Posts from May 2012

May 31st, 2012

Predictable Trials in the Penny Press!

It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.

Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:

At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.

But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.

I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.

So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:

Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.

Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.

Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”

So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.

The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.

That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genrescan inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).

And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?

That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.

And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …

May 28th, 2012

Six for the Patient!

The stereotypical hopeful-optimistic comment is that we live in an age of marvels. Metal tablets that can play Mozart and show you a real-time picture of the street, the very house, where you were born; instruments the size of playing cards that can hold every song ever written; cell phones that can contain more information than was ever stored in the Library of Alexandria. The osmosis of these marvels is so fast it’s almost frightening – a 5-year-old presented with an iPad will figure it out five times as fast as will a 30-year-old with a PhD – and their prevalence equally so: people don’t just read the news – they go to YouTube to see it, happening in real time. The same commentators who call all this an age of marvels also necessarily praise the key that unlocks that age: the explosive increase in the average person’s ability to ‘multi-task.’ Even as recently as twenty years ago, the accepted wisdom of all societies was that if you tried to do two things at the same time, you’d end up half-doing both of them poorly. “One thing at a time” used to be a proverbial admonition, whereas today it’s more likely to mark a person as mentally handicapped – it would be tantamount to admitting an almost embarrassing mental deficiency.

In fact, the ability to pay attention has indeed degraded drastically in the last twenty-five years or so, but not because of the rise of some silent-but-deadly medical condition. The ability to pay attention – to concentrate on doing one thing for an hour or more – is a muscle: the vast majority of humans need to exercise it steadily in order to work it into sufficient shape to get anything real accomplished beyond fits-and-spurts. But the process of that steady exercise is deeply unpleasant at first, and in the last few decades the United States has seen the rise of an entire demographic that brusquely, arrogantly demands that nothing at all, nothing in the entire course of life, be deeply unpleasant (the corresponding point that this makes that demographic deeply unpleasant need hardly be made). So if little Jennifer (male) or Chuck (female) have the slightest bit of trouble bearing down on a long book-chapter or a tedious math problem, they must have a disorder, and their psychiatrist must be brow-beaten into prescribing a sedative, which the children themselves must never stop taking.

One result of this has been a bumper-crop of young people in their late teens and early twenties who have the mental concentration level of five-year-olds. They can’t make elaborate points, for they can’t reason in any prolonged, deliberate sense; they can’t converse intelligently for more than a few seconds at a time, for they lack the concentration necessary to see the conversation’s longer rhythms; they can’t introspect in any way, for any kind of distraction consumes them completely. So: no quiet afternoons in museums, no classical symphonies, no learning foreign languages, no chess, no novel-writing, no carefully considered opinions, no investment in anything. For thousands and thousands of young people, then, a life almost entirely consisting of video games, ATMs, and TV.

Also on the list of unavailable things? Nice long books (adult books, of course – I’m not talking about the almost stutteringly simple the children’s books that have, tellingly, become adult bestsellers in recent years). Bookish grown-ups might still enjoy long works like And Members of the Club or Pillars of the Earth, but twenty-somethings not only don’t read them but can’t – they lack the powers of concentration necessary to pay attention over the course of so many pages, and the tiny, five-year-old bursts of concentration they can muster aren’t nearly enough – it would take them two years to read a thousand-page book, and they know it, so they don’t even think about attempting it. Isolated bookworms and demographic momentum keep those books coming (some very big ones made my ‘Best Of’ list last year, for instance), but in thirty years they’ll be as dead as the dodo. The iPhone generation won’t even recognize what they are.

And of course that’s a shame. As I can attest more passionately even than most readers, there’s a peculiar magic that happens over the course of a long book that simply doesn’t happen at shorter lengths – there’s an extra dimension of commonality with the author, the palpable sense of living through this long work with its creator. And if that creator is talented (if, in other words, the long book in question isn’t Under the Dome), they’ll make conscious use of that sense.

Long books are a special, rarefied sub-division of the book world. That world is generally the most democratic and inviting: anybody who knows how to read can enter it and start having fun. No matter how weak a reader you are, there are countless books written to please you. But then there’s that sub-division, that K2 peak that requires not only the best guides and equipment but also careful acclimitization in stages. Even tried and tested book-readers don’t always feel natural in those rarefied precincts, but at least they have the basic equipment. Young people who’ve been medicated out of their ability to concentrate have no chance at all of scaling these heights, and that’s depressing. Some of literature’s most sublime pleasures are only available well above the tree-line. These six, for instance:

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu – this magnificent Japanese epic from over a thousand years ago is one of the first true novels – and one of the longest. It recounts the adventures and loves of its handsome, shining prince, Genji, and the parallel adventures of the court all around him. Lady Murasaki wrote at the height of the Heian period’s literary refinement, and one of the most enjoyable elements of her book is the uncanny way she uses the very length of her text to simulate the passage of time. Naturally, nowhere is this more true than in the book’s final chapter, Ukifune (The Bridge of Dreams” chapter from Arthur Waley’s 1921-1933 translation, available as a pleasingly plump paperback from Tuttle). In it, two handsome young men – Kaoru and Niou – are vying for the affections of the pretty but feckless Ukifune (we never learn her real name, but the nickname, signifying a boat drifting on the current, suits her just fine), sighing and skulking in a way Genji readers will find very familiar:

He felt his way round to the front of the building. Even here there did not seem to be a soul astir. But at one of the windows he presently noticed a very dim light and could hear a faint hum of whispered conversation. “They don’t seem to have gone to bed yet,” he reported to Niou. “You’d better get through the hedge where I did,” and he led Niou to the lighted window. The shutters were fastened, and the light that Michisada had observed came through a fault in the wood. Niou raised himself gently onto a ledge and got as close as possible to the hole. A bamboo blind rustled as he did so, and startled him so much that he nearly lost his hold.

That last little detail – a nervous young man being startled by nothing, you can easily picture it in your mind – is priceless, as is the sad put palpable sense in “Ukifune” that the story of Genji really is ongoing, that the older generation whose lives and loves we’ve followed for a thousand pages have begun to yield to a new generation – but that the lives and loves go on. The fact that Tale of Genji doesn’t end so much as simply stop is will prompt a sad smile from readers who’ve persevered this long: they’ll realize they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton – This bottomless compendium of human vice, folly, and madness was first published in 1621 and despite being some 500 close-packed pages, it became¬† vigorous seller in Burton’s day, sent back to the publisher for reprinting five times in its author’s lifetime. In these pages, Burton seeks nothing less than to create a bestiary of the human heart, and readers who can’t concentrate will be barred from the soaring prose of the book’s end, when Burton comes as close as he can to summarizing the brunt of emotionality. “some will hear good counsel,” he writes, and “some will not; some desire help, some reject all, and will not be eased.” And ultimately, after trekking through every kind of obsession and passion in the playbook, our author increasingly lets a slight silver glint of tolerance shine through:

If a man put desperate hands upon himself by occasion of madness or melancholy, if he have given testimony before of his regeneration, in regard he doth this not so much out of his will as ex vi morbi [on account of his disease], we must make the best construction of it, as Turks do, that think all fools and madmen go directly to heaven.

(Which is sweet enough, although the very end of The Anatomy of Melancholy is a jungle of end-notes in Latin and can be skipped by all but the most obsessive readers…)

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith – This enormous book (1208 pages in my handy Bantam edition) broke all kinds of literary and economic ground when it was published in 1776 (one Oxford don was frustrated by the nagging memory of some other significant event that took place that year) by attempting to anatomize the entirety of a human economy. It succeeds brilliantly, not only through an unblinking clarity of focus but also through the less well-recognized boon of gorgeous prose. Smith covers virtually every aspect of the way people pay other people for everything conceivable, and the rules of that paying, and description after (historically invaluable) description of the precise manners and customs of that paying. Hardly any occupation is overlooked – hell, even lowly college teachers get a mention:

In some universities the salary makes but a part, and frequently but a small part of the emoluments of the teacher, of which the greater part arises from the honoraries or fees of his pupils. The necessity of application, though always more or less diminished, is not in this case entirely taken away. Reputation in his profession is still of some importance to him, and he still has some dependency upon the affection, gratitude, and favourable report of those who have attended upon his instructions; and these favourable sentiments he is likely to gain in now way so well as by deserving them, that is, by the abilities and diligence with which he discharges every part of his duty.

But as good as Smith is at every point, his book only gains its real power as his portrait becomes more or less complete, in the final chapters. Brain-addled skimmers looking only for a mention of the ‘invisible hand’ will come away wondering what all the fuss is about, much to their own detriment.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West – World War II was swift approaching (indeed, violence was already almost everywhere) when West finished this enormous (1150 pages in my old Penguin paperback) classic, and it’s only in the closing pages that West really begins distilling the bitter lessons her travels through Yugoslavia had taught her, one of which was a on-the-ground understanding of ethnic hatred:

But in Yugoslavia I saw with my own eyes the German hatred of the Slavs: as a scar on the Slav peoples, in the chattering distraction of Croatia, and the lacerated moral beauty of Bosnia; as an abscess on a German soul, when Gerda looked on the seven thousand French graves at Bitolj and wounded a husband who had treated her with infinite tenderness by saying sourly, “To think of all those people giving their lives for a lot of Slavs”; as a womb swollen with murder, in the German war memorial at Bitolj.¬† For the first time I knew the quality of the parties to this feud.

If cumulative power is a deciding characteristic of Smith’s book, it’s immensely more so in West’s, in part because despite its enormous subsequent expansion, this book originally began life as a simple travelogue, and time’s passage is a vital, active ingredient in all good travelogues. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a journey (with all due respect to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, it’s in fact the worst journey in the world), so it’s sad to think there will now be so many readers who are forced to turn back before the end of the road.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – this sprawling 2004 fantasy novel, set in 1806 but in a slightly different reality than the one found in the history books, centers around the battle of wills (and spells) between fastidious old adept Mr. Norrell and hot-shot newcomer-wizard Jonathan Strange, and although every page of the book is a pure delight, readers without sufficient wherewithal will never reach the climactic concluding chapters with their hilarious, adorable footnotes, like:

It is all very well in fairy-tales to ask, “Who is the fairest of them all?” But in reality no magic, fairy or human, could ever be persuaded to answer such an imprecise question.

or:

St. Anthony of Padua: Several of his miracles involve preserving from rain congregations to whom he was preaching, or maid-servants with whom he was friendly. He also helps people find things they have lost.

Or:

A surprising number of kings and princes of Faerie have been human … Faeries are, by and large, irredeemably indolent. Though they are fond of high rank, honours and riches, they detest the hard work of government.

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk – This passionate, impressionistic doorstop about the contemporary Middle East can be every bit as exhausting as a marathon – and every bit as glorious. It shares a great deal in common with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, for although Fisk isn’t as good a prose stylist as West (who is?), he’s every bit as passionate and human, every bit as open to impression, and most importantly, every bit as willing to read human immediacy into the history he’s seeing made all around him in his travels. He’s even willing to grant that human immediacy to figures other writers tend to treat as cardboard villains – like Saddam Hussein, hiding in a subterranean locker as U.S. troops hunt for him:

What did Saddam discover here in the last days? Peace of mind after the years of madness and barbarity? A place to reflect on his awesome sins, how he took his country from prosperity, through foreign invasion and isolation and years of torture and suppression into a world of humiliation and occupation? The birds must have sung in the evening, the palm fronds above him must have clustered against each other in the night. But then there must have been the fear, the constant knowledge that betrayal was only an orchard away. It must have been cold in that hole. And no colder than when the hands of Washington-the-all-Powerful reached out across oceans and continents and came to rest on that odd-looking pot plant and hauled the would-be Caliph from his tiny cell.

Readers interested in this type of book but put off by the length can still find first-rate writing on the subject (most notably Charles Glass’ Tribes with Flags), but as in all our other cases, there’s an important, irreducible element that’s sacrificed to shorter length. Einstein’s famous intuition was that time was the extra dimension of reality, and what’s true in physics can’t help but be true in life as well: the rewards of sticking with a talented author through all the permutations of the story he wants to tell, the rewards of living that story over time (in addition to the purely sensory joys of living with a physical book that long – in parks, in waiting rooms, on subways, in bed, as both it and you slowly adapt to each other) – these rewards are very real, and they are the intellectual equivalents of the trembling, exultant joys marathoners know when they finish their run. Most athletes will never know those joys, because they haven’t invested the work and time necessary to run the race. Likewise, perhaps fewer and fewer new readers, raised on instant gratification and the bite-sized narrative bits they find in video games, will ever know the intense joy of incorporating a very long book into their mental architecture.

There’s nothing like that joy, but you’ve got to get there to experience it.

May 21st, 2012

The Ivy Crown!

Our book today is Mary Luke’s 1984 novel The Ivy Crown, which is the lightly fictionalized story of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII. I found a fat, heavy hardcover copy at my beloved Brattle Bookshop (I’m often there, and I’m happy to talk books at any time, should you find yourself in the vicinity) and immediately realized that I hadn’t seen a second-hand copy of it anywhere in all that time – the last time I read it, I was selling it to customers, new, at Lauriat’s, as a stone-cold super-hottie book-clerk. That kind of desuetude is odd for a big piece of Tudor fiction in this age of The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall, but then, the collective book-memory is shorter than it’s ever been. Doubtless the average book-person scanning the carts at the Brattle might not even recognize Mary Luke’s name, but once upon a time she wrote an intensely good trio of staight-up nonfiction books about the Tudors. The Ivy Crown was that great big Tudor novel that all Tudor fans have constantly incubating inside them.

It’s a heartfelt book and scrupulously conscientious. Mary Luke was what’s commonly called these days “the real deal”: tough, learned, careful, opinionated – formidable, in a way given only to a certain kind of Connecticut matron in cashmere and pearls. She turned to fiction because it gave her a little more creative latitude when sources were stingy with drama, but she was in no way interested in license. Her novel adheres as close to the known facts of Katherine Parr’s remarkable life (twice married and twice widowed before she married Henry and became has last queen, kind and tender to his children, zealous in what one scholar has referred to as her “Erasmian piety,” and – most tragically of all – quickly married in love after Henry’s death, only to die herself, in childbirth) as it’s possible to do, and re-reading it the other day, I recalled the strengths and weaknesses of the thing.

The main strength is that you can absolutely trust what you’re reading, the facts of it or the rock-solid conjecture of it. When Luke gives us a banquet-hall scene, she tries to give us every detail of the photograph in her head:

Taking her place in the circle forming for the dance, she found handsome young William Cecil, the Protector’s secretary, as her partner. Across teh room her brother, Will Parr, flirted with young Lady Fitzwilliam as her older husband tolerantly looked on. Will would never change, she thought, sighing. As Thomas danced by she caught the amused look in his eye and knew he’d seen Will bent on another feminine conquest. Near Edward’s small throne, Kate Brandon and her elder son Henry, now the Duke of Suffolk, were talking with the Greys. Frances Brandon Grey had put on weight which her heavily bejeweled gown only emphasized. Katherine wondered if she and her husband had visited their daughter, asleep now in another wing of the palace.

And her Katherine, thought sincerely devout, is no mousey scholar (this particular author always found it understandably difficult to empathize with such people). She has passionate opinions on everything, including, early in The Ivy Crown, her royal predecessor in Henry’s favor, the feckless strumpet Catherine Howard, here vilified to Katherine’s brother Will Parr:

“She isn’t what the king is looking for, unless it’s a quick tumble on the heath at Hampstead or the park at Richmond. She’s pretty, I trow, with her wide eyes and dimples and the way she laughs and glances sideways at the king. I know she’s much to his liking. But so was her cousin, Anne Boleyn. They seem to fascinate him, these Howards! Which gives old Norfolk one up on Tom Cromwell because she’ll act in religious matters as the duke says. She may sing and dance and be merry as a lark, Will Parr, but I doubt she can sign her name and I’m certain the changes in the church mean little to her! She’ll be nothing but trouble for the king and he deserves better.”

Of course Catherine didn’t work out – and KP herself was indeed what the king was looking for: a wife who could be both stimulating and soothing, an end to jealously and mistrust and fencing, a peaceful harbor at journey’s end. She was all of those things for Henry, and (minor psychopathic ripples notwithstanding) he was grateful for it, leaving Katherine as Regent when he went off to fight in France one last time – and providing amply for her after his death, when she became a still-young Queen-Dowager and her good friends Thomas and Edward Seymour became the foremost men in the country, in command of the Council that would rule until young Edward VI came of age. She loved the blustering Thomas and married him soon enough after Henry died; it was his child she died bringing into the world (a girl, named Mary, who shortly thereafter disappears from the historical record).

It’s a tremendously charged human drama, and conveying that charge is where Luke’s book fails; all that impeccable research very noticeably impedes the drama. Re-reading the final chapters of The Ivy Crown, I was irresistibly reminded of a book I’ve praised her before, Suzannah Dunn’s great 2007 novel The Sixth Wife. I’d hardly finished The Ivy Crown before I was taking The Sixth Wife down from the shelf and falling into it all over again.

Dunn’s book is narrated – in an entirely, unapologetically modern voice – by KP’s bosom friend Catherine Brandon, the Duchess of Suffolk, who stands in loving awe of this marvellous woman who has been such an integral part of her life for so long:

For all her bookishness, gangliness and pallor, there was nothing off-putting or overawing about her for the five-year-old me. She was never anything but a comforting presence. I’d say that she always made a fuss of me, except that somehow she did it with no fuss at all.

All through the fast-paced pages of this book, we get lavish, believable glimpses of the person behind the Katherine Parr’s royal facade, and there are many times when Dunn’s intentionally anachronistic approach wins through magnificently (in fact, it almost always does), as in the scene where Catherine Brandon remembers the time her brother, incensed at catching his wife in adultery, goes to Henry insisting on the technical penalty, which is death. KP naturally intervenes, and the memory of it is bittersweet:

Kate knew what to do, of course. She knew not to argue with Henry. I’d never have been able to do that, but that’s why it was she who was his wife. She could do one better, too: she could praise him and sound as if she meant it. You’re the most forward-thinking ruler that has ever been, and perhaps above all you’re a man of conscience. Oh, and there’s the small matter of you being a man who understands women – how many of them are there? – so you know how we can be, funny creatures that we are. Something like that. It would have stuck in my throat, but she was good, was Kate, she kept focused. In this case on saving a woman’s life.

Send her to me, was what she requested of Henry. For safekeeping. For now. Will’s sick, she told him, but he’ll get better … but not if he’s responsible for his wife’s death.

That’s how she turned it around.

Don’t – please – condemn him to that, she said. Send Annie to me.

Ah, yes, Kate and her strays: Henry would have liked that.

Bittersweet was the operative emotion during this entire re-read, in fact, since the cruellest, most wonderful thing The Sixth Wife does is make us love this Katherine Parr so personally, so completely, that we want history somehow to change so that she avoids the pointless, heartbreaking fate we know is charging straight for her. She doesn’t avoid that fate, of course, and the Dunn’s concluding chapters are brilliantly heart-breaking.

The natural instinct, after those chapters, is to seek out the living Katherine Parr, and unlike virtually every other woman of her time (or any other time prior to our own), that’s possible to do: KP wrote. Not just household inventories and letters but books as well – she was the first woman to publish books under her own name in English. They were liturgical works – prayers, translations, more of that “Erasmian piety” – and they sold like balloons. And thankfully, it doesn’t require a trip to the rare book crypt at Windsor Castle to sample all that writing: in 2011, Janel Mueller edited for the University of Chicago Press a glorious big volume of the complete works and correspondence of Katherine Parr. In these lovingly annotated and footnoted pages, she lives again as much as any mortal can ever hope to. Here are the books she wrote, the translations, the marginalia, and of course the letters, which breathe and chuckle with life – like the quick note she dashed off to Thomas Seymour about his priggish brother Edward, a note written in playful haste in May of 1547 with never the faintest thought that it would still be here centuries later:

My lord,

This shall be to advertise you that my lord your brother hath this afternoon made me a little warm. It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him. What cause have they to fear you having such a wife? It is requisite for them continually to pray for a short dispatch of that hell. Tomorrow, or else upon Saturday at afternoon about three o’clock, I will see the King: where I intend to utter all my choler to my lord your brother, if you shall not give me advice to the contrary. For I would be loath to do anything to hinder your matter.

She makes her case a bit more, then signs the thing “Katherine the Queen, KP” – and suddenly she’s there in the room with you, this pretty, forthright, bookish woman, this kind-hearted and sharp-brained Tudor original. Reading her own books is tougher than reading books about her, of course, although more rewarding – and still bittersweet after all, since the brain and heart in her words deserved to reach a comfortable old age surrounded by children of her own.

Still, she’s remembered all kinds of different ways. You can round out all of these with Linda Porter’s lively, incredibly readable biography of the Queen, if you’ve a mind to.

May 20th, 2012

The Nazi Doctors

Our book today is Robert Jay Lifton’s horrifying 1986 masterpiece, The Nazi Doctors, a copy of which I recently found at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and so of course not only bought but sat down and re-read.

If the watchword nightmare of Nazi Germany was the ability of an advanced, scientific, cultured modern nation to become one vast clanking dungeon of sub-medieval terror, then Nazi perversion of medical science was the very heart of that nightmare, and Lifton looks straight into that heart with an unblinking courage that makes his book one of the most depressing ever written on any subject – and also makes it absolutely necessary, compelling reading. The Nazi Doctors explores not only how the German medical establishment was suborned (or, in far too many cases, didn’t need to be) into the service of a sadistic state but also how the individual doctors involved – many of whom Lifton interviewed – managed to do the things they did and still function in society. This latter problem is seen through the lens of Lifton’s famous psychological ‘doubling,’ perhaps because simple cowardice and evil somehow don’t seem adequate to what these trained professionals – every one of whom swore a solemn oath to do no harm – did to innocent men, women, and children in the Reich’s hospitals, ghettos, and death-camps.

Doctors were involved in almost every aspect of places like Auschwitz, where a Hippocratic veneer was pulled over the simple, brutal task of selecting which new inmates seemed fit enough to be worked to death and which were for one reason or another too feeble and must either be sent to a medical wing or executed out of hand. A doctor nodded agreement at the selection for instant death of thousands of little children and elderly people who were self-evidently incapable of enduring 15-hour work-days, and the doctors – and their ghoulish stand-ins – were a watchful, deadly presence in those medical wings as well:

SS doctors ordered and supervised, and sometimes themselves carried out, direct killing of debilitated patients by means of phenol injections into the bloodstream or heart given on the medical blocks. These injections were most extensive during the early years of Auschwitz (1941-1943) prior to the full development of the gas chambers. They were usually performed by medical technicians or brutalized prisoners, who served as surrogates for the doctors. SS doctors had similar responsibility for another group of phenol injections ordered by the Auschwitz Political Department (actually the Gestapo) for what were known as “hidden executions”: the killing of such people as Polish political prisoners or occasionally German military or other personnel condemned to death for various reasons. Doctors also attended other executions of political prisoners – usually by shooting – in order to declare the victim officially dead.

In addition to all this guilt, there was also abundant awareness of guilt, codified into entirely fictitious hospital charts and an entire vocabulary of post-mortem lies:

In connection with all of these killings, doctors signed false death certificates, attributing each death of an Auschwitz inmate or an outsider brought there to be killed to a specific illness (cardiac, respiratory, infectious, or whatever). Those Jews selected for death at the ramp, never having entered the camp, required no death certificates.

And throughout the book, Lifton simply piles grim fact on top of grim fact, until it seems like there was no element of wickedness unexplored:

In the case of official corporal punishment (for instance, whipping), SS doctors were required both to sign forms attesting to the physical capacity of the inmate to absorb such punishment, as well as to be present while it was administered.

Arthur Conan Doyle (who had ample reason to know whereof he spoke) had Sherlock Holmes coldly observe, “When a doctor goes wrong, he is the first of criminals,” and no reader finishing The Nazi Doctors will doubt it. Every time I read this book, I’m struck again not only by Lifton’s prodigious research (and sharp narrative voice, though necessarily removed) but by the almost perverse necessity of the thing. It’s strong, stinging stuff for a sunny summer afternoon, this unrelenting tour of the depths – after every reading, I find I have to indulge in complete literary frivolity for a few books, to regain my balance. But I keep going back to it, because that darkness holds some truths that you won’t find anywhere else, I think. I highly recommend the book, but: gird yourself first.

 

May 16th, 2012

Beasts at Bay in the Penny Press!

Once you get past the bewildering front cover of the latest Men’s Journal (depicting – yet again – Lance Armstrong and breezily mentioning how now that his ‘scandal is behind him’ he can happily get on with embracing a different sport from professional bike-racing – a phrasing that suggests vindication, when the only thing missing from that ‘scandal’ was actual fine-focus video footage of Armstrong ‘doping’ his own blood in order to win races … not exactly much of a vindication, but the cover and accompanying article are easily enough skipped), you get to a fascinating little piece by James Nestor that starts at Boucan Canot beach on the fabled island of Reunion, where no humans are allowed to swim – because Boucan Canot has become “the shark attack capital of the world.”

The local marine experts have come up with a daring and ingenious attempt at a solution: instead of waging a short and bloody campaign to wipe out the area’s sharks, they’ve opted instead to tag as many of them as possible with tiny transmitters that would act like a missile defense system, warning officials – and swimmers – of approaching danger. The star of Nestor’s piece is a free-diver named Fred Buyle, who can hold his breath for seven minutes and displays a remarkable calm when surrounded by enormous prehistoric predators. The article is quick and fascinating, and Nestor ends it perfectly:

I asked Buyle if he now considers Boucan Canot a safe place to swim or surf. “I’ll put it this way,” he said, laughing. “Without my websuit, goggles, and fins, I wouldn’t swim in that water if you paid me a million dollars. I’m not crazy, you know.”

Animals and sanity also come together in “Wild Things,” an absolutely superb long essay by David Samuels in the latest Harper’s about the Bronx Zoo, the people who created it, the people who run and visit it every day, and of course the animals who inhabit it. The piece is utterly fantastic, the kind of thing that by rights we’ll be seeing again in one of those ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies of magazine writing, and it’s not as dolefully depressing as it might otherwise have been, mainly because Samuels has the wit to end it with a scathingly funny vignette in which Mayor Bloomberg makes a political visit to the zoo to give a press conference. Samuels has a great deal of pointed fun at the mayor’s expense:

When the press conference is over the mayor walks over to the railing of the exhibit, takes a grape from the hand of one of his aides, and tosses it to the gibbon, in what is either a sign of respect or an attempt to buy off a heretofore unknown but potentially troublesome constituency.

Hee.

May 16th, 2012

Six for the Sleuths!

I do a great deal of book-recommending in any given week, and every aspect of it is a pure joy – the challenge of matching the perfect book with the perfect reader, the little joy of being able to hand (or mail) somebody the instant gratification of their curiosity, of course the longer-term happiness of learning that the recommendation hit the right spot – all aspects but one: since there are far more books than real, open-minded readers, recommending books often means recommending some books repeatedly. The good books don’t change, but the book recipients change all the time – so some of the following recommendations will no doubt be familiar to some of you. Consider the repetition emphasis!

One little genre dear to my reader’s heart, the murder mystery, makes for some easy recommending; the comfort of the formula can shine an extra light on the ingenuity of the writer. These six will please all but the most hardened fiction-cynic:

If the ability of the sleuth to interest the reader is – or ought to be – key to the whole enterprise, then surely Lillian De La Torre’s irresistible books have the right guy: none other than the Great Cham himself, Doctor Samuel Johnson (faithfully recorded although not substantially helped by his faithful chronicler Boswell). The first in the series is 1944’s Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector, and in many ways its stands as the best in the series as well (although not, as a drunken Ellery Queen once blurbed, the best in the history of the entire world, for cripe’s sake), full of narrative firecrackers to keep the reader smiling:

Suddenly, the air was rent with scream upon scream of terror. My companion started to his feet; Mrs. Clarke almost dropped the candle.

“Rouze up the apprentice!” cried Johnson. “Give me the candle! Come, Boswell!”

La Torre also does a great job weaving research (and sheer wonkery) into great background atmosphere for Boswell’s London itself – this is always a great plus in a historical novel, although more murder mysteries ignore it than you’d think.

Deanna Raybourn lays the historical atmosphere on nice and thick in her debut mystery, 2007’s Silent in the Grave, in which our feisty, intelligent heroine gets her start in the detecting line when her husband keels over dead. Julia Grey’s husband Sir Edward Grey had already been nervous enough to hire private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, but before he and Grey can unravel the thread of threats Grey’s been receiving lately, Grey pitches over at his elegant London home, in front of all his guests – and his wife:

I stared at him, not quite taking in the fact that he had just collapsed at my feet. He lay, curled like a question mark, his evening suit ink-black against the white marble of the floor. He was writhing, his fingers knotted.

I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit.

“Edward, we have guests. Do get up. If this is some sort of silly prank -”

“He is not jesting, my lady. He is convulsing.”

Lady Julia is the perfect foil for Brisbane as they team up to solve – and avenge – the death of her husband, and Raybourn plays on that tension wonderfully throughout this book and the ones that follow it. It’s a pleasure to keep recommending these books to readers who like lots of sumptuous detail surrounding their sleuthing.

A leaner and far tauter affair is Ariana Franklin’s 2007 debut Mistress of the Arts of Death, starring Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, who, despite being a woman – and despite the year being 1171 – is a full-blown forensic pathologist, trained at the medical school at Salerno and sent to the England of King Henry II to solve a brutal and mysterious series of child-murders. I’ve praised this book before here at Stevereads, and it’s a joy to praise it again: re-readings only discover more of its supple strengths – foremost of which is the lady Adelia herself, utterly unsentimental, brusque, and her own worst enemy when it comes to giving the powerful men of the realm the deference they expect, a stubbornness we see right away when she’s speaking with a powerful prior whose life she saves (with a simple but disturbing medical procedure before the book is six pages old):

She sighed with impatience. “I see you are regretting that the woman, like the doctor, is unadorned. It always happens.” She glared at him. “You are getting the truth of both, Master Prior. If you want them bedecked, go elsewhere. Turn over that stone” – she pointed to a flint nearby – “and you will find a charlatan who will dazzle you with the favorable conjunction of Mercury and Venus, flatter your future, and sell you colored water for a gold piece. I can’t be bothered with it. From me you get the actuality.”

We do indeed get the actuality from Adelia, in this and all the later books, all of which are delightful.

Delight comes also from an author who never failed to provide it: Georgette Heyer, who balanced out a very lucrative career writing romance novels by also occasionally writing mystery novels. She was highly disciplined when generating material for either of her beloved genres, and in both cases, she brought her millions of readers satisfaction mainly by serving up the extremely familiar with infectious gusto. Her 1969 novel Envious Casca (one of the two books on our list with Shakespeare-derived titles) centers around that most tried-and-true of mystery novel venues, the English country house, Lexham Manor in this case, where an eccentric family’s attempt at a picturesque English Christmas is punctured in just the way you’d expect:

“No use waiting for Uncle Nat. As you’ve no doubt guessed, he’s dead.”

“Dead?” Mathilda exclaimed, after a moment’s stupefied silence. “Are you joking?”

“I am not. To put it plainly, someone stuck a knife in his back.”

Valerie gave a scream, an clutched at the nearest support, which happened to be Roydon’s arm. He paid no heed to her, but stood staring at Stephen with his jaw dropping.

Mottisfont said in an angry, querulous tone: “I don’t believe it! This is one of your mistaken ideas of humour, Stephen, and I don’t like it!”

Maud’s hands were still clasped in her lap. She sat still, a plump, upright little figure, with a rigid back. Her pale eyes studied Stephen, travelled on to Mottisfort, to Roydon, to Valerie, sank again.

“It’s true?” Mathilda said stupidly.

“Unfortunately for us, quite true.”

A by-the-book inspector turns up on the scene to ask the Christie-style questions, and the locals give their Christie-style drawled evasive answers, and the whole thing unfolds with the warm-bath comfort of sharp, pure predictability.

Less predictable at least in setting is the 2008 debut novel by the pseudonymous Michael Stanley A Carrion Death, which opens with a hyena chased away from feasting on the dead body of a white man at the edge of the Kalahari game reserve and features the far-sighted, unhurried investigation of Assistant Superintendent of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department David Bengu, nicknamed “Kubu” (“hippo”) for his enormous size. Kubu is an opera fan and a lover of fine wines, and he has an even temper most certainly not shared by his animal namesake:

“People always talk about the perfect murder,” he said. “There isn’t any such thing. Murderers always make mistakes. It’s not a natural thing to do – killing another human being in cold blood. It never works out quite like you expect. You’re tense. You’re nervous. You make mistakes. You leave clues.”

Clues are plentiful and cold as stone in Steven Saylor’s debut murder mystery, where a middle-class Roman named Gordianus the Finder is visited at his homely villa by an emissary from an obscure young lawyer named Cicero, who needs help investigating the background events of his first murder trial. Cicero’s client, Sextus Roscius, is accused of killing his own father, and Cicero needs Gordianus to find out whatever might lurk in Roscius’ background before it can spoil the high-profile case Cicero badly needs. Gordianus accepts the case, and Saylor excels in showing us the seedy, up-thrusting welter of the City under the dictatorship of Sulla:

No other city I know can match the sheer vitality of Rome at the hour just before midmorning. Rome wakes with a self-satisfied stretching of the limbs and a deep inhalation, stimulating the lungs, quickening the pulse. Rome wakes with a smile, roused from pleasant dreams, for every night Rome goes to sleep dreaming a dream of empire. In the morning Rome opens her eyes, ready to go about the business of making that dram come true in broad daylight. Other cities cling to sleep – Alexandria and Athens to warm dreams of the past, Pergamum and Antioch to a coverlet of Oriental splendor, little Pompeii and Herculaneum to the luxury of napping till noon. Rome is happy to shake off sleep and begin her agenda for the day. Rome has work to do. Rome is an early riser.

The story that results will give you an hour’s perfect escape from the lesser mysteries of your own ongoing day – all these books will do that (and also teach you some history in a fairly painless way, if you’re the type who finds history painful), and they’ll keep doing it no matter how many times I recommend them, which is nice.

 

May 9th, 2012

Waverley!

Our book today is the pebble that started an avalanche: Sir Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley. In its ponderous, irresistible pages dealing with heroic young Edward Waverley, living through the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (the book’s ‘subtitle’ was ’tis sixty years since’), Scott did what so many great male creators have done throughout human history: he took some things women had thought up and refined them into something bombastic and compellingly provocative.

The women – figures like Maria Edgeworth and especially Miss Jane Porter, author of the wildly successful The Scottish Chiefs that was on everybody’s reading table in 1810, enthusiastically broke the ground of transforming history and folklore into vibrant, detail-heavy historical romance. Despite the fact that Scribner’s once created a gorgeous edition of The Scottish Chiefs complete with illustrations by the great N. C. Wyeth, Porter is scarcely read by anybody today, but those few who wander into her wonderful pages wander out again wanting to write stories just like hers. Scott did that, and the popularity his work eclipsed hers and everybody else’s.

Waverley creaks today, as, to be fair, it did then. There are great chunks of undigested moralizing, frequent apostrophes of the kind that historical novelists these days try to avoid making quite so directly:

“Yes, I have indeed acted towards you with thoughtless cruelty. I brought you from your paternal fields, and the protection of a generous and kind landlord, and when I had subjected you to all the rigour of military discipline I shunned to bear my own share of the burdens, and wandered from the duties I had undertaken, leaving alike those whom it was my business to protect, and my own reputation, to suffer under the artifices of villainy. O indolence and indecision of mind! If not in yourselves vices, to how much exquisite misery and mischief do you frequently prepare the way!”

But the essential magic tricks of all the best historical fiction to follow are on display here, from the successful blend of factual research and impressionistic sweep:

On the opposite bank of the river, and partly surrounded b y a winding of its stream, stood a large and massive castle, the half-ruined turrets of which were already glittering in the first rays of the sun. It was in form an oblong square, of size sufficient to contain a large court in the centre. The towers at each angle of the square rose higher than the walls of the building, and were in their turn surmounted by turrets, differing in height, and irregular in shape. Upon one of these a sentinel watched, whose bonnet and plain streaming in the wind declared him to be a Highlander, as a broad white ensign, which floated from another tower, announced that the garrison was held by the insurgent adherents of the House of Stuart.

To the mundane human touches (and pawky humor) that Scott is so little remembered for today, as when our young hero Edward Waverley comes upon the stock comic figure of Mr. Duncan Macwheeble:

Before him was a large bicker of oatmeal-porridge, and at the side thereof, a horn-spoon and a bottle of two-penny. Eagerly running his eye over a voluminous law-paper, he from time to time shovelled an immense spoonful of these nutritive viands into his capacious mouth. A pot-bellied Dutch bottle of brandy which stood by, intimated either that this honest limb of the law had taken his morning already, or that he meant to season his porridge with such digestive; or perhaps both circumstances might reasonably be inferred.

The formula of Waverley looks so basic to modern eyes that its canny originality can often be overlooked. In the book, a young hero leaves his family, becomes enmeshed in famous historical events, meets famous historical personages, but the whole time is pursuing his own destiny and, inevitably, his own love. The effect on the reader is immediate and effective: they’re not only learning about history (hence the ‘sacred duty’ school of historical fiction that ranks verisimilitude as the highest of the virtues), they’re invested in it, since their hero is walking through the black-and-white events of dry history books bringing them alive through his own involvement. Scott’s decision to use public, historical props to tell a private, unknown story gave birth to the historical novel as we know it today in all its forms, and virtually every one of the great 19th century novelists now routinely taught in schools as being entirely, almost categorically superior to Scott (Tolstoy and most certainly Jane Austen, to name but two) absorbed his ‘historical romances’ like oxygen and re-spun all of Scott’s original axiomata into all the dozen ways historical fiction talks to both history and fiction. All of it – everything from the Brontes to Graham Greene, from J. R. R. Tolkien to Hilary Mantel – all of it is the School of Scott, and Waverley was the first lesson.

May 3rd, 2012

Comics: AvX Chapter 3!

Marvel’s “Avengers vs X-Men” mini-series trundles on, although for the non-comics world, the clock is definitely ticking toward the moment when nobody even remembers the X-Men – the “Avengers” movie, already praised by every critic in in the world, is about to hit movie theaters and become the biggest geek-fest since the Third Lateran Council (rumors that a certain X-Men – not to mention a certain web-slinger – make lightning-quick cameo appearances in said movie will just have to wait a day for confirmation or dismissal). Thinking about those big-screen incarnations of these grand old comics titles really underscores what an outmoded system Hollywood uses by relying on actual physical actors for their special effects extravaganzas … if the movie-going public were as well-acclimated to entirely animated characters like gamers find in their video games, not only would that technology itself now be vastly more advanced, but something like a big-screen “Avengers vs X-Men” movie would be entirely possible – only with digitally reproduced likenesses opening the casting doors wide! Imagine Errol Flynn as Tony Stark! A young Arnold Schwarzenegger as Thor! A young James Dean as the tortured Cyclops! Robert Redford, of course, as Captain America … and best of all, a young, dynamic James Cagney as Wolverine! And all of them displaying not some very expensive rough approximation of their comic-book superpowers but a glorious exact translation of them! But instead, Hollywood is yoked to ‘real people,’ whose personal schedules, rampant greed, and various drug addictions are almost impossible to line up into one movie, let alone ten … maddening.

In the meantime, we have comic book mini-series like “AvX”! As you may recall, the story is fairly simple (at least as far as comics stories go): the Phoenix Force, a gigantically destructive alien energy being (in the form of an enormous bird – one can only imagine the destructive capacity of the Basset Force), is headed for Earth intent on using a human being as a host-body and wreaking incalculable damage. The hostess mostest likely is a young mutant super-hero named Hope, and that makes her the football in a grudge-match between the X-Men, who hope she might be able to harness the Phoenix energies to restore the ravaged ranks of mutantkind, and the Avengers, who want to take the girl into protective custody until they can figure out a way to defeat the Phoenix Force. This grudge-match naturally makes life difficult for the eighteen or nineteen super-powered Marvel characters who’ve at one point or another been both X-Men and Avengers … all except Wolverine, who alone has no conflict about what has to be done: he just wants to kill Hope, seeing that as the only solution to the coming problem (he had the same stabby solution in mind when the Scarlet Witch went rogue – what can we say? He’s Canadian).

In this latest issue, the fact that he wants to solve his problems with cold-blooded homicide brings him into conflict with Captain America, and there’s a quick little fight in the back of an Avengers aircraft, with Cap getting in some solid punches and Wolverine trying to gut the hero of WWII. It’s fairly well done stuff by artist John Romita Jr., although it raises a question I’ve been asking about Wolverine for some thirty years now: why the Hell wouldn’t the rest of Marvel’s super-heroes just take a second and pot this guy? Is there even a single character in the Marvel line-up who hasn’t been slashed, stabbed, or gutted by Wolverine – and never when he’s possessed or anything like that, just because he thought it was the right thing to do at the time? Why doesn’t the Human Torch simply blast all the flesh off his bones and call it a maiming averted? There’s not a court in the land that would convict him.

Be that as it may, the Avengers don’t pot him – they just dump him out of the plane and go on their way … an incredibly contrived way writer Ed Brubaker has thought up to split both teams into more manageable groups for hero-fighting purposes (ala “The Avengers vs The Defenders,” from long, long ago). Those match-ups will likely happen next issue, if they don’t happen off-stage in one of the “AvX” spin-off titles. We’ll see next time.