Posts from October 2013
October 26th, 2013
Our book today is one of those little treasures that crop up so regularly at my beloved Brattle Bookshop: a slightly battered copy of The New Yorker War Album from 1942, this one inscribed as a present in 1942 in Washington, D.C. by a man named Butch to his “skipper”: “Here’s a few smiles and belly laughs to you from a Beta shipmate who thinks you’ve been one of the grandest and jolliest brothers ever.”
Paging through these cartoons brings a very different war-world vividly alive again. America was new to the war, and the editors at The New Yorker faced a very tricky task: they had to walk a line between tension-breaking levity and the gravity underlying American young men and women fighting and dying overseas. There’s as little outright racist propaganda (in this volume, anyway) as you could imagine possible; instead, most of the humor here revolves around the strange incongruities the war was imposing on the staid and comfortable middle-class. Repeated over and over in this volume is one of the readiest of those incongruities: the sudden empowerment of women, both in domestic manufacturing jobs and in uniform – the latter being the joke at work in a clever cartoon by New Yorker stalwart Richard Taylor, who has a meek little husband entering a room and hastily telling three uniformed women “Please don’t get up.”
Another juicy irregularity of the war was the influx into the U.S. armed forces of, shall we say, non-military types – weedy college-boys who’ve somehow lived through basic training and have now found themselves in Europe and Asia colliding with their less-lettered superiors, perfectly captured in a great cartoon by Perry Barlow showing a group of soldiers gathered around a searchlight, with the caption reading, “Now what the hell kind of talk is that – ‘pierce the gloom’?”
Of course, the simple sight of domestic turmoil is itself a fruitful ground for cartoonists – especially the great Gluyas Williams, whose full-page mini-dramas require no more than an explanatory sub-title before the viewer is caught up in the kind of multi-layered mute storytelling Williams did better than anybody, as in his “Hotel Desk” installment of his ongoing “The National Capital” series, showing a stereotypical (and not at all wartime-related) overwhelmed hotel lobby.
And for me, the greatest delight of this War Album is the frequency of cartoons by the mighty Helen Hokinson, whose flutey, oblivious matrons attack their morale-building domestic volunteer work with the same gusto as they attack everything else. Busily filling book-lockers with titles to go overseas, they ask with their undaunted optimism, “I wonder if we couldn’t convert some of the boys to Henry James?” Gathered in their Women’s Club ranks to listen to a stern-faced uniformed woman, they hear first their chairwoman obliviously say, “Miss Whitehead has come to tell us how to amuse sailors.” Touching on the daily headlines that have now faded into historical footnotes, one comfortable matron tells another, “It makes me so mad when I think how long I’ve been patient with India.” So great is Hokinson’s genius that she can pull warm smiles out of even the fear of an open-ended war, and it was a pleasure to be reminded of that while strolling through this volume. I hope Butch’s brother-in-arms enjoyed it as much as I did.
October 24th, 2013
Our book today is a re-read, one of the many, many such re-reads I tend to do during any given month: John Hay’s 1961 classic Nature’s Year, with beautiful illustrations by David Grose. The book is sub-titled “The Seasons of Cape Cod,” and that’s probably why I re-read it, since the waning days of summer tend to trigger in me a yearning melancholy for all things Cape Cod (and since the altered geothermal signature of the planet now insures that New England will feel like the waning days of summer from roughly the middle of August until roughly the middle of December), and this book continually rises in my estimation as one of the best evocations of the Cape ever put on paper.
I have no idea why late summer provokes this response in me; as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been lucky enough to know the Cape in all its seasons and in all the moods it can field in its various regions. My best guess – not a big surprise to those of you who know me – is that the association is dog-related: during one late-summer visit to the Cape many years ago, I was accompanied by five beagles, one of whom was in the stiff, echoing period that comes so abruptly to beagles, that antechamber time when vitality suddenly stops renewing itself and a quick glide downhill begins. Beagles – the most robust dogs on Earth – don’t like this period any more than their human friends do: they become withdrawn and quarrelsome, and my boy was no exception. Suddenly he had no patience for the river-flowing antics of his brothers and very little patience even for my increased solicitude. He simultaneously wanted the reassurance of our presence and also to be left alone.
We were staying in the house of an old friend who’d decamped for the Caribbean, and one day when the lengthening shadows of August were just starting to carry the hint of a chill (an antique description, but it really did happen back then), that old beagle consented to a walk with me along the beach at Truro. I told the others to wait in the house, and he and I made our unhurried way up the strand, him laboring along, me keeping pace at his side with my head down. The gulls cried, and we could smell pine in the air, and the foam hissed and bubbled around our feet, and we were silent all the way out and all the way back.
Much else happened during that trip, and that dog lived for three weeks after our return to Boston, but I don’t remember much of it. I remember every moment of that walk, and only much later, when it was all over, did I realize it was the last one we took together. A realization like that can mark a place. Always after that, late summer reminds me first, for a sharp instant, of that walk and that beagle, and then right after that of the broad wonder of the Cape itself, the gorgeous intricacy of the place, the strange surrounding insistence of nature in the place that seems stronger even than some much wilder regions.
Hay understands that insistence better than any other Cape writer, and I sometimes forget how well he captures it in Nature’s Year, maybe especially the parts of the book dealing with the end-of-summer changes I’m talking about:
I feel as though we were hesitating on the brink of new necessities, swinging between one resolution and another not yet found. The season is beginning to join the winds. Some migrant birds have already flown away. Other birds fly through the leaf canopy feeding seriously and silently. A warbler, a female yellow-throat, skips lightly along a patch of briar and vines. A brilliant oriole jumps into a patch of oaks and moves on down sunlight-yellow ramps of leaves, and a black-billed cuckoo, a large brown bird with a handsome, long tail, stops in on a branch with a look of eagerness and seeking, then flashes off again. There is a change in their action and timing.
The luminous current running through so many of Cape Cod’s joys is evanescence – of moods, of company, of the seasons, even of the place itself, which loses front-porches of ground to the tides every year (and which would be summarily drowned if the ocean’s levels rose less than a house’s height). Hay understands this too – that mood of always almost-losing things is all through this book and all through Grose’s illustrations too, especially when the subject is the death of summer:
When the wind dies down and the clouds clear off, the air has changed from a hazy warmth to clarity. The sea turns dark blue, groined with white caps. The land seems strict and clean, lifted into pure new skies and a new silence, although at night the musical pulsing of the snowy tree crickets is still as shrill and loud as spring peepers.
For the eighth straight month, I walked around Boston today in my shirt sleeves, wiping my forehead in the heat of midday, but the memories of that seasonal change – the change of the land to the strict and clean ordering of winter’s forerunning – linger stubbornly. When the days shorten, no matter how hot those days are, I think about the Cape. When the leaves change color, I think about that silent walk with that old departing dog. And I can bring it all back with Nature’s Year, which is quite an allure for a book to have.
October 21st, 2013
Our book today is Thomas Berger’s 1978 foray into Camelot fiction, Arthur Rex, and as I’ve had occasion to mention before, it represents just that same kind of oddity that seems to come from many popular authors when they’re seized – almost invariably at middle age – with an apparently irresistible urge to compose Arthurian fiction for a general audience. These authors prosecute successful careers (Berger’s own success multiplied a thousandfold, of course, with the publication of his 1964 romp Little Big Man) and then are suddenly gripped with the creative necessity of writing about destriers and pennants and varlets. These authors don’t become Arthurian experts; the mania eventually passes (except when it doesn’t get the chance – a disturbing number of these books end up being published posthumously for the simple reason that they kill their authors). But while they’re in its grip, they swerve hard right into the world of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
The basic narrative remains the same: young Arthur pulls the magic sword Excalibur from a stone and become rightwise king of all England; with the aid and advice of the wizard Merlin, Arthur soon overcomes the rowdy independent barons inflicting factional misery on this kingdom and establishes the Round Table of Camelot, whose devoted knights channel the violence of the age into chivalrous adventures; Arthur comes to love his best friend Lancelot (Berger styles it Launcelot) and is queen Guinevere, whose love of each other eventually shatters this harmonious triangle and plunges the kingdom into turmoil; that turmoil is greatly increased by the traitor Mordred, whose machinations bring about the destruction of Camelot. Arthur dies a bitter old man, but there’s a prophecy that one day he’ll return as ‘the once and future king,’ a phrase T. H. White used as the title of his great novel, by far the best fictional adaptation of this story.
Berger doesn’t alter the basic story in Arthur Rex (most hardcovers and paperbacks of which are adorned with that great cover-painting by Jean-Leon Huens), but he does infuse it with his signature 1970s taste for ribaldry; much like Malory but more explicitly, Arthur Rex brims with sexual imagery, sexual tension, and just plain sex:
And whilst he was doing this he hears some soft gasps coming from not far away and rising with his peach he went to a near-by tree, where first he came upon a lady’s clothing strewn on the earth and then that of a knight, and under the fruit-laden branches of this tree, which were so heavy that they came down as a screen on all sides, this page saw the heaving of the beast-with-two-backs, and this being a domesticated breed and not savage except to its own constituent parts, he observed its antics for a while, for he was but fourteen years old and he was curious to learn of the animal husbandry which lay in store for him as a man. But he could not see the twin faces of the creature, for they were obscured by the hair, which was respectively gold and sable.
And always with the classic Berger funny twist at the end:
Then the varlet finished eating his peach, and thinking he might well be punished if detected at his observation, he dropped the stone and crept away. (And finding a secret place he polluted himself, the which he duly confessed on his next peccavi.)
Berger is such a fluid, confident stylist that you’re carried effortlessly along the contours of this old familiar story; there’s plenty of combat, plenty of courtly love-making, plenty of Arthur’s nobility, and plenty of the doomed attachment between Guinevere and Lancelot. Like so many writers before him, Berger turns a good deal of his plot’s heavy weight on the weird allure of Guinevere, an allure that requires none of the spell-craft of Morgan la Fey and that catches so many of the men who encounter her, even though from early on in the story, she knows where here own heart lies:
“Now,” said [Sir Meliagrant]. “when I win this fight you can no longer despise me, and there there remaineth no reason hwy we should not become lovers.”
And Guinevere wondered at this statement. “Can it be?” she asked, and then, “Was this thine intent from the outset?”
“My purpose was to humble you,” said Sir Meliagrant, “but I found I could not manage that.”
And the queen asked, “Therefore thou hast fallen in love with me?”
“I fear that I have,” said Meliagrant, “and thus far it is rather I who have been humiliated, and this love hath brought me nothing but two wounds.” And he told her of his encounters with the crippled beggar and Sir Kay.
“Of the latter I have been apprised,” said Guinevere, “and Kay would make amends and fight thee.”
“This honor,” said Meliagrant, “can be a taxing thing. Is it not remarkable enough that I fight fairly even once?”
“Then who is thine opponent?” asked Guinevere.
“A knight who is named Launcelot,” said Meliagrant.
“My poor Sir Meliagrant,” said Guinevere, “then thou shalt fight but once.”
Ultimately, it’s the contours of that old familiar story that work to limit the effectiveness of books like Arthur Rex (or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mist of Avalon, or the “Tales of Arthur” manuscripts no doubt being endlessly tinkered with even now by John Banville, Nicholas Shakespeare, and Peter Ackroyd). The sameness of the story throws all the emphasis back on the execution side of things, and there is no living middle-aged writer in English who could possibly match the weird, sad brilliance of The Once and Future King. The most that even the best of these other variations on the theme can do – and Berger’s is one of the best – is give us little glints and refractions off that massive iceberg of melancholy and feathery hope. Readers should enjoy Arthur Rex for its bawdy vivacity specifically because there’s not a trace of bawdy vivacity in White. That’s plenty to enjoy.
October 19th, 2013
Our book today is Max Hasting’s smashingly good 2004 Armageddon: The Battle for Germany – 1944-1945, a fat, heavily-detailed account of the final months of World War II in Western Europe, the fitful and protracted mopping-up about which Winston Churchill said in February of 1945, “Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the world.”
One of the many, many strengths of Hastings’ pitiless book is its willingness to assign a chunk of that suffering to Churchill himself, who insisted on continuing the savage, comprehensive carpet-bombing of German cities long after they posed any strategic or logistical threat to anybody. But there’s plenty of blame to go around here, from the German populace displaying itself every bit as callous and jingoistic in defeat as it had been in victory to the remorseless Red Army troops raping and pillaging their way across Eastern Europe in a whirlwind of destruction the other Allies disgracefully allowed to the British and American troops slogging their way deeper and deeper into the German heartland, increasingly concentrating on all the wrong things:
A contemporary British report identified three causes for sluggish forward movement: enemy resistance, difficulty of supply and repair; and “the desire of soldiers to enjoy ‘the fruits of victory.'” Bing, one of 13 Para’s Alsatian dogs which had jumped at the Rhine in special harnesses, disappeared one morning and was found hopelessly drunk in a German wine cellar. Loot had become the chief preoccupation of some men. “Did he have a Luger? Did he have a Luger?” a captain in Private Charles Felix’s battalion demanded, almost jumping up and down with excitement, when he heard that his men had captured a German officer.
Hastings is one of our best living military historians, and the Second World War is his speciality. He delves in primary sources like few historians of any period, always in search of the telling human details that make his writing so dramatic:
When front-line soldiers escaped from imminent peril for a few hours, their desires were usually pathetically simple. Soldiers talk much about women, but on the battlefield their private cravings were seldom sexual. A British officer described his men’s priorities as “char, wad, flick and kip” – tea, food, a movie, and sleep.
This is necessarily a brutal story. The Third Reich was in ruins by this point, and the German army was split between swaths of surrender and many hard chunks of desperate, last-man fighting after all hope was lost. It’s to this period that the famous confrontations at Arnhem and the Hurtgen Forest belong, as well as what Hastings refers to as an “American Epic,” the Battle of the Bulge. As the net inexorably tightened on Germany, it caught more and more civilians; Hastings’ book, almost always supremely uneasy reading, is full of women who are clearly outrageously traumatized (at one point a British officer exasperatedly tries to explain to a bawling German housewife that her misery was only a small fraction of the misery her nation had visited on countless others, but he soon gives up). And it’s full of children who’ve been blasted completely out of childhood:
A British tank officer glimpsed some tiny figures beside a wood half a mile away, from which a German half-track had just emerged. He fired a few rounds of high explosives from his gun, then followed up with a long burst of Bess machine-gun fire. Trees caught fire. He saw survivors start to move across the tanks, hands held high. “To my horror, they were civilians,” wrote William Steel-Brownlie, “followed by a horse and cart on which were piled all kinds of household goods. They were children, a boy and a girl, holding hands and running as hard as they could over the rough ploughed earth. They came right up to the tank, looked up at me, and the small boy said in English, ‘You have killed my father.’ There was nothing I could say.”
In addition to being superbly talented, Hastings is also prolific – a happy combination that isn’t as common as it once was – and Armageddon is one of his best books. A hard, horrifying book, but a great one.
October 18th, 2013
Our book today is Marvel Comics’ Essential Thor Volume 7, collecting Thor issues 248 to 271 and Annuals 5 and 6 – all stories dating from the halcyon late 1970s. Almost all of these stories are written by Len Wein and drawn by either well-established comics legend John Buscema at the bored tail-end of his last great phase or else up-and-coming comics legend Walt Simonson, here some of his first tentative steps toward a visual style that would make his later run on Thor one of the most revered and popular in the title’s half-century-long history.
Wein is one of the great writers of the post-Stan Lee era of four-color superhero comics, but he could be Elmer Fudd and this stuff would still get copiously reprinted – after all, Marvel Studios is about to rack up its second $1 billion dollar movie with the upcoming second “Thor” movie, so all Thor-related “properties” are fair game for flooding the market. The “Essential” volumes have been appearing at a steady pace for years (as we’ve seen here, here, here, and here), a boon to all long-time Thor fans, so maybe #7 would have appeared right around now anyway, although surely only the character’s cinematic popularity could account for the recent all-color hardcover volume reprinting one of the same story-lines included in Essential 7.
The stories collected in this latest reasonably-priced black-and-white volume (what readers gain in savings they lose in the often sublime coloring job done by Glynis Wein on almost every one of these issues) are vintage Wein, thickly enmeshed in back-story and returning again and again to social issues – starting with a quick plot meant to culminate at Thor‘s landmark 250th issue – the some ways, the ultimate social issue this comic could tackle: what would Thor and his fellow Asgardian gods do if their all-powerful ruler, Odin, suddenly became a tyrant? Wein sets up the elements in a predictable but still enjoyable way: the evil councillor (Igron is this one’s name, but before him there was another evil major domo named Seidring the Merciless, Odin apparently having a thing for hatchet-man assistant managers), the increased fascism (already present in the Stan Lee years, when it was queasily apparent that the Asgardians were clearly intended not only to obey Odin but also to worship him), the imprisoning of his one saintly advisor (an old exposition-dispenser named only the Grand Vizier, who has since disappeared completely in the flurry of ret-conning the Thor has gone through since 1979), and the outlawing of the pure-hearted Balder the Brave, who flees to Earth to warn Thor that his father appears to have gone insane.
Thor and his friends – Hogun, who’s grim, Fandral, who’s dashing, and Volstagg, who’s portly, plus the mortal woman Jane Foster, whose life was recently saved by Thor’s immortal beloved, the warrior-woman Sif, apparently at the cost of her own life (a move that prompted a torrent of bitter fan letters) – promptly travel to Asgard, where they find the Realm Eternal’s warrior police-force turned out in full strength against them. They battle their way out of the spotlight and find like-minded resistance fighters (including the towering warrior-woman Hildegarde, likewise never to be used again), and at the Grand Vizier’s insistence, they split up to go and rally the people of Asgard to rise up against Odin (Buscema gives us a great panel showing the various methods of persuasion our heroes use) – and I remember being struck even when I read it the first time, as a callow youth of 28, by the fact that Thor and his friends readily undertake this outright sedition before they know that it isn’t really Odin at all, that the evil Igron is in cahoots with the malevolent Mangog (whom we’ve met before here at Stevereads!) to impersonate the missing Odin and enslave Asgard. It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the political underpinnings of Asgardian society – classic Wein – but it’s shut down in a fairly businesslike way, of course. Mangog is defeated, and the quest to find the missing Odin is on (along the way, Jane Foster bangs a sword against a stone way and, in a flash of light, becomes Sif – which prompted a torrent of ecstatic fan letters).
It’s the following quest-story that filled the company’s recent full-color hardcover reprint volume The Quest for Odin, which features the great artistry of John Buscema reduced as close to rote by-the-numbers hackwork as it could possibly get – but that volume (and the corresponding issues here in Essential 7) also features the first great work Walt Simonson ever did on Thor, in a complicated story involving Thor, Loki, Karnilla the Norn Queen, the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Destroyer, and a restored Odin. It’s grand, epic stuff – the perfect milieu for the character (unfortunately, this Essential volume also features reprints of issues where Thor squares off against mere mortal adversaries – including that walking punch-line, the Stilt-Man – which only serve to underscore how fundamentally ridiculous the character is in the role of an ordinary crime-stopping superhero).
But the best treat of this Essential volume was written by Steve Englehart, not Len Wein, and although it, too, features art by John Buscema, it’s Buscema at his most heartfelt – and the result is even grander and more epic than anything Wein ever carried off. It’s a long story that first appeared in Thor Annual #5, and it’s the first issue of Thor that intentionally succeeded in re-capturing the broad-stage cosmic feel of Stan Lee’s great Tales of Asgard feature. In this story, an isolated group of Norsemen is in pitched battle with an isolated group of ancient Greek warriors; both sides pray to their gods for aid, and as a result, Thor finds himself facing off against the Greek god Hercules in a super-powered brawl that quickly terrifies Greek and Norseman alike. Thor and Hercules abruptly stop in mid-fight, convinced that they aren’t settling anything; instead, they agree to assemble their fellow gods and meet on the field of open war. When Thor informs Odin of the plan, Odin scornfully rebuffs him, and on Mount Olympus Zeus seems just as unenthusiastic – until Loki, disguised as Thor, appears in the midst of the Olympian gods and decks Hercules. Zeus angrily gives his approval for war, and the eight pages that follow are some of the most, well, mythical that Buscema ever did for Thor: two huge armies clashing in an otherworldly landscape:
And when it’s all over, the Valkyrie come to spirit away the valiant dead to the halls of Valhalla:
Englehart wouldn’t be Englehart if he didn’t throw in a trick ending, but it doesn’t matter: this is Thor at its loudest and most elemental. It was a treat when greedily gobbled up at Trow’s Paper Goods a million years ago in a different era, and it’s every bit as much of a treat now.
October 15th, 2013
Our book today is an enormous treat now out from Baen Books: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, edited by Mike Resnick and Robert Garcia, sporting a very good front cover (featuring John Carter of Mars and a sultry Martian warrior-woman holding a strategically-placed saber) and a quietly superb back cover (featuring Tarzan standing on a tree branch in an alien world as huge flying dinosaurs sail by in the background), both by the extremely talented Dave Seeley.
It’ll be an attractive package to science fiction readers, yes, but the full realization of what this book is will drive long-time Edgar Rice Burroughs fans absolutely ape.
As our editors point out in their brief Introduction (ironically brief, since Resnick is somebody I’d gladly listen to for hours, whereas the most boring masters of ceremonies are always the ones whose Introductions run to dozens of pages), Burroughs’ incredibly fertile hack’s imagination gave birth to half a dozen fantastic imagined worlds – from the jungles of Tarzan to the Mars of John Carter to the Venus of Carson Napier to the Pellucidar of David Innes – and populated them with monsters, madmen, time-displaced Romans, squirrel-sized warriors, lost civilizations, and lots and lots of dinosaurs. ERB fans drank up these adventures as they poured from the master’s pen, and subsequent paperback reprints of most of this good stuff have hooked further generations. There’ve been newspaper strips, comic books, and many, many movies, but books have always been this great fantasia’s first and finest home.
And yet, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. has allowed most of these novels to dip in and out of print for decades (there are at present no Carson of Venus or Savage Pellucidar paperbacks waiting for you at your nearest Evil Chain bookstore, and neither will you find the complete runs of either John Carter of Mars nor Tarzan himself). The company commissioned great cover art by Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo and Michael Whelan for their Tarzan/John Carter paperback reprints, but that was nearly four decades ago – those books are not only no longer in print, they’ve practically disintegrated out of existence. And after them came what? Scattershot partial reprints with some of the ugliest covers in book-cover history. An imaginative adventure landscape unrivaled by anything in the 20th century this side of Robert E. Howard, allowed to go to seed.
And as bad as that was, the tale of ERB adaptations is even worse: hardly any have been allowed. Over the course of the last sixty years, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. has been approached by dozens if not hundreds of first-rate writers wanting to create new novel-length adventures for Tarzan, David Innes, and the rest – and the overwhelming majority of those writers (including some of the biggest names in the industry) were sent away with querulous refusals ringing in their ears. The only reason the last few years have begun to see a resurgence of interesting and eye-catching Burroughs reprint volumes is that the estate is slowly losing the copyright to its treasure-trove, as more and more of ERB’s work slips into incontestable common domain.
Thirty years ago, a volume like The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs couldn’t have existed, wouldn’t have been allowed to exist. Now, at least, we get the beginnings of the feast.
As far as beginnings go, this is mighty strong. The eleven stories presented here range over the whole gamut of ERB’s fictional creations, from his lesser-known settings of the alien world Poloda to the more well-known locales of Venus, Mars, and Pellucidar. They reward the experienced fan in inverse ratio to the newcomer, of course – the stories are so thick with allusions to the canon that it’s hard to picture a newcomer making much sense of them. But then, a project like this isn’t really designed for newcomers – this is more like a carefully-prepared gift for those of us who’ve managed to hang around long enough to finally be able to open it.
And there are plenty of neat little suprises, like when F. Paul Wilson, in his Pellucidar story “The Dead World,” has his Victorian-era genius Abner Perry notice a wavery quality to the landscape of Pellucidar’s dead moon and speculate that it’s something called a hologram, prompting his befuddled companion to ask that golden question, “What’s a hologram?” – and get a classic response:
“A three-dimensional projected image. Various scientific journals were discussing the possibility of such a thing before we left, but it was more in the realm of scientifiction. And now, here it is …” He turned to me with wonder-filled eyes. “In Pellucidar!”
The oldest gem in this collection is Resnick’s own story “The Forgotten Sea of Mars,” an uncanny imitation of Burroughs’ style and even diction that originally appeared in an ERB fanzine way back in 1965 and is every bit as enjoyable to read today. Peter David puts a surprising amount of flesh on Burroughs’ hyperventilating novel The Moon Maid, and Todd McCaffrey does likewise for the aforementioned world of Poloda. But although writers clearly have lots of fun with John Carter and Carson of Venus, there is – there can be – only one real king of an anthology like this. The Tarzan in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Tarzan and the Great War” and Joe Lansdale’s “Tarzan and the Land That Time Forgot” is the quintessential stoic Burroughs hero, and the version we get in Kevin Anderson and Sarah Hoyt’s fantastic “Tarzan and the Martian Invaders” is even better, a wonderfully, believably re-imagined ape man who’s both more savage than anything in the original ERB novels – and more tender:
Although normal expressions still did not come naturally to him, Tarzan gave he the best smile he could command. He extended his arm to her. “You are quite safe with me, Jane. Human or ape, I am always your husband.”
She came swiftly to be enfolded in his embrace. “Don’t I know that? Have I not seen you when you still didn’t know how to form human words? And yet …” Her hand caressed his powerful arm, feeling the muscles beneath his shirt. “You’ve always been human to me, the best of men.”
In fact, just about the only thing this volume is lacking (except for a Korak story, as you probably knew I’d say) is a big Roman numeral “I” on the cover, as a clear signal that more such volumes are on the way. I’m imagining it there anyway, and I’m hoping for the best.
October 10th, 2013
Our book today is the latest Marvel Comics paperback reprint from what’s become known in reverential whispers as “The Simonson Run.”
Walt Simonson’s run as writer and artist on Thor only lasted a comparatively short time – from the golden year of 1983 to the golden year of 1986 – but media experts and comics fans unhesitatingly place that run of issues among the most accomplished and definitive for the character, an epoch to rival or perhaps surpass the great Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years. One of the most remarkable aspects of Simonson’s run is how confident it is, visually and rhetorically, right from the start (when Odin, the king of the Norse gods, abruptly transports his son Thor to Asgard from Earth, leaving Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. standing alone in the rain asking a typically wry Simonson-style question, “Don’t these people ever travel in dry weather?”). There’s no tentative growing into a style, as is so often the case with even the best artistic runs on certain comics titles. Instead, Simonson knows what he wants to do right from the start.
The simplest way of summarizing what he wanted to do is: to humanize Thor without quite making him human. Gone are the Sir Walter Scott-style ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ of the Stan Lee years, replaced with an oddly but believably quasi-elevated style of diction employed by Simonson’s Asgardians (with whom we spend a good deal of time, since Simonson, like Lee before him, clearly considered Thor’s back-story to be infinitely rewarding). Gone is the bombast (even, mostly, from Odin, who under Lee’s tenure was the Way, the Wonder, and the Windbag), and gone are the often wooden characterizations that could mar even the most powerful of Lee’s storylines. All Simonson’s characters – be they human construction workers, Asgardian rank-and-file warriors, or the heads of pantheons – are immediately recognizable people, acting from any number of real-feeling motivations, rather than the simple on-note heroism or one-note villainy that tended to satisfy earlier writers of the title.
Simonson also brough humor to the fore in a way no earlier writer had quite dared to do with Thor. Stan Lee displaced all his humorous impulses into stock clown characters like the rotund Asgardian warrior Volstagg, and although later writers like Gerry Conway would sometimes add little comic gags (Hercules deploring the look of Thor’s Teutonic helmet, for instance), the book was for the most part unrelentingly serious. Simonson kept the high seriousness, but right from the beginning of his run, he began injecting an element of sly, tongue-in-cheek humor the title had never seen before – including, famously, the issues where he had Thor temporarily transformed into a god-sized frog (“What do you call a 6’6″ fight-mad frog?” asked one of the covers, and when the reader opened the issue, he found the title on the main page answered the question: “Sir!”).
But as refreshing as such winking and nudging could be, it was a side-show to the main story Simonson used to kick off his run, and he built that story gradually. In the middle of some entirely unrelated adventure, we would suddenly cut to a shadowy figure working an enormous anvil “far from the fields we know” – a nice allusion to Lord Dunsany – a figure obviously forging something big and dire. Gradually, these little glimpses grew bigger and more detailed; gradually, we saw that the figure was immense, and that a vast, uncountable army was sitting in the darkness, eagerly watching the creation process.
By the time Simonson was ready to move these tense little vignettes to the center stage, regular readers of Thor were half-mad with curiosity to know who the immense forger was, what he was making, and what all of it portended for our stalwart Asgardian heroes. It was a masterfully-done feat of building expectations, but as any seasoned thriller writer could attest, it runs the risk of making the final revelations seem distinctly anti-climactic. The fact that it didn’t happen in this case was entirely due to Simonson’s retrograde willingness to tell Stan Lee-sized stories. It turns out the immense shadowy figure is Surtur, the primordial destroyer from Norse mythology who has forged the Sword of Doom in order to use it to destroy Asgard and her god – and all life in the universe in the process. This is an elder-god Surtur who’s as uninterested in being an ordinary ‘villain’ as this version of Thor is in being an ordinary ‘hero’ – and Simonson doesn’t hesitate to present Surtur as the equal of Odin in power.
Surtur rampages to Asgard, stomping on all resistance he encounters. Meanwhile, Earth is attacked by seemingly endless hordes of Surtur’s demons, forcing the Avengers to team up with the Asgardians in a fight that spills across all of Manhattan (even after a dozen years, the scenes showing the heroes rallying around the Twin Towers still have the power to sadden, like coming suddenly in a happy, smiling photo album upon a picture of someone long dead). In a desperate last stand in Asgard, Odin, Thor, and Loki are finally united as father and sons against a common, unbeatable foe. Before Simonson, fans would hardly have believed it possible for such a sequence to be accomplished with the wonderful combination of humor (“For Asgard!” Odin cries; “For Midgard!” Thor cries; “For myself!” Loke cries) and grand guignol action, and yet Simonson would go on to dream up half a dozen such sequences before his tenure on the book was over.
Two years ago, Marvel Comics published a gigantic doorstop of a hardcover Thor volume collecting Walt Simonson’s entire run on the book in gorgeously re-mastered color. That book was only just barely affordable at $100 and not at all portable. With a multimillion-dollar new “Thor” movie about to open in theaters worldwide, Marvel has seen fit to calve more manageable little glaciers off the great massif of that hardcover, and the latest of these features that first stunning, wide-scale Surtur story. Thor fans will of course know the splendors awaiting them here, but even newcomers will feel themselves pulled right away into Simonson’s fantastic world of wise-cracking gods and smiling villains and desperate all-or-nothing combats. This is as good as four-color comics get, and now with 80 % less wrist-strain!
October 10th, 2013
October 8th, 2013
Our book today is Albert Schweitzer’s Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus by W. Montgomery over a century ago. Schweitzer published the book first in 1906 and then thoroughly rewrote it for a 1913 edition, and as editor John Bowden writes with little repressed horror, the Montgomery translation “has somehow gained a reputation for excellence.”He found it riddled with errors and set about cobbling together a heavy revision, which was published by Fortress Press out of Minneapolis in 2001.
Until we get a thoroughly from-scratch annotated translation from Penguin Classics, this edition is the closest we come to a true version of this book in English, and re-reading it really underscores both how learned it is and how strangely winning it is. Schweitzer spends 95 % of the thing in very technical call-and-rebuttal dialogue with a handful of great German philologists and Scriptural authorities of his generation and the two previous generations. He summarizes their points, analyzes them, rebuts many of them on very specific grounds, and all of it is done in the slightly close-shouldered tone of inter-academic note-sharing.
In other words, it shouldn’t be even remotely readable by a lay audience. And yet it is, mainly due to the aforementioned winning tone. Schweitzer is a very happy writer; he doesn’t shy away from exclamation points, he loves colorful language, and he has something of a stump-preacher’s effortless ability to zero in on whichever part of a passage or idea will best lend itself to helpful explanation. One of the main tasks he set himself was to sift through centuries of scholarly textual analysis in order to pin down as much as possible the core Jesus, the spine of the character stretching through the Gospels and the Apocrypha. Anybody who’s ever tried this kind of textual sifting will say the same thing to people who haven’t: it’s a genuinely thrilling, enjoyable thing to do – almost addictively so.
Schweitzer is so alive to this potential enjoyment that his book, against all odds, flows. I got drawn all over again into the many debates he’s conducting, and I found myself underling entirely different passages than I remember underlining in my original copy of the book (which, for reasons that need not detain us here, now lies at the bottom of Lough Neagh). On practically every page, there’s some insight to make you stop and think:
Jesus is best understood by contrasting him with John the Baptist. John was a preacher of repentance whose eyes were fixed upon the future. Jesus did not allow the thought of the nearness of the end to rob him of his simplicity and spontaneity, and was not crippled by the reflection that everything was transitory, preparatory, a mere means to an end. His preaching of repentance was not gloomy and forbidding; it was the proclamation of a new righteousness, of which the watchword was, “You shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven in perfect.”
Of course, one manifestation of Schweitzer’s playfulness wasn’t entirely appreciated in his own day: he can be wonderfully irreverent, or seem to be:
There are several details in the reported facts of Jesus’ life which could be interpreted as indicating insanity. His family explains that he is beside himself an for this reason tries to bring him home (Mark 3.21). The Pharisees maintain he is possessed (Mark 3.22 and 30). At his baptism he has optical and acoustical hallucinations (Mark 1. 10-11). Whether he as well as the disciples suffered from hallucinations on the mountain of the transfiguration, or whether it was only they who ‘saw’ and ‘heard’, is no longer clear in the reports we have of it. A negative attitude towards the family is to be observed, too, in certain psychotics; his saying about the men who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matt. 4.39) and his cursing of the fig-tree (Mark 9/12-14) are indeed remarkable events. From the reports of his public actions it is in fact possible to gain the impression that Jesus was unstable and erratic, and this could be seen as indicating insanity.
The hinge on which his book turns is the concept of eschatology; the Jesus he portrays here is a preacher who’s not only certain the world around him is coming to a very immediate end (and not a metaphorical one, either – literally no more streets, no more farms, no more tax collectors or angry parents or anything) but is convinced he himself is the agent who will bring about that end. Schweitzer’s Jesus believes himself to be a divine singularity, the collapse-point of all time and history. And once Schweitzer begins reading such a mind frame back into the Gospels, he starts seeing deeper patterns – and echoing them in the scholars he’s studying:
Until the time of his arrest Jesus himself did not believe he was to die. But he was most profoundly disillusioned because the kingdom of God had not yet come. This sadness is expressed in the last supper which he celebrated with his disciples, at which he makes an oath to drink no more wine till his expectations are fulfilled. This indicates [Max Maurenbrecher writes]‘that he no longer felt the happiness a man feels as he leads his bride to the altar, and which has urged him till then to proclaim his great Now’. A tragic expectancy has replaced the happy one.
I half-way worried, approaching this new re-reading (of a nice copy bought at the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course), that the book would seem somehow dated to me, but no – it’s still a feast for those of us who loved good searching Gospel study. Schweitzer may have drawn criticism elsewhere in his storied life – his reputation may be a bit tarnished in the very areas where he wanted it to shine most brightly – but in the writing of this book, he’s doing everything exactly right.
October 3rd, 2013
Our book today is A Silver-Plated Spoon, the sparkling 1959 memoir by John Ian Russell, who in 1953 became, somewhat late in life, the 13th Duke of Bedford and the master of spectacular Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. It was an amazing ascension – the family has occupied the place for four centuries – but Russell was hardly expecting it; he first found out about his ducal identity as a boy, from one of his father’s maids. His father, Hastings Russell, was a genuinely fascinating man (for good or ill, most of the Bedford men have been genuinely fascinating), died suddenly in 1953 (our author always maintained he shot himself, but the coroner said the incident was an accident). Suddenly, young Ian was next in line to inherit the dukedom and was duly summoned to Woburn Abbey to meet with his dour, disapproving grandfather:
Square, bulky, medium height, grey-haired, he was gruff and formal. I had arrived all eager to make an impression on this formidable forbear, but the attempt fell flat from the start. He had a curious habit of always looking down when he talked and a disconcerting way of deadening every conversational gambit. It was either “Indeed”. or “Quite”, or just silence, rather like playing tennis and having the other person hitting the ball into the net the whole time. There was no grace of manner, no welcome, no attempt to exert any charm at all to the young fellow who, in all likelihood, would one day bear his title. The subject of my father never came up and he clearly was not very interested in me. It was the most formal and deadening interview I had ever experienced, the fore-runner of many such. After a few minutes silence fell and we went in to lunch.
These meetings were awkward because Russell’s father and grandfather had taken extraordinary legal measures to keep the customary Bedford incomes from reaching him, considering him a feckless layabout. This naturally produced some bitter reactions on the part of the grandson, and some bitter letter-exchanges – some of which are reproduced in A Silver-Plated Spoon with amazing frankness. This is laundry-airing as only the very rich or the very poor ever do it
You say [Russell writes at one point to his father] that you do not see that an unearned income should be received by anyone who does not spend it wisely to perform some real service to the community and you mention that you and grandfather have done. You do not mention however that at my age both you and, I think, grandfather enjoyed an enormously greater income than I have ever had which you both received as a matter of course. At my age had grandfather or you completed any social service? had you commence to do any social service? I do not think so and you both had large incomes, incomes which went much further in those days than they do today. I quite appreciate that both you and grandfather give a lot fo time to social service today but you are both rich men, you have huge unearned incomes from the money and property handed down by generations of Russells so that you are free from the worry of having to find enough money to live, for food, for clothe and for the hundred and one essentials of life.
When he came into his inheritance at last, the Duke brought some novel – even iconoclastic – ideas to his new station, foremost being that he opened Woburn Abbey to the public and took the first tentative steps toward running it as a business, a move that garnered him a great deal of withering scorn from some of his fellow noblemen (most of whom later imitated it). All the most interesting and entertaining parts of A Silver-Plated Spoon (and its much later follow-up, How to Run a Stately Home) center around this transformation of a remote and walled private keep (a place that first struck young Russell, quite accurately, as “somehow not part of this world at all”) into a beloved vacation-day destination:
That first year we had 181,000 visitors, far more than my trustees or indeed anybody else thought we could possibly attract. All the hard work had paid off. By putting ourselves out to make people feel welcome, and by providing the sort of attractions that people look for on a free day, we had jumped straight into the front rank of the stately homes business. Only the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth was doing better than we were, and he had years of experience and organization behind him.
The Duke’s puckish humor is never far from the proceedings either, as when he records the bumps along the way to “the front ranks of the stately homes business”:
The only other untoward incident during the first week occurred when a man came up to Lydia and put sixpence in her hand as tip, saying, “That’s for you, ducks.” My wife, who knew a piece of bread and butter when she saw it, did a grateful bob and said, “Thank you, sir.”
The 13th Duke died in 2002 and was succeeded by his son Robin, a jovial, wonderful man, an avid book-shopper in Boston during his years at Harvard, and one of the most genuine and eager listeners in the world (when a friend of his told him he was as “hungry for stories” as Chaucer, he responded, “I could not conceive of a higher compliment”). He died tragically young, but the Bedfords go on at Woburn Abbey, and in many ways, A Silver-Plated Spoon records the family’s crucial modern-day turning point. And it’s delightful reading in the bargain, as you’d expect of a world-famous good host.