Posts from April 2010

April 29th, 2010

In the Penny Press! The Atlantic Fiction Issue 2010!

The Atlantic Fiction Supplement is here again, and the trouble once again starts right away. It doesn’t seem like I’ve had a full year to recover from the numerous outrages of the previous Fiction Supplement, but then again, I was hoping this new one wouldn’t have any outrages.

Instead, it’s chock-full of them, starting with the cover by Marcos Chin, an image of two readers: she’s got an electronic reader! He’s got an old-fashioned book! He’s got a little dog! She’s got a big dog! They’re both so absorbed they don’t realize they’re about to turn a corner and run into each other! I’m sure Chin’s underlying idea (beyond simply riffing on the motif of the covers of the last twenty New Yorker Fiction Issues) is that the delivery device of reading, be it paper or electronic, is largely irrelevant: either way, you still get absorbed, and either way, you still leave yourself open to serendipity. But the message any dedicated reader can take from the cover is very different: that reading is only a prelude, that it’s all about display, that it can’t ever be a goal in itself.

That would fit with this issue, in which there’s far more display than substance. It’s difficult to know how much of this is due to the Atlantic’s ongoing unholy alliance with the Canadian arts festival Illuminato, although surely some of it is; even the colorful full-page insert ads for the festival littered throughout this issue don’t really take pains to hide the fact that books and literature aren’t anywhere near the point of their hoopla (as far as I can tell, John Malkovich is). And the one little sop to reading and literature that’s included in those ads only increases frustration levels.

The offending item is an ad for a seminar on “Fiction in the Age of E-Books,” in which, we’re told, “four eminent writers join the deputy editor of The Atlantic to examine the most revolutionary development affecting literature today: the advent of the e-book. What does this mean for the future of literature? Is this the death knell of print or the start of something new and possibly better?”

Leaving aside the fact that the last question is misleading (it could easily be both at the same time), the fact is, if e-readers do turn out to be bad for literature, they’ll have had lots of help from The Atlantic. In the publisher’s note that starts off this issue, Jay Lauf informs us:

… and this year we have launched a direct-to-Kindle fiction series with Amazon.com, offering two new stories from both celebrated authors and emerging talents to Kindle users each month.

And non-Kindle users, you automatically ask? Well, they don’t get to see those two stories a month; they’re more effectively barred than was any hopeful peasant from a 12th century monastery library. So much for the dawn of something new and possibly better.

atlantic photo emilio guerra

Still, for the purposes of simple concentration, all this could be overlooked if the issue’s actual contents were worth the year-long wait. If you’ll recall, there were gems amidst the garbage last time around, especially “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht. It’s annoying but still possible to simply skip the exclusionary promises and the innumerable Canadian tourism ads if you’re drawn on by the promise of some really good short fiction.

Alas, that’s a mostly empty promise. There are seven short stories in this issue – a mere pittance compared to the amount that The Atlantic could be publishing and, I presume, once again a tiny fraction of the submissions they got for this issue, but still a hefty amount for most people to read in an afternoon. They could satisfy, if they were uniformly as good as a year-long wait would imply. But instead, they’re mostly place-holding exercises or turgid first drafts, so your year-long wait is rewarded by an afternoon of irritated sighs and angry page-flipping. Maybe it’ll all be easier on an e-reader.

The process can be speeded up by immediately discarding the deadweight. Since I actually read every one of these things from start to finish, I can help with that. For instance, there’s “The Silence,” an obligatory contribution by T.C. Boyle about a man and his insufferable wife at a vow-of-silence retreat in the desert. The thing is told in bobtailed little chunks, and in the first one of these, the man sees a dragonfly and longs to talk about it – a dragonfly, a creature of ponds and swamps, right there in the heart of the desert! And his wife shortly encounters a giant tarantula – right there on her bed! Boyle’s actual point of all this seems to be, “hey, what would happen if people took a vow of silence but then all this STUFF happened that they really, really wanted to talk about?” Yeesh. And this guy’s the headliner.

So you can entirely skip that one, and you can do likewise with “Bone Hinge” by Katie Williams – that’s what I was tempted to do, the instant I learned it was about two young women who are physically joined at the hip. And not at all alike, personality-wise. And who were born during a thunderstorm. This is called lazy writing, and it can be – it must be – ignored without compunction by busy people who don’t have enough time for all the reading they want to do.

mutual self-deception by jonathan bartlett

The other five stories have slightly more merit, although there are no knockout pieces like “The Laugh” (Obreht’s book is projected to appear in 2011). Ryan Mecklenburg’s “Hopefulness” is a fairly good portrait of a man driven (by his insufferable wife) to confront the emasculation of suburbia; “The Landscape of Pleasure” by Amanda Briggs, about a man’s daughter having a quick, meaningless fling with one of his friends (the man’s insufferable wife has a breakdown when she finds out), is a fairly skillfully atmospheric piece marred by a cheap, chintzy final line; and Stuart Nadler’s “Visiting,” about a man taking his estranged son to meet the grandfather he didn’t know he had (the man lied to his son, and to his incredibly insufferable wife), has some genuine intelligence behind it but eventually degenerates into a story about how amazingly cool and adult it is to smoke. Which kind of chilled my approval, as you might expect.

The two comparative highlights were stories by Jerome Charyn and E. C. Osondu. – but the stress is on ‘comparative.’ Not that either of these stories is bad. Charyn’s, “Lorelei,” is about a professional gigolo/grifter who returns home after decades and meets the girl who first initiated him into the practice of serial fakery, and Osondu’s is about a pure-hearted young man who’s briefly imprisoned because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both have interesting dialogue, professionally-deployed timing, and no insufferable wives as far as the eye can see (although the poor damaged siren of the former’s title bitterly regrets missing her chance to be one). Either story would have stood out a country mile in, say, an average issue of The New Yorker. The only reason they carry the slight whiff of disappointment in this context is because I, for one, absolutely refuse to believe there weren’t far stronger candidates among the thousands of hopefuls for their spots in this annual issue.

Perhaps some of those hopefuls might have got that shot, except that once again the Atlantic editors have seen fit to put three pieces of nonfiction in their special fiction issue. Two of these are so meaningless as to be almost contemptible: there’s an interview with notable curmudgeon Paul Theroux in which he’s forcibly made to say he has no objections, no real objections, no real objections at all to electronic reading devices (if an exclusive story of his doesn’t appear on the Kindle within the year, I’m the Shah of Persia), and there’s a little excerpt from Joyce Carol Oates that’s so passive-aggressively egotistical it’s virtually incomprehensible (and the point of it anyway seems to be that it deals with the fact that Oates’ famously dead husband was the editorial force behind The Ontario Review, raising once again the specter of Canadian dictation).

atlantic illustration by owen freeman

Of more interest – and certainly of more topicality, given how many of this issue’s authors are first-timers – is Richard Bausch’s essay on the glut of ‘how to’ books about novel-writing.

Bausch is a good writer, but boy, can he be a dense one. He upbraids the young generation of would-be novelists who buy and read these how-to manuals on novel-writing, praising the pure mission of literature and urging them to praise it too:

My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most – suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another – are defeated.

All fine sentiments, but the denseness-factor crops up right away to derail the moral outrage:

This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing.

I think it was one of the Gabor sisters who once commented that the only important kind of social climbing was done from lower tax brackets to higher ones, and it would to cute that Bausch doesn’t seem to know this – if writing weren’t his career (and if he shouldn’t damn well have known it before he started writing this particular essay). Of course today’s crop of young would-be novelists are going to ignore the rich literary heritage Bausch is talking about here – and they won’t be ignoring it in a desire for ‘intellectual social climbing.’ They’ll be after good old-fashioned money. The fact that Bausch either doesn’t know who Harlan Coben is (or the five dozen similar authors whose works make up the stock-in-trade of every big English-language bookstore in the country) or thinks he doesn’t look on what he does as a job … well, it goes a long way toward explaining the rather steep difference between Coben’s bank account and Bausch’s. God bless Bausch for being a true believer, but the buyers of those how-to manuals want Coben’s bank account. They’d tell the Muses to go jump in a lake, if they knew who the Muses were.

With ‘special’ fiction issues like this one, I feel like those buyers are one step closer to their goal. I’ll have to hope that some real, bright talent shows up in next year’s issue, to demonstrate the desperate, valiant, shopworn truth of Bausch’s point.

April 28th, 2010

Relativism Run Rampant in the Penny Press!

Keith Miller wrote a review last week in the TLS that was, as far as I can recall, utterly unique in the annals of that venerable publication. It was a review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but that’s not the unique part; Shields’ idiotic little collage was reviewed everywhere. No, the unique part was that Miller’s review was utterly free of actual aesthetic judgement. Right there in the TLS, in precincts long known for their fiercely opinionated pronouncements on all things literary, Miller turned in a piece that was to book reviewing what abstract painting is to photography. A lazy, sniveling cop-out, in other words.

Shields, as some of you will know, composed his little book of bits and pieces from the works of other people, and he shaped it all for the purpose of making the latest point that’s obsessed his sadly deteriorated mind: that literary ownership is a bogeyman of the 20th (or even – shudder – the 19th) century, that dutiful attribution is for sissies, and that only a mix-tape of memoir and meta-fiction mini-bursts has any chance of coping with The World 2.0. I’ve come across this mulish laziness before, many times (people sententiously proclaiming that the only literature they need to know is that written by their personal friends, etc.), and it never fails to both sadden me (because such morons literally have no idea what they’re missing) and enrage me (because if you’re lazy you should just admit it and slink away, not take pride in it –or worse, try to argue that it’s not actually laziness). And I guess I just count on the TLS being saddened and enraged by pretty much the same things that sadden and enrage me. It’s a deal we’ve mostly observed for half a century, and I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

Not this time, however. Keith Miller – a TLS regular and a very intelligent writer, regardless – starts off his piece promisingly enough, referring to Shields as “involved with the McSweeney’s axis,”  but the glimmers of hope fade pretty quickly after that. Bad enough he calls Shields’ vile,  racist book Black Planet “engaging, and, in some ways, brave” – I could swallow such a mischaracterization if it were just a small detour on the road to roasting Reality Hunger, but what follows is as mysterious as anything I’ve read in the TLS. Miller puts the pieces of a review in place, but he refuses to assemble them.

“You may or may not share Shields’s skepticism about the possibilities of the novel,” he writes.

“You may agree that we live in unprecedentedly complicated times,” he writes.

“You may accept the hip hop/collage model,” he writes, “or you may find it constraining in its own way.”

“You may feel that the issues of authorship and collaboration which Reality Hunger both debates and embodies are by no means settled,” he writes.

And there’s the concluding line of his piece:

“But Reality Hunger has little to say about style except to repeat the old macho-modernist canard that it’s something you must get beyond before you can say what you’ve got to say. You might feel you have to disagree with that, too.”

In professional circles, this is known as giving a book a pass, and I can scarcely recall a time when it was last done in the TLS. It’s not that Miller’s piece is bad – it isn’t, I doubt it could be. Like I said, he’s a reliably talented writer who always has thought-provoking things to say, as in this essay when he digresses briefly about David Foster Wallace:

This sense of basic things overlooked in the scrabble to explore elaborate ones is to be found even in the prodigiously clever and tirelessly humane Foster Wallace, whose endless, and rigorous, wrangling with himself and his characters’ selves yields, at times, an unexpected, slightly creepy flavour, a ghostly aftertaste of a judgemental, impatient, reactionary man.

That’s good, but it says very little about David Shields except obliquely. Nothing in this piece speaks directly to the two central rotten tenets of Reality Hunger: its inherent contention that you can’t find ‘reality’ in novels, and its equally obnoxious implication that if you did find it, plagiarizing it wouldn’t constitute a moral wrong. Nothing Miller writes addresses the core boring reality behind Reality Hunger, which is that Shields’ powers of concentration have addled (Beer? Pot? Video games? Middle age?) to the point where he won’t make himself pay attention to anything. Not to anything long and complicated, but to anything at all. The book is a hummingbird’s manifesto, a cretin’s credo of codified sloth, and dammit, I expect the TLS to say that, not dance around the issue with ‘you mays’ and ‘you mights.’

Fortunately, we have recourse to life-saving alternatives. When the subject is contemporary American fiction (and for all the ostentatious breadth of his plagiarized sources, Shields is basically writing about contemporary American fiction; given how deeply a pantywaist like Jonathan Franzen bores him, it’s extremely unlikely Shields has ever even heard of Anthony Trollope, and he’d probably besoil his britches if he so much as caught sight of Clarissa), especially contemporary American fiction, we can always turn to the two best critics of that genre working today, New York magazine’s Sam Anderson, and Open Letters Monthly’s own Sam Sacks. These two can be relied upon, not only to invariably find the important things to write about, but to write about the important parts of those things (and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve both got what John Adams referred to as a “remarkable felicity of expression”). Anderson is the more ruthless of the two, almost always eviscerating his subject instead of merely killing it. His take on Shields:

The book’s supposed profundities – that the line between fiction and reality is unclear, that genres an be more powerful when mixed, that narrative often imposes a simplistic order on the chaos of actual life – are, to anyone who’s ever thought seriously about any of these issues, a bunch of remedial Grade-A head-slappers. And yet Shields intones them with the air of a holy man whispering the final secret of the universe from his mountaintop.

Sacks is usually more magisterial, but that can make the final summation, when it comes, all the more damning:

Obviously Mr. Shields is perfectly capable of exercising the atrophied part of his mind that shuts down when confronted by traditional books; it takes a curious self-absorption to assume that the burden of change rests with everybody else. And ultimately, despite the interesting provocations in “Reality Hunger,” that’s the impression it leaves: Mr. Shields is espousing a movement that would valorize his own laziness. He’d like literature, and its millions of faithful followers, to conform to his own private version of reality.

Good stuff. Glad I can read it somewhere.

April 24th, 2010

Duchess!

Our book today is Susan Holloway Scott’s 2006 historical novel Duchess, not to be confused with Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, about the Duchess of Devonshire, which was retitled The Duchess to coincide with its movie version. Scott’s Duchess is Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who’s never had a big-budget movie made about her, although nobody who’s ever seen Susan Hampshire’s magnificent turn as the character in the BBC’s 1969 production The Churchills will ever forget it (if this were Stevesees, I’d write up a storm about that mini-series, so good, so well done). It’s hard to know who a modern casting director would find to play Sarah – we only know the actress would be really, really skinny. A walking skeleton was found to play Georgiana, after all, and even more hilariously, another walking skeleton was recently cast to play a young Queen Victoria, who was never in her life anything but butterball-plump.

Not that it matters: who needs movies when there are books? And this is a fine, fun book – Scott has inconspicuously mined the historical sources (there are fewer factual errors in this novel about the age of Queen Anne than I found in the last history of the period I read) and transmuted them into a narrative bursting with life.

One life in particular, of course, that of Sarah Jennings, who came from an old, well-born family late of Somersetshire and by the 17th century long based in Hertfordshire. She and her sister Frances were both attached to the court of the Duke and Duchess of York while Charles II was on the throne and careers were being made. In 1675 Sarah was 15 and energetically dancing with the court’s brightest rising star, the young and stunningly handsome army officer John Churchill, who in Scott’s passage semi-teasingly questions how many of her motives for serving the Duchess of York are in fact selfish:

Careful, I thought, careful, careful. “I’m loyal to my mistress, Colonel, just as I believe you should be loyal towards your master, the Duke of York.”
He smiled, pleased, I think, by what I’d said. “You’re scolding me, Miss Jennings.”
“If you need scolding, then I shall do it,” I said warmly. “The duchess has been very generous in her kindnesses to me.”
“Nothing in Whitehall is given for free,” he said. “You must have worked hard to earn that kindness.”
“I have,” I said, “for isn’t that one of the purposes of coming to court? To make oneself agreeable to those in high places, so that they will be agreeable and obliging in return?”
He laughed. “You’re an ambitious lass.”
I didn’t join his amusement. “I AM ambitious,” I said. “As are you, Colonel Churchill.”
“True enough.” His laugh had changed to a thoughtful smile: another judgment, and I passed.

Sarah’s most famous descendant, 20th century Prime Minister Winston, in his epic biography of her husband, aptly summarizes her with the line “she owned, when roused, the temper of the devil.” This is putting it mildly – Sarah Jennings was a brash, opinionated, omnivorously pugnacious woman, and that was before she became Sarah Churchill, the first noblewoman in the land. She bristled like a porcupine, and the wonder is that she never turned on her famous husband. “It was a case of love, not at first sight, but at first recognition,” Sir Winston wrote. “It lasted for ever; neither one of them thenceforward loved anyone else in their whole lives” … and then the end-note expected by anybody who’s ever read anything about her, “though Sarah hated many.”

The most famous and problematic person she both hated and loved was the woman who eventually became Queen: poor rheumatic Anne, who had for most of her life shared a sisterly intimacy with Sarah. Both of them were smarter than outsiders usually estimated, and both of them loved sharp, elbow-throwing humor. Anne called her “Mrs. Freeman,” and she called Anne “Mrs. Morley” – in part in knowing testimony to their belief that they’d have been fast friends even if they’d met as commoners, that their hearts were in sympathy regardless of titles.

Of course that sympathy could be strained, as when Sarah’s husband was off fighting the French – campaigns that cost Anne’s government heaps of money, as her advisers were forever telling her:

“Oh bah, Morley, don’t be so timid,” I said with disgust. “It’s a different tale when the messengers bring word of another victory. Then you order the church bells rung and the guns fired from the Tower to celebrate the new glory that’s come to your reign. You can’t have that without paying the piper.”
She sighed again. “I’ve never said the victories have not been appreciated. It’s only that Mr. Harley and the others believe there might be ways to accomplish the same good without spending so very much.”
“Oh, I see!” I snapped my fingers together. “We’ll pay for gunpowder with fairy dust, and sell pippins for cannon. Is there any wonder that Lord Marlborough writes to me constantly of quitting the army altogether and retiring to St. Albans?”
“I won’t allow it,” the queen said, aghast.
“John would indeed quit the army, and resign his commissions,” I said, my voice rising with emotion. “and so would I retire, and join him in the country. After all the service we have given, there’s only so much we can bear.”
The queen’s face crumpled. “Oh, Mrs. Freeman, don’t speak so, I beg of you! You know you are still my dearest friend! Why must you insist that I agree with you in all matters? Why can’t I be permitted to hold my own counsel, and you yours, the way you once did?”
I rose from my chair, unable to listen to any more. “I’ll be the same Mrs. Freeman when you can manage to be the same Mrs. Morley.”

The story of a woman who could behave so to a queen (and Scott is only nominally inventing, for this and many other such scenes) is well worth a novel or two, and this one will stand as the best of the generation. Now if only some enterprising soul, some modern Winston perhaps, would embark on the 800-page straight-up biography this infuriating woman deserves ….

April 23rd, 2010

The Grizzly Maze!

Our book today is The Grizzly Maze, Nick Jans’ 2006 account of Timothy Treadwell, the self-proclaimed grizzly guru who spent years on Alaska’s Katmai coast filming himself walking around its population of bears, talking to them, even singing to them, all the while talking about them to the video camera operated by his girlfriend Amie Hugenard. Treadwell believed that the bears had received bad press over the years, stigmatized as enormous, short-tempered killing machines, and he claimed his goal was to use his videos to instruct people (especially school kids, with whom he was very popular) in the true nature of wild bears – and to curb poaching while he was at it, a claim scoffed at by all the experts Jans interviews in his book. One of them puts it like this:

He never saw one poacher – I don’t think he even knew what a poacher looked like. And if he had run into someone that desperate to hunt illegally in the park, they would have shot him, stuffed him in a crab pot, and he would have just disappeared. That business of his was a total fabrication.

But of course it’s not his videos or his conservation efforts – such as they were – that made Treadwell famous. No, his brief, problematic immortality came along a route only he would have found unexpected: in 2003 both he and his Hugenard were mauled and then eaten by one of Katmai’s bears. The story became a world-wide sensation, in part because Hugenard pressed the ‘record’ button on the video camera’s audio and so caught the whole six minutes of Treadwell’s death and her own, and in part because of the easy irony that surrounded the whole thing.

One of the main strengths of Jans’ book is the fact that he was able to get normally-reserved experts and field specialists to open up about Treadwell after his death. Virtually all of these experts then immediately apologize for doing so, but their exasperation is mercilessly evident, as when Jans suggests that, for all his faults, Treadwell must have had a ‘way’ with bears:

You must be joking! He was an absolute disaster with bears. You’ve been to Katmai – you’ve seen it yourself. Those bears are so tolerant, so laid back, you could have a day care center out there. No one’s ever been killed in Katmai, not ever. I don’t know how he managed, but he finally goaded a bear into it … Did Tim Treadwell teach me anything about bears? Yeah, it was an incredible testament to their patience. Look, there are only two reasons, from a mature bear’s point of view, why any creature would approach it closely – to mate with it or displace it. That’s the message he was constantly sending bears: I want to hump you or I want to chase you off.

(Equally devastating is the response when Jans suggests that from all accounts, Treadwell at least seemed like a nice guy:

Nice? Nice? Everybody’s nice. That’s not the point here. The measure of a person isn’t how nice they are – it’s what they actually do in the world. A bank robber might be pleasant and funny if you meet him on the street.)

But the dark centerpiece of this book – of any book on Treadwell – must be a re-staging of his horrific death, and here The Grizzly Maze is involuntarily captivating. We can’t know the precise details of that fateful encounter, although it’s possible to infer a lot from the sounds of that tape (which was recovered, preserved, and then tastefully removed from most of the Internet).  Although bears often bluff or change their minds, we know this attack was severe from the very start (as Jans points out, Treadwell had been around bears for years and seen a great many of their squabbles with each other, so when he calls out to his girlfriend – clearly audible on the tape – “I’m being killed out here!” – we can assume he knew exactly what he was talking about). We can guess that Treadwell of all people was hopeful of a happy ending even after the initial violence, although Jans points out a haunting alternative:

It could be, though, that things happen much faster. Timothy steps out and instantly senses that this time IS different. He knows this bear. And he knows it means to kill him. He looks the animal in the eye, six feet away, and understands it’s over. There’s scarcely time for that realization to blur past before the bear is on him.

There’s an element here of sheer physical terror, mainly due to sheer speed, an aspect of bears most non-hikers tend to forget. In the world of predatory mammals, once you decide to attack, you give it everything you’ve got. Humans – constantly hoping to avoid injury – seldom reach that point as quickly or entirely as other large mammals, and the gap is always disorienting, as is the gap in raw power involved:

The speed and force of a grizzly attack is overwhelming. Like being hit by a truck doing sixty. Or an avalanche. What many survivors of a mauling recall is the sheer explosion of power that tears into them, sweeps them along like a scrap of paper. One woman describes being grabbed, shaken, and thrown into a tree; anther victim says the most painful and lasting injury he suffered was the deep bruising caused by the bear’s snout slamming into his chest.

The audio tape here is roughly six minutes long, and Treadwell is screaming for about four of those minutes. The bear initially mauls him then retreats (a common practice among bears – if you’re attacked and you do everything you’re supposed to, curling up on the ground, protecting your head and neck, staying still, and the bear leaves, for Heaven’s sake, stay still awhile… the bear is almost certainly watching) – Jans speculates that Hugenard may have rushed out to tend to Treadwell’s injuries. But the bear comes back, and the audio records a deeply disturbing scenario: Treadwell’s cries seem to fade – not because he’s getting weaker (as Jans points out, he’s denied the boon of shock or quick unconsciousness), but because he’s being dragged off into the bush, to be eaten at leisure.  For the moment, Hugenard is left alone in the middle of the destroyed camp site, with splatters of fresh blood on the ground all around her.

When the bear returns for her, the tape is still running. Her screams don’t sound human, but then, there was probably very little of the human being left in her by that point.

Jans has done a masterful job in telling a story that should never have needed telling in the first place. Every time I read a book like this, a part of me hopes it’s the last such book I’ll ever read, the last account of some idiot provoking a wild animal to kill him and thereby bringing more misery and death on wild animals just in general. But those books keep coming, mainly because idiots are in no short supply.

April 22nd, 2010

Penguins on Parade! Selected Sidney!

Some Penguin Classics do their duty quickly, efficiently, and with minimal fuss – indeed, considering how often Penguins are assigned as schoolroom texts, it’s fair to say a great many of them do just that. And although I haven’t been in a schoolroom in a long time, constantly reading and re-reading all types of books keeps me in a kind of schoolroom always – and sometimes a quick, no-fuss volume is exactly what I want.

One such volume (Penguin has produced thousands over the century – we’ll be seeing many, many more in due time) is the Selected Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, a slim, packed volume created in 1994 by Elizabethan specialist Catherine Bates. It’s an unenviable task, taking the large and extremely complicated poetical output of a writer like Sidney and distilling it into a volume of 200 pages without distorting the very works you’re editing. Sidney only lived 32 years, but he crammed the living of twice that time into his span, and in between all the rest, he and his sister managed to write some of the finest, most rarefied verse England had seen in hundreds of years. Getting all that into a book this size and doing justice to all of it is no mean feat, and Bates accomplishes it with a very appealing minimalist style. I don’t know of a comparable Sidney volume that wouldn’t either baffle or alienate college-age readers coming to the poet for the first time; Bates’ volume might just keep them reading.

Sidney was born to money and given an incredible education that for all its wonders barely managed to keep pace with his own superabundant abilities. He attended Oxford when he was 14, and by the time he was 20, he’d witnessed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, visited Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Basle, Bratislava, Vienna, Venice, Padua, Genoa, Florence, and Poland, and met and charmed (even though he’d had the smallpox, he was in his late teens and early 20s an astonishingly handsome young man) most of the leading scholars and intellects in all those places. Back home in England his unnaturally sweeping intellect and ability were already gaining him the age’s closest approximation of celebrity.

And in between his other accomplishments, he regularly retired to the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke, Wilton, where he got to do the single thing he liked best in all the world: talk, laugh, and collaborate with his sister Mary. It was at Wilton that they wrote the Old Arcadia, with its seemingly endless array of styles and voices (Bates gives generous selections):

This cave is dark, but it had never light.

This wax doth waste itself, yet painless dies.

These words are full of woes, yet they feel none.

I darkened am, who once had clearest sight.

I waste my heart, which still new torment tries.

I plain with cause, my woes are all mine own.

No cave, no wasting wax, no words of grief,

Can hold, show, tell, my pains without relief.

Mary also helped him dream up his oddly stilted, oddly moving masterpiece, the sonnet sequence (the first in English) Astrophil and Stella, so full of a young man’s ardor:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance

Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,

Both by the judgement of the English eyes,

And some sent from that sweet enemy, France;

Town-folks my strength; a daintier judge applies

His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;

Others, because of both sides I do take

My blood from them who did excel in this,

Think Nature me a man of arms did make.

How far they shoot awry! The true cause is,

STELLA looked on, and from her heav’nly face

Sent forth the beams, which made so fair my race.

Instead of bracing her edition with a long scholarly introduction, Bates keeps things stripped down and simple: a two-page overview of the provenance of Sidney’s manuscripts, a two-page summary (rather than a 15-page narration) of Sidney’s life, from his birth in 1554 to his tragic death at Arnhem in 1586, and then BOOM, you’re reading poetry! But not entirely unassisted: the endnotes come with terrifically compacted explications where necessary, like this one:

Edward named fourth … Edward IV (1442-82), who usurped the throne in 1461 after his father, the Duke of York, was killed fighting the Lancastrians. Edward was notorious among sixteenth-century chroniclers for his licentiousness, and Shakespeare presents him as enjoying ‘his hateful luxury/And bestial appetite in change of lust …/Even where his raging eye or savage heart,/Without control, lusted to make a prey’ (Richard III, III.v.80-84). Astrophil’s identification with this king invites a degree of irony at his own expense.

That last line is choice and shows an insightful editor working hard to stay inconspicuous.  That can be a blessing sometimes, when all you really want is the poetry served up short and neat. There are much, much longer editions of Sidney’s verse – Penguin has been presenting various incarnations of this much-studied but not-enough enjoyed poet for decades (we’ll get to their cinder-block unedited Arcadia by-and-by), but I think this volume is the friendliest – for which its editor is to be most heartily thanked.

April 21st, 2010

Comics! Star Trek!

IDW recently slipped something in under the radar (well, they might have been crowing it from the rooftops for all I know, but it sure as Hell slipped under my radar) that evoked two different kinds of nostalgia. The item in question is the first issue of a Star Trek series called “Leonard McCoy: Frontier Doctor,” and the first kind of nostalgia is the sweet kind, because the series is written and drawn by none other than John Byrne, and there was a time –it doesn’t feel all that long ago – when something, anything, written or drawn (to say nothing of both) by Byrne couldn’t have slipped under the radar of anybody even distantly connected with the world of comics. Byrne shot to stardom with his artwork on X-Men, made the cover of Time magazine with a drawing of Superman, and has been a fan favorite in the comics world for thirty years. Finding his latest work in an unheralded project by a company I’ve never heard of – well, it gave me pause (although again, IDW might be well known and just new to me, although the clerk at the Android’s Dungeon – Ho-Ho’s belly, too-tight black T-shirt, scraggly hair, you know the guy – made it sound like any actual Quality you find in an IDW title would be purely accidental in origin).

The second kind of nostalgia was bittersweet, because even a glimpse at the inside of the first issue is enough to tell any Star Trek fan the setting of the thing: the famous gap in the show’s continuity, the uncharted (officially, at least) span of time between the end of the 1960s TV series and the opening of Star Trek – The Motion Picture. When our original cast went off the air, they were still in space, boldly going where no man had gone before; when the much-maligned franchise-relaunching movie opens, Kirk is an admiral, Spock has gone back to Vulcan, and the Enterprise has been in refitting mothballs for months. I remember the little shock I felt, watching that movie in the theaters, thinking, our crew broke up.

This series opens with a shot of Admiral Kirk at his desk at Starfleet Headquarters – he’s got the Shatner pompadour of the period, the pajama-style uniform, the works. And he’s telling an assistant that overseeing the refit of “his old ship” has got him feeling nostalgic. Star Trek fans can instantly share that nostalgia (and instantly become annoyed with Byrne’s typically sloppy storytelling – Admiral Kirk obviously didn’t oversee Enterprise’s refit, since when he takes over in the movie’s emergency, he knows nothing of how the ship works), because this version of Star Trek was loudly and successfully supplanted in the movie theaters last summer. We don’t know yet if the new Jim Kirk will ever become an admiral – his history has yet to be written.

Those same fans have to wonder if it’s ever going to be written. The 2009 Star Trek movie launched to much fanfare and was more or less positively reviewed everywhere, and it did well at the box office. And yet there’s no sequel planned until 2012 (three years to make a sequel? Half the new cast will have od’d by then), and in the meantime there’ve been no novels set in the new continuity, no short stories (excepting the roughly one trillion ongoing soft-core porn fan fictions involving Spock and Uhura) – only a skimpy comic book adaptation of the movie (also by IDW) … nothing to keep this new vision alive. That’s not how we did things with my Star Trek (if it had been, there would never have been an original movie, let alone all the rest of this).

That new vision isn’t kept alive by “Leonard McCoy: Frontier Doctor” either … an old vision is. This is John Byrne’s take on some of what transpired during that famous gap between the original series and the first movie – this is his version of what Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy was doing in the missing years.

Fans will recall his  scene-stealing appearance in the first movie, bearded (and sporting a kick-ass ‘70s medallion), grousing about the little-known ‘reserve activation clause’ Star Fleet used to ‘draft’ him back into service. This series takes place well before that moment – the beard is still in full force. McCoy has written an old-fashioned letter to his friend Jim Kirk, telling of his adventures with the Federation’s Frontier Medics program, and the story opens as McCoy is accepting the thanks of grateful Andorian colony-leaders for his help in delivering a baby (we’re left to presume there’s a lot more to why the Federation’s greatest medical mind would be needed for that instead of Hattie McDaniel – again, you’re wasting your time if you’re reading Byrne for the words). He and his assistant are on their way to their next assignment when two things happen: they discover they have a stowaway in the person of a feisty teen Andorian girl named Theela, and they receive an emergency summons to the planet Ophiucus III.

Turns out the surface of Ophiucus III is almost totally covered in an endless variety of planet life – the planet has no animal life, but it does have seed-pods that take wing like birds, and giant roots that migrate during the dry season. And it has one thing more: a deadly infection that’s spreading among the human inhabitants. The planet’s livestock are unaffected, as is Theela, who’s eventually pressed into service by an ailing McCoy to implement an antidote that’s long on convenience and short on plausibility. The issue wraps up neatly, and more issues are coming.

It’s not all that effective as Star Trek, but it took me a little bit to realize some of the strengths on display here, most especially in John Byrne’s artwork. True, he shows throughout a weird decision to make McCoy look like an elderly Chinese man, but his lines are clean and neat (his 23rd century nighttime cityscapes are quietly evocative in a way I like more each time I look at them) and relaxed – and that last one is the key: in this series, Byrne is completely freed from the typical comic book convention of bulging muscles and chiseled physiques – and despite the fact that Byrne made his entire reputation off those physiques, this style suits him infinitely better.

Having Kirk in the story’s framing device is a nice touch (nice and necessary, since it’s hard to picture McCoy having any kind of contact with anybody else from the old crew, especially Spock), and it raises a question I’m hoping (against hope, admittedly) Byrne isn’t too lazy to pursue. In Star Trek – The Motion Picture, Kirk quips “For a man who swore he’d never return to Star Fleet…” – But the McCoy of this series seems to bear no such animus. Let’s hope the coming stories angle closer to the interpersonal and away from the ‘one medical mystery per planet’ formula that’s enacted here.

And while we’re planning pipe-dreams, how about signing Byrne up to use this new, relaxed, dynamic drawing style to chronicle lots and lots more Star Trek adventures? With a couple of Trekkies looking over his prose for howlers, of course …

April 18th, 2010

Tudor Sea Dogs in the Penny Press!

Sometimes – far too infrequently for my liking – keeping up with the Tudors means keeping up with their pets, and last week’s TLS had a brief snippet on one of those times: a mention of “Hatch,” the dog-skeleton found on King Henry VIII’s fighting ship the Mary Rose when she was finally raised from the bed of the English Channel, some 250 years after she sank.

As the TLS points out, Hatch would have been a working dog, a ratter: Tudor sailors believed having a cat on board was bad luck. Since cats rat by stealth and patience and ratting dogs just bull in and kill their quarry, it stands to reason a) Hatch had the Mary Rose reasonably rat-free in very little time, probably while the vessel was still fitting out in Portsmouth harbor (no whole, drowned rat-remains were found on the ship, only tiny – knawed upon? – fragments) and b) Hatch got very little in the way of other exercise or proper diet – the flat feet of the skeleton hint at quite a bit of time either pacing the decking or else pacing a cage.

Nevertheless, Hatch was a warrior dog: he was on board the Mary Rose when she launched to counter a massive French invasion in 1545. The ship was a huge state-of-the-art seaborne blunderbuss of 700 tons, and she might have proved a terror to the French had she not been under the command of that prize-winning booby, that bumptious, officious moron, that dolt of the first rank, George Carew.  Impressed as always with empty bluster, Henry VIII gave Carew command of the Portsmouth fleet entrusted with repelling the French (as symbol of his authority – and in characteristically snide Tudor reference to a proclivity of Carew’s best not mentioned in front of the children – he was given a golden whistle).

Carew took command on the Mary Rose about a day before he was supposed to fight her against seasoned French warships. By that point his vessel had already been dangerously overloaded (not least by Carew himself, who’d taken the liberty of having nine-tenths of his worldly goods loaded on board already, including extensive wardrobes, furniture, gold plate, and for all we know, the very stones and wooden beams of his home estate back in the country), and that overloading got worse, with fighting men packed on board far in excess of the number who could ever be effectively used in combat. These men were unknown to Carew – half of them were unknown to naval service – and the result may have been a merry, cheering sight in dock, but it could only spell disaster once you needed to get something done.

And so it proved. The Mary Rose launched in July of 1545 and promptly started listing. George Carew had just enough time to call out to a nearby vessel that favorite canard of bad commanders everywhere – “It’s the crew’s fault!” – before he and nearly everyone under his command went to their watery graves – including poor Hatch, who got his nickname from the modern excavators who found his remains near a carpenter’s cabin, leading some to wonder if he wasn’t shut into a cabinet when he drowned.

However it happened, Hatch’s mortal remains are now on display for the public, and while they’re gawping, they ought to remember that this little skeleton represents a gigantic chunk of the Tudor world of which we seldom see anything: the animals. Horses, sheep, pigs (including pet pigs), birds, rats, mice, and innumerable cats and dogs surrounded every single individual in Tudor times, from the lowliest commoner to the highest minister. It was a world filled with their noises, their smells, and their unfailing tendency to provide companionship and provoke affection. When we think of the era, we sometimes too easily think of the rich clothing and polished pewter of the most familiar Holbein portraits and mentally edit out that other society, off to the side, pawing the earth impatiently, or licking its paws, or simply watching with apparent indifference while traitors’ heads were chopped off.

Although you can 100 percent believe the sketch of George Carew’s officious, dimwitted mug done by Holbein – in that he was, as always, entirely accurate.

April 17th, 2010

Hurricane!

Our book today is David Wiesner’s 1990 kid’s book Hurricane, which uses simple language and a great range of somber colors to capture perfectly the ambiguous thrill of waiting out a big storm – the way it turns day into night, the way it feels, as one of the characters puts it in this book, like being in a “green blizzard.”

The focus here is on one family: a mother, a father, two little boys (David and George), and Hannibal, the family cat. They live in a pretty little house on a manicured suburban street, and as the book opens, a long-predicted hurricane is just starting to touch land all around them. The boys’ parents have brought out provisions – batteries, flashlights, candles – and secured the glass doors and windows of the house with duct tape (arranged in playful faces). The boys notice that Hannibal is nowhere to be found – they discover him meowing indignantly on the back steps, having been accidentally left outside during the storm preparations (inexplicably, they then take him inside).

As the storm picks up strength, the power goes out – but the atmosphere here is purely calm: the house itself is never in danger, despite the loud and ominous sounds outside. The boys go to sleep that night to the comforting light of their storm lantern, wondering how the squirrels and birds outside are managing to survive.

In the morning, the storm has passed, and the boys emerge to survey the aftermath. They’re amazed to find that an enormous tree has been downed – they’d played around it all their lives and no doubt thought it was indestructible. Wiesner’s narrative here takes a whimsical, enchanting turn, as the boys’ imagination transforms the fallen tree into the bedrock of several fantasies, ranging from the savannahs of Africa to the far reaches of outer space (there’s also a pirate ship with a particularly well-done octopus).

Soon enough, workmen come to carve up the tree and cart away the sections, which saddens the boys. They’re dejectedly remembering their “good tree” when their father calls them inside – another storm is coming, and the family once again needs to batten down the hatches and wait it out. The boys go cheerfully, wondering if this time another big tree will fall.

Of course this book was written well before the word ‘hurricane’ became synonymous with ‘Katrina’ in America, and no callousness is intended in how the boys consider the storm and its damages to be one big game. Instead, what Wiesner perfectly conveys is the wonder of a big storm hitting (especially if you live in a lightly-landscaped suburb instead of a flood plain well below sea level), the way it sparks the imagination by changing all the givens. The book’s use of colors is particularly sharp – the dark of the storm gathers gradually, page by page, and the bright of the morning after is all the more dazzling.

It will probably bring back fond memories for any adults who’ve lived through such storms (especially in the American northeast, where the book is clearly set), and kids will like that aspect of it too – although I suspect they’ll enjoy the octopus more, at least until they’re a little older. Until then, the fantasy elements will win the day (in the final panel, even Hannibal is dreaming a particularly catlike dream).

April 14th, 2010

The Open Letters Monthly Anthology!

Our book today is one I’ve waited a long time to recommend to all of you: the very first Open Letters Monthly anthology, collecting some of the best, most interesting, most thought-provoking stuff we’ve published in the last three years.

“It’s always strange to be born/Just before the cusp of some new age” – so Sommer Browning writes in “Either Way, I’m Celebrating,” one of the many poems John Cotter (also the anthology’s editor) assembled from his days as Poetry Editor on the site, and it’s hard not to think of that line’s sentiment when looking at the print world today. Not only are publishing houses merging and shuttering offices, but newspapers and magazines are either shrinking or eliminating their book and arts coverage. Increased environmental awareness has brought the whole process of printing, shipping, returning, and pulping books under awkward scrutiny, and the ubiquity and popularity of e-readers grows hourly. Open Letters itself is and always will be a paper-free online endeavor. We may well be seeing the end of printed books as we’ve known them.

But while they’re with us, they’re more with us than anything – they’re our debate opponents, our listening ears, our sanctuaries, our respites from boredom, ignorance, even grief. If printed books are indeed on the cusp of some new age, Open Letters Monthly now has one foot firmly planted on each side of the divide: our content changes every month (and every day) online, and now we offer you a printed book, a slim, pretty anthology to put on your actual physical library shelves.

You’ll take it down from those shelves too, often, because there’s a lot more here than some great poetry. There are lively, funny, quotable, definitive essays on such a menagerie of subjects that no reader will go away empty-handed. The poetry of John Donne, the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers, the politics of George Eliot, the gossipy fiction of Fanny Burney, the pugnacity of Norman Mailer, the weird genius of The Last Samurai … all these things are gloriously illuminated for your reading pleasure. The navigation of Christopher Columbus, the desperation of treaty-making with Hitler, the endless fascination of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the verbal fisticuffs of the Founding Fathers … these thing and much more are given thorough, thought-provoking examinations.

And there’s one other intense point of light here: this anthology of necessity enshrines some beginnings, and those beginnings should compel your curiosity: Here is the first publication of the long-form multi-book fiction dissection that Sam Sacks already does better than any critic alive; here is the brooding, authoritative essay-voice of Adam Golaski still at the dawn of his career; here is the heartfelt but unsparing political commentary of Greg Waldmann seen before it becomes the scourge of the mighty; here is Phillip Lobo for the first time passionately demonstrating that we must make room for the new art form of video games; here, at last in print, is John Cotter writing about Anthony Burgess. The world of open letters in twenty years will know these names with a reflexive, ironclad regard – and that world will marvel that so many of them started here, together. Take it from me: assemblies like this don’t come along often in publishing.

We have no idea when the next Open Letters anthology will come along. Perhaps by the time it arrives, Sommer’s new age will have dawned, and we’ll no more consider printing and binding a paper volume than we would carving one in stone or scoring one onto vellum. Perhaps this will be the only such printed anthology that ever happens.

But in any case, it’s the first, and its supplies are limited. The thing’s clean, pretty design is the brainchild of Maureen Thorson, and the price is an everyman $12.  I earnestly recommend you go here and order a copy. As I’m inclined to say here when my heart is leaping with a reader’s joy: you’ll be glad you did.

April 13th, 2010

Good Hooks, Bad Books: The Invisible Man!

Be it a third martini, or a second Gulf War, we’re all familiar with ideas that look great in theory but are disasters in practice. In the literary world, those disasters grate especially intimately; there’s no feeling quite like reading a book and wishing it were better, wishing it had seen more of its own potential – or even just wishing its author could write a little better.


Today’s bad book with a good hook is The Invisible Man, the 1897 novel by H. G. Wells (about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same name – a bad book with a bad hook – the less said the better), in which a megalomaniac scientist named Griffin develops a serum that will turn him invisible. He tries the serum out first on his landlady’s cat – after first strapping the miserable creature down, of course – and watches astounded as the animal disappears (all except for its inky cat eyes, which appear to defy even modern science, then as now).

Shortly after that initial success, he makes himself disappear, and by rights the novel – now empowered by one hell of a good hook – should take off.

But it doesn’t, and the reason is very simple: not only is Griffin (visible or in) a putz, but he’s also a completely ineffectual one – in his own words, a ‘helpless absurdity.’ Wells might have, shall we say, absorbed the idea for his famous book from other ‘invisible men’ books 0f the time  (among the many, many other candidates are E. P. Mitchell’s 1881 The Crystal Man and Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 The Damned Thing), but he himself was a trained scientist, and as usual, trained scientists ruin everything. Instead of letting his imagination go wild (as Wells could sometimes do), he adheres strictly to the hypothetical of his premise: what if, by playing footsy with chromatics, a man could make himself invisible?

Well, Herbert George reasoned, you’d have an invisible man. A man, in other words, you couldn’t see. And that’s it. You could still see his clothes. And hell, Scientifically speaking, if it’s his body that’s been changed by the serum to be invisible, then anything entering his body – like friggin food – would need a little while to turn invisible too. So you’d be able to see his eggs benedict pretty much until the moment they became poo.

So after ‘stumbling upon’ this great hook for a book, Wells gives us page after page of what would happen if a megalomaniacal schmuck ran around outside all day naked in freezing cold weather (taking breaks now and then to hide in a dark closet long enough to digest something, for cripes sake). Griffin immediately catches cold, and he spends the entire book coughing and sneezing right next to people who can’t see him and so can’t tell him to cover his mouth. After about a million years (scientists – yeesh), he realizes he needs steal some clothes so he doesn’t freeze his invisible ass off. He sneaks into a junk shop in Drury Lane and spends a miserable few hours there when the proprietor accidentally locks him in a room. Thrilling stuff.

Eventually Griffin comes to a conclusion – a boneheaded conclusion, precisely the reverse of right: he decides the only way his newfound power will be really effective is if he decamps for some small town in the country. And he does indeed cause untold petty havoc in one such town – for about the five minutes necessary for the startled townspeople to realize that even though he’s invisible a) dogs can still smell him, b) he can still be punched and kicked and grappled, and c) he can still be shot, for cripes sake. He makes his desperate escape to the house of Kemp, an old school chum to whom he unburdens not only his secret origin but his diabolical plans, which by this point in this bad, bad book are nothing short of hilarious:

[The Invisible Man] must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes – no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways – scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.

Scraps of paper thrust under doors … the blood chills. This pea-brain couldn’t terrorize a toddler’s tea party, and Kemp very quickly realizes this and begins instructing the locals on all the various ways to track, apprehend, and even kill an Invisible Man:

‘Bear in mind,’ said Kemp, ‘his food shows. After eating, his food shows until it is assimilated. So that he has to hide after eating. You must keep on beating – every thicket, every quiet corner. And put all weapons, all implements that might be weapons, away. He can’t carry such things for long. And what he can snatch up and strike a man with must be hidden away.’

‘Good again,’ said Adye. ‘We shall have him yet!’

‘And on the roads,’ said Kemp, and hesitated.

‘Yes?’ said Adye.

‘Powdered glass,’ said Kemp. ‘It’s cruel, I know. But think of what he may do!’

Think of what he may do? Jack, pretty much. If you make the mistake of not listening for footsteps on the creaky floorboards next to you, there’s a chance Wells’ invisible man might sneeze on you, but that’s about it (well, aside from the ewww-factor of watching his invisible juices go to work on his steak-and-kidney pudding). The good hook – as simple and effective then as it still is today (readers are heartily encouraged to read H. F. Saint’s fantastic 1987 novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man for a look at Wells’ exact premise done wonderfully) – lodged in a bad book.

And a bad book that could easily have been good, if Wells hadn’t been such a poindexter! The premise of invisibility is patently ridiculous in the first place, so why not add to it just enough to make it dramatically effective? Virtually any such addition would have saved this book; say the Invisible Man can turn invisible, at will. Done! Say the Invisible Man’s body emits a field that turns things close to it – like weapons or friggin clothing – invisible as well. Done! Say the Invisible Man can make his body not only invisible but intangible. Done! In any such instance, a botched plot is salvaged from its own scientific credibility and at least the beginning of a Reign of Terror are believable.

As it is, all we’ve got is some schmoe with a drippy nose.