Posts from January 2011

January 31st, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Cassius Dio!

Some Penguin Classics leave you yearning for more – well, a great many of them do, but few more than the 1987 volume selection of the second century Greek historian Cassius Dio, here translated by the always-reliable Ian Scott-Kilvert. The book doesn’t leave you yearning for more in the sense that it has any shortcomings (as with so many Penguin Classics, I’d be hard-pressed to find any critical or rhetorical shortcomings – I think these things are fairly well vetted before they ever see library shelves) but rather in the sense that’s evoked by that dismaying word ‘selection.’

Cassius Dio (or, as he’s known to those of weak moral fiber, Dio Cassius) is the best ancient historian nobody’s ever heard of. Oh, professional historians have cherished his work for centuries, but your average educated layman, somebody who might be able to rattle off ‘Livy,’ ‘Tacitus,’ and maybe even ‘Suetonius’ will draw a blank with Dio. Great dramatists (and melodramatists!) have delved in his text to fill out their own works, mainly because he provides them with ample raw material for speeches (we’ll get to Dio’s speeches in a moment), and to historians he’s always been invaluable.

Such was his own goal from the outset. He was born around 163 in the provinces and came to Rome on the strength of his family’s money to enter politics and begin climbing the civil ladder. His climb was quick – he entered the Senate under Commodus and became consul under Septimius Severus. He was an important functionary in the reign of Septimius’ son Caracalla but disliked the new emperor (as, indeed, did practically everybody else) and took to spending more and more of his time researching and writing his epic Roman History, which began with Aeneas and crept forward, book after book, to the year 229 when he himself was consul again, this time with the emperor Alexander Severus as his fellow consul.

This was a monumental task, and he looked to some great examples – Thucydides and Polybius are his models, and an engaging cogency is his goal. This is annalistic history in the grand Roman manner, full of character portraits, carefully weighed evidence, moral lessons, and often masterful rhetorical exercises in the form of speeches put in the mouths of his characters – speeches that were either wholly invented or greatly elaborated from what Dio found in the records. A first-time reader of Dio will notice the speeches before anything else, and the more ideologically flexible of those readers will start to look forward to them, because Dio pours quite a bit of art into them. Even in Ian Scott-Kilvert’s careful, particular translation for this Penguin edition, something of their fascinating ‘what if?’ nature comes through, as when clever young Octavian is exhorting his fellow Romans to turn against Marc Antony:

To sum up, if it were a matter of being called upon to cavort in some ridiculous dance or cut some erotic caper, Antony would have no rival – for these are the specialities in which he has trained himself. But when it comes to weapons and fighting, what has anyone to fear from him? The fitness of his body? But he has become effeminate and his homosexuality has worn him out. His piety towards our gods? But he has declared war upon them and upon his native land. His loyalty towards his allies? Everyone knows how he tricked and then imprisoned the king of Armenia. His kindness to his friends? We have all seen the men who have died a cruel death at his hands. His popularity among his troops? But who, even among them, has not condemned him? The evidence for this is the number of his soldiers who join us every day. I believe that all our citizens will do this, just as happened once before, when he was on his way from Brundisium to Gaul. So long as they hoped to get rich without danger, some where happy to take his side. But they will not choose to fight against us, their own countrymen, for what does not belong to them, least of all when by joining us they can protect their lives and their property without risk.

But even for those more fastidious modern readers who want such speeches left in historical novels where the last 200 years of historical practice have said they belong, there’s plenty in Dio to give satisfaction. He’s a conscientious writer, and like Livy long before him, he views it as his duty to report on the existence of wild theories regarding his topics, even if he himself doesn’t believe those theories. He can exercise a very light touch in such matters, as when he arrives at the death of Augustus:

So Augustus fell sick and died. Some suspicion attached itself to Livia concerning the cause of his death, because he had secretly sailed over to the island of Planasia to visit Agrippa Posthumus, and it appeared that he was about to become completely reconciled with him. Livia was afraid, some people allege, that Augustus might bring him back to make him emperor, and so she smeared with poison some figs which were still ripening on the trees from which Augustus was in the habit of picking the fruit with his own hands. She then ate those which had not been smeared, and offered the poison fruit to him. At any rate, he fell sick from this or from some other cause. Then he sent for his associates, and told them all that he wanted to be done. Finally he declared, “I found Rome built of clay: I leave it to you in marble.” In this saying he was not referring literally to the state of the buildings, but rather to the strength of the empire. And when he asked them for some applause, as comic actors do at the end of the mime, he was in fact mocking very aptly the whole life of man.

You have to love that ‘at any rate’! A workhorse phrase, and yet it speaks volumes here! Scott-Kilvert is to be commended for preserving so subtle an effect.

No, the problem with this Penguin edition of Cassius Dio is that it tries for theme over thump. This volume covers the reign of Augustus only – books 50-56 of Dio. But the whole Roman History spanned some eighty books, of which at least a dozen more survive more or less intact – and we have excellent Byzantine summaries of most of the rest. Reading and re-reading this present volume, I can’t help but yearn for more, for a Penguin Classics Cassius Dio that’s a ‘Steve book’ – 1500 pages long, lovingly annotated, absolutely as much of Dio as the unkind fates have seen fit to leave us. When I look over at the monster edition Penguin put out a few years ago of Domesday Book (and don’t worry, all of you who’ve requested that I write about that volume – it’s coming! they’re ALL coming!), when I consider how that same printing-run and forests of paper could have been used instead for just the Dio mega-volume I’m imagining … well, when I think of those things, I school myself in patience. It could happen, some day. I’d buy it.

January 26th, 2011

World of the Great White Heron!

Our book today is Marjory Bartlett Sanger’s lovely, poetic 1967 classic World of the Great White Heron, which is very aptly subtitled “A Saga of the Florida Keys.” The story she starts out telling, a relatively straightforward natural history of the most arresting resident of the Florida Keys, Ardea occidentalis, the great white heron, quickly broadens to a natural – and human – history of the Keys themselves, with the herons serving as a graceful, eternal counterpoint to all the tumultuous changes going on around them. The book is beautifully illustrated in black-and-white drawings by John Henry Dick, whose A Gathering of Shorebirds will get its own post here as soon as I can find my copy. Together, these two creators produce a book of a type that’s rarer and rarer in these days of Wiki-harvested info and digital photography; I worry that passionate, entirely personal works of natural history like this one are slowly becoming extinct. Even David Carroll confessed a few too many times in his last book that he was feeling a bit old …

Still, this book is here, and although it’s not in print, copies can certainly be found – and oh! are they worth finding! The main joy of this book isn’t necessarily its celebration of the great white heron itself (although anybody who’s experienced the joyful shock of watching one leap into the air and languidly unfurl those enormous wings will be glad enough of that celebration) but of all the wildlife of the Keys – and forty years ago, just like now, there was a lot of wildlife to celebrate. These little islands stretch from Key Largo to Key West, and the biosphere of which they’re a part, protected on the ocean-side by coral reefs and the tangled currents of the Sargasso Sea, wanders on south to the Marquesas and the Dry Tortugas. Tourists often comment on the crystal-clear water of the open stretches, but as Sanger accurately relates (and as can be found gorgeously described in many of the novels of Tom McGuane), the real gems of these islands are often hidden deep in the back-channels and mangrove thickets where Ardea makes its home.

The bird was named by John James Audobon when he visited the Keys in 1832 (he also referred to it as “the Angel of the Swamp”), and he also noticed the profusion of life in this part of the New World: alligators, crocodiles, egrets, deer, raccoons, turtles of all sizes, innumerable kinds of birds and noisy amphibians, sharks, busy crabs, and insistent insects. Sanger is as adept at capturing this world in words as her illustrator is at capturing it in pen-and-ink:

The world of the largest white heron on earth is the world of the crowding mangroves where the bird binds its platform nest and lays its blue-green “olivine” eggs. Now and then two or three pairs of herons will nest on the same island; less often a dozen may nest together. In its unchanneled wilderness Ardea movies in the kind of semi-isolation that has always typified this country of swamp and shoal, and made life there so unpredictable and perilous

This can be a very changeable place, a serene green paradise one day and a churning chaos the next, and its history reflects this – the Keys look idyllic, and like most places that look idyllic, their history is hip-deep in the tragic miseries humans bring with them everywhere they go:

The placid, tranquil-appearing world that Ardea surveyed this April morning had actually known a turbulent past. The dazzling light once bleached piles of human bones; the sea-green bay, banded in blue, maize, and purple, had also been banded with blood. Coral reefs at one time pierced the keel of galleons, and where the terns cry there had been human cries. Audubon’s “lovely islets that border the southeast shores” were also called “The Martyrs.”

The main difference in the Keys between Sanger’s time and the present is the state of the coral reefs that are the protector and life-blood of the whole region. When Sanger wrote her book, they were a bursting, thriving underwater wilderness of infinite color and variety. Today, they’re endangered like all reefs are, but warming currents and rising sea-levels. You can’t help but wonder, reading this book, how much longer descriptions like this one will apply at all:

The reef that caused so much anguish was built by flowerlike corals. Anthozoa, or “flower animals,” are living organisms resembling the sea anemones to which they are related, breathing, feeding, multiplying, and secreting a hard lime substance. It is of this substance that the reef is formed. Receiving nourishment from the current-borne plankton, the corals bud or branch out like calcium trees, and their surfaces are studded with starry patterns. In a vast variety of shapes and colors, they create forests of stone beneath the warm waters.

I spent some time nosing around the Keys many, many years ago, in a dented little sailboat with the company of five beagles (one of whom was my best friend, another of whom had been born blind, and the rest of whom could find trouble just about anywhere), and although what I should remember was the rampant heat and suffocating humidity, it’s not – I recall instead the peril and profusion of wandering in a kind of paradise, the fun of wading in those clear waters with my antic dogs, even the beauty of racing for shelter from the rather respectable hurricane that struck a glancing blow while I was there. Even the light seemed different, and there are no words for how gorgeous the night-time was.

Sanger quotes the master:

William Beebe said: “Until we have found our way to some other planet the bottom of the sea will have to remain the loveliest and strangest place we can imagine.” Lovely and anxious, striving and strange, it is all a part of the white heron’s domain.

Lovely and strange – that does indeed sum up the Florida Keys for me – and it’s not a bad description of this wonderful book, either.

January 24th, 2011

Predatory Dinosaurs of the World!

Our book today is Gregory Paul’s 1988 geeknum opus, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, liberally illustrated by the author. This is a completely fantastic book, richly deserving a spot on the same small shelf with David Weishampel’s The Dinosauria, Peter Dodson’s The Horned Dinosaurs, and of course Robert Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies, and it achieves its greatness by firmly plopping down on the essential question that divides all dinosaur-lovers – carnivore or herbivore? – and never looking back. The only details you’ll find here about such well-loved beasts as Triceratops, Brontosaurus, or Stegosaurus is how tasty they were.

No, Paul’s text – long, comprehensive, deeply, personally engaged, and of course almost overwhelmingly nerdy – is solely concerned with the type of dinosaur that for good or ill has always been the imagination’s most popular: the meat-eaters. Some of these creatures are only the size of a basset hound, whereas others – like the towering allosaurs who had teeth as long as a human body – were the size of city buildings, but all of them contributed to the backdrop that’s so visible throughout Paul’s book, the backdrop of a world in which for 170 million years this planet was ruled everywhere by smart, vicious, alien creatures who are now entirely gone from the face of the world.

That reality has always struck me as more wondrous than any ancient creation epic, more incredible than any pantheon of gods and goddesses. Once upon a time – for an inconceivable length of time – this same planet we all know so well was filled on every continent and in every body of water by a panoply of animals who are only faintly echoed anywhere in the modern world. The idea of all those millions of stories – the hot days, the young, the stampedes, the broken limbs, the unforeseen partnerships, the occasional albino, the sounds and smells of it all – is endlessly fascinating to me.

To Paul as well, although since he’s a ‘freelance dinosuar0logist’ (as his author bio somewhat hopefully notes) he’s much more concerned not with millions of potential stories but with a few dozen very particular stories – namely the predatory dinosaurs who somehow managed to die in such a way and in such a place that their remains were fossilized and preserved until Paul could come along and study them. His goal in this book is to make a faithful reconstruction of every predatory dinosaur for which there are sufficient remains to support such educated guesswork, and as the book goes on, the reader comes to feel a greater and greater confidence in Paul’s discretion. As he himself admits, he’s a fairly circumspect guy, fond of certainties:

Once a plausible phylogenetic arrangement is worked out, then the groups need to be named. Naming such groups and species is taxonomy; formally arranging them in ordered groups is systematics. All this may sound dry and dull, but I’ve never found it so. After all, many people love trivia games and crossword puzzles, and figuring out how to identify, arrange, and name once-living things is much more challenging. I tend to be like the hobbit who wants everything “set out fair and square, with no contradictions.” This is a futile desire. The sands of phylogeny and taxonomy are always shifting beneath the dinosaurologist’s feet, and always will.

These prosaic qualities are things you want in you, um, dinosaurologist – wild flights of fancy have plagued skeleton-reconstruction for nearly two hundred years, after all.

Which isn’t to say Paul is lacking in enthusiasm – far from it! In its own pocket-protected way, this is as passionate a book as any you’re likely to read all year – even if that passion is directed at gigantic prehistoric lizards who haven’t existed on Earth for millions of years. The love that dare not carbon-date its name, as it were. And although this is a comprehensive and even-handed book, the main object of that love is a big bruiser familiar to even the most dino-ignorant readers: Tyrannosaurus rex, that much-reproduced, much-dramatized, and much-vilified terror of the dinosaur world. Paul is endlessly fascinated with the T. rex –  in this book he characterizes the king of lizards as an expert hunter taking down huge prey animals by hunting in packs and making full and lethal use of its enormous set of choppers. Paul likes to talk about T. rex’s, and he likes to nail down as many specifics as he can:

Now let’s get down to real business. On average, an 8-tonne Tyrannosaurus rex must bolt down 93 kg of meat per day, or some 2000 tonnes in a sixty-year life, equal to the weight of a World War II destroyer! It is also the equivalent of nearly three thousand cattle, each of which could be eaten in a few bites. Since T. rex had a uniquely strong skull, it could consume more of a carcass than most theropods – perhaps 85 percent. So about four hundred 6-tonne Triceratops would feed a T. rex over its life. When T. rex killed a Triceratops, it took a few days to eat it, and then it had enough energy for fifty-five days. It is more likely that six tyrannosaurs organized to kill and eat the herbivore. Since each could take in two tons of meat at a sitting, they would leave the carcass a little hungry, but with some eight days’ worth of calories on hand.

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find speculative analysis like that exhilarating, and Paul’s book has more of it than you can shake a velociraptor at. There’s a thought-provoking hypothesis on virtually every page, and there’s plenty of turf-squabbling too:

I completely disagree with Bock’s idea that the ancestors of Archaeopteryx started out with arm and hand skin membranes that were later replaced by feathers. If an animal starts out with a membrane, it will end up with one like a bat or a pterosaur. Also, his reconstruction of the proposed creature has no neck, but all theropods and birds have long necks.

Some of you will no doubt share my fascination with all things dinosaur-related. If that’s the case, you should waste no time in finding a copy of this fascinating, fun book – it’s a dinosaur classic even less perfectly evolved life-forms can’t put down!

January 23rd, 2011

The Big Snow!

Our book today – looking more and more ominously appropriate as this winter progresses – is Berta and Elmer Hader’s charming 1948 Caldecott winner, The Big Snow.

It’s the story of a northern forest and its wild animals, all of whom pause as the book opens to watch a flock of geese flying south across the sunsetting sky. The animals – jays, robins, squirrels, woodchucks, rats, raccoons, skunks, deer, rabbits – all confer on the meaning of that flight: that the cold days of winter are coming.

The book’s laconic narration lets us know how each animal expects to fare (for a far more detailed – and equally charming! – examination of just such a question, you’re all urged to find a copy of Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World as fast as you can). The raccoons, the woodchuck, and the skunks all plan to sleep or hibernate through most of the worst of it (no amphibians are consulted in the book); the deer on the hill and the crows in the plowed fields aren’t worried – we’re told they know how to find ample food even during the coldest months.

But there’s more to winter than cold:

Then the night after Christmas there was a rainbow around the moon … The wise owls knew what that meant. A rainbow around the moon meant more snow. MUCH MORE. “Hoooooooooooooo,” the sad trilling call of the screech owl was heard up and down and across the hillside.

And snow does indeed fall, for two days, and the book does a wonderful job of conveying not only the hushed anticipation of such an event but also the hushed duration of it and the hushed aftermath.

In that aftermath, everything in the valley covered with more than a foot of snow, the animals who were confident of surviving the cold winter months are suddenly hungry. The squirrels can’t find their buried nuts; the deer’s usual forage is unreachable under mounds of snow.

At the end of the book, a kindly old couple shovel out the walkway to their cozy stone house and liberally scatter a “banquet” of seeds, nuts, and bread crumbs. The hungry animals come flocking. The message might be counter-evolutionary (the animals who didn’t die off because of the snow would, presumably, have passed on their more clever and resilient genes to the next generation), but it’s comforting.

Comforting and familiar, to anybody who’s ever spent a winter in, say, Vermont or Maine (and one hears rumors that there are crude human settlements even further north than than!), where a ‘big snow’ can blot out a whole stretch of days, and where some well-stocked feeders in the back yard near the wood line really can make the difference between life and death for the local animals.

It’s a quietly delightful tale – I wonder how many times I’ll re-read it, on storm-days this season.

January 22nd, 2011

Penny Press addendum: the New Yorker!

The middle ground between the two Penny Press extremes I mentioned last time is of course The New Yorker, perhaps the greatest example of such a middle ground magazine in the history of magazines. I read along the whole spectrum – from the beer-guzzling boss-hating chick-scoring mags like Outside and Men’s Journal, where a fist-pumping mostly-brainless hetero homogeneity is assumed on the part of every reader, to the The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, where that reader is presumed not only to read books and care about them but also to like reading about them at length. I even follow the spectrum out onto its thin branches in periodicals like the TLS and The Journal of Roman Studies, where it’s presumed the reader not only cares about the subjects at hand but knows them very well and does not need his French – or Latin – translated.

But I come back to The New Yorker for balance between the two extremes. When it’s done well, there’s scarcely any magazine that can more feel like intellectual home base (justifiable regional bias had me giving that accolade to The Atlantic for a century, until it left Boston and became a bit dumber).

It’s not always done well, and even when it is, not all of it is. This present era at The New Yorker, for instance, is a bad one for its famous cartoons: two-thirds of the current stable of regulars draw so poorly that their captions could be written by Oscar Wilde and still not save them.

And maybe the jury is still out on whether or not this is a good era for the magazine’s movie criticism, even though both its regular movie reviewers, David Denby and Anthony Lane, are well-known writers with book deals and loyal followers. Lane is witty, but I suspect him of caring about that fact more than anything else connected with his job – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen him swerve into oncoming traffic for the sake of a punch line, and for all his obvious intelligence, I far more often remember his reviews for some sharp apercu rather than for some sound assessment.

And then there’s Denby! I’ll admit up front that writing a monster of narcissism like Denbys bestselling The Great Books (in which all of the Western canon, it turns out, is just there to help Denby come to terms with mid-life anomie while blandly re-affirming his life-long suspicion that he’s the smartest person in the history of the human race) is a sin from which it’s unlikely I’ll ever grant full redemption. If Denby wants blank-slate forgiveness for creating that big chunk of lazy hypocrisy, he’ll take a sabbatical and write a book called Ungreat Books in which he enthuses honestly about the twenty or thirty non-canonical books he’s actually read and loved in his life. Until that day comes, I’m bound to be a bit poorly disposed toward his work.

But even so, there are highs and lows! And his recent review of the new 50-million dollar 3-D action movie “The Green Hornet” starring Seth Rogen constitutes THE Denby-low so far in 2011: it’s virtually an itemized list of the things that bug me about this writer, and that list can surely be epitomized in this passage:

Rogen says that he has been obsessed with comic books and superheroes for years. Well, I’m sorry to put it this way, but “The Green Hornet” is what you get when someone who dropped out of high school to do standup comedy, then spent a decade in movies and television, conceives a Hollywood “passion project.”

That’s what you get? So it’s a rule, like an axiom out of Euclid? Competence = grad school? Quite apart from the fact that a glance at the cv’s of most of Hollywood’s greatest talents in the last 100 years makes that a silly thing for a professional movie critic to hint, there’s also the arrogance of such a pronouncement – it’s the worst stereotype of the squinty-faced, greasy-haired, Skittles-popping, brainlessly elitist movie-critic, noisily shifting in his seat during his free screening, impatient to begin too-loudly rehearsing his pans on his cell phone in the lobby  – not to a friend, since he has none (having alienated the last of them in senior year high school), but to his own answering machine, for later meta-analysis. That’s what you get? So Rogen’s failure (not discernible to me – the movie fails, yes, but Rogen’s by far the best thing in it) was pre-ordained? If you knew his friggin academic record going in, nothing you could see in the next 90 minutes would rise above it? And what about all the schmucks who stayed in school? We’ve never seen a dumb or predictable movie from any of them? Bet we have.

This kind of thoughtless elitism is the exact counterpart of Lane’s manic blitheness – both prefer mannerism to substance, so both tend to leave their actual subject-movies largely undiscussed. It often makes me wish Matt Taibbi reviewed movies, or that Locke Peterseim wrote for The New Yorker.

Fortunately, the current roster of New Yorker mainstays seldom if ever disappoint. Medical writer Atul Gawande turns in a great, perceptive piece in this issue on the good – and the great deal of bad – that comes from hospitals spending lots of money and time on the care of just a handful of the most critical patients. Gawande concentrates on how much medical science can learn from those few very expensive patients, and how much of what it learns can then be applied to patients in general. To which I might sheepishly stress a point Gawande makes only in passing: some of those long-term extremely costly patients are very grateful for all the extra care and bother. They’d rather have their names changed for legal reasons in a New Yorker piece about medical expense than be dead, thanks very much.

Of course, even the magazine’s big guns can occasionally misfire even in the middle of a good essay. Louis Menand, for instance, in this issue turns in a typically solid and enjoyable piece on the substance and legacy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (like some of the best book-critics – and some of the worst! – he uses some new book about Friedan as his pommel-horse: the point of the whole exercise is what he has to say about Friedan’s book – the middle-man is just there as a skimpy justification for his own more fascinating observations). But at the end of the piece, as I was happily reading along, I stumbled upon this little bit of sacrilege:

Still, you don’t need to read a book to talk about it (and it is considered an accepted decorum, in talking about it, not to be obliged to admit that you never read it).

Yeesh. I’m hoping that’s just a dose of middle-ground irony that went down the wrong pipe.

January 21st, 2011

A Harlot High and Low in the Penny Press!

As I’ve had occasion to inform you all from time to time, I read a LOT of periodicals. I subscribe to more than two dozen (it’s oft said but bears repeating: subscribing is the only way to go), which means I actually read a lot of periodicals every week, ranging across almost the whole gamut of intellectual content.

The magazine industry spent quite a bit of money in 2010 on in-house ads assuring readers that magazine-reading has seldom been healthier, and I like to believe that – for one simple reason: if magazines were to die, I’d lose a great deal of first-rate reading from my life. For while it’s true that roughly a quarter of my subscriptions are for periodicals I use far more than savor (and virtually all of my non-subscription impulse-buys are of this nature – sometimes, certain Australian-produced magazines will have such alluring nature photography on their covers that I’m prompted to pick up the issue and learn all about that wildlife’s mating habits), I read the vast bulk of it in search of the same thing I search for in books and in online literature: first-rate writing.

Of course, first-rate writing can take many forms, from the slash-and-jab buzzings of ‘lad mags’ to the Churchilllian eloquence of the stately literary reviews. But that very spectrum is one of the strongest appeals periodical literature has for me: it keeps my aesthetics limber – it keeps my eyes open for how well some piece of writing works, not just how many times it references Religio Medici. We’re all prone to a calcification of our likes and dislikes – but that calcification is deadly to the brain, and every safeguard we can take against it is well-justified.

That’s one of the main reasons I subscribe to the number of ‘men’s interest’ magazines I do, even though a) I disagree completely with their world-view (in which it’s presumed that if you graduated from business school and are male, you will share a lock-step 100 percent of the dreams, desires, irritations, preoccupations, and relaxations as every other male who graduated from business school) and b) I dislike intensely their hypocrisy (which are impossible not to notice, when every three-page article on some new fat-burning way to exercise is interspersed with colorful full-page ads for cigars, and when magazines devoted to exercise feature on their covers male celebrities who are devoted to tobacco and couldn’t exercise for more than ten consecutive minutes without coughing up slush-balls of blood-flecked sputum that writhes on its own for a full minute after ejection): they tend to have comparatively deep pockets, so they tend to attract some talented writers.

And sometimes, the little confluences are fun too – like the resonance between the latest Outside magazine, featuring a black-and-white photo of head-shaved, dead-eyed tobacco addict and champion surfer Kelly Slater on the cover, and the latest GQ, the cover-feature of which is a list of the ‘coolest’ sports stars since 1957 (when GQ was launched, naturally) – a list on which Slater appears. The Outside editors felt defensive enough about putting Slater on their cover to include an editorial note defending the decision – largely on the grounds that Slater -and pro surfing in general – doesn’t get the coverage he deserves anywhere else. It was amusing to see a little of their ‘if not us, then who?’ grandstanding defeated by the generous write-up William Finnegan gives him in GQ, including this little hymn of praise:

I didn’t get him when he first burst on the scene. He came out of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and had the choppy, histrionic style that small, crummy waves encourage. But his raw talent was supreme, and his surfing smoothed out in bigger, better waves. His balance, reflexes, speed, and wave-reading ability were off the charts. His thinking, moreover, about the mechanics of wave riding is densely analytical. Hearing him break down what actually happened inside a barrel from which he emerged, seemingly miraculously, is a master class in what makes the previously impossible possible.

Boston readers might remember that Slater is connected through one of his few non-surfing-related organs to local sports, since back before he started shaving his head Slater was briefly the owner of Gisele Bundchen, who’s currently owned by New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady (Brady’s studious mug graces one of the issue’s many alternate covers; there is no version that features Slater). Bewilderingly, Brady is also featured in this issue, even though calling him in any way ‘cool’ is a open-palmed insult to other nominees like Muhammad Ali or Julius Erving. The always-entertaining J. R. Moehringer digs deep into his b.s. bucket for some justification:

You can’t watch Brady stroll the sideline like the love child of Clark Kent and Grace Kelly without imagining every detail of his private nirvana. The trick is not letting it torment you. Even if you live in Indy or Jersey or Pittsburgh, don’t begrudge him. Next time Brady hoists the Lombardi Trophy, put your hands together, give it up. Recognize that the game has been elevated, sanctified, by his artistry. Celebrate his good fortune and good looks with good cheer. Surrender. Only then, if karma exists, will you have any chance of coming back as Brady in your next life.

What you’ll do in that next life – apart, apparently, from carrying a man-purse, walking your chattel’s pocket-pet, and choking at crunch time – will presumably be up to you. One thing’s for sure: a shaved head would be such an improvement.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that stuff like GQ and Outside (and let’s not even get started on Details, which makes those two look like serialized installments of The Gulag Archipelago)(seriously, if you’re actually able to read an issue of Details, get yourself to the nearest emergency room as fast as possible – you have suffered a concussion, and every minute could count) often represents the shallow end of the periodical pool, but in both these issues, well toward the back, after the broads-and-brewskis antics have calmed down, there are serious – and seriously good – pieces of writing. By far the most entertaining example this time around is Mark Harris’ hilarious and thought-provoking screed “The Day the Movies Died,” in which he laments the way Hollywood has been overtaken by marketers packaging multi-million-dollar products rather than directors creating art. He locates the origin of this evil in the moment Top Gun struck American theaters like a fratboy-hurled brick to the intellect. I of course find this touching, since it’s exactly what both Locke Peterseim and I were writing (I ponderously, he entertainingly) thirty years ago (I’ll include relevant links as soon as the dear old Daily Iowan joins the rest of us in the 21st century).

Of course, thirty years ago we had no idea how bad the phenomenon Harris describes could become, although that phenomenon is rendered at least a bit more palatable by how damn zingy Harris is in describing it:

In Hollywood, though, not all [marketing] quadrants are created equal. If you, for instance, have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 … well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know – you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.

Hee.

Harris allows that all his doom-and-glooming has a silver lining (basically, cable TV), but whether he’s right or wrong about Hollywood today, reading prose like that is a pure pleasure.

Of course, when it comes to the pure pleasure of reading prose, much is determined by the subject of that prose – heck, that’s where the term subjective comes from. The very best writing on big-wave surfing or Hollywood blockbusters will always interest me less than even second-rate writing about books – precious little book-writing in the mighty TLS ever descends to second-rate. I’ve mentioned countless times here what a banquet of delights every issue is, and the 14 January issue was no exception.

The highlight for me was an intensely, memorably thoughtful review of the new volume of Christopher Isherwood diaries. The piece is written by James Fenton, and from first to last it’s searching where it could easily have been merely summarizing. It’s a perfect demonstration of how the very best book-criticism makes fascinating and worthwhile reading entirely independent of the books on which it’s predicated. When Fenton is writing in this key, I could read him forever:

If the sexual world of Isherwood seems in some ways dated, that is partly because some of its assumptions have indeed dated. It would be one thing, perhaps, to propose sexual freedom within a relationship, as a way of asserting that the gay man belongs to bohemia rather than the bourgeoisie (although it seems hard to insist that every gay man should live by the laws of bohemia). But supposing, buried somewhere in the psychology of this phase of a social revolution, there was a pessimistic assumption about male sexuality – an assumption that the homosexual male would be promiscuous because he couldn’t be otherwise. And suppose this pessimism derived from a source (religious, psychiatric, conventional) which was fundamentally anti-gay, and which had an interest in warning men off what it conceived as a lifestyle choice: don’t go down that road, sonny, or you will end up sad and alone. Then we might just conclude that the whole matter of gay promiscuity deserved a second look.

“But what do I know?” he writes. “I know only what I read.” But when a reviewer has range and wit enough to invoke Thom Gunn to counter the self-pitying morbidity of somebody like Christopher Isherwood, I’d say he knows plenty.

Two ends of the spectrum, then, in some ways, in every reading of the Penny Press – but the quality-hunt is thrilling in its own right, and being provoked to laugh out loud or re-examine an old opinion over a heaped plate of cheap Chinese food … well, that’s plenty thrilling too.

January 20th, 2011

Comics addendum! The ongoing Legion!

Just a quick note here to sing the praises of the new Legion of Super-Heroes monthly comic written by the great Paul Levitz and drawn by Yildiray Cinar (who is, apparently, one of the High Elves of Eregion – which at least means we’ll be seeing his work for a long time!). Issue #9 of the comic features the ‘iconic’ covers that are running throughout all DC comics this month – a wonderful gimmick that underscores the fact that many of DC’s ‘intellectual properties’ are quite venerable and have been followed by fans through many decades.

No fans more dedicated – nor many titles through more decades – than the Legion! And yet, despite that rich, convoluted history (or maybe the history made it inevitable), the Legion’s publication history has been plagued regularly with …. well, crap. Crappy writers. Crappy re-boots. Crappy artists – oh sweet lordie, the crappy artists ….

So it’s always a relief when a really good reboot or arc comes along. We got just such a really good spell with industry (and real life) giant Jim Shooter’s recent truncated run on the book, and we’re getting one again with veteran Legion writer Paul Levitz doing what he does so well: unfolding several plots simultaneously without ever dropping the ball on any one of them. And he’s got good artwork serving his words – this High Elf really knows what he’s doing, and his inking by Wayne Faucher (presumably human) supplies just the level of control and refinement I suspect he needs.

The combination of that artwork and Levitz at the writing helm is almost reconciling me to the whole idea of following the adventures of an adult Legion. The more I think about the concept, the more I realize that it was the only one that would really work to keep such an old franchise vital, but Legion fans accept change only grudgingly. Levitz’s presence certainly helps – and some gigantic, epic story of the type that’s always worked so well with the Legion … well, that would help too, if the powers that be at DC could arrange it.

January 19th, 2011

Comics! Avengers Assemble, volume 1!

Our book today is the great graphic novel collection Avengers Assemble,Volume 1, originally published in an oversized hardcover a decade ago and now at last re-issued in paperback. I owned and often re-read the hardcover (an indulgence I seldom make for graphic novels, but this one was well worth it), but alas, it failed to survive the ravages of my Summer of Homelessness, and since in the meantime the thing had never appeared in paperback, I assumed the worst and figured it never would.

But we live in the great age of comic book reprint collections, and so here it is – a burstingly colorful volume featuring the first nine issues of the title’s late-’90s relaunch, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn with mind-boggling mastery by George Perez.

This relaunch happens in the wake of Marvel’s disastrously poorly-conceived attempt to ‘coolify’ some of their most venerable titles by giving them entirely into the hands of a few fan-favorite artists and having a kind of company sack-race to see who could dump the most crap on the market in the shortest amount of time.

The Avengers and lots of other Marvel heroes (but not the X-Men) had voluntarily sacrificed themselves, you see, by leaping into some kinda void in order to defeat a boringly all-powerful bad guy named Onslaught. This gave Marvel a chance to do two things at the same time: 1) finally have a continuity that was mutants, mutants, and more mutants, and 2) launch a series of books set in a new continuity, where the origins of titles like the Avengers or Captain America could be entirely re-thought. It seemed like win-win. But even a win-win scenario will quickly head south if it involves boneheaded and blasphemously untalented fan favorite artist Rob Liefeld, and this one did. Liefeld is the most notoriously inept artist to get regular work since Herb Trimpe, and he’s not only inept but droolingly adolescent, so obsessed with his ability to draw huge boobs that he infamously even gave a pair to Captain America.

So this relaunch continuity quickly descended from crappy-but-bearable to unbearably crappy to so-crappy-we-want-our-old-crap-back, and Marvel learned once again that it had some fans of things other than its best-selling books (sadly, the company apparently needs to re-learn this lesson every decade or so – witness the lineup of the current Avengers, featuring Spider-Man, the Thing, four clones of Wolverine, President Obama, and some free tacos). An event was concocted – Heroes Return – and the divergent reality was scrapped in favor of re-starting a handful of flagship Marvel titles starring old favorite characters as fans remembered them, not as a comics convention full of overgrown drunken frat boys felt like making them.

Hence, this Avengers #1, written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez, and opening in a rare moment of complete peace and quiet for Marvel’s most powerful super-team. They’re back from their alternate-dimension adventures, yes, but they haven’t fully adjusted and aren’t even officially a team again – just a small group of friends sitting around talking in stately Avengers Mansion, wondering about the meaning behind the day’s outbreak of attacks on many Avengers past and present by various beings that seemed plucked from Norse mythology. Norse mythology, you say? Why, that sounds right up Thor’s ally – except Thor disappeared in the super-confusing lead-up to the switcheroo, and his own title didn’t get a relaunch with the others.

But he soon appears, looking ragged and telling a tale of having found himself alone in the ruins of Asgard. It turns out several of the city’s most powerful magical do-hickeys – including the Twilight Sword and the Norn Stones – had gone missing … only we learn they’re now in the hands of Morgan le Fay, the centuries-old sorceress and dedicated Avengers-hater. She uses those talismans – and the reality-altering powers of the Scarlet Witch – to create yet another new reality: this one a warped variation on the medieval times Morgan loves so much, in which a huge team of temporarily re-imagined Avengers serve as her brainwashed personal bodyguard. Seems like the perfect plan – since this IS reality now, there’s no chance of anybody opposing her.

It’s a daring move on Busiek’s part, re-launching the book with just the kind of alternate-reality storyline that raised fan ire and caused all the mess in the first place. But it’s an entirely justified gamble, since a) Busiek is a very strong comics-writer who generally doesn’t set challenges for himself that he can’t meet, and b) he’s joined here by the aforementioned legendary George Perez, whose artwork on this Avengers run (this first volume of “Avengers Assemble” and the two that will – hopefully quickly – follow it in paperback) is the best of his entire career. The result is a triumph of good old-fashioned superhero comic entertainment.

Morgan is eventually defeated (she’s fighting about forty Avengers, so she didn’t have that much of a chance), and the team eventually settles in back at Avengers Mansion to do that most quintessential of all Avengers activities: picking a new line-up. Busiek is a lover of comics essentials – a firm believer in the ‘if it ain’t broke’ school of writing that’s all but vanished from comics these days – so his new team has no Gilgamesh, no Doctor Druid, no Rom the Space Knight … instead, we get Avengers staples: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and the Vision, plus a wild card, Warbird, and two requisite new additions – Justice (who spends the entire run pumping his fists in excitement and generally tripping over himself) and his girlfriend Firestar (who spends the whole run, girlfriend-style, moping and criticizing him).

There follow some really fun issues full of Perez’s amazing artwork (with one fill-in annual by Carlos Pacheco) and Busiek’s spot-on characterizations – the highlight of which is certainly “The Court-Martial of Carol Danvers,” in which the Avengers are forced to deal with the fact that Warbird likes to drink while super-heroing.

My only quibble? Well, apart from the fact that a super-team that faces such world-class dangers as Kang or Ultron would never voluntarily saddle itself with a pair of dim bulb third-stringers like Justice and Firestar, I in fact do have a very small quibble with this first volume – really, with just a touch of Busiek’s dialogue. At one point when the extended team has gathered to discuss the threat of all those Asgardian attacks, somebody asks the Black Widow her opinion – and Busiek has her say “I’m not sure my record entitles me to speculate” – surely a reference to the string of issues where she lead the team back in the 1990s. Those issues were written by Bob Harras and drawn by Steve Epting, and in my opinion they remain the least-appreciated great arc in Avengers history – well deserving of a couple of nice graphic novels just like this one.

But those are pretty minor quibbles – the Black Widow is just one panel, after all, and the Avengers have always had dippy third-string members mixing with their A-listers. On the whole, this big volume does nothing but delight. Avengers fans should snap it up right away and then wait impatiently right along with me for the subsequent volumes.

January 18th, 2011

Post-Homerica!

Our books today all share a common theme, and it’s a theme with which countless writers have been intimately familiar over the millennia: the great matter of Homer. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer passed on an entire world as complex and immediate and real as our own, full of characters that all Western culture has long since thought of as actual people.  In passage after passage, in virtuosic turn after turn, Homer shifts from panoramic action to quirky, telling little human details, and all of it is etched against an impressive natural landscape (and seascape) of winds and sunrises and cool wooded hills. The Iliad’s story of the events leading to the death of the great Trojan prince Hector and the Odyssey’s tracing of Odysseus’ long and arduous voyage back to his native Ithaca … these stories and the hundreds of characters who wander through them … have warned, instructed, thrilled, and entertained us as long as there’s been an ‘us.’

And more to our point today, they’ve done something else too: they’ve inspired us. In Homer’s own time, that inspiration took the form of all the ‘Homeric’ material that doesn’t survive to our own time: all the ‘little epics’ that are echoed or adumbrated in the two huge epics we have. And every century that followed has followed suit – virtually all Western literature is indebted to Homer in one way or another, and not only would that literature look incalculably different had Homer’s epics not existed, that literature would unquestionably be much smaller too.

The third century a.d. was no exception, and it was then that the Greek poet and scholar Quintus of Smyrna wrote his epic in 14 books, attempting to tell us the bulk of what happened in between the celebration of Hector’s funeral games and the launching of the Greeks back to their homes after ten years away at war. There were many such works in and around Quintus’ time, and some of them make interesting reading even in fragments – but none of them is finished as Quintus is finished, and none of them is half so entertaining.

Critical opinion throughout the centuries would dispute that last bit. Quintus’ great book has been lavishly abused almost since the day it was written – his critics have largely misunderstood his odd and hyper-alert ways, and they’ve been aided in their errors by the general run of translators with whom Quintus has usually been saddled. A great exception came in 1913 with Arthur Way’s blank verse translation of the whole work for the Loeb Classical Library – although Way’s work caught some of the same critical denigration as Quintus’, it’s nonetheless a nimble and hugely enjoyable work of basically Edwardian high poetics (and, miracle of miracles, it’s also now widely available in a reasonably-priced paperback put out by Barnes & Noble).

Alan James, whose 2004 work The Trojan Epic is far and away the best scholarly edition Quintus has ever received in English, is warily cognizant of his predecessor’s worth. Here’s his grudging passage:

Although it is often far too free to be a reliable reflection of the Greek and its style is marred by indulgence in pseudo-archaism, it is not without scholarly and poetic merit. Not infrequently it conveys the right meaning in English that cannot be bettered, and for that reason no translator can afford to ignore it.

Wording like that makes it ever so clear that James would have ignored it, if he thought he could – but fans of Way’s work will take whatever meager praise they can find. And in the meantime, James has created a Quintus that is superbly supple and smart. Even if his verse were clunky, his version would still be a milestone, since it comes loaded with brilliant critical apparatus. But his verse isn’t clunky (well, almost never); instead, it has an appealing directness that’s nowhere to be found in Way. Here’s the malediction Achilles pronounces over his fellow soldier, the insolent Thersites, after first punching a hole through his head:

‘Lie there in the dust, your follies all forgotten.

It’s not for men of the baser kind to challenge their betters.

On a former occasion you grievously provoked

Odysseus’ patient heart with your endless stream of insults.

But I the son of Peleus have proved a different man.

I’ve robbed you of your life, though with less than a heavy hand

I struck you. A pitiless fate has swallowed you up;

Your feebleness has cost you your life. Now leave the Achaians

And make your abusive speeches among the dead.”

We can follow the thread as it unspools right into the present era: the history of Homeric pastiche is the history of Western literature. In 1976 Doris Gates continued her popular series of Young Adult retellings of ancient Greek myths with A Fair Wind for Troy, in which she tells the story of the Iliad in extremely abbreviated form, paying special attention (as the title suggests) to the Greek High King’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeni, who is summoned to Aulis with her mother Clytemnestra on the false promise of marriage to the young Achilles – but really in order to be sacrificed to placate the enraged goddess Artemis and lift the doldrums that have held the Greek fleet in harbor. Gates’ prose is clear and tense:

Suddenly the priest raised his arm, there was a flash like lightning as the sun caught the blade before its swift descent. There was no outcry from the victim, only her bright blood spilling across the altar. Artemis had been appeased.

A few hours later a gentle wind began to ruffle the smooth surface of the harbor. It grew in strength and it was from the right quarter. The chiefs began bellowing orders. Warriors hurried aboard their ships while sailors sprang to their stations.

Agamemnon hurried to Clytemnestra’s tent to take a last farewell of his queen. He was met by the old slave …

“Queen Clytemnestra has departed for Mycenae,” he informed his master. “She left no message.”

We can see in those paragraphs the creeping-in of modern sensibilities, and those sensibilities are on full display in Sarah Franklin’s incredibly winning 1998 novel Daughter of Troy, which tells the whole story of the Iliad from the viewpoint of the high-spirited and wryly observant Briseis, the war-captive whose new ownership is the pivot on which the ‘plot’ of the Iliad turns. Franklin empowers her, imagining her as the rightful queen of Lyrnessos (which, in Franklin’s telling, follows the ‘old ways’ of hereditary rule through the female), allied with doomed Troy and possessed of goddess-inspired fortune-telling abilities.

Briseis throughout this fantastic book is no simpering slave girl but a vibrant, intelligent character, narrating her own story with a voice Franklin has mastered perfectly:

“And what brings you so far from home, son of Laertes?” I retorted.

Father and Alcathous were nonplussed, but a flash of amusement lit Odysseus’ eyes, the first I had seen there.

“A favor for a friend, a matter of honor. Troy is impressive, but I am eager to return home to my humble Ithaca, to my dear wife and parents.”

Alas, he was married! But he was being slick again. If his parents were both alive, then he ruled as king consort. He had just informed his audience that Ithaca followed the old ways, as Lyrnessos and the Dardanians did, as Troy did not.

“No children?” I asked, in case he had overlooked the source of his pathos.

“Not yet. But soon.”

“And when you do return, will you stay there and dwell in peace?” I sucked my fingers with ladylike delicacy.

“Unless of course I come back here to fight a war.”

A burst of jeering laughter at the far side of the hall coincided with angry yells nearer to hand. In that roiling, choking megaron, I was moved to an indiscretion.

“You, my lord? What reason have you to make war on Troy – just loot, common larceny?”

Imagine a large bull, standing at the front of its herd. Imagine frail little me going up to it and kicking it on its soft, tender, black nose. A bubble of shocked silence seemed to close off our group from the rest of the crowd.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Homer – or all the Homers who went into making the blind old poet of legend we so rightly venerate – would have loved the thousands of such variations on his theme that writers like Franklin and countless others have produced in the last three thousand years. It’s like I’ve said here before: pastiche is the sincerest form of literary flattery, and no writer in the world has been flattered like Homer. These three books (all three of which you should instantly buy – but do yourself a favor and read Franklin’s book first … I really can’t recommend it strongly enough) span a spectrum, and legions of such works stand behind them.

I know about that allure first-hand, as some of you will know: I myself have written two such pastiches: Troy War (dedicated to Arthur Way!) and Steve Donoghue’s Ulysses. Both gave me more sheer fun in the writing than any other fiction I’ve ever done, but I honestly thought I was done with that particular exercise. When 2011 began, I started writing a new historical novel (about the romantic, um, entanglements of two famous Elizabethan poets) and gave no thought to anything else. Then that allure came upon me as it’s come upon so many others since Homer first smote his lyre … and suddenly my plans were changed, and I was writing a third Homeric pastiche – and finding it hard to drag myself away from it to write anything else! So I can personally attest: that magic still exists, and it’s mighty strong!

January 17th, 2011

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

What better time than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to ponder the subject of oppression in the United States? And what better way than by looking at one of the starkest documents of oppression ever written? I refer, of course, to Mo Willems’ disturbingly frank 2003 cri de coeur, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

The pigeon’s story is the heart of the book – he is everypigeon – but since he can’t get a break in the vicious mammalian patriarchy, his story is co-opted right at the onset by Massa Driver, who’s smug, smiling Aryan features greet us the moment we open the book. He’s just going to run a quick errand, he tells us – and from the wandering direction of his hands, we can infer that his ‘errand’ will take him to the red-light district (perhaps even the slave quarters? we can’ be sure, and we hesitate to pre-judge) – but he wants to make a polite request of us before he goes: no matter what we do, we must promise not to let the pigeon drive the bus. It’s in exactly this way that corrupt dictatorships work their perfidies – not with an unholstered gun but with a conspiratorial arm around the shoulder.

He’s no sooner sauntered off than the object of his scorn shuffles on-stage, bobbing and pecking in the obsequious Stepin Fetchit posture he’s learned through bitter years of dealing with people like Massa Driver. He’s doing his best to be friendly and ingratiating, but he has one thing on his mind:

He’d like his chance at driving the bus. He’s hoping you’ll – we’ll – give him that chance.

He’s wheedling about it. He’s faux-cheerful, his eyes exaggeratedly wide, his posture deferential. He tries to make a game of as his heart is breaking. He even invents a desperate tale of ‘friends’ of his – other pigeons with kinder Drivers, pigeons who are allowed to get behind the wheel.


Finally he’s driven to that most galling of all admissions: “I have dreams too” – how many of us have walked right by a pigeon without granting even that simple fact? How many of us have stood around the water cooler passively listening while somebody told a pigeon-joke (do your folks back home in Stamford still call them “rats with wings”? Do you still let them?)?

It’s our complacency as much as anything else that draws out his eruption of rage. He has born our iniquities and suffered our afflictions, and his avian soul cries out “ENOUGH!”

But the system is too strong. The time has not yet come. Massa Driver returns, cheerful (sated?) and confident. He asks us, tauntingly, if we’ve let the pigeon drive the bus – he knows his will is the stronger; he knows there have been no uprisings this day.

The pigeon – indeed, the pigeon inside all of us – has been defeated, and the oppression continues. The bus drives off, and the dream of a day when pigeons will proudly drive the bus … that dream is deferred.