Posts from March 2013

March 31st, 2013

Twelve Against the Gods!

twelve against the gods - brattle - jan 2013Our book today is that hilarious, engrossing, inimitable classic, Twelve Against the Gods, written under the pen-name of “William Bolitho” in 1929 (the same author also wrote the enormously enjoyable Murder for Profit) and celebrating a baker’s dozen historical figures who epitomize one aspect or another of the adventurer’s ideal as conceived by our author, who certainly knew something of which he wrote, having led quite an adventurous life from his Cape Town boyhood to his blooding at the Somme to his braving of Fleet Street as correspondent for the old Manchester Guardian. In that life he learned, among many other things, how to write in a way that makes people want to read him – always a good trait for somebody determined to live by his pen. In Twelve Against the Gods, he picks several signal characters from the past and writes their lives in brief ala Plutarch (whom he often invokes, always adoringly, and self-deprecatingly enough so that the reader will invariably wish this book were enormous and were called Forty Against the Gods). The list is varied: Alexander the Great, Cagliostro, Christopher Columbus, Casanova, Charles XII of Sweden, Mohammed (spelled in the old style, as “Mahomet”), Lola Montez, Isadora Duncan, Catiline, Napoleon (I & III), and Woodrow Wilson (whom our author saw cheered through the streets of Paris in the heady days after World War I) – and the idea is simple: “History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers – she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.”

Those business reasons didn’t quite preclude this book, however, and the reading public ate it up. Bolitho is not hero-worshipping – the common thread uniting his portraits isn’t selflessness or even physical bravery but rather an essential hunger for life, and a willingness to risk everything for that hunger. His adventurers are all gamblers:

What if this injustice were the very life of adventure? The man who puts his stake on the roulette board does not want justice, or his stake back unaltered. Justice for Christopher [Columbus] is a small shop in Genoa, or it may be a foot of wall in a Portuguese jail for fraudulent bankruptcy, or a hole in the ooze at the bottom of the sea, somewhere a few leagues out from the Canaries. Justice for Alexander is another dagger such as killed his father; for Casanova a horse-whipping, or a lifelong judgment of alimony. In this light, adventure is an excited appeal for injustice; the adventurer’s prayer is “Give us more than our due.”

Bolitho’s stars make that prayer all the time in these stories, and since our author was both a student of history and a thorough (though a trifle embarrassed) Edwardian, the prayers tend to be male-dominated. He grew up in a world that still routinely relegated women to the roles of either queens or courtesans: “In the Law of Adventure, male adventure, love is no more than gold or fame – all three, glitterings on the horizon, beckoning constellations,” he tells us, “But with the woman-adventurer all is love or hate, the sole pole of her field. Her adventure is man; her type is not the prospector but the courtesan.” This is manifestly too easy, of course; Bolitho could easily have alighted on female figures of significantly more consequence than a dancer and an actress, and if only he wrote that enormous tome Forty Against the Gods, surely he would have.

He doesn’t do it in this book, but that’s its only shortcoming. “Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model,” he tells us, and this is exactly what he does in these pages: his characters are artfully posed indeed and seem to live in every anecdote and aphorism. His research is sounder than it seems on its razzle-dazzle surface, but you don’t really go to a book like this one for research – you go to it for the razzle-dazzle, and rightly so. Bolitho was an extremely lively thinker about history, and it’s always fun to read the musings of such a person. Sometimes he can be a little eerie, as when he writes, “To say that the United States is the historical counterpart of old Rome is too far-fetched. To say that it will be extraordinarily like it in a lucy reading bolithohundred years is an intelligent probability.”

And sometimes – in fact often – he’s bracingly misanthropic:

The nightingales, dear naturalists, do not sing for us or you. The flowers are proud, and those trees your own grandfather planted in sweat have no feelings of gratitude towards men. All animals except the parasitical dog and cat we have debauched hate us; a sparrow that will not move aside for an elephant will hide itself before the most angelic child on earth can come within reach. … The trees themselves, it might seem, turn their backs to you, the wet blanket, the human, the unwanted, the horror. A strange experiment, that one of carnivorous anthropoids, killer-monkeys; the whole of Nature hopefully awaits the day we shall be extinct.

Fortunately for readers everywhere (or anyway, the ones diligent enough to go find a copy of this wonderful book – a handy Penguin Classic would solve that little problem, and yours truly would of course be happy to introduce and annotate such a volume), those killer monkeys sometimes write things worth reading. Twelve Against the Gods is high up on a list of such things – it’s exactly the kind of highly opinionated, actively moralizing after-dinner chat that was the norm rather than the exception among the ancient writers Bolitho so adored. In fact, it’s a fitting companion to Plutarch, which is just about the highest – and rarest – praise a book can get.



March 29th, 2013

Lad-Lit Lists in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchAlthough I’m an unapologetic fan of the big glossy men’s-interest magazines on the market today (I subscribe to a whole slew of them, from Outside and Men’s Journal to Esquire and Details), I know better than to go to most of them for literary opinions. Not because there aren’t some very intelligent people working there, but because such magazines tend to be rather ruthlessly focused on their core demographic – in this case, mid-twenties ridiculously over-moneyed young business drones who are not only basically illiterate but deeply stupid as well. If you’re pandering to such a demographic, it’s unlikely you’re going to print anything about books that I want to read.

And yet, occasionally I steel myself and dig right in – especially if the feature in question is deliberately provocative. Such a feature happens in this month’s GQ (the one with a cover photo showing talented comic actor Jason Bateman wearing a cheap, poorly-tailored suit jacket and skintight pants that are too short for him – maybe GQ caught him in the middle of a Red Skelton-style routine), where some of the magazine’s editors offer readers a list of post-2000 ‘new classics’ to supplement the books they were forced to read in high school. “We spent months chiseling down the list,” they tell us (bro-code for lots and lots of beer), and they came up with 21 titles meant to stand as the beginnings of a new canon for fiction – and they also asked some of the authors of those books to nominate some extra titles of their own.

This is the GQ list:

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

2. The Human Stain – Philip Roth

3. The Road – Cormac McCarthy

4. White Teeth – Zadie Smith

5. True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

6. 2666 – Roberto Bolano

7. Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson

8. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower

9. The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem

10. Pastoralia – George Saunders

11. Runaway – Alice Munro

12. Austerliz – W.G. Sebald

13. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

14. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

15. The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach

16. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill

17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

18. The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst

19. Saturday – Ian McEwan

20. The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers

21. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

gqEven a glance at that list confirms most of my worst worries: it’s so timidly predictable. There’s not a single name on it (with the possible and very welcome exception of Wells Tower) that you wouldn’t expect to be on it – not a single title that hasn’t been loudly and often mindlessly praised by all the biggest – and most distinctly non-literary – media outlets in the Western world. It’s a bro-list – despite the fact that fiction has the potential to be the most subversive and mind-expanding of all genres, this is a list whose main aim is conformity. Genuine quality is certainly not a consideration, since ten of the books on the list are only average (and would be called that by the entire reading world if they’d been reviewed indepent of their respective publishers’ publicity departments, with the authors’ names stripped off) and four of them actually stink. No, instead peer pressure played a huge part in the making of this list, as it plays, unfortunately, a huge part in most of the content you’ll find in any given ‘lad mag'; the last thing you want to do is name-drop a book your senior project manager hasn’t heard of.

I confess though, even given the limitations of the venue, I half-way expected some of the actual authors involved in the list to present more courageous choices – but timidity tends to rule those picks as well. Peter Carey picks Kent Haruf; Chad Harbach scandalously picks Sam Lipsyte; Joseph O’Neill picks Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station and hilariously writes about it: “… not to mince words, this is a very intelligent, very funny, verbally brilliant, relentlessly perceptive investigation of the ethical-linguistic-political morass in which the American abroad must wade.”

The thing is saved from complete irrelevance by only the slimmest of threads: Saunders recommends Stuart Dybek, and best of all, Lethem, bless him, recommends the great Stephen Dixon. That’s cheering, but it’s also meager – a good little reminder that I should avoid bro-lit lists whenever possible.



March 22nd, 2013

New Yorker Joys in the Penny Press!




Last week’s New Yorker started off with a letter, written by Jane Scholz, that I’ll quote in full:


As is the case with the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the tragic death of any young person is an incredibly sad event, wharever the cause. I object, however, to the effort of some of the people featured in [Larissa] MacFarquhar’s piece to turn Swartz into a hero for facing government prosecution after hacking the JSTOR archive. Swartz was apparently familiar with laws protecting proprietary-information-management systems, so he should not have been surprised by the severity of the prosecution’s response to his crime. It is a crime, and not a victimless one. I am a retired journalist; during my working years, my salary depended, and today my pension relies, on people paying for copyrighted content. In recent years, as the business that supports journalism has declined, thousand of journalists have lost pay, benefits, and, ultimately, their jobs. Some people may consider illegally downloading content from the “1942 edition of the Journal of Botany” to be benign, but downloading periodicals such as the New York Times – or The New Yorker, for that matter – without paying for them would harm the people who worked for those publications in the past and who write for them today. I find it ironic that Swartz made several million dollars selling the rights to his own copyrighted programming to Conde Nast. Swartz’s is a sad story, but it’s not a heroic one.

And toward the end of the issue, there’s a great piece by Giles Harvey that I wish I could quote in full. It’s about the flourishing sub-genre of the failure memoir:

A growing batch of memoirs by literary screw-ups and also-rans suggests that mistakes – the bigger and more luridly described the better – might be a portal to the success, or, at the very least, the solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.

Harvey skewers a long list of such annoying books, and it’s low-key glorious to watch (the article’s only misstep occurs when Harvey bizarrely calls it “a conspicuously male genre” even though a whopping 90 percent of all failure-memoirs to hit big money have been written by women).

new yorkerBut even Harvey’s article isn’t the highlight of this issue (if you’re searching for it on your newsstand, look for a cover the color of urine-soaked manilla with a small child’s drawing of some kind of giant corseted high heeled shoe in the center). No, the highlight comes from what is always, for me, the least likely source: a piece of writing about dog ownership. Ordinarily, I stand by my hard-won rule that nobody on the planet should be allowed to write about dogs except me, but this piece, “A Box of Puppies” by Lena Dunham, is so good I’ll gladly make an exception.

In it, she tells us all about her childhood yearning for a dog – a yearning thwarted first by her angry parents and then later in her life by her boyfriend. When she finally does adopt a mutt named Lamby from a shelter, he starts to develop a problem right away: he’s sound-sensitive, setting up an eerie wailing when something he hears upsets him. Dunham never even considers dumping the dog back at the shelter, and her essay’s soaringly great conclusion is likewise worth quoting in full:

At 5:07 a.m., I crawl to the end of the bed to meet him. I ruffle his ears, whisper, “It’s O.K., I’m here. I’ve been waiting for you for so long. Before I even knew about you, I was waiting for you. When you were born, I was only twenty-five years old. I had a boyfriend I didn’t love, but I told him that I did and he made me a pencil case, so I didn’t even know I needed you. But I needed you.” Lamby is growling, but more softly now. He still doesn’t like the scene downstairs, the coughing and the woman’s frustrated, tired caretaker rising to check on her.

“And the rest of the months I waited for you, and now here you are.”

Once, in a friend’s office, I saw a childhood picture of her husband on which he’d drawn a thought bubble saying, “I can’t wait to meet you, it’s going to take a long time, and there will be a lot of trouble along the way, but this is how it must be.” It struck me as impossibly romantic, the nicest thing you could say to someone, really. “I’m not going anywhere,” I tell Lamby.

He wakes up only one more time in the night, with a single bark that trails into silence.

I kiss his little mouth, his ears that smell like corn chips and old water. “Sh-h-h …I love you. I love you. I love you so much.” There is no one to call for help. We don’t need any help. He is mine, and I am old enough to have him. We are all adults here.


March 17th, 2013


elizabethjpgOur book today is Sarah Bradford’s 1996 biography Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen, and seeing it on my shelves always reminds me of a frequent quip by an old friend of mine, a Boston trial lawyer with (as Agatha Christie might put it) a brain like a bacon-slicer: when you want something done right, give it to a repeat offender.

His language may have been woefully imprinted by the sordid precincts of the criminal courts, but his sentiment is of course correct: biography is a genre just like any other, and in all genres the professionals are the most reliable. All well and good for somebody to study Enrico Caruso (or, in an infamous example from the last generation, Pitt the Younger) for forty years, but knowing every last little meal and pawn shop ticket of your subject is only one part of writing a first-rate biography – the most important part, but in exactly the same way the beating heart is the most important part of the human body: it’s indispensable, but you wouldn’t want to listen to it all day long.

The subject is on my mind because I recently realized how often I’ve been asked ‘what’s the best book on’ – X, whichever of my dozen or so hobbyhorses the person happens to be asking about. And when subject X is a person, I find I almost invariably answer with the work not of a specialist but of a professional biographer. Just the other day, for example, I was asked ‘What’s the best biography of Queen Elizabeth II?’

Lord knows, there are plenty of contenders. But the Queen is so curiously remote from inquiry – she’s fiercely guarded by her employees (and the ones who break ranks are ruthlessly exiled from grace), jealously covered by her courtiers and ministers, and famously, she herself doesn’t grant interviews. This presents definite challenges to the would-be biographer; some get around this wall by racy commentary and outlandish speculation (see Robert Lacey’s Majesty), others get around it with lots of very clever theorizing (Ben Pimlott’s The Queen) – and while such books can be interesting (the latter much more than the former), the very nature of their authors’ personal imprint upon them makes them a bit unsatisfying as straightforward biography (likewise work on any monarch; Giles St. Aubyn’s biography of Queen Victoria is far and away the most entertaining book ever written about her, but half the best stuff in it is uncredited and so, one sometimes suspects, could be a product of the author’s superb imagination).

For straightforward biography, you want a workhorse. And that means you want a professional biographer. That’s why Bradford’s book is my current favorite: she came to the task as a veteran biographer, having written books about Cesare Borgia, Princess Grace of Monaco, King George VI and Disraeli. She doesn’t fawn, but she doesn’t just blandly accept negative verdicts either, as she shows in this wonderful and quite correct aside about formidable Queen Mary:

The children were in awe of their grandmother, finding her strict and intimidating. They were unable to penetrate, as perhaps only Prince George and her close friends like Lady Airlie could, the Queen’s formidable shyness and reserve to discover the kind, gentle, even lighthearted personality within.

She uses a good solid prose style and walks the reader through the development of the Queen in her job, grounding almost everything on conscientious research:

[Prime Minister Harold] Macmillan approached Elizabeth in much the same spirit of formal gallantry which Disraeli had used towards Queen Victoria, with a touch of Disraelian flourish and occasional floridity in his style. He was genuinely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, the assiduity with which she absorbed the vast mass of documentation sent to her and, even after relatively few years on the throne, her remarkable accumulation of political experience. Apart from the weekly audience they carried on a frequent correspondence. Macmillan wrote long reports giving her inside knowledge of events as they happened, particularly when he was abroad at meetings and conferences. Elizabeth responded in what Macmillan described as ‘a very informed and informal style’, writing in her own hand and addressing the envelopes herself even though she had plenty of people to do it for her.

“She is thirsty for information; she likes to know,” Bradford tells us about the Queen, but she’s every bit as frank when detailing what the Queen isn’t particularly hungry to know, as in her famous assessment of lucy reading the bradford elizabethElizabeth’s cultural cache:

 In artistic and intellectual circles, Elizabeth is generally regarded as a philistine. She practically never reads a book unless it is horse-related. She does not enjoy the opera, theatre, or concerts – not even ballet for which her mother and sister are enthusiasts. Science and technology bore her; Philip is credited with having told someone who suggested the Queen might like to visit some high-tech plant, ‘Unless it eats grass and farts, she isn’t interested.’

Of course no biography of Queen Elizabeth II can be definitive as long as she’s still alive, and she probably has two decades of life left in her – and decades longer until all her most relevant papers and documents are available to scholars (her much-reported diary, for instance, which will have to be run past a battery of lawyers). But in the meantime – in the long, long meantime – Sarah Bradford’s book tops the list for me.

March 15th, 2013

Recreations of a Literary Man!

recreations of a literaray manjpgOur book today is a 1883 collection of odd ruminations by Percy Fitzgerald called Recreations of a Literary Man (or Does Writing Pay?), one in a virtually endless stream of books Fitzgerald produced once he left off prosperous lawyering in Ireland and made his way to teeming, word-drunk Victorian London to try his hand at the literary trade. He worked for a while for Charles Dickens at Household Words, good-naturedly churning out whatever stuff was selling at the moment (like so many of his compatriots, he was a ‘content provider’ a full century before the term existed). But his main metier was the theater – first theater criticism (at which he was almost comically bad, a fact known to all but himself), then more properly at theater history. He’d written some well-received biographies before he tried his hand in 1868 at a full-dress work about the great actor/manager David Garrick.

The book was a hit (and deserves still to be so – like all of Fitzgerald, it reads delightfully, but there’s an added element of marvellous immediacy that makes it a serious challenger even for such fantastic later works as Alan Kendall’s David Garrick), and gave Fitzgerald his first real taste of the kind of literary satisfaction that was showering daily upon his friend Dickens. He was able to forego the hustling and bustling that tend to characterize a freelance writer’s life – he was able to cultivate his study at home, which he fondly eulogizes in Recreations of a Literary Man:

Most writers who own a taste for their work – and there is something fascinating in the calling – can hardly help impressing their own fancies on what surrounds them, as they labour. The room, its desk, the pictures, the very chair, are all combined and associated with memorable thoughts, ways, and works. The novel, the sketch, the successful “life,” all were formed and developed here. Here were forgotten the world’s troubles outside, in those exciting, thrilling last chapters, written at a white heat and at a stretch against time, from morning all through the night until morning again – just as Ainsworth wrote his “Turpin’s Ride to York.” Here are the little cherished objects picked up in many a walk; the portrait with autograph given by a greater author. In short, in a course of long years there will be a gathering of favourite things, each associated, it may be, with something pleasant.

He himself had once written “I have learned the knack of writing decently and respectably on any subject ‘briefed’ to me,” and in the following years he proved it: biographies remained his stock-in-trade, and in addition to further works of theatrical history (on such figures as Sheridan, Gilbert and Sullivan, and – another hit – Henry Irving, plus several volumes of his own reminiscences), there were books on King George IV, King William IV, James Boswell, and, most of all, Dickens. Indeed, it might be fairly said that Fitzgerald was among the first to turn Dickens into a cottage industry.

Recreations of a Literary Man indulges in this a few times. There’s a 30-page chapter called “Charles Dickens as an Editor,” and there’s an utterly charming 40-page chapter called “Charles Dickens at Home” that features one warmly human anecdote after another about the Great Man and his family as they relaxed at Gad’s Hill, Dickens’ country home in the beautiful country of Kent:

A great attraction of Gad’s Hill were the dogs. There were always three or four great dogs prancing about – Linda one was named – great St. Bernard dogs and others. He appreciated dogs, and understood their ways and fine nature better than any one, as we see from his writings. I recollect his sort of comic grief as he elated his visit to the well-known monastery of St. Bernard, when, in answer to his eager inquiries as to the saving of life in the snow by the dogs, the good monks had informed him that like many two-footed creatures, they enjoyed a reputation they scarcely deserved, and rather followed the monks than were followed by them.

But the countryside never holds Fitzgerald for long; one of the signal joys of this book – of almost all his books, whether intentionally or not on his part – is how thoroughly it breathes of the noisy, lively capital. We follow him everywhere his wandering thoughts take him, including the fabled old Reading Room of the British Museum, where the skyrocketing literacy rates of the day were having dire effects on the available space:

Every year the crowd of readers increases, while the Reading Room, in spite of rearrangement, remains pretty much the same after twenty years or so. When all the scholars of the new schools and universities are in full work, the pressure will become serious. Yet there never can be found any real remedy; and no room, of whatever size, could be found sufficient to hold the “readers of the nation.”

Anyone who’s tried to find a seat at the Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall when the students and the nutjobs are in full spate will sympathize.

Fitzgerald loved books, of course, and he wrote often on their magic (one of the best pieces collected in lucy reading percy fitzgeraldthis volume is “Old Booksellers and Their Hobbies”). Unlike so many ‘literary men’ who achieve a certain level of success, he never became snobbish about books – he could reel off editions and publication trivia with the best of the bookmen in Paternoster Row, but he himself would read anything, regardless of provenance, and he delighted in the hunt, as he once wrote: “Many a book-maniac has dwelt on the satisfaction found in periodically investigating the “boxes” of ol books exposed at the doors of old booksellers.”

How could I not agree? I found Recreations of a Literary Man on hot day, outside, at the Brattle bargain carts.

March 14th, 2013

Striking a balance in the Penny Press!

magazines in a bunch

It’s almost never a clean sweep in my weekly Penny Press – almost always, I’ve got to suffer through annoying garbage in order to enjoy the fine stuff (especially since I tend to read everything in every issue – sometimes on my first go-through I’ll skip around, but then the ol’ Irish Guilt kicks in and I go back to pick up the stragglers). This week was no exception, as two cases-in-point make clear.

In the New Yorker (the March 18th issue, the one with the cover drawn by a small child, showing a bunch of smudgy, stick-figure dogs playing in a park with a giant stack of pancakes in the background – very enterprising of the magazine to give a toddler such high-profile work; I’d say it boded well for that toddler’s future, except the cover makes it clear the child has no actual drawing talent … probably somebody’s niece …), for instance, I was treated to a stronger-than-average piece by Jill Lepore on torture in American history that has a lancingly insightful aside about the prisoners being held at “Camp X-Ray” in Cuba:

They weren’t called criminals, because criminals have to be charged with a crime. They weren’t called prisoners, because prisoners of war have rights. They were “unlawful combatants,” who were being “detained” in what the President called “a new kind of war,” although, really, it was very old.

new yorkerjpgAnd I got to enjoy the intelligent writing – if not the subject – of Margaret Talbot’s “About a Boy,” about a sixteen-year-old girl in Connecticut who’s already had several surgeries (with her parents’ full consent) to change her body’s gender to male. The article is yet another inadvertent example of the fact that an entire generation of parents is wholesale skipping the parenting part in favor of trying to win some kind of toleration-derby. I read it, appalled, until I got to pretty much the sole voice of reason in the whole piece, that of Alice Dreger, a bioethicist:

“These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysmorphia or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life … I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains – he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”

The subject might sadden and infuriate me, but the article Talbot put together about that subject was first-rate reading material, something I’ll clip and save.

But there’s a price to be paid for such enjoyment, and in this issue – as in more than a few previous issues – it took the form of a pompous, tedious movie column by David Denby, this time reviewing “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Jack the Giant Slayer” in a double bill that should have been fascinating.

You know it won’t be fascinating by Denby’s very first sentence: “Wicked witches and yellow bricks and Munchkins are back, but do we really need them?” And as if that weren’t a full enough abrogation of a movie reviewer’s core qualification, there’s the follow-up sentence: “Isn’t blessed memory ever enough?”

This is the whining credo of somebody who shouldn’t be going to the theater even for private recreation, much less to review his findings for an audience as large as the New Yorker‘s. When a movie critic starts bleating “Do we really need more movies? Can’t we just remember the ones we’ve already seen?” (which Denby’s been doing for virtually his entire career), he signals his own irrelevance. And things are only made worse by the fact that in this case the fix was so obviously in long before Denby set foot in theater: he takes these two movies – as near-identical in scope, tone, special effects, and execution as two movies can be – and pronounces diametrically opposite verdicts – “Oz the Great and Powerful” stinks, whereas “Jack the Giant Slayer” is wonderful (among other things, it apparently “honors a child’s desire for forts”). Denby at no point contemplates what his reaction to “Jack the Giant Slayer” might have been if Judy Garland had starred in “Jack and the Beanstalk” back in 1939 – but then, he doesn’t have to, does he?

Likewise over in the latest issue of Men’s Journal (the one with pea-brainedmen's journaljpg slavering attention whore Gordon Ramsay on the cover): on the one hand, Stephen Rodrick turns in a great, atmospheric profile of shark-advocate and all-around great teacher Rachel Graham, an article that, again, deserves clipping out and saving. But on the other hand, two writers, Maria Fontoura and Kevin Gray, give us one of those unbelievably annoying little features that turn up semi-regularly in ‘lad mags': features that treat dogs as just another gnarly fashion accessory young guys need help buying. This one is called “The Right Dog For You” and features a kind of flow-chart designed to help overmoneyed yuppies and hipsters pick the pet that best fits their lifestyle – “all more original than your standard Labrador retriever.”

It’s maddening, of course. Not only are dogs living, feeling fellow-beings who don’t have to have a “key function” in order to be worthwhile, but of the nine purebred breeds actually named in the piece – Newfoundlands, Manchester Terriers, Chinooks, Australian Shepherds, standard poodles, German Shorthaired Pointers, Entelbucher Mountain Dogs, Shiba Inus, and beagles – how many are ‘beginner’ breeds, the kind some young testosterone-pump reading Men’s Journal could buy and take home without any problems, ready to hit the hiking trails? None. Zero. All nine of those breeds – unlike those boring old Labs – are most emphatically not for casual owners; all nine require vast amounts of solo focus and specialized understanding. And if they don’t get it – especially as high-demand puppies – they’re miserable, and they make their new owners miserable as well. And we all know what happens to dogs who make their self-absorbed twentysomething owners miserable.

In a totally just world, Fontoura and Gray would have to feed and shelter every single dog bought and then abandoned because of their article, and it’s frustrating that they can use some small pulpit to urge callow idiots to go out and buy Entelbucher Mountain Dogs, for the love of Mike.

But then, such frustrations are part of the standard exchange in the Penny Press. I can always hope for better next week, or even later this week.

March 13th, 2013

Cityside Countryside!

cityside countrysideOur book today is a delightful little oddity from 1980: Cityside Countryside, subtitled “A Journey to Two Places.” It’s a collection of columns by two talented journalists: Nathan Cobb, then a features writer for The Boston Globe, and John Cole, the co-founder and then-editor of the Maine Times, and the columns act in dialogue with each other telling the old familiar ‘town mouse/country mouse’ story that was old long before the Roman poet Horace immortalized it. Cobb was born in the country and left it to live in the heart of Boston, and Cole was born in the heart of the city and left it to live outside of Brunswick, Maine – and that juxtaposition, that each left the other’s chosen world, turned into the kernel of this book. It’s an eternal divide, of course – some people prefer the peace and quiet of the country, others can’t do without the buzzy activity of the city. I myself side with the city (I chuckle at Law & Order‘s Lennie Briscoe commenting on New Hampshire: “I spent a year there one weekend”), but only half-heartedly – Boston has tall buildings and a scary subway, but it also turns into a pumpkin every night at 12:01 (and has been electing the same mush-mouthed yokel mayor for the last hundred years, just like Mayberry). And I’ve enjoyed more bucolic country intervals than I can count, a guest in lovely houses everywhere from Tuscany to Truro.

So I can nod with quick identification when Cole rhapsodises on the Nature-driven satisfactions of small-town rural living:

It is now that April is here that we must see that debt repaid. With the sun assured of more than twelve hours in the heavens, this Yankee latitude is assured of some April days of honest warmth. Those are the days when gardening plans dominate every thought, the times when canvas covers are peeled from boats, sandpaper is acquired along with the sudden realization that there is a host of spring chores to be completed before the joys of summer can be harvested.

New Englanders know these April mornings. As soon as the sun rises, it brings the softness of spring. As soon as you step out the door, you are overwhelmed with the evidence of gentler days. Whenever I find the most tenuous April evidence, I go bouncing around the soggy lawn, bring down a pair of oars from the barn rafters, stop at the hardware store for more marine paint (forgetting in my euphoria that there are two half-cans left from last April) and spend most of my time at the office thinking about being at home.

But at the same time, the faux hayseed-hauteur of some countrified people gets my hackles up, so I identify just as quickly with Cobb’s hilarious defensiveness, his reluctant membership in that particular phylum of city-defenders, the Urbanis apologensia. “We do not even give you a chance to slide into your routine before we shuffle into ours,” he tells us:

“Say,” someone will open, “I understand you live in Boston, and …”

My warning antennae buzz. “Yes,” I reply quickly. “Small car. Never been mugged. No kids. Red Sox. Step around the dog mess.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That’s right. Drive against the commuter traffic. Ritz bar. Your taxes are just as high. Dirty streets in other towns, too. Walking distance. Noise isn’t as bad as you think. Good lucy reading (and licking) cityzide countrysiderestaurants.”


“No buts. Great museums. The Public Gardens. More drugs in your kid’s school than in my whole neighborhood. Esplanade. Problem is Massachusetts drivers, not Boston drivers. It may be screwed up, but it’s the oldest subway in America.”

“Hey, I’m …”

“Give them a quarter, they’re harmless. Grocery shopping in the North End. No one forces you to go into a strip joint. You don’t think there are hookers in the suburbs? Gas lamps on Beacon Hill. I don’t like tall buildings, either.”

Hee. And the debate goes on …

March 12th, 2013

Light Thickens!

light thickens Our book today is 1982’s mystery novel Light Thickens, the last book written by the great New Zealand mystery author Ngaio Marsh (by far the most deceptively cerebral of the four “Queens of Crime”) before she died in harness that same year at the ripe old age of 86 (ripe and hypothetical, since in the time-honored tradition of British ladies of letters, there’s some debate over the correct year of her nativity). The book therefore certainly qualifies (even morbidly puns) as late style, but you’d never know it from the work itself, which is as sharp and intelligent and pleasingly wry as anything the author had written in the previous fifty years. Partly this evergreen quality was the luck of literary inspiration (other writers have had it too, although it runs particularly strong in genre masters, for obvious structural reasons), but mostly it was the product of Marsh’s iron self-discipline and the fact that she was her own fiercest critic. She wrote finished prose at breakneck speed, but she was even so a ruthless pruner and discarder.

Her first artistic love, famously, wasn’t writing at all but the theater; she worked all her life to bring competent stage productions to her benighted, earthquake-ravaged homeland, and with considerable success. And her theatrical passion is amply represented in her crime fiction – the theater is the setting for half a dozen of her thirty-two novels, including (as is obvious from the title, and also from the great Alexander Farquaharson cover-illustration for the Book Club edition of the US hardcover) Light Thickens, which has a central gimmick as sleek and enviable as virtually all of Marsh’s gimmicks were (something that most definitely can’t be said for her three fellow queens): in a production of Macbeth directed by Peregrine Jay for London’s Dolphin Theatre, the raucous sword-play that concludes the final act ends with Macbeth’s severed head stuck on the blade of a gigantic Highland sword called a claidheamh-mor (Star Trek fans will know the weapon from a scene I need hardly identify) – only the head on the sword is real. ngaio marsh


A thoroughly shocked Peregrine Jay is in the audience and watching when the whole thing happens, and so, as chance would have it, is CID Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, the passionate, dedicated hero whose career is traced through all of Marsh’s novels. He and his indefatigable assistant, Inspector Fox, immediately set about investigating the crime, but one of the most memorable parts of Light Thickens – one of the surest signs of its author’s sheer mastery of what she’s doing – is just how much of the book isn’t about the murder at all. Chapters and chapters are devoted instead to Peregrine Jay’s efforts to inspire the cast and shape up the production, and it’s all so fascinating that even the most bloodthirsty reader wouldn’t have it any other way. All throughout Marsh’s later life, friends and correspondents routinely urged her to write a book about staging Shakespeare – many of them had experienced first-hand how beguiling she could be on the subject, and they didn’t want all those incredible insights lost to theater lore. She never wrote such a book (that we know of – again, in the time-honored tradition of British ladies of letters, she did nothing in her lifetime to squash rumors of unpublished manuscripts), but some hints of it can be gleaned from her murder mysteries. The stage-centered ones abound with shrewd insights into the craft of doing Shakespeare, as when Peregrine Jay talks about the particular demands of the scene where Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth:

“If ever there was a scene that could be ruined by a bit-part actor, this is it. It’s all very well to say you must completely ignore the ghost, that for you it’s not there; it’s hellishly difficult to do it. If you can actually look at it without focusing your eyes, that’s fine, but again it calls for a damn good actor to achieve it. We’ve got to make the audience accept the reality of the ghost and be frightened by it. The most intelligent of you all, Lennox, has the line: Good-night; and better health attend his majesty. When next we see Lennox he’s speaking of his suspicions to Ross. The actor will, every so slightly, not a fraction too much, make us aware of this. A hair’s-breadth pause after he says Good-night, perhaps.”

Once the murder investigation is under way, Alleyn and Fox face no shortage of suspects – and theater folk being just a wee bit egotistical (they tend to want the starring role in everything), each one of them thinks official suspicion is resting mainly on themselves. It’s an impression Alleyn, in his typically candid way, is lucy reading light thickensquick to contradict whenever anybody says, “I’m your prime suspect, aren’t I?”:

“To be that,” said Alleyn, “you would have to have pulled off the dummy head and used the claidheamh-mor to decapitate the victim. He would have to have waited there and suffered his own execution without raising a finger to stop you. Indeed, he would have obligingly stooped over so that you could take a fair swipe at him. You would have dragged the body to the extreme corner and put the dummy head on it. Then you would have put the real head on the end of the claidheamh-mor and placed them both in position for Gaston Sears to take them up. Without getting blood all over yourself. All in about three minutes.”

Simon stared at him. A faint color crept back into his cheeks.

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” he said.

“No? Well, I may have slipped up somewhere but that’s how it seems to me.”

Of course the key to Golden Age protagonists – and Alleyn is a pure specimen if ever there was one – is that they rarely ever really do slip up somewhere. Alleyn certainly doesn’t in Light Thickens, despite some very enjoyable (and skillfully deployed) early confusions. Marsh’s one main weakness as a mystery writer (also a bleed-over from the theater world, if you think about it) is her tendency to telegraph her culprits, and that happens true to form in this last novel as well. But it hardly matters – it’s all so deliciously done that no sane reader will care. Instead, they’ll have a walloping good time and then re-read the thing ever other year, as nature intended.


March 6th, 2013

Penguins on Parade: Charlemagne!


Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted, represent the tip of an iceberg – which can sound strange when we’re talking about fairly ancient works whose physical survival was certainly no given thing, but which is certainly true when it comes to records dealing with the Frankish emperor Charles the Great, known to all subsequent times as Charlegmagne.

penguin charlegmagne-jpg1For his long reign, we have a downright embarrassment of documentation. There’s the Annales regni Francorum and its subsequent revision, the Annales Mosellani, the annals of Murbach, Lorsch, Saint-Amand, Fulda, Salzburg, and half a dozen other places, the Capitularia regni Francorum, the Codex Carolinus, and the Epistolae Aevi Carolini, a host of biographies of contemporary figures, a slew of more strictly ecclesiastical nature, dozens of later histories and biographical sketches, and the two works translated by the great Lewis Thorpe and combined to make the 1969 Penguin volume called Two Lives of Charlegmagne: Einhard’s Vita Caroli and the De Carolo Magno by Notker the Stammerer, who almost certainly also went by the name The Monk of Saint Gall.

They’re two very different little works, and Lewis’ deft translating perfectly preserves those differences. Einhard lived at Charlemagne’s court, travelled with the king and his ramshackle group of courtiers and family, and states over and over in his Life that he personally witnessed all the things he writes about, that he was there and saw it all (an easily disprovable claim, but you find yourself a little impressed by his sincerity just the same). By contrast, Notker the Stammerer never met or even saw the king – he wrote his account in 883-4, some seventy years after Charlemagne’s death. What the two have most in common, oddly enough, is an excellent taste in just who to plagiarize: Notker the Stammerer, beetling away at his account in the Benedictine abbey of Saint Gall in the valley of the Steinach, kept Einhard’s account open before him at all times, and Einhard himself mapped his Life carefully on the Twelve Caesars Suetonius, especially the life of Augustus. Einhard wants us to know that his hero was very nearly perfect; Notker the Stammerer, as Thorpe points out, was writing at a time when the innumerable legends of Charlemagne were already beginning to take shape (those legends would reach their most famous point with “The Song of Roland” – and they’d achieve their greatest expression in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) – his Charlemagne isn’t quite as wooden as Einhard’s and can come out with better quips, as Thorpe observes:

His condemnation of the short Gallic riding-cloaks is magnificently Wellingtonian: ‘What is this use of these little napkins?’ he asked. ‘I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the wind and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.’ Maybe this is the jocular old Monk speaking, or maybe we are simply moving on from the Charlemagne of history towards the Charlemagne of romance.

There’s human pathos in Einhard’s more focused and worshipful account as well, but you have to pay a bit more attention to find it. Here, too is this good man, fighting constantly to hold onto (and expand) the kingdom he inherited with is brother when their formidable father died in 768, and that he ruled alone when his brother suddenly died in 771. Charlemagne fought constantly with his warlike neighbors, and he won often enough so that his renown reached even the far north of Ireland and was well-known at the splendid court in Baghdad. In the infrequent respites from all this fighting, he took pleasure from a not-particularly-Christian number of concubines (fathering children as illegitimate as he himself had been, although not quite so formidable), and with a humility exceedingly rare in princes, he set in motion the famed “Carolingian Renaissance” of learning and cultural advancement. Einhard himself was a beneficiary of that advancement for his entire adult life, and he wrote his account of his great emperor and patron verylucy reads charlemagne much with that in mind.

So his Vita Caroli isn’t quite so full of misbehaving monks and felonious bishops as is that of Notker the Stammerer, and it’s a bit of genius to package the two lives together as Penguin has done here. Genius also to enlist Thorpe, whose calm intelligence is also on hand in the Penguin Classic version of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales. He’s the perfect companion in what this volume represents: the first step in learning more about Charlemagne, whom one historian rightly called “the least-known most important person in history.”

After this first step, lots of others – the whole rest of the iceberg – but the Penguin Thorpe is a fine place to start.





March 6th, 2013

A sad ps in the Penny Press

magazines in a bunch

Well, I finally read “Requiem for a Dream,” Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker piece on Aaron Swartz, and I needn’t have been as worried about it as I was – mainly because MacFarquhar is one hell of a good writer (who, I presume, had nothing to do with the ridiculous hyperbole of her piece’s title). It’s true that her article veers too far in the direction of the kind of hagiography we’ve already seen in New York and The New Republic, but she entirely saves it by the strength, the insight, hell even the compassion of her prose – and by her very wise decision to let the people in Aaron Swartz’s life do the bulk of the talking themselves. Her piece opens with a barrage of lengthy quotes – from friends, girlfriends, parents, associates – and it harrowingly ends the same way, with a handful of people obviously still bewildered by their surprised grief (“I know many other folks who are my friends,” writes a friend, “whom I deeply respect whose lives, at my most selfish, I would gladly trade to have Aaron back,”  and perhaps most moving of all, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor and copyright expert who was something of a mentor to Swartz and for whom I’ve felt next to no sympathy in all of this, baldly says, “I am never lost. I’ve never been so lost. I don’t know what to do”).

new yorkerjpgAn extra element of this bewilderment no doubt comes from the very nature of the Internet, as MacFarquhar shrewdly points out:

Prose creates a strong illusion of presence – so strong that it is difficult to destroy it. It is hard to remember that you are reading and not hearing. The illusion is stronger when the prose is online, partly because you are aware that it might be altered or redacted at any moment – the writer may be online, too, as you read it – and partly because the Internet has been around for such a short time that we implicitly assume (as we do not with a book) that the writer of a blog post is still alive.

The portrait that emerges is far more nuanced than any profile I’ve seen so far, and at its heart is a young man who – thanks to the hands-off way his parents refused to raise him (“we wish him only the best and send him all our love” – said of a 17-year-old) – “never learned to do anything he didn’t want to do.” This created as many frustrations as it did freedoms. As aaron swartz by michael gilletteMacFarquhar writes, “If you can do anything you want, then every day becomes an existential problem – an empty space of possibility that has no ceiling but also no walls and no floor.”

I recently lamented the fact that the case of Aaron Swartz will almost certainly prompt a flood of books this time next year, but after reading “Requiem for a Dream” I stand corrected: this article of MacFarquhar’s is so smart and thought-provoking that if she can work up her courage to write such a book, I’ll read it eagerly.