Posts from June 2014
June 30th, 2014
Our book today is A Face Turned Backward, the 1999 second installment in Lauren Haney’s delightful series of murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt and featuring stalwart (and easy on the eyes) Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police force in the frontier town of Buhen during the reign of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. The book’s (indeed, the series’s) habitual focus on how blasted hot it is in Buhen and its surroundings makes A Face Turned Backward and its companion volumes particularly on-point reading as the first touch of genuine summer weather finally makes ready to be felt in Boston.
Even though it’s clear from that aspect of these books that if Haney ever visited Egypt, the unearthly heat of the place made a lasting impression on her (it certainly did on me – the only place I found hotter than Egypt’s deserts at midday was my Cairo rooming house at midnight), she’s too adept an old plotter to let it take over her stories, which are always not only elegantly constructed but richly detailed. Take just this moment of heroic Bak’s progress through the city on his way to a murder scene:
Bak, armed with his baton of office and a sheathed dagger at his belt, hurried through the towered gate, staying well clear of the ant-like line of men, backs bent low beneath heavy sacks of grain, who were unloading a squat cargo vessel and hauling its contents to a storage magazine inside the fortress. Their dissonant voices rose and fell to the words of an age-old workmen’s song. The stench of their sweat and the earthy smell of the grain tickled Bak’s nose, making him sneeze.
If you count them off on your fingertips, you’ll recognize this as Fiction Writing 101’s standard appeal to all five human senses, and the rest of A Face Turned Backward is equally immersing. In this adventure, what begins as a fairly routine concentration on foiling upriver smuggling uncovers a much bigger and darker kind of criminal plot, and Bak (and his hapless assistants) are thrust into the middle of forces that seem bent on toppling the monarchy itself. And along the way, Haney pauses the narrative with refreshing regularity to remind is that there’s more to Bak than a pretty face. He’s a contemplative young man. When he comes upon the mysterious wreck of a merchant vessel, for instance, he instinctively imagines her in better days:
Bak felt unaccountably saddened by the wounded vessel, an ordinary trading ship of moderate size, unadorned except for the eye of Horus painted on the prow. Yet seen from a distance it must have been beautiful, sweeping up the river with its weathered wood dark and glossy, its rectangular sail spread wide like the wings of a gigantic bird.
It’s been more than a decade since the last Lieutenant Bak mystery, and Lauren Haney is no spring chicken; it’s possible we’ll have no more of these adventures, which makes the ones we have all the more savory. I strongly recommend them all.
June 26th, 2014
It’s always a thing I feel a little bit ashamed to admit, but there it is: I go to comic books mainly for their artwork. I know all about the brilliance of today’s comics writing – I hear about it all the time from comics aficionados, that today’s industry writers are smarter and more literate than they’ve ever been. They have greater scope than in the past, since the mainstream superhero comics have shifted to a pacing that’s always got one eye on the graphic novel collection down the line. This can make buying individual monthly issues pretty frustrating – more than ever, they’re now just chapters in a future book, with little internal urge to be dramatic pound-by-pound (and since the individual issues are now $5 apiece, Marvel and DC have left ordinary regular comic-shop customers precious little reason not to wait for the graphic novels and forego buying any comic books at all).
Even so, I’m a sucker for picking individual issues from the comics racks! And my choices are always guided by artwork – as, for instance, this week: I bought the first issue of a new Marvel series called Savage Hulk, written and drawn by the great Alan Davis, which would almost always be plenty reason enough to buy. It’s an odd thing, but unlike such earlier Davis masterpieces as The Nail and Superboy’s Legion, it appears to be set firmly in normal continuity, not a what-if kind of story. It’s set in Marvel’s past and takes as its jumping-off point from issue #66 of the old first run of The X-Men in which the team of teenage mutants take on the Hulk in Las Vegas and only manage to defeat him temporarily thanks to the telepathic powers of their teammate Marvel Girl.
The fight is re-hashed in this issue, and a new one is clearly in the offing for future issues, which raises awkward logistical problem of the fact that as super-teams go, the old X-Men stand less of a chance against a rampaging Hulk than virtually any other. Cyclops’s optic energy beams bounce off him; Iceman’s projected ice is easily shattered by him; Beast, the team’s strongman, can lift 2 tons as opposed to the Hulk’s 100; the broad-winged Angel is a bystander – and even the team’s later additions, Polaris with her magnetic powers and Havok with his energy-blasts, would be all but useless. In fact, only Marvel Girl’s telepathic powers would stand a chance of working, and then only to calm the Hulk down into his human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, not to beat him.
Even so, this issue was really good – a delightful retro thing, featuring the old-fashioned Hulk, the one who occasionally rampages and only wants to be left alone (there’s a wonderful sequence in which Davis shows him sitting in the middle of the desert at night, reaching up for the beauty of the stars). I haven’t read anything about this series, but I very much liked the first issue.
And if I was drawn to buy it because of Alan Davis, how much more so must that have been true for John Romita Jr., one of my favorite working comics artists (and, incidentally, a heck of a guy), especially if he’s drawing Superman, my favorite superhero character.
It’s been much, much harder to be a Superman fan in these last three years, during the regime of “The New 52,” in which the character of Superman took on such an ominous and offputting new spin. This Superman is an alien super-being, floating one foot off the ground, dating Wonder Woman, entirely distanced from normal humanity, utterly humorless – and the basics of that characterization aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, since they were the basis of the latest Superman movie, which has so far made almost a billion dollars. This Superman barely even thinks about protecting the innocent and wouldn’t bother to foil a bank robbery even if every little old lady with a savings account begged him to, so he’s a bit of a trial to read – in fact, I usually haven’t been buying Superman on the comics stands (that bizarre absence, plus the still-mourned lack of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, feels utterly unreal).
But for Jr Jr, I at least sprang for Superman #32, the start of a new storyline in which a boring ponytailed new super-character named Ulysses enters the DC universe, introducing himself to Superman by helping our hero defeat a fairly nondescript new villain. There are rare-enough personal moments – we see Clark Kent at the Daily Planet offices, and, more interestingly, we see him at home in his apartment, unsuccessfully trying to have phone conversations with first Wonder Woman and then Batman, and then paging through a photo album, patently lonely. These are exactly the kind of details that have been missing from this comic since it was re-invented, and they were refreshing to see, even though they certainly aren’t going to last.
The artwork sure was nice, however: Romita’s panel-work is so unapologetically muscular and elemental, in some ways just perfect for this new bludgeoning version of the character. This artist will sacrifice almost anything for dramatics (at one point Superman uses his heat vision on the bad guy, and one beam lands a full foot wide of the other – which isn’t of course, how vision, heat or otherwise, works). But somehow it all works (less so with the issue’s curiously static cover, which has a fine age-old principle but boring execution); I ended up enjoying the issue, and I’ll probably follow the whole of Romita’s run – which won’t be very long, of course! Even in this issue, in an interview, he’s already enthusing about the other DC characters he’d like to draw … always a bad sign – Doomsday, as it were.
June 21st, 2014
The 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series “The City on the Edge of Forever” comes up almost necessarily in any discussion of the franchise as a whole. Fans routinely rank it as one of the best episodes of the original series, and a smaller sub-set of those fans, myself included, maintain that it’s the best single Star Trek hour of them all.
In that episode, the Enterprise is investigating the source a series of violent disruptions in the very fabric of space-time. Captain Kirk and his crew are in orbit over a bleak, uninhabited planet that seems to be the nexus of it all when a sudden shock-wave causes Dr. McCoy to stumble and accidentally inject himself with an overdose of a powerful drug that temporarily deranges him. He uses the transporter to go down to the surface of the unnamed planet, and Kirk, Spock & co. chase after him. Once on the surface, they’re astonished to find in the midst of horizon-to-horizon ruins a great lopsided stone archway that, when they approach, speaks to them in a sonorous voice, introducing itself as the Guardian of Forever, a living gateway to the past. It’s showing Kirk scenes from the history of Earth when suddenly McCoy bursts from hiding and leaps through the Guardian, vanishing into the past.
And the result is immediate: no Enterprise up in orbit, and by extension no Federation – all reality altered. The answer is obvious: McCoy’s presence in the past has altered the future. In order to restore it, Kirk and Spock leapt through the Guardian to search for McCoy in what turns out to be 1930s New York. They don’t find him at first, but they do find a beautiful social worker named Edith Keeler, and two things happen: first, it becomes obvious that in order for history to resume its rightful shape, Edith Keeler must die, and second, Kirk falls in love with her.
The episode is full of some of the best character moments in the three seasons of the original show, and the hour’s dramatic climax is moving every time.
So naturally I was curious about IDW’s new comic book adaptation of “The City on the Edge of Forever” – and a whole lot less curious once I learned that the project wouldn’t be an adaptation of the TV episode that won a Hugo Award and the devotion of so many Star Trek fans. No, instead it’ll be something more interesting and more tiresome: an adaptation of one of the early versions of the final story – early versions written by Harlan Ellison, whose name is also on the final version.
Ellison is a tireless sore winner, and for forty years, he’s been carping gracelessly about how betrayed his original vision was, how adulterated, how degraded. That original vision – all six or seven drafts of it – is nothing less than dreadful. In the version IDW has chosen (with Ellison’s grudging cooperation), it’s not McCoy who hurries down to the time-vortex planet but rather an Enterprise crew member who’s been selling drugs on board the starship, and the Guardian of Forever has become the Guardians of Forever, a clutch of tale, pale, boringly stereotypical aliens who’ve been hanging around for hundreds of thousands of years for no particular reason and now offer to help Kirk chase his errant drug-dealing crewman. The whole mess of it has no coherence and no character-play – it’s not Star Trek except in the proper names, and although that fact didn’t bother Ellison for a second, it certainly bothered Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. The “City on the Edge of Forever” that won the Hugo was heavily script-doctored by series stalwarts Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana, who added almost all of the memorable or worthwhile stuff in the episode.
So the merits of the IDW production are a little tricky. The cover is the now-iconic poster by Juan Ortiz, and the interior artwork is by J. K. Woodward, and there’s definitely a slightly surreal interest in seeing these iconic characters working their way through an adventure they never, as it were, had. I’d much rather it be some other kind of adaptation. Maybe for the show’s 50th anniversary year, we’ll get a full-length novelization by Diane Carey? I’ll try to hope for it, but in the meantime I’ll be skipping the rest of this IDW series, I think.
June 14th, 2014
A good many of you responded favorably to that last “Six for the Scribblers” writer-biography round-up (and some of you pointed out that the entry didn’t, in fact, include six biographies but instead only five, against which my only lame defense is to note that this is “Stevereads” not “Stevecounts”), and since there are EVER so many more such biographies to choose from, I thought I’d go back to my shelves and pull down six (I promise this time!) more winners for your consideration.
The first is that most treacherous of all writer-biographies: the ones the writers write themselves. I have a bit of a weakness for these, even though they’re typically stuffed to the gunwales with gossip, self-justifications, and outright lies. I’ve read Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography many times, even though I know the authors aren’t going to be so interesting as to include any personal revelations (I’ve also read all of William Dean Howells’ autobiographical writings many times, even though I know the author isn’t going to be so interesting as to leave any personal revelations out)(and don’t get me started on Theodore Dreiser’s autobiographical stuff). And because of the deep and abiding love I have for his great book, I’ve read Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography many times as well, usually in the spiffy 1984 Penguin edition, which presents the 1897 John Murray text, with the great Betty Radice doing the editorial duties and sounding off in her inimitable way about the author himself:
Language in all its refinements was never his interest, and, in spite of his ear for the rhythms of English prose, he shows no deep feeling for verse; perhaps because he was unmusical. But no one has exceeded his capacity for absorbing a subject and retaining it in a memory as well indexed as it was capacious, and no historian has achieved a better combination of assembled material and imaginative insight.
And then there’s the unmistakable prose of Gibbon himself, those rolling periods that did so much for the maturing of the English language, even when the actual sentiments they convey are just so much sheep-dip:
I shall not expatiate more minutely on my economical affairs which cannot be instructive or amusing to the reader. It is a rule of prudence, as well of politeness, to reserve such confidence for the ear of a private friend, without exposing our situation to the envy or pity of strangers: for envy is productive of hatred, and pity borders too nearly on contempt.
Gibbon had many predecessors, of course, in terms of sharpening English into a language worthy of French. One of the most forgotten of those predecessors today is the Tudor poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, whose 1929 biography by E. M. W. Tillyard still ranks as my favorite, even though it’s really just a biographical sketch prefacing a collection of the man’s verse. Even so, Tillyard is never less than quotable:
Wyatt was a man of action, swift in emergency, brilliant at initiating a move, one who delighted to have his intellectual faculties tried. The intrigues and delays of the court of Spain irritated him intensely: in the bustle and movement, the rumours and alarms of Charles’s journey through France, he was happy. He read Charles’s intentions with clear insight, and realizing soon that he could not influence the issue of events, he wrote home begging to be recalled. One cannot help admiring the way in which he faces the truth and unhesitatingly lets his master know the worst.
Scholars like Tillyard are hampered in writing a Wyatt biography by how many factual blank spots there necessarily are in any pre-modern life. To put it mildly, this isn’t a problem Lionel Stevenson has in his fantastic – and still very much unrivaled – 1947 biography of William Makepeace Thackeray, The Showman of Vanity Fair. Stevenson includes almost every one of the thousand choice anecdotes generated around Thackeray in his lifetime, and he sums up his subject quite well:
At the age of fifty Thackeray had reached the fulfillment of all his dreams. The years of nomadic restlessness were at an end. Ever since he left India, when he was six, he had been essentially rootless – the various houses in London had been little more than caravanserais. Now he owned a home built according to his demands and handsome enough to fulfill his ideas of luxury. Having earned the thirty thousand pounds to replace the inheritance he had squandered, he was able to give up the wearisome labor of editorship and to see some promise of escaping even from the creation of novels, which had always been an agonizing strain upon his nerves. The placid writing of history had beckoned to him for years as the future solace of his retirement. He was at last what he had always yearned to be – a gentleman of independent means and literary tastes, dwelling in the mellow atmosphere of the eighteenth century and preparing to apply himself to a suitably elegant hobby.
Naturally, when world-wide fame is mentioned in the same breath as authors, one particular author tends to come to mind, the one who “woke up one morning and found himself famous,” and Lord Byron has certainly not lacked for biographers. The best of these so far is Leslie Marchand, who finished a massive three-volume life of Byron in 1957 and in 1971 came out with an extremely winning one-volume overview called Byron: A Portrait, which follows its famous subject at a very sprightly pace from birth to fame to scandal to exile to death – and a little beyond death:
There was something in Byron’s restless spirit that did continue to breathe when he expired, that moved his close associates to devotion to his memory and to contention with others, but scarcely ever to indifference. Few man have had a more far-reaching influence beyond the tomb. [John Cam] Hobhouse soon felt this. He wrote: “poor Byron – he always kept his friends in hot water during his life and it seems his remains will be of no easy management after his death.”
It would be hard to find a famous writer less like Byron than Franz Kafka, and yet they’ve both received an entire library section of biographies, ranging from the short and controversial to the long and definitive. Somewhere in the middle is Ronald Hayman’s fine 1981 study K: A Biography of Kafka, which sketches in all the well-known details and provides through it all a witty and slightly caustic running commentary that his subject might have appreciated:
At ten o’clock in the evening of 22 September 1912 the twenty-nine-year-old Franz Kafka sat down to begin his story ‘Das Urteil’ (‘The Judgment’). When he finished it at six in the morning, his legs so stiff he could hardly pull them from under the desk, he knew he had used his talent as never before. He had discovered ‘how everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, a great fire is ready. They’re consumed and resurrected.’ The equation of destruction with creation is characteristic. He frequently destroyed his own writings, as if the less successful ones were weeds that could choke worthwhile work before it emerged.
Kafka made a biographer’s job a bit easier than some, since he was a voluminous letter-writer. But his conflicted instincts for self-revelation take a distant back seat to those of James Boswell, who wrote innumerable letters and, more to the point, kept scandalous, garrulous journals for virtually the whole of his life. In 1991, John Wain produced a wonderful selection from those wonderful books, The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795, in which we follow Boswell into every imbecility and folly he ever thought to commit to paper. Wain is a discerningly sympathetic guide, setting us at ease right away about the enormous, slobbering elephant in the room:
Strange, how many people feel obliged to go into a well-and-bucket act where Boswell and Johnson are concerned. If Johnson is profound, Boswell is a nonentity. If Boswell is interesting, then Johnson is a comic ogre. In fact anyone not in the grip of that particular compulsion can see that they were both interesting, both valuable.
And Boswell does the rest, merrily, handily, showing at once the artifice and the lack of self-consciousness that he somehow managed to wear side-by-side. Every page in these journals is every bit as entertaining as anything in Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, and most of the entries do what the best of that big book does: makes us both admire and cringe at Boswell’s candor. Take the entry for Wednesday, 23 March 1768, for instance:
I had this morning been at Tyburn seeing the execution of Mr Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and of Benjamin Payne for highway robbery. It is a curious turn, but I never can resist seeing executions … One of weak nerves is overpowered by such spectacles. But by thinking and accustoming myself to them, I can see them quite firmly, though I feel compassion.
I can whole-heartedly recommend these six author-biographies, and there are many, many more (for example, I’m sure, looking back on this particular list, that some readers are going to ask for – demand? – an all-female list to follow, and I can certainly oblige, as ridiculous as that is). Perhaps a regular feature? Stranger things have happened.
June 12th, 2014
Our book today is Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1958 historical novel The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which made as much of a splash as any book could reasonably be expected to make. It sold briskly (thanks to an innovatively energetic ad campaign); it garnered an enviable collection of critical praise (The New York Times called it “tremendously exciting,” the old Boston Transcript praised its “grubby verisimilitude,” and the San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps inevitably, referred to its “rollicking good humor”); it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (undeservedly, it must be admitted – good as it is, it’s not a patch on Mary Renault’s The King Must Die); and it spawned a popular TV series. It’s a pure demonstration of sic transit gloria mundi that the book and its author are now completely forgotten.
It’s the story the titular young hero, who follows the pioneer wagon train west from St. Louis to California in the 1849 Gold Rush, a standard spine of travel-novel around which Taylor was free to deck all the period-research he’d done piecemeal over the course of two decades. The book has a deal too much of that regurgitated research, but it’s saved from tedium by the fact that Taylor has a very entertaining grasp of his main character, who comes across as a dimmer, less funny version of Huck Finn:
Well, this was all right. I turned around slowly, naked as a jaybird, roasting one side after another, letting the heat sink clear into my bones. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing like a fire for putting the spunk back into a body. Looked at in some ways, the situation didn’t exactly call for a celebration – I was standing pelt-bare in a strange woods out I the middle of nowhere – but I felt fine and ready to push ahead.
The bulk of the book, as the title suggests, consists of Jaimie’s various coming-of-age adventures, during which he learns the ways of adulthood, the ways of prostitutes (gold-hearted and otherwise), and the ways of the Indians he encounters along the way (those particular scenes are the book’s most memorable by a long shot). These adventures are punctuated regularly by Jaimie’s reflections, not all of which are quite as profound as their author probably thought when he was writing them:
In books I’ve read, I notice that they do a lot of talking about so-and-so’s “character,” making the point that hardly anybody’s what they seem but that everybody’s pretty deep and shifty. I can well believe it.
Taylor wrote a whole shelf of other books in his forgotten career, including 1978’s A Roaring in the Wind, which has an even creakier premise than The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters: a naïve Harvard city-slicker heads out West to Montana, gaining worldly knowledge enough to replace all that stupid book-knowledge he’d been taught at school. It’s a big, very enjoyable book all the same, not quite sunk by the fact that a staggering ten reviewers referred to it as some kind of yarn.
These books are gone now, at least as much gone as any book ever is these days (probably you could buy a copy of each for one penny in 40 seconds online, if you were of a mind to), but re-reading them brought back memories of a reading-era that seems now a bit simpler. Or maybe it’s that the whole sub-genre grew up quickly when Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove appeared.
June 11th, 2014
Conde Nast Traveler’s latest issue is their regular celebration of islands, which the magazine’s fantastic new editor-in-chief Pilar Guzman justifies with elegant simplicity:
Everything just tastes, looks, and feels better on an island. (It’s a little like how airplane altitude adds two starts – and many more tears – to every movie experience.) Maybe it’s that the relative difficulty of getting to most islands, combined with the thrill of that first sighting on the horizon, awakens the explorer in all of us.
The four main islands considered in the issue represent an odd assortment – two of them are hopeless causes: Yolanda Edwards does a game job trying accentuate the positives of the island of Antigua, and who knows but that she might fool a few Traveler subscribers into visiting the foul, benighted, steaming-hot thief-infested hell-hole. But even her task pales before the job Patrick Symmes has in trying to put a shine on the godforsaken island of Cuba. He fails as badly as Edwards does, but you’ve got to give them both points for trying.
Far more successful is Maria Shollenbarger’s wonderful piece on the far-distant Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat, which she visits on board a fancy, lovely antique-replica ship with an attentive crew. A long, long time ago, I too visited the gorgeous, hot islands of Raja Ampat in a small, scuffed sloop crowded with brave beagles. We had three casks of water and a little barrel of dried food, and I lost count of how many tiny, overgrown islands we investigated, my boys and I, their broiling crowd led by my best friend Aidan and filled out with cautious, worrying Judge, inseparable Nine and Line, sweet-natured Wayel, bell-voiced Nore, and kindly, happy Moro, who was born with no eyes and was watched over by all the rest of us. To put it mildy, we didn’t have any of luxuries Shollenbarger enjoyed:
We want for little. One evening the chef sends out platters of spring rolls; another, wafer-thin pizzas just when passengers start feeling puckish. Glasses are never allowed to empty, wet towels disappear and warm dry ones are quietly draped over shoulders, and every return from an afternoon at the beach or a snorkeling session is met with jokes and fresh juices or iced tisanes.
But the highlight of the issue for me, of course, was Ondine Cohane’s lively profile of the lesser-visited islands of Venice (including “the bright-green island of Sant’Erasmo”), which she styles as an attractive alternative to the more familiar tourist-crammed haunts of the city proper:
There are more than a hundred islands in Venice’s 212-square-mile ecosystem, but most tourists simply camp out near St. Mark’s Square and rarely venture beyond the clogged arteries that connect the main sights of the Rialto, the Grand Canal, and the Bridge of Sighs. The outer islands, however, are where traditional Venetian culture still runs deep, where layers of history can be peeled back in still-quiet settings, and where chefs, hoteliers, and artisans are innovating in ways that would be impossible on the Grand Canal, where tourists’ expectations of a quintessential Venice experience means there’s little opportunity for experimentation.
I know every footstep of those Venetian islands, every tree and crook, the taste of every lagoon breeze in every season, and the reminder of that time made me realize with a little start that almost all the places on Earth I’ve loved the most have been islands: Venice itself, of course, and Sicily, and Ireland, and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket (and Cape Cod itself, for that matter)(and, for much sadder reasons, St. Lucia) – no wonder this issue and all the ones like it please me even more than the rest of the Conde Nast Traveler year.
June 10th, 2014
Our books today are six sterling choices from that strangest of all biographical sub-genres, the literary biography. A writer friend of mine (too soon gone, but his books live on, which is kind of the whole point, isn’t it?) summed up the strangeness rather well one day while we were prowling the Brattle bargain-carts when I playfully suggested that one day he himself would be the subject of a biography: “I sit at a table in my basement for ten hours a day, every day, smoking, sipping whiskey, and typing. Zsa Zsa Gabor I’m not.”
He had a point. Most writers are poor miserable creatures, hopelessly narcissistic and boring. It’s almost as though in order to render the flow of humanity with such fascinating vigor, they have to embody the worst of humanity themselves, to become resentful stenographers, overcompensating with whatever small notoriety life gives them for the fact that they don’t build bridges or lead troops into combat or raise families. And their daily toil is even less appetizing than their lives: there’s really only one way to grind out pages, and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to drama.
And yet, our curiosity about such creatures and their work is entirely understandable. If there weren’t bridges, we’d find some other way to cross the river, but without Pride and Prejudice or The Tale of Genji we wouldn’t adapt – we’d just be less. That entails a great debt, and it’s understandable that we’d want to know about the people who gave us those priceless things.
Hence, the burgeoning field of the literary biography! I’ve read thousands of these things, and I almost always notice a pervasive split-reaction: the actual lives of the authors in question are, as hinted, often grindingly mundane – and yet the biographers, borne aloft by their love of the writers’ works (what but that would have brought them originally to their thankless work?), often deck those biographies out with the best prose of their careers. That’s the heart of the split reaction: literary biographies are often the best, most engrossing kinds of biographies even though their actual subjects are often loathsome when they aren’t dull.
In a way, they themselves become characters in a larger story (I’ve always loved the bookstores that have murals not of romantic, heroic fictional characters but their pale, daub-headed authors), and those stories, when told well, can spell-bind almost as surely as the novels and histories and poems by their subjects.
So here are six prime choices, for your consideration!
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee – Lee’s massive 2007 biography of the 20th century’s greatest novelist has everything in it, from groundbreaking archival research to irresistible narrative to – always a wonderful bonus – remarkably thought-provoking analyses of Wharton’s large body of work, not just the novels but the scattered nonfiction and huge file of correspondence. The result is a monumental last-word type of thing, a book I’ve enjoyed more each time I’ve revisited it since the heady year I first read and reviewed it. I enthusiastically recommend it, right after you’re done with Wharton’s great novels.
Erasmus by Preserved Smith – Did somebody mention a huge file of correspondence? The collected letters of the once-famous and now-forgotten 16th-Century “Prince of Humanists” fill an entire long shelf of close-printed hardcovers issued by the University of Toronto Press, and that was just the beginning of his written output – the rest of it would look prodigious even my modern electronic-word-processing standards and by the standards of his own time looks nothing less than miraculous. Despite nominally taking Holy Orders, Erasmus was purely a writer, living and breathing by his literary endeavors. It’s an utterly daunting amount of material to master in order to even begin to write about the man, and yet Erasmus biographers, those brave souls, have tried it anyway – and to my mind, none has ever done so brightly graceful a job of it as good gentle Preserved Smith half a century ago. Other biographers fill in more of the brawling Renaissance world where Erasmus lived than Smith does, but nobody manages to capture the silvery apothegms of the master as Smith. It makes his book a joy to read, which feels somehow fitting in connection with Erasmus.
Seeing Mary Plain by Frances Kiernan – Kiernan’s 2000 biography of McCarthy is a pricelessly bon vivant reading experience, enlivened on practically every page by the fact that McCarthy was always the best possible commentator on her own boisterous life. Even now, an unthinkable quarter-century since McCarthy died, it’s still the best – and safest – practice for a biographer to do a lot of stepping aside and shutting up in order to let the mistress of ceremonies do her inimitable yarning. Kiernan is winningly sympathetic (her subject could be, as Catholic mothers were wont to say, a bit of a trial) biographer, although even her wonderful performance in these pages couldn’t revive McCarthy’s rapidly-fading reputation, alas; as much as I’d hate to see the fiction-reading world forget even her strongest novels, I’d hate even more for her workhorse-perfect “occasional prose” to be forgotten.
Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene – This 1974 biography of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (sometime-poet and the id to Charles II’s superego), is a sparkling example of that most paradoxical corner of the literary biography sub-genre: biographies of writers written by other writers (the celebrated example of the season is very good novelist Adam Begley’s biography of very bad novelist John Updike). I once thought that made them extra pathetic, but I’ve come to see them as doubly fascinating. On the surface, it’s a neatly proportionate idea: who better to understand the travails of a writer’s life than another writer, after all? Of course the whole thing usually falls apart – writers are peacocks, after all, and peacocks don’t like sharing the harem. But in this case it mostly works, helped by the fact that Greene and Rochester are such diametrically opposite personalities. You can practically sense Greene both admiring and envying Rochester’s scabrous enormities, and where the book’s researches at times grow inevitably thin, the difference is supplied by the quality of Greene’s paid-deadline prose, which is universally quite good. Rochester hasn’t exactly been showered with biographies in the centuries since his death, but he got a gem of one here.
Some Sort of Epic Grandeur by Matthew Bruccoli – Of course, when writing about writers, a biographer must always be prepared to write about ruin, perhaps a more personal and jarring kind of ruin than attends other biographical subjects. Prose and poetry are pulled from inside the person, after all, and those resources are seldom infinite except in hacks (I’ve avoided dealing with hacks in this entry, although they, too, get their share of biographers). In fact, I often wonder if that isn’t a secret part of the enjoyment that comes from reading author biographies: there’s something almost Greek-tragedy about the toll these geniuses pay to brighten our inner worlds. In any case, tales of wrecked authors are commonplace, and surely one of the highest peaks of that melancholy mountain chain is occupied by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who became a best-selling author and national phenomenon with his first book and had become a by-word for ruined talent and blasted health by the end of his life and career, not all that long after that best-selling debut. His was a dramatic, meteoric life and a tragic one, and it gets its best biographer in the indefatigable Bruccoli. In many ways Some Sort of Epic Grandeur is an anomaly of an author’s biography – for most of his career, Fitzgerald worked hard to hide the fact that he was working hard, and since Bruccoli for the most part faithfully reproduces this façade, what results reads like the opposite of the drudge’s-life my old friend at the Brattle described. I know many a young-idiot author who’d consider it an enviable thing to have the first ten years of Fitzgerald’s professional life even if they had to pay for it with the last ten years of it.
And there you have it – six quick lives of the scribblers! There are hundreds of thousands of others, naturally, and we’ll get to them all … but these are a good start.
June 9th, 2014
Our book today is The Queen’s Head, a 1988 murder mystery set in the England of Elizabeth I, written by a first-class hack under the pen-name of “Edward Marston” (there’s an in-joke there, but you’d have to be mighty well-read to spot it, and there’s no class of scribblers better-read, of course, than hacks). The Queen’s Head centers on a London acting troupe, Lord Westfield’s Men, although the main star of the book, Nicholas Bracewell, is occupied backstage as the company’s general factotum and manager – and, naturally, as an amateur sleuth.
It’s a taut, economical whodunit, one that opens with a quick, effective description of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and then whisks us straight into the hurly-burly Elizabethan theatrical world. Marston has researched that world with the verve and thoroughness of a working professional who’d hate getting called out on some piggling detail by a dry-as-dust academic, and he brings it alive with well-chosen details on every page.
His most clever move is the conception of Bracewell himself: he’s a friendly, supportive everyman rather than a Sherlock-Holmes-style martinet, and that allows him to be a perfect sounding board for the outsized personalities all around him. And as the action of The Queen’s Head commences, the biggest of those personalities belongs to flashy star-actor Will Fowler, the current toast of the London stage. In scene after scene, Marston wonderfully captures the peculiar allure of that stage-play world (an allure that hasn’t changed from that day to this, one suspects) – as in the early scene where Bracewell and Will Fowler try to convince broken-down old actor Samuel Ruff not to retire to his family farm in godforsaken Norwich. They come right out and ask him, “How can anyone exist without the theatre?”
“Cows have their consolation,” suggested Ruff.
“Leave off this arrant nonsense about a farm!” order his friend with a peremptory wave of his arm. “You’ll not desert us. D’you know what Nick and I talked about as we walked here tonight? We spoke about the acting profession. All its pain and setback and stabbing horror. Why do we put up with it?”
“Why, indeed?” said Ruff gloomily.
“Nick had the answer. On compulsion. It answers a need in us, Sam, and I’ve just realized what that need is.”
“You’ve felt it every bit as much as I have, Sam,” said Fowler with his eye aglow. “The danger of testing yourself in front of a live audience, of risking their displeasure, of taking chances, of being out there with nothing but a gaudy costume and a few lines of verse to hold them. That’s why I do it, Sam, to have that feeling of dread coursing through my veins, to know that excitement, to face that danger! It makes it all worthwhile.”
“Only if you are employed, Will,” observed Ruff.
“Where will you get your danger, Sam?”
“A cow can give a man a nasty kick at times.”
“I’ll give you a nasty kick if you persist like this!”
Only a little while later, Will Fowler is killed in what looks like an ordinary bad tavern brawl, and his dying words embroil Bracewell in the cleverly-constructed mystery at the heart of The Queen’s Head. Marston is an unabashed fan of what used to be the genre’s staple elements – plot-twists, whole shoals of red herrings, and the Clever Reveal – and the whole thing moves along like precision clockwork to an ending that will leave any mystery fan craving more.
Fortunately, there’s more – lots more. I lost count of how many Nicholas Bracewell mysteries Marston ended up writing, but it had to be well over a dozen. And this wasn’t his only ongoing series, not even close: he did one featuring two ship’s detectives during the heyday of the luxury-liner era at the beginning of the 20th century, and he also did many books in a quite good series featuring two men – a soldier and his whip-smart assistant – investigating location-oriented mysteries brought to light by the compiling of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Probably there were lots of other series as well (pen-names being like tattoos – once you’ve broken down and tried it once, you tend to try it many times), but these two stand out in my mind as being especially enjoyable.
But I think the Nicholas Bracewell mysteries ring the truest to both our author’s personal interests and his natural wit. If you’re a fan of Tudor fiction, you should dig up this great old series and treat yourself.
June 7th, 2014
Even a winter-fancying polar bear (or perhaps arctic fox? I’ve had my nose licked by the latter and only been silently, systematically terrorized by the former, so maybe we’ll go with “arctic fox”) such as myself could hardly have complained about the gorgeous summer day that unfurled today in observance of the Boston Public Library’s June book sale: high white clouds, air that stayed comfortably on the warm side of hot, fluffy white eider filling the air and yet not provoking allergies.
So I kissed my furry little babies good-bye and made my way to the single specific place I love more than any other on Earth: the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the old building designed by Charles Follen McKim of the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and built in 1895 (of its half-dead conjoined parasitic twin, the Johnson building, I try to say as little as possible – I keep hoping I’ll wake up some morning and learn the whole thing was a bad dream). Over the last seven years, I’ve gradually taken into my private home life all the actual functions of the BPL; my new-release books come in the mail, my computer rests on top of a sleeping basset hound, and the combination of my personal library and the Internet proves sufficient for all the research I ever need to do these days. And yet I find reasons to go there, virtually every day. I’ve been to every single one of the world’s great libraries; I’ve had the privilege of using two dozen of them; but of all the big libraries, I love the BPL most of all (and as far as little libraries go, well, there’s one that I love more than any other – for one particular white-haired old reason).
And the normal joy of going to the BPL was only increased by a nice big book sale! I walked in the front door, past the statue of Handsome Harry Vane, to the foot of the marble stairs – and then I turned left (not a momentous thing in itself, of course, but I’m old enough that it felt strange! For a long time, a long time ago, the BPL had a regular book-sale you reached by turning right at the foot of those ornate stairs – but right is now a cute little restaurant full young patrons on laptops, deaf to the deal-hunting ghosts still lingering around them) and went downstairs to the book sale.
It was crowded, and as a long-time friend of the library, that pleased me. The books were laid out on tables and shelves, all ridiculously cheap, all a bit ramshackle, with BPL staff happily bustling around re-filling and re-stocking. I noticed an encouraging number of young people (and a splendid absence of those loathsome dealer-creatures tapping the ISBNs of every book into the online-pricing app on their cell phones)(because all us book-lovers are just suckers who don’t realize the gold mine we’re sitting on). At one point soon after I got there, a clerk called out that in order to move along their stock, every book in the room was half-price.
(A note to the young women of Boston: if you’re at a big library book sale with your handsome, muscular boyfriend and the two of you hear that all the books are now half-price and he grunts and says, “Huh – guess they must not be very good, huh, babe?” – break up with him. Don’t even wait out the day to do it. Just use him to lug your books back to your apartment, and then break up with him. You’ll thank me later)
And I found books! The easiest, fastest catch was the entire run of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (minus only The Yellow Admiral, but hey – that gives me something to look for when I’m out and about on Monday, doesn’t it?), perfect to replace the uneven and incomplete accumulation of those wonderful books that I currently own, and getting all of them for less than $10 is a bargain not even my beloved Brattle Bookshop could equal.
I also found a couple of gay-fiction novels I used to own: Metes and Bounds by Jay Quinn and Under the Big Sky by S. Bryan Gonzales, the former about gay beach bums and the latter about gay rodeo riders. While I was thumbing through them, I was struck again by what curiosities they seem now, at least in the Western world: homosexuality enjoys greater public acceptance than it ever has, gay marriage is being legalized in one American state after another, and even the terrifying plague haunting so many of these novels is now a manageable health condition rather than a gruesome death sentence. When I first read these two novels, something like a gay “world” still existed, parallel to and persecuted by the straight world – and there’s no more fruitful seed-bed for fiction than parallel worlds. But now, in 2014? I’m not sure “gay fiction” is even possible anymore, or that there’d be a point to it if it were. I’ll be curious to see what the next ten years does to what remains of the sub-genre.
Anyway, I’m a sucker for UK-paperbacks, so when I saw one of Richard Holmes’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough, I snatched it up – a lovely-looking paperback that will now form the modern-research counterweight to my copy of the enormous, thunderingly good Marlborough biography by his even-more-famous kinsman, Winston Churchill.
Less, um, elevated was my choice of Wilbur Smith’s trashy ancient Egypt novel River God, which I found in a nice clean trade paperback. Aside from those two gay novels, this was my only book sale purchase today that stands a good chance of being a book-sale donation some time soon.
Not so the last two finds! The first of these was Christopher Clark’s 2012 book The Sleepwalkers, about the various complex factors that marched all of Europe into the First World War. I duly requested an advance copy from Harper as soon as I found out about the book, and as usual I heard nothing back from them. Then I duly repeated my request once the book’s publication was imminent – and again, I never heard anything back from them. And since I’ve made a small mental note not to add to the financial bottom line of publishers who ignore me, I skipped buying the thing even once it was right under my nose in bookstores. But such scruples don’t extend to library book sales, and there’s an extra irony to the fact that the copy I found is in fact an advance copy – so somebody out there had his book-request not only answered by fulfilled. Must be nice. Still, I’m eager to read the book.
And then there’s the jewel of my book-sale acquisitions this time around: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, a hyper-detailed and utterly engrossing masterpiece of reading history by Jonathan Rose. It came out in 2001, and since in 2001 I had no expectations of getting publisher copies of anything, I simply bought it like plain folks and was blown away by the easy, compendious scholarship on every page, tracking microscopic social trends I’d have thought there was no way to track. I can’t count the number of times in the last ten years when I’ve reached for this book in order to consult it – only to find that my original copy had disappeared during some house-move or Brattle-sale or puppy-rampage or misguided lending. Needless to say, I’ll try to be more mindful of this copy, since random chance threw it in my path.
And that was it – not because there weren’t more goodies I might have wanted to snap up, but because the tote bag I brought with me was full, and so was my skimpy little shoulder bag. So I left the library (I’ll visit it again on Monday, I told myself), rode the subway back to the house, opened the front door, and I stood there smiling as a fat little sleeper slowly woke herself up to greet me. Every book-sale should have such an ending – and there’s a cool, beautiful night unfolding now that’s just perfect for reading!
June 7th, 2014
My favorites at over at BookTube continue to do their book-challenges and their book-unboxings and their book-hauls, so I thought I’d post my own first book-haul of June 2014! Not my first book-haul of the month just across the board, mind you; in my unofficial capacity as postal-gopher for Open Letters Monthly, I’m in the Christmas-every-day position of getting hauls of new and forthcoming books all the time – 51 so far in June. But although I do my best to read all of those incoming OLM books, there’s a slightly different feel to them than there is to the quite separate stacks of book-hauls that I hunt down and assemble for myself from Boston’s various used-book venues. Some fairly impersonal metrics of utility or buzz govern the selection-process of many of those new and forthcoming OLM books, after all, but the used books? The used books are just for my own enjoyment.
It’s for this reason that these Stevereads book-hauls have no new books in them, even though new and forthcoming books form roughly 80 percent of what I read. Instead, these deal with the remaining 20 percent (which might sound like a small percentage, but keep in mind that numerically speaking, it’s still more books than most people read over the course of two or three years) – but it’s a 20 percent near and dear to my heart! I love it when some new OLM book fills me with eagerness to sit down and read it (Joshua Howitz’s War of the Whales, for instance, or Samuel Hynes’s The Unsubstantial Air), but all my 20 percent “personal” books fill me with that same eagerness, even if – as is often the case – it’s an eagerness to re-read something.
So here’s my first June book-haul, with a little accompanying palaver about each! Just like they do it over at BookTube, only a) without the hair product, b) with no nagging requests to “like” and “subscribe,” and c) no books written for children!
At the top of the pile is something you’d surely think would be a screaming redundancy in my personal library, and you’d be right: it’s The Lord of the Rings, of which I have about six different editions (two sets of mass market paperbacks, one set of trade paperbacks with movie-still covers from the Peter Jackson movies, one UK-paperback trilogy, and a couple of one-volume collections). But this particular Lord of the Rings is different, and it’s a difference that made me gasp a little when I saw it at my beloved Brattle Bookshop (which accepts phoned-in gift certificates from all and sundry, hint-hint): this white-spined 1970 boxed set edition is the very first Tolkien I ever owned. It was through this edition that I was introduced to this author – and these three books – that would go on to bring me so much pleasure. Opening them again now, after 45 years (by the smell of it, this set lived a long, neglected life in somebody’s basement for most of that time), I had vivid reminders of the surprise and dawning happiness I had when I first read the trilogy – and I encountered again Peter Beagle’s one-page Introductory note with its great final paragraph:
I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.
Next is Benson Bobrick’s 2001 book Wide as the Waters, his history of the fascinating events and personalities behind the creation of the King James Bible. It’s well-trod ground – Adam Nicolson and Alister McGrath both did books on the exact same subject, pitched for the exact same kind of audience – but I’ve never read Bobrick’s, even though his 1997 book Angel in the Whirlwind is a very, very good account of the American Revolution (and even though I read, enjoyed, and reviewed his colorful The Caliph’s Splendor), so this particular entrant in our list today falls under the ‘new to me’ heading that’s always exciting, since nature abhors lacunae.
Up next is a wee little Dover paperback you can hardly see: an 85-page reprint of the elegant, idiosyncratic translation of “Tristan and Iseult” that the great Hilaire Belloc first did in the early years of the 20th century and then fiddled with for a decade. This Dover edition is a pretty thing, green and slim and with a cover featuring a detail from the famous painting of the unhappy young lovers by J. W. Waterhouse (as is so often the case with me, I immediately found myself wishing it weren’t a detail – the full painting is RIFE with telling details, and there’s something unexpectedly adorable about super-hottie Tristan’s metal booties) – it was an impulse buy, since it’s nicer than any other edition of this tale I have.
A big thing is next: Elizabeth George’s hugely satisfying 2012 novel Believing the Lie, which struck me at the time as a marked departure for her, even though on the surface it’s yet another detective/police procedural novel starring Inspector Lynley (i.e. the Earl of Asherton). Back when it was new in hardcover, I dug into it with my customary eagerness for this writer’s books, and right away I started noticing differences, some minor and some major; this is a bigger novel in its feel and confidence, rich enough and textured enough so that for the first time I felt a little annoyed at the publisher’s label of “An Inspector Lynley Novel” – to me, for the first time, this felt instead like a novel that just happened to number Inspector Lynley as one of its characters, less beholden to formula than any previous Elizabeth George novel I’d read. I noticed that this same trend continued – if anything, deepened – in last year’s big novel Just One Evil Act. Of course I have no idea what happened to the hardcover of Believing the Lie I originally owned, so it was nice to find this paperback – I strongly recommend it, especially if you like your murder mysteries dense and atmospheric.
“Dense and atmospheric” also very much applies to the next book, A. C. Grayling’s controversial Among the Dead Cities, a study of the history and the morality of the concentrated “area bombings” on civilian targets carried out by the Allies during the Second World War. The book came out in 2006, and I consumed it eagerly and found it both invigorating and disturbing (had Open Letters existed then, I would certainly have reviewed it), just as its mild-mannered author had no doubt intended. In dealing with all aspects of the Allied bombing campaigns, Grayling’s logic is both window-clear and inexorable:
But there are other questions about Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They fall into a category made special not just by their character but by their timing. The bombing of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah took place at the height of the war, when the outcome of the struggle was not yet certain, even though the Allied powers knew they had industrial and manpower advantages that so far outstripped those of the Axis states that the balance of likelihood already lay well on their side. These other, later bombings occurred when almost everyone involved could see that the war’s end was approaching. One can seriously ask for their justification even if one is already persuaded that such area attacks as Operation Gomorrah, conducted at the height of the war, were necessary or at least warranted by the circumstances at the time.
My original hardcover copy of Among the Dead Cities vanished just as mysteriously as, apparently, my original copies of every other book I’ve ever owned, so I was pleased to find this one to re-read and put on my burgeoning WWII shelves.
Up next is a big book I just plain missed when it came out in 2008: Lawrence Freedman’s A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, in which Friedman – a genial, intelligent writer whose book Kennedy’s Wars was an entirely credible entry into a field crowded with crap – examines the long and troubled United States involvement with Iraq and Iran, starting with the administration of President Carter and extending down to the dolorous present-day. I missed reading this when it came out, I missed reviewing it for Open Letters or anybody else, and I somehow managed never to come across it in any of a thousand used bookstore trips in the last six years. But I just recently found a copy, so it, like the Bobrick, goes to the top of the pile (although I shouldn’t kid myself: if you were to spy on me tonight at 2 a.m., you’d likely find me breathlessly absorbed in The Two Towers).
Last from this haul is a big, lavishly illustrated edition of Gavin De Beer’s 1967 study of the Second Punic War called Hannibal: Challenging Rome’s Supremacy, one of the best books I’ve read on one of the most perennially interesting subjects human history has to offer. De Beer has pronounced opinions on every aspect of Hannibal’s war with Rome, from the exact composition of his armies to the exact route he took to cross the Alps, and all of it is livened up considerably by an open admiration of the book’s central character in all his apparent contradictions. De Beer smartly acknowledges that those contradictions matter little in the face of posterity’s verdict:
Little has changed, and yet, down the corridors of time, something has changed. The Greeks beat the Trojans, but now, after three thousand years, it is a greater compliment to be called a Trojan. Scipio beat Hannibal, but now, after two thousand years, it is Hannibal who has vanquished his victor, for he commands a fame and a sympathy which are not extended to Scipio. The same can be said of Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons, Harold and William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Wellington. Admiration is like belief; as Shelley so eloquently showed, it is not a matter of volition, but of temperament, and therefore of taste.
It’s been at least thirty years since I last read De Beer’s book or even saw a copy, so finding it the other day struck something of the same chord as finding that old box set of The Lord of the Rings: joy mixed with strong nostalgia. Now if I can just manage to hold onto them this time …