Posts from January 2015
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 30th, 2015
Our book today is a squat, brick-red little triple-decker, the three-volume life of Henry VIII that Everyman editor W. Llweleyn Williams carved out of 12-volume history of England written from 1856 to 1870 by the great J. A. Froude. Williams knew what he was about; Froude’s book – the unabridged edition of which is out of print, will always be out of print, and was fairly panting to be out of print even when it was in print – is from front to back a staggering literary performance, but John Q. Reading Public no more wanted to be staggered a century ago than he does in our post-literate age, whereas no publisher ever balked at the idea of lobbing another biography of “England’s Bluebeard” onto the pile.
The allure is so ready-made, in fact, that in his Introduction to this three-volume set (bought at dear, departed, and much-missed W. B. Clarke & Co. on Tremont Street in Boston, a long, long time ago), Williams feels confident enough to indulge in a little hedge-trimming of our august author himself, done without fear of hindering sales:
Froude has been accused, and not without justice, of not feeling a proper aversion to acts of cruelty. The horrible Boiling Act of Henry VIII excites neither disgust nor hatred in him; and he makes smooth excuses for the illegal tortures of the rack and the screw which were inflicted on prisoners by Elizabeth and her ministers. He had himself been reared in a hardy school; he had been trained to be indifferent to pain. It may well be that his callousness in speaking of Tudor cruelties is to be traced to the influences that surrounded his loveless childhood and youth.
And it goes on! After enumerating some of Froude’s more famous factual slip-ups, Williams gives some of the man’s firmest critics the floor, as in this example:
But Froude was sometimes guilty of something worse than these trivial “howlers.” Lecky exposed, with calm ruthlessness, some of Froude’s exaggerations – to call them by no worse name – in his Story of the English in Ireland. When his Erasmus was translated into Dutch, the countrymen of Erasmus accused him of constant, if not deliberate, inaccuracy.
Lord Carnarvon once sent Froude to South Africa as an informal special commissioner. When he returned to this country he wrote an article on the South African problem in the Quarterly Review. Sir Bartle Frere, who knew South Africa as few men did, said of it that it was an “essay in which for whole pages a truth expressed in brilliant epigrams alternates with mistakes or misstatements which would scarcely be pardoned in a special war correspondent hurriedly writing against time.” So dangerous is the quality of imagination in a writer!
Strangely enough, none of this does anything to shake the strong impression that Williams venerates Froude, and the proof, as they say in Yorkshire, is in the pudding: the man’s rolling, luminously mandarin prose will almost unfailingly generate that veneration in any reader – then or now – who allows himself to sink slowly into its Victorian velvet cushions. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Froude never condescends to his readers (one of the fringe benefits of his striving always to be a popular rather than an academic historian, and also perhaps a byproduct of having tried his hand at writing fiction); the relationship is rather like that of a knowing, slightly world-weary cicerone with his gaggle of eager but uninformed sightseers. He himself knows all, but he won’t pretend to approve all:
Leaving for the present these disorders to mature themselves, I must now return to the weary chapter of European diplomacy, to trace the torturous course of popes and princes, duping one another with false hopes; saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. It is a very Slough of Despond, through which we must plunge desperately as we may; and we can cheer ourselves in this dismal region only by the knowledge that, although we are now approaching the spot where the mire is deepest, the hard ground is immediately beyond.
He enters with unabashed relish into the centuries-old controversies of his subject, hating, for instance, Anne Boleyn with a calculated fervor born – we won’t say of loveless childhood – of a strident reading of the sources. Not for him the later fad of considering her just another victim:
Thus she too died without denying the crime for which she suffered. Smeton confessed from the first. Brereton, Weston, Rochfort, virtually confessed on the scaffold. Norris said nothing. Of all the sufferers not one ventured to declare that he or she was innocent – and that six human beings should leave the world with the undeserved stain of so odious a charge on them, without attempting to clear themselves, is credible only to those who form opinions by their wills, and believe or disbelieve as they choose.
And oh, can he perorate! When the mood is on him, his expostulations exceed in both their force and their beauty the best parallel passages of all his contemporaries, as when he swerves from a discussion of Reformation religious upheavals to praise the Christian humanists under Henry:
Hunted like wild beasts from hiding-place to hiding-place, decimated by the stake, with the certainty that however many years they might be reprieved, their own lives would close at last in the same fiery trial; beset by informers, imprisoned, racked, and scourged; worst of all, haunted by their own infirmities, the flesh shrinking before the dread of a death of agony – thus it was that they struggled on; earning for themselves martyrdom – and for us, the free England in which we live and breathe.
And what of Henry himself, the object of this utterly fantastic treasure of a three-volume set? Froude’s conclusion isn’t anything original but instead a relativism that tries to walk a path between the growling contempt of a biographer like Francis Hackett and the nearly-unconcealed locker room admiration of later writers:
Henry had many faults. They have been exhibited in the progress of the narrative: I need not return to them. But his position was one of unexampled difficulty; and by the work which he accomplished, and the conditions , internal and external, under which his task was allotted to him, he, like every other man, ought to be judged. He was inconsistent; he can bear the reproach of it.
Froude can be inconsistent too, of course – those ‘howlers’ are very real things, after all, and they exist in their fair number in these three volumes – but it’s not given to many biographies to be so moving and readable after so long a time and so much intervening research on such a well-known subject. Other chunks were carved out of that 12-volume quarry, I know, and re-reading these volumes made me want to hunt down all the others.
January 26th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are updates or revisions of things that were themselves already classics, and that can be nerve-racking for a long-time fan of the Penguin line such as myself. I love the ongoing march of new editions, don’t get me wrong – I’m always the first person telling my bookish friends that some new version of X, Y, or Z is coming down the pike. But they worry me, too (the new editions, that is, not the bookish friends, most of whom are past helping); it can be a very tricky business, updating or even re-assessing an old landmark.
New from Penguin Classics is a case-in-point: The Portable Emerson, edited by Jeffrey Cramer, who gave us a truly exceptional edition of Thoreau’s essays a couple of years ago. His Portable Emerson is a typically pretty thing all decked out in its Penguin Classics black spine with an eye-catching cover design showing the rings of an old tree with a famous Emerson quote superimposed over them. But it appears in the lengthy shadow of its seventy-year-old predecessor, the great Viking Portable Emerson edited by Mark Van Doren in 1946. That book has been a staple in thousands of libraries – mine very much included – for a very long time; any revision can’t help but feel like an act of daring, maybe even sacrilege.
Part of that feeling comes from how personal a writer Emerson always feels, to each new generation of readers. He very much had that effect in his own lifetime – among other things, it’s what made him such an unprecedented hit on the secular lecture circuit – and it’s threaded its way steadily through three generations of scholars. Back in 1946, Van Doren could write:
He was always somehow personal, generous and candid, but his nature was ventilated to the core. His modesty was equal to his pride. He was an aristocrat who thought all could be aristocrats. When he said there was no common people he meant that he was not common and that he had never met a man who was.
And in this new edition, Cramer is just as heartfelt adding his own variation on the same theme:
The “fairest fortune that can befall a man,” Emerson realized, “is to be guided … to that which is truly his own.” Emerson is such a guide. “To believe your own thought,” he wrote, “that is Genius,” but he never lost sight of the fact that “the moral discipline of life is built” on the “perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the wishes and interests of the individual.” It is the essence of a person’s character that he or she can be true and responsive to the pull of both understanding and reason, of the individual and the universal, of the me and the not-me.
And it’s surely this same intimate prodding that worked in the opposite direction with Houston Baptist University literature professor Micah Mattix, who wrote a quick screed about Emerson in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard deriding his prominence in American literature:
But now that his Collected Works is complete, I’d like to suggest that we close the book on the Emerson Revival. Earlier scholars got Emerson right: He may serve “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but he is not American Hamlet, and his work is not great matter.
Mattix is hardly the first to call for such a retirement – Emerson’s fellow New Englander John Updike regularly called for the relegation of the Bard of Concord to the footnotes of history. Those footnotes have claimed Updike instead, and Emerson’s scattered subsequent critics face a similar fate; this writer is more alive than they are, and he’ll go right on impressing that life on readers long after his last carper has fallen silent.
The breadth of that literary life is on abundant, energizing display in Cramer’s new Portable Emerson. As gasping as it is to report, this is in every way an improvement on Van Doren’s sturdy hardcover from the wonderful Viking Portable line. Cramer not only includes far more than any comparable “collected” Emerson (there are very generous helpings of letters, poems, lectures, and essays), but he’s also a very attentive host, introducing each of his sections in turn. Penguin Classics has featured collections of Emerson’s essays in the past, but this volume includes all the famous essays like “The Over-Soul” and “Self-Reliance” but also huge amounts of everything else the man wrote, all of it full of boundless happiness and the exact kind of systematic brilliance he himself was sometimes wary of in other world-class thinkers:
Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his bother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it proves a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! A new system.
In short, this new Portable Emerson is a great success, the perfect one-volume Emerson whether you’re a student or a scholar. And for Emerson’s own New England, currently bracing itself for a gigantic snowstorm, the book makes a perfect storm-day companion because, as I noted here at Stevereads on the eve of an earlier storm, the key to such books is that they be good company, and Emerson is always that – even when he’s having the bad grace to like snowstorms:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the white air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overstops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
January 25th, 2015
Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.
Frustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.
“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?
The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.
January 23rd, 2015
I ventured to the comics shop again this week, lured by the prospect of interesting new graphic novel collections (there weren’t any that I could see), and I walked out with two new Marvel comics, Avengers #40, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Stefano Caselli, and Fantastic Four #642, written by James Robinson and drawn by Leonard Kirk. I bought the Avengers issue mainly because I bought the one before it, yet another chapter in Hickman’s years-long storyline about a massive series of ‘incursions’ in which whole realities are colliding with each other. In Hickman’s story, a small group of heroes – the ideological descendant of the original “Illuminati” concept I liked so much years ago, is working to save Earth and the whole of the Marvel universe from destruction, and they’re willing to work together despite considerable bad blood between themselves (particularly between Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Black Panther, whose African kingdom Namor flooded a couple of years ago during another protracted Marvel storyline.
In this issue, lots of these long-simmering plots come to a head – most certainly including the conflict between the Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner – and it all makes for very enjoyable reading if you’re a long-time Marvel reader who’s been following this run of Avengers and makes for utterly incomprehensible reading if you just happened to wander into the comics shop and buy this issue. This is a bit of a problem, and I’ll come back to it.
I bought the Fantastic Four issue because it’s the first chapter in a mini-arc called “The End is Fourever” – an arc that ends in the widely-publicized cancellation of Marvel’s foundational comic book title. As some of you will recall, I’m a long-time fan of the Fantastic Four and have followed their adventures through good creative times and bad, so there was an active element of nostalgia driving me to read this beginning of the end. And the issue was very satisfying: Leonard Kirk’s artwork is intensely good, and the story itself features a couple of moments that shine with the kind of open sentimentality The Fantastic Four has always done so well. I’ll definitely buy the rest of the installments in this arc, even though I know I’ll be saddened by the ultimate ending.
Or will I? It was only after reading these two issues that I became aware of the news stories that have been circulating for a while now in the comics world – to the effect that Marvel Comics is planning to do a company-wide creative reboot of all its comics this summer, in an echo/craven imitation of DC’s “New 52” reboot from a couple of years ago. According to the news items I’ve read, Marvel’s various writers and artists have known about this plan for a while now, and that may account for the slightly ragged and very savage undertone to both these issues I bought on Wednesday, in which alleged heroes are at each other’s throats and everything feels very end-of-times.
I wasn’t a fan of DC’s “New 52,” needless to say, and the idea of Marvel = a company that’s always prided itself on its long and rich continuity, maintained with so much more scrupulous care than was ever exercised over at DC – well, the idea of Marvel trying the same clean-slate reductivist nonsense doesn’t strike me any better. The irony is that in both these issues I bought the other day, the tremendous vitality of the Marvel system the way it is now was on abundant display. Here, with very few exceptions, we have characters dating from the original 1960s birth of the Marvel Universe sculpted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – and even earlier: one of the heroes duking it out with the Hulk in The Fantastic Four is the original Human Torch, the first superhero of Marvel’s parent company way back in 1939. The very fact that these issues can be starring recognizable – and very much dramatically viable – variations of characters like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans proves that those characters still have enormous amounts of potential that shouldn’t just be retconned out of existence in pursuit of the 18-25 buying demographic.
I made the same objection to the “New 52,” of course, and the event itself did virtually nothing to assure me that I was wrong. So these issues of such venerable titles as Avengers and Fantastic Four may be the last ones in my lifetime where I get to enjoy that long-storied history in all its complexity. I’ll keep buying them to the end, and then I’ll report on what happens after the end.
January 21st, 2015
One item of book news today is something you’ll all likely have seen: as the second book in his online book club, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has chosen Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which Pinker lays out his biggest, most dip-shitty counter-intuitive flap-doodle ever and waits patiently for you to swallow it whole and then start regurgitating it at parties. Zuckerberg’s first book club pick, Moises Naim’s The End of Power from the wonderful folks at Basic Books, although a trifle lightweight, is at least thoughtful and interesting. In case any of you Stevereads readers are wondering whether or not the same is true of Pinker’s book, I thought I’d remind you all of the thunder and lightning that was our Worst Books of the Year for 2011 – as a public service, you could say:
The 20th century was no stranger to the time-tested technique of lying with statistics, but the 21st century is already adding to a streak of naked effrontery that might put even the age of such heavyweight liars as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to shame. In the 21st century, lies alone are no longer quite sufficient – instead, they’ve got to be big lies, the bigger the better. So a U.S. President goes in front of a nation and raises the fear of a ‘mushroom cloud’ about a country that had trouble grinding bread, and a champion U.S. athlete, caught on film illegally partying with minors, not only makes a non-apology (“If my alleged actions were badly misconstrued enough to give a possibly negative impression, then in that extremely unlikely event, I would express regret,” etc.) the following week but does so, as many journalists present attested, while stoned. And a popular … what to call Steven Pinker? ‘Popular scientist’ is clearly wishful thinking; ‘popular researcher’ has palpably never been true – popular self-promoter Steven Pinker in his new book opts to cap a career of smiling mendacity by telling what may very well be the two biggest lies of them all: that mankind is becoming less violent, because mankind is becoming more intelligent. To support both these hysterical claims, Pinker pivots and swoops, cherry-picking delusions and misinterpreting crapulent ‘studies,’ all intent on denying the staggeringly obvious: that humans – fresh from the 20th century, whose barbarisms would have left any previous century slack-jawed in horror – are not only growing plungingly dumber (Pinker proudly brandishes standardized test scores – he needs to get out more; he could learn a lot from eavesdropping on any given Boston subway car for fifteen minutes – and he would clearly benefit in the long run from being vigorously wedgied by somebody who considers that a legitimate argumentative technique) but are also, connectedly, growing breathtakingly more violent. If we define ‘genocide’ as the wilful pursuit to slaughter every individual of a certain group, regardless of immediate military or economic interests (or even in contradiction of those interests)(i.e. an all-consuming, self-consuming hatred), then there were four in the 19th century. In the 20th century there were 15. In the 21st century’s slim extant decade, there have been two – with 90 years still to go. Writing aboutwhy this is happening – bad parenting or the all-pervasive seep of toxic chemicals into human air, food, and water – would be legitimate though pyrrhic. Writing a book – and lyingly buttressing it with cooked-book guestistics – merrily assuring your fellow Cantabridgians that the world their little Ariadnes and Ruggers will inherit isn’t, in fact, a rapidly-devolving ‘Lord of the Flies’ nightmare of violence and stupidity is an endeavor of purest and deepest evil. It’s the product not only of warped science and statistics but warped historicism, a parody of professionalism and a mockery of the sociologist’s craft – and it’s Stevereads Worst Nonfiction Book of the Year.
January 20th, 2015
Last week I naturally succumbed to the hoopla and bought the first issue of Marvel Comics’ new “Star Wars” comic book (my comics-related posts here on Stevereads really do need to be closer to Wednesday – which, for all you non-virgins out there, is New Comics Day here in Boston – and I’ll work on that, but in the meantime), written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Cassaday. And as I went to the register paid my $15 (or whatever a single issue of a comic book costs these days) to the rail-thin four-pack-a-day hipster with the abdomen-length unwashed beard, I couldn’t help but think back fondly to 1977 – fondly not just because that rancid, pretentious, borderline-illiterate tobacco addict hipster undergraduate hadn’t yet been born, but also because that was when I encountered the first Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Wars and liked it very much.
Way back then, I bought that first issue because it was drawn by the great, insane Howard Chaykin (although I also got quite a kick out of the little upper-left-corner issue logo, which showed a picture of heroic Luke Skywalker drawn by John Romita, Sr.)(what can I say? It’s the little things in life), and that was good enough for me even though I knew next to nothing about the actual contents (and even though those first few issues had far too much creeping Carmine Infantino touches for my liking).
Of course, everything has changed here in 2015. In the intervening quarter-century, Star Wars has gone from one fairly enjoyable movie to a franchise of galactic proportions and a cultural reach exceeding that of most religions – complete with a Second Coming in the form of the upcoming new movie in which, for the first time, the whole magilla’s pinch-voiced megalomaniacal creator, George Lucas, has no say.
In fact, Star Wars has now achieved such an absurdly revered status that it’s considered anathema to point out the obvious: that it largely stinks. The reason it stinks isn’t hard to figure out: this shoddy, half-baked little concept is exactly the sort of thing that should have been road-tested as a weekly network TV show long before it ever reached the big screen. Not only would that have served to spotlight its continuity weaknesses (and they are legion) and iron out some of them, but it would also have allowed the strengths of Lucas’s original concepts (few though they are) to be fleshed out by some hired writers of actual talent. This is the sort of piecemeal genesis that worked for Star Trek and – much later and much more critically successfully – for Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars didn’t get it.
As a result, we have a protracted, mostly embarrassing mess that can’t ever be identified as such, for the simple reason that it constitutes the personal religion of the people who would otherwise do the identifying. Those people will tell you – with little to no provocation – that the three ‘prequel’ movies pinch-voiced megalomaniacal George Lucas made in the early 2000s were terrible, that they were travesties, that they were abominations. But the bedrock article of faith implied in their condemnations of the second trilogy of movies is that the first trilogy of movies was great. Oh sure, they might queasily half-joke about the Ewoks, but by and large, they’ll rank the movie now called “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi” as milestones not just in cinema but in their own lives.
I once had one of these acolytes look me straight in the face and tell me in all seriousness that “The Empire Strikes Back” was the single greatest science fiction movie ever made. And when I burst out laughing, his face became taut and palely serious.
The original movie – Star Wars to me, A New Hope to the faithful – has a small handful of genuinely good bits. Lightsabers. “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.” The trash compactor scene. Of course, Darth Vader – and that’s it. The rest is an almost-hopeless mish-mash of cliches, bad acting, and bad writing, and no matter what vantage point you look at it all from, no matter how close or distant your focus, none of it makes any sense. But at least, unlike the following five movies, it was enjoyable – and the folks at Marvel must realize that on some level, because this first issue of their new comics series is set immediately in and around the ending of that first movie.
So the Empire is still fully in control of things. Darth Vader is still a fantastic villain rather than anybody’s father, padawan, lover, or crybaby. Han Solo and Princess Leia are still verbal sparring partners rather than sappy lovers. Our scrappy band of heroes is still very much outgunned and outnumbered – in other words, they’re still rebels, facing a vast and seemingly unbeatable tyranny.
That’s very promising material for lots of comic book adventures, and this first issue gives me hope – one might even say a new hope – for the issues to follow. Jason Aaron does a pretty good job capturing the admittedly skeletal “characters” of that first movie, and although John Cassaday’s artwork is too often hampered by the need to make his characters look like the actors who portrayed them 30 years ago (it’s surprising how few talented comic book artists are also talented caricaturists, but there you have it), his straightforward sense of visual excitement never abandons him – it’s easily possible to ‘read’ this issue without looking at the words at all and still get everything Aaron means to convey.
I won’t be hurrying to see the new “Star Wars” movie in the theaters; its brainless director has already savaged the sci-fi franchise I actually care about, so I have no desire to watch the also-rans get pillaged. But after reading and re-reading this first Marvel Star Wars issue a couple of times, I must admit: it’s nice to see these characters again in the setting that suits them best. I’ll stick around for a few issues.
January 19th, 2015
Our book today is The Dogs of Rome, Conor Fitzgerald’s 2010 debut mystery novel starring Commissario Alec Blume, who was born and raised in America but who, 17 years ago, lost his parents to the gunfire of a violent bank robbery while visiting Rome. A grief-stricken young Blume joined the police force instead of returning to America, rose through the ranks, and is a chief commissioner on the Roman force when we meet him at the beginning of this novel, as much a resident alien in Rome as he would be in America if he were to return.
But he’s not the first person we meet. We’ve talked here on “Mystery Monday” (which I’d have attended to earlier if it weren’t a wretched federal mail-holiday, since wretched federal mail-holidays all feel like Sundays) about the art of the creepy opening scene, and in The Dogs of Rome, Fitzgerald gives us not one but two: first, we meet assured, bombastic animal rights activist Arturo Clemente, who’s dallying in his Rome apartment with his mistress Manuela while his wife, Green Party MP Svena Romagnolo, is out of town. Just after Maneula leaves, Clemente, still in his bathrobe, answers the door and admits a grocery delivery man – who immediately starts acting so strange that Clemente asks him to leave. When it’s clear the man isn’t going to leave, impossible thoughts start to intrude on Clemente’s morning:
Arturo’s mind raced back over the years. An old friend. An old enemy. A debt of some sort. He had never had debts. A more recent encounter, then. Manuela? Surely not. He couldn’t work it out. A joke. They were filming this? He wasn’t famous enough yet.
Not a joke. A theft. This was a home invasion by a robber. Incredible, but obvious, too.
Violence erupts, and Clemente is murdered, but Fitzgerald isn’t done; he next gives us a chapter of the killer in Clemente’s apartment as the body oozes blood – a long enough scene to thoroughly disturb us, but neither long enough nor explicit enough to tell us much about the killer or the crime. This kind of scene is enormously difficult to pull off, and Fitzgerald manages it like a pro.
It’s only after that scene that our hero enters the action, pausing on the threshold to question a cop who got there first:
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is it in there?”
“A scale of one to ten? I don’t know – two, three?”
“No children, no rape, just one body, not even that young. Corpse fresh, so not much of a smell, no wailing relatives, no animals, no public, no reporters yet.”
One thing the cop doesn’t need to add is something Blume can see for himself: the murder has attracted an inordinate share of departmental brass, who are hovering around, walking through the crime scene, because the involvement of Svena Romagnolo, and hence the government, makes the case high-profile. As a result, Blume spends more time in the book’s opening sections trying to unravel the mystery of why his superiors are so concerned about the murder as he does trying to unravel the murder itself.
In Blume, Fitzgerald gives us a close variation on the stolid working stiffs so inexplicably popular in Scandinavian crime fiction, although he stirs in some caustic edges for variety’s sake (speculating that the killer may have had a rough upbringing, Blume says, “I’m always pleased when I find out an assassin had a lousy childhood. It means they got what they deserve, even if they had to pay in advance” – which is a very genuinely Roman-sounding non sequitur). His Blume is fairly observant, and before all sorts of outside influences (politicians! Police administrators! The Mafia!) start to pull him away from the crime, he manages to think through some of its quirky little details, like the fact that the killer apparently stuffed a towel at the bottom of the apartment door:
The killer had placed them there because he thought the blood might run under the door. Someone who watched horror flicks or played video games might think that. If the killer was someone who watched those movies and thought he’d have a go at it in real life, then Clemente was just a random victim.
Blume did not like the idea of total randomness. Yet he did not believe there was anything professional or political in the murder, either. The truth lay somewhere in between.
The Dogs of Rome caught my eye when it first came out, but I didn’t actually get around to reading it until this Christmas-time just ended, when an alter cocker who occasionally reviews fiction for a great metropolitan newspaper found me a copy at Niantic’s mighty Book Barn. The book is extremely satisfying, full of slang and vinegar, refreshingly non-programmatic – the kind of mystery-thriller that you just know will stand up well to re-readings. I don’t know if that’s also true for all the other books in the series, but now I aim to find out.
January 16th, 2015
Our book today is one of the improbable gems from the old Reader’s Digest “World’s Best Reading” series, the 1989 volume The Song of Hiawatha and Other Poems, here decked out with lavish illustrations (lovely textured pictures and spot illustrations of “The Song of Hiawatha” itself by Frederic Remington, for instance, and Howard Chandler Christy’s lovely flapper-era drawings for “The Courtship of Miles Standish”), a pretty gold-highlighted cover, and solid binding. This “World’s Best Reading” series produced quite a few of these gems – their Sherlock Holmes volumes, for instance, and their Moby-Dick … and their editions of Ben-Hur and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad are the best editions of those two books.
A similarly splendid job was done on this collection, which is one of the prettiest volumes of Longfellow ever produced in the United States, and it has a neatly concise and smart Afterword by the excellent but now-forgotten literary critic Edward Wagenknecht, who points out that once upon a time, the American literary landscape was almost entirely dominated by poets, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes … and towering over all of them, Longfellow, whose verses were memorized by schoolchildren, soldiers, statesmen, and ordinary citizens all over the country (indeed, all over the world – Longfellow was hugely popular in Queen Victoria’s England, for instance, and sold extremely robustly in France and the Netherlands).
Wagenknacht isn’t a blinkered academic; he isn’t under any illusions about the fallen star of his subject:
Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Longfellow’s fame survives intact today. Like many of his contemporaries, Longfellow has suffered from the decline of what came to be called “the genteel tradition.” Another factor is the virtual disappearance of narrative verse and, with it, of the vast poetry-reading public of the 19th century.
That’s a key point, that mention of the disappearance of narrative verse from public reading, the gradual transfer of its narrative energies into the realm of novels and short stories. The times changed right out from underneath great writers like Longfellow, and I’ve always thought, perhaps irrationally, that this sad fact should exempt them from the scorn of the present day. And yet, despite the fact that Wagenknacht thirty years ago could claim that “many of Longfellow’s poems continue to be cherished by readers and esteemed by critics,” this book’s contents are now the curios of a bygone era.
They shouldn’t be! Long-time followers of Stevereads will already know I think it shouldn’t be. I could make a doomed case for all of those once-titanic figures Wagenknacht lists, but I love none of them so much as I do Longfellow (my tastes across the Atlantic are equally quixotic, alas; I’m one of the only remaining fans of John Dryden outside of academia), a very generous selection of whose work is conveniently collected in this sturdy volume, from wonderful brooding shorter works like “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls”:
The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curfew calls;
Along the sea sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Darkness settles on the roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
To the signature longer works like “Evangeline,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and, of course, Longfellow’s most powerful, most hypnotic, and most maligned (both in his own day and ever since – indeed, even when the thing was in handed-around drafts, his friends warned him to expect critical squawking), “The Song of Hiawatha” with its deliberately stilted, sing-song rhythms, as in the segment called “Hiawatha’s Fishing”:
Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining big sea water,
With his fishing line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, king of fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
See the yellow perch, the Sahwa,
Like a sunbeam in the water,
See the Shawgashee, the crawfish,
Like a spider on the bottom,
On the white and sandy bottom …
On the white sand of the bottom
Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,
Lay the sturgeon, king of fishes;
Through his gills he breathed the water,
With his fins he fanned and winnowed,
With his tail he swept the sand floor.
That’s so typically Longfellow, that gorgeous visual evocation in every verse, the enormous sturgeon fanning the white sand on the river bottom. No poet in his day could match the sheer cinematic fecundity of Longfellow’s imagination, and the sheer unembarrassed power of it has undimmed power to work if readers drop their cynicism and let it. If you happen to see this pretty volume (at Niantic’s Book Barn, for instance, which I hear has a vast selection of out-of-print books), you might want to start here.
January 14th, 2015
Our book today is The War Against Cliche, the bottomlessly entertaining 2001 collection of many of the for-hire literary essays and book reviews the novelist Martin Amis wrote between 1971 and 2000, and taken as a snapshot of the working life of a semi-faineant freelancer (I’d wager that Amis actually only needed the paycheck – or, in the good old days, the pawnable review copy – for the very earliest of these pieces; once the novel-money was steadily coming in, he’d have been more sought-after than seeking), the book, in addition to being enormously re-readable, acts as a protracted comment on the marketplace. Amis reviews plenty of books for plenty of venues, but he’s exclusively a fiction-critic, the poor sot – no wonder he developed such a hang-dog expression so early.
When reviewing Anthony Burgess’s great big masterpiece Earthly Powers (for The New York Times Book Review in 1980), Amis, perhaps pressed for time, resorts to the old “there are two kinds” crutch, only he rescues it via his usual expedient of grabby prose:
There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time. Most long novels are this kind of long novel, especially in America – where writers routinely devastate acres of woodland for their spy thrillers, space operas, family sagas, and so on. Long novels of the second kind, on the other hand, are long because they have to be, earning their amplitude by the complexity of the demands they make on writer and reader alike.
And if we were to turn the gimmick around, we could make a case that there are two kinds of book-reviewers. Most book reviewers (especially if the numberless reviews on Amazon are factored in) are insurance assessors: they faithfully lay out the case for their clients, and then they objectively weigh the pros and cons. But a few book reviewers are scene-stealers: they lure you in with the promise of reviewing that new book you’re thinking of reading, but once they’ve got an audience in front of them, their inner ham takes over and they start performing. The first kind of book-reviewer is reliable and reliably dull; the second kind is more enjoyable but can be less useful (the best of the second kind make a conscientious effort to work a book review into their palavering, I should rather abashedly add – it needn’t all be limelight-hogging). Sometimes, for sternly monetary reasons, the second kind is forced to behave like the first kind (as a tattered book editor for the old Chicago Tribune book section used to scream, “No razzle-dazzle – or you can kiss your thirty bucks goodbye!”), but thanks to a stellar run of editors virtually everywhere he took his wares, Amis almost never had to do that. He was the second type, the scene-stealer, and proud of it.
Or maybe it just boils down to writers who have a lot to say. Certainly I get that impression when re-reading The War Against Cliche; I may know as an objective fact that the majority of these pieces were banged out in thirty minutes on the north slope of their deadlines, but not only does Amis himself incorporate every well-worn gimmick he knows in order to soften that impression (his favorite being the paragraph constructed around the conceit of him living with the book he’s reviewing, carrying it around everywhere, consulting it, really steeping himself in it; anyone who’s ever reviewed books for a living will hoot in open derision at this nonsense, but it definitely adds a certain Pride and Prejudice gentility to the proceedings when it’s done this smoothly), but the results – however achieved – are so uniformly catchy that you quickly stop caring how they were achieved. Take this little aside about the nuts and bolts of V. S. Pritchett’s prose, from a marvelous soup-to-nuts assessment Amis did for the London Review of Books in 1980:
Pritchett’s prose, too, is quirky and nostalgic in its devices. He continues to write in a style that has not noticed the regularizing, the tidying-up that accompanied the concerted push towards naturalism in the middle of the century. His punctuation is tangled, hectic and Victorian. He sometimes uses semi-colons the way Dickens did – as brackets; and he is a hardened exponent of the pause-for-breath comma that is being steadily driven out of English prose…
Or his backhand appreciation of the staggering prolixity of the aforementioned Burgess, talking about Little Wilson and Big God for the Observer in 1987: “The first volume of the Burgess autobiography is only 450 pages long. Accordingly, one would expect it to end when the author is about five.”
For the reviewing rank-and-file who don’t have London Fields royalty checks to look forward to, dutifully reviewing the latest damn Iris Murdoch novel year after year can be grindingly tiring and therefore antithetical to wit. But in Amis there are zingers aplenty; writing in The New Statesmani in 1971 about a new Coleridge biography, he quips, “Inside John Cornwell’s 400-page critical biography of Coleridge there is a 200-page uncritical one trying not nearly hard enough to get out,” for instance, and when he reviews Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal for Talk in 1999, he immortally calls it a “harpoon of unqualified kitsch” and then turns his scorn on members of his own profession:
The publication of Hannibal back in June cut the ribbon on a festival of stupidity. In the US the critical consensus was no more than disgracefully lenient. In the UK, though, the reviews comprised a veritable dunciad. There were exceptions, most of them (significantly, I think) written by women. Elsewhere the book pages all rolled over for Dr Lecter … The eager gullibility felt sinisterly unanimous. Is this the next thing? Philistine hip? The New Inanity?
He can be maddeningly academic in some of his more posh pronouncements, as when, writing in the Observer in 1983 about A. N. Wilson’s new biography of Milton that the book is “by any standards, remarkably headstrong, beleaguered and quaint.” (Is there a need to open things up to any standards here? Is there a way to be un-remarkably headstrong, beleaguered or quaint?) But in piece after piece, he counter-balances this with the wail of the true believer. On the one hand, he can write about a reprint of Brideshead Revisited: “Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence. Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise.” But on the other hand, he can confess with startling honesty to a basically moralistic frustration with the book:
There is something barefaced, even aggressive, in the programmatic way the novel arranges for its three most unregenerate characters – Sebastian, Lord Marchmain and Julia – to claim the highest spiritual honours. Sebastian, whose life has been impartially dedicated to shiftlessness, whimsy and drink, becomes a holy fool, shuffling among lepers and sleeping in his ‘monk’s cell’. Lord Marchmain, who likewise has done nothing in his seventy years but follow his own hackneyed inclinations, snatches salvation in the last seconds of his existence. ‘I’ve known worse cases make beautiful deaths,’ says the priest, rubbing his hands after Marchmain has jeered him from the sick room. And Julia …
And no matter how successful he is in other fields, and no matter how busy, he studiously retains the most essential and refreshing quality of any book-reviewer: his ability to be surprised. Among other things, it makes his 1995 review of Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest surely among the finest tributes that fine book ever received:
I thought I was wise to all his moves. I knew Vidal would have me frowning and nodding and smiling and smirking – with admiration, and exasperation, and scandlized dissent. I never dreamed Vidal would have me piping my eyes, and staring wanly out of the window, and emitting strange sighs (many of them frail and elderly in timber). Approaching seventy, Vidal now takes cognisance of the human heart, and reveals that he has one. Palimpsest is a tremendous read from start to finish. It is also a proud and serious and truthful book.
As readers of Stevereads will know, I dislike Martin Amis the novelist with a bored irritation that he has scarcely managed to dim in thirty years (a notable exception being The Zone of Interest). But Martin Amis the book critic I like more with every passing year. In fact, a much-enlarged new edition of The War Against Cliche is a book I’d actually buy.