Posts from March 2012

March 29th, 2012

A Plank Bridge by a Pool!

Our book today is Norman Thelwell’s lovely 1978 classic, A Plank Bridge by a Pool, a quiet, humble account of building an islanded pond on a property in the south of England in the reliable little village of Timsbury, a treasure of a book I was thrilled to find again on the carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop in Boston recently (somebody unloaded a great whopping library of hunting-related books to the shop’s over-generous buyers, and this book – which only comes close to hunting with some rather desultory fishing – was among the bloody accounts of slaughter and taxidermy). Thelwell was a well-known British sketch artist and cartoonist for decades, and A Plank Bridge by a Pool is the finest, most serene thing he ever did, a marvellous account of changing the rather hum-drum landscape of his small farm into a picturesque setting of tiny bridges, boat houses, and even a folly – and the whole thing is lavishly, charmingly illustrated by the artist himself, of course, which only adds to the allure.

In the course of slowly transforming the contours of his land, Thelwell comes to know all the many kinds of animals that live there, and his many drawings reflect long hours quietly watching. He learns the folklore associated with these animals as well, and he brings to all of it a quiet skepticism that’s no less open to wonder for being hard to convince:

Although herons can be expensive and annoying at time I am glad to have them around. They are nervous creatures and depart immediately at the slightest sign of human presence even at a great distance. I have heard the story that they will die of fright if surprised at close quarters but, although some people seem to believe it, I feel it is like the assertion that a guinea pig’s eyes will drop out if it is held up by the tail. The heron is so wary that he is not often so surprised – although one evening in late summer, returning from the river, I was almost frightened out of my wits when one panicked into the air from below the hump-backed bridge just as I turned on to it. He certainly did not die of fright but I almost did.

That openness to experiencing the natural world is crucial to any book of this kind, and Thewell never passes up and opportunity to indulge it, even in the simplest ways:

Sometimes, when I have been working into the early hours of the morning, I feel restless and disinclined to go to bed. On these occasions I often switch off the lights and wait for a short time in the darkness of the room, then pull aside the curtains gently so that the sound cannot be heard outside. It is astonishing how light the night world seems after the total blackness within. I open the doors very quietly and step as silently as I can out into the cool air. The night is alive with a thousand muted sounds. Under the great spreading branches of the walnut tree, pressed against its deeply ridged trunk, I seem to be camouflaged from the little creatures who hide and sleep away the daylight hours in the tangled undergrowth of the plantation. They are abroad when humans are asleep and the world is theirs again as it has been since the dawn of life.

By the time Thelwell’s book comes to a close, readers have begun to think of his created landscape as a place of permanent delight, but its own creator has no such illusions – he knows that left to its own devices, nature will always obliterate the straightening ways of mankind:

The pool will have silted up a little more than last year. It is alive and always changing. Nature will fill it in again in the course of time and return it to the condition in which I found it. This is sad in a way, but inevitable, and paradoxically it is the most vital part of its enchantment. For, although it will take much longer, the pool itself will bloom like the celandines that star its banks in the spring, and fade away again as they do.

I doubt the enterprising citizens of Timsbury have allowed so lucratively picturesque a property to lapse back into its unclaimed state, but I could be wrong – either way, I’m disinclined to check: I prefer things just as they’ll always be in the pages of this keeper of a book.

March 28th, 2012

Comics: Legion Secret Origin!

It’s been a very good winter season (calendar-wise, of course – actual winter didn’t happen in Boston this year) for Legion of Super-Heroes fans: not only did the two Legion ‘New 52′ relaunch titles (‘Legion of Super-Heroes’ and ‘Legion Lost’) manage to escape the ravages of crapitude that swamped almost all of DC’s company-wide reboot, but fans have also been treated to a six-part mini-series written by Legion legend Paul Levitz and drawn by the fantastic Chris Batista. The series is called “Legion: Secret Origin,” and from its first issue to this week’s conclusion, it’s been great. More than any other comic book concept, the Legion has been prone to cataclysmic revamps of its own over the last thirty years, almost always to the detriment of the title – which made this mini-series, which tells a straightforward and thrilling version of the Legion’s origins, all the more of a gift. Who knows how long it’ll be until some hot-shot ‘creator’ decides to make his bones by sprokking up the franchise? If Superman isn’t safe from such idiotic tinkering, surely nobody is.

The tried-and-true Levitz scripting magic is on full display in this concluding issue. This writer loves forward momentum above all things – his scenes are quick cutaway things, almost always ending with a word that then becomes the first word of the following scene, to further enhance the headlong effect. In this issue we find the fledgling Legion repulsing not only an interdimensional alien invasion but also an attempt on the life of billionaire R J Brande, the team’s founder. And in addition to both of those threats, there’s also the spectre of the Time-Trapper, one of the team’s most durable foes, here kept mysterious enough to play into the plans of any number of future interpreters. And at the end of the day, these valorous teen heroes from half a dozen worlds prove victorious – all done up splendidly in Batista’s clean pencils (his teens are all strangely elongated, but they’re also all easy on the eyes) and the cheerful coloring of Wes Hartman. By the time readers are reaching the end of the issue, they’re no doubt sensing Levitz has a rousing parting shot in mind, and they’re right – we see our new team, flush from their first trial, standing proudly outside the dorky clubhouse they’ve built for themselves:

And best of all? Levitz – the ultimate Legion of Super-Heroes true believer – can’t resist ending with that geekiest of all rallying-cries:

Hee. Perfect. I just hope he’s right.

March 22nd, 2012

Sweet Relief in the Penny Press!

Undaunted, of course, I still venture into the trenches of the Penny Press, even though they’ve lately proven themselves to be enemy trenches. There’s no viable alternative, if one wants a full mental life – magazines feature a gush of new writing every single day. I can’t miss that just because all of that writing is now dedicated solely to chapping my hide. So I gird myself and wade in, and I confess: I go straight to congenial-looking pieces first, in the hopes of a little ease.

So naturally in last week’s London Review of Books, I turned first to Thomas Powers’ piece on Joseph Heller – that seemed like a match made in Heaven: Powers is one heck of a strong writer, and several of you will already know that I consider Heller to be one of the great novelists of the 20th Century, and one of those novelists who present the extremely frustrating dilemma of being best known to the lumpen proletariat for what could easily be considered their weakest book. My Open Letters colleague John Cotter has expressed similar frustration about Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange isn’t a patch on his Earthly Powers, and I’m sure many of you book-people out there could come up with plenty of other examples. I’ve got a bunch! I much prefer Joseph and His Brothers to Magic Mountain, think The Sunlight Dialogues is infinitely better than the school-assigned Grendel, rank A Modern Instance much higher than The Rise of Silas Lapham – and I’d recommend virtually anything Joe Heller wrote over Catch-22, the book both he and his readers elevated to some kind of hyperbole from virtually the moment it came out of the typewriter. It’s become a classic, and as Powers writes in his review of a few new Heller-related books, there’s always something unaccountably mysterious in the perpetuation of classics.

Reading Powers is a treat, always, and for the first page of his piece, I thought perhaps the Curse of the Penny Press might be lifted. Then I got to this:

Heller began the first page of every book hoping to write something for the ages. He managed it once, critics generally agree, but all his later efforts fell short.

Even while I was disagreeing with those lines, his next ones stopped me:

The problem was the standard. A book for the ages requires something more than a talented author with a good idea at the top of his game. It requires in addition the half-magical moment when readers are hungry for exactly what’s on offer and the excitement of their meeting makes some evident impression on the world. Catch-22 was that sort of book; its title entered the language and readers felt it explained the futility of their lives.

There’s really no arguing with that, but it’s depressing as hell. So Powers brought me no relief, and I turned to the always-snarky usually-enjoyable pages of New York magazine. And ran into the upthrust pikes of the new, antagonistic Penny Press, this time in the form of a maddening article by the otherwise-talented Lisa Miller about the widespread use of tranquilizers (benzodiazepines) like Xanax and Valium and Ativan and Klonopin by young idiots who are trying to avoid feeling even the slightest bit unhappy about anything, ever. “Benzos are great when you are freaking out,” Miller writes, “and they’re great because you know that something will make you freak out, eventually.” See what I mean? Maddening. And it gets worse:

The crises people face in these early months of 2012 are individual and circumstantial, yes, but they’re global and abstract as well, stemming largely from the haunting awareness (it’s certainly haunting me) that the fates of everyone in the world are intertwined and the job of protecting civilization from assorted inevitable disasters seems to have fallen to no one. “Situational anxiety” today stems from threats that are both everywhere and nowhere at once. How will the debtor nations in the eurozone ever manage to pay back what they owe? How can Israel disarm Iran’s nuclear program without inciting the messiest international conflict since World War II? How can you be absolutely, 100 percent sure that cantaloupe you had for lunch wasn’t contaminated with listeria that will make you or your kids or one of your guests deathly sick?

By that point in Miller’s article, I was feeling deathly sick myself – mainly because it confirms what I’ve suspected about all the many, many dozens of young people I know who dope themselves every single day (none of this ‘only once in a while. honest’ lying Miller does): that they justify their addictions as reflections of how smart they are (eurozone? listeria? serving cantaloupe to guests?) – that their smugness and their drugness go hand in hand, as revolting as that is when what we’re talking about here is good old-fashioned personal weakness of a kind that was once a source of deep shame, hidden from view, not paraded in New York. I left the article feeling in need of a horse laxative myself.

So I thought nothing could save this latest foray into the Prickly Penny Press – and then I turned to the latest New Republic (once my basset hound was done gumming its edges, of course). I noticed that it had a long review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs – a book that, regardless of its merits, has generated uniformly great writing from its reviewers. The review this time was Evgeny Morozov, who I believe is the last living member of the group that assassinated the evil spellbinding monk Rasputin (excellent work, Evgeny!), and – true to form – his long, lusciously detailed review is utterly fantastic, an almost complete restorative for the Penny Press-weary soul.

And then I got the moment I’ve been waiting for, that wonderful, pellucid moment of joy that was – in the distant past! – the whole reason why I delved into stacks of magazines every week. I turned to Leon Wieseltier’s “Washington Diarist” essay, this one about the joys of a personal library made of actual printed books – and I read, and I was renewed:

Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography. This subjective urgency bears no relation to the quality of the book: lives have been changed by kitsch, too. What matters is that one’s pores be opened, and that the opening be true.

Ahhhhh. Here’s a little more, in response to well-meaning friends who comment on how much space all those dusty books take up:

They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits. My books are not dead weight, they are live weight – matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity …

Not just books do that, I wanted to say to him (I’d put a letter in the mail to him tomorrow, if I had his address – and it would be full of book-talk) – great writing of any kind does that. As long as the opening is true.

I’m looking forward to next week’s magazines, now.

March 16th, 2012

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza:The Queen of the Black Coast!

Robert E. Howard’s original Conan short story “Queen of the Black Coast” is a lush but typically lean affair, concentrating on one boisterous and ultimately poignant story – the story of young twenty-something Conan of Cimmeria’s first great love, the fascinated relationship he has with the notorious pirate queen Belit, leader of a fierce band of corsairs that plunders the sea-lanes between Howard’s ancient kingdoms of Argos and Kush. In that story, Conan and Belit meet, we’re told they have lots of adventures pirating together, and then they share the poignant part, the end of their story. Howard never bothers to show us those shared adventures the two lovers had on the open sea, and that lacuna has proved irresistible to comics, which typically leave no adventure unchronicled. Hence, thirty years ago, writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema spent many issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic serving up trial after trial for Conan and Belit to go through – everything from carnivorous giant hawks to nefarious sorcerers to pig-sized rabid swamp-rats to pythons as long as football fields (and, in a lyrical issue, a mysterious sea-woman). The artwork was smoothly professional but a bit of a disappointment at times – in all the years Buscema drew Conan, he never bothered to change his age at all, so he’s neither visibly young in these issues nor visibly old in his “King Conan” phase – but it was more than compensated-for by Thomas’ memorably complex characterization of Belit, whose impulsiveness appeals to Conan, whose scheming nonplusses him, and whose greed is of a more brittle, more embarrassing kind than his own. It’s a creation such as never would have occurred to Howard, and it makes Thomas’ own Red Sonja look like the one-dimensional knock-off she is.

Dark Horse Comics, whose great success with Conan I’ve already mentioned here, has recently begun a new series featuring another Thomas-style long elaboration of “Queen of the Black Coast,” and the first two issues are absolutely thrilling – another Conan triumph for Dark Horse.

The writing here is by Brian Wood, and he adopts a nice no-frills diction that perfectly suits the material. His Conan is very much still a young man, prone to goofy grins and knee-jerk arrogance, and the story’s hot, equatorial setting is wonderfully evoked by artist Becky Cloonan (surely the first woman to draw Conan in such a high-profile venue? Or anywhere else, professionally?). She draws a Conan who’s far more a lithe tiger of the original stories than the broad-shouldered ox of the Buscema era, and the rough dark lines of her style perfectly match the mercenary setting Wood gives us. Her decision to render Belit as chalky-skinned and more than a little vampiric is stylistically interesting (and not nearly so worrisome as her depiction of Belit’s black crew demonic sub-humans with no hair, no human skin tone, and no pupils to their flame-orange eyes – I’m crossing my fingers there’s a rhetorical justification for it, and I’m hoping that justification is revealed mighty soon), and these first two issues are helped by iconically simple, lovely Massimo Carnevale covers.

By the end of issue #2, young Conan has had erotic dreams about Belit and finally, after much bloodletting, met her. As Wood leaves events, Conan has severed all ties with his past (and with the affable merchant crew with which he originally falls in while on the run from the law in Argos) and stands on the deck of Belit’s ship ready to sell his life dearly at the hands of her crew. Belit intervenes, fascinated by this towering young fighter suddenly before her, and that’s where Wood concludes the issue – with fans (this one, anyway) thoroughly hooked. If the rest of this series is as good as its beginning, the whole thing will be a milestone in Conan comics adaptations. I’ll certainly stick with it.



March 16th, 2012

WTF in the Penny Press!

By this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that my once-beloved Penny Press has turned into a crown of thorns, a punishment to be inflicted over bowls of guksu jangguk where once it was a soothing boon after a long week of yelling at my basset hound.

So I can read with equanimity the “Soapbox” feature at the back of the latest Publishers Weekly in which freelance writer and former bookstore manager Barbara Bloom writes, “Except for magazines and newspapers, I can’t think of another industry that prints prices on it’s products …”

And, turning to the Fiction reviews, I can remain calm when I see that Alice Randall’s execrable Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel received not only praise but a starred review.

And I can keep from flinching all during James B. Stewart’s long and well-written piece in the New Yorker in which he talks about the worst of New York’s super-rich and how assiduously they work to avoid paying anything like their fare share of city income tax – and in which he casts the worst of the bunch as the piece’s hero.

And because the Penny Press has become this painful bed of Procrustes, I can even suppress my age-old reflex to look upon the Atlantic as a refuge. True, it’s the home of Benjamin Schwarz, one of the country’s greatest book-critics, but just look at the rest of the magazine: hideous, artless cover (no offense to Ben Bernanke, who actually has a pleasant face!), opening blizzard of one-page semi-vacuous little quasi-pieces on headline-y subjects, the increasing identification as a Beltway publication largely unconcerned with the mind or heart of the culture … in every way, writers of gorgeous prose and deep thought – writers like Schwarz – are more and more isolated oddities, holdouts against such a tide.

Still, despite my sang-froid, I must have had some small tender spots left, and it was the Atlantic that found one of them.

I was reading James Parker’s short piece on George R. R. Martin’s ongoing epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones), and yes, I was irritated. How could I not be, when Parker was using the same stupid gimmick that irritated me so much when Roger Kimball did it a little while ago in The Weekly Standard? The stupid gimmick of fake-distancing yourself from your subject so that you can cause your audience to gasp all the more breathlessly when you then swoop in and reveal your knowledge – “Wow!” we’re supposed to react, “He said he didn’t really care about the subject, and yet, he seems to know everything about it! How formidable must he be when he does care!” It’s a disgusting ploy, something that should embarrass anybody older than fifteen, but there Parker is, wheezing away at it:

Historical fantasy, as a genre, is not my cup of tea. The books are too long. The names are too silly. An there’s that stony-faced proclamatory style – as if irony were a late-20th-century novelty, like the digital watch.

Nevermind that the Martin books aren’t “historical fantasy” – even allowing for that, the reaction some readers might have, “well, if this kind of writing isn’t your cup of tea, you’re probably not qualified to assess it,” is meant to be squelched in the very next line, when Parker insufferably starts dropping names – Tolkien and Mervyn Peake within three lines of each other, with Cretien de Troyes and T. S. Eliot thrown in for good measure. The whole message of the idiotic gambit – “well, this whole genre is really beneath my notice, but if I choose to bestow my notice, hooo boy! Will you sure be impressed!” – is completely antithetical not only to reading but to criticism; it’s a juvenile attempt to keep the spotlight squarely on the writer, not on his subject. But even so, having been recently inoculated as it were, I might have overlooked it – especially if Parker actually managed to say some interesting things about this oft-chronicled subject.

Then I hit the wall:

In the ninth episode [of the first HBO season], the character we had presumed to be the hero of the epic – Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark, strong, upright, and focally placed within the story (also: played by Sean Bean) – got his head chopped off. What the fuck?

That last line isn’t mine – it’s Parker’s, appearing in the pages of the Atlantic, which was founded in Boston in 1857 and has been edited by, among others, Jim Fields, William Dean Howells, the great Bliss Perry, and the epoch-defining Bill Whitworth. I read, as part of an author’s commissioned and considered thoughts on HBO’s critically acclaimed Game of Thrones adaptation, What the fuck? – and I read it not only because Parker was too lazy to realize he wasn’t writing an email to a friend but also because the Atlantic‘s editors saw no problem with leaving it in.

So something small and remarkable is now going to happen: I’m going to let my subscription to the Atlantic run out. Political savant and perpetual literary dilettante William F. Buckley always used to quip that you could never tell what would be the last straw for a magazine’s long-time reader (and it’s safe to say the Atlantic has no longer-term readers than I) – but you could rest assured it would be something “very small and perhaps inconsequential.”

In my case, after a very, very long time reading the Atlantic, it was three little words. Later in the week, I’ll go by Mount Auburn Cemetery and apologize to Fields.

March 11th, 2012

Six for the Wolfman!

The arrival in bookstores of Anne Rice’s latest novel The Wolf Gift has got precisely nobody talking about werewolves, and it’s not the first time this water-cooler chit-chat has failed to happen: the hyper pop-craze for vampires was supposed to morph naturally into a similar craze for werewolves, after all, a process helped out by the fact that in the Twilight movies, the only character more emo-friendly than the five-foot-tall vampire was the five-foot-tall werewolf. Hundreds of sexually thwarted suburban housewives may tipsily align themselves with ‘Team Jacob’ during their weekly brunches, but those teams have steadfastly refused to go national, and now the whole craze has simply moved on – to zombies, of all un-things. The werewolf character in both the UK and the American versions of the TV show Being Human is an ineffectual pile of neuroses; the vampires in the Underworld movies slap the werewolves around like they were Girl Scouts at a biker convention; one of the young stars of the TV series adaptation of the Teen Wolf movies had to take legal action to stop people from calling him gay; the single worst movie Anthony Hopkins has ever been in (and one of the worst movies ever made) was a remake of The Wolf Man so awful it was practically surreal – and the original was more notable for Lon Chaney’s pronounced sweating than anything supernatural (or rather anything more supernatural). It seems like werewolves are fated never to have their day in the sun.

The key to that success, the silver bullet, is some kind of pop culture phenomenon – a hit series of books, for instance, like Rice’s own “Vampire Chronicles” that kicked off the whole modern idea of vampires as cool, sexy, gay protagonists in their own stories. And lord knows, there have been many, many attempts by writers through the years to create that pop culture phenomenon, never with a single lick of success. A big part of the problem was the fact that most of these authors had lit-rary aspirations, which first off required that they not believe in the very creatures they were professing to write about. Take Leslie H. Whitten’s 1967 novel Moon of the Wolf, as one sorry example. The aforementioned aspirations are announced with a epigraph from Beaudelaire (translated by the author, no less), and the story – set in the small town of Stanley in rural Mississippi – makes its own lack of faith perfectly clear:

“There are a few other things. Weesee, when she used that word, loup-garou, was right, at least in a sense. The word means werewolf.”

Whitake protested with a gasp of astonishment.

“They don’t exist,” he said sharply, jolted by a memory of old movies.

The doctor replied quickly:

“No, of course not. Not that way, not like some monster, a vampire or such.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

The doctor spoke softly, unwilling to stop until he had talked out the whole scope of the problem.

“It is a type of encephalitis. Uncommon, but there, as solidly classified in medical literature as measles. Late effects of acute infectious encephalitis, lycanthropy, to be exact. Once it was called a form of monomania. Morbus lupinus is another name.”

In any self-respecting vampire novel, the minute some stuff-shirt scientist starts talking about encephalitis, that’s exactly when an honest-to-gosh vampire would lunge into view right behind the poindexter and suck on him like a Crazy-Straw; there’s actually a scene in Rice’s novel The Vampire Lestat where the eponymous rock-star (Sting-inspired) vampire scoffs at the very idea that one day science might try to reduce him to a virus. But in 1967, werewolves didn’t exist – of course not – and the poor sots suspected of doing the ripping and tearing weren’t much more than rabid dogs.

A decade later, in 1978, Whitley Streiber’s novel Wolfen took another tack: what if there were a species of actual animal in the world, a sentient race of wolf-like beings who lived in the derelict spaces inside mankind’s big cities and preyed on the weak and feeble homeless outcasts who wandered mankind’s concrete canyons? Wolfen is a much better-written book than Moon of the Wolf (despite the few rather desperate attempts made in Whitten’s own lifetime to liken him to Faulkner), and it shares some of the same lit-rary aspirations (its epigraph is from Shakespeare), and it was made into a surprisingly watchable movie starring a visibly stewed Albert Finney, but honestly, who wants to read about werewolves as just another species for Animal Planet to tag and catalogue:

Both the detectives stared at him in amazement. Their lives and habits of thought emphasized the danger of the quest, not its beauty. Ferguson’s words made them realize that there was beauty there too. The presence of the werewolf, once proven, would completely change the life of man. Of course there would be panic and terror – but there would also be the new challenge. Man the hunted – and his hunter, so skilled, so perfectly equipped that he seemed almost supernatural. Man had always confronted nature by beating it own. This was going to require something new – the werewolf would have to be accepted. He wasn’t likely to submit to a beating.

At least Strieber had the courage to set his story in Manhattan and populate it with cops; far more common is the gambit of having werewolf stories take place where real wolves might be found – far from cities and civilization. Vampires get to look elegant in all the world’s capitals, and zombies show up all over the damn place, but time and again, werewolves get shunted up into the boonies where, presumably, they get to mix and mingle with other second-rate monsters, maybe go on hay-rack rides with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Such is the case in Edward Levy’s 1981 novel The Beast Within, set, naturally, in the Ozarks and featuring that worst of all possible werewolf cop-outs, the metaphor. The book’s title alone should have been a dead give-away that the author was going to go all Freudian on us, and sure enough:

The smile disappeared from Eddie’s face when he saw Michael’s eyes again. They seemed drastically different, wide with the unfeeling savagery of a jungle animal. As he watched, the face before him grew taut and hard, exposing slightly parted teeth, dripping with saliva. Now it was his turn to take a step backward as an unreasoning fear gripped him.

With a low, guttural howl, the beast sprang …

Except it isn’t a beast in that scene, it’s just some beastly guy – once again, it’s the author of a werewolf novel balking at the idea of actually believing in werewolves. Can you even remember the last time you read a vampire novel in which, at the end, it turns out the main-character vampire is actually just some normal schmoe with delusions? Me neither.

Fortunately, the late 20th Century’s growing addiction to special effects (in its movies, and hence, in its books) slowly weeded out these craven little manuscripts about the beast within us all in favor of shirt-ripping, face-stretching, hair-sprouting supernatural transformations. J. C. Conaway’s 1982 novel Quarrel with the Moon, for example, still clings to the backwoods setting (this one takes place in the Appalachians of West Virginia where, cannily, a werewolf would be difficult to spot amongst the general population), importing the requisite element of big-city skepticism in the persons of New York hotshot Josh Holman and his girlfriend, hee, Cresta Farraday. Josh, it turns out, has a rueful homecoming in more ways than one:


“Changin’ into his beast form. Half-man, half-wolf. It was a terrible sight. My blood runs cold just to tell of it. He started to come up on the porch, but I was prepared for him. I had a shotgun, an’ I shot him an’ I killed him. I carried his body to the Lookout an’ dropped it off the bridge. It fell into the stream an’ was carried down the river.”

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Josh. “Then the skull, the bones were …”

“Kalem Balock.”

“My father.”

“Even in death, Kalem reaches out to curse us all.”

“You believe Kalem Balock was a … a werewolf?”

Avarilla nodded.

“How could such a thing happen? How did he get that way?”

“I don’t know, Joshua. I can’t even imagine.”

That’s another little tic (sorry, couldn’t resist) tending to obsess werewolf novels: etiology. Writers waste lots of perfectly good dismembering time trying to put the ‘where’ in werewolves, as if in a crazed quest for legitimacy (one werewolf novel, also in the go-getting 1980s, revealed that all werewolves descended from Pontius Pilate, cursed to beasthood; another derived everything from some Crucifixion-watching Roman centurion – and so on). One such ancient curse is in full swing in Jack Woods’ 1988 novel Wolffile, set, sigh, on a remote island off the coast of northern Maine, but no ancient curse is going to stop our author from more of that windy philosophizin’ that’s the bite of death for werewolf novels:

Perhaps this was the ultimate twist in the wolf’s curse – the only misery worthy of his corrupted nature  was the one thing he could not wish for, the curse itself. He was immune to all else, to all external and internal punishment; only the curse could bring him the horror and torture he longed for and so richly deserved. And so, with this evil irony, the curse of the werewolf even perpetuates itself in the pitiful efforts of the poor, infected wretches to atone for their sins. The only way to excoriate themselves is to commit further atrocities, thus sinking deeper into their own degradation.

“Poor infected wretches” – I’m hooked, how about you? This is the crux of the loup-garou problem, in a nutshell: what the academic wonks call ‘agency.’ Unlike vampires, werewolves are helpless, clueless, brainless victims of something that happens to them every full moon. They can only be heroes through abstinence and forbearance – reading these books is like watching an endless stream of Ronald Reagan movies. Even when these lycanthropes terrify the locals – as they do Sherrif Arlin Hurley and his coroner buddy in Ray Garton’s 2008 novel Ravenous (set, say it with me now, in the small California town of Big Rock) – they still manage to be pathetic figures, caught mid-species and blobby when they fetch up on the coroner’s table:

“God, Arlin, look at her! She’s half .. something else. Her knees, Arlin – they bend the – are you looking at them? They bend the wrong fucking way! And those aren’t human feet – those are the feet of an animal! A dog, or a, a wolf, or something. And her teeth – look at her teeth, for God’s sake! I don’t like cutting something open unless I know what it is, so that’s why I called you up here, Sheriff, because I want to know what the hell this is!”

Hurley looked across the table at George. The man’s face was pale and intense. Unspilled tears glistened in his eyes and his lips trembled ever so slightly.

“This thing isn’t human,” George whispered. “It’s not … right. What does it look like to you, Sheriff? Huh? Because it looks a hell of a lot to me like this woman was in the process of …” He merely breathed the rest of his words: “… of becoming something else when she died.”

… werewolves.

Yes indeed, werewolves – ravenous, mindless, disorganized, easily-defeated werewolves! It’s enough to give just about any reader distemper.

So let’s give Anne Rice credit where it’s due: she doesn’t waste much time with all this ‘poor, pitiful, infected creatures’ nonsense in The Wolf Gift, and she certainly doesn’t chalk the whole thing up to unresolved Oedipal issues. No, the only problem her book has is that it’s boring; it reads like somebody doing a wan parody of Anne Rice. The hope that it might do for werewolves what Interview with the Vampire and especially The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned did for vampires is dashed after only about 100 pages, and the rest of the novel feels as routine as a vet visit. The werewolf – an active part of human psychological mythology for a hell of a lot longer than the vampire (or of course the zombie) – must still wait for his epic, the book that finally gets everybody talking.

March 7th, 2012

30-Second Book Review: Sister Queens


Things I learned from reading Sister Queens by Julia Fox (Ballantine Books, 2012):

1.  It’s not about New York City drag queens.  In fact, it’s a lovingly told biography of Katherine of Aragon (aka Mrs. Henry VIII, part 1) and her sister, Queen Juana of Spain (aka Juana la Loca.)

2. Back in the 1500’s a library of 100 books was considered to be extensive.  Today, as I survey my shelves, I realize that I must have 100 books on New York City drag queens alone.

3.  Men have not changed one bit in the last 500 years – except maybe in New York City.

 – Deb Irish

March 7th, 2012

Badly Infected in the Penny Press!

My last few scrapes with the Penny Press left me thinking things might not be able to get any worse, but I was wrong: things hit rock bottom when I read this sentence in a review by Guy Dammann in the 2 March TLS: “In Don Giovanni, the general consensus was that the opera ended – as it is thought to have done in the revised Vienna version – with the hero’s descent into the flames.” That such an abomination could happen at all is bad enough – that it could happen in the TLS is surely a sign of the End of Times.

So I resigned myself to my new reality, in which my beloved Penny Press, the boon and solace of my idle hours, had now become a garden of weeds, a briar-patch of bitter disappointment. And yet, even so, an article in the latest New Yorker so thoroughly appalled me that half-way through it I was just angrily reading, my bacalhau with piri piri quite forgotten.

The article is by Michael Specter, and it’s about H5N1, otherwise known as “bird flu” – but it’s not about the bird flu that made the news back in 2003 by killing nearly sixty percent of the 587 reported infected people (previous estimated kill-ratios for pandemic viruses peaked at around two or three percent) before it was contained. No, that bird flu just wasn’t bad enough, and Specter’s article is about Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam … Fouchier, and his dream of making H5N1 even worse. Specter sums things up succinctly:

To ignite a pandemic, even them most lethal virus would need to meet three conditions: it would have to be one that humans hadn’t confronted before, so that they lacked antibodies; it would have to kill them; and it would have to spread easily – through a cough, for instance, or a handshake. Bird flu meets the first two criteria but not the third.

Fouchier, in his lab in Rotterdam, tried to achieve that third criteria, but the virus wouldn’t cooperate. He and his colleagues “mutated the hell out of it,” but H5N1 stubbornly remained hard to catch. Finally, according to Specter, “he spread the virus the old-fashioned way, by squirting the mutated H5N1 into the nose of a ferret and then implanting nasal fluid from that ferret into the nose of another. After ten such manipulations, the virus began to spread around the ferret cages in his lab.”

In case you didn’t catch that, notice: after ten tries in which the deadly virus he was dealing with refused to become even deadlier, Fouchier at last achieved his goal of creating a version of bird flu that passed easily from one host to another – the first two times it failed to do that, the first four, the first eight times, another man might have stopped, might even have said, “Good God, what am I doing?” – but Fouchier kept going, and eventually his ferrets started being really miserable:

When Fouchier examined the flu cells, he became alarmed. There were only five genetic changes in two of the viruses’ eight genes. But each mutation had already been found circulating naturally in influenza viruses. Fouchier’s achievement was to place all five mutations together in one virus, which meant that nature could do precisely what he had done in the lab.

Except that in uncounted thousands or millions of years, nature hadn’t done that. One man did that, apparently for shits and giggles. And then once he’d done it, he refused to undo it – so that mutated H5N1 virus, an unbeatable mutated bird flu that kills sixty percent of its hosts and can be communicated through aspiration, still sits in a storage lab in Rotterdam. As one scientist Specter interviewed put it:

We have no room to be wrong about this. None. We can be wrong about other things. If smallpox got out, it would be unfortunate, but it has a fourteen-day incubation period, it’s easy to recognize, and we would stop it. Much the same is true with SARS. But with flu you are infectious before you even know you are sick. And when it gets out it is gone. Those researchers have all our lives at the end of their fingers.

And this is true for ‘those researchers’ entirely because of Fouchier, who decided to create this mutated virus but is grousing about it when Specter interviews him. “People are acting like I am some mad scientist,” he says, and who knows if Specter wasn’t at that moment thinking the obvious: you’re an accredited scientist who did something palpably, dangerously insane – in purely technical terms, you are a mad scientist. In any case, it’s frightfully clear from the article that Fouchier is a walking, talking disassociative episode, utterly incapable of connecting himself to, well, evil. “There has been a lot of speculation that this virus cannot be transmitted easily or through the air,” he says at one point. “That speculation has been wrong.” No, that speculation was entirely right until you tried eleven times to MAKE the virus easily transmittable. You want to say. Or words to that effect.

Specter’s article conveys a disturbing naivete in the scientific community (a naivete I’m assuming Specter doesn’t share – he’s just being a good reporter) about the worst possible outcome of what Fouchier has done – terrorism. Specter mentions at one point that most of Fouchier’s colleagues discount the possibility because “flu is so hard to control.” One scientist says, “Nobody’s going to make this in his garage. There are so many better ways to create terror.” You almost want to throttle him – it’s such quintessentially stupid scientific thinking: X wouldn’t be efficient, so nobody would do X. As if the most efficient way to knock down two skyscrapers was to hijack two commercial airliners, fly them hundreds of miles, and slam them into the buildings hoping for a nice solid hit. The terror threat here (aside from Fouchier’s ludicrous comment that “this institution has paid millions of dollars to insure that this research was carried out in the safest possible manner” – translation: some samples are already missing) comes specifically from the disposition of so many terrorists not to care about controlling the damage they do – or suffering from that damage themselves. A lunatic infecting himself with this mutated bird flu and then zealously meeting as many people as he can in, say, downtown Mumbai or London or New York – a lunatic like that isn’t hard to imagine. Unless, apparently, you’re a scientist.

And that’s where the Penny Press has driven things: sitting there staring at this article, feeling more certain than ever before that the end of mankind is nigh, and that arrogant little men in lab coats are the ones who’ll bring it about. As part of this doomsday scenario – and as an attempted defense against this rock-bottoming of the Penny Press, I’m contemplating a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which is light and bouncy – or at least that’s the general consensus.

March 5th, 2012

Ink Chorus: Samuel Johnson!

Despite his meteoric fame, the taxonomy of the contemporary literary critic didn’t harden around John Dryden, even though he earned his living with his pen. He was friends with the great of the land, he was married into the upper reaches of society, and he was fond of the galas and receptions of the theater world that lay at his feet. When it came to book-reviewing, he had, as it were, other fish to fry.

Not for Dryden the whiff of flop-sweat, nor the panic of the bailiff, nor the cold-water jars of the debt-house. Not for that elegant prince of poets the nagging expectation of failure. The lambent activity of the critical mind is there, but most of the living stereotypes haven’t assembled yet. In the public eye, that happened first and most explosively in the person of Samuel Johnson, who set the mold of ‘the literary life’ in the 18th century for both good and ill. In his untucked shirts, wine-stained waistcoats, outstanding debts, and sheer hack-work speed, Samuel Johnson could walk into any newsroom today and feel right at home.

In 1737, Johnson brought his mousey wife (another prerequisite?) to London and almost immediately fell into harness at The Gentleman’s Magazine, where his editor quickly grew accustomed to the range, readability, and sheer speed of Johnson’s work. He did everything for the magazine, from editing and proofing to an absolutely prodigious amount of writing (sometimes even using pen-names! O tempora! O mores!). It gave him a financial competency that was uneven but moderately comfortable, and it allowed him to meet many of the city’s leading publishers and book-agents. It was through the agency of such men that he was later commissioned to create his famous dictionary of the English language, a gigantic work that took him almost a decade and stands today as one of the most enjoyably readable single-author reference works ever created. But that creation wasn’t enough for Johnson (and it paid horribly), and there flowed from him during those years a steady stream of essays and literary commentaries of pretty much exactly the type we expect from our professional literary men and women today.

The dictionary was eventually completed, and other big, newsworthy projects (most famously a glorious annotated edition of Shakespeare that, like the dictionary, reads wonderfully as an independent aesthetic universe and ought to be better known to the common reader today) were undertaken, but the whole time there was also a steadily-maintained outpouring of paid book-chatter. Toward the end of his life, the two combined in his greatest critical achievement, the Lives of the English Poets, first published in 1781. Johnson once said, “You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.” The trade he clearly had in mind here he virtually had to create himself – the trade of book-critic and the vocabulary of book-and-author criticism, the commercial variety of that endeavor, where the reviewer’s personality and individual learning counted for at least as much as the actual thing being reviewed. Scarcely has this uneasy proportion ever been more in evidence than in The Lives of the English Poets: the book is an astonishing, endlessly quotable treat from start to finish, yet two-thirds of the poets memorialized in its pages are known now only to the most specialized of scholars.

What’s really on display here is Johnson himself, freely mixing the personal and the professional – so certain that they inform and reinforce each other that he’s prepared to convince his readers likewise. A lifetime of experience goes into most of these profiles, often including sad or melancholy experiences, as in his comments on the fact that the famous literary team of Addison and Steele eventually broke up:

Every reader must surely regret that these two illustrious friends, after so many years passed in confidence and endearment, in unity of interest, conformity of opinion, and fellowship of study should finally part in acrimonious opposition. Such a controversy was “bellum plusquam CIVILE,” as Lucan expresses it. Why could not faction find other advocates? But among the uncertainties of the human state, we are doomed to number the instability of friendship.

Likewise the famous Johnsonian humor, always most pronounced when most provocative, as in this delightful aside on the pastoral poetry of John Gay:

There is something in the poetical Arcadia so remote from known reality and speculative possibility, that we can never support its representation through a long work. A pastoral of a hundred lines may be endured; but who will hear of sheep and goats, of myrtle bowers, and purling rivulets, through five acts? Such scenes please barbarians in the dawn of literature, and children in the dawn of life; but will be, for the most part, thrown away, as men grow wise, and nations grow learned.

And then as now, no critic would be suffered to get away with such windmill-tilting if he couldn’t also simply deliver – deliver the jabs and feints of genuine literary engagement, and deliver also the clinching apercu, the signature at the bottom of the artwork. We think no more of these things today than we do the keyboard that conveys them, but it was Johnson who created the idiom:

His characters are often selected with discernment, and drawn with nicety; his illustrations are often happy, and his reflections often just. His species of satire is between those of Horace and Juvenal; and he has the gaiety of Horace without his laxity of numbers, and the morality of Juvenal, with greater variation of images. He plays, indeed, only on the surface of life; he never penetrates the recesses of the mind, and, therefore, the whole power of his poetry is exhausted by a single perusal; his conceits please only when they surprise.

Perhaps Dryden and Johnson between them set that dialectic going, the two essential types of book critics: the purebreds and the mongrels. Either way, the profession of letters as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist with this enormous pockmarked failed teacher from Lichfield, who looked to his freelance accounts, hawked his wares everywhere, and grappled with literature on an entirely, beguilingly personal basis. We can only echo his own words: “Well done, sir, exceedingly well done.”





March 2nd, 2012

More agita in the Penny Press!

I fully expected to go back to happily making Stevereads entries about William Ellery Channing and Ellen Sturgis Hooper, to wile away my next 1000 entries writing about dogs, Kennedys, and Taylor Lautner, but then the cover of the latest Weekly Standard caught my eye. It’s a classic Thomas Fluharty masterpiece, showing a team of workers trying to scrub down and decontaminate a Lincoln Memorialesque statue of President Clinton, and as usual, it repays close study (my favorite detail is the guy swabbing Clinton’s ear). And once hooked, I was naturally curious about the accompanying Andrew Ferguson article, “The Big Creep,” reminding readers that there was once a time when Bill Clinton wasn’t quite the beatific elder statesman he seems today. That would have been enough to make me buy the issue (one doesn’t subscribe to The Weekly Standard – that’s what Hell is for, after all), but there’s also the fact that I’ve sometimes found good book reviews in the back pages of the magazine, and I’m willing to go pretty much anywhere for good book reviews.

If only I’d refrained! If only I’d read the Clinton article (fun stuff though incomplete-feeling, Ferguson’s B-game) and then donated the issue to the nearest right-wing nutjob! But no – I was enticed by the lead-article in the book review section, something called “The Great American Novel – Will There Ever Be Another?” by Roger Kimball, the current editor and publisher of the New Criterion. Articles with titles like that invariably entice me even though I ought to know better, so I started reading.

The thing starts this way:

A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric “ephemera,” and often pretty nasty ephemera at that.

I should have stopped right there, obviously. When Kimball says he doesn’t want to give lectures about the American novel today because he doesn’t read the American novel today, you can just hear the walrus clearing his throat for a full barrage of blimpisms – he isn’t confessing his ignorance of the subject as a preface to bowing out or (Heaven forfend) learning anything, oh no: he’s saying he reads as few contemporary novels as possible as a wink to his fellow blimps in the audience – I steer clear of THAT crowd!

He goes on:

I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days.

Obviously he doesn’t propose to do that, we might respond, since he’s already admitted he doesn’t know anything about American fiction these days, although these blimpisms are certainly starting to give the impression he doesn’t expect us to believe him, aren’t they? And it just gets worse:

We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat.

To put it mildly, I know the feeling. This is a pretty exact enactment of the kind of bloated, self-satisfied, reactionary bloviating that very likely infuriated the college-age Kimball. That young man, trudging across some high-priced campus, head crammed with eager reading, probably would have said, “God, save me from ever being the kind of clueless, stuffed-shirt windbag who thinks it’s impressive to talk about dismissing a novel after glancing at its first two sentences! Anything but that!” And that younger Kimball would have been entirely correct: anybody who’s comfortable windifying about bijoux so blithely has left the path of righteousness. He’s become a bourse-hole.

No one, I submit, would pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

But you’ve already admitted you don’t read what the fiction industry offers today … that opening blimpism isn’t going anywhere, and since it invalidates anything that could appear in the rest of the essay, it would be entirely fair – snotty, but fair – to simply keep repeating it after every subsequent jowly pronouncement about Matthew Arnold or Samuel Johnson or Henry James. All three of those make their ritual appearances complete with hatcheted quotes wiki-plucked out of context:

Matthew Arnold once described literature as “a criticism of life.” He looked to literature, to culture generally, to provide the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages. And to a large extent, culture proved itself up to the task. Horace once said that the aim of poetry was to delight and instruct. For much of its history, literature has been content to stress the element of delight; to provide what Henry James, in an essay on the future of the novel, described as “the great anodyne.” If a tale could beguile an idle hour, that was enough.

It should almost go without saying that nothing – and I mean nothing at all – in that paragraph is right. The quote-fragments, the silly attributions (“Horace once said,” like Kimball is remembering his Delmonico’s table talk), the shallowing of deep thoughts, the sloppy equating of “literature” with, by the look of things, “French bedroom novels,” the idiotic reduction of a big, bristling literary tradition to “tales” that could beguile an idle hour, etc. – all of this is just the worst kind of brainless stump-speech generalizing, along the lines of the junk-bond candidate who opens his remarks with something dumb and crowd-pleasing like “in olden times, people knew what was right.” It is, in a word, nonsense – so I really should have stopped reading. But the roadside skidding kept happening:

The Yale literary critic Geoffrey Hartman once wrote a book called The Fate of Reading; It is not, in my judgment, a very good book, but it would have been if Professor Hartman got around to addressing the subject announced in his provocative title.

Except that The Fate of Reading is a collection of essays, not one an organic book, and Professor Hartman does ‘get around’ to addressing the subject of his title, in the essay by that title. Nausea must have set in before Kimball could notice that. Certainly the dire state of kids these days would keep his brow nice and sweaty:

The problem with computers is not the worlds they give us instant access to but the world they encourage us to neglect. Everyone knows about the studies showing the bad effects on children and teenagers of too much time in cyberspace (or in front of the television set). It cuts them off from their family and friends, fosters asocial behavior, disrupts their ability to concentrate, and makes it harder for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Again, no, not hardly, nothing, nothing at all. The ‘studies’ that ‘everyone knows’ about aren’t cited here, of course (no doubt they were conducted in olden times!), but Kimball’s claims about them are just more liberal-baiting nonsense. Kids these days have never been more in touch with their friends and family, and their knowledge of reality eclipses that of any other generation the world has ever seen. Gassy lines like the ones in that quote not only strongly suggest that Kimball doesn’t know any actual children or teenagers but that he might go days or even weeks without consulting the opinions of anybody in the world beside himself.

His point, once you wade through all the nonsense and blimpish garbage, is that modern society just doesn’t care about novels as seriously as earlier ages did, and that has abetted their degeneration. Time has worked against the genre:

It has often been observed that the novel is the bourgeois art form per excellence: that in its primary focus on domestic manners and morals, its anatomy of private vices and exercise of private virtues, it answered the spiritual needs of a specific historical epoch.

With the passing or maturation of that epoch, perhaps the novel, too, has matured or even graduated to the second infancy or senility …

I trust by now you all already know: yep, nonsense. Utter nonsense. What the hell ‘historical epoch’ covers the roughly 350 years since the ‘modern’ English novel was developed? Or is Kimball perhaps talking about the ‘historical epoch’ encompasses the thousand years since Tale of Genji hit the Barnes & Noble front tables? This is the kind of crappy from-the-hip junk-writing that would get torpedoed in any self-respecting high school English class in the country (to say nothing of the red, pulpy mass it would be after a good thorough Open Letters editorial car-wash).

And of course the most troubling thing about the whole piece isn’t the bumbling blimpisms of one writer who’s a trifle too proud of his provincialism – the most troubling thing is that The Weekly Standard would print such a waffly jeremiad, a wandering elderly rant taking ill-conceived pot-shots at a genre that can use as many fans as it can get. Kimball is (accidentally, no doubt) right about one implication: high book costs, lowering literacy standards, and increased entertainment distractions have all taken a toll on the number of readers who’ll try contemporary novels (although Kimball is dead wrong in his implication that before the Internet and evil old TV people were free of such distractions and therefore happily readingthere’s always been beer, and sex, and beer-sodden sex). What he’s wrong about he’s very, very wrong about, and starts out wrong right at the beginning, with the invocation of that tired old concept, ‘the great American novel.’ Only people who never actually read fiction ever use that trite old tag – everybody else knows that there are lots of great American novels … a new one comes out virtually every year, and although none of them is ever by Philip Roth, all of them speak to the ‘manners and morals’ of their day, in ways that are every bit as important and challenging as the ways Crime and Punishment (that idle hour laff-riot) or Moll Flanders spoke to theirs.

Kimball should load up on his ativan and actually venture beyond the first two sentences of some of those novels he gets for free, but he’d need an open mind for that – and judging by this wretched essay, I’m not sure he has one. If his blimpish negligence ever gives him qualms, I’m happy to make recommendations.

And in the meantime, how nice it would be to turn to something that didn’t give me agita! A nice Vanity Fair retrospective on Ronnie & Nancy Reagan, for instance, or a luscious Helen Vendler essay on George Herbert in the TLS, or perhaps the informative and always-soothing samplings of Birdwatcher’s Digest, where our feathered friends are never bloatishly compared to birds of olden times, and where no fathead authors claim that ‘everyone knows’ today’s birds are asocial loners with no culture. And the nests these birds are building these days! My upper lip is moist already!