Posts from February 2012

February 27th, 2012

Nasty Fellows in the Penny Press!

The prospect of a new London Review of Books leading off with a luxuriously long review of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad filled me with passionate expectation (‘expectation’ because my subscription’s copy was its customary week late, sigh). It’s the sort of gloriously nerdy thing the LRB can be relied upon to do; even in an issue half-devoured by long political essays (as this one was), the journal’s devotion to the whole spectrum of books couldn’t be clearer.

Then I read Edward Luttwak’s review.

I read a lot of reviews, and I also write a lot of reviews (indeed, I wrote a review of Mitchell’s Iliad myself, at the end of 2011) – I think it’s safe to say I know reviews fairly well. I haven’t yet in 2012 read a review as bad as this one. It manages to be boring, priggish, superfluous, and clueless all at the same time. I’m no great fan of the approach Mitchell took in his Iliad, but he could have rendered Homer’s great epic in limericks and he’d still deserve a better review than this one.

Luttwak starts off as poorly as a reviewer can: by using a gimmick that he means to be impressive but that instead annihilates any trust the reader might have in him going in:

At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport, I looked for a translation of the Iliad – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten: one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore with a lengthy new introduction; and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with refulgent golden shields on the cover and several endorsements on the back …

What, no Cowper? The gimmick here is to somehow work in a glancing mention of previous renditions of the Iliad, presumably to warn readers off thinking our reviewer has never heard of the poem before. It’s a standard gimmick when reviewing an oft-translated work, and it suffers here only from location, location, location. “Having before me the new Harvard University Press Annotated Emerson, I recalled that my teenage son liked Emerson. I wandered into his room in search of a copy – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten, including an 1841 first edition with rare pornographic doodles by the author. Briefly pausing to wonder how my son raised the $450,000 asking price, I read on …”

The rest of the review – and there’s a lot of rest – just gets worse. After pointlessly raising the question of why the Iliad is so popular, Luttwak gets in an elbow when the refs aren’t looking: “Some of course – nasty fellows – would widen the explanation by seeing Americans as a whole as war-lovers, hence war-book addicts, hence Iliad buyers.” And he’s the worst kind of shot-taker: the kind who then wide-eyedly denies he did it:

That’s lame to begin with, for there are countless ways of getting that fix much more easily than by reading 15, 693 lines of hieratic verse bound to offend military history buffs, because of both the extreme, pervasive emotionalism – all the weeping wives of other war books are outdone by the floods of tears of Homer’s greatest warriors – and the frequent confusion of the battle tactics of two different eras.

Not so lame that Luttwak didn’t suggest it, though – no matter how scurrilously he then tries to un-suggest it. He uses the national suggestion as a spring-board to an absolutely incredibly long digression on Homer in China and Japan – a thousand-word tangent I read with mounting incredulity, wondering what on Earth the piece’s editor could have been thinking to leave it in, or even if the piece had an editor. On my copy I’d no sooner read this huge digression than I drew a thick ‘X’ through all of it, and I hope that if he ever reads it, the even-tempered Mitchell does the same.

But when Luttwak finally remembered to start reviewing Mitchell, I almost wished for the digression back again. His actual consideration of Mitchell’s Iliad was as windy and oleaginous and miserably self-absorbed as anything I’ve read since Harold Bloom at his worst and most phoned-in. The reeking false modesty of this section is so soiling that any lingering authority Luttwak might have had is almost instantly subsumed in the reader’s desire to dunk his head in the nearest toilet. “It’s not that I would hazard to challenge the merits of Mitchell’s translation …” “I am scarcely an authority on translating anything from any language…” “Nor would I presume to impugn Mitchell’s qualifications as a translator of the peculiar Homeric mixture of archaic Ionic with some Aeolic (Sappho’s dialect), bits of more recent Attic no doubt derived from its written stage, and even some faint remnants of the Mycenaean Greek of the previous millennium …” “In my own ignorance I do not impugn his mastery of Homeric Greek …”

GET it? You do GET it, right? He keeps professing his own humbly-bumbly ignorance of Lord, just everything, while working in all those sly little informed asides to make sure you don’t believe him. It’s an oily, wheedling sort of party-ploy I honestly thought went out with the hula hoop; all the things he assures us he wouldn’t dream of doing are things you know instantly he’s going to spend the rest of the review doing, and he does. I would not presume my bony Irish ass: Luttwak opens this section by admonishing us that he’s no expert, he’s just a stranger here, an innocent bystander who happened to wander into Terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport. But we groundlings better not take him at his word, or there’ll be trouble; Mark Twain was the last person to do this correctly – all the others, Luttwak at the head of them, hurry to counteract any possibility that we might think them humble. Only a few lines after all that faux-humility crap, we get paragraphs opening like this:

The earlier date, moreover, opens the door for the evidence extracted from deciphered Hittite cuneiform tablets, irrelevant to a ninth-century BCE or later Iliad, because the last remnant of that empire had been extinguished by then, but contemporary with Mycenaean Greek life over the previous thousand years. Much fuller use of new archaeological evidence is being incorporated in the monumental (one volume per Homeric book) and wonderful Basler Homer-Kommentar by Anton Bierl and Joachim Latacz …

And so on. Which doesn’t for an instant “impugn” Mitchell, whether it should or not. No, the gambit itself only has the effect of making Luttwak himself come off as hateful, petty, preening, and drastically over-compensating. When a reviewer tries to establish his authority by such archly mugging mannerisms, he permanently alienates his readers’ sympathies – none of those readers will finish this piece thinking Mitchell got anything like a fair reading, especially since, again unbelievably, the piece’s last 1000 words don’t even mention the book allegedly being reviewed, nor anything about translating in general or translating this book in particular. Instead, it’s just another long digression, this time on violence in Homer.

This issue of the LRB had great stuff in it – most especially a wonderful dual-review by Rosemary Hill of two new books on Prince Albert and a quick, rousing inquiry by the great Charles Nicholl into a historical footnote from Vasari – and that’s a lucky thing, because great stuff in abundance was needed, to wash out the rancid taste of that long opening piece.


February 22nd, 2012

Superdogs in the Penny Press!

Once you hold your nose and get past Bruce McCall’s predictable, boring cover for the 27 Feb New Yorker, you have a genuine treat waiting for you inside: a great article called “Beware of the Dogs” by somebody writing under the pseudonym of “Burkhard Bilger” (in anticipation of the tsunami of innuendo I’m sure is coming, I should state for the record that I am not, in fact, “Burkhard Bilger”), all about the dogs (and trainers) of the New York City canine units. The author, whoever he is, does a great job – this is one of those sui generis pieces that could only really look natural in the New Yorker, one of those pieces that makes me glad all over again that there is such a thing as the New Yorker.

“Burkhard Bilger” shadows some NYC canine crime units and visits their training facilities, meeting the men (good-natured and well-adjusted, the lot of them) who do the training and the entirely superior beings who submit to being trained:

A good dog is a natural super-soldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men, and run twice as fast. Its eyes are equipped for night vision, its ears for supersonic hearing, its mouth for subduing the most fractious prey. But its true glory is its nose. In the nineteen-seventies, researchers found that dogs could detect even a few particles per million of a substance; in the nineties, more subtle instruments lowered the threshold to particles per billion; the most recent tests have brought it down to particles per trillion.

The image of police dogs took something of a collateral hit when the country saw photos of U.S. military dogs being used to terrify illegally detained foreign prisoners, and the NYC cops “Burkhard Bilger” interviews often have to stage fake drugs-in-the-crowd incidents in order to keep their dogs sharp (actual drugs-in-the-crowd incidents being yet another on the long list of things the city’s current mayor has effectively outlawed). But these men and their dogs have seen plenty of real action, and everybody our author talks to concurs: dogs make a big difference:

“One canine team can do the work of ten or fifteen guys in a gang situation,” Lieutenant John Pappas, head of the squad, told me. “It’s ‘Fuck you! I’m not going anywhere.’ But when you throw in some jaws and paws – holy shit! It changes the landscape.” In 2010, one station on the Lexington Avenue line was hit by twenty felonies in a matter of months. Once a canine unit was sent in, the number dropped to zero. “It’s like pulling up in an M1 Abrams battle tank,” Pappas said.

Given the incredible statistics operating in New York, I supposed I should count my blessings Boston hasn’t likewise increased its use of police dogs in the subways; such dogs invariably stop what they’re doing, come straight over to me, and go all rubbery with face-smooching joy – which causes all their human handles to pop the safeties on their revolvers and demand to see every last used book in my shoulder bag. Sigh. Reading about such an encounter is a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk yourself out of one.

February 18th, 2012

Six for V-J Day!

In dubious honor of Valentine’s Day, six entirely winning literary love stories:

White Gold Wielder by Stephen Donaldson – Although Donaldson’s later two-volume fantasy story Mordant’s Need has a rather unabashedly romantic love-plot right at the center of its goings-on, the romance elements of his two Thomas Covenant trilogies are sketchier, to put it mildly. His main character, Thomas Covenant, is a leper with pronounced self-hatred issues, and since time moves much faster in the mystical Land to which he’s periodically summoned, any young love-interests he might develope in one book will be old and grey by the time he returns in the following book (not that Covenant is big on love-interests anyway – fans of the series will have no trouble recalling what he does to the first pretty young woman from the Land he meets). And yet, love is present in the Covenant books – and interestingly, it almost always takes the form of married love. In Donaldson’s fantastic volume The Illearth War, we meet and older married couple whose separate fates are heartbreaking, but my favorite of Donaldson’s married couples appears in the second trilogy, as members of an armed search party of Giants Covenant meets. The leader of that party – the First of the Search – is a towering warrior-woman of steely disposition. And the First’s husband is the exact opposite: his name is Pitchwife, and unlike every other Giant we see in Donaldson’s world, he’s physically deformed, frozen in a permanent hunch and prone to a kind of compensating foolhardiness. The two are a pointedly mismatched pair, and at the climax of the second trilogy’s third book, White Gold Wielder, Pitchwife defies the First’s order and joins her to fight a doomed rearguard action against innumerable foes:

“My wife, you jest,” he said at last. “I have found my own reply to doubt. The Chosen has assigned me to your side. Do not credit that the song which the Giants will sing of this day will be sung of you alone.”

“I am the First of the Search!” she retorted. “I command – ”

“You are Gossamer Glowlimn, the spouse of my heart.” His mouth was bloody; but his eyes gleamed. “I am proud of you beyond all endurance. Demean not your high courage with foolishness. Neither Earthfriend nor Chosen has any need of my accompaniment. They are who they are – and will not fail. I am sworn to you in love and fealty, and I will remain.”

She glared at him, as if she were in danger of weeping openly. “You will die. I have borne all else until my heart breaks. Must I bear that also?”

The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick – A bit ironic that Gordon Merrick’s incendiary 1970 tale of gay love should be one of the most conventional incarnations of attraction on our list this time around, but it certainly wasn’t conventional at the time of its original appearance, when homosexuality was still considered an illness (mental or otherwise) by the entire country – and by gay men themselves, including the two gorgeous, prodigiously-endowed young men, Peter and Charlie, who are introduced by the requisite eccentric aunt and lose no time in banging away like screen doors in a tornado. Even Peter and Charlie, at the beginning of The Lord Won’t Mind, assume they’ll have to marry women and have kids eventually (unless they move to that gay-mecca they’ve heard so much about, New York). But for their first golden summer interlude, they’re free to rut and dream about deeper unions:

“If only you’d known. When you first put your hand on me, when we were getting out of the car, I almost passed out. Oh, God, darling. I’ll always be faithful to you. I’m yours. You were crazy tonight to think anything could happen with Jimmy. You did think so, didn’t you? There’ll never be anybody else. I want to be faithful to you. That’s all there is.” He held their sexes together again with both hands. “Like that. Together.”

Charlie stretched voluptuously and arched his back so that is sex towered over Peter’s. He dropped back flat on the bed and put his hands around Peter’s, all of his attention concentrated on their joined hands and the hard flesh they held. The wounds of the evening were healed. “It is amazing, isn’t it? About us,” he said.

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert – Talk about unconventional! In the fourth of Herbert’s “Dune” novels, the heir to the Atreides family’s galactic empire, Leto, is now the ancient and inhuman god-emperor, a hyper-intelligent despot who rules the many worlds of his imperium through an efficient combination of prescience and brute force. The many powerful societies under his rule – the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Tleilaxu – all vie for his favors while secretly plotting against him, and in God Emperor of Dune, one of those societies, the biotech-mastering Ixians, have sent to Leto’s court a beautiful young woman named Hwi Noree, whom they’ve cloned and designed for one purpose only: to make the god-emperor fall in love with her, thereby distracting his all-seeing prescience long enough for an assassination attempt to have any chance of succeeding. And the central irony of a more-than-human being like Leto (one of Herbert’s most enduringly fascinating creations) is that he knows that’s Hwi Noree’s purpose, but we as readers never fully know how much that knowledge itself fits into his larger plans, although he drops hints to his beloved:

“When I am gone, they must call me Shaitan, the Emperor of Gehenna. The wheel must turn and turn and turn along the Golden Path.”

“Lord, could the anger not be directed at me alone? I would not …”

“No! The Ixians made you much more perfectly than they thought. I truly love you. I cannot help it.”

“I do not wish to cause you pain!” The words were wrenched from her.

“What’s done is done. Do not mourn it.”

“Help me to understand it.”

“The hate which will blossom after I am gone, that, too, will fade into the inevitable past. A long time will pass. Then, on a far-distant day, my journals will be found.”

“Journals?” She was shaken by the seeming shift of subject.

“My chronicle of my time. My arguments, the apologia. Copies exist and scattered fragments will survive, some in distorted form, but the original journals will wait and wait and wait. I have hidden them well.”

“And when they are discovered?”

“People will learn that I was something quite different from what they supposed.”

Her voice came in a trembling hush. “I already know what they will learn.”

“Yes, my darling Hwi, I think you do.”

“You are neither devil nor god, but something never seen before and never to be seen again because your presence removes the need.”

She brushed tears from her cheeks.

“Hwi, do you realize how dangerous you are?”

Alarm showed in her expression, the tensing of her arms.

“You have the makings of a saint,” he said. “Do you understand how painful it can be to find a saint in the wrong place and the wrong time?”

She shook her head.

“People have to be prepared for saints,” he said. “Otherwise, they simply become followers, supplicants, beggars and weakened sycophants forever in the shadow of the saint. People are destroyed by this because it nurtures only hweakness.”

After a moment of thought, she nodded, then: “Will there be saints when you are gone?”

“That’s the purpose of my Golden Path.”

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – Naturally, no list of strange and powerful attractions could be complete without including the abiding friendship between that quintessential odd couple, former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The reserved, bottled-up Call and the free-spirited McCrae agree on virtually nothing but are nonetheless united by countless shared adventures, a brutal physical competency in common, and, in the end, a love deeper than that of brothers. As many readers have commented, the climactic scene in which a wounded and dying McCrae threatens to shoot Call if Call tries to authorize the town’s doctor to amputate his gangrenous legs is one of the most harrowing things McMurtry ever wrote:

He had expected to find Gus wounded, but not to find him dying. The sight affected him so much that he felt weak, of a sudden. When the doctor left the room, he sat down in a chair and took off his hat. He looked at Gus for a long time, trying to think of some argument he might use, but Gus was Gus, and he knew no argument would be of any use. None ever had been. He could either fight him and take off the leg if he won, or else sit and watch him die. The doctor seemed convinced he would die now in any case, though doctors could be wrong in such matters.

He tried to gird himself for a fight – Gus might miss, or not even shoot, though both were doubtful – but his own weakness held him in the chair. He was trembling and didn’t know why.

Colter by Rick Bass – I couldn’t compose such a list as this without sparing a thought for the vast literature describing the love that springs up between humans and dogs, now could I? I’ve read virtually every example of such literature, always looking for that rare book that doesn’t schmaltz things over with cheap sentiment and easy answers. Such books are rare, but Colter is a beautiful example of them – the story of an ungainly little hunting dog who proves preternaturally skilled in the field, and who touches Bass’ life from the very first moment (as ‘best dogs’ almost inevitably tend to):

She claimed she had come by only to borrow a cup of sugar, but before she left I had written her a check for that last pup, the runt of the litter, the one nobody else wanted. Something about the goofy little knot-headed dog made me laugh.

How we fall into grace. You can’t work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you, unbidden.

The Education of Henry Adams – Adams wrote this most bizarre and brilliant American classic mostly in 1906, long after the 1885 death of his wife Marian “Clover” Adams, but she haunts it in the strangest ways, and she’s given the highest tribute a man as verbose as Adams could bestow: he never mentions her. The Education‘s narrative breaks off in 1872, the year of their marriage, and doesn’t resume again until 1892. And yet, there are echoes of her everywhere, including in Adams’ reflection on the death of his sister:

One had heard and read a great deal about death, and even seen a little of it, and knew by heart the thousand commonplaces of religion and poetry which seemed to deaden one’s senses an veil the horror. Society being immortal, could put on immortality at will. Adams being mortal, felt only the mortality. Death took features altogether new to him, in these rich and sensuous surroundings. Nature enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked the torture, and smothered her victims with caresses. Never had one seen her so winning.


February 16th, 2012

30-Second Book Review: The Death of King Arthur

Things I learned from reading The Death of King Arthur by Thomas Malory, as adapted by Peter Ackroyd (Viking, 2011):

1. Having the name ‘Bagdemagus’ or ‘Griflet’ is not necessarily a career-killer.

2. When dining with the King and Queen, ignore what happens when Lancelot appears. Everyone knows that he and the Queen are lovers! Follow the King’s lead. Turn slightly away, examine your tunic for spots, and sing “la la la” until Lancelot leaves. Resume dining.

3. If you are on an adventure and come across a shield or sword bearing a warning written in giant letters that “only the most virtuous, most pious, most gracious, most sinless, most steadfast, most favored son of the Lord may touch me. Any other will die in great pain,” heed the warning and walk away. You may have forgotten to confess a fart during Mass when you were 7, and thus your armor will end up being no more than a tin can containing the mincemeat of your remains. There are other swords and shields in the world.

Deb Irish

February 14th, 2012

Valentine’s Day 2012

Do I not know what savage blossom only under the

pitting hail

Of your inclement season could have prospered?

Here lie

Green leaves to wade in, and of the many roads not

one road leading outward from this place

But is blocked by boughs that will hiss and simmer

when they burn – green autumn, lady, green

autumn on this land!


Do I not know what inward pressure only could inflate

its petals to withstand

(No, no, not hate, not hate) the onslaught of a little

time with you?

No, no, not love, not love. Call it by name,

Now that it’s over, now that it is gone and cannot

hear us.

It was an honest thing. Not noble. Yet no shame.


“What Savage Blossom” – Edna St. Vincent Millay


February 11th, 2012

Two Ends of the Spectrum in the Penny Press!

A New York literary friend of mine warned me about the new New Yorker – warned me that it contained an essay on Edith Wharton by one of my living literary nemeses, Jonathan Franzen. We chuckled it off, that New York literary friend and I (in fact – naturally bouncy hair, permanent fussiness, gorgeous literary chops, penchant for crinoline – that New York literary friend might have been Edith Wharton), but I knew I might be in for some irritation in a few weeks when my copy of the issue in question – already out on newsstands everywhere in the world, but alas, I’m a subscriber – arrived.

And yet, even with preparation, I was appalled.

It wasn’t just Franzen’s pseudo-professorial leather-elbow-patch “let us now consider” air of arrogance, either, although you know you’re going to get plenty of that in a piece that begins, “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” It’s pretty bad, although it’s typical of Franzen to open right off with a carefully-coded lie, since what he’s really saying here is, “The wiser I get, the more enjoyment I get, however sour, in equating my knowledge of an author’s biography with my understanding of that author’s work – ooops, I mean oeuvre.” He tells us, “that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote Tortilla Flat while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced East of Eden,” implying, I guess, that he could divine any of those personal bits from the books themselves, instead of from reading Jackson Benson’s great biography like plain folks.

That would all be bad enough, perhaps strung out for 1000 words and given a sufficiently pretentious title (“Our Writers, Our Selves,” etc.), but it gets much worse, because Wise Old Franzen then turns his attention to Edith Wharton on the occasion of her 150th birthday. He’s concerned, you see, that she’s so poorly known, so little revered – he wants to ‘recelebrate’ The House of Mirth, ‘re-evaluate’ The Age of Innocence, and call some ‘much merited attention’ to The Custom of the Country, and he wants to do all this despite the fact that Edith Wharton herself is so unsympathetic (no idea which enormous biography brought him to that conclusion). It’s like the point in all those horror movies when the vacationing college students in their jeep decide to take a detour on a back country road; the instant Franzen invokes “the problem of sympathy,” the reader is wearily certain the entire piece is going to end up someplace dark and misbegotten.

And it’s not that Franzen opens by intoning, “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did,” although that, too, would be bad enough. No, the real horror of this piece is the fact that Franzen only needs four paragraphs to get to what’s really on his mind: Edith Wharton wasn’t hot. See, Franzen’s idea is that we like to root for our authors, and that process is facilitated by every flaw the author has. Edith Wharton “wasn’t pretty,” and so, according to Franzen, she spent the rest of her writing life exorcising her shame and anger over that fact in her fiction. Franzen can actually look at a book like The House of Mirth and then write something like this: “The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.”

I know we don’t hire Jonathan Franzen to be a great literary critic. We hire him to be a bloatedly overrated literary sexist (the death of Norman Mailer left the position open). But even so, it would never have occurred to Franzen in a million years to get four paragraphs into a piece about F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway and then start talking about how physically attractive they were – and even if he tried it, no New Yorker editor would have allowed it to see print. I don’t expect miracles of discretion from today’s crop of literary critics, and I myself have been known to comment caustically on the strident fight-picking of today’s next-wave feminism (one such feminist once castigated me for not including any female writers on a list of bad writers I’d made – a sure sign that with many – perhaps most? – feminists, such fight-picking has become a completely autonomous reflex, like hiccuping). But good Gawd – that a blowhard like Franzen can use a national pulpit like the New Yorker to say some female writer would have been happier if she’d just been better-looking is insulting enough, but for that writer to be Edith Wharton? Whose three great novels (works which were in no need whatsoever of being re-anything’d by Jonathan Franzen) put her in a rank of literature’s pantheon Franzen himself will never even glimpse much less enter?

I’d make some quip about how Shakespeare might be in danger next, about how Franzen might re-visit the Bard’s work to show us how it’s all about premature balding, except that would never happen – because Shakespeare was (we think!) a man. No, the next likely victim might be Virginia Woolf, at 130 this year: Franzen no doubt has pearls of wisdom generating on how much of her oeuvre is decoded by the fact that she was a little on the stringy side. Yeesh.

Fortunately, no New Yorker is ever completely without its compensations, and when the mail-cart, its horses thickly splattered with mud, finally delivered my copy, there it was:  Anthony Lane on the ghost stories of M. R. James, a perfect match of silken sensibility and reverence for well-turned English. Lane is predictably excellent on the surreptitious quality in James’ horror stories:

The beast [in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”] is the incarnation of a figure in one of the scrapbook’s illustrations – a sepia drawing from the close of the seventeenth century. In other words, what James does here, as elsewhere, is to summon unholy terror from the very texts and objects that concern him. Not for James the mad gothic landscape, dwarfed by high cliffs and primed with pre-emptive weirdness; for where would the shock be if a monster were skulking there?

Ah, the sweetness of it. And not a mention of James’ double chin, or his lisp.

February 8th, 2012

Six for the War!

Humans fight global wars, but they also write great books about them. War is famously a scourge, but from a purely book-worm point of view, library shelves would be much poorer without the books. The 20th Century was the apex of human social convulsion, the ultimate trauma of the species so far, and in many ways the crisis point of that trauma was the Second World War, which began in a tangle of treaties and duplicity like something out of the 19th Century, worked its way through half a decade as the apotheosis of so-called ‘conventional’ warfare, and then ended on a bizarre, terrifying note that belonged to some unguessable future.

And the war produced books in such a vast number and variety that it’s almost impossible to imagine the literary landscape without them. Any student of history must have a full book case devoted to the Second World War, even with serious pruning, and more truly great volumes on the subject come out every year. So an entry like this can’t do more than scratch the surface of that mighty mound of passion and research and erudition – but even so, and apropos of nothing, here are six really good WWII books:

 Munich: The Price of Peace – Naturally, we start with the hope that none of it might have happened. Maybe the last person to hold that hope – and certainly the person who felt it the strongest – was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who exhausted himself in a series of increasingly furtive and hallucinatory conferences in 1938 with one goal in mind: to find some agreement, some terms short of open war, that German dictator Adolf Hitler would accept. That frantic last season of hope was never chronicled better than in Telford Taylor’s magnificent 1979 doorstop, in which he takes us through every twist and turn in the story, always bringing us back to what he saw as the point of it all:

It is not for us to criticize them; so do most of us today, despite looming perils such as poverty, pollution, resource depletion, terrorism, and nuclear warheads. Munich does not tell us how to overcome these hazards, but it is a potent and historically valid symbol of the dangers of not facing up to unpleasant realities. That is not a new lesson, but it is a great one, and it is the lesson of Munich.

London at War: 1939-1945 – Chamberlain was right to hope, but he was wrong to place any hope in Hitler – war came, and the nations of Europe, with their sleeping vigilance and their relic armies, fell like ten-pins before the Wehrmacht Hitler had so zealously built while professing peace. In what seemed like no time at all, England stood alone against the greatest concentration of military power the Western world had seen since Napoleon Bonaparte. German bombs rained down on English cities; German U-boats strangled the stream of imports on which England depended, and German invasion forces massed on the other side of the Channel. It (and only it, nothing before and certainly nothing after) was the perfect moment for blowhard demagogue Winston Churchill, who managed in those alone-days to say exactly the words his beleaguered country needed to hear, and in great historian Philip Ziegler’s intense 1995 account, we’re reminded not only that England’s trial was concentrated in London’s but that London’s trial lasted well beyond that initial period of solitary defiance. Ziegler ends on a note of quiet approval, of course:

So only the memory is left; not the memory of a golden age perhaps, but still one deserving much congratulation. There is much that Londoners can look back on with pride, remarkably little about which they need to feel ashamed. The war had been a test unexampled in its relentlessness and its ferocity. Its legacies did not prove as potent as had once been hoped, the opportunities that it created were frittered away, but no one looking back on those dreadful years can doubt that the test had been passed with honour.

Eagle Against the Sun – Large variables were at work backstage of that war London fought alone, foremost two: Hitler’s mad-in-hindsight decision to turn east and invade Russia, and Japan’s mad-in-hindsight decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. The former drew the deadly Nazi focus away from an island that would otherwise have been all but helpless before it, and the latter completely changed the nature of the war itself by introducing an enormous new dimension – one recounted with workhorse proficiency by Ronald Spector in his 1985 best-seller:

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

Silent Victory – that war between the United States and Japan had a frightfully modern cast to it: it was made possible, entirely carried out, and horrifyingly ended by new technologies. Thousands of miles of open ocean separated the combatants, so operations depended on sea and air craft – an Iliad fought almost entirely out of sight of land. Veteran submariner Clay Blair, in his absorbing 1975 landmark study, concentrates on one aspect of that bizarre new war: the fight going on below the waves, between the submarine forces of the U.S. and Japan. And just as submarine warfare was by nature far more concentratedly personal than land warfare (close quarters, isolated bands of men working in darkness, etc.), so Blair’s book never strays far from the innumerable small-scale stories he faithfully collected. This is a book full of skippers, not grand strategies:

Tarpon, commanded by Lewis Wallace, was twice “pooped” (swamped by huge waves). She rolled violently and took heavy water down the conning tower hatch. The water rushed into the pump room, a compartment below the control room. Before Wallace got control of the boat, water was waist deep in the pump room and two feet deep in the control room. A great deal of machinery was flooded out. After Wallace got the damage repaired, he sighted one fair-sized Japanese ship sailing alone. He made a sonar approach. It was botched when a torpedoman, distracted by a leak, accidentally fired a torpedo.

Bodyguard of Lies – Just as the world of submarine warfare took place literally below the surface of the visible conflict, so too there was from the start of the war a vigorous but largely unseen war being fought beneath the battles and the headlines: the espionage war, without which no war can be fought or won. Anthony Cave Brown tells something of that story is his big 1975 masterpiece about the carefully-orchestrated counter-espionage campaign conducted by the Allies in order to keep the invasion of Normandy a secret from the Germans. Brown’s book is full of heroes readers have never heard of, victories nobody ever saw, and a bravery very different in appearance from the bravery for which it paved the path. Brown is thus sensitive to the unseen side of history and can evoke it even in the most public of war’s spaces:

There on the beaches of Normandy, so it is said, one can hear the sounds of old battles in the wind. It is the same phenomenon that one hears onthe gentle rises at Waterloo. For those who require monuments, there are strange, rust-red shapes sticking out of the sea, looking so remote from present history that they might have been there since the days of Richard the Lionheart. They are the remnants of the merchantmen sunk as breakwaters for the Mulberry harbors. The seas wash over these relics, rising and falling with the fierce tides. But they are not destroyed. They remain as a testament to that time and place where the fates changed horses an history changed its tune.

A Time for Trumpets – Despite those hidden wars behind the scenes and under the waves – and despite the staggeringly enormous battles being fought on Germany’s Eastern front – for most readers the Second World War will always be epitomized by the newsreel-ready battles fought on land between the Allied and German ground troops, and in the popular imagination (to the extent that the popular imagination even remembers WWII), one of the greatest of these battles will always be the so-called “Battle of the Bulge,” Hitler’s enormous last-ditch effort to punch back at the wave of Allied forces inexorably closing in on him from the west. Charles MacDonald fought in that battle, and in 1984 he gave it a proud and durable monument in his oft-reprinted book, in which the unassuming valor of his comrades is given center stage:

Hitler saw the American soldier as the weak component (the “Italians”) of the Western alliance, the product of a society too heterogeneous to field a capable fighting force. Bouck, Crawford, Tsakanikas, Umanoff, Moore, Reid, Descheneaux, O’Brien, Jones, Erlenbusch, Goldstein, McKinley, Mandichak, Spigelman, Garcia, Russamano, Weiszyck, Nawrocki, Campbell, Barcellona, Leinbaugh. Black men too, although their color was hardly to be reflected in their names. The heterogeneity was indeed there, but at many a place – at Krinkelt-Rochenrath, at St. Vith, atop the Skyline Drive, at the Parc Hotel, Echternach, Malmedy, Stavelot, Stoumont, Bastogne, Verdenne, Baraque de Fraiture, Hotton, Noville – the American soldier put the lie to Hitler’s theory. His was a story to be told to the sound of trumpets.

Obviously, six more great books could be substituted for these – sooner or later at Stevereads we’ll get to all of them (several of you have asked for similar lists devoted to both the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and they’re coming) – but these certainly deserve inclusion in the over-burdened WWII bookcase – and if you don’t have such a bookcase, these six books are a great place to start.

February 6th, 2012

King of the Sea!

Our book today is Derek Bickerton’s King of the Sea from 1979, when its author was a hale and hearty linguist and rhetorical trouble-shooter who gave off a veritable corona of creativity in virtually everything he did. Bickerton went on to carve out a prestigious name for himself in the world of linguistics, writing a few popular and well-regarded books on the subject. I’ve read those books and very much enjoyed them, but as far as I know, the fact that he ever wrote novels is largely forgotten, and in the case of King of the Sea, that’s a shame. Before he started devoting all his time to examining how stories are told, Bickerton was one hell of a story teller.

This book turns on the oldest trick of sci-fi: the fish out of water (so to speak), the first contact, the emissary to a strange and different world, the drama of aliens meeting – especially when the drama is enhanced by the well-imagined detailing of the alien world. With all due respect to H. G. Wells, Victor Hugo, and my beloved Jules Verne, it was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first taught that trick to the modern world, first in gloriously straight-up terms by magically transplanting an Earthman to Mars and then subversively, by having Tarzan be first the visiting alien to the world of the apes and then again the visiting alien when he returns to British society. Science fiction over the ensuing decades has played with that trick in infinite diversity – Bickerton adds to a rich tradition.

This is the story of Andy Holliday, handsome hot-shot Honolulu grad student who works at the Dolphin Experimental Station by day and parties with drugs, drink, and women by night. But Andy isn’t purely feckless even when we first meet him: he’s driven, and he’s perpetually at odds with his superiors, who are trying to teach an artificial language to the Station’s captive dolphins. Andy begins to wonder if the dolphins already have an equally-complex language of their own, and gradually he manipulates both his instructors and the nearby Naval authorities to let him test his ideas in the ultimate laboratory: the open ocean. Armed with a state-of-the-art oxygen breather and a small propulsion unit, he gets himself dropped into the sea near a pod of stenos dophins (bigger and bulkier than their more familiar tursiops kin made famous by “Flipper” – stenos have only ever been made into villains, as anybody who’s read David Brin’s Startide Rising will vividly recall)(the illustrator of the paperback edition of King of the Sea obviously hadn’t read that far into the book, so trusty old tursiops appears on the cover). His first contact with them couldn’t be more extensive:

Only now they were no longer merely locating me; again, this time much more strongly, I had the spooky feeling of being able almost, but not quite, to read their minds. For sound waves, unlike light waves, are not stopped by our envelope of flesh. Their sonar was going through me like X-rays; the shape of my skeleton, the branching tree of my nerves, the coils of my guts, the puddles of air in my lungs and belly – all those parts of myself secret even from their owner – must now lie revealed to them as clearly as my outer form.

Slowly, Andy learns to recognize the individuals who constitute the pod that ‘adopts’ him, and slowly, he acclimates to living on open water for extended stretches (Bickerton very cleverly makes this process exactly mirror the stages a baby dolphin would go through). To his amazement, he finds that the stenos have not only their own language but an amazingly complex and enlightened society amongst themselves. He begins to share in their play, their happinesses, and – in some of the book’s most exciting sequences – their dangers:

The folklore claimed there were no recorded cases of a killer whale attacking man. And it interpreted this fact, if fact it was, as a sign that Orca, being highly intelligent himself, automatically recognized the King of All the Species and treated him with appropriate deference. I could think of a better explanation. We only know of shark attacks because of the botched jobs, the swimmers who, mangled or merely scared, succeed in getting away. But who would get away from this monster? He wouldn’t just take an arm or a leg; he was big enough to swallow you at a single gulp.

Even in this brief throwaway encounter, Bickerton can’t resist providing deeper psychological shading for this main character who clearly fascinates him:

What was most awful, awful beyond any fear, was knowing that if anyone had come and said, “Do X and I will make the whale go away,” I’d have done it. Whatever X was. Killed, tortured, betrayed. And embraced the one who demanded it as my deliverer. When you’ve known fear like that, you’re never quite the same again. And there was no rational basis for it. What faced me wasn’t a bad death as deaths go. Instantaneous extinction in that tunnel. Better than a shark mangling me. And at least I’d have been killed by an intelligent creature rather than some mud-brained automaton.

In inevitable steps, Andy’s familiarity with his wild dolphin family ripens into contempt for his own species. He thinks of the exploitation, the cruelty, the abuse humans deal to ocean creatures on such a wide scale (in one heartbreaking sequence, he rushes to the Station’s captive dolphins in order to use his new-learned language skills with them – and learns, to his shock, that the endless boredom of their confinement has long since driven them incoherent), and he picks a side in what he views as a war. The novel’s last sixty pages are one enormous gulp of a climax.

The result is a true unsung classic of science fiction – well worth your time, and well worth a nice sturdy reprint, one of these days.


February 2nd, 2012

Two-for-one deals in the Penny Press!

One of the most tempting tricks in the craft of professional book-reviewing is the ‘cattle call’ round-up review, where either a lazy review editor or a vainglorious reviewer see two or three or even more books published roughly simultaneously on roughly the same subject and experience the same little light-bulb of an idea: Hey! Why not lump all these books into one review! The editor looks at it from a reductively pragmatic view: why run three separate reviews of these three new books on ancient Rome when you can just run one slightly longer review that covers all three? And the reviewer looks at it (if we construe generously here) from an enthusiastic view: if I lump all three of these books on the Huguenots together, my piece can be a soaring, all-inclusive discussion of the whole Huguenot Weltanschauung.

Even a quick glance at either of these views will show how boneheaded they are. The editor’s view is wrong because it vitiates the very idea of reviewing in favor of some dippy concept of covering ground – it offends both authors and readers by acting on the assumption that books on roughly similar subjects almost constitute connected chapters in one bigger, ongoing book … anything rather than contemplate the possibility that two simultaneous books on the Boer War might each be worthy of a full-length review. Each of the authors of those two books certainly believes his work merits stand-alone examination, and no reader who reads both of them will come away saying, “there really wasn’t any difference between the two.” It’s book-criticism’s job to make distinctions, to differentiate intelligently – if for no other reason (and there is no higher reason) than to help guide the reader. And if the book review editor’s view is predictably venal, the book reviewer’s view is even worse – the only possible mental justification for lumping a handful of books together into a discussion of a topic is plain and simple egotism: what it says is, “Regardless of the paltry books involved, the readers are really here for me; they don’t want to know how the authors of these books deal with their topic – they really want to know how I myself deal with that topic.” The main convenience of the two views is that they reinforce each other – so you see this kind of thing often in the Penny Press. It can be maddening.

It can be maddening for the very obvious reason that if a reviewer is allegedly ‘reviewing’ four different books in the space he’d ordinarily use for one book, he’s not suddenly, miraculously going to become four times a better writer than he was last month. Instead, he’s going to do one-fourth as good a job (or, in the case of the worst offenders, he’s going to be four times as crappy as usual). The reviewer is still going to get paid (sometimes, ironically, paid more), and the book review editor is still going to clear space off his pile of galley copies – the only losers will be the authors and the readers. I always feel sorry for a writer who spends six years working on a biography of Fanny Burney only to find a second biography of Fanny Burney hitting the bookstore shelves at the same time; regardless of how different they might be, those two books are destined to be chained together in every book review in the world, for their entire production cycle. And I reserve a little bit of sorry for myself, too, since I inevitably come out of those two-for-one pieces feeling ripped off – either still curious about a book that was purportedly just reviewed or irritated that a good (or bad) book was given only glancing treatment.

So I was feeling plenty ripped off by the time I finished the latest New York Review of Books, in which there were a whopping SIX combo-reviews, ‘covering’ a total of 19 books. Bad enough when one of these combo-reviews happens once in an issue, but six times? If you take out the purely-political muckraking pieces in the issue, the ones that had nothing to do with books or the arts at all but were just straight (and liberal, and outraged) reporting, over half the pieces in this issue were these frantic, multi-pronged things that are neither essay nor book review but combine the worst traits of both.

A bad example was R. J. W. Evans’ review of two recent biographies of Bismarck, one by Jean-Paul Bled and the other by Jonathan Steinberg. Both those books are meaty and intelligent works, although Bled’s book is not very much the lesser of the two but is also, as Evans points out, a reprint nearly a decade old. But at least Evans sticks to ‘only’ two books, and at least he eventually cedes that Steinberg’s book is the one he liked better. The reader of his combo-review is treated to his admittedly very entertaining summary-at-length of Bismarck’s life and times, but a reader wanting to know more about what each of these two books is like will have to look elsewhere.

But a much, much worse example this time around was Richard Dorment’s octopoidal review of not one, not two, but four recent books and one museum exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites in general and the fascinating Edward Burne-Jones in particular – a total of some 1500 words of prose, ‘covered’ in less than three pages of review. If you factor in the necessity Dorment apparently felt to say something about that exhibit, that means he’d have at most about 400 words to say about each of the books involved. It virtually guarantees that none of those books (or that poor exhibit) will be treated well or even fairly – and sure enough, that’s exactly the case. Dorment spends almost all of his piece recounting (again, entertainingly – but if that was hardly a justification in Evans’ case, how much less is it here?) the facts and themes of Burne-Jones’ life, leaving himself virtually no space to talk about the books listed at the top of his ‘review.’ And the extra irritation here comes from the fact that one of those books, Fiona McCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite, is actually a sumptuous, long-researched, witty, and extremely well-written masterpiece, the best biography of any kind to appear yet in 2012. Dorment essentially reduces her to one footnote, in which he quibbles with her about one of her book’s most trivial points. And the fractured focus of the piece doesn’t do wonders for Dorment’s own writing; not only does he bizarrely refer to Burne-Jones as “a household name” (demonstrating pretty clearly that Dorment spends little or no time in South Boston), but he writes puzzling lines like “During its most intense phase their tumultuous relationship lasted about three years.”

Robert Franks’ extremely thought-provoking The Darwin Economy, Sarah Burns’ gripping The Central Park Five, and even Wendell Berry’s surprisingly engaging The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford are just three of the other books to be slighted in this manner (they’re the other three I’ve read myself, and all three of them deserved stand-alone pieces), and it the cumulative effect made me wonder if perhaps the New York Review of BOOKS was devoting too much of its limited page-space to coverage of the decidedly non-literary political scene. It’s not the first time I’ve wondered that, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

February 1st, 2012

War in Human Civilization!

Our book today is Azar Gat’s monumental War in Human Civilization from Oxford University Press, which arrived on the scene in 2006, just a bit too early for me to give it the full panoramic treatment in Open Letters Monthly. Gat has been studying military history for a long time (and lives and works in a militarist state), and this 800-page inquiry is likely his masterpiece on the subject. It’s certainly meant to be comprehensive, as the jacket design clearly shows – the front is a carving from the reign of Ashurbanipal 2700 years ago, and the back is a freeze-frame of the second plane about to strike the Twin Towers in 2001 (comprehensive and a bit controversial, perhaps, since I, at least, would argue against considering the 9/11 attacks actual warfare, at least in any sense of the word Ashurbanipal would have recognized).

The book is a grand heavy thing, one of those quietly magnificent Oxford productions that seem to come and go every season, regularly making the ‘best books of the year’ lists in the more abstruse literary journals and then disappearing into the night. War in Human Civilization, for instance, had only a modest print-run in hardcover and an infinitesimal one in paperback – and its readers kept it, since you virtually never see it turn up in used bookstores (to those of you who usually use such observations to comment “I see it everywhere! My local Annie’s Book Swap has ten! They’re giving them away!” – kindly pipe down). Indeed, it’s so scarce I had to settle for a copy whose previous owner had the barbaric habit of underlining in ink. Shudder.

Still, Gat’s book is worth the effort to find. This is classic ‘disinterested’ big-scope historical inquiry, only one part the old familiar Agincourt-Waterloo-Somme shuffle that usually forms the whole of books titled “War in Human Civilization,” and the other parts meta-analysis in the Toynbee manner, always thought-provoking and often brilliant. Gat studies the causes of warfare, the nature of the decisions societies make when they choose it, and he’s shrewd about its long-term costs. Of course, Toynbee-style meta-analysis can tempt just about anybody to the occasional wooden phrasing (it sure prompted Toynbee to a few), and Gat isn’t immune:

It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification. My discussion of human belligerency does not assume that all tribal societies, or all people, were equally war-like. There has always been a great variation between societies, arising from their specific and complex set of circumstances.

That first line, “It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification” is almost comic in its Casaubon-esque donnishness (the entire line can be reduced to the word “again”), but it’s mercifully rare in the course of War in Human Civilization. What’s far more common are passages that distill an enormous amount of learning into observations that both summarize and provoke:

Throughout history, sieges were slow and laborious, taking many months and years to complete successfully. In regions where fortified cities and fortresses abounded, warfare pretty much revolved around sieges. Armies often concentrated on one selected prize for each annual campaign, as they would do in early modern Europe.

I confess, I love this kind of writing, so studied and yet so interesting – even when I don’t agree with it, or when I think it hits the wrong emphasis. I love authors who pull off such a comprehensive, flexible approach to an enormous subject (John Reader’s Africa is another example that springs to mind). There’s an illuminating bit of deep thinking on virtually every page of Gat’s book, as when he rehearses the old Enlightenment view that selfish autocrats were the ones responsible for the scourge of war – and then deftly explodes it:

According to that view, once the people who carried the burden of war and incurred its costs were given the power to decide, they would recoil from war. However, as already mentioned, the demos was the most bellicose element in Athenian society even though it fought in the army, manned the rowing benches of the Athenian navy, and had to endure war’s destruction and misery, as in the forced evacuation of Attica during the Peloponnesian War. Rome’s proverbial military prowess and tenacity similarly derived specifically from her republican regime, which successfully co-opted the populace for the purpose of war. Indeed, historically, democracies proved particularly tenacious in war precisely because they were socially and politically inclusive. And, again, in pre-modern times they also did not refrain from fighting each other.

Pointing out the continued relevance of Gat’s book would be pretty damn fatuous, and beside the point in any case, at least for me. This is a tough book, a dense one with many subtleties and much deep thought behind it. It’s a great whopping synthesis of its dark topic, however, and it deserves more attention than poor old clueless Oxford University Press ever managed to drum up for it. I’m hardly in a position to criticize them, of course, since I’ve learned first-hand how tricky it can be to promote complex literary endeavors. But still: I bet your local library has a copy of War in Human Civilization that’s been sitting demurely on its shelf since it was bought – you should go and make its acquaintance.