Posts from August 2010
August 31st, 2010
It’s been a bad week for good faith in the Penny Press. Bad enough Us Weekly ran a picture of Joe Jonas apparently preparing to kiss a girl (even the National Enquirer would’ve scrupled at that), worse still that National Geographic should so conspicuously lend its imprimatur to a glorified tomb-raider, but worst of all – at least from our bookish point of view here at Stevereads – is the full-blown orb-and-scepter coronation Sam Tanenhaus bestows on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom in The New York Times Book Review.
The iniquity isn’t that Tanenhaus liked the book – because despite appearances, he keeps his personal reactions entirely to himself in the course of a very long, glowing review. No, if he liked the book and wrote it a love-letter this long and gushing, I could live with that. I’d be disgusted, but I wouldn’t be nearly as disgusted as I am by what Tanenhaus decided to do instead.
This huge encomium (titled “Peace and War,” as if there weren’t already enough travesties going out to Westchester County this week) isn’t the result of Tanenhaus really liking Freedom – it’s the result of Tanenhaus’ entirely political decision that The New York Times Book Review (of which he’s the editor) should really like Jonathan Franzen. This isn’t high-minded literary debate; it’s the cat-fighting that precedes a small-town high school class president election. Oprah Winfrey started things by stepping waaaay outside her comfort zone to nominate Franzen’s last unreadably awful doorstop, The Corrections, for her happy, embracing Book Club. Franzen played the ‘inchoate integrity’ card for all it was worth, and the American public gobbled it up (The Corrections surely contends with Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker as the most-bought unread book of the last fifty years). Just last week, Time magazine nominated Franzen as the best novelist since Jesus Christ. Tanenhaus spotted a wave and hopped on his board.
The man’s an excellent writer (those of you who haven’t read his biography of Whittaker Chambers are urged in all sincerity to drop everything and do so), and that makes it all the more sadly easy to tell when he’s not even present for his own review. Pretty much as soon as his first sentence, “Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, ‘Freedom,’ like his previous one, ‘The Corrections,’ is a masterpiece of American fiction,” it’s obvious this is going to be one of those times. All the hallmarks of boilerplate are here, and good boilerplate it is, too – but it bears almost no relation to what Tanenhaus says (or how he says it) when he’s genuinely saying what he thought about a book. Instead, it’s virtually bent double under the anxiety of the Reviewer’s Remorse.
The Reviewer’s Remorse goes something like this: I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and I like to think I run my blog/literary review/library desk/major publishing industry taste-maker with the same amount of independent thinking. But I don’t want to be one of those critics who hated Book X when it first came out and now looks like a jackass because it’s gone on to become an enshrined piece of the canon. I’ll do anything, literally anything, to avoid that.
Even a casual glance at history should amply demonstrate the absolute futility of the Reviewer’s Remorse. Names that were venerated a hundred, fifty, or even twenty-five years ago are today nearly-forgotten footnotes. Yes, quickie laugh-getters of the “Rotten Reviews” variety routinely collect all the initial negative notices of now-respected novels like Pride & Prejudice (dissed by a Bronte sister, no less!) or Joyce’s Ulysses (famously panned by Virginia Woolf). And yes, such reviews spark a certain frisson – but it’s a fraudulent one: it stems from the vague idea that in literature there’s a presiding true genius that will out.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The howling irony of Reviewer’s Remorse is that it directly inverts the power-structure: critics don’t just stand around taking guesses (some lucky, some not) at what the true greats of the literary canon are going to be in twenty-five, fifty, and a hundred years – they determine it. They always have, and they should.
But only the honest critics, and this review of Freedom is deeply, blandly dishonest. An honest critic couldn’t write “Assaultive sex reverberates through ‘Freedom,’ and why not? Sex is the most insistent of the ‘personal liberties,’ and for Franzen the most equalizing. One is at a loss to think of another male American writer so at ease with – that is, so genuinely curious about – the economy of female desire: the pull and tug of attraction and revulsion, the self-canceling wants.”
Do you know what Tanenhaus means by insistent personal liberties? Why he creates the odious euphemism “assaultive sex” when he’s talking about rape? What he means when he calls sex the “most equalizing” personal liberty, when that very notion flies in the face of 17,000 years of human experience? Why he equates comfort with curiosity? Why he uses the synonyms ‘pull’ and ‘tug’ in parallel with the antonyms ‘attraction’ and ‘revulsion’? What on Earth a ‘self-canceling want’ is? No? Neither do I. And neither does he. The point of this kind of prose isn’t to say anything – it’s to sound like you’re saying something. It’s the smart kid in the back of the class using lazy-clever short cuts to get his homework done. And the assignment here is to make sure The New York Times Book Review experiences no Reviewer Remorse when it comes to Jonathan Franzen.
Fundamentally, this is the way a reviewer writes when he doesn’t believe what he’s writing. And in this case it’s appropriate enough, because in Freedom Franzen has written a nearly 600-page novel in which he doesn’t believe a single godforsaken word. Every particle of the book’s grotesquely self-indulgent length is pure artifice, pure hypocrisy, pure lie. Franzen started out with the idea of mocking certain things – most especially the specific kind of mindlessly opinionated and entitled suburbanites with whom he spends his every waking minute and whose ranks he himself long ago joined, if indeed he was ever outside them to begin with – but he found he actually liked them instead, viewed them as genuine civilizing forces (just for clarification: you and I, no matter who we are? We’re the ones who need civilizing). But rather than abandon the envisioned evisceration, he thought to turn it elaborately, I’m-smarter-than-you-can-even-see faux-satirical, pretending to hate the thing he loves in order to torture it a little. Call it assaultive fiction. And even that quasi-plan fell apart completely, probably after endless nights spent drinking and endless mid-mornings spent speed-writing to make page counts. What’s left – what gets published to unprecedented fanfare this week and collects a National Book Award (at least) in a few months – is nothing at all, a rote exercise in verbiage.
It might be fitting that a book whose own author doesn’t care about it at all would generate essays from reviewers who don’t care about their own verdicts at all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. When Sam Tanenhaus isn’t resorting to Reviewer Remorse hedge-betting blather, he’s a first-rate writer, and I prize first-rate writers: I’ve always wished I were one, and I consider them incredibly thin on the ground. So naturally, after trudging through Tanenhaus lines like “Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front – the seething national peace that counterpoises the foreign war,” I went in search of some sort of corrective, somebody actually talking about Freedom.
In addition to Tanenhaus, the field of American literary reviews also sports two other first-rate critics of the current fictive zeitgeist, both also named Sam: there’s Sam Anderson, who writes for New York magazine, and there’s Sam Sacks, who’s the editor of Open Letters Monthly and yet reviewed the new Franzen for The Wall Street Journal (one can only assume they pay better, although it’s hard to believe they could match the droit de siegneur). These two never let me down; Anderson is funnier than Sacks (this isn’t difficult – the spinning ceiling-fan above my head is also funnier than Sacks), but Sacks has an oddly magisterial probity that no critic currently writing can quite match. Between them, they almost always manage to say everything that needs saying about any present-day male novelist (needless to say, they’re both flailingly helpless when reviewing women – but then, I don’t notice Jill Lepore or Nancy Franklin stepping forward to review Franzen either).
Except this time, alas. Like Tanenhaus, like most of the best critics, Anderson and Sacks are also afflicted with Reviewer Remorse – Franzen must bring it out in reviewers, what with his ostentatiously domestic purview and the odd, Howard Hughesian stretch of time between The Corrections and this new book (a stretch of time Trollope and Dickens would have disdained; a stretch of time not warranted by anything at all actually in the novel; a stretch of time that is almost always, in my experience with writers, caused by alcohol). Like Tanenhaus, neither of these other Sams wants to believe that Freedom could simply be bad, even though, like Tanenhaus, they experienced not one moment of personal pleasure while reading it (hugely significant that both Anderson and Sacks call the book addictive, with all the word connotes of involuntary and even degrading participation). In this context Anderson’s rather reaching invocation of David Foster Wallace can be seen as the desperate hail-mary side-step of somebody who knows he’s backing the wrong horse and is too invested (or under orders) to admit it. And that’s nothing compared to what Sacks does in the Journal – for a writer as reverential of his sources as Sacks is to drag Milton into a review of Jonathan effing Franzen (Sacks also quotes William Blake, gawd help us all, just to make sure nobody gets out alive) … well, no matter what else it is, it’s certainly a cry for help.
And this is just the beginning, of course. If The New York Times Book Review is comparing Franzen to Tolstoy this week, next week The Sacramento Bee will be comparing him to the author of the Book of Genesis. It’s depressing, not only because the book itself is such a completely cynical waste of time but also because of what the coronation says about the American literary landscape. Franzen costs Farrar, Straus & Giroux the rough equivalent of twenty-five talented authors who’ve never feuded with Oprah, and this makes two novels in a row in which he’s done absolutely nothing to compensate for that loss. Is the republic of letters really so hard up for good writers that it needs to go down on its knees to this lazy charlatan? On what meat doth this Franzen feed, that he hath grown so great?
August 30th, 2010
When he was asked what he thought of P.T. Barnum’s “Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” Henry Adams once said “I have no objection to him – provided he remembers he’s not Agassiz, and provided his audience remembers it.”
He was referring to that internationally esteemed Harvard luminary Louis Agassiz, perhaps the pre-eminent zoologist and natural historian of the day, and his point was simple: the only danger involved in popular entertainments like Barnum’s (with its “life-like” tableaux of cannibals, and its “Fiji mermaid” and the like) was the possibility that large segments of the public would mistake them for the scientific facts and conclusions of which Agassiz was a master. Adams would have been appalled by the young people who earnestly debate the motivations of characters on so-called ‘reality’ TV as if those characters were living anything remotely approaching authentic lives. And Adams would have been appalled by the latest National Geographic.
The issue has its usual blend of stunning visuals and far-ranging reporting, but the centerpiece article is about the “family secrets” revealed by a recent DNA study of the mummified remains of King Tutankhamun and several other Amarna-period individuals. The article purports to be written by Zahi Hawass, the so-called secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, and that should serve as the first sign of trouble, since Hawass hasn’t written a memo unghosted in about thirty years, let alone a full-length National Geographic article. So this won’t be one of those display-articles the magazine sometimes shows us, where every line is meticulously red-penciled for accuracy and clarity. This will, we can legitimately fear, read more like a press release.
And it does, dolorously so. Hawass (we’ll refer to him as the piece’s author until the guilty party chooses to step forward) has previous experience in press releases: five years ago, he amassed funding sufficient to perform a modern CT scan on Tutankhamun’s remains, with results he has since characterized in only one way, which he recaps again here:
… by carrying out CT scans of King Tutankhamun’s mummy, we were able to show that he did not die from a blow to the head, as many people believed. Our analysis revealed that a hole in the back of his skull had been made during the mummification process.
Never mind that his team’s analysis “revealed” nothing of the sort, never mind that their determination, ginned up for public consumption, could be exactly wrong on the flip of a coin. The hole shows none of the necrosis associated with natural causes, but it wouldn’t show those signs if mummification was performed soon after what could have been an injury – or, in certain fictional imaginings, murder; so the analysis of Hawass’ paid scientists is only right if it isn’t wrong, which is hardly worthy of a press release. But this also should have served as a warning sign.
The problem with CT scans and scientific teams to analyze their results and then guess about them on Egyptian TV is that such things cost money. Press attention generates tourism, and that in turn generates money (forget about the periodic flooding of the Nile: hordes of credulous tourists have always been Egypt’s most reliable natural resource). Since this looks like a self-feeding process, you might wonder what the problem with it could possibly be.
But it’s only a self-feeding source if the appetite stays constant. And in Zahi Hawass, Egypt has found an appetite for attention so deep as to be bottomless. The hoopla associated with that CT scan eventually faded, and all that remained was the boring old field work being done by boring credentialed Egyptologists who’ve never been profiled in The New Yorker and who wouldn’t dream of referring to themselves as a ‘modern-day pharaoh.’ It’s doubtful Hawass even knows such wretched creatures exist; he certainly has no interest in their miniscule, responsible findings. If the world’s attention has wandered away from Egyptian antiquities, that attention must be drawn back, and there’s one sure way to do that: more technology!
Hence, this article. Hawass has the brazen effrontery to start it off with the line, “I believe we should honor these ancient dead and let them rest in peace.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but a horrific scene like this:
sure as Hell doesn’t look like resting in peace to me. I think Hawass himself might feel different about the whole process if it were his grandmother’s corpse plopped down on that tarpaulin – but alas, there’s no money to be made from gawking at her remains under strobe lights.
The project this time around is to use modern DNA analysis to look for genetic markers held in common by Tutankhamun and several of the other mummies, in hopes of establishing concrete relationships between some or all of them (historians haven’t been able to say with certainty who Tutankhamun’s father was, for instance, with opinion split between Amenhotep III and the heretic-pharaoh Akhenaten). Hawass portrays himself as a reluctant convert:
In the past I had been against genetic studies of royal mummies. The chance of obtaining workable samples while avoiding contamination from modern DNA seemed to small to justify disturbing these sacred remains. But in 2008 several geneticists convinced me that the field had advanced far enough to give us a good chance of getting useful results.
A child (one with a good moral grounding, anyway) will have spotted the trouble with this: respect is an absolute. Remains don’t become less ‘sacred’ in proportion to how ‘useful’ the results are that can be extracted from them. Calling something ‘sacred’ while in the process of defiling it is generally considered a false piety. The ancient Egyptians themselves had stronger terms for it, and stronger penalties than getting on the cover of National Geographic.
Granted it’s distasteful, some readers might say, but if it really does advance our knowledge of the past, isn’t it worth it?
The answer to that question is ‘no’ (always awkward when rhetorical questions turn out to have actual answers, but it can’t be helped), but even if it weren’t, the point is moot: there was never any chance of legitimately advancing our knowledge of the past here – there has never been such a chance associated with anything Hawass has ever done in the entire course of his professional life. It’s true that he tells us his team found some of the ‘family secrets’ they’d been instructed to find:
Once the mummies’ DNA was isolated, it was a fairly simple matter to compare the Y chromosomes of Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun and see that they were indeed related … But to clarify their precise relationship required a more sophisticated kind of genetic fingerprinting. Along the chromosomes in our genomes there are specific known regions where the pattern of DNA letters – the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s that make up our genetic code – varies greatly between one person and another. These variations amount to different numbers of repeated sequences of the same few letters. Where one person might have the same sequence of letters repeated ten times, for instance, another unrelated person might have the same sequence stuttered 15 times, a third person 20, and so on. A match between ten of these highly variable regions is enough for the FBI to conclude that the DNA left at a crime scene and that of a suspect might be one and the same.
But any reader who thinks obtaining viable DNA samples of 3000-year-old mummified bodies is akin to collecting fresh DNA samples from a crime scene is just asking to be duped. They are exactly the kind of audience Hawass wants, and he’ll always be ready to sell them a certain bridge in Brooklyn. Considering that a strong genetic match can be obtained between any human being and the hamburger they had for supper last night, the level of discrimination necessary to start sending Father’s Day cards around the suburbs of Luxor is simply not possible with non-Star Trek technology. Even Hawass isn’t prepared to gloss over all the difficulties, and some of those difficulties should give pause even to the truest of believers:
If the extraction and isolation succeeded, [Tutankhamun’s] DNA would be captured in a clear liquid solution, ready to be analyzed. To our dismay, however, the initial solutions turned out to be a murky black. Six months of hard work were required to figure out how to remove the contaminant – some still unidentified product of the mummification process – and obtain a sample ready for amplifying and sequencing.
Six months of ‘hard work’ were no doubt required to transform a ‘murky black’ solution into something clear enough to support modern analysis, but surely that studiedly offhand mention of ‘amplifying and sequencing’ will raise an air-strip full of red flags? Once upon a time, we all banded together to make “Jurassic Park” the #1 movie in the country – have we so soon forgotten its lessons (not only about spotty science but about showmen marketing flea circuses)?
In the end, this National Geographic article might raise all sorts of speculation to new heights – was Tutankhamun really the son of Akhenaten and the grandson of Amenhotep III? Did he have a club foot? Was he entombed with his wife’s miscarried fetuses? – but it takes one speculation and banishes all doubt: there is at least one grave-robber still active in the Valley of the Kings, cracking open ‘sacred’ bones in search of media gold. Shame on him for so often betraying his ‘sacred’ trusts in order to hog a little spotlight, and shame on National Geographic for continuing to fund his serial sacrileges.
August 28th, 2010
Our book today is Philip Waller’s massive, utterly delightful Writers, Readers, & Reputations from 2006, and it finishes off our little quintet of books about books this time around (I’ve read every such book that’s ever been written – what can I say? Reading about reading fascinates me – and I’ll get to all of them here sooner or later, but five is enough for now).
And boy, HOW it finishes things off! Waller’s book is a stunning, almost overwhelming masterpiece. He’s staked out the period of a “long” Edwardian era in England and completely, freakishly absorbed every last scintilla of information on his subject, which is nothing less than the whole world of letters during those years, from 1870 to 1918. He covers everything from writers’ lives to reading tours to lending libraries to book groups to manufacture and distribution, and he does it all in such an winningly readable voice that you never feel crushed by the weight of his expertise. The pages fly by (all 1150 of them), and what emerges is a picture of the reading life of the Edwardian age in such pointillist detail that you can’t help but wish we had similar volumes for every other era. That would be great, but I don’t know where we’d find the scholars to amass the data, much less the writers to make it this engaging.
Two things mark this great book’s strongest points: first, Waller has no particular pet theory to advance (he’s mainly just interested in giving us as full an account as he can, in the liveliest language), and second, he’s perfectly willing to let the writers of the time speak their piece at length – the book is full of great quotes, and they’re given in full rather than in snippets. Here’s the always-gloomy George Gissing on the perils of the literary life, for instance:
With a lifetime of dread experience behind me, I say that he who encourages any young man or woman to look for his living to ‘literature’, commits no less than a crime … Hateful as is the struggle for life in every form, this rough-and-tumble of the literary arena seems to me sordid and degrading beyond all others. Oh, your prices per thousand words! Oh, your paragraphings and your interviewings! And oh, the black despair that awaits those down-trodden in the fray.
It’s amazing how many different facets of the literary life Waller tracks down and shows to us in full detail. There are long, engrossing chapters on every aspect you could think of, including an amusing set-piece on authors as fashion-plates:
Jerome K. Jerome attracted [publicity] by wearing and old tweed cap, Keir Hardie-style, to offset an immaculate frock coat. This was scarcely big-league stuff. Nor was Bret Harte’s trick of commanding a daily buttonhole from a Piccadilly florist, sent in a little box to him wherever he occasioned to stay. For a really booming statement, it was necessary to behold Mark Twain in his gleaming white suits. Equally magnificent, Wilde invented himself as an exquisite- or harlequin, Theordore Watts-Dunton preferred to call him … A ‘great fat oily beast’, thought Edith Somerville, who met him in 1888. This was only marginally more flattering than ‘the great white slug’ proposed in the same year by Lady Colin Campbell …
And Waller also makes some real contributions to a more fair study of the literary landscape, giving us long digressions on best-selling authors of the time who’ve now (in almost every case very deservedly) fallen into permanent obscurity. The foremost of these hindmost is surely novelist Hall Caine, whose insipid water-balloon books outsold everybody twice over and made their author a very, very rich man. Whenever I feel tempted to despair at the popularity of author like Stephen King or James Patterson, I remind myself of writers like Caine – and Waller could have settled for merely reinforcing the reductions of readers like me. But instead, he digs deeper and presents a better, more fleshed out portrait of the man and his counterparts. It wasn’t until I first read this book that I learned Caine used a chunk of his fame and money to aid Jewish refugees of Tsarist oppression, for instance. Doesn’t change the fact that the man’s novels are junk, but it certainly makes him more interesting.
And what about book-reviewing, you must know I’d ask? Yep – the subject is fully covered (and in a gratifyingly early chapter) in all its heights and pitfalls, from log-rolling to the ever-popular topic of how authors (and later their publicists) can stack the odds in their favor when it comes to wooing reviewers:
Authors were not without means to influence the reception of their work, although Trollope’s Lady Carbury, by sleeping with a reviewer, in The Way We Live Now, must be considered extreme. The complimentary copy system was increasingly favoured. The Society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill, who had known Bulwer Lytton in his best-selling prime, noted in 1906: ‘I always feel sorry that he never gave me his novels; in those days authors were not nearly so generous as they are to-day, when books are showered in all directions – more given than read.’
Writers, Readers, & Reputations is what’s known in my immediate circle as a ‘Steve book’ – meaning it’s so long and densely researched that I’m likely the only person in a hundred mile radius who’d every consider reading it, much less read it, bookmark it, and annotate it for sheer pleasure. My circle tends to groan when they see me toting around a ‘Steve book,’ because they know I’m not only going to read such tomes but also recommend them, and they consider that an impossibility (years ago, in response to such a recommendation about a very interesting book on Britain’s King George I, an exasperated companion blurted out, “That’s an entire year‘s reading for me! One year, reading nothing but that big, ugly, boring book!”)(I thought it best not to point out that the original German version was much better than the translation).
But impossibility or no, I do indeed recommend Writers, Readers & Reputations! Yes, it’s formidably big – but it’s also scrupulously, reliably enjoyable, one of the best books on books I’ve ever read. It’s worth a year, if it comes to that.
August 27th, 2010
Our book today is 1984 novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, and the blurbs it garnered at the time (including an unsigned but adulatory little column the book review section of a newspaper in Gottingen, of all places) are s true today as they were back then: whatever else it might be, this is a first-rate book about books and reading.
That ‘whatever else it might be’ alludes to the fact that this is an epistolary novel comprised of exchanges between young college-age Alice and her middle-aged novelist Aunt Fay, so there’s quite a bit of bleed-through from Weldon’s own life, and as usual with this resolutely third-rate author, the reader is constantly forced to wonder how much of that bleed-through is intentional and how much of what they paid good money to buy and read is just more or less spontaneous riffing. Despite the shelf of novels to her credit, Weldon has never to my knowledge chosen to work at her craft. The result has been a body of fiction suffering from what we might call the Munro Syndrome: lots of stuff happens, ‘the end’ is stamped a few times onto the bolt of cloth as it spews out of the machine, and absolutely nothing memorable whatsoever is produced.
Letters to Alice is an exception and a delightful book – but even here, the lively writing takes frequent detours into being insipid or torturous, before returning to its better nature.
The plot, such as it is, can be easily guessed: Alice has gone off to school to study Jane Austen (among many predictable other names), and Aunt Fay has many, many opinions to share – about Austen, for instance:
It is idle to complain that Jane Austen lacked a crusading zeal. With hindsight, it is easy to look at the world she lived in, and say she should have. What she didn’t seems to me more valuable. She struggled to perceive and describe the flow of believes that typified her time, and more, to suggest for the first time that the personal, the emotional, is in fact the moral – nowadays, of course, for good or bad, we argue that it is political.
But also about lots of other things, from the whole of the Western canon to the quiet little curse of the writer’s life:
Writing is an odd activity – other people have occupations, jobs; the writer’s life is work, and the work is the life, and there can be no holidays from it. If the pen is not working, the mind is thinking, and even as you sit and watch [TV] the unconscious ponders on. Even in sleep you are not safe: dreams pertain to life, and life to dreams, and both to work. There can be no time off, no real diversions, because wherever you go, you take yourself; and no pure experience, either, unsullied by contemplation, or by the writer’s habit of standing back and observing what is going on – which writers will vehemently deny they do, because it sounds passionless and calculated, but is not.
But even so, problems crowd around the edges. Divorce that last passage from the spirited truths it’s conveying and you’ll see the biggest of those problems: Weldon simply cannot write good English prose, not for more than an isolated line at a time. This lack is of course no bar to fantastic literary success – but it’s awfully inconvenient if an author is shooting for more. Weldon’s ambitions to be taken seriously as a novelist have always been evident, and the number one obstacle to those ambitions is that she’s never had much talent as a writer. It’s funny how that works.
There’s talent aplenty in Letters to Alice, however – here the joys and odd disappointments of reading, the thrill of book-hunting, and the pleasures of simply chatting with a fellow reader are all on triumphant display. I myself dearly love a good bookish snail-mail correspondence (some of you will have shared one with me and may attest that I’m fairly good at it), full of titles and authors and the give-and-take that happens when two lifelong readers butt heads. There’s quite a bit of that here, mainly embodied on both sides by Aunt Fay, who does all the talking and most of the summarizing of other people’s letters. She also gets in some choice wisecracks (one of Weldon’s most reliable gifts):
Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she’s read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.
Books can indeed be dangerous, and they – and their authors – can disappoint. But this one doesn’t – you’ll love it.
August 25th, 2010
Our book today is George Hamlin Fitch’s 1911 volume Comfort Found in Good Old Books, a collection of the author’s most popular book columns from the old San Francisco Chronicle. It’s a collection the author never thought he’d make in quite the way he made it, but books are often like that. Fitch was a minor institution at the Chronicle and well-respected as a thorough-going example of what used to be called a “book man.” His columns regularly drew appreciative letters from readers, and publishers regularly sent him boxes of new releases and catalogs of forthcoming titles, in the hopes he’d choose to review them. And he often did (under his own name and pseudonyms, a curiously persistent practice in certain circles of literary journalism), but always striking the typical Edwardian note of worry that the modern world of streetcars and dry-cleaning was crowding out the eternal verities.
Even in that less skeptical age, his readers could be forgiven for wondering how much of this, after decades of repetition, was just empty cant. Possibly Fitch himself wondered. Then in 1910 his young son Harold suddenly died, and as Fitch wrote (in an eerie, heartbreaking echo of Theodore Roosevelt), his “death has taken the light out of my life.” No father and son could have been closer – best friends, near-constant companions, like minds, companions in adventure – and no loss more devastating.
True to form (a blogger at heart, long before their like was conceived), Fitch wrote about this tragedy soon after it happened, and he wrote about something else, too: it turned out that once the white-hot chaos of immediate loss had uncramped him, he actually did turn to those eternal verities for consolation. He turned to books, and not just any books but some of the greatest classics of the canon, the very works he’d always told people would be their most reliable comforters in times of trouble. He turned to them with his heart broken into a thousand pieces – and they did indeed comfort him. His note of surprise is audible – and understandable; it always surprises you, the first time it happens.
He’d thought his loss irreparable:
Now that this perennial spirit of youth is gone out of my life, the beauty of it stands revealed more clearly. Gone forever are the dear, the fond-remembered holidays, when the long summer days were far too short for the pleasure that we crowded into them. Gone are the winter walks in the teeth of the blustering ocean breezes, when we “took the wind into our pulses” and strode like Berserkers along the gray sand dunes, tasting the rarest spirit of life in the open air. Gone, clean gone, those happy days, leaving only the precious memory that wets my eyes that are not used to tears.
But only weeks later, he was able to report to his readers that the gospel was true in all its particulars: not only will reading the best books make you a better person, it will gift you with friends who are always there, always supportive, always themselves.
Naturally, readers wrote in by the hundreds. They offered their own stories, their condolences, and most of all, they asked Fitch to talk about which books had saved him. There sprang from those letters (and, one imagines, a deep sense of gratitude) a series of brief glimpses of some of those redemptive classics – glimpses Fitch then collected into a book that sold in huge numbers on both coasts for the better part of two years.
It wasn’t just the origin story that was irresistible to readers. Through long practice and a wonderful open mind, Fitch had always been a book-reviewer well worth reading. He combined a strong set of guiding beliefs (he was a devout Christian) with a wide knowledge of his subjects, and he was also careful to present that history in a way his readers would find both enlightening and entertaining. In fifteen short chapters, he turns to a small handful of enduring classics – the Bible, Shakespeare, the Arabian Nights, St. Augustine, Don Quixote, Boswell’s life of Johnson, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Milton, etc. – and first tells his readers something about them, then offers his thoughts, as here about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
The miracle of this book is that it should have been written by a man who had little education and small knowledge of the great world, yet that it should be a literary masterpiece in the simple perfection of its form, and that it should be so filled with wisdom that the wisest man may gain something from its pages. Literary genius has never been shown in greater measure than in this immortal allegory by the poor tinker of Bedforshire.
Or here, on Dante:
In all literature nothing can be found to surpass the influence of this poem of Dante’s, struck off at white heat at the end of a life filled with the bitterness of worldly defeats and losses, but glorified by these visions of a spiritual conquest, greater than any of the victories of this world.
Readers back then (as now) very much valued this tone of adoring certainty, and even in his grief Fitch could no more lose that tone than he could float in mid-air. Readers also valued Fitch’s ever-present practical suggestions as to formats and editions, and he can’t resist making those suggestions even in the middle of his mourning:
Many editions of The Imitation of Christ have been issued, but for one who wish to make it a pocket companion, non is better than the little editions in The Macmillan Company’s Pocket Classics, edited by Brother Leo, professor of English literature in St. Mary’s College, Oakland. This accomplished critic has written an excellent introduction to the book, in which he sketches the life of the old monk, the sources of his work and the curious controversy over its authorship which raged for many years. Buy this inexpensive edition and study it, and then, if you come to love old Thomas, get an edition that is worthy of his sterling merit.
Fitch always believed that cultivating the habit of reading was one of the cheapest and most incredibly worthwhile things a person could do for themselves. He was right, of course. But his other oft-proclaimed belief – that books could literally save you when pain threatened to blot you out – is something he only really learned through awful need. Maybe that’s the only way to learn it; it’s certainly the way I did. And time and time again since then, it’s proven true. When I lost the best friend I’d ever have or am ever likely to have, a week later I first began to feel returned to the world by reading the endless prattle of a dear old companion, a diary entry about how he went to St. Paul’s churchyard to inquire about how his book-binding was coming along, how his Chaucer was progressing but wasn’t really neat enough for his liking, how he gave a few pointers to help out, how he had to remember to go to the clasp-makers and have clasps and embosses ordered to match the set …
It was the first time I’d smiled in a week.
The best, least foreseeable detail as far as Fitch is concerned is that his own advice has grown to enclose him: I turn to his book often, when I need my rudder righted a little.
August 23rd, 2010
Our book today is the latest sweet little masterpiece from Lane Smith, It’s a Book, about a jackass, a monkey, a tiny mouse, and a suddenly beleaguered piece of old technology.
The monkey is quietly reading his book when the jackass comes along, carrying a laptop, and asks a troubling question right out of the starting gate: “What have you got there?” I cringe in anticipation of hearing that question myself, and I know it’ll be sooner rather than later.
The monkey tells him its a book, which prompts a flood of questions: does it need a password? Do you have a screen name? Where’s your mouse? Can you make the characters fight?
Understandably peeved, the monkey hands his visitor the book and invites him to try it for himself. He opens to a page of Treasure Island (Smith wonderfully changes up his drawing style to show us a panel from the story), and although he complains that there are too many words (he offers to help by converting them to the odious acronym-speak that has even crept into the spoken language of the dumber sub-species of young person – the first time I heard a teenage girl actually say “idk” I replied, “Is this a prank? Are we being filmed?” – which garnered me an even blanker stare than usual), he falls under the book’s spell and reads for hours.
When it becomes clear to the monkey that he’s not going to get his book back, he announces that he’s going to the library (I’m hoping this is the subject of Smith’s next book). Trying to be helpful, the jackass reveals that he still hasn’t quite figured out this new device:
For some mysterious reason (one hopes it’s not at the author’s direction), It’s a Book is being categorized in most big retail bookstores as “Humor” instead of “Picture Books” – which is bad for three reasons: 1) Humor almost never has the attractive display-space given to Picture Books, and this is a very visually pleasing book, 2) Humor of course implies that the book it some kind of farce, when underneath the playful exterior, the subject here could hardly be more serious, and 3) given the polio-like spread of electronic readers (that do indeed log on, scroll down, have passwords, play music, and power off if they’re not recharged), kids more than ever need to be introduced to the humble book, that amazing item we all love that’s never looked more endangered than right now.
Probably that appearance is deceiving; probably the book is here to stay. Certainly this old bookworm found It’s a Book enormously reassuring.
August 19th, 2010
Our book today is Eric Burns’ The Joy of Books, and it underscores a point I’ve made before: the most curious thing about good reading is how little good writing there is about it. Not that Burns’ book is bad – not thoroughly bad, not bad straight through. But its subject sometimes brings out the very worst in him, as it tends to do in virtually every person who sits down to write about it (present company, I trust we can agree, excepted). Burns had a career as a journalist before he paused to woolgather this book, and not just any journalist but a readable one – a very small coterie! But the watchwords of that earlier profession – concision, incision, revision, derision, those sorts of watchwords – were blithely abandoned when he decided to collect a book of musings about What Reading Means To Me.
They always are. I’ve got a long shelf full of books written in the 20th century about the specific situation of being in love with reading (somehow, I can’t imagine such books existing at the end of the 21st century – can anybody really love reading electronically? Even if they can, the ‘long shelf full’ will be gone, replaced by a file list … as long as your electric bill is paid, that is, and provided your provider doesn’t decide to reach out and yank stuff off your device for legal, quasi-legal, or the-hell-of-it reasons), and virtually all of them bear no resemblance to the writing their authors did prior to tackling that subject.
One of the problems is that, like Burns, most of these authors wait too long. Burns writes from his fifties, with two kids and most of his career behind him. He talks about how revivifying reading is for him, but The Joy of Books is as maudlin an act of nostalgia (playin’ stickball and watchin’ Uncle Miltie make their dutiful appearances, and endless childhood summers are invoked) as a leisurely stroll through yellowed old photo albums. That always happens in books like this: their ostensible purpose is to praise the way books stay vital and effective in our mental lives, but their end effect is to make them seem like just another much-missed feature of a simpler, now-vanished past. At one point in The Joy of Books, Burns watches his young son settle under a tree and commence reading Peter Pan (a childhood favorite of Burns’, naturally), but there’s no joy of reading in the description – instead, watching the boy blow on a blade of grass or climb around in the tree before settling to read, Burns is clearly just missing his own boyhood, not thrilling to the fact that his kid is about to read a great little book.
So what’s wrong with a little nostalgia, you might ask? Not much. But there’s quite a bit wrong with a whole freakin’ LOT of nostalgia, especially when it’s combined – as it always is – with willful credulity. The combination prompts Burns to arias like this:
If, as Ezra Pound has said, literature is “news that stays news,” why are Flaubert and Balzac on the front pages of newspapers, Hardy and Dickens not on the covers of magazines, E.B. White and Truman Capote not on the tips of tongues where reasonable men and women congregate? Why not Anne Tyler on “Nightline,” “20/20” looking clearly at John Le Carre, “48 Hours” devoting at least that much time to Doris Kearns Goodwin?
When a former newsman assumes a lachrymose tone of writing and asks idiotic questions like that, you know one thing for certain: he’s too busy setting up straw men to even think about what reading really does, or is, or can be (the straw man Geiger counter is always the summoning of a definition from “Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” – it’s to be abhorred as a sure sign that the writer in question is mainly just yammering; Burns does it only three times in The Joy of Books).
There’s some good, fun stuff here, of course – Burns can be an interesting common-touch writer, as when he laments the fleeting riches that afflict most of the literary world (then or now):
Maybe a writer can finagle a $30,000 advance for a book, but it will take him so long to write that his hourly rate works out to about the same as the guys who stuff the rodent remains into all-beef hot dogs. Maybe a magazine will pay him $2000 for an article, but by the time the check is in the mail. His is $3000 overdrawn at the bank and too depressed to start his next piece. Maybe a women’s club will cough up $500 for a luncheon speech, but the chicken will be tough and the vegetables limp and in the question-and-answer period the ladies will find out that he and John Irving got drunk together one night after a seminar they were conducting on the future of the novel in the post-literate society and will hound him unmercifully for insights on Garp.
And he has the good sense to conclude his book with a list of books – lists of books, no matter whose, no matter where, are always good things. But for the most part, The Joy of Books is yet another misfire, yet another failed volume on the long shelf of books that are allegedly trying to anatomize this thing that gives us all so much pleasure. And maybe that’s the problem: real books don’t give pure, simple pleasure, and real readers don’t look for it from the books they read … books are active company, sometimes joyful, yes, but sometimes aggravating or unsettling. Readers actively engaged in the daily grip of reading (as opposed to warmly, fuzzily remembering readin’ under the tree down by the crick) wouldn’t have it any other way.
Still, fair warning to Burns: if I ever get around to writing my own book on reading, I’m swiping his title just the same. Despite everything, I like its simplicity.
August 15th, 2010
Our book today is Den of Wolves, the first book in a new ancient Rome series by Luke Devenish called “Empress of Rome.” Den of Wolves came out in Britain two years ago when the success of HBO’s “Rome” sparked a mini-revival of historical fiction set in Rome, and it’s being released in the US in a nicely plump, well-designed trade paperback with a cover showing a sultry woman staring straight at the reader with a look of blank determination.
The woman might be doing stand-in duty for Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, the mother of Tiberius, and one of the main characters of this volume, which spans events from Livia’s childhood to AD 19 in the reign of her son Tiberius. Although the story is narrated by Iphicles, a slave, it’s very much the story of the leading figures of Rome during its transition from Republic to Empire. Livia is just a girl when her father is girding himself to go off to the Senate and join the men who will assassinate Julius Caesar – and she’s becoming an old woman when the book ends, having taken us through the story of the premature death of Tiberius’ brother Drusus, the family life of his widow Antonia and her children, the rise of Tiberius in Roman politics, the birth and upbringing of his son Castor, the glory days of Germanicus and his haughty wife Agrippina and his creepy son Caligula, and of course the rise and rise of Octavian, who later took the name Augustus and shares some time with Livia in the spotlight of this first volume.
As that cast of characters and thumbnail of setting and action will indicate to those of you who read Roman historical fiction at all, Devenish has chosen for the first volume of his trilogy some extremely well-trod ground, and everybody will be able to identify the owner of the boots in question. Yes, this novel is full of the exact same people doing the exact same things for the exact same reasons as a certain other Roman historical novel – I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Considering the fame and fortune of Graves’ book (and its less successfully-conceived sequel), Devenish has got to be given credit for approaching his subject at all, let alone diving into a series of books.
The signature feature of I, Claudius is Graves’ picture of Livia as a great Moriarty-like figure at the heart of her webs of intrigue, moving relatives and strangers around Rome as though they were pieces on an invisible chess board. It’s an ingenious reading of Tacitus and Suetonius, and it works in most readers’ minds because they came to the book after the epic “Masterpiece Theatre” production in which the serpentine Sian Phillips performed a Livia for the ages. Taking on such material yourself, for a novel of your own, is ambitious almost to the point of effrontery.
Stylistically, there can be no comparison between the books. And even in terms of narration, Devenish takes a gamble by making his main character a slave – perhaps a bigger gamble than he realizes, since most people living in Western countries today have no real conception of how any slaves get treated, much less how slaves in the ancient world got treated. All through the first part of his book, he has the sassy, smarter-than-is-good-for-her Livia deliver barbed comments to her astonished servant:
Livia was still gazing at me, open in her mockery now and aiming it wholly at me.
“Do you believe the Great Mother’s prophecies to be true, Iphicles?”
I was chilled that she could ever doubt my faith. “Of course I do, domina – I hard them with my own ears. I believe every word,” I replied.
Livia laughed. “Well, I don’t.”
My shock increased tenfold and the six frightened and confused Tonsores tried to concentrate only on Livia’s hair. To her they weren’t even there. She was focused completely on me.
“Domina,” I whispered, “they were the Great Mother’s words …”
“All shit,” said Livia.
I nearly fell back against the wall.
“Well, maybe not all shit,” she went on. “One or two had some potential – the ones where I give birth to the kings. But not the other rubbish.”
I was stunned by such blasphemy.
“What’s the matter?” Livia asked, enjoying the look on my face. “Have I shocked you, Iphicles?”
“Yes, domina,” I said.
“Then your attitude toward such things is ridiculously old-fashioned,” said Livia. “But what else should I expect from a slave? Gods are not to be feared and cringed at. They’re to be respected, certainly, but only for the purposes of self-preservation. We shouldn’t love the gods – that sort of mindless devotion would embarrass them – and we should never take everything they say for granted. We’re not simple-minded fools and the gods know that.”
I could only stare dumbly at her, the sacrilegious words beyond my comprehension.
The problem here is twofold: first, obviously, our narrator is an idiot (and our author is severely underconfident – how many times do we need to be told who’s in this exchange of dialogue between two people?). But second and equally tough to resolve: no highborn Roman citizen would ever have dreamt of engaging in philosophical badinage with their personal slave, any more than a modern-day Anaheim stock-broker’s wife would seek out the fifty-year-old Hispanic father of five who tends her garden and unburden herself of her latest religious epiphanies. Such scenes bid fair to ruin the credibility of the whole book. Graves chose as his narrator Claudius, a noble-born member of the Roman elite who is able to be a fly on the wall at all the great moments in his history by virtue of the fact that everybody thinks he’s an fool. It’s a fun old gambit, but it incontestably works better than poor credulous Iphicles listening at ajar doors.
About half-way through this first volume, Iphicles becomes the slave of Plancina, the squawky wife of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and Devenish subtly shifts his narrative focus onto higher ground, often moving entirely to the unmoored third-person that should have been the book’s voice from the start (individual narrators lend an inviting sheen of intimacy to a historical novel, so they’re very tempting for writers who don’t want to intimidate their audience … but the book is often better without them). Even so, there are problems, as in this exchange between Tiberius’ son Castor and the mysterious young man Tiberious has brought back to Rome with him after long foreign campaigns:
“And what about your own father, Sejanus? Where is he?”
Sejanus wouldn’t give Castor the pleasure of seeing him looked shamed by this question. “I have no father,” he said.
“You are a bastard, then?”
“I’m alone. I don’t know who my parents are or were. I don’t know anything.”
“I do,” said Castor. “You’re a slave.”
Sejanus didn’t show the deep anger he felt. “I’m not a slave,” he said finally. “I was an apprentice to the Greek physician as a freeborn child. I’m Italian. My status has been recognised by your father. I’m free – I’m no-one’s slave.”
Castor had flaunted his supremacy and needed nothing more now. “My mistake,” he said. He could afford to be welcoming – or rather, he could afford to make a show of it. “Well be friends then, Sejanus? What do you say to that?”
Sejanus said what he could only say. “I’d like that.”
It’s a bad thing when reading pages of a historical novel makes you want to take out your corrective red pen, and Devenish provokes that reaction far, far too often. Not only is this passage needlessly convoluted (Sejanus follows up “I don’t know anything” with a veritable fountain of stuff he knows), and not only is it heavy-handed (can even the least Rome-cognizant reader have any doubt, after reading this passage, that Sejanus is going to kill Castor at his earliest possible opportunity?), but it has that otherworldly-awful clunker of a line, “Sejanus said what he could only say,” when the correctly-phrased line, “Sejanus said the only thing he could,” is a mere synapse away.
Fortunately – even amazingly – passages like these don’t scupper the book. Den of Wolves isn’t I, Claudius; it’s not even remotely trying to be literature (although the author rather touchingly expresses his admiration for the aforementioned Tacitus and Suetonius, I very much doubt they’d have returned the sentiment). But it’s breezy and fast-paced and extremely inviting despite its author’s obvious research. The acid test here will be Livia, and she passes it: we get a three-dimensional emotional accounting of how her life slowly changes her. And Devenish has benefited by being among the eighty gazillion people who’ve watched “Masterpiece Theatre”: many of his Livia’s best lines read like they were written to be purred by Sian Phillips. The rest of “Empress of Rome” – featuring, as it must, the fall of Tiberius, the rise of Caligula, and the eventual emperorship of Claudius himself – can be honestly anticipated.
Unless the author decides to write his future historical novels set in other time-periods, that is. Perhaps a big, sprawling novel about a Southern belle on the eve of the American Civil War?
August 14th, 2010
Yet another banner issue of the TLS this time around (dated 6 August but only now reaching my benighted backwater of a PO box), and one with a couple of Open Letters echoes that involve yours truly.
The bigger of these kicks off the whole issue – someone named Caroline Blythe reviews two books on the great, bat-shit crazy Victorian polymath John Ruskin, and one of those books is Robert Hewison’s big, beautifully-produced Yale University Press volume Ruskin on Venice, which I reviewed a little while ago.
I loved the book and consider it a masterpiece of Ruskin studies. Blythe pulls a standard book-reviewing sleight-of-hand, slapping the book’s face left, right, left again, right again … and then calling it “important” or “impressive” or some such placid, portmanteau praise. It’s hardly illuminating for a reader (to say nothing of gratifying for an author) to so obviously disparage a book and then backhandedly praise it. There’s a figure of speech about eating one’s cake and having it too …
The smaller of the echoes deals with Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, an odd, muscular little work I love more with every reading (and one I talked about here). Critics for over a century have maintained that one of the main reasons the play is ‘odd’ is because it’s a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. As I mention in my own piece about the play, I’m not convinced – but either way, I get the impression I’d like the new Globe Theatre (Bankside) production a lot more than TLS critic Michael Caines did.
But the highlight of this issue was neither of these (they’re just neat because we’ve touched on them before, and that’s always a fun, eerie experience – you see such a piece in the table of contents, you feel a micro-second’s irresolution, then you say, “OK, go ahead. I’ve done my best at rendering this particular book – let’s see how you do”) but instead a slam-bang review by Claire Harman of Michael Sherborne’s new biography of H.G. Wells.
I’ve yet to read Sherborne’s book (its UK publisher, Michael Owen, may take that as a rhetorical sharp elbow in the ribs), but I could read Harman on Wells until the cows come home. This is exactly the kind of full, flowing, opinionated review that a wag once said makes its own object irrelevant; Harman is even adept at aphorisms. “The idea that he [Wells] owed nothing to anyone, even his own subconscious, was one he nurtured carefully all his life” is very, very good (actual Wells biographers have wasted whole chapters deriving that simple truth), and when Harman comes to Wells’ legendary prolific output, she promptly outdoes herself: “At a stroke, Wells had both invented and almost saturated a new genre.” Oh, that’s good stuff.
And then there’s the little dagger in the letters page – a fierce, intelligent missive from one Tarif Khalidi that gives no quarter whatsoever:
Having just read the review of Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World by Hans Kundani, I wondered: Do either author or reviewer have any proper knowledge of Arab history, society, culture, or language? How in particular does one “assess” the impact of Nazi propaganda on the Arab world without a knowledge of Arabic, openly admitted in the case of the author (and reviewer)? Sad to say, the Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority. Sadder still is that the TLS encourages such shoddy scholarship by publishing reviews that merely echo tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda, then go on to claim that the book in question is “important” in the debate (sic) about that tendentious phrase, “Islamofascism”.
That’s fairly damning (despite the obvious fact that “Islamofascism” is a term, not a phrase) – we’ll see what kind of response it draws from the author or the reviewer. I think it’s extremely unlikely both of them will just sit quietly at home in the Cotswolds while they’re called frauds. I’ll keep you posted.
August 12th, 2010
To celebrate the return at long last of Stevereads to its full technological capacity (such as it ever was), I thought I’d celebrate two recent New Yorker covers. One appeared at the of July, the other at the beginning of August, and both are serious contenders for the fat volume of Best New Yorker Covers Ever.
The first is by the always-reliable Adrian Tomine. It’s called “Summer Getaway,” and even in the mangled form in which it reached me (for once, my dogs can’t be blamed – it was just sinfully crowded in the old Post Office box that day), you can see the beautiful simplicity of it: that thoroughly urban little girl we all instantly love, looking longingly at the steel-and-glass skyline of Manhattan as her cluelessly happy parents drive her away from the city. No cartoonish pyrotechnics are needed here – the great little point couldn’t be clearer, or more true.
The second is by Christoph Neimann, and it takes that simplicity even further. The piece is titled “Dropped Call,” showing us a shapely young beauty reclining poolside, looking down in alarm at her sinking cell phone. As with the Tomine cover, the genius here is the minimalism – that startled, upraised hand says more than most of the actual words in the issue.
The New Yorker can go months-long stretches without a memorable cover and sometimes a whole year without one as fantastic as these two, so I thought they deserved a moment’s notice. We’ll get back to the written word next time!