Posts from December 2011
December 28th, 2011
Some Penguin Classics, finally, have been beloved and faithful travelling companions on countless trips big and small to almost every part of the world, companions whose stimulation and good cheer could be relied upon long after humans had grown fractious and seasick, long after dogs had settled down to sleep, long after even solitary contemplation had lost its (admittedly elusive) charms. Travel done right is travel done with minimal baggage, so the number of these Penguin Classics was never very big, and since change is iniquitous, the titles themselves never altered from year to year, from ocean to ocean and continent to continent. I only replaced those volumes with the exact same volumes, and then only when the original had fallen into the Indian Ocean or been eaten by a camp-visiting bear during a Yosemite night, or had been thrown into a Nantucket fireplace in order to make a point about the Platonic tradition.
I travelled with 17 small books, the library that shaped and grew me, the 17 titles that can even now look at the other 6100 in my library with a well-earned pride of place. I formed them, in tiles, into a second bottom to my travel footlocker, fit just so in order to prevent shifting and crimping, and to allow clothes and tent and gear to come and go with ease (they were also more comfortable than the footlocker’s actual bottom, as many a stray dog – and one sleepy, intrepid porcupine – learned to their delight when they encountered the footlocker open and empty)(or not empty – the porcupine obligingly shovelled out all the stuff himself, while my beagles watched in awestruck silence). They fit exactly, and they were my surest weight. This was their number:
Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt
Tacitus, The Annals, translated by Michael Grant
Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (in two fat volumes), translated by Barbara Reynolds
Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam
Benvenuto Cellini, The Autobiography, translated by George Bull
Livy, The War with Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt
Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, translated by Betty Radice
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
(My copies of Chaucer, the Bible, Pepys, Shakespeare, and Plutarch weren’t Penguins, and my copies of Dante and Ovid and Horace weren’t even in English)
These companions answered every mood, but mostly (poor old Tacitus excepted), they did what travelling companions need to do and so seldom manage: they diverted. The iniquities of Imperial Rome are all well and good when all craft are harbored by a four-day gale off Ushant, but travel usually provides its own iniquities (this is a very, very hot planet, and it’s full of brigands) in plenty – what the weary traveller most wants when trains are delayed or a caravan stalls or a lover needs a week to pack up – what the traveller needs then is levity: smart, sparkling levity, often the sharper-elbowed the better.
What could be more apt for such a need than the absurdly baroque plot-tangles of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, rendered so playfully and magnificently by Barbara Reynolds? What can beguile an hour or two more surely than the bragging shaggy-dog stories of Benvenuto Cellini? What far traveller, rounding coasts unknown, can feel lost with Herodotus by his side, the best of our voyagers whether he ever left his library or not (Aubrey de Selincourt’s urbane wit smiles in every paragraph of his superbly knowing translation)? Who can want for stories to revive interest in living (interest perhaps depressed by a grabby border official, or an opportunistic mountain storm, or a hand ballooned by viper-bite) if Boccaccio or Livy are nearby, their unproblematic tale-spinning given crystal-clear English by Penguin and then cast out to bookshops like seeds to yield alien shade? And how can either a sugared love of humanity or a bitter hatred for it survive even a few pages of Erasmus’ merciless-merry diatribe, told in Folly’s voice (with wonderfully supple rendering by Betty Radice) to Folly’s faithful, against the very follies Folly loves?
The world is big and barbarous and heaving, and I have walked and climbed and sailed and paddled and ridden and hiked over a great deal of it, arguing and cajoling and laughing and despairing and wondering, and I can tell you one thing at least for certain: these great books, housed in fragile paper and blottable ink, are stronger than the world – they have seen it, they laugh at it, they encompass it. Circumstances sometimes forced me to travel without my dogs (and sanity sometimes prompted me to travel without human companions), but these 17 old friends were always with me, and half of them were Penguin Classics. Thanks to Penguin, I had the oafish garrulity of Benvenuto Cellini in a paddle-boat off Isla Cabrales, the playful acerbity of Erasmus in a cold cabin in the Friuli, the wide-eyed what-happened-next of Livy in the bug-humming jungles of Pacaya-Samiria, the sparkling elegance of Spenser while sipping melted snow and waiting out a monster blizzard in the Canadian Yukon, the stern, beautiful precepts of Tacitus while sitting with a sick dog (not my own, thank God – but then, they’re all my own) in the Rue de Sevres, the sheer inventiveness of Ariosto by kerosene lamp while listening to lions lumber by outside in the dark of the Masai Mara, the naughty hilarity of Boccaccio while the merciless sun of Austin, Texas beat down, and most of all the scrupulous baloney of dear Herodotus, our prince of travellers, while hiking through the Hindu Kush or grinding along the Apennines or strolling the Shenandoah in high summer.
These travels are now comforting camp-fires in the memory, and they would be even if there were no such things as books in the world. But their comfort was made richer, much richer, because of some Penguin Classics.
December 27th, 2011
We’ve had a typically tumultuous year with the Penny Press in 2011, as you might expect. After all, the world of periodicals and the world of blogging share in common a certain element of headlong momentum that dissipates during the gestation of boring old books. In the world of deadline prose, outrageous positions aren’t properly vetted, half-baked contentions are floated, and tempers flare! It will come as no surprise that I treasure this element of the enterprise – the pitch and tumble of cut, thrust, and parry is exhilarating. And if I loved it back in the old days when an irritating line in a magazine article would send me rushing home to my manual typewriter in order to bang out a testy rejoinder and put it in the mail, imagine how much I prefer today’s Internet world of instantaneous commentary … what a miracle the blogosphere would have seemed to me, back in the 1970s!
It’s particularly fitting that the year of In the Penny Press should conclude with my two favorite periodicals – and that I should have bones to pick with both of them! Up first is my literary Bible, the venerable TLS, the double Christmas issue, in which Michael Dirda turns in an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens under the heading of a review of Hitchens’ last anthology, Arguably. Dirda’s biggest weakness as a critic is that he’s easily impressed, so a piece on Arguably was bound to be gushing. But now that Hitchens is dead, the spigots are opened wide. Dirda hails the late author for his wit and stylistic brilliance (but summons excerpts that display neither) and eventually just subsides into admiration:
After a while, one just shrugs and accepts the fact: Hitchens possessed a kind of Whitmanian prodigality and these essays are, ultimately, instalments in a long-sustained Song of Myself. The man was simply sui generis, and he wouldn’t have been the writer we admired, envied, argued with, sometimes loathe and often feared, had he suddenly adopted the unruffled equipoise of a kindly British John Updike, amiably pointing out the virtues of everything he read.
Maybe you just shrug and accept that fact, Michael, but some of us aren’t quite so easily exhausted. Hitchens was hardly sui generis – book critics (even ones as opinionated and sometimes eloquent as Hitchens) abound… hell, you yourself are one! And it bears pointing out that your own breadth of coverage is not a bit narrower than Hitchens – just a good deal more temperate. Also worth pointing out: the word is ‘Whitmanesque.’ And also: Updike may have been amiable (bit of the pot calling the kettle black there, by the way), but he pointed out just as much that he didn’t like as that he did, even late in his life.
And speaking of sui generis: in the same issue, the great A. N. Wilson opens a review of the new P.G. Wodehouse biography by disparaging every other author of Wodehouse’s generation. It’s an opening gambit so audacious as to be daffy: “J. B. Priestly, Angela Thirkell, Warwick Deeping, Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wilson writes, “It is hard to think of anyone reading them now, except for curiosity value.” Leaving aside the fact that if today’s readers aren’t familiar with the divine Angela Thirkell it’s their own loss, there’s the chief sputter here: Dorothy Sayers? Forgotten except as a curiosity?
But while the reader is still gasping from that opening, the really audacious part of the review hovers into view: when talking about Wodehouse’s confinement by the Nazis in Tost in Upper Silesia after the conquest of France, Wilson takes the apologetic view that poor Plummie just didn’t understand why those horribly boring Nazis wanted him to broadcast funny little sketches of internment camp life on their radio networks. According to Wilson (echoing the line taken for sixty years by lovers of Wodehouse everywhere – I’m definitely one of those fans, although I’ve never taken this line), Wodehouse made the broadcasts to reassure his many American fans that he was OK, that they were “an enormous and tragic misunderstanding.” Wilson flatly rejects the possibility that Wodehouse made the broadcasts as payment for his release from Yost, and he calls them ‘harmless.’ I’m not sure all the people who had to continue in Nazi internment camps because they weren’t P. G. Wodehouse would agree, and if Wilson thinks somebody as clear-eyed as Wodehouse could really be so Gussie Fink-Nottle oblivious, he’s swallowed rather more propaganda than is good for him.
The review is still intensely interesting, of course – Wilson is incapable of being boring on any subject (one might even call him sui generis) – and the rest of the issue is equally so. There’s yet another fascinating review of the new Steve Jobs biography, and there’s a long and engrossing piece by Frederic Raphael on Josephus, plus the Christmas Quiz, which proved a bit easier this year than last (although this year’s revealed my rather shocking lack of readiness when it comes to Finnish)
Of course the second periodical in question today would have to be National Geographic, that endless hall of wonders, that greatest of all magazines. This issue’s cover article is about twins, which might have snagged my main interest under normal circumstances (two of my siblings are twins), but it turns out there’s another theme running through this issue – a decidedly less savory one. The first note is struck in the Letters column, when Troy Carlson of Houston, Texas writes:
The author’s description of Amundsen’s tactic of eating his own sledge dogs while en route to the South Pole as “troubling” reeks of bias. Everything about Amundsen’s use of dogs was prudent and wise. He first ate dogs that were struggling to keep up or that had already died. Scott’s expedition refused to kill and eat dogs. They were starving when they died 11 miles from One Ton Depot. We should celebrate Amundsen for completing one of the great feats in exploration while suffering no loss of human life instead of viewing his tactics in the light of the 21st-century devotion to our pets (read dogs) and dietary taboos.
Something reeks here, most certainly. What the letter-writer fails to see is that while Amundsen was guilty of murdering his sled dogs, he was even more bitterly guilty of self-serving hypocrisy. He was the first to correct others when they referred to his expedition’s dogs as pack animals and horsepower. Like poor dumb Scott who exhausts the letter-writer’s patience, Amundsen was fond of calling his sled-dogs teammates, fully equal expedition members. That hypocrisy was laid bare when his expedition ran into hardship, and our letter-writer shares it: through a reek of bias, he makes it OK for Amundsen to kill and eat these loyal beings who’d given more effort to securing his immortality than anybody – but unthinkable that Amundsen should kill and eat the struggling human members of his team, several of whom were in far worse shape than even the worst dog. Unlike Scott, in Amundsen’s case everything came down to who had a working knowledge of how to pull a trigger – very heroic.
At least, readers might console themselves, such attitudes have now been relegated to the Victorian past. Until such readers reached the article in this issue about Denmark’s Sirius dog patrol. The piece is written by Michael Finkel and has several gorgeous photos by Fritz Hoffmann, and it’s about a two-man patrol taking a team of sled-dogs on operations along the northern coast of Greenland up above the Arctic Circle. I myself have travelled in northern Greenland (both along the coast where this patrol goes and further north and west, in endless reaches far, far from the haunts of man), and I can attest that unlike Boston, the area there gets cold – fifty below zero is common, and the dark of winter is absolute. It’s some of the most beautiful, inhospitable acreage on Earth, and Finkel’s article follows two patrolmen and their team of dogs as they grapple with it (frostbite is a real concern – as are polar bears! I can vouch for the fact that they don’t in any way require sunlight to hunt). The patrolmen are extremely solicitous of their dogs, naturally – fuel freezes solid at these kinds of temperatures, after all, and polar bears can easily sneak up on puny human senses, so the dogs more than earn their keep. Until, that is, they don’t:
Rasmus knew that Armstrong was nearing the end of his career. There’s no room at the Sirius base for retired dogs. And the dogs – as much wolf as pet – cannot be adopted. They must be euthanized, an act the patrollers do themselves with a pistol. Both Rasmus and Jesper say it’s the most difficult part of the job.
[That’s Armstrong in the upper right, in case you’d like to pay your respects]
This is disingenuous, to put it mildly. “As much wolf as pet”? One of Hoffmann’s photos shows a crew member sitting on the floor of a very cramped plane cabin surrounded by sled dogs; the caption says he’s there as ‘alpha dog’ in order to maintain order – which gives the lie to the patrol’s hypocrisy. There’s only one two-legged creature on Earth who could sit in the middle of a wolf-pack and ‘maintain order’ – and that patrolman isn’t him. So these dogs are, in fact, at least somewhat amenable to human company – the ones who’ve served and struggled and saved their human companions’ lives for ten years could certainly be given a friendlier retirement package than a bullet between the eyes. I guess I should be grateful the Sirius patrol doesn’t cook and eat the retirees afterward.
But as with the TLS, so too here: the issue is fantastic even despite the scurrilous behavior it describes! Reading these two periodicals together brought back an entire year’s worth of memories of all the magazines, journals, and newspapers I’ve read since last winter (when there was cold and snow – there’s a warm tropical rain falling as I type these words tonight in Boston). It’s been, as always, an amazing variety, and who knows what 2012 will bring?
December 26th, 2011
We’ve been through it all with our hero Paul Marron in 2011: every up-thrust of fate, every downward suck of the pump, all the vicissitudes that might befall anybody but that seems so much more pronounced when they happen to a set of pecs so perfect, a pair of buns so perky, a pair of cheekbones so chiselled. That Paulie was destined for greatness, we never doubted – not even in those dark early days when barbaric directors of photography would routinely require him to wear clothes. There were appearances in those days that seemed less than self-assured, perhaps even groping. More often than the rest of us, perhaps, surly business tycoons or ruthless entrepreneurs found themselves siring bastards willy-nilly with buxom Australian secretaries or enterprising English nannies. Sometimes it almost seemed like there was nothing more to life than slashing double-entendres, mountains of disposable income, and molten, pile-driving sex in fast cars and frothing jacuzzis. Anybody could be forgiven for despairing.
Our boy was resolute! He endured savage werewolf combat, cynical mercenary work on distant worlds, and being the bondage boy-toy of a lascivious vampire queen. He walked on the wild side, trying on one supernatural identity after another, and although there were pitfalls along the way, the Romance world eventually rallied round. Quickly it became apparent that Paul himself – not the cover art, not the costumes, not even the presence of a breathless woman in a state of euphoria, but simply the smoldering sight of Paul himself – could illuminate a book’s cover with all the saucy enticement its prospective readers would ever need. Identifying with the characters was no longer necessary – our hero was so damn sexy, the mere sight of his smooth, taut chest and softly rounded abs could start readers fantasizing to, um, beat the band.
We have followed Paul this far, and now we find him at the summit, the King of the Romance covers. For all we know, there’s some super-sexy young model in the cornfields of Iowa unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly – the young ones get hungrier all the time) prepping himself to top our Paulie – but for right now, all such claimants are grinding away very firmly underneath him. In the rankings.
So great his his mastery at this point that he need not even show all of his luscious, puckered face. Such is the case with Jacqueline Frank’s Seduce Me in Dreams, a fast-paced and (for a Romance novel) uncharacteristically action-packed quasi-science fiction tale of an elite strike-force of the Interplanetary Militia tasked with protecting the lovely Ravenna, leader of the Chosen Ones, a small group of aliens with the potential for vast psychic and telekinetic powers. Leading that strike force is … well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? Yes, our boy here goes by the rather distinctive name of Bronse Chapel (if it were spelled just slightly different and located in the Castro district instead of interstellar space, there’s a slim chance it might already by known to our hero), and it’s his job to make sure Ravenna and her powers don’t fall into the wrong hands. Frank keeps her book absolutely skimming along, and she makes sure there’s a full charge of electricity between her two main characters – and the electricity starts with the cover itself, where Paul is so confident of his ability to take us firmly in hand that he doesn’t even need to show us his come-hither eyes.
That decision isn’t repeated on the stunning cover of Jill Myles’ Gentlemen Prefer Succubi – far from it! Fronting this frothy tale of fallen angels, ruthless vampires, and surprisingly gynmastic succubi is a cover of a very different order: here, Paul is fully visible, scorching eyes, long, lavish hair and all. True, he’s wearing some faint suggestion of a shirt, but its purpose is clearly the reverse of what we usually think of: it’s designed to reveal, not conceal. In Myles’ story, a hapless young woman awakens (in a Dumpster) to find that she’s been transformed into a succubi by having a little naughty sex with a fallen angel – and if that sounds a bit crowded with fantasy stereotypes, you should know that Myles is only getting warmed up! Unlike so many supernatural romances on the market, Gentlemen Prefer Succubi, in addition to having one hell of a title, doesn’t take itself too seriously – not much about its fantasy world makes the kind of coherent sense we find in some other romance writers, but readers will be having too much fun to care. It’s unavoidable that the book itself can’t really compete with that cover, but it sure tries hard.
Same thing with Kim Lenox’s “Shadow Guard” novel Darker Than Night, which features Paul as Rourke, Lord Avenage, the immortal Ravenmaster of England, a skilled hand on the battlefield and, mercifully, a stranger to such practical but unfashionable things as hauberks or chain mail. Instead, his main weapon – in addition to that rather large sword he keeps poised at the ready (he’s a lefty, which will complicate both his pitching and his catching, one imagines) – is his sheer semi-naked sensuality. There’s his taut but not over-pendulous chest; there are his ‘piano key’ delts in high relief, there’s the ridge of his brachial artery running down that slim little bicep – and of course there’s that gorgeous puss, those flaring nostrils, those dark-shadowed eyes. Who needs armor if you’ve got all that? Of course, in Lenox’s dark, atmospheric tale of immortal combat behind the scenes of ordinary contemporary life, very few of the beings involved actually need armor – certainly a creature as dangerous as Paul/Rourke can do without it for the sake of selling a few thousand more copies of this book. The real Paul, confronted half-naked and hefting a sword, might not be all that intimidating a sight (he’s more of a lover than a fighter), but hey – that’s why they call it acting.
And then there’s what has to be the single greatest extant Paul Marron cover, the one that combines the key elements of all the others and then throws in that certain something extra: Vanessa Kelly’s Sex and the Single Earl. The story is told with all of Kelly’s whiplash-dialogue and richly textured period details – it’s Kelly’s best novel and a stand-out example of the ‘new breed’ of Regency Romances that have replaced the slim, prim volumes of yesteryear. This is the story of arrogant, powerful Simon St. James, the fifth Earl of Trask, and the marriage of convenience he orchestrates with Sophie Stanton, and it’s told with as much vim and humor as Kelly can muster, which is quite a lot. But all such efforts fade a bit in the shadow of that cover! There’s our boy, in knee-high leather boots and skin-tight breeches, a thick leather belt, and that surly, enticingly-lit open chest – and that facial expression! Pure, direct confidence – utterly ignoring the fawning woman in order to stare directly at you. This is the cover our hero was striving toward during all those dark and wandering days when cover conventions forced him to gaze longingly at some stand-in for his readers! This is the quintessence of the Paul Marron cover, the Paul Marron experience if you will, and it brings our long ogling odyssey to a gushing climax (and full circle). The Romance industry will no doubt treat us to many more glimpses of Paul – there’s plenty of life still in those cheekbones! – but this one says it all.
December 24th, 2011
Tough for anything in the remainder of the year here at Stevereads not to feel anti-climactic after that epic throat-clearing Year End round-up, but I’ve been reminded that we still have plenty of things to cover before 2011 comes to an end in just one week – and I agree!
Like comics, for instance. 2011 was a particularly morbid year in four-color superhero comics. Not only did Marvel Comics kill off both Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, but they also killed off their standard-bearer for superhero death, Bucky, who was speared through the heart at the climax of the company’s “Fear Itself” mini-series. And not to be outdone, DC Comics effectively killed off every single one of their characters and then instantly resurrected them, only in warped, Lazarus Pit-style. So for every Batman or Green Lantern we have who’s largely the same, we have a Wonder Woman who’s just another Zeus-bastard and a Superman who’s an emotionless cipher. RIP the previous versions, all of them.
Both these gambits can of course yield interesting stuff and even some good moments. In the latest re-jiggered issue of “The Justice League,” for instance, we get some energetically drawn panels showcasing DC’s apparent commitment to move Aquaman back into the major leagues and keep him there. In the hands of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, the character is scrubbed of post-modern gimmicks – no scraggly beard, no hook for a hand, no water-element powers; instead, he’s the version most readers’ parents will remember from Superfriends – gold chain-mail shirt, green fins, tough as a submarine, able to summon sea-creatures to do his bidding. It’s refreshing, even if it’s so far the only refreshing thing about this re-animated “Justice League.” This particular issue, for instance, is a complete mess from start to finish – the writing, the characterization, the choreography, the pacing, the internal consistency … all of it stinks. But at least it gives Aquaman the introduction to the League that he’s always deserved. I naturally wish it were the real League and not this collection of clueless a-holes sniping at each other like bargain-cart Marvel heroes, but I’ll take what I can get.
A matter of much greater success is Marvel’s long-awaited and totally unsurprising decision to bring back the Human Torch. As I mentioned months ago when the whole storyline first happened, no comics reader anywhere in the world believed the Torch was permanently out of the picture, but the plot device, however transparently manipulative, at least allowed some talented writers (most certainly including the writer of “The Fantastic Four,” Jonathan Hickman) to explore how such a death might effect the rest of the Marvel Universe. In the case of the FF, some of those explorations were quite touching, leading to some very nice issues and one very nice cover. In a time-table that seems a bit rushed even in this more cynical comics-reading era, Marvel has decided to bring the Torch back to life now, less than a year after killing him. As some readers may remember, he was lost in the alternate universe Negative Zone fighting hordes of aliens. In recent issues of “The Fantastic Four,” we the readers learned that he hadn’t died at all but had been surgically altered by those savage aliens. Meanwhile, in the magazine proper, Earth was being attacked by a hostile alien fleet and Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, is fighting a losing battle against three enormous killer Sentry robots.
This look bleak for our heroes, when suddenly Johnny Storm re-emerges from the Negative Zone. And for the first time since his apparent death, the burning ‘4’ signal blazes across the sky of Manhattan. Scattered across the battlefield below, his teammates see it and immediately know what it means – and in one of those great sequences for which Hickman seems to have a knack, the sight of that signal breathes new life into the defeated Thing, whose robot assailants quickly sense it, saying they need to “report amended temporal schedule” for his destruction. “Is that some kinda robot way of askin’ what time it is?” Ben Grimm asks, in a classic FF set-up. “Well … let me help you out with that”:
But as great as the moment is for an unabashed Fantastic Four fan such as myself, it isn’t the equal of one quick frame that comes right before it, which ranks as one of my long-lost Great Moments in Comics. The Thing, down and pretty much out at the hands of his attackers, looks up and sees that burning ‘4’ in the sky and instantly knows what it signifies, and his reaction goes into the Fantastic Four ‘best of’ books:
Marvel also hit one out of the park this last week when it comes to covers. The one Javier Rodriguez did for the latest issue of “Daredevil” not only beats that earlier, sad FF cover mentioned above but is certainly the best cover of any super-hero comics this year, a wonderful grace-note on which to end our year’s discussion of comics:
December 17th, 2011
As many of you know, this is the category closest to my reading heart. I try to read actively along a broad range of subjects (there are some books on this list that surprised me by ending up here), but my deepest loves are history and biography, and 2011 was an exceptionally strong year for both – so much so that, unlike most years, picking only ten was a torturous process (hence the swollen size of the Stevereads Honor Roll). There are thin years and fat years, in publishing as in all else, and 2011 was a very fat year.
10. The Selected Canterbury Tales (Norton) – We’ll prefer to call this edition of Chaucer’s book ‘nonfiction’ because it never comes to us ab ovo anymore but rather encrusted in decidedly non-fictional critical afflatus. And the critical apparatus here is elegant and eye-opening (as, indeed, is the book’s cover, the best Chaucer cover I’ve ever seen): Professor Sheila Fisher has given us a ‘selection’ from the poem, a selection far meatier and more enjoyable than many un-shortened versions. With its lightly-worn erudition, its extremely judicious adaptations of some of Chaucer’s indigestible bits, and especially in its barely-suppressed grin of very Chaucerian amusement, this edition rather handily beats out the half-dozen new translations and adaptations that have appeared in the last five years. To adapt the old ad-speak slogan: if you only buy one version of Chaucer any time soon, make it this one.
9. Under the Sun (the letters of Bruce Chatwin) – This big, well-annotated (I found only one gaffe) compilation of Bruce Chatwin’s chatty, urbane, unfailingly substantial letters is that rarest of epistolary conglomerations: a volume that can be read sequentially like a novel, with mounting pleasure (that enormous volume of Kingsley Amis’ letters from a few years ago was the same way – alas, pre-Stevereads!). And it’s a Bruce Chatwin-centric production from first to last, full of incredibly learned asides, dipsy speculation, an the most wonderful collection of boldfaced lies this side of The Book of Mormon. Although he vigorously denied it, Chatwin always intended to live on through his letters (there was nothing more insincere in the whole universe than his hastily-appended ‘burn this’), and this pleasingly fat volume will certainly aid in that endeavor.
8. The Information by James Gleick – Another unlikely entrant, James Gleick (author of the incomprehensible gobbledegook that was Chaos) has written a new book that is a natural history of this baggy, vast second world mankind has been generating since the stone tablets of Sumeria, ‘the information,’ a sprawling other country to which this book is a trotting Baedeker. How we generate it, how we store it, how we use it – and also how it changes on its own, while we’re not looking. Ordinarily, such technical mumbo-jumbo would have me hitting ‘delete,’ but when Gleick writes that ‘Not all information is knowledge, and not all knowledge is wisdom,’ he utterly wins me over. The Information will be by far the most important … thing of the 21st century, and this book is its best herald. I hope it approves.
7. George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis – The long-suffering author of this book agreed to wait until his subject, fraidy-cat cold warrior George F. Kennan, died – which Kennan finally did in 2005, aged 237, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence (which he called “a potentially inadvisable step”). Gaddis does a superb job fleshing out the man who sculpted so much of the 20th century’s political landscape and then spent the last 157 years of his life trying every trick in his Walter Mitty little imagination to keep the spotlight on himself without looking like that was what he was doing (mostly by disagreeing with everything said or done by anybody in the entire world, and by maintaining that nobody understood him). Gaddis deals evenly with this low-boil egomania, and the warts-and-all portrait that results is one for the ages – ages which will be unknowingly forever in Kennan’s debt (and, at last, spared his Eeyore presence on the sidelines).
6. Inferno by Max Hastings – Hastings takes 800 pages to achieve the damn near impossible: an indispensable one-volume history of the most-chronicled war in human history. Inferno is always taut, takes nothing for granted, keeps the pages turning every bit as though its readers didn’t know how it all turns out. New angles and insights are generated on even the most shopworn subjects, and the narrative strikes the perfect balance between clinical and compassionate. No serious reader of history – especially those who, like me, think there’s nothing new under this particular sun – should miss this magisterial tome.
5. Britain After Rome by Robin Fleming – Post-apocalyptic writing is far from being the sole property of science fiction – the lessons gain weight from living history. In Fleming’s intense, cinematic rendering, we see the first full-blown apocalypse of the West – the departure of Roman forces from the imperial outpost of Great Britain in the fourth century. Fleming’s portrait shows an incredibly resilient group of societies left to fend for themselves against the quick-witted barbarians who are always waiting at the periphery of any power’s fall. These little kingdoms are forced to re-invent themselves, and the author tells the story with great attention to detail, great humor, and a sure-footed synthesis of all the new findings that keep turning up in British fields.
4. The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes – It’s been over 20 years since I. F. Stone’s best-selling The Trial of Socrates, and it at last has a worthy successor – and a narrative superior – in Bettany Hughes’ engrossing study of the famously contrarian 4th-century philosopher and the Athenian polity that eventually consigned him to death. Hughes breathes new life into all the well-worn details of Socrates’ life, trial, and death, so even readers familiar with it all will find themselves rapt with attention, no matter which side of the great ‘did-he-deserve-it’ debate they find themselves on.
3. 1812: The Navy’s War by George Daughan – The author tackles his still-too-neglected subject with an unflagging enthusiasm, focusing on the fledgling U.S. Navy’s efforts, outnumbered and out-gunned, to wage the new nation’s war against the greatest naval power on the face of the Earth. Daughan is a master of evocative set-pieces (no history buff will want to miss his account of the Constitution v.s the Java, which actually manages to out-do the fictional version in Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortunes of War), thrilling battle-narratives, and pithy exposition, but he’s also adept at the broader scene-setting so many accounts of the this war either lack or overdo. This volume supercedes all other accounts of the War of 1812, even, I’m melancholy to observe, Pierre Berton’s great two-volume work from a few decades ago, and it’s the single best work of history I read all year.
2. Worm by Mark Bowden – The subject of this lively, fascinating story, the incredibly insidious Conficker computer virus, is almost certainly present in whatever device you’re using to read these words – and in all your other networked devices (or in devices you’ve even once connected to a network, like your printer), just sitting there, interfering with nothing, self-propagating like crazy, occasionally sending out quick signals to its Dark Overlord, telling that person where in the world it’s physically located. Bowden deploys his entire grab-bag of nonfiction-specialist tricks in order to craft a fast-paced, gripping story about the likely origins of this super-virus, and the intrepid band of petty, nerdy, back-biting, non-hygienic, arrogant, utterly insufferable computer-experts who dub themselves ‘the X-Men,’ vow to stop the Conficker, and then proceed to spat with each other, issue grandiose public announcements every time they turn around, and do precious little to stop the Conficker. Indeed, this may be the very first potential major-level public threat that was ignored specifically because of how God-damn annoying its watchdogs were, and Bowden tells the whole story with surgical skill. I haven’t read a book this horrifying since Mattie Stepanek’s Heartsongs.
1. The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina – The genre of nature-writing is particularly embattled in shthe 21st century, especially in the United States, still reeling from eight years of President George W. Bush’s unrelenting legislative hatred of the environment. All the more remarkable, then, that Carl Safina, author of the gorgeous Song for the Blue Ocean, should produce a work as personal, as heartfelt, and as ultimately full of hope as The View from Lazy Point, which instantly joins such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The House on Nauset Marsh on the shelf of the best, most evocative, and least delusional hymnals of nature, itself embattled by a choking tide of plastic and waste. Safina’s Lazy Point isn’t some far Erewhon where it’s still possible to see an egret – it’s only a few miles from New York City, which makes the wonders he captures that much more meaningful. No nature-walker should miss this great book, the Stevereads Best Nonfiction Book of 2011.
December 16th, 2011
Such a joy it is, on the other hand, to look back on a year so full of rich, ambitious storytelling – to remember a handful of genuine invigorations amidst all the garbage! The field of fiction is immensely strong, if 2011 was any sign of it, and that’s doubly comforting, since one can only presume that many of the people on the Worst list are the friends, colleagues, lovers, and drug dealers of the people on the Best list. It’s good to know the writing community is sufficiently immunologically fortified against cross-infection. These are all novels that mean it – no mere showing up here – that mean to do great things and do them. It’s a pleasure to recommend these books.
10. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – 2011 was a year for big novels, although several of the picks on this list are slim little things. Murakami’s 800-page masterpiece of surrealism and displacement takes place in two 1980s – the one we inaccurately remember, an the one we didn’t live through, and the whole book is layered with realities only slightly at odds with each other, like a head full of memories. It contains everything I usually hate in a novel, especially its intention to be ultimately incomprehensible. And yet, it all works as nothing this author has ever done before has worked. It should have won Murakami a Nobel Prize, and it deserves to be read by everybody, especially people like me, who’ve hated his work forever.
9. We the Animals by Justin Torres and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – these two great debuts share a berth because they share an ethos – beauty found in exile, strangeness found in familiar memories (they’re both also, at the least expected moments, quite funny – in Obreht’s case, laugh-out-loud funny, which is no easy thing to do in a first novel). Both these young authors have a sense of form and a feel for narrative that usually comes only with years of practice. Time will tell if bodies of work form around these starting-points, but no serious reader of fiction should miss either of these books.
8. The Great Night by Chris Adrian – The unabashed yet elegant way Chris Adrian meshes perfectly-realized fantasy elements into the real-world proceedings of his novels reaches new heights of virtuosity in this book about Shakespeare’s cast of faeries from A Midsummer Night’s Dream operating in present-day New York. After a deluge of boy wizards and yuppie vampires, this is adult fantasy fiction done right. And as with most of Adrian’s work, it’s heartbreaking, beautifully-written stuff, the kind of prose that re-affirms fiction’s right to exist at all in a world so garnished with tragedy. Many of the novels on this list distinguish themselves by sheer craft of language in addition to (or in preference to) story-building, and this is certainly one of those novels, filled with gorgeous prose.
7.We the Drowned by Carsten Jensen – Yet another great big book, this one almost geographically forbidding to the casual reader (if such poor creatures still venture into the deep end of the fiction pool), a dense and digressive tome about a bleak northern coastal fishing village and the men who risk their lives and sanities to leave it and voyage out on the water. The northern ocean is a vigorous character on virtually every page of this splendid, absorbing debut novel, and the narrative itself works like an ocean, with powerful, often adversarial under-currents and quite a bit of tempting surface beauty. You get lost in this book – I did, and even after all these months thinking about it, I’m still not sure I understand it. The power of the thing is undeniable, though.
6. Moment in the Sun by John Sayles – Sayles’ book is enormous, and those few critics who managed to pay it any serious attention were clearly confused by its scope and sprawl – or else they thought Sayles was. The work has been compared to John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, and this is apt (unless the comparisons were meant to evoke another very long book people are more fond of name-checking than actually reading): Sayles’ multi-voiced panorama of America (and a scattering of other countries, each disastrously affected by America) as it convulses its way out of the 19th and into the 20th century shares with Dos Passos’ work an encyclopedic sweep and a sharp insight into the humanity of every member of its enormous cast of characters. This is epic historical fiction as Paul Scott or Herman Wouk might have written it – it’s virtually criminal that so many critics overlooked it, and you definitely shouldn’t.
5. Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas -Talk about enormous! Nadas’ long-awaited novel is a whopping 1500 pages long, a gigantic snapshot of 20th century of the 20th century West one generation after Sayles’. The book follows four main characters through war, famine, murder, concentration camps, and sex – but it isn’t long (only 500 pages or so!) before the brave reader realizes these characters are not the point, that even the ostensible plot lines are not the point – like so many of the novels on our list this year, the point is about the song, not the lyrics. Nadas is a searchingly restless author, more prone to posing questions with the steady flow of his narrative (on one level, this is an entire book full of stuff just happening) than providing answers, and readers seeking tightly-constructed plots might be dismayed by how disdainfully Nadas provides them inside the larger swamp of his novel, as if to simultaneously demonstrate that he can do it and that it doesn’t need to be done. This is just one of the things he shares in common with Pynchon at the height of his powers.
4. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier – This author’s previous book The Brief History of the Dead is one of those novels that sticks with you long after you finish it (in my case, this is now often manifested as a wish that I’d reviewed it), and The Illumination is even stronger, an incredibly lyrical examination of the tenuousness of attachment, all done up in prose that’s at times so beautiful you wonder how he does it. In Brockmeier’s new world, a all kinds of pain suddenly become visible to everybody, and although he pursues that conceit with a very satisfying thoroughness, the novel’s second maguffin, a tattered personal journal, makes it clear that for most people, it’s this right here – books, writing – that has always been the only way to make pain visible … and joy as well.
3. Magpie by Curt Finch – Another debut for our list, only this one might count as a pre-debut, since Curt Finch’s rollicking, hilariously Rabelaisian comedy first reached me as a manuscript. That manuscript tells the story of globe-trotting, chain-smoking, wine-swilling mega-journalist Arthur Magpie and his bedraggled personal assistant (and our narrator) Ian Swansea who stumble from one misadventure to the another in this smart, deceptively shrewd tour-de-force featuring wheedling editors, harrowing best-selling authors (most of whom, I’m pleased to report, can be recognized easily through their lampoonish disguises), stampeding cattle, mis-applied laxatives, and bumbling terrorists. Finch has since published Magpie himself, but this is manifestly insufficient – so you publishers and agents who follow Stevereads, pay heed: find Curt Finch, offer him a lucrative three-book contract, and get ready to reap ecstatic praise from every reviewer in the entire Federation of Planets – starting with this one.
2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach -If the odds of me enjoying a Haruki Murakami novel were long, you can imagine the odds of me liking a debut novel about baseball – much less such a novel written by what we must now come think of as ‘the n + 1 guys’ … the founding editors of the almost absurdly overrated literary journal by that name, every man-jack of whom appears to think he’s got great fiction inside him. They all went and got book deals – and if a recent Vanity Fair article is any indication, they are the pseudo-literary equivalent of the pomade-haired ‘masters of the universe’ who were so insufferable on Wall Street back in the 1980s. But Harbach’s book is, mirabile dictu, the real thing – and, as has often been noted, no more ‘about’ baseball than Moby-Dick is ‘about’ whales. If anything, this novel is about the many tortures of love – and it will affect you deeply whether or not you give a rip about baseball. In fact, one of my biggest frustrations in recommending this book to people comes from just this point: they immediately ask that inevitable question ‘what’s it about?’ … and I’m stuck, because if I tell them it’s about baseball, I’ll almost certainly lose them right away – as I’m now worried I’ve lost most of you. Yes, it’s ‘about’ baseball – but read it anyway. You won’t regret it.
1. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – If Murakami got robbed of the Nobel, there was at least the possibility of consolation – it’s awarded, allegedly, for a body of work, not a single book – it’s at least theoretically possible to think that the winner (an Icelandic poet of some sort? Perhaps Snorri Sturlusson snagged it at last?), somewhere in his youth or childhood, must have done something good. But the Man-Booker Prize is indeed awarded for a single work each year – so if Murakami got robbed, Alan Hollinghurst got pillaged, because The Stranger’s Child, by far his best an most ambitious book and the Stevereads Best Fiction Book of the Yea, lost to a paperweight. The Stranger’s Child is every bit as snappy and lush as Hollinghurt’s other books,but it’s far more textured than anything he’s done before, with an English country-house story spreading over an entire century, a Brideshead Revisited without the daffy last-minute conversion to Catholicism (although to be fair, this book also has a daffy last-minute swerve – those wacky Brits!). Readers shouldn’t miss it.
December 15th, 2011
Even I must admit that there are worse things in the literary world than indifference or even incompetence. In the realm of books as in all other realms, we must always be alert for actual, intentional evil, for writers using books as semi-respectable veneers behind which to do evil. This, too, is a use to which books have been put forever – they’re rich grounds for it, since they work on their readers’ silent, absorbing minds directly. Indifference will never be the problem in this case – there are keenly-whittled purposes behind virtually all of these books, eagerly-sought goals of persuasion. No, these books, most of them, are counting on the reader to be indifferent, unguarded, too trusting – or perhaps too numbed by the sheer onslaught of new books every season. A watchdog is needed, and Stevereads happily volunteers for the job.
10. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt – If Fox News made a docu-drama of this list, #10 would be accompanied by the voice of James Earl Jones saying ‘when historians go rogue…’ – and we’d have occasion to use it a couple of times before our list was done. In this case the historian is Stephen Greenblatt, whose monumentally overpraised Renaissance Self-Fashioning at least contained copious quantities of cogent cogitation. His latest book, The Swerve, claims that an Italian Renaissance humanist you’ve never heard of translated an ancient Roman poem you’ve never heard of and thereby changed the way the Western world thinks about itself. This nonsense was probably confirmed to Greenblatt by a couple of year’s worth of graduate seminars, and Greenblatt should be reminded of one fact: those grad students want a recommendation from you. They’d say the account books of Lucullus’ kitchen-maid changed the way the Western world thinks about itself, it if would curry favor with you. Also this: it’s unseemly for tenured professors to lunge quite so brazenly for popular attention.
9. Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson – As the Romans learned from the Franks and the Britons, nothing comes easier to a great nation in decline than empty triumphalism. In order to guarantee your book will sell at conservative PAC conventions, you’ve got to do three things: a) back-load a thorough-looking bibliography in impressively small type (so your readers will feel they’re partaking of a work of scholarship), b) make sure your central thesis, despite overwriting, can easily be boiled down to one line – “We invented everything,” “We police everything,” and of course “we’re better than everybody else” are all acceptable, and c) be openly nostalgic for a past your readers either incorrectly remember or are likely to believe they would have enjoyed had they been around. Pine for that past regardless of the heavy load of misery it carried for non-affluent, non-white non-men. In other words, hijack historical inquiry and enslave it in the cause of nationalistic jingoism. We’ll see this a few times on our list this year, and this book start things off, assuring us that the world really didn’t have a clue until Western democracies came along and started prioritizing the brain power of Harvard professors. The fact that this thing is getting a fat book contract instead of fretful looks from rant-bored relatives doesn’t say much good about the state of 21st century publishing.
8. On China by Henry Kissinger – It we grant that the blustery reductionism of our last entry doesn’t quite qualify as evil, then this book is its first appearance on our list this year, in this case evil in the form of our ultimate corrupt living grey eminence, Henry Kissinger, whose new tome On China banks on his extensive official contacts with the dictatorial leaders of that country a generation ago – and that same tome is counting on readers forgetting (or forgiving) Kissinger’s cash-and-carry willingness to suborn and abet those dictatorial leaders and all dictatorial leaders everywhere (that particular charity began at home, of course). China’s economic dominance in the world today lends an aura of prescience to Kissinger’s bloated meanderings here; China’s embrace of pragmatism-driven national evil further darkens the aggregate crimes against humanity for which Kissinger is more responsible than any living person. Given the shameless times, I expect his next tome to be On Good Government.
7. Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny by R. H. S. Stolfi – The author of this nauseating book is quick to point out that his efforts to get at the man behind the long-standing characterization of Hitler as a monster of pure evil are not to be construed in any way as some kind of neo-Nazi support of Hitler … merely a contention that such characterizations do little to help us understand the man. Which is like saying you’re against guns but a big fan of bullets. Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent, as Stolfi knows perfectly well – and as shouldn’t be attempted in those rare cases where the man is a monster. Years ago I said we were only a decade away from a biography of Hitler by a respected writer who made him out to be a somewhat wayward and badly misunderstood European statesman, and while this book isn’t that biography, it lays the groundwork as thoroughly as that groundwork can be laid (right down to the studio-photograph on the cover, perhaps the most nauseating thing about the whole production). Take it from somebody who’s read everything ever written about the man: in Hitler’s case, much to the world’s misfortune, there was nothing beyond evil and tyranny.
6. Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld – The title of evil idiot Rumsfeld’s memoir – yet another in the seemingly endless stream of George W. Bush-team memoirs designed to say nothing, admit nothing, analyze nothing, reflect on nothing, and most of all apologize for nothing (we’ve got another one on this list) – comes from his famous formulation about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns that face any army in the field … a formulation he made right before backhandedly slinging mud at his own army in the field, an army at that moment in the middle of a fight he did more than anybody to create and less than anybody to prepare them for. And yet, the tiny spark of grit this vapid book might have had if it had been written, as it should have been, in a prison cell is of course missing, replaced by the compulsive justifying of the knowingly guilty. This justifying will be familiar to any readers old enough to remember the similar post-disgrace writings of Richard Nixon, the Dark Lord whose acolytes (as mentioned, another of them is on this list) finally got a chance to wreck the world.
5. Washington by Ron Chernow – As far as intentional evils go, wilful lack of jugement is a fairly venial sin, and it’s probably the worst we can attribute to formerly esteemed biographer Ron Chernow, whose enormous new pile of hagiography on George Washington effectively cancels out the meticulous scholarship and worth of his previous book on Alexander Hamilton – and leaves critical readers wondering if this guy can write decent history again. Washington certainly isn’t that – it’s sloppy, repetitive, and borderline tendentious in its reading of virtually incident in Washington’s life. That a book is so bad would be reason enough to include it on this list, but, as noted, that it will, through its author’s hitherto unsullied reputation, convince people by means of its badness is even further justification. There are plenty of great Washington biographies in existence, should the reader be curious. This one is to be avoided.
4. In My Time by Dick Cheney – Intentional evil comes roaring back at us, however, in this entry, as the architect of the George W. Bush administration writes his memoir in the comfort of his property and physical liberty, admitting nothing, regretting nothing, apologizing or nothing. The very corporate-lounge anodyne tone of this shameless book bespeaks a tellingly alert legal team, and it stands as a bland literary indictment. There should be literal indictments instead, for a man who laid waste to foreign countries and domestic liberties in a single-minded pursuit not just of power but of actual evil (after all, you don’t really get any more powerful by opening up thousands of acres of virgin wilderness to logging and mining and drilling – you just get to smile over all the dead animals, I guess). The stately procession of their guiltless memoirs is the literary perp-walk of our time.
3. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Being George Washington by Glenn Beck – One of the hallmarks of evil is its determination to enlist the unwilling in its cause, and you can’t do that any worse than by enlisting the dead, as these two ranting, scatterbrained books by two third-rate stand-up comedians try to do. The problem here is one that tends to beset all organized evil: the most evil people, the ones at the top of their professions, have surrounded themselves with sycophants, so they come to believe they’re more than what they are. Pea-brained blowhard O’Reilly is a carnival barker, but with sycophantic encouragement he’s been able to imagine himself as a historian, and likewise the class-buffoon Beck, and each has reached into the past, picked a figure they think they like, and made that figure a sock-puppet for their own prejudiced rantings. So this is anti-biography, where the subjects can neither err nor surprise. And the books reveal themselves as the printed equivalent of those creepy framed photos where some nobody from Tulsa drapes his arm around a visibly uncomfortable visiting star so it looks to the unwary like the two of them are old, bosom friends – when in fact, O’Reilly and Beck are brainless morons who haven’t cracked a book since grade school – and who’s research assistants/ghost writers should feel very, very ashamed of themselves.
2. Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews – The greater the living currency, the greater the evil. It’s one thing if third-rate stand-up comedians slur the memory of long-dead men – it’s bad, but its not as bad as when third-rate stand-up comedians slander a man quite a few living people still remember – as is the case here, where circus performer Matthews trades on his own celebrity to dress a diatribe up as a discussion and pass the whole steaming mess off as biography. Needless to say, this JFK never does, says, or thinks anything Matthews doesn’t want him to – certainly never to the point of looking at this execrable book an grunting “bullshit” in that particular Hyannisport drawl.
1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker – The 20th century was no stranger to the time-tested technique of lying with statistics, but the 21st century is already adding to a streak of naked effrontery that might put even the age of such heavyweight liars as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to shame. In the 21st century, lies alone are no longer quite sufficient – instead, they’ve got to be big lies, the bigger the better. So a U.S. President goes in front of a nation and raises the fear of a ‘mushroom cloud’ about a country that had trouble grinding bread, and a champion U.S. athlete, caught on film illegally partying with minors, not only makes a non-apology (“If my alleged actions were badly misconstrued enough to give a possibly negative impression, then in that extremely unlikely event, I would express regret,” etc.) the following week but does so, as many journalists present attested, while stoned. And a popular … what to call Steven Pinker? ‘Popular scientist’ is clearly wishful thinking; ‘popular researcher’ has palpably never been true – popular self-promoter Steven Pinker in his new book opts to cap a career of smiling mendacity by telling what may very well be the two biggest lies of them all: that mankind is becoming less violent, because mankind is becoming more intelligent. To support both these hysterical claims, Pinker pivots and swoops, cherry-picking delusions and misinterpreting crapulent ‘studies,’ all intent on denying the staggeringly obvious: that humans – fresh from the 20th century, whose barbarisms would have left any previous century slack-jawed in horror – are not only growing plungingly dumber (Pinker proudly brandishes standardized test scores – he needs to get out more; he could learn a lot from eavesdropping on any given Boston subway car for fifteen minutes – and he would clearly benefit in the long run from being vigorously wedgied by somebody who considers that a legitimate argumentative technique) but are also, connectedly, growing breathtakingly more violent. If we define ‘genocide’ as the wilful pursuit to slaughter every individual of a certain group, regardless of immediate military or economic interests (or even in contradiction of those interests)(i.e. an all-consuming, self-consuming hatred), then there were four in the 19th century. In the 20th century there were 15. In the 21st century’s slim extant decade, there have been two – with 90 years still to go. Writing about why this is happening – bad parenting or the all-pervasive seep of toxic chemicals into human air, food, and water – would be legitimate though pyrrhic. Writing a book – and lyingly buttressing it with cooked-book guestistics – merrily assuring your fellow Cantabridgians that the world their little Ariadnes and Ruggers will inherit isn’t, in fact, a rapidly-devolving ‘Lord of the Flies’ nightmare of violence and stupidity is an endeavor of purest and deepest evil. It’s the product not only of warped science and statistics but warped historicism, a parody of professionalism and a mockery of the sociologist’s craft – and it’s Stevereads Worst Nonfiction Book of the Year.
December 14th, 2011
It’s perhaps inevitable that as attention spans continue to fritter away all across the educated West, the capacity to take things seriously should wither too – after all, deliberation and estimation are twins. Still, a decade along in the 21st century, it amazes me to find people failing to take seriously their own livelihoods – that seems like Millennial boneheaded anomie taken to absolutely annihilatory lengths. And yet, new powerhouse chanteuse Adele had to cancel tour dates and refund large amounts of money rather than quit chain-smoking; Texas governor Rick Perry spent vast amounts of money and effort to secure his spot at Republican Party presidential candidate debates to which he then seemed largely indifferent – and worst of all (from a Stevereads perspective), any number of authors this year seemed to think all they needed to do in order to merit the attention of the present and posterity was show up and riff for a few pages. They displayed a complacency toward the written word that amounts to insolence – and that is certainly an insult to their readers. Those readers have never had a greater number of published authors from which to choose than they do now, and established authors who arrogantly ignore that fact do so at peril of the mortgage on their pretentious co-ops in Brooklyn. This year’s worst offenders:
10. 11.22.63 by Stephen King – Despite what he himself appears to think in this wretched book, Stephen King is neither more interesting nor more important that the JFK assassination.
9. Every Third Thought by John Barth – The biggest, most regrettable example this year of writers apparently thinking all they need to do is show up to justify their place at the table is the once-great John Barth. Long ago, before he acted like he believed this (or before he took his postmodern hijinks past the point of diminishing returns), he was one of America’s best writers. Drivel like Every Third Thought makes me think we’ll never see a glimmer of that again, which is sad and angering at the same time. If Barth had retained his faith in the power of narrative (and his respect for the intelligence of his readers), he’d be on the other fiction list this time around.
8. The Submission by Amy Waldman – Yes, yes, it’s something every little boy and girl dreams while they’re furtively reading by flashlight under the covers: ‘Someday, I wanna write a 9/11 novel!’ Or perhaps it’s one of the darkest forms of laziness, gene-splicing the ‘debut novel’ strand with the ‘have to take it seriously strand’ in hopes of creating a super-pheromone for critics! The Submission concerns a Muslim architect who wins a contest to design a memorial to victims of a Muslim terrorist attack on Manhattan, and if the whole dog-and-pony show had been set further back in the past and centered around the sinking of the Lusitania, its rather substantial shortcomings would have been glaringly obvious, instead of swathed in sentimentality.
7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – This bored and boring pastiche of third-rate Updike starts nowhere particular, goes nowhere particular, and then just stops, perhaps unable to stand the weight of its own droning anymore. The thing is barely longer than a short story, and yet Barnes can’t be bothered to weld the two pieces together in any kind of way. Instead, the main character, a blank template of the stock-fictional author stand-in doing the whole ‘gee, I’m not as young as I once was’ shtick, bears no resemblance to the younger version we see in his memories, and those memories have no importance to the ginned-up ‘unexpected inheritance’ half-plot that comes wandering in like Brown’s cows and hangs around until the author gets tired of it (or just plain tired) and drops it. The end of the book (as in the final page, since it has gives us no other kind of ending) comes as a mercy and an indictment: if this is the kind of lazy, self-indulgent crap that gets book contracts from major publishing houses, there’s something seriously wrong with the whole industry.
6. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje – To call this endlessly meandering tale of two boys cavorting their way through all the decks (i.e. the levels of society – geddit? geddit?) of a ship at sea a left-handed exercise would be an insult to southpaws everywhere. Ondaatje has always been a monstrously overrated author, but this laughable little squib takes the proverbial cake; every narrative choice in it is easy and predictable, there is no plot, and the herky-jerky little what-happened-next twists the plot takes from time to time wouldn’t strike Ondaatje’s listening grandchildren as convincing (those children would very likely also notice the gaping plot-hole two-thirds of the way through the book – it’s a pity Ondaatje didn’t run his manuscript past anybody who was paying attention). Like so many other novels on our list this time around, the prevailing sin here is an overweening sense of entitlement, a belief that simply showing up and mucking about with dialogue will be sufficient to satisfy your slavering fans.
5. Cain by Jose Saramago – Saramago is almost as prolific as Roberto Bolano, and, in this novel about Cain, the brother and murderer of Abel, he’s very nearly as bad. I’m a fan of Biblical fiction (Petru Popescu’s wonderful Girl Mary appeared here in 2009, for example) when it’s done right, and it could scarcely be done worse than this horrible mess of a novel, which can’t decide whether Cain is Hermann Goering or Jerry Seinfeld, which can’t lay any of its wooden dialogue at the feet of its excellent translator, and which can’t bear to stop mugging for the camera for even a moment.
4. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker – A third-rate British septuagenarian shares his porn with us! Sign me up!
3. The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano – Rumors of the author’s poor health (there are even rumors that he might have died, but he’s published twenty books in the last two years, each more ghastly than the last – nobody who’s dead has that kind of nerve) cannot excuse this little faucet-drip of a novel, with its easy plot, its predictable ‘war games’ metaphor, its lack of fleshed-out characters, and its pat formulations. I’ve heard it opined that Bolano is a master of atmosphere, and I agree: provided the atmosphere in question is the murk of narcissism and a cult of personality so thick you could cut it with a knife. The author should postpone his next four novels and take a vacation someplace warm.
2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The challenge of contemporary fiction isn’t to steer clear of gimmicks – in one way or another, that’s scarcely possible anymore. No, the challenge is to master those gimmicks, to rise above them in the service of higher, better gimmicks. And when it comes to gimmicks, surely none is lazier and more thoughtless than the circus? It comes ready-packed with its own plots, characters, and conflicts, so of course it will tempt authors arrogant enough to think they created all of those things. The circus-gimmick spares those authors the trouble of creating much at all – the gimmick is both exotic and familiar, and lazy readers find it instantly inviting despite its underlying seediness, like a zoo. This was bad enough when the circus in question was the ordinary sawdust-and-felons version plodders could find in, say, Water for Elephants – but it’s ever so much worse in Morgenstern’s hands, because her circus seems magical, but she has neither the wit nor the craft of author she’s ripping off to tell her story. Call this Something Tedious This Way Comes.
1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I suppose in the breviary of authorial indifferences, uninformed cynicism isn’t the worst species – it requires a bit of effort, at least, even if it’s entirely misguided and harmful effort. Uninformed cynicism suffuses this wretched book by Eugenides (why are we venerating this guy with gigantic billboards, again? Isn’t this only his third book?), in which the conventions of 19th century authors whose hems he’s unworthy to touch are both gently mocked and violently misunderstood. For every student or teacher stereotype that’s skewered perfectly (I counted one), there are four or five skewered poorly, which makes for quite a few wounded and angry stereotypes rampaging around the ficto-sphere, possibly jostling Elmore Leonard’s writing-elbow or trampling lost little waifs like Nell Freudenberger and Jonathan Safran Foer. If Eugenides’ piece of skata is meant to be a knowing wink at the wisdom of writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen, a knowing nod to the fact that their concerns are still our concerns, then it needs to stop winking at ladies who’d be embarrassed by its puppyish lunging about (can you even imagine our current Eliots and Austens – many of whom are tight-plotting mystery authors – producing a sloppy farrago like The Marriage Plot? Barbara Pym wrote better stuff looped half off her rocker on ‘pep pills’). And if, as seems to me far more likely, the book is meant to be a wink to us, about how tired and quaint those old novels are in our post-modern age, then arrogance, as is so often the case, becomes a product of ignorance, since any good reader will tell Eugenides that these novels quite easily hold their own against anything the louche denizens of this list are ever likely to produce. No matter which of these readings is right, The Marriage Plot is consummately wrong – and our Worst Fiction Book of 2011.
December 13th, 2011
1. The Death Marches by Daniel Blatman – As bitterly mysterious as the Nazis “Final Solution” was, its death-throes were even more so. Through Blatman’s ground-breaking research, it becomes clear that the Nazi bigots simply couldn’t stop killing, even when the effort to do so, in manpower and materials, was literally suicidal. This book, an absolutely unforgettable portrait of pathology writ large, is tragic and jarring reading, not least because of the utter pointlessness of it all, the grinding waste. After the Nazis knew that their war was doomed – after any sound-minded man among them must have known that the must soon negotiate with the Allies – they rounded up thousands of Jews from their various concentration camps and put them on long, punitive marches from which only a fraction emerged alive – a gruesome, wildly insane measure which Blatman examines with admirable thoroughness.
2. Murder Most Foul by David Bevington – This is hardly the first book to examine the strange and lasting appeal of Shakespeare’s greatest play (not my favorite one, but there’s simply no denying its power with audiences), but it’s one of the most briskly comprehensive I’ve ever read, and it’s also a great deal of fun. Of course Bevington, being only human, can’t resist wondering just why it is, exactly, that this particular play – lopsided, too long, decidedly odd – should so consistently compel the imagination of generations. But the real strength of his book comes from avoiding theorizing in favor of analyzing – how the various manifestations of the play have reflected their various epochs, acting styles, etc. Read the book – then read the play again.
3. Rome by Robert Hughes – In the most exuberant, extended love-letter to a city since Peter Ackroyd’s London, Hughes – as embattled and irrepressible a prose stylist as ever, here at the top of his form – mixes the historical and the archeological with the personal to create a vibrantly readable portrait of the Eternal City. Hughes is one of those increasingly rare writers who seems to have read everything, seen everything, done everything, and formed fierce and endlessly entertaining opinions about it all. Reading his written instructions for how to make clam chowder would probably be a great time – reading his meditations on a storied place like Rome, which won his heart decades ago – well, that’s a spellbinding combination.
4. Art Museum (Phaidon) – This enormous, gorgeously-produced tome takes its readers – viewers, really – on a sumptuous guided tour of the greatest art museum imaginable, an art museum of the mind, comprising dozens of period-and-theme galleries and hundreds of ‘rooms,’ each filled with priceless artworks in virtually every medium. Book lovers like to imagine a personal library of unending proportions, shelves overflowing with every book every written. This is the art-lover’s equivalent, and it’s an utterly amazing tour de force of a coffee-table book – one of the finest things Phaidon’s ever produced, in a long catalogue of really fine things. Hang the expense: you really can’t be without this book.
5. Wild Dog Dreaming by Deborah Bird Rose – There’s an astounding, thought-provoking sensibility that winds its way through this book, a profound meditation on the meaning of humanity’s place on Earth. The author positions mankind as a malevolent event as much as a species: the embodiment of the current great age of extinction. And she takes as her lyric, tragic focus in these pages the dingoes of Australia, who are being hunted out of existence even while you’re reading this. In Rose’s careful handling, they stand in for all the species of animal being destroyed every week by a thoughtless and voracious humanity, and yet, despite everything, this isn’t ultimately a bitter book – amazingly, there’s hope and optimism in these pages.
6. The End by Ian Kershaw – WWII has been yielding a bumper-crop of superb volumes lately, and in this riveting, grim book, great Hitler biographer Kershaw autopsies the Third Reich in its death-throes, matching touching human details and impressive narrative sweep to give us a panoramic look at Germany and especially Berlin at the very end of the war. Kershaw knows all the old face-saving characterizations about how the entire German people was ensnared by Hitler the psychological magician, and he has little patience for such stuff in this powerful book, preferring instead to paint a picture of a nation so at odds with itself that it huge chunks of the populace saw not alternative but to keep fighting even after they knew such fighting was hopeless. This is stirring, vigorous history-writing at its best.
7. Catherine the Great by Robert Massie – Massie caps a tremendous career with something as far from the fabled ‘twilight style’ as you can get – this big book about a fascinating ruler who happened to be a woman has all the energy and crackle of a young man’s book (complete with sharp readings of primary sources and some judicious fight-picking), but delivered with the calm assurance of a lifetime’s experience. To a greater and fuller extent than any previous English language biographer, Massie gives us the real Catherine, the astute and canny administrator who could hold her own against all the age’s most powerful personalities (many of them inside her own country). It’s refreshing to read, especially after so many books that were only catalogues of her various lovers.
8. Ethan Allen by Willard Sterne Randall – The American Revoluion’s young hero-warrior hasn’t lacked for biographies in the last two hundred years, but this is far and away the best of them all, a hugely researched and gamely told story of a man who led the famous terrorist cell The Green Mountain Boys in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga at the outset of the American Revolution – and then spent pretty much every waking moment of the remainder of his life bending laws, physically intimidating people who disagreed with him, and obstructing every effort made by anybody around him to do anything at all. An entirely reprehensible figure, here given by Randall an even-handed but ultimately positive assessment that carries the reader along anyway, on the strength of the deep research and smooth writing.
9. Livia, Empress of Rome by Matthew Dennison – One long virtuoso acting performance by the great Sian Phillips a generation ago in the BBC production of “I, Claudius” has cemented Livia, wife of Augustus, in the popular imagination as a scheming comic book super-villain, complete with melodrama, suppressed humanity, and great one-liners. Dennison’s fast-paced, clear-headed book does the best job I’ve ever seen at giving readers the real flesh-and-blood Livia, who might not be as interesting as Robert Graves’ smiling mass murder (who could be, after all?) but sure is more believable.
10. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll – Even after 70 years and one unjustly overlooked HBO mini-series, the Pacific theater of WWII still takes a back seat to its more famous sibling, the assault on Hitler’s Festung Europa. This great book of Toll’s (his best one yet – no small praise, considering how fantastic his others have been) won’t change that (nothing much beats the drama of fighting a mad conqueror on the fields of France – just ask the French about Agincourt), but it’s yet another brilliant addition to this year’s outpouring of memorable WWII histories.
December 12th, 2011
1. Embassytown by China Mieville – Mieville’s last great book, The City and the City, was about the nature of perception, what we choose to see and not see, and his new one is just as effectively about language, how we say what we mean, how our words define and even create us – but it’s also a ripping good story, full of memorable characters and realistic action, from a modern master of science fiction, a writer who just gets better and better at making his intensely-imagined worlds vitally interesting and real, even to readers who don’t usually indulge in sci-fi.
2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman – Fantasy elements feature prominently on our list this year, and the subject of fantasy comes up often in Grossman’s subtle, sumptuous, and very funny sequel to The Magicians. We follow some of the same characters – his exquisitely-realized and often very annoying quartet of main characters who’ve grown bored with the fantasy-paradise they acquired at the end of the previous book. Grossman’s prose is marvellous, and his narrative, in addition to being unfailingly interesting in its own right, is also a happy send-up of several imbecilic but well-known fantasy series we could all name, if we were brave enough.
3. A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind by Christien Cholson – There’s quite a lot going on in Cholson’s debut fiction collection, and all of it is orchestrated with such dry wit and deep thought that it barely ripples the surfaces of this story about a handful of remarkable people in a small village in Belgium. That village wakes one day to encounter fish everywhere, fallen on field and street, and the novel’s matter-of-fact surrealism takes off from there. As some of you may know, I usually detest whimsy in fiction – it almost always strikes me as laziness on the part of the author, who mistakes ‘anything can happen in life’ for ‘I can just let anything happen in my fiction’ and then refuses to correct the mistake when it’s pointed out to them. But controlled whimsy – ah, now there’s another story! And that’s what readers get here: wonderfully intelligent, controlled whimsy of a quality rarely seen in contemporary fiction. We should all band together and make this author famous.
4. The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco – All of Eco’s familiar ticks are on abundant display in this novel (all his book should be called ‘Which reminds me of a story’), yet they somehow coalesce into a tightly gripping story with nary an annoyance in sight. Eco hear examines the authenticity of narrative itself, centering on one of the most corrosively inauthentic narratives of modern times, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and serving up one of the least savory and most interesting main characters he’s ever created. There are infinite digressions and mini-seminars, but somehow in this book more than in any novel Eco’s written since The Name of the Rose, it all stays firmly under his control, and the end result works amazingly well.
5. My New American Life by Francine Prose – Many writers who’ve previously only displeased me are showing up on this year’s Best lists, which is as happy as it is disturbing to a crusty old pedantosaurus like me. Prose has always been one of those authors, and yet her work in her latest novel impressed and delighted me. It’s the story of Lula, a sharply observant Albanian woman working as a nanny in New Jersey on an expiring visa. Her charge is Zeke, a high school senior (their relationship is the best part of the book), and her relatively idyllic situation is upset by the arrival of three shady fellow-Albanians, who both intentionally and unintentionally threaten Lula’s new American life. This novel didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves – I’m hoping the publisher retains its fantastic cover and pushes the paperback a little more enthusiastically, especially now that they have Stevereads in their corner!
6. Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie – Likewise Beattie, who’s never struck me as anything better than third-rate, here strikes gold, re-imagining Pat Nixon from the inside out in exactly the way we want all our novelists to do. This is snappy, intelligent prose, as skillful an exercise in re-imaging a First Lady’s life as Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and in some ways even more resonant, since Pat Nixon’s strengths were far more drastically offset by her husband’s weaknesses, and her tragedies were far more sharply undercut by his monumental evil. The main thing the two books have in common is virtuoso storytelling; this is the best thing Beattie’s ever written.
7. Zone One by Colson Whitehead – Last year, Justin Cronin’s The Passage seemed to put a stink on all Tribeca facelifts on pop horror, so you’d think there’d be no chance for Whitehead’s tale of urban zombies – but as always, the key is execution – and Whitehead is a far better writer even in a minor key than Cronin is on his best day, so Zone One works. The neat brio with which Whitehead attacks his oft-told tale, the almost-deadpan conviction of his approach of course calls to mind the Bible of zombie fiction, Max Brooks’ World War Z, but Zone One is only accidentally an homage, and it will bowl readers over entirely on its own terms.
8. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips – Phillips got a bad rap from critics for this rambunctious novel about a lost Shakespeare play, but the abuse was all off-base – this is actually a fiendishly clever and quite touching novel masquerading as an extended literary prank. The book tells the story of a young man who inherits from his father not only a troubled family history but also a family obsession with the titular play, supposedly by Shakespeare, and I think the reason so many critics were taken aback by the final product is that The Tragedy of Arthur also includes “The Tragedy of Arthur” – half the book is given over to a line-by-line scene-by-scene (and hilariously spot-on academic note-by-academic note) reconstruction of a Shakespeare play. It’s an absolutely bravura feat of creativity, and one perhaps unsuited to the more timid ranks of our foremost professional book-reviewers in this day and age. As author ‘problems’ go, that’s the one to have.
9. The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – Likewise werewolves, seemingly confined to kitsch by Team Jacob: in the right hands, the whole baggy (shaggy?) mythos can resonate – as it does in Duncan’s whip-smart novel about Jake Marlowe, the grimy, sad-sack last living werewolf on Earth. Duncan has appeared on these Stevereads lists before and will again, I suspect: the sheer energy with which he first creates his concepts and then dissects them is utterly infectious, and with this novel he proves that he can bring that energy to any subject that intrigues him.
10. The Dark Earl by Virginia Henley – As far as genre Romance goes, none was better in 2011 than this tale by industry vet Henley about the real-life Earls of Lichfield, their real-life social and financial problems, and one particular heir (also real-life but perhaps not so cut and muscular in his own day as he’s been transmorgrified in our own – cover model Paul Marron is neither as doughy nor as dumpy as the real Thomas Anson was, thank God) who finds love and family fulfilment in this tough-minded and surprisingly funny novel. If you’ve got a Romance fan on your holiday list this year, you could do they no better favor than picking this book.