Posts from August 2011

August 31st, 2011

Mystery’s Histories: Ancient Egypt!

There’s something oddly calming about reading a murder mystery set in the past, and surely a big reason why that would be so is that the whole enterprise stresses continuity: not only did people kill each other in desperate and sometimes ingenious ways even in the distant past, but other people disliked that fact and worked hard (and in recognizable ways) to bring the killers to justice. And the idea of righting the balance between right and wrong largely looks the same, give or take a ritual disembowelment or two.

If that’s part of the comfort, it must also be part of the allure of reading murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt – it’s such a forbiddingly alien setting otherwise: strange customs, strange gods, strange preoccupations. In such a weird vanished world, a plain old murder is a welcome thing, as are the sleuths who set out to solve the crimes. The Egyptian faces half-smiling at us so serenely from behind protective glass at the Museum of Fine Arts seem almost like they wouldn’t even notice a murderer in their midst – it’s nice to know somebody cares.

Three somebodies, in the case of the three most popular ancient Egypt murder mystery series offered to readers in recent years. One of these three we’ve met here at Stevereads already: Lynda Robinson’s nifty series featuring the adventures of Lord Meren, the upright and rigorously intellectual inquiry agent for teen-pharaoh Tutankhamun, a reserved and diligent man about whom one character in Robinson’s second novel, Murder at the God’s Gate, says, “he can smell intrigue as the hound scents the oryx.” Like everyone else around the young king, Lord Meren is older and wiser than Tutankhamun, frequently prone to drop subtle bits of guidance into conversation, as when the two of them get some fun out of watching the scandalized reactions of a priest when confronted with an immense new statue of the pharaoh:

“Did you see him?” the king asked. “Did you see how red he turned when he realized how great was the size of my image?”

Meren risked a sidelong glance at the king. Tutankhamun was maintaining a regal demeanor. He stared straight ahead at the west bank, away from the eastern city and its countless temples.

“Aye, majesty. Thy image is indeed that of a living god.”

Tutankhamun lifted a brow and met Meren’s bland gaze.

“It was your idea too,” the king said. “So don’t pretend you don’t enjoy his discomfort.”

“But our joy must be a silent one, majesty.”

 We have a different pharaoh and a very different hero in Lauren Haney’s The Right Hand of Amon, the first of her delightful and densely packed mysteries starring Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police in the frontier fortress of Buhen during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. Where Lord Meren is very much a grey eminence, Lieutenant Bak is cut in much more of the recognizable action-hero mold: he’s twenty-four and broad-shouldered and black-haired and, well, dreamy. In this novel, Bak is assigned to escort a statue of Amon up the Nile on a mission of mercy, and Haney wastes no time showing her skill at immersing her readers in period atmosphere – in this case, the stunning, ominous heat of Egypt:

The day was hot, sweltering. The kind of day when predators and prey alike hid among the rocks and under bushes or in the depths of the river. They hid not from each other but from the sun god Re, whose fiery breath drew the moisture from every animal and plant, from the life-giving river itself. Only man, the greatest predator of all, walked about.

Haney writes a ‘classic’ murder mystery, complete with intelligently handled clues, a couple of red herrings, and a climactic confrontation that’s both bittersweet and action-packed. Her studly hero does far less hob-nobbing than Lord Meren – and gets his hands dirty far more often.

Striking something of a middle course is Judge Amerotke in P. C. Doherty’s The Horus Killings. Amerotke teams up with Queen Hatusu, widow of the pharaoh Tuthmosis and would-be pharaoh herself, Egypt’s first ruler-queen … the two of them must solve a series of killings on the sacred precincts of Horus, and both of them suspect that might be the work of divisive elements at court itself. Amerotke, the Chief Judge of Thebes, is a “tall, severe-looking” man accustomed to dispensing absolute justice in his court, and although he has something of Lieutenant Bak’s bravery (it never even occurs to him to flee when a disgruntled criminal attempts to kill him, for instance), he has much more of Lord Meren’s cerebral reserve. Doherty fills the book with rich detail-work and chooses a refreshingly unfamiliar period in Egypt’s vast history to lay his scene. Amerotke is sensitive to the squalor he sees around him:

They passed the grey, crowded huts which housed the workers who flocked to the outskirts of the city looking for work and cheap food. An arid, smelly place. A few acacias and sycamores provided some shade; the ground was peppered with piles of refuse, the field of fierce battles waged by dogs, hawks, and vultures. Men were at work rebuilding their frail brick houses damaged by a recent storm. Idlers stood along the path staring with swollen eyes or smiling in a display of teeth spoiled by bad flour and rotting meat.

Even while he’s grateful for the freedom from squalor that his standing allows him:

The gate swung open. Amerotke stepped into his own private paradise, feeling guilty at the poverty he had just glimpsed. This was his oasis of calm. Apple, almond, fig and pomegranate grew here in glorious profusion. Sunbaked plots full of onions, cucumbers, aubergines and other vegetables gave off a pleasant savoury odour.

All three books are passionately, exhaustively researched, and all three give off that delicious vibe of a well-constructed and well-executed whodunit. As far as mystery’s histories go, readers could do far, far worse.

August 31st, 2011

Comics! An End and a Beginning!

Well, that much-heralded day is finally here: the day when DC Comics concludes its game-changing mini-series “Flashpoint” and begins its month-long roll-out of 52 new titles in 52 new first issues, including Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #1 – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman #1. The whole new works of DC’s entire line, all starting at #1.

The final issue of “Flashpoint” is the springboard – it gives us the maguffin that DC will use to create an entirely new continuity filled with new versions of its old (in some cases, very old) heroes and villains. That maguffin (no surprise here, considering the mini-series’ name) is the Flash’s ability to run so fast he can actually move backward in time. After almost an entire issue of meaningless general fisticuffs (notable mainly because the alternate-world Batman and the alternate-world Superman both kill somebody they could easily have incapacitated), the Flash races to repair the time-line only to be told by a mysterious hooded woman that he can’t – that the ‘three time lines’ (DC Comics plus its Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints, as far as I can tell) have to merge into one new continuity (a new continuity in which the Flash himself is obviously much, much slower – perhaps meant to close the door on the temptation to use him in order to re-create the old continuity tomorrow).

So strongly did I not want that whole re-alignment to happen that when I got to the end of “Flasthpoint” I almost convinced myself that it hadn’t happened – for a moment, it was possible to think “Flashpoint” had been all along just what it looked like at the start: just another clever alternate-reality ‘what if’-kind of story, with no bearing whatsoever on the DC comics I knew and loved. But at the end of the issue, both the Flash and Batman are wearing those absurd, over-busy variations of their familiar costumes – and although the Flash remembers the alternate world we saw in “Flashpoint,” neither he nor Batman remember DC’s old reality. So that door is closed, and we’re all firmly on the other side of it, in the world of the “new 52.” I can stubbornly hope it’ll open again some day (if, for instance, comics fans collectively reject this whole scheme), but it won’t be any time soon, so I turned to the first issue of that new reality with a wary kind of resolution.

That first issue is “Justice League” #1, written by Geoff Johns and drawn with wonderful virtuosity by Jim Lee, here doing even better work than the epic stuff he turned out for Frank Miller’s recent “Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder” series – a gritty, dystopian series that’s clearly the ideological ancestor of this new continuity. We’re told that this first issue is taking place “Five Years Ago,” at the dawn of the new super-hero age when the civilian authorities don’t know what to make of these super-powered vigilantes popping up in their midst. A brash, cocky Green Lantern flies to Gotham City in pursuit of an ‘unauthorized’ alien presence his ring detected there, only to find the urban legend Batman already fighting the thing. Green Lantern is astonished to learn that Batman has no super-powers, and the two quickly encounter the “new 52″ version of Superman, who appears on the issue’s last page wondering what Batman can ‘do’ – what super-powers he has.

I have no idea if “Justice League” is going to remain five years in the past, no idea how long Johns is going to take assembling his team (if he learned anything from Brad Meltzer’s disastrous launch of “Justice League” a few years ago, he’ll get that assembling done in a fairly brisk fashion). The pace of this first issue is fairly brisk, but most individual comic-books are now being back-driven by the graphic novels they will become the instant their story-lines are finished, so I bet we can count on this first getting-to-know-you plot lasting at least six issues. Superman still has to learn to trust Batman and Green Lantern; Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash still have to make their appearances; Vic Stone still has to become Cyborg – that’s a lot of stuff that still needs to happen, and all of it disjointed, since this first look we’re getting at the ‘new 52′ continuity is one long flashback to five years in its past. Thirteen more #1 issues roll out next week – will they all be set in this same five-year-ago past, or will they be set in the new continuity’s present, when the Justice League is presumably established respected? No idea – I’ll find out when I read those issues.

And then I’ll write about them – sadly, but resolutely.

August 29th, 2011

A Cordiall Water!

Our book today is A Cordiall Water, a delightful curiosity assembled in 1961 by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher while she was living in Aix-en-Provence. She always maintained that unlike many of her classics such as Consider the Oyster or Serve It Forth, this book was written purely for personal pleasure, and whether or not that’s true, the book certainly reads that way. This is an anecdotal bestiary of home remedies – nostrums, herbs, poultices, powders, miracle pills, and liquors of all sorts – every dubious or dead certain short-cut to health that the author ever came across in a lifetime of vigorously questioning everybody about everything. She dabbles a bit in the history of the home remedy (she’s a delightful hostess, but this dabbling is to be taken with a grain of salt straight from her own well-stocked kitchen), and then she spends the rest of this enchanting little book ruminating on the possible causes and effects of all these peddled cures. She broadens the scope of her inquiry to include stories about all manner of animals: how sick they get, what ‘natural cures’ they seem instinctively to know and use, etc. And because she’s M. F. K. Fisher, she can’t resist opinionizing along the way, especially when it comes to animals she always described as “filthy”:

It is not known, at least by me, whether snakes and fish suffer from this miserable affliction, but I have heard the theory, advance in an argument against keeping bedroom windows open in winter, that the reason birds never sneeze or cough is that they sleep always with their heads tucked into their warm yet aerated wings. The common hen was cited as a prime example of this idyllic prevention.

I cannot advance any arguments for or against it since I do not really like birds, at least enough to live much with them, and I actively dislike chickens. Once when I was very young, though, a neighbor asked us to watch over her canary while she went away for a few days, and I have a strong and distinct feeling that I heard him cough several times before he died, soon after she left him with us.

You see it done perfectly, and you shiver even while you’re squirming with delight: the classic Fisher dead-cold comic timing embodied in the placement of that “before he died” is something nine writers out of ten would have botched. That comic timing pops up far more frequently in a book like A Cordiall Water than it does in her less self-indulgent volumes, very likely because a lot of this stuff is being pulled from her memory, from priceless stories often told and therefore highly polished. Just look at the genius of where she inserts the telling phrase in this little story:

One man who spent much of his lifetime studying the problem through his own reactions to it insisted, long before he was knocked down and killed when cold sober by an enormous dog, that the only real cure was sudden death. This assertion was even more macabre to his friends because he had always professed, and backed it by practice, that two aspirins and “a hair of the dog that had bit him” were of great help the morning after the night before …

A less confident writer wouldn’t have dared to drop the punch line itself in the first sentence like that, but how much blander would the story have been if she’d done it up the predictable way, “… and then he was killed by a dog!” Beholding calm, totally assured mastery like that on virtually every page is the main joy of this little book.

There are two other prominent joys to it all. The first is the treasure-trove of personal memories our author shares about her own life growing up (the piece-by-piece portrait that emerges of her mother answers a few key question about where Fisher got her comedic abilities), and of her own encounters with many of the nostrums she’s discussing – like the time her adoring husband forced her to bite into a raw onion to cure her horrible head-cold:

Love as well as despair blinded me before the tears did, of course, and I still hope they all acted as a kind of anesthetic for the wild blasting of my senses that followed my first resolute bite. I was on fire. I was in Hell. From the shoulders up to the last hair on my head I buzzed like an agonized bee in every atom of my skin and flesh and bone. When I gasped, my husband whacked me and said, “Good, good. That’s the way it should be. Clearing you out. Killing germs. Excellent reaction. You’ll be fine before you known it.”

I was not, and spent three days in bed with severe blisters in my mouth and throat, but the cold was gone. It had been routed. It is almost literally the last one I have ever had, just as that onion is the last one I have eaten raw for a cold cure since 1929, when the stock market and I crashed.

The other prominent joy in A Cordiall Water comes from realizing that the main reason these stories get to be funny is because they aren’t true anymore, and that’s an enormous blessing for the civilized Western world in which Fisher grew old and happy. Most of the memories she’s revelling in during the course of this book date from the late 1920s – only a century ago, but it might as well be two millennia, what with normal, educated people rubbing juices on rabid dog-bites and gulping down family recipe home remedies for cardiac congestion. It’s arresting to think that people in 1920s New York swapped poultice recipes because they knew their state-of-the-art hospitals could seldom do anything more effective. In addition to making you smile and laugh, A Cordiall Water will fill you with renewed appreciation for the ‘cold & flu relief’ aisle of your local Kwiki-Mart … not to mention your local overcrowded hospital emergency room, dispensing miracles all day to grumpy hypochondriacs. Nagging ailments come with almost instant cures these days – something people in Fisher’s day couldn’t have imagined.

Instant cures … except for hangovers, that is. Even Fisher admits there’s no cure for those – and she was something of an expert. Probably curling up in bed with one of her books is as close as you’ll ever get.

August 29th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Heading for a Fall!

When last we left our hero Paul Marron, he was being coaxed and shaped and stiffened in his resolve by several pairs of firm and knowing hands, and he was steadily rising toward ultimate fulfilment. The life of a pouty super-model isn’t always a box of pansies; it’s sometimes difficult to know where to step next. Our Paul has certainly not been conservative – he’s tried his hand at just about everything, from frustrated billionaire to frustrated alien mercenary to frustrated werewolf to frustrated bondage-slave to frustrated all-purpose supernatural being, with many stops in between. There’ve been good decisions and bad decisions (the latter usually involving clothing – as in, wearing any), and there’ve been naughty, naughty ladies waiting at every turn to latch their talons on our boy (it’s theoretically possible there’ve been some naughty, naughty men as well, but we’d hardly be in a position to comment on that), and it can all get a bit hectic. No doubt Paul could sense that his destiny was finally sidling up next to him on the solo-flex, but how to grasp it?

One strategy felt more natural than all the rest: Paul must focus on Paul! Not in the narcissistic sense, mind you, but still – unlike most other models who’ve indulged in romance cover-work, Paul seemed to realize his full potential only when he was the only hard-body on any given cover. Readers so coveted his luscious little body and chiselled face that they wanted both all to themselves – and the strategy worked: books with Paul going solo on their covers sold very briskly. If our hero weren’t so well-grounded, it might have gone to his head.

Look at the cover of Jayne Ann Krentz‘s 2009 volume Fired Up, for instance: Paul’s so sure of himself, so sure his magnetism will rule the gaze, that he doesn’t even bother to look at us – he merely favors us with a profile, a moonlit shot of his perfectly feathered hair, and his soft, rubbery lats. In Fired Up he’s Jack Winters, descendant of the famous 17th century alchemist Nicholas Winters and latest victim of the Winters Curse, which drives the men of the family to become ‘psychic monsters’ unless they can lay their hands on something called the Burning Lamp (which neither burns nor is a lamp, but hey). Stroking the lamp will make everything better – but only with a little help: the lamp must be tended by a woman who can manipulate its dreamlight energies, so generations of Winters men find themselves searching for such a woman, always with time working against them. Perhaps not an entirely familiar concept, Paul desperately searching for a woman to stop him from going crazy, but there you have it.

Krentz goes at all this with the businesslike passion you’d expect from somebody who’s written 200 books under three pseudonyms. She’s cooked up a detailed story about rival secret societies and the various psi-operatives they watch, control, and employ, and she doesn’t really have time for the precise control somebody might exercise if, for example, they only published two books a year. Maybe that’s why on Page 25 our heroine Chloe is told that Paul is 36, and then on Page 47 she’s told the same thing – in the same conversation. Or maybe she just doesn’t believe it, any more than the rest of us do.

In any case, Chloe turns out to be the very lamp-tender Paul’s been looking for – something he first guesses when mad, passionate sex with her manages to calm his inner turmoil for a while (who would have guessed that?) And together they make an excellent team – complementary super-powers and not an ounce of body-fat between them. From Paul, Chloe learns the sound a six-pack makes when you rub it really fast (for the curious, it’s oddly similar to the sound of a car driving on a flat tire), and from Chloe, Paul learns how to more precisely control his powers, to the point where he can psychically follow someone else’s experiences:

“There’s a guard?”

“Outside the door. I remember seeing him the last time I woke up. I try to sit up. That’s when I remember the restraints.”

“You’re tied to the bed?” Chloe asked, horrified.

“I’m shackled to the gurney with leather straps, the kind used in hospitals to control violent patients.”

(That’s not Paul narrating his own experiences, more’s the pity)

That supernatural element is another key to the quintessential new Paul experience – he’s often at his best when he’s out of this world. And if a tortured psychic victim is good, surely a super-hot vampire strike-team commando is even better? That’s what we get in Susan Sizemore‘s 2010 opus, Primal Instincts, which also features only our second truly epic Paul book-cover. All the elements are there: the deadly-serious look in the eyes, the epic pout, the bare, glistening torso, the ridged shoulders and padded pecs, the brachial vein running down the arm like a drain-spout, the washboard abs, the ready hands, the vaguely counter-culture tattoo (ah, but which counter-culture? So many possibilities…), and best of all: leather pants. Naturally, Paul and leather go together like eggs and bacon under any circumstances, but if there’s one leather ensemble that says “I’m peeled all over Paul!” more than any other, it’s surely leather pants. The cover of Primal Instincts scarcely needs the rest of the book: it’s a work of art all by itself (the artist in question is Gene Mollica, and Paul friends the world over owe him a debt of thanks – he’s no stranger to depicting Paul in various states of undress, and he’s also responsible for the great covers to the “Iron Druid” series).

There is a book attached – an elaborately-realized (Sizemore may just be the dorkiest romance novelist currently working) story about secret societies of vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures roaming around freely in the normal human world, unseen guardian angels warring with unseen menaces to mankind, and everybody all the while operating by their own careful rules and regulations. In Primal Instincts Paul goes by the name Tobias Strahan, and he’s the head honcho of an elite vampire special-ops squad, the Prime of his vampire clan and lord of all he surveys – until Flare Reynard shows up, a clan heiress herself and an object of dangerous fascination for Paul. Very dangerous, in Sizemore’s fantasy scenario, as Tobias charmingly explains:

“Tribe females belong to the strongest males. They exist to be bred. They are bought and sold and fought over. Mortal slaves are used for sexual pleasure, but every Prime knows never to become involved with a vampire female. Use their bodies, stay out of their minds. Breed them, then pass them on to the next master as quickly as possible. Try not to taste them; never let them taste you. Never even look into their eyes. There are all sorts of superstitions about how females drain Primes’ strength, many examples of their evil ways. The whole point is to keep Primes from bonding with females.”

To which some Paul-fans (you know who you are) will cheer, “Hear! Hear!”

And surely this is the summit, yes? A sexy, super-macho stud-vampire who spurns bonding with females and sports the tightest leather pants in the crypt – surely once our boy Paulie has reached this kind of pinnacle, he can only move from glory to glory, with no more sloughs of despair?

You’d think that, and you’d be right – except for one horrifying possibility:

What if you get drunk one night and let your girlfriends DYE YOUR HAIR?

If we turn to Jennifer Haymore‘s 2010 novel A Touch of Scandal (although any of Haymore’s novels will equally shock – they all feature the same bizarrely transformed Paul), that’s exactly what we see. Gone are the raven, feathered locks that have lured us on through alien landscapes and windswept highland meadows, and in their place stands a shock of brainless beach-bunny blond locks fit for a peroxide party down at Baywatch Central. Gone is the sultry allure of Paul’s Italian ancestry, replaced by tow-headed ignominy that couldn’t seduce a willing go-go boy. The fingers shudder to post the full horror of it all:

Can our hero possibly recover from such a weird fashion misstep? Tune in next time to find out!

August 28th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Columbus!

Some Penguin Classics, despite everything, just don’t feel like classics. A perfect case-in-point is surely the 1969 Christopher Columbus volume The Four Voyages. Of all the Tudor-era voyages of discovery, those made by Columbus are the most emblematic and the most world-changing – you can’t read about them without thinking they surely deserve – and must have generated – the discoverer’s equivalent of the Principia, or On the Origin of Species. This impression is only strengthened by the knowledge that Columbus held it too: his voyages were the focus of energetic literary attention from the moment they began. The royal historian, Columbus’ son Hernando, and the man himself were only the principal note-takers – sometimes it seems like their already-voluminous accounts were augmented by every single literate officer on the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. Surely the makings of an epic are here?

And yet, the volume Penguin produced half a century ago is unexceptional reading. Not dull – not at all – but somehow lacking the emotional payoff we expect from the European discovery of the New World. This isn’t the fault of J. M. Cohen, who did the painstaking job of assembling bits of a dozen sources and forming them into this single narrative; his translation is smooth and readable throughout. And it’s certainly not the fault of the various chroniclers, including Columbus’ nerdy book-worm of a son, who tries his hardest to invest every moment of his account with drama:

On leaving the island of Jamaica, on Wednesday, 14 May, the Admiral reached a cape on the coast of Cuba which he named Santa Cruz. As he followed the coast he was overtaken by a heavy thunderstorm with terrible lightning which put him in great danger. His difficulties were increased by the many shallows and narrow channels which he found, and he was compelled to seek safety from these two dangers which demanded opposite remedies. To protect himself from the storm he should have lowered the sails; to get out of the shallows he had to keep them spread. Indeed, if his difficulties had continued for eight or ten leagues he would never have escaped.

No, the problem, I suspect, is the star of the show, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Despite the best efforts of translators, commentators, and white-washers, Columbus always comes across as … well, a bit of a putz. He has none of the dash of a Drake or a Frobisher, nor any of the romance of a Raleigh or a Champlain. And as Cohen remarks in his refreshingly acerbic Introduction, reports of the Admiral’s skills have been greatly exaggerated:

But even on his third voyage, Columbus was theorizing wildly about the apparent deviations of the Pole Star, which he could only explain by the crazy supposition that the earth was pear-shaped and he was sailing uphill. Columbus’s theoretical knowledge of navigation was clearly not exceptional.

And it’s worse than that (crazy ideas about the world’s natural ways being no exclusive property of the 15th century, after all). Stories of the man’s grandiose assumptions and unbridled greed abound, of course, and are grist for the mill of post-colonial axe-grinding. But whatever the Admiral’s role as horizon-broadener or agent of cultural genocide might be, the reader can’t escape the feeling that he wouldn’t have been pleasant to know. Virtually every passage he wrote of his own travels is a passive aggressive psycho-drama of nightmare proportions. At random:

I have established warm friendship with the king of that land [Hispaniola], so much so, indeed, that he was proud to call me and treat me as a brother. But even should he change his attitude and attack the men of La Navidad, he and his people know nothing about arms and go naked, as I have already said; they are the most timorous people in the world. In fact, the men that I have left there would be enough to destroy the whole land, and the island holds no dangers for them so long as they maintain discipline.

See that? The king is proud to call Columbus his brother – but Columbus isn’t proud of the honor, he can scarcely wait a sentence before covering the king and all his people with condescension. And then there’s that bit about his men: he no sooner finishes saying the people of the island can’t possibly represent any kind of danger to his soldiers than he’s pre-condemning those same men, implying with a sly look that if they do get themselves overrun and slaughtered, it was because their discipline was lax. It’s the same throughout The Four Voyages: on every page, but especially on the pages written by Columbus himself, you get the impression the thing’s real title should be Nothing – and I Mean NOTHING – was My Fault. That can get a bit tiresome, even when decked out in Penguin’s customary first-rate scholarly apparatus.

Name recognition sells, so we’ll always have some variation of this book with us. But still: Penguin Classics of all the other great exploration texts (especially if handled as lovingly as Cohen handles this stuff) would be a good thing too.

August 27th, 2011

Procession!

Our book today is a biggie: John Gunther’s 1965 anthology of his own work, Procession, and it stands, among other things, as a monument to the unpredictability of literary fate. The books that brought Gunther fame and fortune half a century ago – his world-ranging “Inside” volumes (Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside U.S.A., etc.) – are now entirely forgotten, and this big book, which was meant to commemorate their success, is out of print and will remain so until the Arch of Time cracks above our heads. But Gunther is nevertheless immortal, because he wrote a tender, piercing memoir of his young son’s death from a brain tumor, and Death Be Not Proud has been a work-horse seller ever since, made into a movie and installed on high school reading lists (the surest index of literary canonization, since it’s self-propagating). Readers of that little book have responded to its terse beauty of expression and its relative lack of sentimentality, and it’s a shame that most of those readers will never know that great surging oceans of those same qualities exist out there in the netherverse of out of print books.

Procession brings most of the highlights together, and it’s an unending delight to read, in addition to being something of a one-volume tutorial on mid-20th century world politics. Gunther travelled everywhere and had the journalistic credentials and track record to gain access to any world leader, no matter how reclusive, busy, or insane. Millions of readers consumed his every published word, and for many of them, he was the Walter Cronkite of the printed page: accessible, informed, and most of all, trustworthy.

Fallible, too, as he points out again and again in this book. He reprints here his observations of the great and near-great men and women he encountered in his decades as “Surveyor General of the Universe,” but he respects his own record – he neither alters original judgements nor omits them just because they might prove intemperate or embarrassing. What emerges is a truly remarkable historical document – and, thanks to Gunther’s unerring ear for the good anecdote, an often very amusing one, as when he’s reflecting on what a grind Ireland’s Eamon De Valera could be:

Then Mr. De Valera turned to Ireland, and my “instructions” began. He was patient, explicit, and formidably, somberly reasonable. But in that gaunt face I saw the eyes of a fanatic. When I left him, deeply impressed by his terrific Irishness, I recalled the little story about his first talk with Lloyd George. “How did you get along with de Valera?” the Welshman was asked. “We have talked for two days,” Lloyd George sighed, “and he has got up to Brian Boru.”

Or when he’s discussing the invincible arrogance of France’s Charles De Gaulle:

This egotism is rocklike, unswerving from first to last, and almost sublimely absolute. Once, during his retirement, he was looking back to an early episode in his career and said, with perfect seriousness, “Ah! That was when I was France!” As recently as January 1961, when one of his friends suggested that he should thank those who had voted for him in the Algeria referendum just concluded, he replied, “How can France thank France?”

He’s not afraid of big talk bordering on hyperbole, and because of that, many of his rashest pronouncements now resemble prophecies:

Mr. Gandhi, who is an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall, and your father, is the greatest Indian since Buddha. Like Buddha, he will be worshipped as a god when he dies. Indeed, he is literally worshipped by thousands of his people. I have seen peasants kiss the sand his feet have trod.

And even his lesser-known subjects, like Massachusetts politician and arch-brahmin Leverett Saltonstall, come alive under his touch, especially when painted with funny anecdotes:

When James Michael Curley, the celebrated Irish boss of Boston, heard that Endicott Peabody Saltonstall might get this job, he snorted, “What! All three of him?”

The irony of his posthumous fame would not have been lost on Gunther, had he seen that Procession (and all of his slaved-over “Inside” books) has disappeared from public view while thousands of school children read Death Be Not Proud every year. The journalist in him would have said “These great men deserve your attention.” The father in him would have said, “My boy was as great as any of them.” No writer can fight fate – but you should find a copy of Procession and read it.

 

August 27th, 2011

Great Moments in Comics: Lois & Clark!

As I’ve mentioned, these last few weeks of DC Comics have managed to be both sad and anticlimactic. Beginning next week, the company effects a complete overhaul of its flagship titles and all its characters, radically changing the origins, powers, relationships, and back-stories of all its best-known (and lesser-known) heroes. DC is pouring all its energies into this “new 52″ revamp, and that’s had the predictable effect of throwing all of its ongoing monthly titles into the shade. Readers – even loyal fans – have wondered what the point is of buying their favorite titles when everything about those titles is going to change completely in only a few weeks. And there’s been a side-effect as well: all the writers of these various ongoing titles at some point realized that they were every bit as big a part of comics history as the new writers and artists who’ll be mucking around with greatness in September: each one of these current creators is shutting down some comics, and many of those comics have been around for most of the last century. In its own sad way, that’s some epic stuff – take Paul Cornell, for instance. His name is unknown to me, but this week he’s the guy who’s writing the last issue of “Action Comics” as we know it. That’s a weirdly abrupt kind of responsibility.

He wraps up the ongoing storyline in which Superman and his allies defeat a group of marauding Doomsday clones, and then he gives Superman fans a Great Moment very much like what they’ve been looking for all these last weeks. Lois and Clark are enjoying a quiet dinner together, and Clark is confessing his worry to her that his friends and allies look up to him for all the wrong reasons, that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for him and maybe shouldn’t be. And Lois tells him:

People know the most important thing about your identity … that, whoever they are, you’re like them. A human being. Hitler said he’d made “the superman,” Stalin was called “the man of steel” … but no, one look at you, and no, never, you blow that out of the water … because people know who the real Superman is. It’s this decent guy with the silly smile who’s sometimes a little old-fashioned, who lives a whole human life. Who fell in love and got married.

Clark, coming from Krypton didn’t make you Superman. Martha and Jonathan did. And thanks to your doubts and your fears and your absolute refusal to be above anyone … you do them proud every day.

No fanfare, no massive action sequence … nothing to match the bleak grandeur of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” – but still: I can’t help but feel a little edge in that “people know who the real Superman is.”

 

August 25th, 2011

The Undiscovered Country!

Our book today is The Undiscovered Country, yet another splendid production of the late great soul of Cape Cod, John Hay. As I’ve written before, these end-of-summer days always remind me of the Cape for some reason, even though I’ve known that blessed little hook of land in all weathers and all seasons. End-of-summer in New England is the practicum of beauty under siege: heat and humidity still rule the days, but the wind that whispers the trees at night is no longer quite so lazy or aimless, and the reliefs it brings feel increasingly watchful in their mercies. In late August the days are still hot and the sky is still a burnished blue, but if you pause near the edge of a pond or listen to the bird-chatter in a hedge-row, you can hear shorter, sharper notes being sounded: a less forgiving season is approaching. Maybe that’s why this stretch of days at the end of August and the beginning of September always call the shores and clapboard houses and salt marshes to mind: because the many beauties of the Cape are all so intense that they feel fleeting. You want each hazy afternoon, each foggy morning, each protracted, glorious sunset to last forever, and you know they won’t. There’s a quietly penetrating melancholy that suffuses every Cape Cod moment for those with the disposition to feel it.

Hay had that disposition, in abundance. All his books are rife (sometimes – in fact often – over-ripe) with it. For his entire adult life, he was a passionate observer of the Cape in all its moods and especially all its wildlife. And he was able to access an ecstatic wonder over all of it, which he conveys in his frequent Thoreauvian arias, like this one on a favorite subject, fish:

They have mastered the universe of water that covers the major part of the planet. I have met only a few of their twenty thousand species, but each of these has illuminated the place I found them in. They pout, wiggle, and dart. They hang in glassy eyes of water, or in a downstream current. We see them, in their scaly reflections of water and sunlight, shining past our capacity to see. There are silver-sided minnows sailing straight over the brilliant sands; marsh killifish making quick dashes across the bottom of salt-marsh ditches, to disappear in puffs of mud; and in the seas beyond, the mackerel with rippled patterns on their beautiful fusiform bodies, slipping and flashing through the waters.

He’s self-deprecating always in his prose (less so in real life, to put it mildly), and he’s immensely respectful of the personalities of all the wildlife he encounters. “Being constantly aggravated little creatures,” he tells us about that homicidal minuscule speck, the shrew, “they will, I suspect, attack almost anything. I was once faced by a shrew that, as I walked by, slipped out of leaf cover to hold its ground, twittering angrily, and I was the one to withdraw.”

All Hay’s books are beautifully written, but it’s at summer’s end that I notice how often he himself seems to feel the melancholy I’m describing. His prose becomes sadder and a bit more brittle when he contemplates the turn of the season, especially this turn of the season:

Beyond the sands, the granite-gray surfaces of the waves line out, whipped by the wind, while the leaden stream of the outgoing creek reflects the last golden light. Gulls lift and dip down into its waters. While the land begins to hunker down and accommodate to the arctic, the offshore waters protect their passions, keep sending in their signs. I found a fishlike cluster of creamy eggs as I walked down the beach, a little glistening ball I could not identify, left by the tide. Life floats in to prove my ignorance, if that ever needed any proof. But out reaching is never finished. These flat lands are like broad wings, stretching toward the cold sky, beyond the grain of the immediate, worlds without end. What should I do, if there were any choice, but fly?

The Undiscovered Country was written in 1981 when the author was in the middle of a fairly frightening health scare. The worst didn’t happen, and Hay went on to write half a dozen more wonderful books. But none is quite so beautifully elegiac as this one, and it’s this one I nowadays take down from the shelf when bully August finally begins to weaken and September with its change of season is finally sniffing the night air. In all likelihood I won’t get to the Cape this season, but Hay’s books make it easy to go there at any time.

 

August 25th, 2011

Comics! Heaven’s Ladder!

Since DC Comics’ new iteration of  “DC Comics Presents” is specifically designed to reprint high point stories and artwork from the company’s many decades, I’m presuming it’ll be cancelled soon so all that glorious past continuity doesn’t muddy up the “new 52″ onslaught that begins hitting comics shops next week. Can’t be regularly reminding your readers of how things used to be if you’re trying to sell them a brand new set-up, now can you? Especially the part of that brand new set-up that touches on the Justice League, since the legendary super-group of all DC’s iconic characters is undergoing a radical revamping in only a week, from a super-powerful team honored and respected by the world to, it seems, a spatting and hunted group distrusted by the world. I’ll be trying that new Justice League (and a dozen other “new 52″ titles), and I’ll be keeping an open mind to its potential. But nevertheless, I’ll always have a special place in my comics-reading heart for the real Justice League, especially for the rare instances when the title is done perfectly.

That’s murderously difficult to do, of course. The League has taken on many incarnations over the decades (some interesting, some just plain ridiculous), but it’s always at its best when its roster is at its strongest, crammed full of names even the most dilatory comics fans will recognize: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman (nobody at all recognizes the Martian Manhunter, alas, but he’s been with the team from the beginning, so creators always feel obliged to use him, even though the far more natural candidate would be either Supergirl, Plastic Man, or Captain Marvel) … and with a roster like that, it’s well-nigh impossible to come up with challenging things for them to do. DC heroes (at least, until next week) typically don’t bicker and squabble among themselves the way Marvel heroes do, so Justice League writers can’t get much out of the kind of interpersonal dynamic that would animate a Marvel book like “The Avengers.” But actual adversaries capable of giving this ‘big seven’ roster a serious challenge are almost non-existent.

My own solution to this problem, if I controlled DC Comics, would be fairly simple: “Justice League” would be an annual comic, not a monthly one. Once every year, DC’s best writer and artist would give us a staggering, epic adventure of the League, pulling out all the narrative and visual stops, and the rest of the time, we’d just read about the separate characters having their separate adventures.

(Of course, if I controlled DC Comics, none of these characters would be radically re-invented in only a week. And Adam Strange would have his own monthly comic.)

Since there’s franchise money to be made, DC will never officially adopt that strategy – but for decades now, they’ve more or less unofficially adopted it, periodically bringing out special one-shot Justice League issues that stand alone in continuity and offer self-contained and fittingly epic stories. These are almost always far more satisfying than any monthly League title happening at the same time, and virtually every one of them has become a classic of the team’s history.

So it’s kind of fitting, in a bittersweet way, that one week before the debut of an all-new, all-different Justice League, “DC Comics Presents” would re-issue one of the greatest of those stand-alone Justice League events, “Heaven’s Ladder.” This book was originally issued back in 2000 in an oversized format designed to better highlight Bryan Hitch’s stunningly detailed visuals, and I was very pleased to learn that it would be reprinted in a normal comic-book size and thereby perhaps reach a much wider audience.

The story is epic in its simplicity: the oldest race of beings in the universe is dying, and they abduct a string of planets (including Earth) in order to form a DNA-like helix that will allow them to transcend death into an afterlife of their own creation. The League (here comprised of ‘the big seven’ plus Steel, Plastic Man, and the Atom) naturally want their planet back, but they quickly become altruistically involved in the quest of their abductors to find peace. And along the way, they share their own beliefs of what the afterlife might be like, from Aquaman’s oceanic view:

 In death we become one with the inky depths of the ocean. Below the knowledge of light, we float forever wide and weightless, silent witnesses to the dark above a sea-soaked sandscape older than time. Every creature of the sea, from the mighty whale to the merman to the turtle to the glistening mussels shed of their shells, becomes the very salt that buoys the teeming life beyond them.

To Wonder Woman’s more warlike credo:

The ancient Greeks bequeathed us the lesson that death is but a dismal state. All men and women, from the greatest to the most ignoble, are eventually reclaimed by the soil of mother earth. The only way to deny death, then, is to live each day to its absolute fullest – by constantly striving to carve an immortal legend which will serve as your eternal legacy. By making the extraordinary … look easy.

And naturally, for us Superman fans, this is a fraught topic – after all, our hero died (I still have the armband DC issued to prove it). The Atom remembers this at one point in Heaven’s Ladder and asks Superman what Heaven was like, leading to a classic, simple exchange:

“What makes you think I went to Heaven?”

“Because if you didn’t, the rest of us have no hope. Seriously, what do you remember? Anything?”

“A sensation that at long last, whatever I had to do next … it could wait.”

Waid’s writing is snappy and in-character the whole time (Batman is the typical stumbling block for writers doing this kind of epic thing, since he’s a guy with no superpowers who wears a bat suit – Waid handles it perfectly), and Hitch’s artwork is magnificent – in my opinion, the best stuff he’s ever done. Great chunks of DC continuity are worked into the story, and there are some hum-dinger fight scenes, and the scope of events is so big even this powerhouse version of the League is beaten and tattered and brought right to the edge of what they can do. It’s thrilling stuff, and it feels all the more precious being presented to us now, when the foreseeable future might not have stories like this.

So I say “long live the good old days” – not the last time I’ll be thinking that about DC comics in 2011 and beyond, I’d guess.

 

August 20th, 2011

Geographica: Hope!

Wonders abound in the latest National Geographic, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes, in the Society’s zeal to present nothing less than the entire world to its loyal readers, it inadvertently conveys so much of what’s wrong with the world that those readers (this one, certainly) put down some issues ready for a good long cry – or a good stiff drink. The undeniable toll that mankind is wreaking daily on virtually every inch of the planet is difficult to balance out with anything like good news. Species are disappearing every single day; humans are multiplying at something very near to a billion a year; and worst of all, the very climate of the planet is changing, and changing so rapidly that nobody alive today will escape the consequences, and most of those consequences will be horrifying – probably in ways we haven’t yet conceived. Sharks are being annihilated for their fins; abandoned old Soviet nuclear power plants are being raided for their weapons-grade plutonium; camels are mistreated throughout the Middle East. Bad news abounds.

The September issue manages to bring good news, and that feels great. Not the daffy fake-good news of the cover story, but real good news, from a motorized exoskeleton that could allow paralytics to move around again, to a dreamy little photo of a woman paddling her canoe in Florida and being joined by an inquisitive manatee.

And two of the issue’s big feature articles are likewise bright with optimism. The first is by Charles Siebert and deals with Kenya’s many orphanage-farms for parentless young elephants. The article is illustrated by several heartwarming photos by Michael Nichols, showing these pint-sized behemoths at their most vulnerable and adorable, receiving the patient and loving care of the humans who work at these orphanages. Siebert is very good at supplying the larger context along the way:

What makes this particular moment in the fraught history of elephant-human relations so remarkable is that the long-accrued anecdotal evidence of the elephant’s extraordinary intelligence is being borne out by science. Studies show that structures in the elephant brain are strikingly similar to those in humans. MRI scans of an elephant’s brain suggest a large hippocampus, the component in the mammalian brain linked to memory and an important part of its limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions. The elephant brain has also been shown to possess in abundance the specialized neurons known as spindle cells, which are thought to be associated with self-awareness, empathy, and social awareness in humans. Elephants have even passed the mirror test of self-recognition, something only humans, and some great apes and dolphins, had been known to do.

The claims here might be a bit narrow (the octopus and the raven, for instance, also routinely pass the mirror test), but anything that gives elephants even a small added chance of garnering more of the human protection every species in the world now needs to survive is welcome. They’re a long-lived and slow-maturing species, so from humans they need the most precious gift of all: time.

The wonders that time can produce are on full display in the article by Verlyn Klinkenborg on the Adirondacks, accompanied by stunning photos by Michael Melford. The piece celebrates the ‘primitive forest’ vibe given off by the place – a feeling experienced by everybody who’s ever been there in the happy present day. It’s a feeling that would have been much more difficult to access a hundred years ago, when rampant mining and road-cutting had the place looking grimy and denuded throughout much of its range. As unbelievable as it feels when you’re hiking through it, most of the Adirondacks has been reclaimed in the last century. Klinkenborg captures something of the magic:

What’s arresting about the Adirondacks isn’t the tantalizing promise of another view lying out of sight, though the park is an endless beaded chain of new perspectives. What’s arresting is the absence of a view, the dense enclosure of the eastern forest, the depth of the biotic floor you step across as you move deeper and deeper into a kind of Leatherstocking shade. It seems irrational to feel the trees closing behind you, as if the forest is cutting you off from the present. But the gravity you feel – drawing you over rock and moss, through small streams where the light opens overhead, across deadfalls, and into pure dim stands of hemlock – is the returning wildness of the place.

I’ve trekked the Adirondacks many times and felt that same sense of enclosure – a weird and not entirely enjoyable feeling that can be profoundly stirring, even when you’re shepherding a small crowd of noisy, inquisitive beagles. It’s amazing to think that deep green atmosphere needed less than a century to re-assert itself after near-fatal deforestation. It’s amazing to think that, and gives you hope.