Posts from July 2011

July 30th, 2011

Eagle Against the Sun!

Our book today is Ronald Spector’s 1985 Eagle Against the Sun, the single best account of Japan’s war with the United States during World War Two that’s ever been written in English. The stage is vast, the amount of information (much of it only recently declassified when Spector wrote his book) is staggering, and the whole of it is played out against a backdrop of such epochal importance that the subject has caused more than one competent historian to resort to cribbing, fibbing, or ad-libbing.

Part of the problem is awkwardness. When the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, they dismembered the state and broke up the pieces – all subsequent histories of the Third Reich were about a nation as dead as Carthage or Troy, which made pointed criticisms and sweeping generalizations equally possible (and, sadly, equally tempting). Ordinary German citizens – even the many thousands who were passively complicit in every last thing their Nazi overlords did)(especially them, in fact) – could and did take to talking about the war years as though they’d happened to somebody else, as though they’d been some bad, surreal dream. But the defeated Empire of Japan, although saddled with onerous reparations and defanged of its defenses, was still the same country it had been before the war – complete with the same Emperor. And worse – that country was now an ally of the United States. This state of affairs tended to turn histories of the conflict into weird echo chambers of implication, regret, and backhand diplomacy.

Spector’s book side-steps all of that by assuming an abstract omnipresence that’s virtually Thucydidean. He has vivid powers of dramatization, and he uses them not only on the wild cast of characters big and small who populate his drama but also on the hundreds of battles that punctuate his story. He knows with perfect clarity the enormous size of his undertaking:

The war between the United States and Japan was in many ways a unique and unprecedented conflict – the first, and probably the last, to be waged on such a scale and upon such a stage. It began with a stunning display of air power by the Japanese and ended with the most deadly air raids in history by the Americans. As a naval war, it was unparalleled. More battles were waged at sea and more warships were sunk than in all other twentieth century naval campaigns combined.

And he handles that undertaking adroitly, by taking sides only after he’s carefully laid out every opposing viewpoint. He uses this approach throughout the book, including its two iconic bookends, the two things most people know about the war between the United States and Japan even if they know nothing else – the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor:

The attack on Pearl Harbor has been criticized in retrospect. Samuel Eliot Morison and others point out that the Japanese neglected to attack the critically important repair shops and fuel storage facilities at Pearl Harbor; that they missed the Pacific Fleet’s carriers; and that the sneak attack, coming without declaration of war, united the country as nothing else could have in a terrible resolve to fight to the finish. Far better, they argue, for Japan to have retained her traditional naval strategy of allowing the American Fleet to come to her. Morison points out that the U.S. fleet would have taken at least six to nine months to fight its way through the Marshalls and Carolines, even without sufficient auxiliaries and destroyer protection. This would have given the Japanese ample time to complete their conquests in Southeast Asia.

In response to Morison Admiral Fukudome Shigeru presents the following argument: by using the traditional interception strategy the Japanese navy could not possibly have inflicted greater damage on the American navy than it did, in fact, inflict at Pearl Harbor on the first day of the war. The Pearl Harbor attack delayed the American advance in the central Pacific, Fukudome maintains, not for six to nine months but for almost two years.

… and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Many historians argue that the bomb was not really needed to bring about the surrender of Japan. That island empire, these critics argue, was so crippled by the cumulative effects of American blockade and bombing that, as Lisle Rose has declared, “she simply could not have continued the war beyond mid-autumn.” Rose attributed the decision to use the bomb to the U.S. Government’s “refusal to rise above wartime emotionalism and the momentum of unrestrained militarism to consider realistically or humanely the plight of Japan.” Other critics of the decision have argued that Truman and his advisers, well aware that Japan was defeated anyway, nevertheless insisted onthe atomic attacks in order to coerce the Soviets by a massive demonstration of America’s new power.

This is a massively judicious, instantly readable, and pleasantly exhaustive account, a necessary part of any WWII military history-buff’s library. I was pleased as a peacock to find a copy the other day and re-read it with such delight, and I’m sure it’ll please you too.

July 29th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The First Novels!

Like most Conan fans, I eagerly await the new movie opening on August 19th, and like most Conan fans, I first encountered the character not in Robert E. Howard’s short stories but in the dozen or so novels by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. These novels came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had titles like Conan the Warrior and Conan the Adventurer, and featured gorgeous, game-changing cover illustrations by Frank Frazetta (those cover illustration have gone on to far greater post-publication renown than the books themselves, all of which are out of print). Those fabulous covers were guaranteed to pull in readers who were browsing the creaking metal spinner-racks to which sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks were once consigned, but like me, those readers stuck around because the books served up heaping helpings of action and suspense that was long on derring-do and short on contemplative philosophy.

Those novels told a story – one long, multi-chaptered, story of a barbarian youth from Cimmeria (Conan of Cimmeria) who slowly rises in the ranks of mercenary service (Conan the Freebooter, Conan the Wanderer, Conan the Adventurer, Conan the Buccaneer) until he has a chance to become a real power-player (Conan the Warrior, Conan the Usurper, Conan the Conqueror) and eventually claim the throne of an ancient kingdom and rule it while founding a dynasty (Conan the Avenger, Conan of Aquilonia, Conan of the Isles). Along the way, readers got dozens of close shaves, hundreds of buxom maidens, and numberless supernatural lurkers and growlers. But what exactly was it those readers were getting?

Turns out, as we’ve already seen in this series, it wasn’t really Conan, despite the presence of Robert E. Howard’s name on the covers right alongside L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Those two authors used a premise here or a poem there from the master, but the stories they were spinning were entirely their own, rather unabashedly admitted in several of their introductions, like this one from Conan the Avenger:

The incomplete, open-ended nature of the Conan saga presented an irresistible temptation to add to it as Howard himself might in time have done had he lived. Besides editing unpublished Conan stories, I undertook, in the early 1950s, to rewrite the manuscripts of four other unpublished Howard adventure stories to convert them into Conan stories. This did not prove difficult, since the heroes were very much like Conan, and I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.

Of course, the new generation of Conan purists who’ve been doing such spectacular work in the last decade would squint in suppressed rage at the idea of any self-respecting author succumbing to that “irresistible temptation.” There’s a natural grievance when the pastiches are not only claiming provenance equal to the originals (de Camp talks of finding Howard manuscripts in attic boxes and the like) but supplanting those originals in the minds of most readers. especially when those pastiches – like all pastiches – lack the particular zing that gave the originals their immortality. Even at his most hurried, it’s doubtful Howard would have written an exchange like this:

 “What is it, yellow dog?” snarled Zarono, fear making him vicious.

The Stygian turned wild eyes upon him. “A protective spell,” he whispered. “One of very great power. Were any man fool enough to enter the precincts of the temple without the counter-spell, his presence would awaken that which sleeps within.”

“Well? Have you this counter-spell?”

“Thanks be to Father Set, I have. Little is known of the pre-human serpent-men of Valusia. But, from what little I know, I can weave a counter-spell, albeit I cannot maintain it for long.”

“Long enough to loot that black thing, I hope,” growled Zarono. “Best you set about it, man.”

Which isn’t to say these novels don’t contain lots of good stuff – I’ve read my way through the whole set many, many times, and it’s worth remembering that de Camp was a thorough professional with a greater than average share of creative talent quite apart from Howard (Lest Darkness Fall is one priceless hoot of a novel, for instance). In Conan the Avenger, for instance, in a scene where a disguised Conan eggs on the bandit-captain who wronged him earlier (promising to take him to a nifty brothel), we get a glimmer of Conan’s wry sense of humor, something all too often forgotten by pastiche-writers:

“Lead me there, man! I have wandered too long over the cursed desert without a woman.”

“Were you with the party that ambushed the Zuagirs?”

“With them? I commanded them!”

“Good for you!”

“Aye; that was a noble fight. But the only wench in the caravan was a yedka Thanara, may the gods smite her haughty body with boils!”

“She refused you?”

“Worse! She slapped me when I tried to kiss her in her tent!”

“The insolence of her!” said Conan.

But entertainment aside, it’s hard to know what to think of these novels now. Ground-breaking canon-setting work has been done to establish and promote the stripped-down and completely authentic Conan writings of Robert E. Howard himself, and that work casts these novels into a weird limbo in which they look like what perhaps they were: acts of effrontery, desperate lunges to cash in on a boom in sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

It’s the presence of Howard’s name in the title-slot of these books that’s the main problem, I think, and that suggests and easy solution: reprint them in attractive trade-paper omnibuses (like what’s been done so beautifully for Glen Cooks’ “Black Company” books) with de Camp’s and Carter’s names given the prominence they still very much deserve, over some kind of “based on the character created by Robert E. Howard.” Dodgy back-story notwithstanding, these novels are too good to languish out of print – and obviously, they don’t need new covers.

 

July 28th, 2011

The Dragon Lord!

Our book today is David Drake’s brutal, mesmerizing 1979 novel The Dragon Lord, the cover of which (featuring Howard Chaykin artwork, no less) proclaims “The only Arthur who could have been” – a sentiment that’s guaranteed to get people reading (it’s what originally worked on me). The book is the best thing Drake’s ever written, which means it has some formidable competition. And although that cover blurb isn’t right, couldn’t ever be right (if you researched the primary sources for Arthurian Britain all day tomorrow, it’s safe to assume you’d come up with an entirely different King Arthur who could have been – I know I would), this is still a fascinating, fantastic take on the whole body of Arthurian mythos. All the usual characters are here – Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred  – but they’ve been broken down into their raw historical components and rebuilt along grittier and more realistic lines. Like so many writers giving vent to a lifelong interest in Arthurian lore, Drake rises to the occasion in some odd and surprising ways.

But first, he gives us a typically masterful opening. Pardon the indulgence, but this stuff just begs to be read at length:

“I want a dragon,” said the king. His voice was normal, almost too soft to be heard by the man across the table. “I want a thing that will fall out of the night onto a Saxon village, rip the houses apart … leave everything that was alive torn for the neighbors to find in a day or a week.” The king’s voice began to rise. Centuries under Roman rule had smoothed the accents of most British tribes, but the burr was still to be heard among the Votadini. “I want a thing that can breathe on a field at harvest time, can turn its grain and beasts and the men among them to ash!

“Can you do that for me, wizard?”

The other man waited with half a smile for the echoes to die. He was small and should have shaved off his beard. It was dirty, sparse, and ridiculous. He could have been merely a frail old man, except for his eyes that bit what they stared at. “You have your army,” he replied, using the willow switch he carried to dabble in the ale spilled on the intarsia tabletop. “Your Companions kill and burn well enough.”

“Oh, I can beat the Saxons,” said the king offhandedly, “but that won’t make my name live a thousand years.” He was lying Roman fashion on the bench, his long cloak pinned at the shoulder and draped so that it completely covered his feet. He always hid his feet if possible, though all men knew that the right one was twisted inward from birth. The Saxons had named him Unfoot in derision when they first saw him leading a troop of cavalry against them. The name had stuck, but now it had the ring of Hel or Loki in Saxon ears. “I can beat them a dozen times … but I’d have to, wizard, because they won’t surrender to me and there’s too many of them to kill them all. I can bring fifteen hundred men to the field at a time. If the Saxons stood in rows for a week, my Companions’ arms would be numb with throat-cutting. And there would still be Saxons in Britain.”

The wizard looked down at the parquet table and muttered something under his breath. The spilled beer shimmered. For an instant the liquid showed two armies facing each other. The ripples were sword edges and silvered helms, teeth in shouting faces and the jewel-bright highlights of spurting blood.

The king pretended to see nothing. “I’ll give them a symbol, since they won’t surrender to a handful of horsemen. But I want it to be a symbol that kills and burns for a thousand years, kills unless I tell it to stop – or nothing remains. I want a dragon.”

The sheer number of excellent dramatic decisions being made in that excerpt is enough to make most writers green with envy – there’s scarcely a single word out of place. The whole novel is like that, although readers should be warned: the book is mostly composed of the bickering and adventures of the band of warriors who strike out to find the ingredients Merlin needs. Arthur himself – who’s portrayed by Drake as a baby-faced egomaniacal dictator of the froth-spitting variety – and most of the best-known characters from Mallory only appear in the novel’s bracketed framing sequences. They’re gripping when they do appear, but the bulk of the book’s matter is the derring-do and hairsbreadth escapes of a group of secondary characters. But since Drake crafts them with energy and care, all but the most fastidious readers won’t care that the big-ticket Round Table names aren’t in more of the book.

In the past, I’ve called for Drake to write less and craft more, and this book is the perfect place I’d have him start. Not to re-write it – as a sword-and-sorcery adventure in the classic Robert E. Howard mode, it could scarcely be bettered – but to write its companion volume, not about that band of hard-fighting men and women having adventures beyond the frontier, but entirely about this savage Arthur and his double-dealing Merlin, how they came to power, how they hold onto it … the whole of Mallory, only muddied. The glimpses of it given in The Dragon Lord are incredibly tantalizing, for all that the book is a corker on its own.

 

July 27th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: The Fair New England Girl!

When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, his taut little body, bristly hair, and pouty lips were all in the taloned clutches of some very naughty ladies, the type who wear sunglasses at night, the type who deck themselves out in calf-length leather coats and strike poses in graveyards, the type who are openly and very proudly up to no good. And we could hardly say which was worse: the designs these naughty women had upon our boy Paul, or how much he seemed to enjoy it.

Certainly he’d been in tough clutches before, including being the semi-willing bondage-slave of a queen vampire, or being the business office boy-toy of one gold-digging secretary or other, or even scrapping his way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing but his smoldering eyes and his shoulder-mounted laser rifle to see him through. But these naughty ladies were different: they seemed almost to want to keep poor Paulie to themselves, when obviously his bounty is meant to be shared with the rest of the world (or at least the rest of some strategic locations in Brooklyn). Surely his legions of fans could wonder if he would ever struggle free of those lacquered nails – perhaps they could even wonder if Paul was such a patented bad boy that he might not even attract any other kind of hussy.

Ah, but those fans would be reckoning without the full wonder of our perennial subject, with his perky little pecs and his flexing thighs, and his acute business sense. We’ve watched our hero waver and perhaps even lose his way, but surely those days are behind him? After the cover of Lover Avenged, can there be any thought of Paul backsliding to the days when he let others write his destiny? No, all he needed to rescue him from the thrall of those naughty, naughty ladies was a good old-fashioned New England girl.

She came along in the form of romance author Hannah Howell, who’s written more Scottish Highland romance novels than you could cover with a tartan skirt and whose brief fling with Paul in 2008-2009 freed him from the tatts-and-harleys rut he was falling into.

It’s the oddest thing, this fascination romance authors have with Scottish Highlanders – the characters and setting are on equally stratospheric popular footing with the American Wild West and Regency London, and all three are mystifying to me. All three eras/settings were caked in filth, dried sweat, rotting teeth, and brutal, unthinking violence – not one of the three of them has any genuine nobility to recommend it, and yet nine-tenths of all romances written before the current all-supernatural-all-the-time craze are set in one of those three locales. Having read half a dozen of Hannah Howell’s books, I find it easy to doubt that she’s ever actually met a Scottish Highlander. I have, on more than one type of occasion, and the experience was never anything but infuriating – and not in a sexy way.

Nevertheless, our author his Highlander-happy, and her titles include Highland Wolf, Highland Champion, Highland Barbarian, Highland Savage, Highland Conqueror, Highland Sinner, Highland Promise, Highland Wedding, Highland Thirst, Highland Lover, Highland Groom, Highland Vow, Highland Hearts, Highland Honor, Highland Angel, Highland Knight, and, inevitably, Highland Vampire. Only her Highlanders are fat, greasy, inbred illiterates – they’re broad-shouldered, brooding, tousled-haired sexpots with a penchant for bearing flesh. Sound familiar?

Enter Paul, with kilt at the ready. In My Lady Captor (talk about sounding familiar), he’s English knight Ruari Kerr, and he’s taken hostage by fiery Scotswoman Sorcha Hay in 1388 and held for ransom to insure the release of her captured brother from his English prison. To Sorcha, Paul is just a means to an end, a big strapping piece of currency – but that kind of plan is pretty much always foiled by Paul’s rather pronounced sexual magnetism, and Sorcha will be no different – although she puts up a mighty good fight, as Paul confides to his friend Rosse:

“The lass shared your bed. Why wouldnae she wed a mon she took as her lover?”

Ruari wished he had not confided that to Rosse. He knew it was why the man kept pinching at him about Sorcha. In one drunken moment of weepy confession about a lost and much-missed passion, he had given Rosse a good-sized club to use against him. Now, to get the man to stop worrying the subject of Sorcha, he was going to have to confess something he found both painful and embarrassing. His life had never been so complicated or emotionally trying, and he freely blamed Sorcha for the unpleasant changes.

“She doesnae want me for a lover or a husband,” he finally said.

In Highland Fire, Paul switches sides and becomes the Highlander himself, one Tavig MacAlpin, who’s slowly falling in love with the beautiful woman he rescued from certain death, Moira Robertson. There’s more to Moira than meets the eye, however, including the slight element of the supernatural Howell (the big softy) likes to work into many of her books. Of course, fourteenth century Scotland is no place to be showing witchy ways, and in due course the requisite mob of villagers come looking for her, and she must think quickly in order to prevent the headstrong Paul from martyring himself for her:

“I’m sorry, Tavig,” she whispered and, swinging the bag he had shoved into her arms just before her accusers had arrived, she knocked the sword from his hands.

Tavig gaped at her then lunged for his sword. Geordie and another man moved faster, quickly pinning him in their hold. Another man rushed forward to grab her. She winced as he roughly yanked her arms behind her back and bound her wrists together.

“What did you do that for, lass?” Tavid asked, staring at her with a mixture of confusion and fear.

“I ken that ye are a good fighter,” she replied, smiling sadly. “Ye couldnae win against so many, howbeit.”

“Neither can you, dearling.”

“Mayhap not, but ’tis only me they are accusing. They would cut ye down to get to me, and I would still be taken. I decided I didnae really want to see ye die in some fruitless display of gallantry.”

“Which he may still try,” said Jeanne, stepping closer yet being very careful to stay out of a glaring Tavig’s reach. “I think he needs to be secured somewhere so that he doesn’t try to set her free. She could yet use her spell to draw him back to her.”

“What are ye going to do with her?” he demanded as his wrists were tied behind his back.

“We will take her to the priest,” replied Geordie. “Father Matthew will ken what to do with her.”

It’s pretty comfortable territory, isn’t it? A supernatural temptress, a danger-filled plot, and defiant, muscular Paul with his hands firmly tied behind his back. But for all Howell’s lively plot-twisting, this mucking around the Highlands looks almost like another rut, and we know there’s more to our boy than simple rutting! Tune in next time to see if he escapes the heather!

 

July 27th, 2011

Comics! Palliative, Schmalliative!

This agonizing mental split continues: ordinarily, I’d be so pleased with the monthly hijinks over at Marvel Comics these days that they would almost certainly command whole comics entries to themselves. There’s a great prelude to what promises to be a really interesting story-line, “Spider-Island” over in Spider-Man, and there’s the continuation of that fantastic Kree/Inhumans story in FF, and there’s a gritty, involving new story in Captain America featuring a lavishly re-imagined telling of Cap’s first partnership with young Bucky Barnes, and there’s the second issue of X-Men: Schism, which is every bit as neatly written as the first one was … that’s a lot of good stuff, and there’s one thing towering over all the rest: the continuation of “The Galactus Seed” in Thor, with charismatic, evocative scripting by Matt Fraction and vivid, powerful artwork by Olivier Coipel (including an absolutely amazing sequence in which Fraction demonstrates again that he considers Thor to be the single most powerful character in the Marvel universe – in this case, he pounds the Silver Surfer into the dusty soil of Mars, stands over him, and says “You want to die on Mars? I have no problem killing you on Mars …”)

Like I said, at any other time, such delectable comics moments would be more than enough to satisfy me. But all of this good stuff takes place in the shadow of the coming DC apocalypse, when the company will scrap not only all of its ongoing titles but all the rich, 80-year back-story of those titles, in favor a “New 52″ reboot that will entirely change the face of some of the most recognizable superheroes the industry has ever known. And as if a change of that magnitude weren’t bad enough – as if it didn’t already constitute a fairly serious insult to those of us fans who’ve been reading and enjoying those superheroes for a chunk of that 80 years, DC is recently going one better: they’re coming out with special “RetroActive” issues of all their flagship characters.

The issues feature a new main story set in earlier creative eras of characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (written and drawn by some of the biggest names from decades ago – including quite a few creators I’d have assumed were dead by now), and each new story is backed up by a reprint of a story actually written and drawn in that era. The Superman issue, for instance, features a new story by Martin Pasko (with artwork by Eduardo Barreto) and a backup reprint by Cary S. Bates and the legendary Curt Swan.

I understand why DC is doing this – it’s actually quite canny on their part. Not only are they cashing in on the long and storied heritages of these characters one last time before they run a company-wide reboot they’re apparently taking very seriously, but in doing so, they get a perfect chance to make their case for that reboot by implication. “Look at these past eras of all your favorite characters,” they’re saying. “You can see how drastically things have changed from then to now, and yet the characters survived, and good stories were written – so change isn’t necessarily bad.” That’s a very smart move, and to an extent it even worked on me – but the ultimate validity of it is entirely based on two things: relative overall continuity, which usually carried from one incarnation of these characters to the next and which this upcoming apocalypse is abandoning entirely, and the staying power of the quality of those various incarnations – which is completely up for grabs in “the New 52.” Yes, some of the initial creative teams for some of the new titles are the best in the business … but they’re also the most fickle. Who’s to say how well all these new titles will be done once their famous starting line-ups have wandered off to other projects?

I’ll hope for the best, but if I were Eduardo Barreto, I’d stay by the phone.

July 25th, 2011

Unseen Life of New York!

Our book today is Unseen Life of New York – As a Naturalist Sees It, a lively, wonderful 1953 volume by William Beebe, but really it could be any of his two dozen or so books, since every one of them is a glittering gem of erudition and whimsy, well worth grabbing from every dusty second-hand bookstore shelf on which you might find them. Early on in the course of his long and adventure-filled career as an naturalist and explorer, Beebe mastered the art of lively, inviting prose (not a talent given to all great naturalists of whatever caliber – try actually reading something Jane Goodall wrote unassisted, and let’s not even get started on Jacques Cousteau), and it never thereafter deserted him. His letters were all-day entertainments, and his many books – often chronicling things no human being had ever reported before – should never be out of print (they are, as of this writing, all out of print). Beebe was for many years the Director of the Department of Tropical Research for the New York Zoological Society; he knew everybody in the field, including all the animals in their cages and habitats, and he brought the full weight of that vast experience to bear on everything he wrote.

All of it feels light as a feather, even so – including this present volume, which right away tells the reader what it isn’t: it isn’t a natural history of the pigeons, rats, and raccoons that inhabitants of New York often see. Instead, Beebe again goes where his readers are unlikely ever to have been. He takes them first and foremost to the past, reminding us that “No matter how great our preoccupation with the vital problems of life today, we should not forget that we rub elbows with the past on every side.” That sense of the past was ever-present to Beebe, so when he looks at Manhattan he sees a broader, almost time-lapse canvas:

 If we admit time into our circle, then the most familiar places are filled with interest … one of the oldest inhabitants of the city was found a few years ago, outstretched in his last long sleep near Fort Lee – a twenty-foot phytosaur, in appearance a slender crocodile, which splashed through mud and water in full vigor of life about 200,000,000 years ago. We examine his bones and try to reclothe them with flesh and movement; yet when we compare the few thousand years of the human calendar with the time separating us from this premunicipal reptile, it becomes, for us, one with the distance of the stars. More easily realized are other relatively recent inhabitants of Brooklyn, Long Branch, and Trenton – walruses, giant bison, enormous ground sloths, mastodons swinging along Upper Broadway and leaving their bones there – reindeer, horses, tapirs, musk oxen and peccaries. These all wandered within our circle less than 1,000,000 and many of them not more than 25,000 years ago.

In addition to life that’s too far gone in the past to be seen, he takes us everywhere else: too small, to high up in the air, too far down in the water, even too quick in the dark (there’s a wonderful chapter on bats). And always he spices his comments with his signature dry, borderline affectionate sarcasm, as in his discussion of the humble jellyfish:

The champion water-content creature is a jellyfish. Lift one out into visibility and place it on a thwart in the sun, and in an exceedingly brief period of time, there remains only a thin skim of glairy slime. The personality of a jellyfish, its individuality, is composed of a mere one or two per cent of its bulk, all else is perfectly good old salt water. Imagine a hundred and fifty pound man whose visible ego weighed only six pounds! Our brain is more than half water. Comment is unnecessary!

Naturally, if he’s talking about furtive, largely unseen life-forms in New York, it won’t be long before he gets to the city’s most reviled – and numerous – occupants: cockroaches. Beebe expresses none of the typical frothing, lunging hatred New Yorkers typically feel for these 250 million-year-old lease-holders, but even he can be moved to gentle unhappiness by their mindless, scurrying ways:

Roaches are essentially vegetarians, but this diet is of unlimited application. If they were scavengers only, we could put up with them better, but when, in one night, they completely eradicate the gilt tiles on an entire row of entomological books, even the tolerance of a scientist is stretched to breaking point. A single application of ordinary varnish will foil their literary enthusiasm, whereas even 10 per cent DDT they seem, at times, to consider as a new vitamin of sorts.

Every brief chapter of this wonderful book glows with that same smiling sense of wonder and discovery, and every random glance he gives to the world around him only enhances the sense that he was always seeing it for the first time:

With body cramped from a day of long and intensive inactivity, I am roused by a steady throbbing, and look up to see that the tug is heading homewards. Far off on the horizon is a tiny black smudge in the sky, and I realize that there is another world than this of the ocean deeps – that on the great liner on the horizon people are playing bridge, gossiping, looking at the water with unseeing eyes, while in the dimming light of day the sea dragons beneath their keel are swimming along on their tigerish quests in this Unseen World.

Beebe lived in an era before the Discovery Channel or brainless croc-hunters, or the manifold amazements of Youtube. In his time, wonders had to be quested and unearthed by the intrepid, then shared by the eloquent – and for decades, he performed both those services for a large and grateful reading public, making that Unseen World not only visible but fascinating. Such tour guides don’t come along very often – do yourself a favor and make a mental note to become better acquainted with this one.

July 25th, 2011

Intimations and Salutations in the Penny Press!

It’s always an extra Penny Press treat when the new London Review of Books arrives on the same day as a new TLS – I snatch them from the legendary Open Letters PO box, hurry to my periodical-reading hidey-hole, and ensconce myself to read every word. And as always, there are bits that are more memorable than others. Let’s take a quick tour through the latest pair of issues and see what jumps out, shall we?

In the LRB, things started off on the strongest possible footing, with an essay by the always-delightful Alan Bennett on the beloved libraries of his youth and young adulthood, including some lovely tributes to the libraries of poor old embattled Leeds, “where a reader’s ticket cost tuppence in 1940; not tuppence a time or even tuppence a year but just tuppence; that was all you ever had to pay.” Bennett is almost always good for a snappy one-liner, as here when he was “not an entirely satisfactory version of the genus boy,” and he’s almost always good for a funny anecdote, as here when he relates a story about the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith:

Even the most ordinary remark would be given her own peculiar twist and she could be quite camp. Conversation had once turned, as conversations will, to fork-lift trucks. Feeling that industrial machinery might be remote from Cecil’s sphere of interest, I said: ‘Do you know what a fork-life truck is?’ She looked at me in her best Annie Walker manner: ‘I do. To my cost.’

The last line is a dazzler, of course, but what does it for me is that ‘as conversations will.’

There followed a nice long review of Alan Hollinghurst’s brilliant new novel The Stranger’s Child – a nice long review by Christopher Tayler that’s mostly about Rupert Brooke but in its last paragraph does get around to half-heartedly praising the novel. I’m hoping for perhaps less digressive reviews once it comes out in the U.S.

Digressive is certainly less irritating than some other kinds of reviews, however, like Eamon Duffy’s piece in this same issue on Giles Tremlett’s new biography of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. By some weird Poisson Distribution of book-reviewing, I haven’t yet come around to writing about Tremlett’s book myself, so I was extra-alert while reading Duffy in case he said anything I could usefully steal. Instead, I got his final paragraph, which begins with “Any biography of Catherine has to stand comparison with David Starkey’s brilliant full-length portrait in his Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII” and ends with “We are fortunate in having the two books to choose between.” That one-two combination was certainly worse than digressive, since it manages to forget one other book on the subject of Catherine of Aragon, by Garrett somebody-or-other, that was reprinted about 60 times in the 20th century and sold better than any other royal biography this side of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots … if only I (or more importantly, Duffy) could recall that obscure volume’s name ….

Frustration followed right along in the form of a long, intellectually gripping piece by Perry Anderson about War and Peace – which you wouldn’t suppose would be frustrating at all, but the piece’s sub-title was “Perry Anderson on the historical novel” … not one big fat historical novel. I live, eat, and breathe historical novels, so my raised hopes were dashed even in the midst of Anderson’s brilliance.

Fortunately, I got a restorative right away over in the TLS in the form of N. A. M. Rodger’s hockey-fight takedown of Jonathan Scott’s When the Waves Ruled Britannia. As I’ve written here many times, nobody licenses a gleefully destructive review quite like the editors of the TLS, and in this one Rodger zeroes in on Scott’s reliance on poor old Richard Gibson, former clerk of Samuel Pepys and for most of his life churner-outer of drearily cranky historical manifestos. Gibson, Rodger writes, “was a favourite of an older generation of naval historians because he told them what they wanted to hear, and because his manuscripts were in the British Museum, which was as near as most of them got to serious documentary research.” “Nobody since Macaulay,” he hammers on, “has taken this seriously as a description of the late Stuart Navy.” Hee.

And of course there’s always the issue-closing palliative of J. C.’s “NB” page, with its usually-delectable short items on various and sundry. One of those items this time around is a brief notice of a three-volume edition of the correspondence of Norman Douglas, an unjustly overlooked novelist and travel-writer of the first half of the 20th century. J.C. gives us a typically lively opening:

[Unlike the late Patrick Leigh Fermor] Few modern-day English scribes can claim to have commanded guerrilla operations, or built a house on a Greek precipice using the plans of Vitruvius. They are more likely to write about their children, or climate change. A tricky incident at a literary festival is about as dangerous as life gets.

And that gives us the segue to Douglas, who’s here treated with more sympathy than I’m accustomed to seeing him get. Graham Greene, one of Douglas’ neighbors on the island of Capri where he lived in exile, is quoted making mention of Douglas’ “various forms of love,” and Douglas himself is quoted in the wonderfully, characteristically defiant line, “No boy I have cared for has failed to profit from our relationship.” Cynics will assume he was talking solely of financial profit. Some reprints of Douglas’ work would be greatly appreciated, if the publishing world ever gets around to it.

And while the publishing world is at it, maybe somebody could reprint that obscure Catherine of Aragon biography that’s right on the tip of my tongue …

 

July 25th, 2011

Poetry Class: Blue-Ringed Octopi!

My acquaintances among you will have glanced at the Table of Contents for the 22 July TLS, seen a poem titled “Elegy” and guessed right away that I would love it – but in this one isolated instance, you’d be wrong! No, my poetry pick of the issue – in fact, my favorite poem of the year so far in any forum – is called “Blue-Ringed Octopi” by John Kinsella:

To hunt shores at night evokes a word we lack:

as greater frustrates lesser, both having deadly

bacterial bites: the painless nip that makes paralysis

look inward though wide awake, watching your

tranquility of demise. This isn’t purely fact

collated from texts, but first-hand news: hand

touching the hand that touches the skin and agitates

a calm rockpool near mangroves to rings of bright

blue that mesmerise: liquid eyes of peacock tails.

Dying mixed metaphors, lays you out flat on the sand.

Welded mouth-to-mouth. Twenty-four hours,

a single breath. Not a breath to be had outside

the host’s, breathless you give nothing back.

A marriage against convention and Nature.

That’s your brother at twelve saying, “Watch it move!”,

flattened swirls across needles and jags of rock,

eight small legs that collect a space to hold

the pulsing head. Inkless inscription warning

small boys it will strike fingers through water

bending with the sun. Blue wedding rings.

And waiting for an electric shock that never

manifests, to pass through body unto body,

my pulling him away to break the shock.

You rarely feel the bite. And too late

if you do, as there’s no cure but breath.

And repeated in cold southern waters, where

the lesser lurks in bottles and shells, neat beak

that rips a tiny crab apart, vacuuming flesh. The swell

incites rockpools, and tides bring on the scuttle.

To treasure such poisons – tetrodotoxin, maculatoxin –

the child who picks over innocence, loves risk,

loves fear, half-lulled by the ravaging of that great

amnion, the ocean. Or surrounded by mangroves

up north where it’s hot and putrid and salty, where

infection sets into the smallest cut – mangroves’

false sense of security, mudflats stretching out as far

as tides can ever go – blue-ringed octopi lying low

in brine tepid with waiting. Hungry but shy.

July 25th, 2011

Comics! Smiling while Armageddon approaches!

I was minding my own business in the comics world this week, I swear, and the week’s haul should have made me happy enough: not only was there a new issue of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, written with headlong enthusiasm by the legendary Paul Levitz and drawn by High Elf Yildiray Cinar with a skill and narrative power that, I swear, seems to grow greater with every single issue. This issue features a grand old donnybrook of a type no team does quite as well (or as rarely) as the Legion – and a type virtually none of today’s younger writers can choreograph well at all – so not only was there that, but there was also first issue relaunch of Marvel’s venerable “Daredevil” – complete with an absolutely stunning cover by Javier Rodgriguez (one of four variants, including one by Neal Adams and … to my utter, amazed happiness, John Romita), a cover so inspired in its conception that it gives repeated pleasure just to stare at it: Daredevil’s billy-club covers his eyes, and the whole of his surroundings – pigeons in flight, building edges, everything – are invisible except for the sounds they make: the sound-effects are actually formed into the shapes of the objects they represent. Even the magnificent two-page interior spread by the great Marcos Martin (of Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson navigating New York streets) pales by comparison with this one simple, perfect evocation of Marvel’s blind superhero.

Those two issues should have made me happy and kept me happy, but NOOOO! DC Comics just had to cast a deathly pall over the proceedings, by releasing a free 35-page preview of its upcoming apocalypse, the “new 52″ reboot about which I’ve already done some preliminary whining here.  The preview has summaries of all the upcoming new titles, plus artwork – some of it new to readers (this reader, anyway). And on the back of the issue there’s a checklist of the entire roster.

Every time I’m reminded of this “new 52″ autumn coming up, I always have to take a minute to remember that it’s not the launch of some “Ultimates” style alternate line of comics within the main-frame of the normal DC world: this will BE the DC world. Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story – once this new “Justice League” starts, this new “Batman,” this new “Superman,” that’s all we’ll have of those characters in a comic book medium. I keep reflexively thinking this isn’t the case, keep reflexively thinking that even while I give a fair and open-minded try to this new line of interpretations, I’ll still be able to buy the latest “Action Comics” and watch Superman beat the crap out of the Parasite. Part of the comfort of the Ultimates line over at Marvel has always been the fact that I could ignore it – and conversely, a huge part of what annoyed the hell of me about Marvel’s disastrous proto-Ultimates “Heroes Reborn” launch years before was the fact that Marvel then – like DC now – was trumpeting it as the definitive real versions of characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Avengers. If you wanted to read the latest adventures of those characters, you had to read the garbage being pumped out every month by the gallery of coked-up fan-favorite writer-artists whose brainchild the whole project was in the first place.

There’s that same trapped feeling about “the new 52,” only it’s more intense, since this reboot is company-wide. During the whole “Heroes Reborn” debacle, Marvel fans could always still follow the adventures of the super-popular X-Men (in fact, that was kind of the whole point of the thing), whose continuity had been unaffected by the changeover. In this “new 52,” everybody’s affected – even Superman is having his costume and origins radically changed. If you’re a long-time fan of DC Comics (and, to put it mildly, I am), you either read these totally revamped interpretations of all your favorite characters, or you don’t read DC Comics at all.

Of course I’ll give it the old college try. I looked at that checklist, of course, and I picked out the first issues I myself will be buying:

Justice League

Action Comics

Detective Comics

Stormwatch

Batman and Robin

Legion Lost

Superboy

Batman

Legion of Super-Heroes

Nightwing

Supergirl

Wonder Woman

Aquaman

Superman

Teen Titans

…. that’s 15 out of a possible 52, indicating that perhaps I’m not DC’s ideal target customer (I wonder how many comics fans will buy every single one of those 52 first issues? I wonder how many comics blogs and industry sites will analyze every single one of them?). Nevertheless, since I’m having all my comics fun these days overshadowed by this coming apocalypse, I figure the least I can do is pay some attention when it happens – so I’ll very likely be reporting back on at least those 15 issues. If even one or two of them make me as happy as that “Daredevil” #1, that’ll ease my dismay just a bit.

 

July 25th, 2011

In the Company of Writers!

Our book today is In the Company of Writers, the 1990 memoir of Charles Scribner, Jr. coloring in some wonderful memories of his time heading the family publishing business, Charles Scribner’s Sons, the legendary publishers of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, and Thomas Wolfe, among many others. Back in the pre-modern publishing era, each of the big houses had its own approach and style and of course reputation, and Scribner was quintessence of acumen, not only the house publishing the very best in contemporary literature but the house known to be doing that. The present author’s father, as champion an arm-twister, deal-maker, and gentle-souled literary robber baron as ever kept his head while all those around him were losing theirs, was one of those semi-visible titans upholding the American literary firmament (I’d pay money for a big, fat, lovingly annotated volume of his collected correspondence – his letters were marvels to behold), a man who could float ‘loans’ to internationally known figures like Fitzgerald or the perennially cash-strapped Hemingway and yet never bruise their egos. His son had something of that gentle persuasiveness, and he certainly understood the mechanics of it:

 At an earlier moment during an unproductive phase, he [Hemingway] turned out Across the River and into the Trees, a pretty weak novel. In it, he had included the most horrendous, insulting references to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. They were beyond the pale, and my father wheedled him very diplomatically into taking out this and then that and the other. I doubt that Hemingway would have agreed to it for anyone else. He did it for my father because he never thought of my father as a literary person. Had my father been some famous man of letters, Hemingway would have resisted, but he could not feel rebuked by the suggestions of a businessman.

That was the key: the Scribners were always the first to acknowledge – to trumpet – that most ineffable of human qualities, literary talent, and they did it by constantly downplaying their own considerable talents in that direction in order to accentuate the brilliance of the people whose checks they were signing. Even years later, when our present author set down these memoirs (with the help of oral historian Joel Gardner), he’s still reflexively doling out the praise, as in this bit about Jacques Barzun:

He is the best editor I have ever seen – and the most efficient. He works steadily, making deft intermarginal notes that are right on target. I have not written anything in the last dozen years that Jacques didn’t improve by these deft touches. I studied them to see if I could do the same myself, but I never could. He has helped ever so many writers in that same way, and none that he has helped could ever understand the mystery of Jacques’s ability to find the mot juste or whatever was required to clarify or simplify. He is a bewildering virtuoso.

Of course, in addition to self-effacing anecdotes, Scribner’s book is full of ordinary good-story anecdotes, as should be the book of any publisher worth his salt. Our author and his lovely wife became very good friends, for instance, with the mystery novelist P. D. James, who’s the focus of a wonderful little gem:

Once when she was with us in the country, I asked her if she liked Jane Austen – she seemed like an Austenite. Her reply was “Are you joking? I named my daughter Jane after you-know-who.” During the London Blitz, she and her two girls spent nights in the Underground, huddled under blankets. “I never could have got through that,” she said, “if it hadn’t been for Jane Austen.”

And other literary figures (and their unnamed but perhaps easily identified co-conspirators!) star in slightly less complimentary tales:

On one occasion the novelist Thomas Wolfe paid a weekend visit to our home. I was away at boarding school and in fact never did meet him, then or later. On that particular occasion the Scribners had another guest, a peppery old friend and former master of foxhounds who was at least as opinionated and argumentative as Wolfe himself. After my mother and father had retired for the night, the two men sat in the library arguing and theorizing and certainly imbibing into the wee hours. Having worked up an appetite, they managed to find their way into the kitchen, where they helped themselves to generous portions of chopped meat, finding it quite delicious. In the morning the cook came to my mother in a quandary. Somehow all the raw meat that had been set out to feed the dogs had vanished during the night – pounds of it.

In the Company of Writers is chock-full of such fantastic stories, all told in the trademark workmanlike Scribner prose, all shining with the fading light of a grand old world. Scribner was gobbled up by Macmillan in the merger-mania of the 1980s, and Macmillan was gobbled up by Simon & Schuster in the corporate mania of the 1990s, and I lost track of what happened to it after that, but it hardly matters – the glory days were long gone by that point anyway. This slim, smiling book brings those days back for a bright hour of your reading time.

The glorious old Scribner Bookstores (and, one presumes, their bottomlessly knowledgeable staff) were bought by Barnes & Noble.