Posts from September 2014

September 26th, 2014

The Oxford Book of Letters!

oxford book of lettersOur book today is the delightful Oxford Book of Letters from the halcyon year 1995, a beautifully-produced and jam-packed thing edited by Frank and Anita Kermode and devoted, of course, to what is now axiomatically referred to as “the lost art” of letter-writing.

Axiomatically, but not, I think, melodramatically; letters were tangible things, after all, capable of surviving floods, fires, and estate sales, whereas our present forms of written communication – email, Facebook, Twitter – are easily deleted (hell, Snapchat deletes itself), and also easily lost: I wrote my first emails twelve years ago (after a ‘snail-mail’ correspondence that you might call voluminous), and as some of you long-time Stevereads readers may imagine, I took to it. Emails poured forth, from a succession of computers – first a hand-me-down, then another hand-me-down, then a bright green transparent Mac, and so on through ten other machines, leading up to my current MacBook, which is technically capable of commandeering NORAD but which I use as the very apotheosis of a word-processor. Vast tranches of emails, all written on those earliest computers (the stationary kind – the mind shudders to recall work that couldn’t be done in bed), and all now completely lost to me. And not just lost in the sense of deleted – no: even if I’d had the presence of mind to save every bit of email correspondence (and every Instant Messenger conversation from MySpace and every other now-forgotten destination site), where would I have saved it all? To some disk that can’t now be read by any new machine? To some master file that today’s master file-opener would garble or mangle or snub? It’s true that if a piece of technology existed that allowed its owner to print out electronic communications on paper, I might have done that, but since even the best tech-companies in the world have never managed to get such printing out to happen more than once under laboratory conditions, there’s not much sense talking about it. And even if such technology some day does exist, I can already hear what the purists will say: that printing-out misses the whole POINT of electronic communication, which is that it need not revert to the sovereignty of print in order to be valid.

This Oxford Book harks back to the centuries when there was no alternative to paper, and the Kermodes fill it with wonders. We get Thomas Sheridan writing to Jonathan Swift in mock-Latin; we get Alexander Pope chiding a correspondent about not hearing from him (even while he’s delivering news of the death of a mutual friend), and our editors makes sure to include the whole range of what letters could convey, from harmless frivolity and quotidian fact-updating to far more serious stuff, as when Mary Wollstonecraft in 1795 sends a stiff reprimand to an acquaintance who’d had the nerve to suggest a husband for her:


It is inexpressibly disagreeable to me to be obliged to enter again on a subject, that has already raised a tumult of indignant emotions in my bosom, which I was labouring to suppress when I received your letter. I shall now condescend to answer your epistle; but let me first tell you, that, in my unprotected situation, I make a point of never forgiving a deliberate insult – and in that light I consider your late officious conduct. It is not according to my nature to mince matters – I will then tell you in plain terms, what I think. I have ever considered you in the light of a civil acquaintance – on the word friend I lay a peculiar emphasis – and, as a mere acquaintance, you were rude and cruel, to step forward to insult a woman, whose conduct and misfortune demand respect. If my friend, Mr Johnson, had made the proposal – I should have been severely hurt – have thought him unkind and unfeeling but not impertinent. – That privilege of intimacy you had no claim to – and should have referred the man to myself – if you had not sufficient discernment to quash it at once. I am, sir, poor and destitute. – Yet I have a spirt that will never bend, or take indirect methods, to obtain the consequence I despise; nay, if to support life it was necessary to act contrary to my principles, the struggle would soon be over. I can bear any thing but my own contempt.

You can see her agitation in her punctuation; you can hear her aggrieved pride in her cadences. Despite the billions of emails being written on Earth every year, it’s hard to imagine such prose occurring in their medium – and it’s hard to imagine the recipient of such a letter not simply deleting it.

That goes double, of course, for the light-hearted stuff. Few correspondents ever excelled at light-hearted stuff like the great letter-writer Sydney Smith (a Penguin Classics collection of his letters is lon overdue), who’d mastered the tricky art of opening his letters with a laugh:

Dear Allen,

Pray tell me something about Lord and Lady Holland as it is several centuries since I have seen them. I heard of Lady Holland on a sofa. I thought she had done with sofas.

There’s more studied – and therefore more startling – humor on hand here too, as in the 1861 letter Anthony Trollope wrote to Dorothea Sankey, a letter about which the Kermodes rather po-facedly relay one scholar’s opinion that we’re “almost certainly right in calling it a joke”:

My Dearest Miss Dorothea Sankey,

My affectionate & most excellent wife is as you are aware still living – and I am proud to say her health is good. Nevertheless it is always well to take time by the forelock and be prepared for all events. Should anything happen to her, will you supply her place, – as soon as the proper period for decent mourning is over.

Till then I am your devoted Servant,

(the “till then” is priceless, I think)

There’s another element of letter-writing that’s missing from emails, of course: the element of public performance. Many of the letters collected in this volume were written by famous people who knew – or at least were willing to gamble – that their correspondence might one day end up in a book just like this one. Accordingly, they wrote with one eye cocked over their shoulder toward eavesdropping posterity, and their letters are the better for it. Whereas the ephemerality of emails – about which I was griping a moment ago – seems to have percolated into the collective consciousness of the form. Who sends an email to somebody thinking it might be preserved? Possibly read out loud at the moment of receipt (if it’s particularly fun or provocative), but beyond that? Centuries beyond that? Such things never occur to emailers (and they write accordingly), whereas in the case of, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, hot off the act of writing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the idea is unavoidable. Read this little bit lucy reading the oxford book of lettersfrom a letter he wrote to J. A. Symonds in 1886 and tell me he didn’t expect it to be quoted in 2014:

Raskolnikoff is easily the best book I have read in ten years; I am glad you took to it. Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it: all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikoff was not objective; and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and, on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show. To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are tortured and purified.

The Kermodes nicely balance such public stuff with intensely private stuff, and they include a few items that are weirdly, uncomfortably in between, like the razor-sharp note Katherine Mansfield sent in 1921 to a woman having an affair with Mansfield’s husband:

Dear Princess Bibesco,

I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.

You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.

Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.

Yours sincerely,

Again I can’t help but wonder: who would write something like that as an email, today? And who would save it? And that’s just the direct one-to-one aspect of writing – the aspect dealing only with writer and sender, which is only a fraction of the aspects on hand in The Oxford Book of Letters. A great many of the letters anthologized here were preserved neither by their senders nor by their recipients – rather, they were found, by scholars, in neutral, dusty archives. Where are those archives, for emails? They don’t exist, and even if they did, how many Apple-cycles would it be before their contents were impossible to open? And without such an archive, how could there ever be an Oxford Book of Emails?

September 24th, 2014

No Poems!

no poems - benchleyOur book today is a carefree little 1932 gem No Poems, Or, Around the World Backwards & Sideways that celebrated Algonquin Club wit and raconteur Robert Benchley. By the point in his career when Benchley was writing the kinds of friendly observational squibs that comprise this volume, he’d carved out a niche for himself doing exactly that, and readers lapped it up (then as now – writers like Dave Barry and David Sedaris would be unimaginable had not Benchley re-invented their genre a generation or two ago). And since the way you get readers to lap something up is to mash it and mush it until it’s a kind of patter-based pabulum, that’s exactly what Benchley did in “essay” after “essay,” year after year, paycheck after paycheck.

It can be the perfect restorative, in limited doses – and since nothing in No Poems is any longer than a couple of pages, limited doses are everywhere. We get quick, hangdog musings on all the little quotidian things that don’t seem to change much from one age to the next (if Benchley were alive today, you can bet your last Algonquin martini he’d be writing about That Wacky Internet) – the travails of hailing a taxi, the decorum of dinner conversation, the tedium of dull conversation, etc. In “The Truth about Thunderstorms,” for gluyas williams 2instance, he does a little bit about how he’s frightened of thunderstorms:

Just where any of us in the human race get off to adopt the Big Man attitude of “What is there to be afraid of?” toward lightning is more than I can figure out. you would think that we knew how to stop it. You would think that no one but women and yellow dogs were ever hit by it and that no man in a turtle-neck sweater and three days’ beard on his chin would give it a second thought. I am sick of all this bravado about lightning and am definitely abandoning it herewith.

And of course the dilatory old Post Office comes in for its usual can-you-believe-how-long-these-lines-are drubbing, gluyas williams 3this time in the piece called “Back in Line”:

The U.S. Post Office is one of the most popular line-standing fields in the country. It has been estimated that six-tenths of the population of the United States spend their entire lives standing in line in a post office. When you realize that no provision is made for their eating or sleeping or intellectual advancement while they are thus standing in line, you will understand why six-tenths of the population look so cross and peaked. The wonder is that they have the courage to go on living at all.

Not everything Benchley writes about is quite as evergreen as post offices and thunderstorms – that could hardly be avoided in an author who liked to flirt so assiduously with topicality. He writes about the subway and office and the beach, yes, but he also writes about the telegraph, Prohibition, and that staple of bygone eras, the passenger liner, so genially lampooned in “Abandon Ship”:gluyas williams 1

There has been a great deal of printed matter issued, both in humorous and instructive vein, about ocean travel on those mammoth ships which someone, who had never ridden on one, once designated as “ocean greyhounds.” “Ocean camels” would be an epithet I would work up for them, if anyone should care enough to ask me. Or I might even think of a funnier one. There is room for a funnier one.

Benchley was prolific; he wrote a shelf of books as long as your arm, and those books brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people. No Poems is fairly typical of the rest, mainly because they’re all fairly typical of each other (unlike the works of Benchley’s celebrated grandson, which had definite peaks and valleys). This volume came to my hand during a routine tour of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, but I’d have just as readily snatched up anything this kind, sarcastic man wrote – as an aforementioned restorative, against a dull or scratchy day. And the smile-inducing illustrations by Benchley’s old friend Gluyas Williams only add to the fun.

September 19th, 2014

Book-list warmups in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

The long list for the National Book Award has been announced, so for one quick news cycle a few more people will be talking about books than otherwise would. The nonfiction list is a fairly disappointing assemblage of boring books: Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart (the likely winner, in my opinion), No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, The Heathen School by John Demos, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, When Paris Went Dark by Ronald Rosbottom, and worst of them all, The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward Wilson – by and large dreary, dutiful books that tend to embody the bland nature of bookstore-frontlist middlebrow history-writing.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams was fairly entertaining, and Nigel Hamilton’s FDR-at-war book The Mantle of Command was extremely entertaining. And then there’s the book that really deserves to win: Roz Chast’s hilarious, disarming, utterly fearless Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The fiction long list was much more encouraging – it has plenty of good stuff on it. True, there are some duds, like Jane Smiley’s Some Luck and Molly Atopol’s The UnAmericans. And there are some entries that were disappointing, like Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Phil Klay’s Redeployment. But the rest of the list is extremely encouraging! Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was very good, and the remaining five books were fantastic: Richard Powers’s Orfeo, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van are all superb, and the last two, Lila by Marilynne Robinson and Rabih Alameddine An Unnecessary Woman, are truly memorable, brilliant pieces of work. So theres a chance this year’s National Book Award for fiction will go to a novel that actually deserves the added attention and sales.

And regardless of who wins what, surely the best purpose this announced long list serves is to remind you all how soon it is until you’re once again basking in the greatest, the most opinionated, the most comprehensive, and, quite frankly, the greatest new-book list of them all. I refer, of course, to the annual Gotterdamerung that is the Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year! The 2014 edition – bigger, better, and more definitive than ever – will be loosed upon the trembling literary world in only three months. Are you prepared, spiritually?

the executioner

September 19th, 2014

Mansplaining in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

As I foresaw, Sarah Boxer’s ridiculous article in the July/August issue of Atlantic drew ample responses. In her article, Boxer does the full-Millions take on why so many mothers are missing from Disney movies. Naturally, her explanation in “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” involved a vast evil male conspiracy, and in the new Atlantic some readers dare to take issue with her. Jim Jordan, for instance, from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes:

Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.

The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.

Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.

Likewise Wayne Grant (he’s from Raleigh, North Carolina) points out some fairly obvious non-conspiracy theories:atlantic

In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-defying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril – the hallmark of cartoons – if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.

And Sarah Boxer’s response?

The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining … both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is.

Things like this just make me sigh – and not in a good way. It neatly displays so many of the things I hate about modern-day pseudo-feminism, mainly that it has a congenital inability to pick worthwhile fights (as is immediately demonstrated by the fact that every pseudo-feminist who read that line saw – physically saw – only the word “genital”). While she’s complaining about the dripping condescension of the two letter-writers, she’s busy dripping plenty of her own, in this case in the form of a ready-made term to mock anything of any kind said by somebody with testicles: that stupid word “mansplaining.” She mocks her correspondents for using declarative sentences – as if, what? They’re supposed to write their letters in strings of anagrams? I seem to recall her own article was chock-full of declarative sentences – was she “mansplaining” to her readers? And her reaction if either of those men had called her article “lovely”? Yeesh.


September 14th, 2014

Six for Field and Stream!

one day at teton marshSummer’s last true efforts – it’s last firm grips of heat and humidity – have finally faltered here in Boston; the mid-afternoon skies are bright and warm as always, but the mornings now tell a different story: their shadows are longer, and there’s a touch of actual chill in them. Soon the season’s signature languor will begin to fray away; weather reports will become more pressing; windows will close that have been open since late April. It’s a time of year when I always think about Cape Cod, where the end of summer has a particular, almost unbearably sharp beauty to it. But in truth the opening notes of autumn have caught me in many settings in the course of my life (including once at sea, where those notes are unrecognizable), and the binding thread is the urge to go out and walk on shore and hillside. These are the days when summer’s heat no longer threatens to turn those walks into ordeals of ooze and mosquitos – and when winter’s cold hasn’t yet turned those walks into grimly satisfying endurance contests.

Those walks out in fields and forests of course remind me of the countless nature books I’ve read in my life, since the wild world has moved the pens of writers for thousands of years (stop for a minute and think about the sheer amount of nature-writing contained in the Iliad, for instance). I gathered up six good examples to put before you today:

One Day at Teton Marsh by Sally Carrighar – Carrighar, who wrote this classic in 1947, was certainly one of the most passionate and prolific of those nature-spurred writers, and she’s also one of the best. I love the unabashed passion of her prose, so thoroughly caught up bob hines - hawk chases rabbitin the wonders she’s recounting that she very often foregoes including any mention at all of intrusive humans – and she never seems like one herself. In one nifty passage from this book, she contemplates the bull moose, “a creature who looked like some giant prehistoric beast, rising from the swamp of an ancient epoch”:

He was starting into a world where all other creatures were small and most of the sleek. Grotesque in the twentieth-century wilderness was his huge nose, a thick down-bent column; and grotesque were his ponderous shoulders, his massive hams, belly, and chest, and the string of limp hairy skin, his dangler, that hung from his throat. Among modern animals he would seem an outsider – until his great power struck. When he would rear, and his front hooves would drive down with a weight equalling that of six large men, his body would seem the suitable one and all others insignificant.

I wouldn’t be surprised if all her books were out of print at the moment (actually, that wouldn’t surprise me about any of the authors on this list, alas), but she never wrote a bad one, so I recommend finding them all.

Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland – Borland wrote this book – as much a guidebook as a bestiary – in 1962, one year before his greatest commercial success, the beyond your doorstepnovel When the Legends Die, but to me he always seemed more in his element when writing nonfiction, especially about beautiful patch of Connecticut wilderness where he made his home. Beyond Your Doorstep is intended in part to be a general-purpose introduction to the world of field and stream, but he readily admits all through the book that he’s really just writing about his home, where he’s scrutinized every living thing for years. For instance, he writes about the change in bird-life at this exact time of year:

My Winter birds begin to appear by mid-September. I see a brown creeper or two, a few nuthatches, quite a few whitethroat sparrows, now and then a couple of juncos. Blue jays are more noisy. They were either quite or outvoiced most of the Summer. And the crows talk loudly. They were very noisy a month ago, bringing their young off the nests, screaming at them and at each other; then they were quiet for a bit. Now they are shrill again, talking of days ahead when they will own the valley. Catbirds are quiet, strangely subdued. I see no more kingbirds; they have gone south.

wild seasonWild Season by Allan Eckert – This author loved the wild landscapes of his native Midwest, and although he achieved his greatest readership with densely-researched novels of American frontier life (and achieved his single greatest work with his gigantic 1992 biography of Tecumseh), he wrote field and stream books his entire life, including this sweet little volume from 1967 (the old Bantam paperback I own has an uncredited cover illustration I’d swear was by the great Darrell K. Sweet, done before he found fame as a fantasy cover artist)(the internal illustrations are done with considerably less success by Karl Karalus). It focuses on the very specific locale of the author’s beloved Oak Lake, and you can definitely spot the future crafter of many excellent, gorybob hines - brook trout fight scenes in even such a bucolic setting, as when he describes the aftermath of a fight between a shrew and a deer mouse:

Breathing rapidly from his exertions, his heart hammering at the rate of over thirteen hundred beats per minute, the shrew released his hold and spent several minutes cleansing the fresh blood from his breast fur. This finished, he methodically ripped the mouse apart, devouring first her brains and internal organs with phenomenal speed and then starting in on the meat.

I’m actually a big fan of practically everything Eckert wrote and heartily recommend it all – but I think there’s an extra pointedness to his nature writing.

My Wilderness: East to Katahdin by William O. Douglas – This 1961 book by Supreme Court Justice Douglas (with some very fine buteast to katahdin poorly-reproduced illustrations by Francis Lee Jaques) is as pointed as they come: Douglas was a life-long outspoken advocate of wild places and an activist for their preservation. East to Katahdin starts in Colorado and ambles over hill and dale all the way to the title bob hines - pointermountain in Maine and is as full of doomy portraits of man’s depredation as something you’d read by Peter Matthiessen. But there are also more intimate hiking and kayaking moments that are rendered with the same rat-tat-tat rhetorical style that characterized so many of the judge’s legal decisions – and that, like them, often have a little spur of poetry poking up along the way:

We were halfway down to Anthony Creek when the downpour came. I had been in many a drizzle in the Smokies. This was the first hard rain I had experienced. It picked up momentum and volume until it came in sheets. Tons of water came to Ledbetter Ridge and Anthony Creek in an hour. We had ponchos over our packs. But the rain was in such force and quantity, it formed rivulets that ran down our necks and finally filled our shoes. We were now well off the ridge. So the rain was warm and seemed to sing some of the first sonnets of Spring.

“There is a poetry for me in the talus slopes of Katahdin” Douglas writes, but it’s not only the book’s end destination that evokes that poetry. Like most of the rest of the books on this list – and maybe just a bit more so, considering the place of its author in broader American history – this one really deserves a better literary afterlife than it’s so far received.

the streamThe Stream by Robert Murphy (1971) – A better literary afterlife is certainly warranted for this gem of a book, which intersperses sad and penetrating glimpses of ecological degradation with wonderfully evocative descriptions of field and stream. Murphy’s a more anecdotal author than any of the others on this list; his stories are full of hunters and trappers and friends and assorted characters, all dramatized with a fine light touch. The seasons roll by in these pages, and we see Murphy out walking in all weathers, always sensitive to the changing seasons, as in his very good evocation of the subtle shift I mentioned, from summer to bob hines - raccoons confront a porcupineautumn:

The air was lighter now, with a cool bright clarity that had not been there when the warmth of summer lay somnolently beneath the trees, and in the mornings the ridge beyond the river to the east was softened by autumn haze. After the coolness of dawn there was a drowsiness about the days that was different from the drowsiness of summer, for now the growing was over and the fruits of the growing were ripe; the world of green things rested and began to prepare for the long still time of winter sleep.

And as good as Murphy’s prose is, his book has a glory to equal it: several black-and-white illustrations by the great nature artist Bob Hines, who could imbue just about any wilderness scene with a clean beauty and puckish humor (he’s so much better than the other artists in these books that I’m using only his pictures in this post). The wonderful folks at Beaver’s Pond Press came out with a very good book about Hines a couple of years ago – Bob Hines, National Wildlife Artist by John Juriga – and it’s well worth your time, although I’d also like a national exhibit one of these days.

The Living World of Nature – no artwork at all in this nifty little 1980 volume from Reader’s Digest, an anthology of several of the better nature-related short pieces readers digest living worldthey’d run over the decades. There are some wonderful little items here by some great writers, pieces like “Probing the Mysteries of the Galaxies” by Timothy Ferris, or “Man in a Web” by Loren Eisley, or “A Hummingbird’s Magic,” a very moving essay by Norma Lee Browning. And this collection also includes a piece called “Voices of the Surf,” which is a slightly condensed excerpt from Henry Beston’s Cape Cod classic, The Outermost House – and so brings us back to the Cape where we started:

Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of the people of the sea.

It’s not just the sea – out walking on long, gorgeous mid-September afternoons (especially when those walks are very slow! If you’re shepherding along a sweet old dog, you have the leisure to look at everything around you), you can almost fancy you hear the half-heard talk of the people of field and stream as well, busily chattering away about the oncoming winter. That winter will have its own beauties, of course, but still: days like today are exceptionally sweet.

September 11th, 2014

Bad Parenting in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

When I opened the latest issue of my trusty Outside magazine, I thought the worst in bad-parenting outrage I’d have to face would be found in the letters column. Readers wrote in protesting the recklessness that writer Ted Conover had written about in an earlier issue, a monstrous and self-serving article called “This is How We Roll” about how he tried to recapture his youth train-jumping out west … and as an added twist, brought along his teenage son. Outside ran an admonishing letter from a train safety expert an then ran a response from Conover that brought back to my mind all the worst elements of his piece:

Readers of my piece will know that its recurring theme is misgivings over my son’s desire to follow my footsteps in an activity that I acknowledge repeatedly is dangerous and illegal. I write about keeping him safe while not being a hypocrite; I express relief when it’s over. I am grateful we could do this together and agree about the danger: this was not just another travel adventure.

trainsBut it turns out that wasn’t the worst the magazine had in store for me – not by a long shot. A few pages later, there’s an article by Ben Hewitt called “We Don’t Need No Education” that at first glance I took to be a parody of some kind. It was only when I settled down to read it that I realized the author was completely serious.

Completely serious about a new yuppie-prepper fad called unschooling. Not homeschooling, where parents opt to keep their kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools and instead instruct them at home, following some kind of board-approved curriculum. I’ve had my reservations about home-schooling, but it turns out unschooling is something quite a bit worse: it’s where you take your kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools, keep them home, and then proceed to teach them … nothing at all. The movement is based on the idea of letting kids – the author’s two boys are 9 and 12 – decide entirely for themselves how they want to spend their days.

Not for Hewitt’s two boys the ho-hum time-wasting of memorization or test-taking; they don’t read, they don’t study, they’re as ignorant of literature or higher mathematics as a hare in a field. As Hewitt emphasizes over and over, they’re too busy communing with the natural world for any of that cut-and-dried standardized stuff other, less enlightened parents inflict on their kids. Hewitt’s sons can tell how severe the coming winter will be by the thickness of the tree bark in the woods; they can differentiate moose-crap from deer-crap at fifty yards; and they strike the author as so much happier than most kids.

He has a dream for them, you see:

This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural for them.

All of which sounds very high-minded, and none of which changes that fact that Hewitt is taking entirely egotistical advantage of the fact that no state in the outsideUnion has yet thought it necessary to draft laws specifically preventing this kind of child abuse. The two poor boys on which Hewitt is inflicting his delusional nostalgia about what an idea childhood should be – well, those two boys are almost automatically consigned to a very, very small adult world, one lived entirely on back-country trap-lines and at local feed stores swapping local stories with the locals over local matters. Despite the fact that Hewitt makes a point of giving them regular ‘social time’ with schooled children, he’s systematically unfitting them for Western society – in order for himself to feel good about the eight years of their childhood, he’s robbing them all but one or two dimensions of the sixty years of their adulthood. So they’ll know how to fish in forest streams, and they’ll be able to tell from the behavior of moss whether or not a storm system is coming – but they’ll not only have no idea how to study, how to concentrate on things that don’t immediately interest them, how to compete, intellectually, with their peers, they’ll have absolutely no interest in doing any of those things.

Aside from outrage, my main reaction to the article was a somewhat urgent hope that this fad dies a quick death. American schoolchildren are already among the dumbest in the civilized world – a movement that aims to make them even dumber, to return them to some kind of quasi-primitive Neverland existence right out of James Fenimore Cooper (do Hewitt’s kids know what an iPad is? Do they think it’s alive? For God’s sake), is just about the last thing the country needs.

“What if they want to be doctors? They will be doctors,” Hewitt writes. “What if they want to be lawyers? They will be lawyers.” He doesn’t say how on Earth this might happen, with his boys drying beans and discussing pine moss all day every day. They might need help to become those things; they might need instruction, and they certainly can’t look to their cravenly irresponsible father for anything like that.

September 11th, 2014

Comics! Superboy and … who?

future's end superboyOn the one hand, I’ve trained myself over the last two years to hold virtually the entire run of DC Comics at arm’s length, since the comics company I’ve loved for so long is still in the throes of “The New 52,” a top-to-bottom revision of their superhero continuity, a revision almost entirely for the worse in terms of color, personality, and idealism.

But on the other hand, like any sensible person I’m attracted to bright shiny things, and DC Comics this week all bear matching pretty holographic covers for their new “Future’s End” storyline (in which we take a peek at all of our familiar characters in stories set five years in their future). So I picked one almost at random – I veered away from Batman or Action Comics, from Birds of Prey or Aquaman or the Phantom Stranger and instead plopped for Superboy. I’m not sure I could tell you why – granted, Superboy was perhaps my favorite old-time DC character, but in “The New 52,” he’s a mean-spirited laboratory experiment gone awry. I think perhaps it was just the striking simplicity of the cover’s holograph.

I ended up liking the issue, primarily for the very vivid artwork by Ben Caldwell, but I was just about to make the sour summing-legion2up that the issue’s most enjoyable thing was the cover – until I got to the two-page house ad at the back.

And then the angels sang – for I was once more looking upon my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes.

DC’s “New 52″ version of the Legion was cancelled a while ago, and this is the first time they’ve made an appearance since then. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team had been split in two – but this team serenely, gloriously flying past in that house ad is united again. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team was fractured, dispirited, and haggard – but this team is full and confident … and traditional: there’s Mon-el front and center, there’s Shadow Lass beside him, there are classic characters like Sun Boy and Dream Girl and Ultra Boy, and there are great more recent characters like Tellus and Dawnstar and an ice-armed Polar Boy. It was like a gift.

Apparently, the team will be appearing in a comic called Justice League United in October for an entire story-arc. It’s not exactly a re-launch of their own title, which it bloody well should be, but it’s more than I have now, so I’ll take it. Talk about a bright shiny thing.



September 2nd, 2014

Penguins on Parade: The Gang of Four!

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics feel commercially motivated, and of course that speculation applies firmly to something like big, hefty Four Tragedies, collecting the Penguin texts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet,Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. This edition has been reprinted many times over the last thirty years, for one very Shakespeare_4 Tragediescommercial reason: schools all over the world use it for their Shakespeare courses. At some point in the 20th Century (or earlier? I don’t recall, but it certainly feels to me like a comparatively recent thing), these four tragedies began being lumped together in handy one-volume editions like this one.

This Penguin volume is fantastic; the introductions, the textual analyses, and end notes are all first-rate – I endorse it, make no mistake. I love the clear, almost forensic way Anne Barton conducts her Introduction of Hamlet:

Hamlet never says why it is that he should remain unable to do the obvious: collect his friends about him, confront Claudius, accuse him, and then draw his sword and run him through. It is true that, until Act IV, he lacks real evidence of his uncle’s villainy. This fact matters more than some commentators on the play have allowed. But it cannot be the whole explanation for Hamlet’s delay, if only because Hamlet’s tortured self-accusations make it clear that it is not.

And I’m always happy when any introduction to Othello includes Thomas Rymer’s famous devastating critique of Desdemona’s death:

What instruction can we make out of this catastrophe? Or whither must our reflection lead us? Is not this to envenom and sour our spirits, to make us repine and grumble at Providence, and the government of the world? If this be our end, what boots it to be virtuous?

And the Introduction to King Lear is likewise very wry and very smart:

The modern popularity of the play is closely associated with a movement which uses as its touchstone the ‘meaning’ attributed to Shakespeare’s plays, the spiritual messages they convey to us. Of course the idea that the work of art is a ‘message’ from the author is not new. Hazlitt tells us that ‘King Lear is the best of Shakespeare’s plays, for it is the one in which he was the most earnest.’ But modern critics are usually unable to stop at this point; they want us to ask the next question: ‘What is Shakespeare in earnest about?’ One trouble with asking this question is that it produces answers of unbearable obviousness; it is a long way round about to learn only that Shakespeare felt love to be superior to hate or was strongly against sin.

And there’s something about the tone of the Introduction to Macbeth that hints at the fact that it’s the oldest of the four essays reprinted here:lucy reads shakespeare

As a crime-does-not-pay story it is less concerned with the uncovering of the crime to others than with the uncovering of the criminal to himself. The play spreads out from our interest in the hero; and the hero is here a criminal, or rather a man obsessed by his relation to those criminal tendencies that are so universal that we best describe them by speaking of ‘evil.’ The play is a discovery or anatomy of evil. Of all Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth is the one most obsessively concerned with evil.

No, this Penguin is really good, easily more than the simple Shakespeare-primer it needed to be in order to sell like hotcakes to schools. The only thing that bothers me about this and innumerable other ‘big four’ anthologies is that the sheer crowd of them tends to reinforce the idea that these four plays are Shakespeare’s best tragedies. I wish there were a big fat Penguin volume that included Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth – but also Romeo and Juliet, King Henry VIII, and my favorite Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar.

Or, for that matter, why not – at long last – an enormously fat Penguin Classic Complete Shakespeare? I’d buy it!

September 1st, 2014

Mystery Monday: The Stone Wife!

mystery monday header

Our mystery today is The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey, new from the wonderful folks at Soho Crime, the fourteenth of Lovesey’s novels to star stolid CID Superintendent Peter Diamond and his equally-stolid crew of investigators based in the lovely, historic old city of Bath. There’s pretty, intelligent Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith, and there’re veteran officers John Leaman and Keith Halliwell, and there’s ever-eager rookie Paul Gilbert, and although they all get speaking parts in these novels, the lot of them together are less memorable than a stalk of celery. Lovesey’s Bath police procedurals operate on a strictly cash-and-carry basis: you buy or borrow one, you get your ‘hook’ of an opening scene and your tepid mystery, you follow an investigation as humidly plodding as the one you and your less imaginative friends might concoct yourselves, you get a couple of resolutely nondescript concluding twists, and then you put the thing in the box of stuff going to the next church rummage sale. And by the time that rummage sale rolls around, you won’t be able to recall a single detail from that book, not if your life depended on it.

the stone wife coverThe opening scene in The Stone Wife revolves around the title figure: an old stone carving of a figure art experts reckon is the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The object has sat in storage for fifty years, unrecognized, but now it’s up for sale at a Bath auction parlor, and the bidding is growing unexpectedly fierce when a group of masked and armed gunmen interrupt the proceedings. When the most aggressive bidder argues with them, they shoot him and then run off without the stone carving – and soon Peter Diamond and his team are on the scene, trying to figure out not only who the gunmen were but why the bidder was foolish enough to try to stop them.

The investigation – such as it is, such as it ever is in the Lovesey book – takes two directions: first, Diamond his men try to figure out the provenance and provocations of the stone Wife of Bath, and second, in one of those very long and very preposterous sub-plots some mystery authors simply can’t be convinced to abandon, Ingeborg goes under cover in an attempt to trace the gun used in the shooting.

So one half of the book is just more of the same plodding police questions interspersed with pretty much the only piece of ‘personality’ Lovesey bothers to give Diamond, which is that he dislikes computers and most modern technology, especially as means of doing anything as useful as solving crimes (this is tiresomely foreshadowed even in the title of the first Diamond mystery, The Last Detective):

Diamond went over to the desk and switched on the computer. He was no expert, but he knew the basics these days and after the condescending remark about e-books he intended to demonstrate that he wasn’t out of the Stone Age.

And the other half of the book is Ingeborg in disguise, working her way with almost Clouseau-level implausibility into the heart of a heartless criminal enterprise. We never for one instant believe any single part of this half of the book – Ingeborg remains so thoroughly and obviously a cop the whole time that you’re constantly expecting the bad guys to start giggling at the ineptitude of her disguise. And it doesn’t help that in these sections Lovesey’s prose is on near-complete autopilot in a way he’d dream of doing with his male characters:

She held her breath and took the first heart-stopping steps out onto the stretch of deck where the filming had taken place. So far, so good. For a short distance she would have the great black funnel between herself and the gangway. After that only a series of skylights projected above deck level. Her movement was more like gliding than striding, a steady progress towards the aft end of the ship. Good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. The smallest sound would have been like drumming on the deck. She was prepared any second to be caught by the flashlight beam. You can’t escape the speed of light.

All of which isn’t to say The Stone Wife and all the other Peter Diamond mysteries don’t offer anything to their readers. I’ve read all of these books quite willingly over the years, as good near-mindless fun. As an old friend of mine once said when confronted with his sweet-tooth for this kind of fiction, “Sometimes, what really hits the spot is a murder mystery with very little murder – and very little mystery!”

Very little murder, and very little mystery – Peters Diamond and Lovesey strike again!