Posts from June 2012

June 30th, 2012

The Cockroach Papers!

Our book today is Richard Schweid’s repulsive 1999 tour de force, The Cockroach Papers, a slim, viscous natural history of the most hated creature on the planet – or rather, the most hated creatures, since there are dozens of thousands of species of cockroach known to modern science. This wonderful, awful book tells you everything you might ever want to know about these creatures, concentrating mostly on the two main kinds found in the United States but ranging far and wide in search of all-star ickiness from all part of the world – and from all times of the world, since cockroaches are one of the oldest life-forms extant on the planet, pre-dating mankind by over 300 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs by 150 million years. As Schweid points out over and over in the course of his book (often with a detectable note of involuntary appreciation), cockroaches are “built for survival” – as evidenced by the fact that in ancient fossils from millions of years ago, they look pretty much exactly the same as they do today: evolutionarily speaking, they’re about as effecient and adaptable as they can get.

A big part of those adaptations center around protecting cockroaches from the natural consequences of how instantaneously loathsome they are: they need excellent danger-detectors. Before reading Schweid’s book, I just naturally assumed those detectors were the very long disgusting antennae cockroaches wave suggestively over everything all the time. But no, it turns out the real answer is even more disgusting: the primary sensory organs of the cockroach are the cerci, a pair of feelers located next to the creature’s anus and covered in hundreds of impossibly thin hairs. The cerci are primed to detect the smallest changes in air pressure or current (hence the cockroach’s uncanny ability to be already in motion when you turn on the kitchen light), and they’re wired directly to what passes for the cockroach’s autonomous nervous system – which is why a decapitated cockroach exposed to sudden light will still attempt to scurry away.

Schweid takes his readers through a whole list of revolting details just like these (interspersing them with poignant and often hilarious vignettes from his life and past associations with his infernal little subjects) and anticipates every lurid bit of curiosity we might have. How cockroaches mate, their unholy fecundity, their legendary hardiness (they can live for weeks – months even – without any food, their bodies lined everywhere under their armor plating with a thick layer of nitrogen-rich fatty tissue that can sustain them for long stretches), etc. Schweid even confirms the single thing that can make them even more hateful than they already are: cockroaches are indeed capable of biting – in fact, they’ve been known to venture out in groups at night and nibble on sleeping humans. Their preferred delicacies? The lips and eyelashes of sleeping children. Charming.

Still, even such unholy abominations as these are not beyond the reach of Stockholm Syndrome, and long before his book is over, Schweid is giving the strong impression he would never semi-curl that book and use it as the Hammer of God on an errant cockroach that happened to interrupt his reading time. The picture he paints of peaceful co-existence is almost Edenic:

Normally, a domestic cockroach carries on its life in a world parallel to ours, behind wallpaper, hidden in the cracks of kitchen cabinets, under the refrigerator, or near the toilet where the pipes pass through the bathroom floor. It comes out in the dark to work for its daily bread, to find food, water, and a mate. The instances are few when its path will cross with that of humans, and whole generations may be born, live, and die without ever being seen by a human eye, even though their worlds occupy the same space and they may be only inches apart as they move through their respective wakings and sleepings.

This passage – and all those like it – almost says it: to know all is to forgive all. Against which we might place a quote from one of the greatest movies ever made: the only good bug is a dead bug.

June 29th, 2012

Madcap Opinions in the Penny Press!

A jim-dandy issue of The New Yorker last week (starting off, as so many jim-dandy issues do, with an instant-classic happy-neurotic city-dweller cover by Edward Koren) with plenty of goo stuff inside, including a hilarious short story by Paul La Farge in which the main character has a mid-life crisis of a type immediately comprehensible to every condo-owner in Brooklyn and utterly incomprehensible to, for instance, the entire continent of South America:

I’m nearly forty years old and I don’t know anything about Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin, or Stendhal, or Hardy, or Fielding! I’ve never read Turgenev!

The issue also features an absorbing piece by Calvin Tomkins on Nicholas Serota and the world of the contemporary art museum. But probably the best thing in this issue, at least from a bookworm’s point of view, is an essay by the legendary John McPhee on his relations with various New Yorker editors over the course of his long career. The piece is especially resonant about mandarin editor-in-chief William Shawn (since the Open Letters Monthly parallels fairly make themselves, I’ll refrain from pointing them out), and I was smiling through most of it – except for one little aside:

Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative – that they can buy a piece,, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writitn, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.

I’m a big fan of John McPhee, but this is pure, unadulterated hooey.

First and most obviously, a title is certainly not ‘one of the most important parts’ of a piece of writing, any more than a name is one of the most important parts of a person’s identity. But more importantly, editors have every right to change the titles of the pieces in their magazines, for the very simple reason that the title – as it appears in a Table of Contents often hastily scanned by a prospective reader who’s standing at a news-rack minutes before his commuter train pulls out – serves a radically different purpose than the text of the piece. The title is a hook – a shiny lure. Once the prospective reader mentally commits to reading a piece, once that reader takes in the first paragraph and then the second, he is the writer’s responsibility, fine. But getting the reader there, nudging them to make that commitment, is a function of advertising, not rhetoric. It’s an exponent of the whole-effect of a given magazine issue, and as such it falls squarely within the editor’s purview.

And a good thing, too, since most writers stink at advertising – hence, at titles. Oh, gentle reader, when it comes to writer-suggested titles, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would make each particular hair to stand on end, as quills upon the fretful porpentine! And the odd thing is, I’m sure John McPhee could too: surely everybody knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to call his book Trimalchio in West Egg? And then there’s the novel by Tonino Benacquista, forthcoming from Europa Press. It’s English-language title is The Thursday Night Men, and it’s the story of a trio of men who get together and tell sad stories of the women in their lives. The stories are by turns ribald, bittersweet, and scathing, and the narrative focus is far more on emotional tolls of love than the physical dimensions of love-making.

The original title, no doubt conceived and urged by the book’s author?

Homo Erectus.

The prosecution rests.

June 25th, 2012

The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt!

Our book today is The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study, which was given a limited printing back in 1929 by a Cambridge don with the inimitable (one hopes) name of Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard. The don was the author of a shelf of books only one of which, The Elizabethan World Picture, enjoyed any kind of survival, indoctrinating generations of young people into a soup-to-nuts conceptualization of the Elizabethans that was outdated even before its ink was dry. You’ll still find the occasional 1960s paperback edition of The Elizabethan World Picture at church sales and library jumbles, and it’s still worth your time if you do (currency being hardly the point of scholarship, after all). You’re unlikely to find The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt anywhere except a first-rate very busy used bookshop, the kind that processes boxes and boxes of new acquisitions every week – the kind that clears out attics and studies and basements and church sales and library jumbles at a positively industrial rate. It should be almost needless to say I found my copy at my beloved Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston (where, it has been puckishly but accurately suggested, I myself am likely to be found, with statistically relevant regularity).

The Poetry of Thomas Wyatt often isn’t even mentioned in the full list of E.M.W. Tillyard’s works, possibly because he took 30 minutes to write it and organized the whole thing around a contention as outdated as his zodiac-obsessed Elizabethans: namely, that Thomas Wyatt, Tudor courtier, soldier, jouster, and diplomat par excellence, was a better poet than his young friend and protege the Earl of Surrey. The invocation of a rivalry is natural enough – the two of them together did work a major reformation in English poetry, changing the literary landscape when their Italian- and French-inflected poems appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557 (now given a pretty modern reprint by – who else? – Penguin Classics), although I doubt anybody today seriously questions Wyatt’s pre-eminence.

Not that the rank-question matters, especially in enjoying the sweet, soft air of Tillyard’s prose; as with most “Selections and Studies” written before the advent of modern academic scholarship, the ‘study’ part – essentially a long Introduction – is the whole reason for the book (typically the ‘selection’ will be from an authoritative edition of the poet’s works made by somebody else, in this case the unjustly forgotten Agnes Foxwell edition of 1911, a volume I can only hope to find one day at the Brattle, Wyatt being something of a favorite of mine). The ‘Study’ here is a 50-page gem, part lecture-hall sweep:

In neither the rondeau, the sonnet, nor the eight-lined epigram was Wyatt really at home: he wrote in these forms as a schoolboy hammers out elegiacs or alcaics. The rondeau, a difficult form, requires an exquisite and artful ease; the English sonnet must be monumental (“A sonnet is a moment’s monument”, sas Rossetti); and the epigram must be both polished and pointed. Wyatt’s rondeaus are anything but exquisite and easy; the intolerable metrical jolt that he inherited from Barclay and Pynson’s Chaucer makes them grotesque and uncouth.

(to which a response might be: Professor, do better)

… and part spirited biography:

What precisely had been the relations of Wyatt and Anne Boleyn is quite uncertain. Scandal, preserved in certain strongly anti-Protestant documents, would have it that Anne was Wyatt’s mistress before she married Henry VIII. The charge may be false, but it cannot be absolutely disproved, as Wyatt’s latest editor would have it.

And along the way, the discussion of the verses (both in the Life and in the end-notes) is so light and fascinating that you feel like you’re sitting in a book-lined study in Jesus College, listening to all this offhand brilliance while the evening mist gathers outside the mullioned windows. One of the most striking charms of these old Brattle-treasures is that feeling of opening a dusty volume that looks so old and subfusc and encountering active minds and living passions right there on the page.

Tillyard’s is certainly one such mind, and in this particular volume he’s just the appetizer – the real centerpiece here of course is Wyatt’s mind, and Wyatt’s knotty passions so perfectly expressed in poem after poem. Wyatt knew mostly bitter disappointment in his attempts to find true and loyal love among human beings – disappointment to the extent where he was often tempted to defy Tennyson’s old adage about it being better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all:

From these high hills as when a spring doth fall,

It trilleth down with still and subtle course;

Of this and that it gathers aye and shall,

Till it have just off flowed the stream and force;

Then at the foot it rageth over all:

So fareth love when he had ta’en a source;

His rein is rage, resistance ‘vaileth none;

The first eschew is remedy alone.

Despite seeing clearly the bitter value of ‘the first eschew,’ Wyatt continued to give himself up to that rude stream all through his life. And Professor Tillyard was moved by that passion four centuries later and wrote a quick book about it, mostly for the edification of his students and friends. And almost a century after that, his book beguiled an hour of my evening in a city he never visited (and that Wyatt never dreamed of). That’s my oft-proclaimed “magic of the Brattle” for you.

June 22nd, 2012

Profundity (and the other stuff) in the Penny Press!

Only weeks after allowing a ‘What the fuck?‘ comment to end my subscription to The Atlantic (a subscription going back a looooo-ooooong way, as you might imagine – I’m just glad I don’t have to explain it to William Dean Howells), I finally broke down and re-subscribed to The New Republic (my last subscription ran out during the storied Harrison era). And I used the one sure-fire metric, when it comes to magazines: the beat-to-Hell test. If I buy a news-rack copy of some magazine and read it for so long and so involvedly that the copy starts to fall apart, I have a pretty good sign that the magazine in question has meat on its bones.

My store-bought copy of the June 28th New Republic is falling apart, and I haven’t even finished everything in it yet.

There’s Isaac Chotiner’s gleefully thorough demolition of John Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. And there’s Leon Wieseltier’s searing, beautiful “Washington Diarist” column, a thoroughly anthologizable piece called “They Died for Westphalia” about the ongoing carnage in Syria that has some harsh words for just about everybody involved (great line: “Whose faith in Obama can survive the spectacle of his faith in himself?” Great line: “What is the difference, really, between a man who cares but does nothing and a man who does not care?” Great line: “Henry Kissinger responded to the massacre of the children with a hissing reiteration of his contempt for humane intentions in foreign policy” … and so on, the most powerful three columns of prose you’re likely to read all month). A snappy piece by Jeffrey Rosen on the evolution of ‘originalism’ in the US Supreme Court (a thoroughly wrong-headed piece, but snappy just the same). The list goes on and on – no wonder my copy is beaten all to Hell and gone by now.

There are two shining highlights in this issue. First is the cover article, a long, intensely thoughtful piece on the crackpot ‘science’ of happiness and all that’s wrong with it. The essay is by the stalwart statistician Deirdre McClosky, who explodes every bit of quackery involved with “hedonics” and plumps instead for the surprisingly expansive joys of a “prudently adequate income” and the greater “scope” it gives to people who have it – scope that they can abuse, certainly, by playing video games or reading celebrity magazines all day long, but scope that they nevertheless have, where their counterparts in earlier centuries did not:

Love, in short, is arguably thicker on the ground in the modern Western capitalist world, or at any rate is not obviously thinner on the ground than in the actual world of olden and allegedly more solidarity-drenched times, There is your happiness.

I like it, of course. It’s a hard-won and very practical measurement (the type of thing that might be expected from an economist who’s weathered Iowa winters the way they used to make ’em), and more importantly, it’s clothed in strong, wonderful prose from start to finish.

And speaking of Iowa! Surely the best thing in this issue is the long multi-focus article on Homer by the mighty Peter Green, currently the Classics poo-bah of the University of Iowa. Green focuses his attention on several recent Homer-related books, including Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Iliad, Anthony Verity’s new translation of the Iliad, and Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles. About Mitchell’s controversial cutting-and-pasting of his source material, Green writes, “I suspect I will not be the only reader to be annoyed by having my mind made up for me in advance by the translator, especially when the ongoing debate remains so hard-fought.” (In my own review, I more or less agreed). About the Verity version he writes, “Verity tells us that his version ‘does not claim to be poetry’ – not the best way, surely, of promoting a great poem – and in fact much of it hardly qualifies as verse.” (In my own review, I wasn’t nearly so harsh). And about the Miller novel, he’s largely devastating:

Never, not for one moment, does her overpowering atmosphere of passionate adolescent innocence let up, even when describing a sexual encounter between her doomed lovers. I suspect it is this that has been responsible for the novel’s success … But through it all there persists the high innocence of the lovers’ relationship, and after a while one begins to wish that these two adolescents, in particular the killing machine that is Achilles, would for God’s sake grow up.

In my own review, I found a good deal more than that to praise, as did my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks in his review … but then, it’s the spice of such considered disagreements that is one of the life-supports of the critical world.

Unless, of course, the disagreeing reviewer is just being a downright ass. Readers won’t expect that from the ordinarily excellent Jenny Diski, but hey – she’s full of surprises! In the latest London Review of Books, she takes aim at no less a subject than the wildly popular BBC Edwardian drama Downton Abbey, which every sensible person in Christendom rightfully loves. It bothers her, it seems, and it’s got plenty of company:

I write as an entirely partial observer. Victorian and Edwardian costume drama has never appealed to me. The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Lark Rise to Candleford, The House of Eliott, The Duchess of Duke Street [and Upstairs, Downstairs for good measure]: I never saw more than one episode of any of them. I even have to will myself to watch modern film or TV adaptations of Dickens, Trollope or James, and when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations, I refuse.

Her main point is that all this ‘Vicwardian’ stuff is just a yearning for better times – not social times, but TV times:

Although of course the pre and post-Great War setting permits a crowd-pleasing familiarity with fashion and the well-worked ‘world will never be the same again’ trope, the real trick was to steep it in nostalgia, not really for a period of history as such, but for period television. It’s about making yet another costume drama out of a crisis.

It takes only a quick second to see that such a slippery ‘criticism’ is essentially free-floating – it doesn’t actually pin down anything about Downton Abbey itself. But that’s not the thing that really bugged me about this Diski piece – instead, it was that initial harrumph about not liking this kind of period drama, about being averse to them right out of the starting gate. I’ve seen this gambit half a dozen times in the last couple of years, and always with this new and disturbing variation: Writer X opens by flatly admitting she has a completely closed mind on Subject Y, then she proceeds to arrogantly bash Subject Y around, making Twitter-worthy punch-lines and sweeping, deep-sounding critiques until she runs out her word-count. But where in decades past Writer X would then wrap up the piece by changing her mind, even just a bit, toward Subject Y, this new variation of the gambit has no such thing: “I’ve always hated Subject Y; I’m therefore never going to give Subject Y a fair shake; and here are all the things I’ve always hated about Subject Y.”

When did this become an acceptable essay-gimmick? When did editors start green-lighting pieces in which the writer declares a bias, natters on about the bias, and then walks off-stage with the bias still firmly in place? Is it supposed to convey some perverse kind of credibility? If so, there’s a crucial step missing: the trying of Subject Y. As it is, the whole gambit reeks of the ‘dogma = certainty/certainty = dogma’ stance of the George W. Bush anti-thought interregnum. Jenny Diski’s life-long antipathy to this kind of costume drama doesn’t recommend her for authoring a piece like this – it disqualifies her, and I honestly don’t know why editors seem to have collectively forgotten that fact. “We’re looking to commission a 6000 word piece on the 2011-12 hockey season.” “I hate hockey, and I always have, and I always will.” “Great! You’ve got the job!” Yeesh.

I’ll just re-read the Peter Green until the heartburn goes away.

June 18th, 2012

Man’s Best Gear in the Penny Press!

One of the annoying parts of reading all the lad-mags I do is that they believe they need to pander in order to pay their bills. I don’t think it’s true – I think the, um, slightly older segment of their demographic spread would keep them in business even if all the brainless twenty-something business drones drifted away. But the magazines themselves certainly believe it: they routinely barnacle their content with grabs for the attention of people they’d go out of their way to avoid at a party (or on a hiking trail). Specifically, the much-coveted ‘male, 18-25′ bandwidth.

The problem is, males 18-25 are epically stupid creatures, most of them. They want to figure out a way to be, the kind of person they want to be – but not for any higher reasons of self-discovery, but mainly just to get all that ‘way to be’ shit out of the way so they can spend the rest of their lives amassing money and screwing their wives and mistresses. So the most convenient way to sell them ways to be is to do it in packages: not choices but lifestyles. Most ‘lad mags’ spend an annoying amount of their time trying to sell a lifestyle to that one moron demographic.

It’s a lifestyle in which you might read a couple of  books a year (any more would be suspect), but you’ll need to be told which ones they should be (and they must be written by writers who box semi-professionally, which kind of limits the field). A lifestyle in which you’ll need tips on the best cigars to buy but somehow won’t get addicted. A lifestyle in which insights into the female mind exclusively take the form of sex-tips. You’ll be told which back-countries to hike, which CDs to bring along, and which sunglasses to wear. That male, 18-25 demographic finds it all very comforting (even though, at the movies, those same coveted viewers don’t hesitate to boo the zombies and Imperial storm-troopers they are willingly becoming), and the rest of us put up with it in exchange for the usually first-rate contents found elsewhere in these issues.

The problem, for me, comes when something that’s actually important gets lumped into one of ‘lifestyle’ diktats. Take, for instance, the latest Outside magazine. It has an absolutely great article by Bob Friel on an unsolved string of murders and disappearances along a lonely stretch of highway in British Columbia – but it also has an extremely annoying feature by Josh Dean on “The Ultimate Outdoor Companion” … i.e. the dog.

But not just any dog: the trail-dog, the mountaineering dog, the running, hiking, and whitewater-rafting dog. There’s a full-page spread showing all the latest gear you can get for your gnarly, outdoor-companion dog, and the spread couldn’t make it any clearer that the dog is itself is just another purchase, as vulnerable to the fads around the office water cooler as anything else. As if to underscore the point, the feature lists a few breeds that are touted as the most ‘adventure-ready’ breeds these males, 18-25 can buy. Leaving aside the fact that almost any young dog of almost any breed is going to have five to ten times the speed, strength, and most of all stamina of even the most athletic human (and ‘adventure-ready’? I don’t even need to pontificate on that one – have any of you ever met a young dog of any kind who wasn’t ‘adventure-ready’ at all times?), some of the breeds on this list – standard poodle, Siberian husky, even (God help us) Australian Shepherd – are extremely wilful, extremely complex specialized breeds. They aren’t ‘beginner’ dogs. An 18-25 year-old brainless man, getting one for what is very likely his first solo-ownership dog, is 100 percent certainly going to be dropping such an animal off at the local high-kill dog pound within a year. And it’s all so wasteful, so completely unnecessary. I’ve covered a lot of terrain in my life with a lot of ‘outdoor companions,’ and I’m telling you true: any happy year-old mutt can handle any outdoor activity you can throw at it – and requires not one single item of all that shiny ‘gear.’ Dogs were running tirelessly over all terrains 60 million years before the first human said ‘dude.’

But the feature has an even darker aspect, one it shares with anything pitched for a ‘lifestyle': mainly, that there’s no such thing as a lifestyle. There’s just stuff people do, and the times and ways they do it. So you buy an (God help us) Australian Shepherd because Outside tells you they’re “good companions for dynamic, fast-paced activities” like hiking, running, skiing, kayaking, and “especially mountain biking.” This is insane (try running with an Ausralian Shepherd and get back to me), but OK – except what does your dog do for the 99.2 percent of your life when you’re not doing any of those things? The rest of your new gear doesn’t mind, because it’s inanimate. But if you buy a living, breathing being – a complex creature with emotions, imagination, and personality (and one who ages ten times faster than you do – what happens when Champ can’t kayak anymore? You throw him overboard and keep paddling?) – purely for a niche-activity (and stop kidding yourself: that’s exactly what it is), you’re perpetrating a cruelty you certainly wouldn’t want done to you (your girlfriend loves your back-rubs, fine – but imagine if that was the only thing she was interested in you doing, or let you do, for the rest of your life). And whenever a ‘lad mag’ like Outside runs a feature like this, they’re abetting that cruelty.

So you love running and hiking and camping? Great. Trust me: go to your local dog pound, pick out the first two young dogs you see. Feed them, love them, and let them love you. Presto: the ultimate companion, outdoor or in.

 

June 15th, 2012

Comics: Avengers Assemble!

This new ongoing Marvel title Avengers Assemble has a lot working against it. It’s written by Brian Michael Bendis, who’s stretching himself just a bit thin across 18 Avengers titles. It’s drawn by Mark Bagley, who even fans of YUltimate Spider-Man suspect of being a hack (the Don Heck of the 21st century, as it were). And worst of all, the book’s very conception – the assembled Avengers in question just happen to be the exact same line-up as the one featured in the squintillion-earning new Joss Whedon movie – shrieks of corporate-mandated cash-milking.

The first factor is hit or miss: no matter how much he writes, Bendis can still turn out some very interesting comics (and after all, nobody faulted Stan Lee for writing six comics a month). The second factor is, it turns out, ill-informed: whether it’s a new and more understanding inker or just a team-book bolt of inspiration, Avengers Assemble is by far the best artwork Bagley has ever done – it’s better than the artwork on any other Marvel team-book at the moment.

It’s the third factor that’s hard to shake. In the current Marvel universe, there are roughly 10 different Avengers teams (Mighty Avengers, Young Avengers, Secret Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers, Creamy Center Avengers, etc.) and well over 50 team-members, including a Red Hulk but not including the familiar Bruce Banner you-wouldn’t-like-me-when-I’m-angry Green Hulk of the popular TV show, two wretched movies, and all the best parts of new “Avengers” movie. On the business level, there’s little doubt that some corporate suit simply ordered Marvel’s editorial team to start producing a monthly comic mirroring the movie’s line-up. Which would be fine and happens all the time, except that somebody – my guess is Bendis himself – decided to make this movie-Avengers title a part of the current Marvel Universe continuity (rather than its own self-contained universe, like the comics versions of, say, the old WB Superman and Batman cartoons). Which is great for fans who want yet another Bendis Avengers to follow, but not so great for basic believability. Why would these six heroes – the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow – try to do anything without immediately calling in the help of their 50 teammates?

Still, if you can overlook that fairly sizeable problem, these issues are genuinely enjoyable. This first story-arc involves a new, more powerful Zodiac team of super-villains being sponsored by none other than Thanos, the mad death-obsessed titan who makes the world’s most enigmatic cameo appearance at the end of the Avengers movie. There’s breakneck pacing, snappy dialogue, and more of a sense of involvement than Bendis brings to the other 30 titles he’s writing. And as we all discovered while watching the movie, any team roster that features both Thor and the Hulk is going to be inherently interesting (it’s very odd that Stan Lee didn’t spot this potential fifty years ago when he created the Avengers – although the Hulk was an original member, Lee writes him out of the book almost immediately). And while it’s true that no long-term Avengers fan is going to prefer the ne’tw glowering leotard-and-sunglasses Hawkeye to the old purple-suited carnival showman, it’s always wonderful to see the Black Widow put right up front with the other Marvel heroes (she’s never had a run onThe Avengers that I didn’t enjoy).

I doubt this series will last – even Bendis isn’t clever enough to keep coming up with reasons why these six would go it alone every issue – but I’m unexpectedly enjoying it while it does.

June 13th, 2012

The Squire!

Our book today is Enid Bagnold’s best novel, 1938’s The Squire – a claim to which some of you will respond “Surely not!” and very much more of you will respond “Who the hell is Enid Bagnold when she’s at home?” The “Surely not!” crowd will be bewailing the fact that I’d single out The Squire for that top honor rather than the one Bagnold book you might actually know, National Velvet – but it’s true: National Velvet is a catch-pan full of room-temperature treacle, just about the most insufferably cutesy-poo ‘girls’ book this side of Fifty Shades of Grey (the first volume of which I finally got around to reading and about which I can only say: the fifty billion of you who’ve bought this thing and raved about it, made it into a cultural game-changer? You all need to get out more). The “Who the hell” crowd will be much larger and perhaps thus more justified, since Bagnold has vanished into the mists of obscurity from which – once upon a time – there was little chance of rescue. Two 21st century factors have come into play to change that.

The first, of course, is Stevereads! Here, no book is too obscure for me to find, read, perhaps love, and if love, rave about. The second is e-books: because any book roughly 70 years or older is out of copyright, many such books are available in free, carefully-curated electronic editions for download to your handy-dandy iPad. In fact, sites like Project Gutenberg have become rather thriving intellectual hubs, giving a broad range of forgotten or obscure authors a potential second chance at a readership they’d never get if their only chance was catching somebody’s eye on the dusty stack-shelves of an old library. I’m sure you’ll find Enid Bagnold there, although perhaps not everything she wrote.

I hope you’ll find The Squire, because it’s well worth your reading time (of course if you don’t I’d be happy to send you a copy…). The story is set in a stately English country house whose lord and master has left for a three-month business trip to Bombay. Ruling the village green, the servants, and the household in his stead is his wife (never called anything but “the Squire” in the course of the book), an imperious woman firmly entered on middle age, mother of four little children and heavily pregnant with her fifth. Her advanced pregnancy has made her somewhat listless around the house, a state of mind that Bagnold expertly contrasts with the often frenzied thoughts of the various servants around her, none more so than the butler, Pratt, whose thoughts are always jagged and dark:

Drink, no, he would not drink. For two years, as first-footman in a situation in London, he had belonged to one of those west-end clubs where stately men in soft hats, silk scarves and indoor shoes come silently to the side door when the day’s work is done. Men like Raeburn pictures, impressive English faces, long-jawed, faces like actors and bishops, set mouths and well-groomed heads; there behind a quiet door some could drink a bottle and a quarter in an evening. Always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers; able miraculously to return on duty at eight next morning, steady-headed, foul-tempered and ritualistic. He had known these men, seen how they held out to the last lap, and what was their collapse. How they dropped, ruined through the rings of service, each ring holding them awhile, till down they went to that hell of penniless men who have been indoor servants and cannot do a hand’s turn at a manual job.

The masterfully-done syncopation there – “always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers” – can be found throughout this novel, which mostly concerns itself with intensely feminine world of the Squire and her female friends, servants – and of course midwife:

“I have in my time,” said the midwife, “questioned the value of motherhood. I have seen so many bad mothers, poor, indifferent mothers. Yet often the babies do well with them. Often, when I have left a mother, the baby has prospered without me; though the mother was terrified at being left, and the milk gone down with her anxiety at my departure. There is something between the mother and the baby. Not only love, not only milk. Some sort of closeness. A baby when it has been so close to her needs to be close again after it is born.”

The time-frame of the book is set entirely in the husband’s absence – the point is to make our Squire the anchor of the novel’s world. And yet three of her children are boys, and one of them, obsessive-compulsive little Boniface, is (ironically? I can never tell with this author) the most memorable character in the book:

Boniface upstairs could not sleep. He was murmuring big words in the dark, well-applied but mispronounced. In the peace of night his veiled speech cleared, the eager horses of his mind galloped as they should, with beautiful hooves, driven at speed. Lucy heard him. Lying on her side in bed in the room next door she listened to the voice soar and drop and mouth its words, despotically lecturing in the dark. He who could not in the light conclude his sentences, left out his nouns, let go his half-voiced thoughts so that they wandered away, never to be caught again, he, when dark fell, defeated sleep and talked aloud in his room with a droning, steady clarity.

On page after page of The Squire, there breathes a remarkable sense of hard-won wisdom, of quietly confident insight into the most tender, indescribable aspects of motherhood and the bond between mother and young children. My favorite moment happens late in the book, when the Squire’s little girl finds her mother in the library working over a pile of bills and papers:

Back in the library the letters and bills were strewn, half-sorted, but Lucy came in and hung over the writing-table.

“What are you doing?” said the squire, dipping her pen in the ink.

“Nothing.”

“Why are you here?”

“To talk to you.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

They smiled at each other.

Enid Bagnold wrote a few other books over a long lifetime, from her superbly moving 1917 book A Diary without Dates (which was about her experiences as an army nurse during the First World War, and the harsh honesty of which got her summarily fired) to her brusque and at times quite beautiful 1969 Autobiography, which cost her almost all of the few surviving friends she had. But The Squire took her longer to write than any of her other books, and the careful preparation shows. Whether you stumble across it at a library sale or download it in a spiffy electronic version, you won’t be disappointed. This kind of book is exactly why some of us believe so strongly in the odd and obscure.

June 12th, 2012

Savants and Scoundrels in the Penny Press!

In the Penny Press – as in life, dieting, and killing people you dislike – there’s a price to be paid for good times. In the back of my mind, I knew this when I tucked into Steve Wasserman’s absolutely superb long essay in The Nation (June 18) “The Amazon Effect,” about Amazon.com and the future of book-publishing. Still, I lost myself in the tale Wasserman tells.

It’s bracing stuff: the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the rise of e-publishing, and a surging population of readers who, as Wasserman puts it, “have no attachment at all to the book as object.” Wasserman writes evocatively about such readers – and the commercial world they’ve both inherited and shaped:

For these readers, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of people at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or a digital device matters not at all; what matters is cost and ease of access. Walk into any Apple store (temples of the latest fad) and you’ll be engulfed by the near frenzy of folks from all walks of life who seemingly can’t wait to surrender their hard-earned dollars for the latest iPad, Apple’s tablet reader, no matter the constraints of a faltering economy. Then try to find a bookstore. Good luck. If you do, you’ll notice that fewer books are on offer, the aisles are wider, customers scarce. Bookstores have lost their mojo.

The length of Wasserman’s essay is such that some of his lazier tendencies have slipped by his harried editors (that preposterous ‘all walks of life,’ for instance, and a couple of ‘four corners of the globe’-type toss-offs), who also let him get away with occasional Dickensian breathlessness, as when he gasps, “Ambulances were routinely stationed in the [Amazon order-processing] facility’s giant parking lot to rush stricken workers to nearby hospitals.” But such things are minor in the face of the great job he does portraying a venerable industry caught in the worst crisis of its existence:

What is clear is that “legacy publishing,” like old-fashioned bookselling, is gone. Just as bookselling is increasingly virtual, so is publishing. Technology democratizes both the means of production and distribution. The implications for traditional publishers are acute.

Wasserman also relays the familiar quote by Amazon’s brainless, quasi-human founder Jeff Bezos that printed books make him ‘grumpy’ – that turning the pages is tedious, that “the book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.” This comment and comments like it caused all the predictable hand-fluttering over in the precincts of Downton Abbey, but in this one isolated instance, Bezos was right. Quite apart from their collectibility as objects (literally anything is collectible), physical, printed books have many drastic shortcomings – the only reason readers of a certain age don’t tend to see this is because they’ve lived their whole lives with no alternative. It’s true that electronic reading devices require circuitry and electric power in order to do anything, whereas a physical book requires only available light. But the trade-off for that powerless simplicity is pretty steep. Physical books are finished objects – you can add your comments to them, but you can’t ever get anything from them but what’s printed on the page. If you’re reading along and you encounter a reference to ‘Metternich’ or ‘phaeton’ or ‘pelf,’ you’re completely on your own – and to find clarification, you’ll have to stop reading, put down your book, and go in search of answers (some fans of traditional books – the very worst kind of such fan – will harrumph ‘well, you should already know what those things are.’ Such people are to be strenuously avoided). E-readers offer definitions, pronunciations, and concordances of every word they contain, at the press of a finger. E-readers come with their own reading light. E-readers allow font-sizes and styles to be changed, even customized. And e-readers can be filled with books without increasing their size or weight at all. In other words, a very viable alternative to printed books now exists and is, predictably enough, causing upheavals in the old world of printing. I’ll give Wasserman $10 if he agrees to write an equally-long follow-up next year, and then one five years after that. I predict he’d be writing about an entirely different world.

As noted, I should have expected that the price I’d pay for such a brilliant essay would be fierce, but even so, The Weekly Standard surprised me. Not that it didn’t have genius too – Matt Labash’s “The Meme Generation” is every bit as great as Wasserman’s piece and far more gleefully vicious – but when I read The Weekly Standard, I go straight to the book reviews in the back pages, and this time around, that habit betrayed me big-time.

First up was Harvey Klehr’s review of Alice Kessler-Harris’ new biography of Lillian Hellman, in which Klehr spends the whole of his piece making sure his readers know that Kessler-Harris is wrong, wrong, wrong to defend Hellman in any way, making sure to stress to them that Hellman was a bad, bad person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. At no point in his review does Klehr tell us what Hellman’s profession was, or whether she was any good at it, but that’s probably just a small oversight. Maybe she painted houses.

Small oversights creep into David Aikman’s otherwise-good review of Jules Stewart’s new biography of Prince Albert, although there’s one detail that seems rather bigger: Aikman passes along without censure or contradiction Stewart’s impertinent claim that Albert was the brains behind the throne, that he largely taught Victoria to pay attention to her duty.

But if that was a mere whiff of sexism, I had only to turn the page to get skunk-blasted with sexism right between the eyes, when Jonathan Leaf gives us a “reintroduction” to Mary McCarthy that’s stand-offish about her novels (true to form in this kind of damning-with-faint-praise hatchet-job, Leaf says she peaked with her debut) and borderline-indifferent about everything else she wrote. Instead, in this centenary ‘reintroduction,’ what we get is prurient condescension that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Victoria’s England, including this flat-out astonishing line about McCarthy’s lovers:

… she lost her virginity when she discovered college boys. Her rampant promiscuity – which eventually included dozens, if not hundreds, of lovers – raises the question, previously unasked by biographers, of whether she suffered from some bipolar or borderline personality disorder.

It need hardly be said that such a passage would never have been written or even contemplated about any of McCarthy’s male colleagues, who can have as many lovers as they like and only be considered lucky, not mentally retarded. It’s true that no biographer has raised this question before, and there’s an excellent reason for that: it’s a silly, sexist, and damn stupid thing to do, as Leaf would be learning right about now and much to his own cost, if McCarthy were still alive. Since she can’t defend herself, it’s left to your humble book-blogger to state the obvious that eluded Leaf: Mary McCarthy wrote a dozen absolutely first-rate books (fiction and nonfiction), all of which (not just the first four chapters of her first novel, for Jesus Christ’s sake) are well worth your time, and none of which were written by somebody suffering from a slavering sex-mania, not that her lovers are any of your business. Yeesh.

And to top it all off, there’s no mention in the Hellman piece that the issue also contains a piece about her celebrated enemy, McCarthy, and no mention in the McCarthy piece about the Hellman hatchet-job. On an e-reader, there would have been links.

June 12th, 2012

Comics: Before Watchmen!

It’s taken me a while to get used to the sight of “Minutemen” on my bedside table. I read it last Wednesday when it came out, the first issue in DC Comics’ new “Before Watchmen” series, in which we get vignettes and adventures of characters made famous in Alan Moore’s now-iconic 1986-87 mini-series “Watchmen.” Of course I initially thought the very idea was sacrilege – so much so that I didn’t even mind finding myself in agreement with Moore himself, who’s decried the whole project as a money-grubbing desecration of his masterwork. On a purely panel-by-panel basis, I wanted to read this first issue, since it’s written and drawn by the great Darwyn Cooke. But the whole time I was enjoying Cooke’s fantastic artwork and storytelling, I was cringing at the larger concept; Moore created “Watchmen” as an artistic unit, not a monthly adventure comic. For the DC conglomerate to do a sprawling multi-series ‘prequel’ to Moore’s work felt as inherently wrong as it was for Marvel Comics to create an ongoing “Elektra” comic featuring Frank Miller’s perfectly-done original character. It feels like the kind of decision only a boardroom egomaniac could make.

This first issue of “Minutemen” is narrated by Hollis Mason (we aren’t told his last name in this first issue – you’re just supposed to know it, from “Watchmen”), who takes on the idealistic mystery-man identity of Nite-Owl in order to fight crime on the big city streets of the 1930s. And the issue is fantastic: Cooke’s exuberant page-layouts are on full display, and Phil Noto’s coloring job (especially in a scene-stealing sequence involving the mysterious vigilante Hooded Justice) is superb throughout. If this were an issue of Daredevil or a revival of the Crimson Avenger, it would all have been a joy with no drawbacks. Instead, it’s a stomach-churning guilty pleasure, since Alan Moore invented all these characters twenty-five years ago in order to tell a very specific story – a story in which the pasts of all these characters were never meant to intrude on the horrific future Moore inflicts on them. By green-lighting a project like “Before Watchmen,” DC is signalling – intentionally or not – that no matter how well you tell your comic book story (and they don’t get much better-done than “Watchmen”), it’s always vulnerable to subsequent elaboration, to potential cash-grabs … in short, to adulteration.

“Before Watchmen” will be a huge hit for DC (just as the company’s earlier sacrilege, the “New 52″ was), and you just know that will prompt some boardroom-type to toy with the idea of “Before Dark Knight Returns” or some such travesty. These various “Before Watchmen” series are being written and drawn by some of the biggest, most talented names in the industry; on an issue-by-issue basis, some of them are bound to be just as good as “Minutemen.” But even granting the allowance of pastiche, I can’t help wishing all that energy and talent were being harnessed to create some new masterwork, instead of repainting the Mona Lisa.

June 4th, 2012

Taking the D-Train in the Penny Press!

Favorite cartoon of June (so far):

"D Train" by Marcellus Hall

… I don’t know which I love more, the little human doll or the baby in the carrier … sheer genius, either way! (the sensible 1950s housewife string of fake pearls and the ubiquity of e-readers are delicious extras)