the venom turns off the immune system and the body’s capacity for repairing itself in that patch of flesh. The victim can only hope the dead area stays small. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, The Red Hourglass is a book you should most definitely read. Grice is a master prose stylist with a perfect ear for the pace of drama. Just be prepared, once you’re done with the book, to live in a less comfortable world for about a year.

March 16th, 2010

Penguins on Parade! Christopher Smart!

Some Penguin Classics remind you of old melancholy – they can’t help it, since the history of literature is perforce so heavily littered with the stories of some very melancholy men and women. One such story is that of Christopher Smart, who was born in 1722 in the beautiful countryside of Kent, the son of Lord Henry Vane’s estate manager and a favored son of that privileged household. So the story doesn’t start out sad: young Kit had the best of everything, and that continued even after his father’s untimely death, when he was sent to Durham School and spent his vacations at Lord Barnard’s Raby Castle with the children of earls as his playmates.

But in this glorious beginning lay the seeds of future tragedy, because those titled children and those castle playgrounds (and the academic praise and prizes he started winning in his own right from a very early age) made Smart forget one vitally important thing, something we hardly ever talk about in America these days: he forgot his station. He spent all his happiest times around people who were in possession of an effectively limitless supply of money, and it impressed on him a taste for living far in excess of what was possible for the son of a bailiff.

Smart went on to Cambridge and got a degree in 1744 – and a reputation for wild, extravagant living. He decided to go up to London and try to make a literary career for himself, but he was already trailing massive debts, and had at least once been arrested for debt. London was not designed to improve such tendencies, and it didn’t: despite being gainfully employed and moderately popular almost from his first minute in town, Smart was never out from under crushing debt and never seemed to realize that he himself, his own habits and lifestyle, were to blame.

He married a smart, lovely girl and they had two daughters, but the stress of never having two farthings to rub together wormed its way into his mind, which was flighty and highly impressionable anyway. His father-in-law, the savage, opportunistic genius John Newbery, put Smart to work editing the various periodicals Newbery published, and even when Smart’s personal financial life was falling apart, he took to that work with an inimitable gusto – he edited everything, oversaw everything, wrote an enormous amount of funny, provocative, intelligent commentary, and then wrote a whole bunch more under various pseudonyms. In his work he was joined by some of the best literary minds of the day, all of whom had a blast being caught up in such fun times (although Samuel Johnson would have grumbled to admit how much fun he was having).

In 1755 Smart signed a 99-year contract with Tom Gardner to write for the Universal Visiter, and the following year (shortly after his largely delightful translation of Horace was finished) he fell down in a crowded street raving in prayer. The following year – after many, many weird incidents that a merciful history would cover in silence – he was locked up in Saint Luke’s Hospital for the Insane, where he continued to write, was beloved by the staff, but didn’t always recognize the friends and family who at first flocked to see him (strangers could pay a small sum to go and look at him too … Saint Luke’s, like every other madhouse, made most of its operating budget by such revenue). He was also, perhaps pointedly, free from prosecution for debt while he was there.

And that was the remainder of Christopher Smart’s life, which is a pretty melancholy prospect. He continued to write poetry – and some of it is monumentally, almost monstrously strange – but his marriage disintegrated, and finances were as abysmal as always (friends – including the renowned actor David Garrick – often put on benefits for his aid, but the lessons of Raby Castle ran too deep, and Smart never shook them off). In 1770 he was arrested for debt one last time and died in debtor’s prison the following year, with most of his work lost and even the extant stuff – plays, essays, prefaces, and some of the strangest, most luminous religious poetry ever written in English – scattered to the four winds.

Probably his recalcitrant, mysterious masterpiece was the Jubilate Agno, which runs on for verse after verse like this:

Let Merari praise the wisdom and power of God, with the
Coney, who scoopeth the rock, and archeth the sand.

Let Kohath serve with the Sable, and bless God in the
Ornaments of the temple.

Let Jehoida bless God with an Hare, whose mazes are
Determined for the health of the body and to parry the adversary.

Let Ahitub humble himself with an Ape before the Almighty
God, who is the maker of variety and pleasantry.

And as it unwinds, the rhythm – insistent, learned but nevertheless impenetrable – slowly mesmerizes you, like listening to foreign incantations at prayer time. The Jubilate Agno is the work of a visibly disordered mind – but a poet’s mind nonetheless, a poet playing and trifling with a gift he refused to refine.

The more you know about Smart’s life, the more melancholy and heartbreak entwine his verses (even the happy Horace translations take on a shadow, since Smart’s life-destroying insistence on extravagance was the precise opposite of Horace’s self-proclaimed moderation). For me, the almost unbearable little master-stroke of such sad knowledge comes in Hymn 32, which is titled “Against Despair”:

A Raven once an Acorn took
From Bashan’s tallest stoutest tree;
He hid it by a limpid brook,
And liv’d another oak to see.

Thus Melancholy buries Hope,
Which Providence keeps still alive,
And bids us with afflictions cope,
And all anxiety survive.