Posts from October 2012

October 29th, 2012

Six for the Storm!

As the ‘Nor’easter Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy makes its historic run at the Eastern seacoast, hundreds of thousands of people hunker down in their homes, facing the prospect of two full days lashing winds and pouring rain. Those people face these hardships in much the way their Puritan and Huguenot ancestors did: by periodically refreshing their Twitter feeds. They’re getting three kinds of tweets for their trouble: 1) crackpot New Yorkers angrily complaining that this storm – currently 1200 miles wide, the largest storm system to strike the United States in recorded history – is “nothing special,” that they’ll be going to work same as always, even though nobody else is going to work, work has been cancelled, and their workplace is under water, 2) storm-crows like Ed Champion keeping everybody informed minute-by-minute, and 3) people choosing to look on the bright side, cheering the hurricane as a great chance to catch up on reading.

Long-time Stevereads readers will know which of those three is the most interesting.

Yes, strange as it seems, there’s an undeniable meteorological comfort to reading. Bad weather somehow enhances the impression that books are actual physical places we can enter at will, literal escapes. This shouldn’t make any sense, and yet it inevitably does; I’ve lost count of how many different kinds of weather-catastrophes I’ve escaped by taking up a book (snowstorms by far the most numerous of that group, including a gigantic one endured in the Canadian Yukon in a cave about the size of a refrigerator, but also heat waves, rain storms, and more than a few hurricanes, including two at sea), and the feeling is always a delicious combination of doing what’s right and playing hooky.

Rain is pattering my window panes as I write this, and Hurricane Sandy is still lurking offshore, trying to decide where to make landfall. Two friends have had to evacuate their cool New York apartments, two dozen more are already without electricity, and all are staying put to wait out what could be a very wet and windy 12 hours (this is one of those rare instances where dog-owners openly envy cat-owners) – and they’re curling up with books in a wild abandon of nerdishness.

Not just any kind of book, however, in their case or my own. As a dues-paying citizen of the Republic of Letters, I should by rights continue to plow my way through the 300 or so galley copies in this apartment. But when it’s storming outside, such books feel like all the bad kinds of work. Like every other inveterate reader out there, I tend to turn to known quantities when it’s dark and blowing outside. Here are six choice examples, to help you pass the time:

The Pillow Book of Sei ShonagonThis is the, er, inimitable compilation of idle thoughts, pan-shallow reflections, and utterly beguiling daily snapshots made by Sei Shonagon, a twittering, cultured lady at the Heian court of tenth-century Japan, and there’s really nothing else quite like it in all the world’s literature (I’ve always maintained that its nearest rival, both for mundane interest and utter lack of self-consciousness, is the diary of Samuel Pepys). Our lady jots down glimpses of whatever happens to be happening around her that day – ghost stories, pet troubles, endless reams of gossip – and she’s also fond of making lists: Unsuitable Things (“a handsome man with an ugly wife”), Things That Have Lost Their Power, Interesting Things, Things That Don’t Quite Look as Good When Painted, Elegant Things (“shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl”), and so on. Our lady has fine sensibilities, although we cannot shake the suspicion that she’s something of a twit:

Once I wrote down in my notebook a poem that had greatly appealed to me. Unfortunately, one of the maids saw it and recited the lines clumsily. It is really awful when someone rattles off a poem without any proper feeling.

You want to hate her, this first of all YouTube stars, but you can’t. She just keeps burbling along, and even when she’s complaining about this very thing – rain – you’re entirely in her long-vanished world while she does it.

The Natural History of Selborne by Glibert White – Likewise this little classic of English literature, once one of the most read and reprinted books in the Western world: those of us who’ve read it more times than we can count (it’s gone on travels with me to very, very far places and back) know almost to the page-number when the book’s rains or snows will fall, but they nevertheless feel welcoming, as does White’s gentle presence itself, always curious, always noting to his two correspondents (Tom Pennant and Daines Barrington) all the goings-on in his beloved Selborne – and about its many animal inhabitants, from voles to harvest mice and most especially all variety of birds. White is the ultimate amateur birder, full of the ready amazement that is the birder’s chief counter to damp, chilly feet on a morning slog:

Your account of the greater bramblings, or snow-fleck, is very amusing; and strange it is that such a short-winged bird should delight in such perilous voyages over the northern ocean! Some country people in the winter time have every now and then told me that they have seen two or three white larks on our downs; but on considering the matter, I begin to suspect that these are some stragglers of the birds we are talking of, which sometimes perhaps may rove so far to the southward.

Johnny-come-lately preservationists strove mightily to keep White’s Basingstoke and Selborne much as they were in his lifetime, and although they’ve had some success, it’s largely beside the point: we al make our own Selborne  out of the wondrous materials of White’s book – and we retreat to that Selborne when our own environs seem less inviting.

The Collected Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle – These stories form an even more enduring monument than Gilbert White’s book, and often, perversely, one of their greatest allures is … bad weather! How many of these immortal stories of Holmes and Watson open in abominable weather, with London damp and chill and fog enshrouding 221b Baker Street? “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” (a murder mystery hinging on the intricacies of a subway-system!) has just such an opening, with our heroes engulfed in fog – and Holmes chaffing at it:

“Look out this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”

The Holmes & Watson stories are the quintessential literary ‘comfort food’ – these, too, I’ve read more times than I can count, quite often in chill and damp and fog. They ought not to provide the sanctuary they do, but it happens every time just the same. Our heroes dash out into all kinds of horrible weather at a moment’s notice – indeed, Holmes seems to relish it (although Watson has the good grace to grumble). It should make a reader hiding from inclement weather feel the worst slug-a-bed imaginable. But it doesn’t.

The Portable Dorothy Parker – this one in the gorgeous recent Penguin trade paperback which, if it were even so much as one wafer-thin short story thicker, wouldn’t be ‘portable’ at all. This enormous volume isn’t just the portable Parker – it’s pretty much all the Parker you’d ever want to read. The entirety of the old (and improbably best-selling) Viking Portable Dorothy Parker is here, and to its length is added more than twice again the material, selected by Parker’s winning biographer Marion Meade with an unfailing eye for quality. Here are lots of letters, lots of short stories, and most precious of all, plenty the savage, note-perfect book reviews Parker wrote on deadline for ready money (which, coming from newspaper editors, wasn’t always all that ready). There is no Dorothy Parker that’s more Dorothy Parker than these fantastic book reviews; her deadlines and her paltry pay made her brilliant in the way only reckless genius can be – as in this reeling aside about a certain modern American classic:

Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick. As soon asThe Sun Also Rises came out, Ernest Hemingway was the white-haired boy. He was praised, adored, analyzed, best-sold, argued about, and banned in Boston; all the trimmings were accorded him. People got into feuds about whether or not his story was worth the telling. (You see this silver scar left by a bullet, right up here under my hair? I got that the night I said that any well-told story was worth the telling. An eighth of an inch nearer the temple, and I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this sort of tripe.)

She herself would have been mortified to hear it, but Parker is in the same category as Sei Shonagon or Gilbert White: she’s invariably good company, despite all the drizzling New York streets she had to negotiate in her day, quick-stepping through slushy snow, eager for the night to begin – or eager to hail a taxi before the pitiless dawn. This big collection by Meade never runs out.

Five Skies by Ron Carlson – They aren’t all ages-old, these rainy-day standbys! Sometimes the rain or the snow simply aren’t going to last that long (hence, the neatly compartmentable nature of our selections thus far) – and there are dogs to walk, and meals that need fixing no matter what, and there’s always that thing you should be writing, for some rapacious set of editors who look with otherworldly disdain on such things as playing hooky (or hurricanes, for that matter – after all, some parts of the world don’t get ’em). Long hibernations aren’t always possible in this always-connected world (ask me for a different story if Hurricane Sandy succeeds in knocking out my electricity), but sometimes you want your rainy-day reading to be one complete organic whole, with no skipping around selecting bits here and there. For that, you not only need a novella but a really good novella, something that won’t ever fail to pull you in and move you. Five Skies by Ron Carlson is one of those – it’s the much-praised story of three very different men who are engaged in building a ramp in the middle of nowhere, in the Idaho Rockies Carlson describes so tersely and wonderfully, with every word carrying weight:

The sound wasn’t a generator and it wasn’t people talking. When he stood, he knew it was at some distance a river, and as he walked toward it and saw clearly the mortifying fissure through which such a vast river ran, the geology of the entire plateau settled in his mind as an entity, a huge primitive place that few men had seen. He went to the edge of the sandstone gorge and looked down. In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders. Here the sound was terrific, magnified, real.

Even after you know the plot of what transpires between those three men, you can keep going back to Five Skies for those jolts of cold air and human insight Carlson does so incredibly well.

Under the Small Lights by John Cotter – Carlson himself praised the last of our books – our second novella – as a “kaleidoscopic glimpse at an intense circle of friends as they mix love and obsession in a sort of game of art,” which is just about as accurate as you can reasonably expect from a man in a hurry, but ‘glimpse’ feels wrong just the same: Cotter’s debut work of fiction feels more capacious than any glimpse could be. It’s the story of a quartet of young people in upper-middle-class suburban American Everywhere, impatiently and cross-grainedly wiling away the last days of their collective youth, forever mourning over lost innocences they never really had. These young people are lopsidedly in love with each other – all erotic, all hyper-charged with pretentious self-consciousness, and at the heart of the story is a pair of would-be literary giants named Jack and Bill, as complex and perfectly-realized a ‘problem’ friendship as has ever been put on paper for public consumption. We follow these young people through the travails of a season, but time is constantly bearing down on them, and Cotter catches it all with a sentimentality so sharp it’s breathtaking. When Jack keeps expecting to see Bill at the book’s denouement and doesn’t, the longing is exquisitely rendered:

Kat followed Toby into the lobby of a bank to get some cash and I half-listened to the others talk while I scanned the city for Bill, still not believing he wasn’t there, hurt and giddy. A chance to be Bill without Bill there, misplaying him.

I shook, from hands to feet.

Gorgeous moments like that litter Under the Small Lights with a prodigal generosity. I try to read just about all the fiction currently going by young English-language authors, but I don’t know of any who could have caught the little chill of “a chance to be Bill, without Bill there, misplaying him” – I hardly know any who would have seen the potential to. That sort of thing makes this novella a top pick for re-visiting.

Of course there are plenty of other candidates – even thousand-mile-wide storms can only last so long! Hurricane Sandy is predicted to get worse before it gets better, but no matter how bad it gets, it will have moved on into the history books by mid-week, and these storm-cellar books will be back on the shelf, elbowed out of the way by all those clamoring galley copies. But these six always make my hunkerings-down even more enjoyable – you should give them a try next time you’re breaking out the candles and the wine.

October 27th, 2012

Penguins on Parade: Charles Lamb!

Some Penguin Classics almost seem like they’ve been around forever, and yet a prime such example, the Selected Prose of Charles Lamb, only came into existence in 1985, in a pretty trade paperback with Hazlitt’s famous portrait of the young Lamb on its cover. The edition is edited by Adam Phillips, whose Introduction cites Lamb’s “infamous good nature” and gives a good, if light, account of the charm of the man’s work: “The essays, like the letters, revealed not only Lamb’s idiosyncratic reading but a vigorous moral intelligence that was always whimsically understated. His art made light of things.”

This is true, and it was something of an accomplishment all on its own. Although literature welcomed him with open arms, Lamb’s life was a study in tragedy and traducement. His intermittently mad sister Mary killed their mother with a carving knife when both of them were very young, and in order to keep her out of the barbaric state-run insane asylums of the time, Lamb took it upon himself to care for Mary for the rest of his life, working as a clerk at the East India Company, which he referred to as his own “official confinement.” In spite of these huge and ongoing tensions – and, one can’t help but suspect, as a relief from them – Lamb steadily generated prose for public consumption, and a great deal of it – most conspicuously his famous “Elia” essays – was very good … immortal, in fact. Even today, with the Georgian and Victorian periods a century in their graves, Lamb is still the most excellent company for the allegedly desultory reading he himself championed with such wry amusement.

He never fails the reader, and he’s frequently luminous of phrasing, especially when he’s ‘on a roll’ – as in the great essay “Imperfect Sympathies” when he warms to the task of describing a certain kind of person, ostensibly a variety of starched, over-serious Scotsman, but the reader quickly senses that Lamb had a much less narrowly ethnic group of people in mind – an eternal group, alas, with members found in all nationalities, then and now:

His Minerva is born in panoply. You are never admitted to see his ideas in their growth – if, indeed, they do grow, and are not rather put together upon principles of clockwork. You never catch his mind in an undress. He never hints or suggests any thing, but unlades his stock of ideas in perfect order and completeness. He brings his total wealth into company, and gravely unpacks it. His riches are always about him. He never stoops to catch a glittering something in your presence, to share it with you, before he knows whether it be true touch or not. You cannot cry halves to any thing he finds. He does not find, but bring. You never witness his first apprehension of a thing. His understanding is always at its meridian – you never see the first dawn, the early streaks. – He has no falterings of self-suspicion. Surmises, guesses, misgivings, half-intuitions, semi-consciousnesses, partial illuminations, dim instincts, embryo conceptions, have no place in his brain, or vocabulary. The twilight of dubiety never falls upon him.

This Penguin Classic contains all the great Lamb that isn’t in his letters. “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” is here, and “A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People,” “The Superannuated Man,” and “Sanity True Genius.”All the well-known and oft-anthologized passages are here, as well as the perfectly-phrased little byways the reader of Lamb comes to treasure more than the highways. Lamb was an avid reader with steadfastly uncategorizable tastes. Even when he was the thick-chinned young man in Hazlitt’s painting, he had a wide vein of sentimentality for a lost golden age of writing and especially reading. The explosion of publishing he saw in his era – and the movement of pleasure-reading outward from the private libraries to the coffee houses and interchange floors filled him with a kind of feinting dismay (even while it proved profitable) that he voiced most memorably in “Readers Against the Grain,” where the deplorable picture he paints will be instantly recognizable to any professional book-reviewer:

I have something to do in these book-clubs, and know the trick and mystery of it. Every new publication that is likely to make a noise, must be had at any rate. By some they are devoured with avidity. These would have been readers in the old time I speak of. The only loss is, that for the good old reading of Addison or Fielding’s days is substituted that never-ending flow of thin novelties which are kept up like a ball, leaving no possible time for better things, and threatening in the issue to bury or sweep away from the earth the memory of their noble predecessors. We read to say that we have read.

Lamb probably never envisioned a time when his own name and writing would seem as firmly a part of “good old reading” as Addison and Fielding – it’s possible that even he wasn’t quite egotistical enough to dream of such a thing as a Penguin Classic version of his Selected Prose. But we were lucky to have it just the same, for the brief window when Penguin still printed it. And we’ll always have the Brattle, for a nice used copy.

October 23rd, 2012

Words v.s. Pictures in the Penny Press!

The great Lev Grossman has a typically smart and interesting piece in last week’s Time (the issue with the hideous cover advertising 60 different stories inside), on a subject of perennial fascination: books translated into movies. I’ve long been on record with the audacious opinion that virtually every movie version ever filmed is better than the literary work from which it was adapted, and although Grossman doesn’t go quite that far, he’s refreshingly flexible about the whole process, instead of parroting the typical book-person’s assertion that the movie is always worse, always a shadow or travesty.

Naturally, what got him going in the first place was the stunning long trailer to the upcoming movie adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. Grossman is right to imply in his opening that the novel’s brattily intricate structure seems almost designed to be unfilmable, but anybody who’s seen that trailer to the upcoming Wachowski-siblings adaptation isn’t prepared to be so certain (including Grossman, who writes here that his problems with the full movie were very similar to his problems with the book). Mitchell’s book impressed me with its literary virtuosity and irritated me with its innuendo about how badly the desiccated old novel form needed a surrealistic shot in the arm to keep it going (this is my problem with ‘magical realism’ as well – plain-old realism works just fine for fiction’s purposes, if you know what you’re doing when you try to write it), but however I felt about the novel, I, too, for a long time considered it unfilmable – and I, too, was amazed by the trailer. Grossman might just as easily have been talking about the upcoming Ang Lee movie adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi; the book was very nearly wretched – but the trailer for Lee’s movie is heart-racingly astonishing, for reasons Grossman deftly points out:

… directors have to improvise filmic equivalents to literary devices rather than try to transcribe those devices directly onto the screen. Which is about as difficult as it sounds. To do it, the director needs a cinematic voice that’s as strong and confident as the writer’s written one.

This is exactly right, and purists in both camps should remember it. When you adapt something, you change its nature in order to preserve its essence. The problem with adapting novels into movies is that it’s tough to find two people (let alone the 21 million people of a movie’s opening month) who’ll agree on what any given book’s essence is. The director is just one of those people, but directors who have the courage not to kowtow to their literary sources can make vividly memorable work – from Stanley Kramer’s powerful adaptation of On the Beach to Peter Jackson’s deservedly praised Lord of the Rings trilogy to the BBC’s recent intensely clever updating of the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Hollywood is making more literary adaptations than ever in its history (especially if you include comic books under the big umbrella of ‘literary’), snatching up any piece of printed matter that sells well in the hope it’ll translate into dollars at the box office, the theory being that movie-going audiences want to feel comfortable with what they’re about to watch, that they’re increasingly too timid to take chances. Grossman is clever on this basically cowardly process:

There’s a weird aura of manifest destiny around successful novels, a pervasive belief that they must progress through the stages of life and become movies, as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly: the movie industry treats narrative like a precious nonrenewable resource that must be carefully recycled and never just wasted on mere paper.

Examples proliferate – it’s a fun game: Moby-Dick,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Quo Vadis, To Kill a Mockingbird, Doctor Zhivago (to say nothing of the works of Shakespeare) … all have been adapted into superb movies specifically because their directors risked the ire of puritans in order to make the material their own. And dozens more adaptations are headed to movie theaters in 2013.

Grossman has just the right combination of literary depth and cultural reach to write about this stuff grippingly, and he does – for the limited amount of space Time gives him, that is. The space is a two-page spread toward the back of the magazine, and although two pages is still cruelly short for such a big and interesting subject, Time wastes a full one-third of it on a huge and utterly unremarkable ‘illustration’ sitting there slap across the page like a big neon vote of ‘no confidence’ in Grossman’s ability to carry the subject across the finish line unaided. The boring illustration could easily have taken up the space of one of Grossman’s paragraphs – instead of ten paragraphs. The New York Times Sunday Book Review does the same thing, and it’s endlessly annoying.

Fortunately, I won’t have to worry about such old-world things when I’m seated in the audience getting ready to watch Cloud Atlas unfold in all its visionary glory. I hope they get some of the words right.

October 21st, 2012

Six for a Start!

The age-old publishing maxim (it’s actually a maxim for everything, but we’ll stay on our home ground), “Stick With What Works,” has few starker applications than the books-in-series that have long afflicted the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Long after whole forests were pulped to make endless “Gor” and “Lensman” books possible (although nothing could make them readable), the series as an economic imperative is still going strong. New York Times-bestselling vampire-fraudling Justin Cronin was awarded a squintillion dollars not for one gawd-awful book but for a series of them. Fifty Shades of Grey (I’ve now finally read it, and hoo-boy, it belongs in the sci-fi/fantasy category if anything does) will inevitably be 50 books. Harry Potter stuck around for a shelf-full of interminable books (and will certainly return). Any open-minded reader browsing the New Releases shelves of the last few remaining bookstores will be hard-pressed to find a novel that doesn’t announce itself as “Third Book in the Galaxy Wives series” or some such – practically a warning that the uninitiated need not apply. And yet, there are great pleasures to be reaped from exploring the innards of books-in-series. There’s the cliffhanger element, of course, and in skilled hands, there’s a great deal of interest in watching whole casts of characters put through their paces. Books-in-series can indulge in the one thing even the longest stand-alone novels can’t: they can postpone ‘The End’ almost indefinitely. If you like living in fictional worlds, books-in-series are the ideal venue for you – here are six entry-points to such worlds:

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg – this 1980 novel introduces readers to the immense world of Majipoor, a place of twenty billion living beings, some of half a dozen different races – all of them immigrants to the planet over the last few thousand years (except for the few scattered indigenous inhabitants who are – in a classic Silverbergian touch – shape-changers who can look like any of the other peoples). Majipoor is so big it’s sleepy;  its sprawling oceans and massive continents have been visited occasionally by spaceships from other worlds, but it hardly causes a ripple; the billions of inhabitants of Majipoor live in blissfully seventh-century lifestyles punctuated by castles, overlords, mounted travel, sail-powered sea-going vessels, Renaissance faires as far as the eye can see. In Lord Valentine’s Castle Silverberg gives us a fantastic, panoramic introduction to this world and its people – and to his sexy, amnesiac wanderer Valentine, who could be a mere vagabond but could also be destined for stereotypical great things. Valentine’s adventures in this book reflect a bit too heavily on Silverberg’s fascination at the time with juggling, but it hardly matters: the real draw here is the world of Majipoor itself.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey – 1968 saw the first Anne McCaffrey’s dozens and dozens of novels set on the planet Pern which, when we get there in Dragonflight, has been settled for centuries into a fantasy pattern: quasi-medieval Holds go about their business in commerce and war, hardly giving any notice to the red star that glows so balefully in the morning sky and enduring with sullen grace the presence in their society of ‘dragonmen’ – riders of enormous winged dragons. The ancient lore of Pern warns that the dragonmen are the only defence against the threat of the Red Star, and there’s science buried underneath the lore: Pern’s orbit periodically brings it into contact with a cloud of spaceborn acidic spores – called Thread in the legends – and the dragonmen’s awesome mounts belch fire that can destroy Thread before it makes landfall and destroys all living material. Dragonflight tells the story of the young woman Lessa, who’s fated to lead the dragonmen when Thread returns – but the Pern books went on open-endedly to tell hundreds of stories about Pern, ranging from the very beginning (when human colonists first arrived there and began genetically adapting native lizards to fight spores) to … well, who knows when, since the late Anne’s son has undertaken to keep the series going indefinitely.

Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card – In Card’s beguiling 1988 novel, he presents readers with an alternate-history colonial-era America in which the Eastern seacoast is sub-divided into Crown Colonies, the United States, New England – and the western territories like Huron, Hio, and Wobbish are home to not only native peoples but to settlers pushing steadily into their territories. In Card’s imagining, it’s not just the history and the politics that’s different – the people are too: they have ‘knacks’ of various kinds. There are ‘torches’ who can see hidden things; there are ‘sparks’ who can mentally cause fires; and most importantly for these books, there are, once in a great while, ‘makers’ who can command and manipulate all matter on the subatomic level. The main character of these books, a boy named Alvin, is just such a maker, and the first three books in the series (before their content began to be watered down by the direct participation of fans – a deplorable thing that’s also happened to George R. R. Martin … these people really ought not to open their mail) grippingly show him coming to terms with his awesome power.

The Many-Colored Land by Julian May – This 1981 novel introduces May’s great concept of the Pliocene Exile, in which the disgruntled, disabused, or simply anti-social of 2034 have an option for the ultimate getaway: a time portal discovered in France that’s very localized and very specific, leading one-way six million years into the past, dumping its dazed passengers into the same area of France in the Pliocene epoch. Through this portal travels our core group of characters – some sane, some stable, others violently not – and when they stagger out of it on the other side, they make a stunning discovery: a group of aliens have crash-landed in Pliocene Europe, and they’ve been steadily enslaving all time-travellers who come through the portal. In 2034, mankind is a member of the galaxy-spanning Galactic Milieu, and humans have tapped their latent psionic abilities – abilities shared by those Pliocene aliens, abilities dangerously destabilized by passage through the time portal. May is the strongest prose stylist of our group today, and she has a slam-bang feel for action and drama, and it serves her throughout half a dozen further Galactic Milieu novels.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – If Orson Scott Card opened a dangerous door by actually listening to his fans, Robert Jordan opened a far more dangerous one with this, the first book in his “Wheel of Time” series: the idea of an officially open-ended storyline. Jordan in fact opens his series with the explicit embracing of its own infinitude – the Wheel of Time turns, Ages come and go, stories are told and re-told. The particular permutation of the Wheel that concern him in this book (by far the most effective of all the books in this series) revolve around a trio of small-town boys who get caught up in a great war between good and evil – a conflicted boy named Rand, a band of heroic energy-wielders (wizards, if you would) called the Aes Sedai, and their requisite evil counterparts. Jordan had some distinct writing ability (some of his Conan novels are quite enjoyable), but he stabs it in the back by removing an absolutely crucial element of storytelling: plot. If you very consciously decide that your series of books will have no ending, you disable plot – and make it the sustained attention of your readers a purely masochistic thing, a pleasure-free endurance contest. Jordan freely proclaimed that he intended to keep writing these books until they nailed his coffin shut, and he did – his series is finally being brought to a close by another’s hand.

Meg by Steve Alten – This is the first book in what would go on to become a somewhat piecemeal but epic series, and in its thrillingly brainless pages, Alten gives us a great imaginative twist: what if Carcharodon megalodon, the prehistoric sixty-foot giant killer shark, somehow survived to the present day and were suddenly re-introduced into an ocean full of defenseless whales and fatty humans? Alten’s main problem is that if the ocean were still teeming with these monsters, people would have noticed them – and he comes up with the quickest convenient explanation: he blames the Mariana Trench. In its Stygian depths, megalodons have been grimly breeding and thriving and dying all this time, separated from the smorgasbord of the upper world by the crushing pressure variant. It takes Alten about five minutes to get around that, and then the feeding frenzy begins – and continues through five deliciously chompable books, most of them starring heroic marine biologist Jonas Taylor. In later books – in ways that, again, even a very long stand-alone book could do as well – Taylor is joined by his teen-himbo son in an apparently generational struggle against these giant killer sharks.

There are plenty of other series, of course – eventually, we’ll get to all of them here at Stevereads – but these six have plenty of reading joys to start you off … or at least their first books do.

October 20th, 2012

Rating the Blighters in the Penny Press!

As we’ve so often noted about the Penny Press, the Lord giveth, and the Lord talketh out His ass. Such was certainly the case with last week’s TLS, in which the ‘debit’ column had an item that nearly made me spit up my Tatws Pum Munud in outrage. The offending piece was by Jonathan Benthall, a reviewer with whom I’m unfamiliar – and with whom I’m bloody well going to stay unfamiliar after the halting, hiccupy stupidity of this latest offering.

It’s a review of The Arab Awakening by the reprehensible Tariq Ramadan, and that’s plenty bad – that this intellectual charlatan’s latest scraps could pull down an entire-page review in the English-speaking world’s greatest literary review bespeaks an almost morbidly misguided yearning for topicality. But the review’s offenses went far beyond its mere existence, especially the paragraph that made me see red:

[Ramadan’s] criticism of the American authorities for burying Osama bin Laden at sea, in defiance of all Islamic teaching, will seem sentimental to many readers, but spiritual leaders in other religions would agree that the bodies of even the most culpable human beings should be treated with traditional respect after death, and in common with Ramadan they would deplore the barbaric killings of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Gaddafi

‘Spiritual leaders’ might agree to such nonsense, but then, spiritual leaders are usually the type who would. That doesn’t excuse Ramadan – or Benthall – from agreeing with it. Beside the fact that bin Laden deserved not one iota of respectful treatment before or after his death (my decision would have been to leave the corpse naked in the road for a month), there’s also the fact that Saddam Hussein received his death sentence in a court of law, a place none of his half-million victims ever saw, and Muammer Gaddafi was savagely, mockingly murdered by his own people after years of treating them like playthings. Slathering this kind of revolting relativism over crimes and tyrannies is how Ramadan earns a living – but his literary critics ought to have other obligations.

Fortunately, the same TLS also contained, in the ‘credit’ column, that most illicit of treats: a first-rate author reviewing the work of a third-rate author in the same genre. Specifically, the mighty M. John Harrison reviewsStore of Worlds, the collected-stories volume of Robert Sheckely, inexplicably brought out by New York Review Books. Sheckley, he tells us,

seems to have arrived too late for the 1940s, too soon for the 1960s. Trapped like his audience between cultural periods, he signalled his anger and confusion by writing characters whose only major characteristic was that they couldn’t win. The fun of this was not shared with the butt of the joke – unless, of course, the reader can be said to be the butt of the joke.

Some of these lifeless stories are recounted, but the heat is never lessened:

In the hands of Sheckley’s contemporary, Alfred Bester, they [the stories] would have pulsed with linguistic energy, Freudian imagery, a kind of generous rage; Robert Silverberg would have told them with desiccated existential precision, against densely metaphorical landscapes. There would have been meat on the bone.

That makes up for any number of ‘spiritual leaders.’ And so the lunch was saved.

October 15th, 2012

Lucky Jim!

Our book today is Kingsley Amis’ 1954 debut novel Lucky Jim, the recent New York Review of Books re-issue of which prompted a literary friend of mine to lament, “Do we really need this? Am I missing something, or is this thing just a boring, overpraised academia-novel that was never that good to begin with?” This literary friend has been known to spot a surprising truth now and again, so of course I hurried back to my old paperback copy (whenever the NYRB re-issues a book I like, I always have an old paperback copy somewhere – they make no money off me, but they should be consoled by the confirmation of their good taste) and tried to read the book with fresh eyes, as if I hadn’t read it half a dozen times since it first appeared, as if it weren’t well on its way in the literary landscape of my mind (and in a good many other literary landscapes, I think) to becoming a flowering perennial. I tried to read it provingly, sternly, forcing it to earn its keep again as it had the first time (amidst some pretty fierce competition, including, if memory serves, The Group, The Art of Eating, and The Fellowship of the Ring).

It was a very comfortable homecoming, as always. The story – that of hapless fledgling university history professor Jim Dixon, the women he lusts after, the horrific colleagues he endures, the general semi-inebriated flailing that constitutes his life during the one disastrous short period in which we see it – is by now familiar even to readers who haven’t read the book, probably by dint of how many pastiches of the book they’ve read. Certainly Dixon himself is familiar, both through his self-defeating mulishness and through his unpredictable bouts of verbosity, as when he suddenly expostulates (to a romantic interest, of course, on a long car ride) on love:

“People get themselves all steamed up about whether they’re in love or not, and can’t work it out, and their decisions go all to pot. It’s happening every day. They ought to realize that they love part’s perfectly easy; the hard part is the working-out, not about love, but about what they’re going to do. The difference is that they can get their brains going on that, instead of taking the sound of the word “love” as a signal for switching them off. They can get somewhere, instead of indulging in a sort of orgy of emotional self-catechising about how you know they’re in love, and what love is anyway, and all the rest of it.”

In what would become a typical move for Kingsley Amis in his subsequent fiction, he hardly ever just leaves such perorations for his readers to sort out – instead, he’s usually the first in with some analysis:

Outside of his lectures, this was the longest speech Dixon had made for what seemed to him years, and, not excluding his lectures, by far the most fluent. How had he managed it? Drink? No: he was dangerously sober. Sexual excitement? No in italic capitals: visitations of that feeling reduced him punctually to silence and, as a rule, petrifaction. Then how? It was a mystery …

Younger readers today will instantly recognize the family knack for zingy, immediate language (in Lucky Jim they’ll also see that language married to actual patient, thoughtful craft – a phenomenon they need not fear encountering in the collected works of Amis fils). That narrative zest was one of the first victims of Kingsley Amis’ titanic drinking, but it’s on every page of this first novel. The world of that novel is rarefied, true (only a small percentage of Amis’ readers will know the frustration of wondering, as Dixon does, when a periodical editor is finally going to print the article he wrote ages ago … but those who have experienced such frustration will find it perfectly captured here), but no more so than the various worlds of P. G. Wodehouse, who’s far more of a literary antecedent to Amis than today’s academic critics are willing to credit (if Dixon’s drunken, rambling speech on “Merrie England” at the book’s climax isn’t an homage to Gussie Fink-Nottle’s equally calamitous speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, I don’t what could be). And like Bertie Wooster’s world, Jim Dixon’s is saturated with alcohol – Amis later went on to write quite a bit about drinking, and this book contains some justly celebrated evocations of both inebriation and the stinging price paid the following morning:

Dixon plunged down the lodging-house stairs at eight-fifteen the next morning, not so much so as to be sure of being there while Johns read his letter as because he wanted, or rather had got, to spend a long morning in writing up his Merrie England lecture. He didn’t like having breakfast so early. There was something about Miss Cutler’s cornflakes, her pallid fried eggs or bright red bacon, her explosive toast, her diuretic coffee which, much better than bearable at nine o’clock, his usual breakfast-time, seemed at eight-fifteen to summon from all the recesses of his frame every lingering vestige of crapulent headache, every relic of past nauseas, every echo of noises in the head. This retrospective vertigo collared him this morning as roughly as always. The three pints of bitter he’d drunk last night with Bill Atkinson and Beesley might, by means of some garbaged alley through the space-time continuum, have been preceded by a bottle of British sherry and followed by half a dozen breakfast-cups of red biddy. Holding his hands over his eyes, he circled the table like one trying to evade the smoke from a bonfire, then sat down heavily and saturated a plate of cornflakes with bluish milk. He was alone in the room.

As in all first-rate literary comedy, the last line is crucial.

No, I finished this latest re-reading of Lucky Jim with my confidence fully restored. The answer to my literary friend’s question is a resounding ‘Yes’ – we really need this. That’s OK, however – even literary oracles are entitled to miss a toss now and then. This same literary friend is equally blind to the glory that is The Legion of Super-Heroes, the poor sot.

 

October 14th, 2012

The Last Time I Saw … Venice!

Our book today is 2005’s The Last Time I Saw Venice, by the indomitable Australian romance novelist Vivienne Wallington, a former librarian who wrote some twenty romances for Mills & Boon under the pen-name of Elizabeth Duke and then did a stint writing Silhouette romances for Harlequin under her own name, this one being (so far as I can tell) the last thing she’s written. It’s a torrid, tense tale that typifies one of the many motifs of fiction set in the Floating City: in this case, Venice as Scenery. This is by far the most popular of all the sub-flora of Venetian fiction, for understandable reasons – foremost being, it beats Akron. In Venice as Scenery novels, the main landmarks of the place are invoked with more or less mechanical duty, and the story’s participants might occasionally refer to indigenous “magic,” but they’ll spend the length of the plot so caught up in their own passions that you get the distinct impression they could be anywhere and not really care. The city is backdrop only, an easy way to add some picturesque color to the goings-on. Modern authors can’t really be faulted for writing this kind of Venice-story, since the pedigree for it is about as exalted as you can get: Shakespeare never a Venice story that wasn’t a Venice as Scenery story.

Wallington is no Shakespeare, naturally, but in The Last Time I Saw Venice she’s nevertheless at the height of her own powers. She’s an author who very much knows what she’s about – like most Mills & Boon veterans, she’s not exactly a complex plotter, and she lays on the tension with a trowel, and (again like Shakespeare, come to think of it) she never met a bald coincidence she didn’t like. She employs every trick of her trade in this headlong story about ambitious young attorney Annabel Hanson, who visited Venice four years ago, stood on her gondola-seat to get a good photo, fell into the Grand Canal, and was saved from its cold green water by Simon Pacino, a broad-shouldered black-haired blue-eyed Greek god of a man. A few moments’ conversation (all they allowed themselves before the clothes started flying off) revealed that they were both from Australia – he was a ‘top’ neurosurgeon in the same way she was a ‘top’ lawyer, and although they were both work-obsessed yuppies, they gave themselves over to the carnal abandon Venice tends to encourage. Simon’s condom broke, he convinced Annabel to keep the baby (at this point the Romney/Ryan team stopped reading), and in due time their daughter Lily arrived. Despite their overwhelming commitment to their jobs, they loved her – and were thus devastated when she was hit in her pram by a runaway car a year later (Annabel blamed herself for not being quick enough to snatch her out of the car’s path; Simon blamed himself because she died on the operating table – his operating table)(as mentioned, Wallington doesn’t kid around).

Years later, they meet in Venice by chance, where each has plenty of opportunity to reflect on just how quick they’d been to leap into marriage in the first place, as Annabel thinks:

It made her realize soberly how little she knew about the man she’d married. They’d both been such high-powered, single-minded workaholics, even after Lily had arrived, that they’d barely had time to talk about the things that had happened to them in the past, before they’d met. Simon’s past in particular – other than the career path, and the fact that his father had walked out on his family – had always been a closed book.

As for his part, Simon is no more certain about what all this means:

What better place to rediscover romance than here in romantic Venice, where they’d first found it? Maybe he should think no further than that … romancing her, wooing her all over again, rediscovering the passion they’d lost. Maybe even embarking on a romantic second honeymoon, to revive the old magic, the old chemistry, before they had to leave Venice and face reality again.

The couple enjoy plenty of Venetian food and wine, and they wait in line to see plenty of Venetian museums and masterpieces, but it’s all background noise – they’re ruling concern from the book’s opening scene is personal and tightly focused. As is universally the case with Venice as Scenery stories, the city is colorfully but lifelessly evoked, and our lovers leave it without any hesitation when their passions waft them in some other direction. The cynical old marketing guys at Harlequin could just as easily have picked Toledo or London or Sydney, for all the difference it would have made to Annabel or Simon.

The effect such stories have is, ironically, to increase the sense of Venice as fantasy place, a glittering faerie-city – good for stirring passion and revelation, but not at all real (the Venice interval in Brideshead Revisited is maybe the quintessential example of this). Those who come to know the city well will agree with the complicit dimensions of this kind of portrayal: Venice is suffused with the sounds of water in motion, so it’s not surprising that romance of all kinds flourishes there. But glorified weekend tourists like Annabel and Simon never get to know the real place – neither they nor all those Harlequin/Mills & Boon readers, one suspects, very much want to.

 

October 12th, 2012

A Wanderer in … Venice!

Our book today is A Wanderer in Venice by our old friend E. V. Lucas, written in the last halcyon interval the world has ever seen and published just as that interval was ending, in November of 1914. Lucas was an indefatigable writer (as shocking as it will seem to our modern ethics, he even wrote some book reviews under a series of assumed names), and throughout his professional career, he enjoyed the rare and enviable opportunity to do that most exotic and profitable of all freelance work: travel-writing. His “Wanderer” columns are all worth reading, and the string of his books titled “A Wanderer in (fill in the destination)” are all hugely worth reading – he’s a wonderful, genial companion on the page, as generous to other writers (in A Wanderer in Venice, he has several nice things to say about William Dean Howells’ own charming Venetian volume, Venetian Life) as he is alive to their occasional shortcomings. He himself has almost no shortcomings – his travel-books are as glittering and assured as only a very bored man could make them. When he writes about St. Mark’s: “…you must be passive and receptive. No cathedral so demands surrender. You must sink on its bosom,” he’s quietly giving the reader some very pointed instructions.

The professional travel-writer must never hate any destination in print, and Lucas knew that in his bones. He, too, is practiced in the art of surrender. Although in the case of Venice, he correctly describes the laid-back atmosphere of the whole place back before the bulk of the deplorable 20th Century:

I too have seen the beginning of many quarrels, chiefly on the water. But I have seen only two Venetians use their fists – and they were infants in arms. For the rest, except at traghetti and at the corners of canals, the Venetians are good-humoured and blessed with an easy smiling tolerance. Venice is the best place in the world, and they are in Venice, and there you are! Why lose one’s temper?

In a typically self-deprecating move, Lucas opens A Wanderer in Venice by telling his readers that they really ought to go elsewhere if they’re looking for in-depth history of the city, or in-depth analysis of its artwork or social structure, etc. He nevertheless mixes in as much of this sort of thing as could be harvested in some comfortable trips to the Reading Room of the British Museum – but the passages are distinct from his lovely, eloquent personal reflections, and they’re always offered with a faint air of apology. The incredible back-log of books generated by Venice doesn’t exactly oppress our author (he was too prolific for such paralyzing thoughts), but he’s aware of it all the same:

Venice needs a whole library to describe her: a book on her churches and a book on her palaces; a book on her painters and a book on her sculptors; a book on her old families and a book on her new; a book on her builders and a book on her bridges; a book  – but why go on? The fact is self-evident.

Venice doesn’t just need those things – it’s received them, many times over. Already in Lucas’ day, the idea of adding another volume to the pile should have been considered a fantastic extravagance, almost completely indefensible. He knew that as well as anybody, and his own defense is typically wistful:

Yet there is something that a single book can do: it can testify to delight received and endeavour to kindle an enthusiasm in others; and that I may perhaps have done.

The real defense – that the public is always buying – he leaves unsaid. Gallant man.

October 7th, 2012

The World … of Venice!

Our book today is the oft-revised The World of Venice, originally written by the great British historian and travel-writer James Morris, then revised by him, then substantially re-written when he become Jan Morris, and then revised by her as well – it’s as touched-up as a water-damaged Tiepolo, as fluid and gorgeous a thing as the Floating City to which it’s one of the finest tributes ever written. Morris has been an indefatigable world traveller and has brought a typewriter along for every square foot of it – male or female, clearly one of those individuals who need to express everything in words (and of course it doesn’t hurt to be paid). Not that it would matter in this case: it sometimes seems like Venice could elicit inspiration from a rock. Certainly it’s drawn books from great heaping hordes of humans over the last thousand years – a mountain of books, books beyond number, which makes the truly remarkable ones all the more remarkable. We can assume that The World of Venice has reached its fixed form, and in that form it’s one of the remarkable ones.

Venice is a quicksilver city, and Morris is wonderfully sensitive to its moods. Time and again in The World of Venice there are vignettes of sharp and localized insight, as when Morris’ boat breaks down and he needs a little help:

But if I was cynical then, I am less so today, for now I know Venice better, and have no doubt that if I had entered some slatternly dockside tavern that evening, and put my case to the ill-shaved sinner behind the bar, he would have lent me the money in a trice, and thrown in a glass of sour white wine as a bonus. Compassion really is a powerful emotion among the simpler Venetians. In the eighteenth century the idea of pain was so insufferable to them that even characters in a play, if they happened to be killed, had to take a quick posthumous bow, to reassure the anxious audience, and accept its sympathetic cries of ‘Bravo i morti!’ This is a melancholy city at heart, and its inhabitants are constantly shaking their heads in pity over some pathetic new evidence of the world’s sadness. When a visitor from Bologna was drowned in the Grand Canal one evening, my housekeeper was almost in tears about him the next day; and when a funeral goes by to the cemetery of San Michele, you may hear the onlookers muttering to themselves in condolence: ‘Oh, the poor one, oh, dead, dead, poor thing – ah, away he goes, away to San Michele, il povero!’

The sensitivity extends to the comprehensive experience of Venice, the sneaking feeling that there are as many cities as there are people to see them. The place is magical, yes, but it’s also seedy; it’s had to exist all these centuries, getting food, getting drinking water, fighting enemies, conducting vendettas. For Morris, those two cities are superimposed on each other like an optical effect:

For if you shut your eyes very hard, and forget the price of coffee, you may see a vision of another Venice. She became great as a market city, poised between East and West, between Crusader and Saracen, between white and brown: and if you try very hard, allowing a glimmer of gold from the Basilica to seep beneath your eyelids, and a fragrance of cream to enter your nostrils, and the distant melody of a cafe pianist to orchestrate your thoughts – if you really try, you can imagine her a noble market-place again. In these incomparable palaces, East and West might meet once more, to fuse their philosophies at last, and settle their squalid bickerings. In these mighty halls the senate of the world might deliberate, and in the cavernous recesses of the Basilica, glimmering and aromatic, all the divinities might sit in reconciliation. Venice is made for greatness, a God-built city, and her obvious destiny is mediation. She only awaits a summons.

With the caveat that not everybody hears the summons or wants to make it:

But if you are not the visionary kind – well, pay the man, don’t argue, take a gondola into the lagoon and watch her magical silhouette sink into the sunset: still, after a thousand years, one of the supreme sights of civilization.

The World of Venice takes its place in the tradition of hard-headed reporting on the place, the ‘cabbages and canals’ school – the kinds of books that end up being the most poetic, often enough. Morris squints at Venice and, as all good travel-writers do, resists seduction right up until the moment when it’s most exquisite.

October 5th, 2012

Wild Nights!

Our book today is Wild Nights, the winning little work of urban natural history Anne Matthews wrote in 2001, a smart, informed book that follows in the natural history footsteps of such works as Cathy Johnson’s The Nocturnal Naturalist (and act as precursors to great books like Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark) by turning a naturalist’s eye and notebook to the close-focus: the wildlife that, as Matthews’ sub-title puts it, “returns to the city.” It’s a popular subject, especially for what Matthews calls “confirmed urbanites” who are alternately entranced and appalled by the thought of sharing their space with wild things. In other words, the book is about Manhattan – although our author is willing to expand that prejudice to include all islands, which, for their isolation and idiosyncrasy, she characterizes as nature’s Petri dishes:

A dead island pig left at roadside simply isn’t there in the morning. The other island pigs devour it. Nothing is left but a stain. On an island, Darwinian processes are distilled and magnified. There is nowhere else to go. This is it. Work it out, or die.

“Islands intensify,” she tells us. “Islands also accumulate. Once something is on-island, whether artifact or life-form, you can’t get it off without enormous trouble.” And while a little of this goes a long way (hobbyist naturalists like Matthews have a tendency to talk about Manhattan as though it were as isolated as Tonga, when in fact a third of this particular island’s school children don’t even know it is an island), it serves one of the author’s purposes, which is to remind readers that nature is all around them, whether they choose to see it or not.

Matthews covers a wide spectrum in writing about that resurgent natural world, but since this is at heart a New York book, there’s one member of the animal kingdom who’s of course waiting impatiently to step on-stage – and Matthews doesn’t disappoint:

 Rats like to socialize, just not with us. Lords of the night city, with territorial maps as precise as any falcon’s, they avoid humans whenever possible. In the country, rats may life in packs of up to two hundred, capable of killing piglets or lambs. In cities, they form smaller but even more aggressive gangs. One New York rat population traditionally summers in Central Park but invades East Side apartment buildings when the weather cools. Another tenacious pack defends the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, terrorizing pedestrians. Morninside Heights, near Columbia, is a famous rat zone; park your car on the street overnight, and by morning the local rats may have built a nest in the engine.

After regaling her readers with satisfyingly blood-curdling mentions of New York sewer rats that measured seventeen inches long, she extols the ingenuity of the little bastards:

Rats are smart: although a fast-forward version of natural selection has made rats in many big cities immune to nearly all conventional poisons, they still may press one pack member into service as a taster; if the test rat dies, the others resolutely avoid the bait.

Of course there’s a good deal more to Wild Nights than rats – there’s a multitude of birds as well, and foxes like the one on the book’s cover, and coyotes, and wild turkeys, and innumerable mice and squirrels and pigeons … and there’s the vanishing night sky as well, swallowed by buildings and light pollution. And all of it is presented in enormously vivacious prose – Matthews has written a nature book that even her confirmed urbanites will love.