Posts from August 2012
August 27th, 2012
August 25th, 2012
Between two mountains of prodigious height
The travellers to a deep valley went …
Rest in Peace, Neil Armstrong, far traveller.
August 24th, 2012
Our book today is 1994’s gorgeous, harrowing Witness by photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, in which they take high-resolution, background-free pictures of 100 of the living American species listed as ‘endangered’ according to the guidelines laid down by the Endangered Species Act. Every single page of this beautiful oversized book is a glimpse of another nation, another world, and Middleton & Liittschwager unerringly capture the carefree uniqueness of those worlds, the offhand millennial perfection of everything from a pearly mussel to a jaguarundi to a Chinook salmon. The big show-stopping animals are here – the grizzly bear, the American crocodile, the swamp cougar, the bald eagle – but there are snails and weeds and beetles too, all lovingly photographed and given a quick but comprehensive description in the book’s back pages.
We learn the details of the shrunken habitats that now support these life-forms, and we learn when each was listed under the Endangered Species Act (we also learn a good deal about the Act itself), and we learn the (then) current state of conservation efforts made on behalf of those life-forms. The news is seldom encouraging, although our authors make a point of always striking a hopeful note, and the legendary E. O. Wilson, who provides an Introduction, strikes something of the same note, at least when it comes to the inherent resilience of so many of the species humans have come to think of as ‘fragile.’ He reminds us that no species dies of old age:
Every species that disappears is killed and it dies young, at least in a physiological sense. We still occasionally hear someone call the California condor a senescent species whose time has come. Don’t hold on too tight, the prescription follows, let it go! That opinion is based on a false analogy with organisms, which compares an endangered species to a terminal patient in intensive care too expensive for society to prolong. The truth is that the great majority of such species are composed largely of young, healthy individuals, just like other, more fortunate species that are still widespread. The condor disappeared from the wild not because its heredity declined but because people destroyed most of its natural habitat and shot or poisoned the dwindling remnant. When only a dozen individuals remained in the wild, they were captured and placed with a confined breeding colony near San Diego. Given protection and food, they and their offspring are now flourishing. If the condor habitat were somehow restored across the prehistoric breeding range and the species left alone within it for a few decades, Gymnogyps californianus would return as an abundant bird across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the American landscape.
As need hardly be pointed out, the nearly two decades since the book’s publication were not kind ones to non-human forms of life on Earth. In the U.S., the lackluster environmental record of the Clinton administration was followed by the active cataclysm of the George W. Bush administration – a 21st Century version of Witness would likely be a very different, even sadder book. These life-forms – the ones with faces and the ones without – are, in the long, long history of life on this planet, the crucial losers: when the immense wheel of chance stopped spinning, they (and their many thousands of since-vanished coevals) were the ones who ended up sharing the globe with humans and so faced a fight they couldn’t hope to win. The survival of these alien nations now depends entirely on worst bet in the known universe: the goodwill of mankind. Books like Witness are slender, flickering things, gestures of hope in that goodwill. They nudge charity into motion by showing the faces and wriggling forms of their siblings. Maybe books like this are the only real hope – to show with perfect clarity the cost of indifference.
August 24th, 2012
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Hollywood tobacco addict, in possession of a handsome face and some washboard abs, must be in want of a superhero franchise. In a business where everything is ‘the new’ something else, superhero movies are the new … well, entirety of the movie-industry, and four-color properties are being snatched up at a feverish pace until the bubble bursts.
I admit, the pattern of all that snatching-up mystifies me. I hear talk of an Ant-Man movie, a Hawkeye movie, even a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, all from Marvel Comics’ movie-making division – and even more bewilderingly, I hear rumors that DC Comics’ upcoming Superman movie (starring a Brit in the lead, for Rao’s sake) will be their only superhero production for the next few years. Even at a glance, it seems like Marvel has better characters to adapt to the big screen – and DC has an entire galaxy of such characters, from Wonder Woman to the Flash to Captain Marvel. I suppose it’s possible that studios have finally learned to go where the geeks are, rather than use big-ticket names to draw a general audience – hence we see a Hank Pym movie before we see a Wonder Woman one. But a part of me keeps expecting even older, more primal names to crop up.
That part of me was first overjoyed and then appalled when one such name – John Carter of Mars – cropped up and was made into a horrifically banal two hours of instantly forgettable CGI. But even John Carter, though venerable, is one step removed from the ultimate genealogy of the 20th Century’s superhero craze. That genealogy comes down to three names, all unbearably precious to me: Doc Savage (in the one incredibly bad movie he got, the writers decided to make him bulletproof), the Shadow (the first 15 minutes of the 1994 movie starring Alec Baldwin are as great an opening as any superhero movie has ever had – the rest of it, not so much) … and Tarzan of the Apes, whose woeful interaction with the dubious magic of film has been one long bloody swath of destruction. No other literary character has ever featured in so many cinematic disasters, including the 1998 live-action debacle “Tarzan and the Lost City,” starring a ripped but vacuous Casper Van Dien.
‘Ripped but vacuous’ is a Hollywood mantle that’s been passed on since Cap Van Dien wore it – and it’s currently in the meaty paws of four-pack-a-day tobacco addict Kellan Lutz of “Twilight” fame. So naturally my heart caught in my throat when I read in the latest GQ that Lutz had just returned to his Everglades photoshoot from filming a Tarzan movie in Germany.
It’s not that I dislike the idea of Lutz playing an action hero – far from it: he’s clearly a natural for the job (far more of a natural than, say, Christian Bale or Ryan Reynolds, to name just two) and should get a franchise as soon as possible. My own first suggestion would be Flash Gordon, but I’m guessing Breck Eisner will pick somebody else. My second suggestion is of course Aquaman, yet another instant-recognition name DC is just sitting on, content only to have it made a punch-line on “Entourage.” But the reason Tarzan has eluded so many directors over the decades (and please, don’t bring up “Greystoke” – if I live to be 30, I’ll never understand the weird, obsessive cult-loyalty that piece of garbage inspires in some people) is because there’s far more to an effective realization of the character than just his super-heroic outward trappings. And although I’d trust Lutz with those outward trappings, I’m not so sure about his skill at subtlety (although he gets along really well with animals, which can be a plus).
Fortunately, a quick spin around IMDB reveals that this Germany-produced Tarzan movie Lutz just wrapped is an animated feature, probably made along family-friendly lines for children. Which takes it neatly out of the range of my own obsessive cult-loyalty. Whew.
August 23rd, 2012
The usual over-abundance of great, enlightening, challenging things in this month’s National Geographic, from a look at the alien worlds of sea mounts to a maddeningly wimpy profile of the cataclysmic recent changes in weather-patterns to a great, comprehensive piece on the frontiers of ancient Rome and what they meant (and didn’t mean) to both the Romans and the ‘barbarians’ on the other side. Especially interesting was Tom O’Neill’s article on the Gypsies of Romania, many communities of which are now finding themselves rich on a booming trade of silver and other metals (on and off the black market). Since human nature is a constant, these newly wealthy Roma are busy building ugly, gaudy new mansions with enormous satellite dishes and Gone with the Wind-style staircases, although O’Neill comments on the strange ways in which age-old customs jockey side-by-side with new twists:
… I asked to use the toilet. [My host] showed me not to the Jacuzzi-equipped bathroom inside but to an outhouse at the back of the lot, the same one he and his wife use. For reasons of ritual purity, many Roma, especially older ones, do not cook and use the toilet under the same roof. In other houses, I saw teenage wives serving meals to teenage husbands. Arranged matches of children as young as 13 remain common among the town’s wealthy families.
The article is accompanied by excellent photographs by Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky, showing many of the indigenous treasures of this suddenly-prosperous city in a formerly-despised corner of Europe. Readers already familiar with the peculiar attractions of the region will feel nostalgic twinge at how well they’re captured here.
It’s all a captivating glance into another world – just the thing we rely on National Geographic to do so well.
August 18th, 2012
The Silent Majority has spoken (not in the Comments field, mind you – how gauche would that be?)(Sigh), and so we hurry slightly our time-table in order to produce another quick list of top-notch anthologies. Once again, the utmost care has been taken to provide a list that’s a) full of winners, b) full of variety, and c) not full of Oxford University Press volumes, the show-hogs.
English Country House Murders – Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Press put out a veritable fusillade of books in its 30-something years of existence, and a good number of them have been fine, fannish productions. But only one has become a must-have-it classic – only one is something I’ve found treasured in personal libraries on four different continents: 1989’s English Country House Murders, featuring 22 “tales of perfidious Albion.” As you can tell from the title, all the stories have a particular setting in common: the ivy-coated many-roomed long-storied English country house, where a number of guests arrive for the weekend and, in most of these stories, that number minus one leave again on Monday morning. Editor Thomas Godfrey opens proceedings with an urbane and hilarious essay attempting to lay out the rules of a true English Country House Murder (including a prohibition on characters named “Lefty”), and that’s followed by such great stories as Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Abbey Grange,” Baroness Orczy’s “The Fordwych Castle Mystery,” Dorothy Sayers’ “The Queen’s Square,” Ngaio Marsh’s “Death on the Air,” and Ruth Rendell’s “Fen Hall.” Godfrey even throws in a bit of Jeeves & Wooster. And since I’ve spent weekends at a few actual English country houses (never featuring homicide, but still), I can attest: no such familiarity is required to enjoy the hell of out this book.
The Science Fiction Century, edited by David Hartwell – This huge 1997 volume might just be the single greatest sci-fi anthology ever created, and that’s saying quite a bit, since the genre has produced some enormously talented (and prolific) editors in its century of life. Hartwell himself edits anthologies like he was on a stop-watch, and an astonishing number of them are good, fully conveying his own bottomless enthusiasm for the genre he’s done so much to shape. This book is a thousand pages long and reads at a sprint, mainly thanks to the discriminating but often surprising choices. Any anthology that bucks chronology in order to start with James Tiptree’s “Beam Us Home” is doing something not only right but wonderful, and the volume goes on to include a bizarrely thought-provoking collection of classics like “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis, or “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith, or “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, or “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison … but also such unusual items as “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, “2066: Election Day” by Michael Shaara, and “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London. For me, a great anthology is one I can argue with but also respect, and this is a quintessential version of that.
The Art Book – this incredible 1994 Phaidon volume is avisual anthology, and it does more good, thought-provoking work in its 500 pages than many a more verbal book could do in twice the length. It accomplishes this little miracle through the simplest means possible: it’s arranged in strict alphabetical order! No schools, no time periods, no movements – just A to Z. This causes countless downright thrilling juxtapositions – the great William Dobson is nestled right next to the talentless Theo Van Doesburg; the sublime Frans Snyders is opposite the gimmicky David Smith; gloriously, those two great Victorians, William Holman Hunt and Jean Ingres, are facing – confronting! – each other. Each featured artwork is accompanied by a very good overview and description, plus the relevant dates and present location, and thanks to the careful selection of artists, the over-all effect is as exciting and instructional as a walk through any art museum in the world. This is a firm entry on that short list: a book every single thinking person should own and frequently consult.
American Sea Writing, edited by Peter Neill – The Library of America produced this gorgeous little hardcover in 2000 with a brittle, almost transparent dust-jacket and deckle edge pages, a pretty, handy look that perfectly matches the inviting elegance of the selections inside. As you’d expect from a volume dedicated to regarding the sea, all the great early New Englanders are here: William Bradford, Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, etc. We also get such welcome predictables as Owen Chase, James Fenimore Cooper, and Richard Henry Dana (as well as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Old Ironsides” and a bit from the Lewis & Clark journals). Crevecoeur’s “Peculiar Customs at Nantucket” is here in full, as is Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” and Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” There’s Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne, but there’s also Lafcadio Hearn, and Mark Twain’s “About All Kinds of Ships.” The modern pieces are equally well-chosen, from Peter Matthiessen’s “Under Montauk Light” to bits from Samuel Eliot Morison and Barry Lopez and John McPhee. One egregious omission: Peter Benchley – but for a collection this strong, I can overlook it.
Katharine Graham’s Washington – It’s hard to re-read this volume (as I do, often) without a lump in the throat, since in many ways it’s more of a living record of Kay Graham than her justly-lauded autobiography Personal History. Graham was a member in good standing of that powerful and exclusive genus, the Washington Society Matron (Americanus dominatrix), but unlike a great many of those behind-the-scenes power brokers, she also knew and doted on her city’s history and culture, and all of that is reflected in this big book, which was left unfinished at the time of her death and completed by her long-time assistant, Evelyn Small. The various sections reflect whole sub-genres of Capital writing: “President-Watching,” “Visitors to Washington,” “Wartime Washington,” “How Washington Works,” for instance (and of course “Washington Women”) – and there’s a wonderful amount of Graham’s own original prose throughout, introducing sections and pieces. As with English Country Houses (and the sea, now that I think of it), so too here: I’ve had some little experience with the book’s subject – enough, at any rate, to know that the subject is given a wonderful, nearly perfect portrait in these pages.
World Poetry, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major – There’s not much I could say about this magnificent 1998 volume that I haven’t said many times before here at Stevereads (and elsewhere), so I’ll close this little celebration by quoting one of its many fantastic selections, this one from the poet who used to be called Li Po, here translated by Elling Eide:
Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.
Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
But forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.
August 15th, 2012
The recent squabbling about professional ‘courtesy’ in contemporary book reviews – are critics too nice? Are critics duty-bound to be diplomatic? – receives its zeitgeist polarizing in this week’s New York Times Book Review. In just one issue, we see what might be approximated as the two extremes of the question.
At one end, there’s the ludicrous display on the issue’s cover, two-thirds of which is taken up with a gorgeous, full-color come-hither glamor shot of author Marie NDiaye. The photo was taken specifically for the Times by Yann Rabanier, and it shows the author of the novel Three Strong Women standing in a sunlit field, posed to look both graceful and profound. The photo is flat-out enormous – it virtually squashes the little snippet of the accompanying article by Fernanda Eberstadt. To read more than a paragraph of that article, you have to flip to page 10 – where there’s another enormous graphic, this time a painting of NDiaye. In the article itself, Eberstadt writes, among other things: “It is, however, the book’s middle novella – a masterpiece of narrative ingenuity and emotional extremes – that proves NDiaye to be a writer of the highest caliber.” A little later: “NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.” And to wrap things up: “‘Three Strong Women’ is the poised creation of a novelist unafraid to explore the extremes of human suffering.”
Eberstadt is a fiercely intelligent writer, and she’s entitled to her opinions under Federal law, but this is hogwash. Three Strong Women is a wretchedly inept piece of maundering condescension. It isn’t just that the book doesn’t measure up to those ridiculous superlatives Eberstadt lays on it (no book could, not Henry James at his best), it’s that the book is virtually no good at all. And more importantly: its merits – or lack of them – are totally irrelevant to this NYTBR article. Front page placement? Gigantic glossy photo? Painting? This thing was never intended to be anything other than advertising. And as such, it holds down one end of the whole ‘courtesy in reviewing’ debate – in any indictment of the frauds and fallacies of current book-reviewing, a thing like this NDiaye piece would have to be Exhibit A: it hysterically over-praises a trifle, and it does so for explicitly editorial reasons that have nothing to do with the actual literary merits of the book in question. Any innocent reader misled by Eberstadt into buying Three Strong Women is going to finish the book (if they can) and think, “I shouldn’t have listened to that reviewer – she’s clearly personal friends with the book’s author.” This is ‘courteous’ reviewing run amok.
At the other end of the spectrum is Ron Powers’ hilarious, savage review of The Garden of Lost and Found by Dale Peck: here is a gigantically capable, powerhouse critic (and the author of the finest Mark Twain biography ever written) wading into a book purely for the joy of stomping all over it. He might say otherwise – certainly the NYTRB would say it – but please: The Garden of Lost and Found is a paperback published by Mischief and Mayhem Press … in other words, Powers had to go looking for it, and there’s only ever two reasons why a reviewer might do that. This is the other one of those reasons, and it’s a glorious performance: “In fact … I thought I could sense a malign counterforce at work: the book in my hands was actually growing new pages, and I would never, ever, ever reach the end of it.” Hee. Even better:
“The Garden of Lost and Found” is a garden of self-absorbed overreaching, a compost of glutted detail, absurd simile, strained and repetitive metaphor, forced aphorism; of dialogue that ricochets from the pulpy to the dead-on to the flagrantly author-imposed, disgorging exposition under the pretext of speech. Its characters are neither deeply drawn enough to be representational nor fabulous enough to sustain the fantasy genre.
Just as with the Eberstadt article, so too here: there’s something going on that has nothing to do with the book under review (which in this case isn’t nearly so bad as Powers makes it out to be – but then, what book could be? Maybe NDiaye’s? Did galley copies cross in the mail by mistake?). And in this case, that something isn’t hard to guess: Peck garnered infamy during his book review days at The New Republic specifically because his reviews weren’t courteous – he savaged writers and became known for it. Online commentary about Powers’ review was quick to characterize it as some kind of delayed payback, and although that, too, is a bit unfair (Powers is every bit as much of a sucker for a great punch-line as I am, but he’s a genuinely passionate, open-minded reader – he wouldn’t howitzer a book he liked just for what my sainted grandfather used to call shits and giggles), it was probably lurking somewhere in Powers’ mind while he was typing out his review, some unspoken conclusion that since Peck himself pierced the veil of courtly reviewer-behavior, he no longer hide behind that veil.
Either way, at either end of the spectrum, there’s undermining taking place – undermining of the Common Reader’s trust in the reviews being run in the most powerful review organ in the world. One is a press release, the other a hatchet-job; the first feels as impersonal as a TV commercial, the second as personal as a hate-letter. And regardless of what else these two extremes might be, they certainly act as cautionary tales – not for readers, who must flounder haplessly (or read Open Letters Monthly), but for budding reviewers: a middle road, just this once, might be wise.
August 13th, 2012
A wise and wonderful editor I once knew was fond of exclaiming, when the subject came up, “God save me from anthologies!” He was referring to the committee-nightmare procedure of selection and rejection, I’m fairly certain, not to marketing them (they do well – always have, always will – hardly ever spectacularly, but well) – and certainly not to the reading of them, for one simple reason: anthologies are a lot of fun.
Even bad anthologies are, and good ones can be revelations of juxtaposition and personal interpretation. If strong, well-read editors (rather than boards, joylessly checking off boxes of demographic representation) are at the helm, anthologies can scarcely help but entertain and often enlighten, and some of them become legends in their own rights, like Palgrave or the mighty Oxford Book of English Verse, or even more recent volumes. Let’s add a few more of those recent ones, shall we, on the general assumption that we can never have too many such recommendations?
You’d expect Oxford University Press to show up on a list like this, and you wouldn’t be wrong: they have an age-old knack for putting together good volumes. In this case the task falls to the delightful Patricia Craig, who writes in her Introduction:
Inevitably, at least half of the stories selected for this volume have been written during the last thirty or forty years, and come right up to the present to give some sense of the astonishing developments which have taken place as the genre has become full-fledged – in spit of predictions that it would never attain maturity because of in-built defects such as a formulaic framework and otiose assumptions. In fact, it has proved immeasurably resilient.
Craig includes the usual suspects – “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is the Sherlock Holmes piece, and there’s Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Raymond Chandler (a good taut number of his called “No Crime in the Mountains”), but like all the best anthology editors, she also throws in the less well-known (three cheers for Judge Dee!) and the unexpected (Borges and Skvorecky make appearances). There’s even a rare foray into detective fiction by Georges Simenon. Hee.
Some anthologies do more than assemble a group photo – some of them actually break new ground, gathering things that had never been gathered before. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is a stunning example of that latter function, as its sub-title suggests: “The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914.” The book pulls together scraps (often heavily encoded) from Herman Melville, Owen Wister (!), Henry James, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster, and an extremely well-chosen group of people you’ve never heard of, often by arduous means, as our editors attest in their Introduction:
Today the study of pre-1914 homosexual literature is still a matter of pages passed from hand to hand. To assemble this anthology, we asked friends. We read photocopies of photocopies that scholars and antiquarians sent to us; books of which only one copy existed in one “special collection.” We did our time at the British Library in London and at the Clarke Library in Los Angeles, mentally translated the F-shaped S’s in Charlotte Clarke’s Henry Dumont, an edition so old and frail that specially weighted velvet bags had to be used to hold it open.
The result of all that labor is a memorably stunning work, a clearing and re-setting of the stage.
This fat collection pulled off the rare feat of becoming an almost instant ‘classic’ when it was published in 1998, with Library Journal summing up the consensus by rightly declaring that the book should be in everybody’s personal library. Writing New York contains over 100 snippets from the writings of such New York-associated writers as Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, George Templeton Strong, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, and Dawn Powell. Damon Runyon is here, and A.J. Liebling (his sublime “Apology for Breathing,” what else?), and Robert Moses’ freezing portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia. There’s something from Louis Auchincloss, a selection from Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” a selection from Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and something from Tom Wolfe. There is, like a sad, beautiful rainbow over the whole thing, “The Day Lady Died” by the great Frank O’Hara. And there’s Lopate himself, in his quick, lackluster Introduction, reminding us that “There is a characteristic tone as well in New York writing, of skeptical humor, sardonic wit, disenchanted realism. A famously hard environment, New York inspires both stoic pride and chagrin.” Pretty much the only thing missing to make the whole thing the perfect pre-9/11 monument to the Big Apple is a YouTube clip of Simon & Garfunkel singing “American Tune” at the Concert in Central Park.
The choice of an editor is crucial for any anthology that hopes to be great, and sometimes that choice is so unorthodox it either has to succeed wildly or fail completely – case in point the choice of pretty, elfin young Adrienne Miller to edit a collection of the best fiction from the famously brawling, testosterone-soaked 70-year history of Esquire magazine. A reader unfamiliar with Miller’s steel-trap mind might have expected the big-bellied earth-pawing specimens in her Table of Contents – names like Ernest Hemingay, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo (here represented by his particularly poignant “Monhegan Light”), Norman Mailer, John Gardner – to overwhelm her, but there was never any chance of that, and besides, Miller is aided by such compensating thinkers as Barry Hannah, Pete Dexter, Russell Banks – and Flannery O’Connor, writing all the gentlemen under the table. In typically direct fashion, Miller lays out her simple criteria:
There is a short story called “Porcupines at the University,” by Donald Barthelme, and in it there are three questions: “Are these porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?” That’s how I chose these stories: They’re the ones that got a yes, a yes, and a YES.
Some themes are more narrow than others, but no less yielding – like this compact, powerful 1991 volume from horror wonk Leslie Shepard. The book combines the earlier Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories and Dracula Book of Great Horror Stories and features virtually every pillar of undead lit any beginner (or connoisseur) could want, from “Dracula’s Guest” to Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, and Sheridan Le Fanu – plus an anachronistically sexy cover and an almost de rigueur mixture of haughtiness and looniness in Shepard’s Introduction:
The older stories of vampirism have a certain melancholy dignity … and do not present this grim tradition as something for trendy kicks. There is an underlying morality in these tales which symbolizes ancient mysteries of life beyond the grave, the decay of the body, the strange passions of the blood, and the age-old struggle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul. The protective power of the cross is an ancient theme, for it was a pagan talisman long before Christianity gave it new emphasis. But the real conflict with vampires is in that twilight zone between waking and sleeping, when the will and the moral senses are bemused, and that is why the classics of vampire literature are more subtly meaningful than the contrived sensationalism of modern horror movies, where the mind and emotions are deadened by violence for its own sake.
As we began with an Oxford anthology, so too we’ll end with one, as a kind of quiet acknowledgement that we could have run through a list twice this long consisting only of great Oxford anthologies (some houses just have the knack) – and every time I take this one – the 1992 Oxford Book of American Short Stories down from the shelf, I’m newly amazed that I even own a copy, much less return to it as regularly as I do. Joyce Carol Oates and I have never been on the same aesthetic wavelength, as it were – except for this volume, in which she gives full rein to all her various stubborn idiosyncrasies and yet somehow manages to cohere them in a way that’s not only not irritating but is movingly beautiful. She gives readers only the barest handful of expected items – “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Things They Carried” – and she fills the rest of her space with less-trafficked pieces like Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead,” or Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism in the Cars,” or a neat little stack of crap from Sandra Cisneros, and all of it guided by her enthusiasm, which for once is neither falsified nor frittery:
We must assume that storytelling is as old as mankind, at least as old as spoken language. Reality is not enough for us – we crave the imagination’s embellishments upon it. In the beginning. Once upon a time. A long time ago there lived a princess who. How the pulse quickens, hearing such beginnings! such promises of something new, strange unexpected!
That last part is crucial, as Oates points out: great anthologies can reprint all the familiar stuff they want, but somehow, by the alchemy of their alignments, they manage always to make that stuff new and strange and unexpected. Must be why I have a couple of shelves of them, well-thumbed. We’ll do six more in a bit!
August 9th, 2012
Our book today is Washington Irving’s 1832 international best-seller, Tales of the Alhambra, a hodge-podge of vivid sketches, retailed folklore, and picaresque travel vignettes – exactly the same formula, in other words, that had done so much to cement Irving’s reputation as the most famous writer of his day (he wrote almost all of Tales of the Alhambra while living in England, where he’d earlier composed Bracebridge Hall along very similar lines). In the 1820s, with an almost unbroken string of best-sellers behind him, Irving was a genial and thorough-going hack, searching always for a new paying venture, dreaming always of a regular, reliable berth for his writing. Along the way, he almost single-handedly raised the nascent field of American letters out of the provincial and onto the world stage – much to the astonishment (an often unwilling astonishment) of the world. He achieved this through murderously hard work, and by inventing his own lingua franca in order to make it possible, this glittering, irresponsible, utterly irresistible slush of fact, fancy, and fiction that had never quite existed at this refined, athletic pitch before Irving came along. Two things we can say about it beyond doubt: it gave rise to the entire genre of historical fiction for which later writer (and Irving devotee) Walter Scott typically gets the credit … and the reading public couldn’t get enough of it. Irving mastered the art of not only conveying enthusiasm in print but (the much harder thing, then and now) conveying merriment, and gave readers a nearly perfect blend of carefully-researched fact and gently inviting narrative. It’s not only the Hilary Mantels of our world who are his direct descendants – it’s the David McCulloughs too.
In 1826, Irving got a letter from that great and gentle Boston scholar (and career dilettante diplomat) Alexander Hill Everett inviting him to Madrid and enticing him in one of the only ways guaranteed to work: the promise of fresh library archives. Irving went and spent a good deal of time industriously reading and researching – and travelling everywhere, always in the company of his “self-imposed cicerone,” Mateo Ximenes.
It was from this stay in Spain that the bulk of Irving’s great writings on Christopher Columbus derived, and it was during this time that Irving fell under the “witching charms” of the legendary Alhambra palace itself:
To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and the poetical, so inseparately intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems. How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous, – how may songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this Oriental pile! It was the royal abode of the Moorish kings, where, surrounded with the splendours and refinements of Asiatic luxury, they held dominion over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for the empire of Spain. The royal palace forms but a part of a fortress, the walls of which, studded with towers, stretch irregularly round the whole crest of a hill, a spur of the Sierra Nevada or Snowy Mountains, and overlook the city; externally, it is a rude congregation of towers and battlements, with no regularity of plan nor grace of architecture, and giving little promise of the grace and beauty which prevail within.
That combination – the historical and the poetical – defined Irving’s own sensibilities, as he himself knew well, and it guaranteed he would always be sensitive to the good stories amidst all the local folklore. When he travelled, he was the perfect traveller: always alert, always attentive, always ready to be interested in something new. Tales of the Alhambra owes a good deal of its charm to Irving’s uncanny ability to be always encountering things for the first time, right alongside his readers. When he sees the improbable sight of men carrying fishing poles along the high battlements of the palace, for instance, he goes straight to Mateo Ximenes for an explanation, which he happily shares:
It seems the the pure and airy situation of this fortress has rendered it, like the castle of Macbeth, a prolific breeding-place for swallows and martlets, who sport about its towards in myriads, with the holiday glee of urchins just let loose from school. To entrap these birds in their giddy circlings, with hooks baited with flies, is one of the favourite amusements of the ragged “sons of the Alhambra,” who, with the good-for-nothing ingenuity of the arrant idlers, have thus inverted the art of angling in the sky.
Tales of the Alhambra sold very well in Irving’s day, and I’ve lost count of how many copies I’ve given to people over the decades. It’s still a living book, even after two centuries – no small feat for a hustler from the provinces. Go to the second-hand book shop, pick your favorite of the dozens and dozens of beautifully-illustrated editions that have been made throughout the years, and join your own self-imposed guide for a wonderful tour.
August 8th, 2012
As the body is resurrected, it is gloriously transfigured. Theology teaches us this and art history confirms it. Minor works become major ones; major ones, masterpieces; and masterpieces are rendered almost invisible by the effulgent aura of their value.