Posts from May 2014
May 30th, 2014
The hands-down winner for Most Obnoxious Opening Paragraph for a Book Review This Week goes to New Criterion editor and publisher Roger Kimball, reviewing Christopher Buckley’s new essay collection But Enough About You in the National Review:
I’d known for years that Christopher Buckley was an amusing man. His novel Thank You for Smoking (1994), for example, had me crying, yes crying, with laughter. But it wasn’t until we happened to be at a dinner party at the impressive townhouse of a well-known female philanthropist that I witnessed the spontaneous flowering of his comic genius. The two of us were chatting with our host when the subject of exotic travel came up. Christo ventured that he had just returned from Nootka and wondered, eyes gleaming, how my recent trip there had turned out. I ran with it. I allowed as how my journey, too, had been profitable, though if course the political situation was worrisome. Our host nodded. There proceeded a detailed description of our separate exploits in that far-off kingdom, while our host smiled bravely and continued nodding as we inveigled her ever deeper into that Romantic destination. “You have a house in Nootka, I believe?” Christo asked at one point, accepting a spot more Chardonnay. Our host, a woman of many properties on several continents, was now in deep waters. “Do I?” she asked. “Do I?” She twirled the wine thoughtfully.
May 27th, 2014
Some Penguin Classics don’t seem right until you actually see them in the traditional black and white. Last year’s Penguin Classic of Christy Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch was a fine example; it was lively, goofy relic of a book, ghostwritten to a fare-thee-well and then forgotten for decades except by the baseball faithful, but then Penguin dusted it off, gave it a new Introduction by baseball-novel millionaire Chad Harbach, and served it up as one of the oddest entrants in the ranks of what are, after all, still called “the finest books ever written.”
Pitching in a Pinch most certainly isn’t a great book. It isn’t even a good one, although it’s sure as hell an entertaining one. It has no literary value, not if we understand “literary value” as something possessed by folks like Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. And its oddity status isn’t singular – at least, not anymore: the latest offering from Penguin Classics is Cecil Leiws’s Sagittarius Rising, his rousing memoir of being a fighter pilot during the First World War. Lewis joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 at the age of 17, and over the course of the war he had dozens of brightly-colored adventures, both in the air (surveying battlefields and engaging in the dawn of aerial warfare) and on the ground, on leave (carousing it up with the blotted-out abandon that only people living on the edge of life and death can summon). This pretty new Penguin edition of his book sports an eye-catching cover illustration by Matthew Taylor and a wonderful Introduction by aviation historian Samuel Hynes, who’s full of sympathy for his subject:
Nostalgia for that bright lost time and those heroic virtues colors Lewis’s book. That’s not a fault: memory is not a clear glass pane but a stained-glass window, through which we see our pasts more vividly. It’s inevitable that a pilot, when his flying days are over, should look back with nostalgia to the time when he and flying were young, and the world was a better place. Lewis’s ability to do so, and at the same time to reflect on both the bright past and the darkening world after, gives his book a binocular vision that makes it the profound and moving experience that it is.
Hynes is especially good at pointing out how effectively Lewis conveys the wonder of being a pioneer of the air; it’s in these passages that Lewis, looking back, most effectively captures the inquisitive amazement he felt as one of the youngest people ever to look down on the face of the Earth from such heights:
At five thousand over the aerodome I turned north. The flat country stretched to the four horizons. To say it looked like a map was a cliche. There was a resemblance, of course, as between sitter and portrait; but the real thing had a bewildering amount of extra detail, a wealth of soft colour, of light and shade, that made it, at first, difficult to reconcile with its printed counterpart. Main roads, so importantly marked in red, turned out to be grey, unobtrusive, and hard to distinguish from other roads. Railways were not clear black lines, but winding threads, even less well defined than the roads. Woods were not patches of green, except in high summer; they were dark browns and blacks, merging, sometimes imperceptibly, into the ploughed fields which surrounded them.
The rough-shod nature of beginning aeronautics is a recurring theme throughout Sagittarius Rising, and that’s made this book a samizdat favorite among flyers (alongside titles like Ernest Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, a book whose debts to Lewis are obvious and affectionate). In the normal course of things, a reader might think that’s right where the book would stay, just as with Pitching in a Pinch: as a clubhouse favorite, a small-‘c’ classic appreciated only by its own devotees. Even today, one hundred years after the start of WWI, any small-craft flyer will smile at Lewis’s many goofball anecdotes about making a machine go through the air:
But what in heaven had happened to this cloud-bank? It wasn’t level. It was tilted as steeply as the side of a house. The machine was all right – airspeed constant, bubble central – and yet here were the clouds defying all natural laws! I suppose it took me a second to realize that I was tilted, bubble or no bubble, that I had been flying for the best part of fifteen minutes at an angle of thirty degrees to the horizon – and had never noticed it! If I had tried to fly this way on purpose, it would have seemed impossible, at the best most unpleasant. The machine would have shuddered and slipped. I should have been in a dither after half a minute. If you’d told me any one could fly like it quite happily for ten minutes, I should have laughed. It shows what a little ignorance can do.
There’s surprisingly little ignorance in Sagittarius Rising, and there are generous helpings of the kind of phlegmy sidelong wisdom old warhorses can sometimes produce while reminiscing by the fire. We’re celebrating – if that’s the right word – the hundred-year anniversary of the opening of the First World War in 2014, and although the war spurred thousands of memoirs, it’s true that very few of them are as honest or entertaining as this one. That’s not justification enough to induct it into the ranks of the Penguin Classics to stand beside Flaubert and Trollope, but even so, it’s mighty good fun to spend time in airman Lewis’s company.
May 26th, 2014
Our book today is Medicus, the 2006 debut Roman murder mystery by Ruth Downie starring wry, brooding medical man Gaius Petreius Ruso, who’s chosen, with uncharacteristic impulsiveness, to respond to the death of his father and a painful divorce back in Rome by moving to the farthest reach of the Empire, distant Britannia, and attaching himself in a medical capacity to the XXth Legion in the outpost of Deva (modern-day Chester).
Downie’s a complete natural at storytelling, despite the number of people in her Acknowledgments section (so nice to see the good folks at the Historical Novel Society get a shout-out!) who’re credited with making Medicus a stronger book. However the division of labor breaks down, it’s a mighty strong series debut, right from the opening scene:
Someone had washed the mud off the body, but as Gaius Petreius Ruso unwrapped the sheet, there was still a distinct smell of river water. The assistant wrinkled his nose as he approached with the record tablet and the measuring stick he had been sent to fetch.
“So,” said Ruso, flipping the tablet open. “What’s the usual procedure here for unidentified bodies?”
The man hesitated. “I don’t know, sir. The mortuary assistants on leave.”
“So who are you?”
“The assistant’s assistant, sir.” The man was staring at the corpse.
“But you have attended a postmortem before?”
Without taking his eyes off the body, the man shook his head. “Are they all like that, sir?”
Ruso, who had started work before it was light, stifled a yawn. “Not where I come from.”
Look at how deftly that’s done: it contains barely any facts, and yet we learn so much, especially about Ruso himself (stranger enough to be unfamiliar with local procedures, but confident enough to command the moment) but also about Downie, about her trust in her own ability to hold the reader with crisp dialogue instead of exposition. The whole setting of Roman Britain draws pedants like an outhouse draws flies, so it’s correspondingly refreshing to find a novel with so little info-dumping in its nearly 400 pages. Instead, Downie more often indulges in very nicely-turned atmospheric asides:
There was a bird chirping in the hospital garden and a murmur of voices. Ruso glanced out the window. On the far side of the herb beds an amputee practiced with his crutches while orderlies hovered at each elbow, ready to catch him. soft breeze wafted in, fluttering the lamps that had been placed on slender black stands around the table, burning for the soul of the unknown figure laid out beneath them.
Medicus takes its time unfolding anything resembling an actual plot, so intent is it on creating a world. Something of a plot does germinate – a man beats a female slave in the street, Ruso, again acting impulsively, saves her by buying her from the man – but the bulk of this first novel is character study, slowly peeling back the various layers of the complex man at the center of things, teasing out his memories:
A voice whispered in his memory – a voice he hadn’t heard for almost two years now – a voice accusing him of being cold-hearted and arrogant. He silenced it, as he usually did, by recalling other voices. The Tribune’s praise of his “commendable single-mindedness” (of course Valens had to ruin it later by explaining, “He meant you’re boring”). Or the officer’s wife who had smiled at him over her sprained ankle and said, “You’re really quite sweet, Petreius Rufus, aren’t you?” That memory would have been more comforting if she hadn’t been caught in the bed of the chief centurion a week later and been sent back to Rome in disgrace.
One of those memories involves a dramatic encounter with the emperor Trajan, who dies just as the novel is starting. The imperial fortunes of Trajan’s successor Hadrian will, before the novel is done, prove how small in some ways a hemisphere-straddling empire can be, and it’s not like Downie neglects her mystery-author duties – the book’s second and third acts pick up all the plot-threads so leisurely laid down in the first.
And as strong as this debut is, the series gets steadily better – stronger, more confident – as it goes on. I recommend the whole thing, whether you’ve ever been to Chester’s Roman ruins or not.
May 24th, 2014
Our books today are two oldies but goodies, A Literary History of Rome from the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age (1909) and A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age from Tiberius to Hadrian (1927) by J. Wright Duff, who labored over them for a huge chunk of his life and brought forth a two-volume masterpiece the equal of which you’ll be hard-pressed to find no matter how long you comb the Classics section of every used bookstore you visit.
Duff was a classicist of the old school, as thoroughly conversant with that choice ancient company as he was with the faces at his dinner table. But he brings to his books much more than simple linguistic mastery; he studies the breadth of Roman literature with rigor but also with a deep sympathetic understanding that brought his books hymns of praise from all quarters (including a certain pince-nez’d Commander-in-Chief who consumed the first volume, argued with it, and said it encouraged him to re-visit many of the classics he’d last read in college). Put simply, he’s a marvelous writer – and it’s amazing (although it shouldn’t be) that his literary appreciations ‘stand up’ so well even after a century. Take his take on the Roman playwright Plautus, for instance:
Primarily, Plautus’s object was not to lecture but to amuse, and yet there is more than infinite jest and trickery in him. If he was no deep student of human nature and no deep thinker on human destiny, he did not lack feeling for the earnest of life. With his merry laughter went broad sympathies. His own outlook on existence must have coloured the character of some of the slaves whom he paints with zest – a cheerful attitude to what seems a game, a readiness to take one’s luck and to rise above untoward events buoyant and resourceful. Mirth is not necessarily stone-blind to sadness; so comedy, while it laughs, may contain real criticism of life as tragedy.
But because we’re talking about a Victorian education here, Duff’s books rest in a comfortable downy context of literary allusions from the entire canons of four modern literatures as well as three ancient ones. This was an era – perhaps the greatest such era – when it was no sin of elitism to be well-read, and no ancient author evokes that quality quite like Cicero in his letters (which even I, no fan of Cicero, am prepared to sing as the masterpieces their author knew they were):
The author’s varying moods are naively reflected. He can write like Horace Walpole at his airiest or Cowper at his gravest. He has some of the coxcombry of the former an something of the tragic personality of the latter. Cicero is not starched by the consciousness of impending publication as Seneca, Pliny, and Madame de Sevigne all were. He shows more freedom than Gray. There is no affected pull towards artificialism as in the case of Burns’s letters. He has Byron’s frankness, if he lacks his sparkle. Colloquial turns are lavishly introduced. With certain correspondents – most of all with Atticus – he sprinkles his sentences with Greek, as we might use a handy French word in a letter, but sometimes solely because of Atticus’s Greek tastes.
A Literary History of Rome joyously bristles with erudition and yet is an unmixed pleasure to read. Its reception has become fairly exclusive, I fear: Duff’s pace will quickly shake off readers who are just hearing the names “Tacitus” or “Pliny” for the first time, and it never occurs to him that his readers won’t possess Latin and French – and possibly German and ancient Greek as well. His footnotes are a marvel of study, but the number of general readers who’d be able to marvel at them today has dwindled severely since Duff’s day.
Even so! Even so, there are wonders in these two volumes for any fan of ancient literature! Just the other day, I wrote about how embattled university presses provide their readers with so much excellent stuff readers would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. That same article mentioned that another, often-overlooked function of such presses is to reprint scholarly works that would otherwise disappear forever. A Literary History of Rome is exactly such a work and deserves exactly such a reprint. After all, the last outfit to reprint these volumes was boring old Barnes & Noble.
May 21st, 2014
Naturally, Scott Sherman’s well-done article in The Nation on the parlous state of the university press grabbed my attention. Sherman writes about the roughly 100 university presses in the United States but concentrates especially on the vast majority of them that don’t rest on “the feathery cushion of an endowment” but rather face the hurly-burly of the commercial publishing world. These presses (and even their more well-endowed brethren) are increasingly squeezed in the twin vises of escalating production costs and the brutal egalitarianism of the Internet, and the article caught my interest because I can scarcely imagine my own literary landscape without books published by academic presses. By ironic coincidence, I opened that issue of The Nation immediately after closing the latest catalogues from both Yale University Press and Harvard University Press, and while I was paging through them, I was struck, as I always am, by how many of the titles in those catalogues cannot possibly expect anything even remotely resembling a general readership.
Such books are important. As Sherman points out, the bibliographies of the runaway bestselling works of history and biography that appear every winter are full of the listings of such books, but it’s more than that: quite often (and who would know better than I? Who reads more of these books than I do? Indeed, in the last seven years, who’s reviewed more of them than I have?) they’re good, stimulating, mind-expanding reading in their own right. They’re the fruits of long study done for inquiry’s sake rather than for hope of gain the marketplace – and since the marketplace can be quite dumb, the existence of an entire separate venue, where books can be researched, written, and even sometimes sold without the kind of market-metrics that now rule the deliberations of the big Manhattan publishing houses, is an unquestionable good for our collective intellectual life.
It’s troubling to read that this alternate venue is feeling endangered, and, thanks to Sherman’s diligence, it’s also fascinating to read about one of the inequalities at the heart of the system – something I hadn’t thought of before:
A crucial question faces university presses and the universities themselves: Who will pay for the dissemination of scholarship? University presses provide a number of vital functions for the academy as a whole – starting with the fact that, by and large, young professors achieve promotion and tenure based on monographs they publish. But the funding for the entire system is lopsided. If the University of Colorado Press publishes a monograph by a young professor at Dartmouth that enables that scholar to obtain tenure, then the University of Colorado Press, with its very modest budget, is in effect subsidizing Dartmouth, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion as well as its own small press. In his New Media & Society essay, [Phil] Pochoda noted that approximately 100 university presses are subsidizing “at least 1,000 other universities and colleges who are free riders on a system that they rely on but do not support.”
And as is my typical pattern when delving into the Penny Press, I moved straight from feeling troubled to feeling outraged – this time by turning to the latest Harper’s, which has a long review by James Lasdun of Joshua Ferris’s new novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. At first I thought the pairing seemed somewhat natural, if gimmicky: a big part of Ferris’s novel deals with online stalking and identity theft, and last year Lasdun wrote an excellent account of being stalked online by a former student. Ideally, you always want to get advice about a new car from a car expert, but lacking that, I suppose it makes a gimmicky kind of sense to turn to somebody who’s been run over by the same make and model number.
The piece quickly started to disappoint. Lasdun lavishes lots of hifalutin praise on Ferris’s first novel, which was a tiresomely derivative one-trick performance – but overpraising that work is a useful tactic if you’re going to go on to paint a portrait of Art in Decline, which is the main hallmark of hatchet jobs like this one: it can’t be that an author’s latest book didn’t suit you, no – it’s got to be that the author’s latest work is the last piece of evidence we need that the author has degenerated to the point where a public execution would be a mercy to all concerned. This kind of Wagnerian overreaction runs strong in some critics – especially the ones who are also academics. One imagines it compensates a bit for all those weekday evenings of falling asleep at 9 while grading papers.
It isn’t anywhere near true. Ferris’s second novel was enormously good – complicated thought-provoking, and despite what Lasdun says, extremely well-controlled throughout. But it hardly maters: the second book had to be criticized because it wasn’t the first book – and if that was its sin, how much worse must the third book be? Long before he actually started talking about it, I knew Lasdun was working his phlegmatic way up to calling To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the worst book ever written. It’s a complex work with a lot of moving parts – by an author who very clearly intends to march to the beat of his own drummer for the whole of his career – so I haven’t been expecting it to receive the unmixed praise usually poured out on equally intelligent but easier books.
But even so, I wasn’t prepared for one part of Lasdun’s takedown. He starts this part fairly innocuously, with some plot summary:
It [the book] tells the story of a dentist named Paul O’Rourke, who becomes the target of a campaign of online stalking and identity theft that seems, as it progresses, to be motivated by a general fixation on Judaism, and a particular obsession with the connections between anti-Semitism and the behavior of Jews toward their enemies, from biblical times to the present.
Then came this:
I was recently the target of an uncannily similar campaign, with similar menacing emails, similarly embarrassing online postings in my name, and a similar underlying obsession with Jews, particularly in their hoary double role as the world’s victims and oppressors. “No more about the 6 million,” writes O’Rourke’s stalker, “until OUR losses and OUR suffering and OUR history have finally been acknowledged.” Mine wrote: “jews in america need to shut up, the crazy shit that comes out of your mouths spreads far and wide in a city filled with blacks, muslims and asians who’ve had it.” O’Rourke goes to Israel in an attempt to make sense of his strange ordeal. I did the same.
Followed immediately by this:
In the end there isn’t much to be said about these coincidences except that they confirm a feeling of mine that Judaism and Israel are no longer cultural or geographic phenomena so much as regions of the human brain, like Wernicke’s area or the hippocampus, where some pervasive psychoses get processed.
Even on my fifth re-reading, I honestly don’t know which irritates me more, the cheapness of the accusation or the weaseling way Lasdun immediately tries to distance himself from it. “There isn’t much to be said about these coincidences except” followed by two lines of quasi-conceptual mumbling – when Lasdun knows full well that in the previous paragraph he wasn’t intending to point out “coincidences” – he was intending to call Joshua Ferris a plagiarist. Wernicke’s area – ye gods.
I’m hoping somebody writes a letter to Harper’s in defense of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and I’m hoping that somebody doesn’t have to be the abashed and embarrassed author himself.
And in the meantime, I’m hoping readers ignore the review and buy the novel; it’s really, really good.
May 20th, 2014
Our book today is a delightful curiosity called Genji Days by Edward Seidenseticker, whose 1976 translation of Murakami Shikibu’s great epic novel The Tale of Genji was as thoroughly the definitive Genji of his generation as Arthur Waley’s had been for the previous generation – or, indeed, Royall Tyler’s 2001 version is currently. For thousands of readers, Seidensticker provided an incredibly welcome alternative to the quasi-Edwardian bombast with which Waley filled out his original; Seidensticker’s version, by contrast, seemed sleek and elegant despite its enormous size (when the gorgeous two-volume hardcover boxed set was selling briskly in bookstores, one Boston customer was heard plaintively asking his wife, “Do we have to read both of them?”). Seidensticker seemed to catch all the the Genji qualities Waley had missed, from the beauty of the nature-reflections to the confident urbanity of the many Court scenes. Critics were unanimous in their praise, and although the unabridged version has rather shamefully been allowed to lapse out of print (and although the Tyler version is now just a bit preferred by all the very best book discussion groups), the Seidensticker translation still “holds up” marvelously well even by today’s unrelentingly minimalist ethos.
And 1977’s Genji Days is an added little marvel: the whole time that Seidensticker was working on his monumental translation, he was also keeping something of a translator’s diary, which starts in 1970 and continues on at a leisurely pace for the next five or six years. It’s all predictably addictive reading (Seidensticker was an unassuming master of English prose), ranging from slightly dated social observations to impishly funny little anecdotes about what used to be called “the generation gap”:
Young man wearing the ugly emblem which to me looks like a bomber but which is supposed to signify peace came up with a big bag in his hand and said: “Peanuts for peace?” “I am a warmonger,” I replied. I almost thought he was going to hit me, such peace-loving hatred as did shine in his eyes. So I enjoyed the market after all.
But always these entries come back to a translator hard at work; the primary composite image of all these entries is of a scholar at his desk, deeply embedded in his huge ongoing work:
It was a hard day’s work on the Genji, it was, it was. I made my way through a second revision down to the midpoint in “Agemaki.” What a wonderful tragicomedian Kaoru is as he slams the door of the Uji house forever, and then heads back for Uji on the next bus. I did not have a great many footnotes today, but I managed to get all mixed up on such as I did have, and that was fun. Scholarship is fun, perhaps them most fun when it is the most pointless.
Naturally, he has company at that desk – foremost the ghost of Arthur Waley:
My chief impression of Waley, after having been away from him for so long, is that he is very wordy. He embroiders, of course, that we all know, but he embroiders with such a heavy stitch, reminding me of my maternal grandfather as he made us little ones fidget and look out the window from the lunch table. We have always excused Waley his liberties because, we have always said, he wrote such beautiful English, but I am not sure that it is all that beautiful.
(Waley isn’t the only one to come in for some sniping; when Seidensticker mentions his work translating Mishima’s The Five Spots on the Angel, he can’t help comparing it to Genji: “There is a considerable difference between working with jewels and working with tinsel”)
Occasionally he can be testy when forced to interact with the world, although he’s hardly the first person to be peeved by the robotic niceties of modern air travel:
I don’t suppose I am quite as displeased with United vulgarity as I was on my last Hawaiian flight, but it is pretty hard to take all the same. One sees too clearly the difference between good manners and Madison Avenue manners – between household manners of the better sort, acquired at the hearth and the dinner table, and charm-school manners. And the line United Airlines gives you over its public-address devices is such as to make you think it was maybe a bad idea to head for the islands in the first place. All sorts of highly romanticized and not very accurate stuff about their history, and cute lessons in the Hawaiian language, and that sort of thing. I got so annoyed, as it went on and on, that I took to hating my fellow passengers, who seemed to love it.
The saving moments in his Genji Days – as in his Genji – are the ones that feel both quick and timeless, however, and those moments are here in all seasons:
Beautiful, beautiful snow. It started falling heavily in midmorning an is still falling heavily, and there seems to be about a foot on the balconies and walnut trees outside my north windows. I spent a great deal of time through the day lost in the beauty of it when I should have been lost in other things.
It’s easy enough to get lost in this little translator’s diary – I in fact recommend it.
May 19th, 2014
Our book today is Stan Cutler’s 1994 mystery novel Shot on Location, a snapping-good Hollywood whodunit starring the unlikely duo of fifty-something “fixer” tough guy Rayford Goodman and twenty-something gay writer Mark Bradley – a duo who might never have met each other except that Mark Bradley’s seedy publisher, Pendragon Press, has secured the rights to Ray Goodman’s memoir of his decades as an investigator-to-the-stars. The job of creating this book falls to Goodman and Bradley in allegedly equal parts, and since Cutler gives us chapters alternately narrated by each, we get both versions of that creative endeavor. As Goodman puts it:
“As Told to Mark Bradley” – which means I told him the story and he put down the words. Only listen to him, you’d think he actually wrote it. Writers have some ego.
Or, in Bradley’s version:
Now, however, Pendragon [Press, “in whose vineyard I so vigorously labored (wherein I planteth and careth not the fruit therefrom”] had achieved respectability – or at least solvency – due in no small part to my own contribution as first semi-ghost writer (“as told to”) to the near-famous, and more recently as co-biographer, due to an incredible prank of fate, with Rayford Goodman of his own “auto”-biography … Goodman and I painfully and with irreconcilable differences collaborated on the writing (theoretically – I did the actual writing) and the solving of incidental murders involved in the telling (in large measure, admittedly, the efforts of Goodman).
Mark Bradley is a winningly sympathetic character – and convincingly human, considering the state of gay characters in mainstream fiction twenty years ago (Cutler, a handsome and eloquent veteran TV hack, was nominated for a couple of Lambda Awards specifically for how refreshingly three-dimensional Mark Bradley is – and how grudgingly OK Ray Goodman is with him). But for me, the real engine propelling these novels (not only Shot on Location, but the three other Goodman-Bradley mysteries, Best Performance by a Patsy, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, and Rough Cut) is Rayford Goodman himself, who’s “the wrong side of fifty, heavier side of two hundred, and shorter side of six feet. Plus the poorer side of divorce, unhealthier side of a heart attack, and not leading the pack in the virility sweeps” (although that last bit takes at turn for the better when Ray becomes romantically involved with the spirited Francine, one of Mark Bradley’s co-workers).
In Shot on Location, Stacy Jaeger, the country’s most famous actor, suddenly finds himself at the heart of a violent tragedy: his son has shot and killed his sister’s sketchy lover, and the question of Jaeger’s involvement starts a media feeding frenzy – which is good news for Mark Bradley, since he’s been commissioned to write a standard ‘unauthorized biography’ of Jaeger, but bad news for Goodman, whose jury duty on a headline-grabbing murder case drags him into the Jaeger business. In short order, our odd couple are back together again – and as much work as Cutler puts into all his characters, it’s Goodman who really shines in these beautifully-constructed, fast-paced books, Goodman telling us his own story in his man’s-man terms:
I come from a generation takes care of business. I get a ticket, I pay it; no getting stopped for a broken taillight and busted for outstanding warrants. I don’t lose my keys. Forget my wallet. I don’t need a bank card to get money nights or weekends. I’m almost always reliable because it’s logical and makes life easier.
The Goodman-Bradley mysteries suddenly stopped in the mid-90s. We have only these four adventures – but they’re very much worth tracking down, especially if you like your thinly-disguised entertainment-world gossip served up hot and funny.
May 18th, 2014
Our book today is This Thing of Darkness, a whopping-long 2005 historical novel by Harry Thompson about the fateful voyage of the HMS Beagle to Tierra del Fuego in 1828. The ship was captained by 23-year-old Robert FitzRoy, and of course its most famous passenger was the young amateur naturalist Charles Darwin. But Thompson’s novel differs fascinatingly from its only main predecessor, Irving Stone’s 1980 monolith The Origin in that it’s FitzRoy and not Darwin who holds the spotlight at the hero of the plot – no mean trick, especially in light of the one thing most general readers know about FitzRoy, which is that late in his life he Bible-wavingly protested his part in germinating Darwin’s world-changing book on the origin of species.
That FitzRoy – much older, much more bitter and confused – bears no resemblance to the brilliant, self-doubting martinet of Thompson’s novel, a young captain with immense force of will who’s as hard on himself as he is on the men under his command. Thompson makes the superb tactical decision of giving us FitzRoy’s adventures aboard the Beagle for a full 200 pages (alone the length of most full novels) before Darwin makes his first appearance. It’s during this first part of the book that we see Thompson’s wonderful realization of a FitzRoy whose later ground-breaking fascination with the workings of weather are only just being born of a tragedy that cost two of his men their lives – a fact for which the young captain can’t forgive himself:
‘Every experienced captain knows where to find a fair wind or favourable current. Do you think the winds blow at random? Those two poor souls who died yesterday – was that God’s punishment or the result of my blunder?’
‘I know it was God’s will.’
‘Mr Sullivan, if God created this world to a purpose, would He have left the winds and currents to chance? What if the weather is actually a gigantic machine created by God? What if the whole of creation is ordered and comprehensible? What if we could analyse how His machine works and foretell its every move? No one need ever die in a storm again.’
‘It is too fantastical an idea.’
It’s not as fantastical an idea as the one that will take shape in the mind of his new onboard naturalist in due time, although even FitzRoy, when confronted with the mulish, offhand racism of his crew, can defend angrily enough the idea that living creatures can adapt and change over time, as when he upbraids a crewman for his dismissive attitude toward the natives of Tierra del Fuego:
‘They most certainly are men, just as you or I. Unfortunate men, maybe, forced by accident of circumstance to inhabit this Godforsaken spot, but they are our brothers nonetheless. They do not look like us because their physiognomy has adapted itself to the cold and the rain. Were I to cast you ashore, Mr King, and were the good Lord to take pity on your soul and spare your life, then within a generation or two your progeny would very likely be short, plump and jabbering away like the lowliest Fuegian.’
‘But it doesn’t mean anything – does it, sir? Those noises they make?’
‘How do you know? To the best of my knowledge, no Dr Johnson has ever taken the trouble to compile a dictionary of their language. An omission I intend to remedy personally. Instead of waving a loaded gun about the maindeck, Mr King, you would be better advised to improve your intelligence of such matters. I suggest you consult the scriptures, commencing with the Book of Genesis.’
By the time the book reaches its long second part, we’re primed for the famous meeting of the two men, and Thompson doesn’t disappoint, underscoring the encounter with light irony:
The stranger was extremely tall – at least six feet in height, thickset and shambling, with long arms, a pleasant round face and friendly grey eyes. His bulbous unsightly nose was squashed against his face like that of a farmer recently defeated in a tavern brawl. All in all, it struck FitzRoy that there was something vaguely simian about the young man’s appearance.
Despite their radical differences in personality and outlook, the two men become fast friends in short order (although he always cited more arcane sources, Patrick O’Brian simply had to have had this relationship in mind when creating Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin) – but the seeds of their future estrangement were never far from the surface, especially on the subject of Biblical inerrancy, a subject about which Darwin, the clerical “trainee” (as Thompson calls him), was well-equipped to debate his pious captain:
‘Come, come, my dear FitzRoy, you know as well as I that the scriptures are contradictory. In Genesis one, twenty-four, the Lord brings forth all living creatures before He maketh man on the sixth day, having already created fish and fowl on the fifth day. What if, as de Luc contends, these “days” were not days as we know them but great ages, epochs lasting many thousands of years? What if man never encountered these monstrous beasts?’
This Thing of Darkness was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (it lost to the entirely inferior The Sea by John Banville), and Harry Thompson also died in 2005, of lung cancer at the age of 45, after a blazingly innovative and uproarious career writing and producing British television. This enormous and prodigious book was his only novel, a thing he’d worked on more or less steadily for the bulk of his adult life – and into which he poured almost every scrap of his wide-ranging reading and near-perfect gift for dialogue. He never intended this book to be a memorial, but it makes a damn impressive one just the same.
May 14th, 2014
The 1990s came rushing back into the spotlight for me today in the Penny Press, first in the latest Vanity Fair, which had not only an entertainingly angry piece by Lili Anolik on the whole culture-altering media circus of the O. J. Simpson trial, and then a piece written by Monica Lewinsky, whose scandal with President Clinton brought the whole of the United States government to a standstill back in 1998, and finally an excerpt from Matt Berman’s new memoir about working in the 1990s on John Kennedy Jr.’s start-up magazine George. Berman’s an affable narrator, telling a familiar story of an ordinary guy unexpectedly caught up in the vortex of Kennedy fame. It’s the animating heart of Berman’s new book, JFK Jr, George & Me (as it was of Christina Haag’s far more vibrant and memorable Come to the Edge), and one of the main characteristics of that book is here in this article: the effective way Berman casts himself as something of a starstruck bumbler who’s less aware than his readers are of the significances happening all around him.
One such moment struck me, of course. Berman’s at a laid-back meeting at Kennedy’s place when Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette, starts up a conversation with Berman:
John offered me a Rolling Rock. I sat down and tried to look comfortable. Carolyn sprawled next to me, putting her arm on the back of the sofa behind my head. She stared at me with her clear blue eyes. “Matt, where did you grow up? I bet Connecticut.” I mentally examined myself, searching for clues to her comment. Was my sport coat too preppy? Did I have a bad haircut? Do I have an accent? Then I remembered that she had grown up one town away from where I had; she was from Greenwich and probably recognized the type.
It’s hard to know what ‘type’ Berman is talking about here. The Greenwich where Carolyn Bessette grew up was about as far as you can get from the working-class Connecticut whose marks Berman is here worried she spots in him; it’s impossible to tell if Berman’s at all aware of the rumors that there might have been a much more direct way for Carolyn Bessette to know about the ways of young men from working-class Connecticut. And if he does know about those rumors, you have to wonder what other things he knows but does not say in this article or in his memoir. That’s the amazing thing here: that even twenty years later, the fog machine can still be found working.
And over in The New Republic, in a short, fantastic piece called “American Plague,” Michael Hobbes writes about the greatest scourge of the early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, which, he rightly points out, struck the United States far worse than it struck any other country:
Looking at the data on AIDS deaths, you see that the virus hit the United States early and hard. In 1982, the first year of nation-wide CDC surveillance, 451 people died of AIDS in America. Just five died in Britain. In 1985, when Germany started reporting, it had 170 AIDS deaths. The United States had almost 7000.
Hobbes looks at all the possible reasons why this disparity might exist, but you end up worrying that the real reason is the last one offered, the most terrifyingly simple one:
“At the end of the day, it’s best understood as a function of health disparities writ large,” says Chris Beyrer, the director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program. The core difference between the United States and Western Europe, he says, is that “we’re a much bigger, much more complex, and much more unjust country.”
Of course, it’s not all 1990s-retrospectives. The best thing I read today in the Penny Press was by Timothy Snyder (author of 2010’s utterly magnificent Bloodlands), a piece called “This Battle Means Everything,” also in The New Republic, that looks at the turmoil currently ratcheting up in Europe and has some extremely sobering things to say about it all:
We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience. Fascism features armed forces that do not look like armed forces, indifference to the laws of war in their application to people deemed inferior, the celebration of “empire” after counterproductive land grabs. Fascism means the celebration of the nude male form, the obsession with homosexuality, simultaneously criminalized and imitated. Fascism rejects liberalism and democracy as sham forms of individualism, insists on the collective will over the individual choice, and fetishizes the glorious deed. Because the deed is everything and the word is nothing, worlds are only there to make deeds possible, and then to make myths of them. Truth cannot exist, and so history is nothing more than a political resource. Hitler could speak of St. Paul as his enemy, Mussolini could summon the Roman emperors. Seventy years after the end of World War II, we forgot how appealing all this once was to Europeans, and indeed that only defeat in war discredited it.
May 13th, 2014
The rest of the world may be unpredictable (earthquakes, tidal waves, polar ice-caps summarily melting, a snowstorm and a tornado on the same day in Colorado, 40-degree temperature drops in Boston in a 10-hour period, etc.), but one thing can always be counted on in a bookworm’s life: the need for acquiring more books.
I get books from many sources, of course. Not as many sources as I once did – Boston was once home to a vast number of used bookstores, scattered from Brookline to a wondrous place called Scollay Square, and I used to require an entire nine-to-five day simply to ‘hit’ them all (with my beagles along for the day, of course, since those were across-the-board more civilized times). Each shop had its own unique vibe and its own unique selection, and each was run by a Boston bookman of long standing.
Boston bookmen are virtually extinct today, and the number of venues has fallen precipitously. There’s my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course (where gift certificates may always be phoned in, in any amount, hint-hint), but most of the pretenders currently occupying the Boston used-book scene are centers of NPR-echoing book-pretension rather than genuine used-book vitality; their stock is brutally over-priced, and it virtually never changes. They’re haunted by the two storm-crows of a bad used bookstore: students who can’t afford anything in the shop, and those loathsome dealer-creatures with their value-assessing phone-apps – but they have nothing at all to offer a real book-shopper (last year a friend took me into one such shop, on Newbury Street – I spent 20 minutes looking at $10 Horatio Hornblower paperbacks, and I left empty-handed).
But there’s always Goodwill, with its tidy little sections of affordable used books, and the hours I’ve spent watching BookTube have alerted me to another potential venue: The Book Depository, a wholly-owned but much more friendly-faced manifestation of Amazon.com. Like everybody else, I knew Book Depository mainly for its oddly mesmerizing live-buying page, where you can watch book-purchases being made in real time all over the world, 24 hours a day. But watching all the young BookTubers on YouTube, I was reminded of the fact that huge numbers of readers in the 21st century have no good physical bookstores anywhere near them – they do a big percentage of their book-buying online, and they seem to favor The Book Depository (probably for the free world-wide shipping? I admit, it’s nice not to have to factor that damn number in at the end of every purchase).
And they don’t just shop at Book Depository – oh no! Because it’s BookTube, they also do unboxings and book-haul videos about what they buy! It feels so bouncy and inclusive that I had to try it: I opened an account at Book Depository and promptly became one of those real-time world-wide shopping pings: “a customer in Boston just bought …”
So Book Depository items form a chunk of this May book-haul! For my first time shopping with them, I decided to limit my picks to fairly new Penguin Classics, and I justified these purchases (for which their is, I’m aware, no justification) by telling myself that if I ever saw these volumes at a Boston used bookstore, I’d probably snap them up regardless of their cost.
That certainly explains such seldom-seen gems as David Hume’s posthumous and quietly incendiary Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in which is fictional interlocutors use all the armament of the Enlightenment to dismantle religion and the very idea of a creator-god. Or another gem usually found only in schools: Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, which is here presented in a collection along with some of Burke’s great writings on the American colonies, the whole presided over by David Womersley, whose definitive three-volume edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will almost certainly be a future Book Depository purchase of mine (my own boxed set of those big fat trades has mysteriously vanished). And it wasn’t all centuries old! This time I also bought fiction: a gorgeous Penguin trade of Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington – because I’ve recently made the rather shocking realization that although I have the great Oxford World’s Classics Centennial Edition paperbacks of almost all of Trollope, I have almost no Penguin Classics of this most quintessentially English of authors – hardly an acceptable state of affairs for somebody who plans to write as much about Trollope in 2015 as I do!
(The other fiction purchase, a Penguin Modern Classics paperback of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, will strike some of you as far, far less comprehensible, and it strikes me that way too – it’s very close to be a sign of the Apocalypse to have the words “John Updike” and “Penguin Classics” in any kind of proximity. In my own defense I can only say that Adam Begley’s fantastic new biography of Updike provoked me to buy one of Updike’s crappy novels – until I remembered the riches of the Boston Public Library, but by then it was too late to cancel my Book Depository fling)
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony attending the fact that this purchase, the only one I’m ashamed of, is also the only one any of those young BookTubers I follow would actually read! I don’t fancy such people as the very talented Jamie Laurie, the adorable Morgan at House of Reads, or the ambiguously-named BookMovieGuy tucking into Hume or Burke in their next spare hour)
But no Stevereads book-haul would be complete – indeed, no Stevereads book-haul would be possible – with some gleanings from the Brattle as well, and this one has a few finds: the old Science Fiction Book Club editions of sci-fi and fantasy classics can be extremely cheesy, but some of them are gold – foremost being their early volumes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” books, since those early volumes feature not only covers by the great Frank Frazetta but also internal black-and-white Frazetta illustrations that are uniformly fun. This particular volume is the second one in the series and includes The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, and it virtually guarantees some John Carter reading in my immediate future, especially since I’ve always most enjoyed reading these books in summertime, and Boston’s vicious, grueling 9-month-long summer is scheduled to begin on Wednesday (it’s freezing cold and snowing today).
Also in this Brattle segment of our haul: Steve Coll’s long and eloquent history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, Ghost Wars, which I’ve recommended to many people and given to many people but never owned myself; a Penguin Classic of Trollope’s signature book, Barchester Towers, a Penguin Classic of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (a book that’s always disappointed me, as it were), and, in the day’s real discovery, a UK-only (this one came from a mysterious land known as “Canada”) mass market Penguin paperback of Cyril Connolly’s 1938 masterpiece of literary journalism, Enemies of Promise.
If the success of any book-haul lies in how much you want to dive in and start reading all the books immediately, then this one ranks pretty high for me. And who knows what the rest of May will hold? Other than freak sleet-storms and tsunamis, that is.