Posts from July 2012

July 31st, 2012

Stillmeadow Daybook

Our book today is Glady Taber’s 1955 Stillmeadow Daybook, but really it could be any of the many “Stillmeadow” books she made over the years by collecting the innumerable columns she wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle and half a dozen other paying venues. For millions of devoted readers from all over the world – and perhaps latterly even in her own self-imagining, Gladys came to represent the quintessential countrywoman (indeed, Stillmeadow Calendar is subtitled “A Countrywoman’s Journal”), concerned with poultry and wood stoves and simple country pursuits. But she was first and last a professional writer, with dozens of books to her credit in a writing career that lasted longer than most peoples’ entire lives. She even tried to teach writing for a few years, and she was always thereafter astonished at how many people “just don’t have the first idea what makes a story go.”

She knew from a very early age; she could make a great story out of anything at all, and the time she spent in her centuries-old Connecticut farmhouse provided her with some mighty fine raw material. Her columns gave busy urban readers a regular glimpse into a much slower, much more rewarding lifestyle (and they were very cannily marketed to to exactly that, as were the Wyman Richardson columns that eventually made the classic House on Nauset Marsh, and neither book any less the classic for being just a bit contrived). Her life came to be bounded by the most pleasant things it could offer: mail from friends near and far, the changing seasons and their always-new mysteries, the refreshment of a swim in the pond on a hot day (glasses stubbornly perched on her nose the whole time), the satisfactions of the kitchen, and maybe most of all, the constant happy whirlwind of dogs – in her case Irish setters and cocker spaniels, those dogs her readers came to know so well: Holly, Little Sister, Especially Me, Tiki, Linda, Hildegarde, and all the others over the years. They went with her everywhere and were a part of every ritual:

I like to go out at night for a last look at the sky – this is a custom with me. The dogs race around, I stand on the terrace and look at the sky, and then at the lighted house, so steadfast, so secure … the April moon hangs her silvery lantern in the soft night sky, and as I turn to the house, I think the stars are brighter than they ever were. I could pick them.

(Although some of us can’t currently read her line “Few dogs enjoy being idle, and most dogs like to use their intelligence” without a nostalgic little wince)(Fate will have its little pranks)

She tours us through every homely task, always with a brisk pace and a penchant for musing:

We have been sorting books for part of the fall cleaning. Hundreds of books have been dusted and piled in piles and packed in cartons to be given away to the little library. I find this a great emotion upheaval. Every book was somebody’s dream once, the best as well as the worst. Every book represents, I think, dusting away, hours of struggle, anguish, some joy, much pain.

And these little narratives are saved from banality by her awareness that all these good homely memories are the essence of life itself. “There is a the moment, and all the heartaches and sorrows of your life suddenly diminish and only the fine brave things stand out,” she reminds her readers often. “You breathe sharp clean air, your eyes lift to the eternal wideness of the sky.”

Gladys wrote a great many books on a great many subjects. Her dog books are some of the most enjoyable of that much-vexed sub-genre, and her Cape Cod book is very much worth tracking down. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never had a biography, and she’s certainly never had a revival, and that’s a shame. There are rich veins of pure joy in all her books, and in the Stillmeadow volumes particularly she seems aware of having stumbled into the perfect venue:

There is a kind of immortality in every garden.

As I close the garden gate and follow the crooked flagstone walk to the house on an amethyst evening, the dogs run before me, the Irish skimming as if she were airborne, the cockers scurrying, ears flying, bits of tails ecstatic.

Jill is bending over in the garden, planting young lettuce, pressing the earth gently around the pale roots.

And the ancient splendor of the evening star shines above Stillmeadow.

“There are many wonderful books which are fine to read,” she once wrote, “but there are very few that are better reread, and still fewer that should be reread every year. For one Thoreau there is a mort of best-selling books, ephemeral as mayflies.” She could stand for hours, like the child she never fully stopped being, staring at mayflies and watching them dance – but she never wrote a mayfly. She’s perfect to visit with, even when the reader’s heart is sad. Maybe especially then.


July 29th, 2012

The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous!

Our book today is The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, a 1993 addition to the “Rutshire” chronicles written by the inimitable soap operator Jilly Cooper. American readers may not have heard of Rutshire, and that’s OK – it’s a creation of Cooper’s, meticulously planned and mischievously named. American readers may also not have heard of Jilly Cooper, and that’s far less OK. Her books have never been nearly as popular in the US as they’ve always been in the UK, but American readers who’ve been making do with the likes of Jackie Collins and Jacqueline Susann owe it to themselves to rectify the omission and seek out Cooper’s masterpieces – including Riders, Rivals, Polo and our current work. In this as in so many other literary fields, the British, as Cooper herself might put it, simply do it better. The island that gave the world Moll Flanders needs no instruction, after all – and although it’s not currently fashionable to say so, Daniel Defoe would instantly have recognized Jilly Cooper as a kindred spirit (and tupped her if she gave him the slightest encouragement, but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

In the “Rutshire” series of novels, the settings are swanky – polo clubs, riding clubs, country clubs, elaborate River Fleet mansions with names like Angel’s Reach, Valhalla, and Paradise Grange – and the men are swanky too – multi-millionaires, jet-setting doctors, world-class symphony conductors, pop stars. And then there are the women! World-class sopranos, dowdy barflies, brittle charity doyennes, brainless trophy-acquisitions, and, of course, “polo groupies.” The world of polo – of riding (wild horses couldn’t have kept Cooper away from the double entendres) – is central to the goings-on of these novels, central to the plot of The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous because this book stars the gorgeous groom Lysander Hawkley. Cooper can’t wait to introduce us to him, so he gets her typically over-the-top opener:

Lysander Hawkley appeared to have everything. At twenty-two, he was tall, broad-shouldered, heart-stoppingly handsome, wildly affectionate, with a wall-to-wall smile that withered women. In January 1990 at the finals of a Palm Beach polo tournament, this hero of our time was lying slumped on a Prussian-blue rug in the pony lines sleeping off the excesses of the night before.

He doesn’t sleep off those excesses for long – without a steady, virtually uninterrupted stream of excesses, Cooper would have been reduced to writing Booker Prize-winners. Instead, she serves up a frothy mix of brutally over-monied boy-men, manipulative witches, towering you-know-whats, and a scheming rat-bastard of a paste-board Italian villain in the form of rapacious conductor Roberto Rannaldini, into whose twisted orbit handsome young Lysander falls when he and his friends Tiny, Arthur, and Jack decide to rent Magpie Cottage in Rutshire’s Valley of Paradise, well within shagging distance of every local bored wife and slumming socialite. Lysander is technically there to help the ladies train for their, er, riding:

Lysander, Arthur, Tiny, Jack and a red Ferrari with a top speed of 200 m.p.h. moved into a charming cottage seven miles from Paradise, and Lysander lost no time in getting Marigold into training. As they both jogged in track suits along punishingly steep footpaths, watching the first celandine and coltsfoot pushing their way through the leaf mould and the winter barley slowly turning the brown fields pale green, Lysander wished it was Arthur he was getting fit for the Rutminster Gold Cup rather than Marigold, but they made terrific progress.

A glance at that paragraph will reveal why Cooper’s books were so roundly condemned in certain precincts of the literary establishment – the Ferrari doesn’t move into the charming cottage, etc. – but that same glance, if it’s honest, will see what an effective line of prose she can generate when she puts her mind to it. There are passages of equally simple-but-effective scene-setting all throughout the “Rutshire” novels (indeed, there are a couple of scenes in Riders that are actually – shudder – well-written), and this should have nudged at least some of those early critics to remember that purist condescension was the reaction most often doled out to Anthony Trollope in his day. In her rather crass social observations, her neat little descriptive details, and especially her marvellously sprawling and intricate plotting, Cooper is every inch a Trollope.

And let’s not forget the best part: the dialogue! In her long and varied career, Cooper has been both a journalist and a dramatist, and the old skills shine forth whenever she’s got a group of her principals in a room together

‘Lully, lully, breast is best, lully, lully, baby rest,’ sang Hermione, flashing a blue-veined boob at her sleeping Harrods doll.

‘I still think Kitty should be in it,’ said Georgie stubbornly.

‘Kitty is needed at home,’ hissed Rannaldini, who was trying on a totally anachronistic purple velvet doublet. ‘Theengs are getting slack ‘ere. There are lights on everywhere, plants go unwatered.’ He pressed the earth of a huge ficus. ‘The second post hasn’t even been opened and I hardly think my study is the right place for a roll of lavatory paper.’

Lysander’s face tightened with anger.

‘As you talk so much shit, sir, I would have thought it was very appropriate.’

Rannaldini looked at Lysander in amazement as though the manger had spoken.

‘Particularly lavatory paper,’ he went on. ‘I told you not to buy white any more, Keety. You known bleach pollutes the rivers.’

Hearing Rachel-speak coming straight out of his mouth, everyone exchanged uneasy glances. Kitty had gone puce with mortification.

There are pages and pages of this kind of grand stuff (and yes, in case you were suspecting typos, that was indeed a hammy stage-Italian accent you read; Cooper doesn’t believe in subtlety – as if you couldn’t tell that from the ‘breast is best’ lullaby) in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous – it’ll surely be the fastest 700-page novel you read all year.

Critics have had their way with Jilly Cooper, and in another twenty years she and the glittering Dynasty-style worlds she so exuberantly created will likely be entirely forgotten. But there’s a very bawdy, knowing Nell Gwyn magic in these pages just the same. You’ll smile while you’re reading this book, and if by some chance you spot another fat Cooper tome at some church sale or flea market, you’ll snap it up without hesitation. Most of her early-90s competitors could only wish for such an effect.


July 26th, 2012

Geographica: Wonder!

As usual, it’s difficult to settle on the single best thing in the latest issue of National Geographic, because the August issue is crammed with great stuff from front to back.

The issue’s cover-article is a predictably wrenching piece called “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee” by the great Alexandra Fuller, all about the modern-day lives of the Oglala Lakota. Any single word said on the history involved will be deeply shameful to the white inhabitants of the United States, and the Oglala Fuller interviews have plenty of words to say:

And then White Plume asked me to consider the seemingly calculated insult of Mount Rushmore. “The leaders of the people who have broken every treaty with my people have their faces carved into our most holy place. What is the equivalent? Do you have an equivalent?”

There’s also a fascinating article about a madman named Tim Samaras who drives around the American West in a van trying to capture an image of the precise instant when a lightning bolt forms, the moment that happens a pico-second before lightning strikes.

But for me, the highlight of the issue is a mind-stoppingly haunting photograph by Jody MacDonald with this caption:

India: Trees infused with sunlight dwarf an early morning visitor to the rain forest on Havelock Island. Rajan, an Asian elephant retired from logging, takes the stroll as part of his daily routine and occasionally swims in the Andaman Sea.

It’s easily the best National Geographic image of the year – sad, and inestimably beautiful.


July 26th, 2012

The Tower of the Elephant!

Our story today is the best thing “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard ever did, his 1933 short story “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a barbarian who’s little more than a boy – an entire lifetime younger than the grizzled old king readers first met in the debut Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword.” This Conan is fresh-arrived in a Zamoran city of thieves, still naive in the ways of men, and when he overhears a lout in a bar talking about the fantastic treasure (called the Elephant’s Heart) held high atop the mysterious smooth-glass structure called the Tower of the Elephant, he wonders why none of the city’s thieves has ever stolen the thing. He’s rudely informed that Yara, the sorcerer who inhabits the tower, has invested the place with guards – both human and not.

Conan isn’t impressed, and after some requisite bloodshed (the boy is destined never to have a peaceful drink in a tavern), he makes his way to the temple district (thinking of his own native deity: “It was useless to call on Crom. He was a gloomy, savage god and hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies. Which was all any god should be expected to do”), hops the garden wall, and heads toward the tower itself. Before he can reach it, he encounters another thief intent on the same quest, and the two of them scale the tower to the top. Once there, the other thief tells Conan to wait while he explores an inner chamber. He stumbles out an instant later, gasping – and falls down dead. Undeterred, Conan enters the inner chamber – and confronts an enormous poisonous spider, which he barely manages to kill (ironically enough, by squashing it with a chest full of treasure). He travels deeper into the tower.

… and stumbles across a horrible story that was old long before he was born. He finds a large green idol with a vaguely human torso and the enormous head of an elephant – only a moment later, the idol opens its eyes! The thing is alive!

The creature’s name is Yag-Kosha, the last survivor of a band of spacefarers who came to Earth on star-spanning wings long before mankind evolved. One by one, this band of nearly-immortal beings died off, until only Yag-Kosha was left, and now he sits in the chamber helplessly, tortured, blinded, and imprisoned by Yara’s dark sorcery. He senses that Conan’s arrival is destiny at work, and he urges the young barbarian to kill him:

Now strike, wanderer – for the life of man is not the life of Yag – nor is human death of Yag. Let me be free of this age of blind and broken flesh. And I will once more be Yogah of Yag, morning-crowned and shining, with wings to fly, and feet to dance, and eyes to see, and hands to break! Strike, I say!

Conan does, and then he follows the creature’s last instructions, cutting out its heart and soaking the enormous gem called the Heart of the Elephant in the strange blood. He brings the pulsing gem to Yara, who is immediately snared in its magic. The evil sorcerer shrinks and shrinks (the whole time calling on his dark gods to save him) and is finally pulled inside the Heart of the Elephant – where for an instant Conan could swear he can see the man running in terror from a restored and vengeful Yag-Kosha. Conan barely has time to escape the place before the Tower of the Elephant, no longer sustained by Yag-Kosha’s magic, comes crumbling down.

In our furtive little Cimmerian ‘Stravanga of 2012, we can dream about “The Tower of the Elephant.” We can dream that “Conan the Barbarian” was a surprise hit movie last summer, and its star Jason Momoa was summarily catapulted to the A-list of young action-movie stars. We can fantasize that he signed on to play Conan for many more movies – one of which would certainly have to be “The Tower of the Elephant” (this is an actor who can morph with almost disconcerting ease to play significantly younger or older characters – in fact, he’d be fantastic as the aforementioned grizzled old King) – with GCI lions and giant spiders and oh! The Yag-Kosha we might get from some especially talented special effects wizard!

And in the meantime, the story certainly hasn’t lacked for comic book adaptations. In 1970 the great Roy Thomas was writing Marvel Comics’ full-color new Conan comic book, and he and artist Barry Windsor-Smith gave readers a “Tower of the Elephant” in which some things work well (the coloring especially, by an uncredited Glynis Wein) and some things work less than well (Smith’s ability to produce exciting action-sequences flickers in and out of existence). The pathos of Conan’s executing strike to Yag-Kosha’s heart is so perfectly orchestrated by Howard that I sometimes think it could survive any interpretation, and the thrillingly satisfying moment when Conan glimpses Yara fleeing from Yag-Kosha is an open invitation for an artist to rise to the occasion. Smith’s main innovation is to make Yara naked:

Seven years later, Thomas got the chance to adapt the story one more time – now in the black-and-white pages of Marvel’s Conan pulp magazine, “The Savage Sword of Conan.” Here he has 40 pages of room to do his work (after the painted Earl Rorem cover in which a hyper-muscled Conan fights an oddly floating spider while the requisite half-naked and terrified young woman cowers in the background), so much more of Howard is quoted and paraphrased. And here he’s teamed up with artist John Buscema, whose feel for action-sequences is usually superb (with one or two screaming exceptions, which we’ll get to by-and-by here at Stevereads) and whose ability to convey the weird and the exotic is at this point, in 1977 (and hugely aided by the fabulous, Gustav Dore-esque inking of Alfredo Alcala), at its peak. For his panel depicting the long-delayed vengeance of Yag-Kosha, he chooses to highlight Yara’s terror:

Thirty years after that great issue of “Savage Sword,” we find “The Tower of the Elephant” being adapted again, this time by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Cary Nord. They spread their adaptation over a few separate monthly issues, which rather spoils the headlong effect Howard clearly meant it to have, but Busiek’s grasp of the story’s core of tragedy is very nearly as strong as Thomas’ was, and Nord opts for a psychedelic vision of Yara’s eternal punishment:

How nice it would have been, to see this old familiar story played out on the big screen, with Jason Momoa perfectly capturing a stolid young barbarian who’s got not experience in the world but is already perfectly willing to be the instrument of any sorcerer’s downfall! Alas, the fickle American movie-going public didn’t make it happen – but we’ll always have our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganzas here at Stevereads!

July 26th, 2012

The Rieu Odyssey!

Our book today is Homer’s Odyssey, in the 1946 prose translation by E. V. Rieu that kick-started the legendary Penguin Classics series and has sold in very healthy numbers ever since. Rieu’s aim for that series in general was the same as his aim for this book in particular: to put the classics of Greece and Rome into clear English accessible to the modern reader who has neither Greek nor Latin. This aim met with scorn from certain quarters right from the start (not least from some of Rieu’s own fellow classicists), and it’s a bit depressing to consider how much of that scorn lingers today. In the half-century since Rieu’s Odyssey appeared, we’ve entered into a protracted golden age of verse translations of the classics, and it’s tough to argue with a golden age. The prose translations of the early Penguin line – not just the Odyssey but the Iliad as well, and the Metamorphoses and the Argonautica and many others – are disparaged as mere trots, plodding and artless, abominations almost on the level of novelizations. Much of this is mere snobbery, which is odious in any of its guises, and all of it is ill-judged, since enormous amounts of care and work went into these prose translations.

Rieu was as aware as anybody of the dangers involved, and it’s worth noting that many of those dangers were the exact same ones faced by versifiers. Rieu puts the age-old dilemma well:

I realize that in Homer, as in all great writers, matter and manner are inseparably blended, and I have sought, in so far as English prose usage allowed it, not only to give what he says but to give it in his own way. But style is one thing and idiom another. In the very attempt to preserve some semblance of the original effect, I have often found it necessary – in fact my duty as a translator – to abandon, or rather to transform, the idiom and the syntax of the Greek. Too faithful a rendering defeats its own purpose: and if we put Homer straight into English words, neither meaning nor manner survives.

Actually, no translator can do otherwise than inseparably blend manner and meaning – the age permeates, as it has a habit of doing, and the praiseworthy urge to make the original speak bubbles up. Some translators fight this urge and produce wooden, lifeless things of high but unenviable accuracy. Others abandon themselves to the urge and produce adaptations full of cell phones and motorcycles. The best translators try to walk Dryden’s celebrated middle path, leaving the distinct but respectful imprint of their own time on the three thousand year-old original, often making a weirdly precious amalgam in the process. We read the Chapman and the Pope Homer as much for Chapman and Pope as for Homer, and it’s entirely right that we do so.

Likewise Rieu, who imbues his prose with a good deal of Homer’s susurrations, as in the moment when Odysseus, being led to see King Alcinous, beholds the Phaeacian capital for the first time:

With this Pallas Athene led the way at a quick pace and Odysseus followed in the goddess’ steps. The Phaeacians, those famous seamen, failed to observe him as he passed them by on his way through the town. For the Lady Athene used her formidable powers to prevent it, shedding a magic mist round her favourite in her concern for his safety. As he walked, Odysseus marvelled at the harbours with their well-found ships, at the meeting-place of the sea-lords and at their long and lofty walls, which were surmounted by palisades and presented a wonderful sight.

Anybody familiar with Homer’s Greek will see at once the almost brazen amount of ‘padding’ going on in that passage, all the mild mid-century Britishisms – and yet, the whole is redeemed by typically beautiful Rieu touches like that ‘long and lofty walls,’ or the neat little ball-tossing from noun to verb with ‘palisades’ and ‘presented.’ The narrative sureness carries over even to the quick, gruesome scenes at the climax of the work – the scenes readers tend to forget, choosing instead of remember only the epic revenge-story of the slaying of the loutish suitors. Such readers sometimes forget the castrating of dead bodies, or the sluicing of gore, or the fact that Odysseus immediately orders that all the women who hung around his palace with the suitors be summarily executed. He tells his son Telemachus to take them outside and put them to the sword, and once outside, in a remarkable little moment, Telemachus disobeys his father. “I swear I will not give you a decent death,” he snarls to the terrified (and, it should be remembered, harmless) women, and he proceeds to rig up something worse than quick beheadings:

With that he took a hawser which had seen service on a blue-bowed ship, made one end fast to a high column in the portico, threw the other over the round-house, and pulled it taut at such a level as would keep their feet from touching earth. And then, like doves or long-winged thrushes caught in a net across the thicket where they come to roost, and meeting death where they had only looked for sleep, the women held their heads out in a row, and a noose was cast around each one’s neck to dispatch them in the most miserable way. For a little while their feet kicked out, but not for very long.

The defense of this passage and all the rest of Rieu  – that it’s good Homer, feels a bit pathetic to make, even after all these decades of reading and re-reading this book. But Rieu’s own defense – that it’s good reading – wins the day ever time. I re-read the Odyssey every August, and this year it’ll be E. V. Rieu’s pleasant company I keep.

July 26th, 2012

A Quick Blip of Annoyance in the Penny Press!

Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to take a stroll on the Internet.

I was minding my own business, trying to stay abreast of late-breaking developments in the Kristen Steward/Robert Pattison cheating scandal, when I came across this post on Scott Esposito’s normally-excellent Conversational Reading blog and immediately wished I were back in the thickets of Hollywood narcissism. Esposito is cheering some negative review he found of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding. The negative review characterizes the book as glorified teen fiction, a judgement so self-evidently preposterous (why not characterize the book as a collection of Mediterranean-style pasta recipes? Or a navigational chart to mid-Atlantic coastal byways? Geez) I stopped reading as soon as I hit it. But that easy dismissal doesn’t work so well with Esposito – a first-rate critic and all-around smart young man – or his comments on the subject, which are as braying as they are insulting.

Painful to re-type, too, but necessary to get this little burr out from under my saddle-blanket. Esposito writes:

the book basically got A+ coverage because Little, Brown sunk $500,000 in the advance and sure as hell was going to recoup its investment. Not saying that if the book was truly atrocious it couldn’t have derailed the PR machine, but obviously this is a case of a publisher realizing it could buy a book that was decently enough written to appeal to a broad segment of those who still read books in this country, and then basically flogging it to death and providing the financial incentives necessary to get it great placement at the nation’s leading bookstores and in the leading periodicals. The only question to my mind is if the Michikos of the world really think that all this PR muscle and packaging doesn’t influence them.

As the easily-exasperated Cyril Connolly was prone to say, Where to start? The ‘nation’s leading bookstores’ will certainly take financial incentives in exchange for displaying a book front and center in their stories, the capitalist pigs, and such placement might give rise to a certain notoriety that prompts book-editors to commission reviews of the thing. But that’s a far cry from the naked quid-pro-quo Esposito is invoking here, and he damn well knows it, since he himself is a mighty fine book-editor. He knows exactly how he’d react if a book’s publisher demanded coverage in exchange for a burlap bag stuffed with unsequenced bills. He’d react with angry disgust to such an overture, but here he is indicting the book-editors of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Publisher‘s Weekly, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Kirkus and a dozen others (presumably excluding the Atlantic, which ran a classic B.R. Myers take-down instead of praise) for being made of weaker stuff.

No, books get reviews in those organs in part because the books are news, and it’s part of a book-editor’s job to try to make sure his journal has a voice in every current conversation. The real irritation in that quoted passage – the real insult of it – comes after the commission. It’s that tout court slam of all the reviewers of The Art of Fielding, many of whom Esposito has dealt with professionally and some of whom he knows – and all of whom are here offhandedly slandered as mere dupes of some publisher’s PR campaign. Because Esposito is angered by that $500,000 PR budget, suddenly every single one of those reviewers is an inept (or worse, duplicitous) flunky with no ability to assess the merits of a work beyond the length of its book-trailer. I honestly don’t know which is more bewildering: the tactlessness of yelling “You’re all a bunch of frauds!” in the middle of what amounts to the Rose Reading Room, or the egotism of his implied lonely integrity.

Scott Esposito would never in a million years write praise of a book he considered only average, and he couldn’t for an instant be hoodwinked by a publicity campaign, no matter how elaborate. It would be amazingly discouraging to think he doesn’t extend the same credit to any other professional book-critics.

In any case, this particular ‘Michiko’ began his praise of The Art of Fielding long before any PR machine cranked into gear – and he stands by every word of it.


July 25th, 2012

Elephant Memories!

Our book today is Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss, a 1988 masterpiece of natural history that I’ve handed to dozens of people over the years but have barely even mentioned here on Stevereads, despite it being one of my favorite nature-books (and despite having had some extremely memorable encounters with elephants myself). Moss studied the elephants of the Amboseli National Game Park for many years, and right at the start of her warm and passionate book, she’s frank about how her work moved her: “Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful, and funny,” she writes. “I consider myself immensely fortunate to have spent so much time with them.” The straightforward simplicity of such a declaration is, in fact, quite elephantine, and Moss follows it up throughout Elephant Memories with encounter after encounter with the extended families (ruled by matriarchs) she came to know so well, every observation based on countless hours of careful observation:

The social bonds among family-unit members were obviously very strong, and one of their manifestations was the frequent greeting of one another. Often after they had been spread out feeding and the group coalesced, individuals would greet one another with a special posture and rumble. The greeters would first raise their heads, lift their ears and spread them, tuck their chins in, and then rumble loudly and throatily while flapping their ears.

Moss was among the first animal behaviorists to document and fully explain the nature of those family-unit social bonds among elephants, and one of the most pleasant aspects of reading and re-reading Elephant Memories is how the constant accumulation of all this eye-witness empirical data makes the reader thoroughly trust Moss. Her deductions are always grounded in solid fact, and her suppositions are never fanciful. And just as important, her prose is clear and compelling. You feel like you’re in the jeep with her, watching scenes unfold:

By now Slit Ear and Teresia were about 50 yards away, coming down to the water’s edge for a drink. Lions cannot kill an adult elephant, but they can kill a baby, and in general elephants are intolerant of lions. Teresia in particular was antagonistic toward lions, probably because of an unpleasant experience somewhere in her long life. The elephants had seen the running wildebeests and zebras at the edge of their vision but had not yet seen or smelled the lions. When they got closer, the wind shifted slightly and they picked up the lions’ scent. Under certain circumstances the elephants might have just altered their path and drunk at another spot, but their choice of drinking places was limited by the Maasai, and in any case Teresia was not in the habit of letting lions change her plans. She came forward from her usual position at the rear and walked directly and quickly toward the lions, with her head held high and ears spread. The lions were busy feeding, growling and slurping and in general making a considerable amount of noise. Teresia was almost upon them before they noticed her. They took one look and scattered in every direction, and then skulked into the reeds to hid. Teresia swung her trunk at them as they ran away and blew down through her nose. Her family came up behind her. Less self-possessed than she in the face of five lions, they, especially the younger females, were clearly excited. They flapped their ears, gave sharp shakes of their heads, and let out shrill trumpets. They all milled about, rumbling and greeting and reassuring one another with trunk touches.

Throughout the book, she reproduces the jottings she made in her field notebooks and then elaborates with her later observations and reactions, as when she observes a normally-reserved female elephant suddenly take part in some of the weird and often elaborate goofing off that elephants so often do. First she includes her notes of the moment:

Even Grace is playing now. It’s an amazing sight. Grace comes racing out, frightens herself when she almost runs into me, really trumpets and scares everyone into running off. Gloria and Gladys and others ran toward her when she trumpeted, then they go tearing off running and play trumpeting all across the open stretch of the arm of the swamp.

Then she expands along whatever lines move her:

I knew elephants well enough to by then to realize that this was not true fear or aggression. When elephants are frightened they are usually silent. Everything about their postures, gestures, and vocalizations on this afternoon indicated high spirits and playfulness. I drove home smiling and feeling lucky that I had witnessed such a scene.

Elephant Memories has dozens and dozens of such recounted moments (and of course its share of sadness – stories of poachers or local Maasai teenagers hurling spears into these animals to prove their ‘mahood’ are ten times harder to read once you feel like you know the elephants involved), and the after-effect of all of them is the same: we, too, feel lucky. Moss has written an immortal book about an all-too-mortal species. Her elephants are stranger and more wonderful than we had ever guessed.

July 24th, 2012

Soldiers of ’44!

Our book today is Soldiers of ’44, a taut and tightly-focused WWII novel by Bill McGivern, who published it in 1979 to some enviable reviews (the Atlantic Monthly called it “altogether a remarkably fine book,” and the indefatigable John Barkham said it was “combat writing raised to the level of literature”). It’s the story of a small group of soldiers detailed to a gun section in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, and even the casual reader might notice the stylistic influence of Michael Shaara’s incredibly successful American Civil War novel The Killer Angels, which had appeared a few years earlier. Shaara’s book has gone on to a well-deserved immortality, continuously stocked in bookshops and assigned in schools. The very limited scrap of immortality that clings to Bill McGivern is his string of hard-boiled noir novels (culminating in the intense but almost comically bad Rogue Cop), and that’s a shame, as is the noticeable echo of Shaara: Soldiers of ’44 is far and away the best thing McGivern ever wrote, and its quality isn’t dimmed one candle by any resemblance to any other book. If Shaara set a template for a certain school of modern historical fiction, good for him – but templates are open proving-grounds for talent, not exclusive country clubs.

Soldiers of ’44 has not been immortalized, far from it: it courts its own dismissal by hewing fairly close to some of the hoariest cliches of WWII-fiction. There’s the tough but kind-hearted commander, in this case Lieutenant Buell “Bull” Docker, and there’s an alluring, exotic civilian woman, and there are philosophical (but evil) Germans:

“Armies gain glory in victory but they achieve immortal character in defeat. From this moment on, Jaeger, you must think and speak and act as if you are under surveillance by generations of unborn Germans. What you think will be known, what you speak will be heard, what you do will be seen. Always keep that foremost in your mind.”

And Docker’s gun group is made up of the usual Hollywood assortment of guys – there’ll be the lazy one, the clueless one, the one called “Shorty” who’s from Brooklyn and lives to be ninety, and there’ll be the bad apple, the insubordinate lout who can corrupt a whole regiment if he isn’t culled and ritualistically humiliated. God only knows if real WWII combat groups had such a rigorous roster (our grandfathers are all in the ground – and they wouldn’t have told us anyway), but they’re a staple of fiction, and staples of fiction are as good or as bad as you make them. McGivern, writing after a very busy lifetime of generating prose for all occasions (and earning a respectable fortune whoring his talents in Hollywood), came to this novel – which had been germinating for a quarter of a century, as ambitious historical novels tend to do, certainly as Shaara’s did – with all his considerable gifts for dialogue and pacing at their sharpest. Bull Docker must deal with the Nazis who have his position surrounded and are very nearly able to overwhelm it, but he must also deal with the aforementioned bad apple, a soldier named Haskell (McGivern having a little fun with his memories of the quintessential bad-apple-in-the-making from “Leave it to Beaver”?):

Docker stared at the mechanics standing behind Haskell, remembering their names – Dolan, Granowski, Lenny Rado, but nothing else about them because now they were only ugly reflections of Haskell to him, and for the waste and stupidity they represented he felt an anger that was different from what had gripped him when he had looked at the personal effects of his dead soldiers. This anger had no loneliness or pain or compassion mixed in it … it was pure, a destructive feeling that denied Haskell and his men even contempt or bitterness. “You’re not listening,” he said. “It’s over now.” There were touches of color high in his face, and behind the masked alertness in his eyes an evidence of something so violent that when Haskell recognized it his smile changed and he rubbed a heavy hand over his lips.

In a canny tactical decision, McGivern shifts the action at the book’s climax from the battlefield to the courtroom (the trial scenes are protracted, and readers won’t want them any other way – the world lost a first-rate writer of legal thrillers when McGivern decided to concentrate on dames and molls, and to write dialogue for “Kojak”), and he winds things up with the kind of “what ever happened to …?” afterword that Shaara uses to such poetic effect in The Killer Angels. The whole thing is imbued with feeling and compulsive readability and all the humanism McGivern had to offer. All those glowing reviews are very much deserved. so


July 21st, 2012

Prepping for the Worst in the Penny Press!

I thought I went into the new issue of Rolling Stone fully prepared for the worst it could throw at me. How could anybody not shift into aggressive-defensive mode when spotting that cover, when seeing a magazine that used to define ‘cool’ in mainstream music appreciation giving its storied cover-slot to a musical nonentity like Justin Bieber? True, the piece is written by Josh Eells, who’s about as reliable a producer of smooth, good copy as you’re likely to find east of the Pecos (despite being, I sense, younger than the socks I’m wearing), but I worried regardless, because the long ‘profile’-type pieces being scared up out of the shrubbery like jackrabbits by the success of Bieber’s latest album (and the star’s much-ballyhooed quest to be considered a full-grown man instead of an eight-year-old YouTube hit) have all tended to read like studio-generated publicity jobs rather than articles written by real people for real people. Rolling Stone recently anointed Bieber’s album with critical praise, after all, and the magazine’s producers have got to know what having ‘the Bieb’ on the cover in a white tank top will do for their sales  – surely, I thought, those things are reason enough to wonder if even a first-rate writer like Eells might not have felt some editorial pressure to go easy on the kid.

Eells goes easy on the kid. Infuriatingly easy. At one point he echoes the same impression every other profile-piece writer has had when actually following Bieber into the recording studio:

Every once in a while, in keeping with his duties as a professional music star, Justin Bieber participates in the making of music. It doesn’t appear to take long – he works in chunks of 45 minutes or so – but it’s the part of the process he loves the most.

They all write this, these super-smart profile-writers, and they all write it in just this way, so perfectly arch and positioning – and then they one after the next refuse to land the punch. One writer (was it GQ? Esquire?) actually includes the detail that Bieber was eating while he was doing one of these recordings; it’s a Krusty the Clown/SNL happening right in front of their eyes, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why not one of them has decided to write it. Surely not every commissioning editor in the country is craven? Surely not every such profile is so stringently vetted as to leave only this pureed puffery behind? Eells is no fool: he knows as well as I do that people tend to do the ‘part of the process they love the most’ – not rather conspicuously do anything but – and yet the word ‘fraud’ never occurs in his article, nor the word ‘stupid’ even though all the direct quotes Eells uses support no other conclusion, nor the word ‘alcohol’ or ‘tobacco’ even when Eells himself steers the talk in that direction:

He’s been through all the manly rites of passage: He graduated from high school and got his first credit card, and also had his first paternity case (it was later withdrawn; there’s a song about it, a la “Billy Jean,” on Believe).

Even that last little parting gesture is something a flak rather than a journalist would make; ten minutes of digging around would have given Eells a pretty clear picture of why that case was withdrawn (hint: there’s just the slightest chance that money changed hands – i.e. that it wasn’t withdrawn because it was false), but there he is piping up with the standard-issue ‘part of the process he loves the most’ defense of a kid who’s as close to being surgically brainless as anything this side of The Walking Dead.

Likewise, I thought I went into Jonatham Lethem’s little one-page squib on Batman, “the only human superhero,” fully prepared for how ridiculous it could be. Lethem, the author of a watery novel called The Fortress of Solitude, is, to paraphrase Paul Krugman (who was paraphrasing Gawd knows who), a dumb person’s idea of what a ‘comic book expert’ is like, so I suppose it was only natural for Rolling Stone to get him on the phone rather than, say, the razor-sharp and delightful Gregg Hurwitz. But even so, I ended up being no more fully prepared for Lethem’s inanity than I was for Eells’ servility. Right off the (you’ll pardon the expression) bat, we get this:

Perhaps Batman endures because he has a good name and a good mask, a nonclown costume, and no superpowers. The least infected by the absurdity of his category, he gives that hopeless category some small possibilities. Superman wears choo-choo-train pajamas; Batman wears an athletic version of a suit and overcoat. He’s our first and most essential superhero.

This sort of tripe is a part of life for Superman fans such as myself. I’m accustomed to the usual jabs about Superman being unrealistic, being aloof, being a big Boy Scout, and I expect such jabs to continue for years, especially since director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic take on Batman has garnered such critical applause (and it doesn’t help that the new teaser trailer for next year’s Superman movie is rather dull). Nevermind that Lethem and his fellow hipsters (needless to say, he starts the piece in mandatory hipster fashion, by telling us an anecdote about his young son in tones that are meant to be both ‘I’m an adoring father’ and ‘my kid is so much better than yours’) have things precisely reversed: Superman is an adopted son of a hard-working, decent Kansas farming couple, and he’s raised in the ethos of unassuming duty to others – which is a hell of a lot more ‘human’ than an eccentric, narcissistic billionaire running around at night scaring the crap out of people in dark alleys. Superman’s Kryptonian parents fought for his survival with their last breaths; his human parents raised him to be humble, dutiful, and kind – we don’t know anything at all about Bruce Wayne’s parents, aside from the fact that they were wealthy; for all we know, they’d have raised their son to be a Wall Street junk bond corporate raider – as it is, he was raised by his butler. As all the character’s best writers have shown, Batman is in many ways the least human superhero.

And then there’s that business about their costumes. Who knows what Lethem’s getting at here, with that choo-choo train/suit-and-overcoat nonsense. Disallowing any recent ret-cons (which would be sauce for the goose in any case, since they’d apply equally to both), this is Batman’s costume:

And this is Superman’s:

As anybody except, apparently, Jonathan Lethem can see, these are pretty much exactly the same costume. Et choo-choo, Brute?

Like I say, I was prepared for all this going into Lethem’s article. Then I got to this bit:

If Batman is a barometer of collective feelings about authority and state power, then Adam West was a yippie’s image of Batman, the equivalent of nominating a piglet for president. In any era, we get the Batman we deserve. The Chris Nolan version takes Frank Miller’s brilliantly reactionary nihilist Batman of the Eighties and leaches out all the tragedy – leaving a state-sponsored psychopath Batman for our era of triumphalist remote-control revenge. He’s the manned drone of 21st-century urban warfare.

… as soon as I read that incomprehensible part about nominating a piglet for president, I realized that whatever else Lethem might be doing in this piece, he’s also engaging in that most popular indoor sport among the Brooklyn hipster set: he’s writing out his ass. So I turned the page.

But no amount of preparation would have been enough for the brutal, unrelenting first paragraph of the great Bill McKibben’s essay “The Reckoning,” in which he takes his career-long alarm about the speed and consequence of global climate change and sharpens it to lethal acuity:

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10 to the negative 99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe. Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

The whole piece is like that – a duty of every intelligent person to read, yes, but a mighty damn tough duty. The sheer power of it makes up for everything else in the issue, ready or not.

July 21st, 2012

The Slithering Shadow!

Our story today is a real corker, “The Slithering Shadow,” written at white-heat speed by Robert E. Howard back in 1933 and starring his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian – our particular version today being the Savage Sword of Conan adaptation from the glory days of that publication, in issue #20 from 1977. That veteran Conan-scripter (and one of the greatest comic book writers of all time) Roy Thomas takes Howard’s story and turns it into 50 pages of exciting, creepy, funny, energetic comics writing, and the whole thing is illustrated by the mighty John Buscema (perhaps not one of the all-time great comic book artists, but certainly the best of the next rung on the ladder, the king of craftsmen) with his customary brawny competence. And I’ve already had occasion to praise the inking work of Alfredo Alcala (in this naughty little second Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza, being held in defiance of the sad fact that last summer’s Conan movie, starring the handsome and very talented Jason Momoa, failed to conquer the box office; it’s available on Netflix now, however, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t come away from a second viewing thinking it was a good deal better than you thought it was in the theater last year), who inks Buscema’s pencils this time around as well, and his work is utterly amazing, elegantly scratchy when following Buscema’s signature bravura action-sequences, fine-grained when inking a high-fantasy interior or character study. Buscema was inked by virtually every working professional in the course of his long career, but nobody brings more exotic life into his work than Alcala.

‘Exotic’ is the key word for “The Slithering Shadow,” which Howard originally named “Xuthal of the Dusk,” Xuthal being the name of the city Conan and his female companion Natala stumble upon after some desperate wandering in the desert. The pair are hungry and thirsty, so the ornate food-laden tables they find in the city’s grand halls come as a blessing – although a mysterious one, since the few inhabitants of Xuthal seem oddly distracted – even the guard who attacks them seems almost to be acting in a dream. And something is moving about the halls and corridors of the city (which is actually ‘one great palace’), something inhuman and utterly silent, which consumes the sleeping inhabitants and leaves behind only a drop or two of blood to show they were ever there. Just as they’re thinking of leaving, Conan and Natala encounter a statuesque woman named Thalis (one of Buscema’s justly famous fantasy women, all langorous semi-nudity and hidden ferocity), who tries to explain this weird city to its new visitors, telling them that in certain pits of the city, the fabled Black Lotus flower blooms:

Through the ages, the people have cultivated it – until instead of death, its juice induces gorgeous and fantastic dreams! In these dreams, they spend most of their time. Their lives are vague, erratic … without plan. They dream … they wake, drink, love, eat, and dream again. That meal you found: doubtless one awoke, hungry, prepared the meal, then forgot it and wandered away to dream once more!

Naturally, Conan is curious about the creeping thing he half-glimpsed consuming one of the sleepers. He’s amazed at how complacent Thalis is about it – it’s Thog, the death that haunts the place: “Mostly, he sleeps below the city … but at irregular intervals, he grows hungry and comes up, seeking prey. Then, none is safe.” Obviously having never encountered a basset hound (which Thog resembles in this and every other way), Conan is outraged: “Crom! You mean these people lie down calmly and sleep with this demon crawling among them? I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt – but not as the priest intended!” Thomas does a very neat job of contrasting a city full of indolent sleepers with a barbarian who craves constant action. Xuthal is as close to Hell as Conan can imagine.

Such barbarian spirit reminds Thalis of the living world outside her dreaming city, and she takes a fancy to Conan – and a hissing dislike to Natala. At the first opportunity, she absconds with the girl, intent on laying her out as a sacrifice to Thog while Conan fights off the awakened soldiers of Xuthal. Natala fights back a bit, and an enraged Thalis decides to string her up and whip her (a kinky scene Thomas faithfully adapts from the original story, where Howard enjoys himself just a bit too much). Thalis is so absorbed in her work that she fails to notice an enormous shadow creeping up behind her – Buscema does a wonderfully theatrical job of keeping Thog concealed in shadow until the ‘big reveal,’ although his efforts are undercut by the fact that ‘Earl Norem’ paints the monster plain as day on the cover. Thog consumes Thalis and turns its nasty attention on Natala – who’s saved from a similar fate by the last-minute arrival of Conan, who fights the creature. In Howard’s story, Thog is a shape-shifting black mass of poisonous tentacles – Romneyesque, in other words. In Buscema’s rendering, Thog is groping and big-mouthed and vaguely adorable – Clintonian, as it were.

In either case, Conan manages to fight the thing off into the depths of a handy pit, but he’s mortally wounded. Natala manages to find some of the city’s wondrous Black Lotus elixir, which heals her barbarian protector. The two don’t wait around for more sleepy guards (or the return of a maimed and maddened Thog) – they collect food and water and head off for the nearest desert oasis, with Conan being typically brusque about the whole thing: “It was a hot welcome we got in that accursed city. Well, they’ll remember our visit long enough, I’ll wager! There are brains and guts and blood to be cleaned off the marble tiles … and if their god still lives, he carries even more wounds than I!”

The issue is great fun from start to finish, including a backup feature starring one of Howard’s other notable creations, the fighting Puritan Solomon Kane. The feature has workmanlike art by ‘Virgillio Rendondo’ (there’s a good deal of backstage amusement going on in these early Savage Sword issues) and utterly glorious embellishment by the sublime Rudy Nebres, whose work I’ll have occasion to praise more often in the future here, as we slowly but surely cover the whole world of Steve’s favorite comics. But for now, the deadly dreaming city of Xuthal is a perfect place to spend an hour when the hot sirocco winds blow through that 119 degree old town of Boston …