Posts from June 2015
June 13th, 2015
2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.
When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.
But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.
So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:
Sir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:
There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.
Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper Collins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:
On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable'; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.
Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:
Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.
Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from the German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:
Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.
Charles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:
At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.
Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this 1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):
But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.
These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …
June 9th, 2015
I don’t often give my second-tier periodical reading the attention it deserves here on Stevereads, which is a little unfair considering how much reading enjoyment it so regularly gives me. It’s true that my main fare comes from mighty banquets like the TLS or the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or the Atlantic or The National Geographic, but there’s plenty of other magazine reading to be done, and it’s the second-tier journals that fill in those gaps. Basically, I’ll go wherever there are book reviews, no matter how repulsive the journal itself may be.
And when it comes to repulsive, the quasi-respectable journals don’t get much more odious than the Weekly Standard, the cover story of which this week is something called “Obama’s Reformation,” a story about various “religious freedom” exemptions to US anti-discrimination laws that naturally portrays the religious groups in question as victims of authoritarian governmental overreach. The piece is written by Adam White, who’s identified as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is exactly what you’d guess it is from its name, a ‘think tank’ New York cabal that would have to become more progressive before it could even be called crypto-fascist.
And the crypto-fascism if anything increases before it levels out, in this particular issue of the Weekly Standard, with somebody named Gary Schmitt turning in an excellent review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, full of lively descriptions such as this quick bit about the odd couple nature of Sky’s relationship with General Odierno in Iraq:
A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and a bald, six-foot-six massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam – with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy – she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead in such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.
The review might have been good, but Schmitt himself? He’s “Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” It’s not often that you don’t even need to Google something to know everything important about it, but this is surely one of those times.
That’s the besetting problem with magazines like the Weekly Standard, and it’s the reason why mentally reasonable readers tend to give them a wide berth: the writers for such magazines, even the book reviewers, are duty-bound to import an ideological slant into their pieces – in this case, the standard American ultra-right wing nutjob “conservative” ideology that’s currently embodied by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, craven little megalomaniacs who constitute the warped version of the Republican Party today. In the Weekly Standard, this ideology takes the usual form of a wistful, semi-angry regret on the writer’s part that we’ve all allowed those shrill feminists and homo-sexuals to drive society’s agendas so far from the Lost Golden Age “we” all remember as being so much better, so much more sensible than the crazy way things are today.
This kind of nonsense is bad enough in lead stories like that piece of crap about “religious freedom” under fire, where even an unwary reader goes in expecting that the whole thing will be a code-worded screed designed to attack all inroads made by social equality into the time-honored preserves of wealthy white people in entrenched positions of power (gays wanting to marry? Women wanting equal pay? Minorities wanting protection from summary execution by the police? Aw, c’mon – remember how things USED to be? Why do we all have to CARE about this stuff?). But it’s worse when it crops up in book reviews, which are supposed to be about the books under review.
Take Charlotte Allen’s review of Medieval History by Kevin Madigan, in which there’s this little tidbit:
Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, as [sic] least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic” – that is, strictly sequential – accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters.
Ah yes, those “contemporary” historians pandering to the PC learning disabilities of their pill-popping, lawyered-up never-went-to-Choate students by serving up bite-sized “diachronic” topics instead of normal meat-and-potatoes sequential history (remember how things USED to be?). I seem to recall that Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – in all its diachronic glory – was written back in 1860, and was preceded and followed by countless other such works, but maybe Burckhardt & co. likewise had lazy, Commie students to accommodate.
And sometimes, this ideological mission creep can go from oily to genuinely offensive, as in the case of Edwin Yoder’s review of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which ends, incredibly, with this:
Constitutionally speaking, John Wilkes Booth’s act had the effect of largely confining the postwar examination of Lincoln’s official stewardship of the Constitution to scholarly literature. Only there, and only in scattered instances, was there any searching evaluation of Lincoln’s huge expansion of presidential powers. Lincoln the agile lawyer adroitly rationalized quite extraordinary executive measures as essential exercises of war powers, identifying what Booth viewed as “tyrannical” as mere normal precedent. Succeeding wartime presidents have not been slow to follow. This was, perhaps, the crowning irony of Booth’s heinous and destructive crime.
Quick: despite the ridiculous sop of that “heinous and destructive,” do you think Yoder is for or against Booth shooting Lincoln in the head?
Expansion of executive powers … in the wrap-up to a piece on John Wilkes Booth. It would be funny if it weren’t so revolting.
But lest I give the wrong impression, there’s quite a bit of legitimately wonderful stuff in these second-tier journals! It’s not all code-worded crypto-fascism! Take the last issue of the Boston Review, for instance. It has a very good review by Meghan O’Gieblyn of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed;
The ritual takedown of a scapegoat may gratify, however fleetingly, an impulse for justice, but it often benefits the very institution supposedly under attack. We perpetuate the system when we limit our outrage to a single person. That is not to say systemic problems are immune to public activism, but even minor change requires persistent and sometimes tedious work.
And the last issue of the venerable American Scholar has a wonderful (too short!) review by Graeme Wood of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder:
One of the pleasures of her book is that it demonstrates how Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, rather than copying reality, showed that it contained within it more than one could have supposed – inner space, both psychological and biological. To see the world in a milkmaid’s averted gaze, or in a splash of pond scum, takes genius of a high order …
It might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep me coming back.
June 7th, 2015
Our book today is the lovely 1947 volume The Birds of Britain, written by zoologist James Fisher as part of the wonderful “Britain in Pictures” series from Collins that was once so popular and that now stands in bad needs of a series-wide reprint. That day will never come, I suspect, but The Birds of Britain – all 50 elegant pages of it – can still be found in second-hand shops all over the UK (and even, as if you couldn’t guess, on the shelves of my beloved Brattle Bookshop here in Boston, “the next parish over”).
And it’s such a find! All the “Britain in Pictures” books are, from Sir Francis Meynell’s English Printed Books to Edith Sitwell’s English Women to Sean O’Faolain’s The Story of Ireland to Rose Macaulay’s Life Among the English, but there’s something fascinating about any book on British birds, because Great Britain is perhaps the only place on Earth where the bird-watching crowd is even more obsessive and deeply, deeply unhinged than in New York (New York magazine recently did a photo-spread on the Summer plumage on display in Central Park – it was pretty damn disturbing to see so many institutionalizable individuals out roaming around with binoculars). When The Birds of Britain identifies its author as “a young and distinguished zoologist,” what it really means is “he keeps multiple lists.”
The book is very generously illustrated with paintings and engravings by all the giants of bird-illustration, from Benjamin Fawcett to Joseph Wolf to Thomas Bewick, and the thing starts off very forthrightly in a short chapter called “A Bird’s Eye View of Britain” that indulges in the ur-British habit of preparatory throat-clearing:
Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne, introduced his Hampshire parish to posterity with a catalogue of its natural features. There is every reason why we should follow his example. Modern convention might have it that the main character should, as it were, amble casually in from the wings somewhere in Scene II. Britain cannot be so treated. We cannot delay the description of what is the subject and the scene, of this essay – the countries of England, Wales and Scotland, and their place as the home, and the support, of many different kinds of birds.
There follows short and spirited accounts of all the usual suspects from the British aviary world, all the harriers, owls, warblers, avocets, ruffs, spoonbills, cranes, godwits, bitterns, bearded tits, eiders, fulmars, wrens, hawks, martins, grouse, wagtails, grebes, crows, and mergansers – all given brief, punchy outlines of appearance, habits, range, behavior, and conservation, which was just becoming a preoccupation among nature-lovers who were realizing that the pre-war industrial boom might be endangering all the wildlife in the islands:
There is scarcely an acre in Britain where man has not altered the habitat, and with it the bird life. One complete bird community which we have so far not mentioned in detail, has been completely upset by man. This is the community of the marshes and fens … Conservation has rescued these in the nick of time; a few sanctuaries, snatched from the tentacles of utilitarian agriculture and saved from draining, now support them.
It’s a tribute to conservation – and to the severely mentally imbalanced obsessions of the aforementioned tribe of avid birders – that there’s still a great variety of these birds from half a century ago to be seen in a leisurely stroll through Britain’s various natural habitats. Notebook in hand, of course.
June 6th, 2015
Is there any more pleasant a thing to do on a cold, overclouded early summer morning than to attend a library book sale? For a bookworm, surely not – and so I ventured out one humid, bitter morning to the Boston Public Library Book Sale organized and run by the City-Wide Friends of the BPL and crammed into a third-floor room roughly the size of a water closet, where I was body-slammed, roller derby-style, as I filled a basket with books I most certainly don’t need.
The idea of such a sale – indoors, cramped, stuffy, combative – is to absent yourself from felicity awhile, until you get back to your private chamber, where you can unbag your books and explore them at leisure.
My own book-haul this time around was a varied thing! There were Regency romances – the modern kind put out by the wonderful folk at Harlequin. I scooped up a handful of them … in fact, I scooped a little too easily, discovering only once I was back among my own dogs that I’d bought two copies of the same title, Lady Folbrooke’s Delicious Deception by Christine Merrill (fortunately, I don’t lack for eager recipients for such doubles).
And of course library book sales are perfect opportunities to take chances on books you’ve never read. One example of that kind of book, this time, for me, was Jan Cohn’s 1980 biography of the mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose books, now out of print, are still so richly satisfying. Cohn’s brief book is based almost exclusively on primary sources, including, delightfully, Rinehart’s own autobiography:
“There is no truly honest autobiography,” Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote in the opening pages of her own autobiography, My Story, published in 1931. The truth about one’s own life is blurred and altered, she explained, through conscious acts of tact and unconscious defenses of memory. Beyond that, for a storyteller, for one whose gifts lay in the ability to shape human experience to fit the molds of fiction, the act of autobiography became in part an act of fiction-making. My Story is almost an autobiographical novel.
“Even in her eighties she radiated energy, vitality, power,” Cohn writes, “She was, recalls one who knew her in those years, a tycoon – a charming woman, but a tough woman, one who had made it in a man’s world.”
There’s no such central work for the subject of another BPL gamble of mine, Lisa Jardine’s 2004 biography of Robert Hooke, the great friend of Restoration architect Christopher Wren (about whom she’d written an earlier and quite excellent biography) – a fact she acknowledges right up front:
Biography is the art of giving shape and coherence to the life of an individual. Where the subject has a major achievement to his or her name, a life can be crafted as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ around that beacon moment. Where an individual has been prolific and varied in his endeavours and achieved a breathtaking amount, yet without leaving his lasting mark on history in the form of a single significant discovery, it is far harder to give him a place in history. Hence Hooke’s shadowy presence – a man without a defining great work to give his life shape.
But for me, by far the most attractive offering of any big book sale is a chance to re-discover things I’ve already read. I found a copy of L. Michael White’s 2004 From Jesus to Christianity, which I haven’t read since it first came out. And I found a copy of Tom Dolby’s earnest, awkward gay novel The Trouble Boy, likewise from 2004. I found a big paperback of James Ellroy’s brilliant, disturbing 2001 novel The Cold Six Thousand, which gave me a wistful little pang of a type I’ve grown accustomed to feeling in the last ten years: the pang of missed opportunities. This big paperback is an Advance Reader’s Copy, and turning it over in my hands and dipping into its staccato prose, I couldn’t help but think about how I’d have received such a copy in the mail back in 2001, if I’d been back in the book-reviewing game at the time.
And in terms of old, old favorites, I found the lovely white Oxford World’s Classics paperback of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with a cover featuring A Prior Attachment, a detail from a painting by the great Victorian master Marcus Stone; I found the 1963 reprint of Mary McCarthy’s great little book Venice Observed; and best of all, I found the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition from 2006 (hence, just a smidge too early for either Stevereads or Open Letters Monthly to have afforded me the chance to cadge a free copy from the good folks at Penguin) of Richard Pevear’s very lively translation of The Three Musketeers, the find of the day for me – and the subject of an upcoming post of its own.
As usual, the Friends compensated with smiles and old-fashioned carney-barking for the drastic limitations of their new venue, although as I was lugging my tote bag of books away, I thought again that the BPL really ought to find a more generous space for this wonderful (and cash-generating) event. I mean, if that little room was so hot and close on the 6th of June, I can just imagine what it’ll be like on the 1st of August when the next sale happens – and when I go back, rain or shine.
June 6th, 2015
Our book today brings back sweet, sweet memories. It’s Our Capital on the Potomac, a wonderful 1924 history of Washington, D.C by Helen Nicolay, who was an energetic researcher and something of Beltway aristocrat, being the daughter of President Lincoln’s beloved secretary John Nicolay.
She was a wonderful hostess, an inevitable fixture in the town’s best private libraries, a champion ruminator in archives. She liked to eat; she loved to laugh; she was welcome at the doorsteps of diplomats, lawmakers, and a string of presidents for over half a century. The stories accumulated in Our Capital on the Potomac were as much the product of a lifetime’s good talking as of a lifetime’s quiet reading.
The book starts, refreshingly enough, not with the Founding Fathers but with the American Indian inhabitants of the region. The narrative moves through the Revolution, gives us a vivid account of the planning and designing of the new capital city by Pierre L’Enfant, watches as the city expands along those plans and fills with life, and all along the way pauses at regular intervals to attest to something that visitors to the place almost always feel: “A traveler might come to wonder or to criticize,” Helen tells us, “but if he lingered to partake of the city’s bread and salt, he forgot all except the beauty of its setting and the hospitality of his friends.”
Those two themes – the beauty of its setting and the hospitality of friends – dominate this book and give it life. Our author has done a great deal of work researching the city’s history (and she’s witty about it, too, remarking for instance that “the most effective use William Henry Harrison made of the Executive Mansion was to die in it”), but her real subject is the city’s soul.
And at the climax of her story, she’s elbowed off-stage by an even better raconteur than she is, by the whirling, laughing center of the world, by the actual embodiment of the peculiar shot and charge of the nation’s capital. It happens in all such stories of the city, with all the lines of its history warping to funnel all the energy straight to the gravitational center. The book delights and delights and delights for a century and a half … and then, as soon as President McKinley tragically dies in office, bottle-rocket anecdotes start firing off on every page:
One diplomat’s career was entirely ruined so long as Roosevelt remained President, because of a dinner-table remark that Holland was the ideal billet for a man below the rank of ambassador. Mr. Roosevelt asked why, expecting some profound reason, and was told, “Because it takes such a short time to get to the opera or a dinner in Paris or Berlin.” “Think of it!” he exploded, mentioning the matter years later to a friend. The offender found himself firmly retrograded, until at the end of Roosevelt’s term he was “gnashing his teeth in Persia” and begging to be sent back to civilization.
Or this one:
Next morning he ran gaily downstairs to the eight-o’clock breakfast with the children which which his day invariably began, stopping on the way, as a telephone bell rang, to pick up the receiver. As he listened, [his visiting sister] saw a broad smile overspread his face and he answered the piping voice at the other end:
“No, I am not Archie. I am Archie’s father. All right. I will tell him. I won’t forget,” and rang off, laughing. “How the creatures order you about!” he quoted from “Alice in Wonderland,” and sketched for his sister’s benefit the disgust of the small boy at the other end of the line when he found he was talking to the President of the United States and not to his chum.
But Helen, as susceptible to the syrupy sentimentality that tends to afflict everybody who stays in the capital for any length of time as anybody else, periodically looks away from Theodore Roosevelt to the city’s past. She tells us about how President Taft turns the first spadeful of earth on the Lincoln Memorial (and then years later helps to take part in the finished monument’s dedication), and she rises to the occasion of describing the odd feeling of quiet exaltation that overcomes visitors to the spot:
As one mounts the many steps leading to the memorial, something happens. Perhaps it is the effort of ascent; perhaps it is the ever closer view of the big fluted columns toward which one climbers. Things of the outer world seem to grown less important as one nears the top. But even so, the mind is scarcely prepared for the quiet and the sense of awe that prevail within as one faces the great seated figure with its head bent forward and its hands resting on the arms of its chair, one fist clenched, the fingers of the other hand relaxed but by no means nerveless. For an instant, perhaps the knees and square-toed boots of the statue seem a little too much in evidence, but only for a moment. After that they merely stand for the homely qualities of speech and idiom that people forgot after they had been with Lincoln for a brief time.
But she also looks forward in her story, bringing it to a wonderful conclusion by narrating the much-belated official funeral of Pierre L’Enfant:
Looking over the plain that was field and woodland when he knew it, and is now filled with houses and parks, we trace the outlines of his plan, see rising over it the Capitol dome, faintly luminous like a great pearl in the afternoon light, and, turning, follow the same lines upon his tomb, where his old map of the city has been engraved, for epitaph and memorial.
But the plan is engraved deeper still in our hearts.
I’ll admit, I love books about DC (and I’ll less readily admit to having lived there, once upon a time), and I revisit the best of them regularly. This is one of the best of them.
June 5th, 2015
This last week turned out to be a sharply sad one for me, in the realm of comics. I was reading a spattering of the latest “Convergence” spin-off issues from DC, all of them set in the various fractured sideline-realities and featuring DC characters from various titles and imprints over the decades before the company’s “New 52” continuity-reboot. It’s been fun seeing these old characters again – Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, for instance, or the normal, traditional Superman who’s hopelessly in love with Lois Lane, or Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, or the WWII-era Justice Society of America, the first super-team of them all. But as these isolated two-issue stories have started wrapping up, it’s finally dawned on me that these things are every bit the wistful – and final – good-byes they seem to be on the surface. And that’s made reading them unexpectedly hard to do.
Take two issues as examples. In the wrap-up to the “Shazam!” storyline, written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Evan Shaner, once all the teaming up and fighting are over, our heroes – Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Bulletman, and Bulletgirl (and a talking tiger in a war plane – a long story) – are flying into the sunset when Captain Marvel says: “There’s never really a happy ending … or even an ending. All we have are the moments, and this one is pretty special to me … in the sky again, with my best friends. With my family!”
And things are even more explicitly valedictory in the wrap-up to “The Justice Society of America” two-parter, in which our heroes – Hawkman, Doctor Fate, the original Green Lantern, and the original Flash – use a one-time-only spell to recapture their lost youth and powers so they can defeat a killer robot attacking the city. The issue – written by Dan Abnett, drawn wonderfully by Tom Derenick, and actually called “One Last Time” – largely consists of that battle, during which our heroes realize that doing this, using their powers to champion the cause of right, has been the joy of their lives:
I share my friends’ frank appraisal. They speak of the wonder of being super-men. The sheer, glorious, thank-god-I’m-alive, this-never-gets-old, unbelievable, astonishing sensation of being members of the Justice Society. It kept ups going through the toughest moments. The compensation of feeling blessed. We thanked fate and fortune and the stars every day that we were getting to do the things we were doing. We were lucky we ever got to do them at all. Just once would have been an utter privilege. We were damn lucky we got to spend our whole lives doing them. Now we’re getting to be those people again, one last time. And we’re going to savor every second of it.
But when the fight is over, they revert to old men again and shuffle off to get some coffee. And reading that scene, it really dawned on me: DC is saying one last good-bye to these characters before shifting their main focus back to the militarized, joyless main line they created a few years ago. Here’s hoping some of the sunlight and optimism of the concepts they’re shutting down this month leaks into that main line, even if these great old characters don’t.
June 4th, 2015
Our book today is The Other Nile, a slim, somewhat fey travelogue written in 1986 by Charlie Pye-Smith about his travels down the Nile through Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. The book is evocative as all travel-writing should be; the author is forever describing things that are being overtaken by other things – his book is full of little and big disappearances, including some brought about by nature:
There is nothing in the annals of European weather that quite prepares you for the khamasin (which means fifty, the number of days the storm is supposed to blow each spring). The sun appeared briefly at dawn – I was smoking a cigarette on our balcony at the Balmoral – but by eight o’clock it had been swallowed up by clouds of dust that rolled over Cairo from the deserts to the south. I ate breakfast and went to sit on the east bank of Zamalek, from where I watched the city on the other side of the river fade into the storm.
Pye-Smith has been writing about conservation issues as long as he’s been describing alien flora and fauna, and although The Other Nile is thickly populated with human characters from all levels of the societies he visits, in some of the most striking moments they’re reduced to incidental agents of contrast, and the natural world is front and center:
It was a lovely walk west from the palace towards Omdurman. Buzzards and kites flapped over the river and pied kingfishers dived from the hull of an upturned boat which rose like a hippo’s back from the murky water. In the trees beside the Grand Hotel ibis were copulating, and uniformed waiters were serving lemon juices to early-morning risers on the terrace.
But the thing that struck me the most about The Other Nile this time around (God only knows what happened to my original paperback of the book from thirty years ago, but I recently found another at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and spent a very enjoyable hour re-reading it) is the way Pye-Smith’s more settled sensibilities have overtaken the raw-adventure roughing it of his earlier days. Time and again in the book, we find him singing hymns of praise to comfort and order – then, and especially now, a slightly rebellious thing for a travel-writer to do:
I spent six days drunk with the loveliness, the lushness of Aswan. Rarely have I felt such happiness as I experienced here – partly a reaction to leaving Sudan; but more an inner celebration of beauty. I saw the pigeon-seller squirting gruel from his mouth into those of his birds; I listened to the shoe-shiners addressing one another as Ya Rayeez! – ‘Oh! Mr President'; I spent hours sitting in cafes and watching egrets circling over the palm-covered islands. I saw everything as though for the first time. I was dazed, almost feverish. Even the simplest and most commonplace sight transfixed me, as the rudest object will transfix an autistic child: a man frying spiced liver; a woman suckling a baby; a policeman directing traffic. And the wonderful indulgence of solitude. For the first time for over a month I had a room of my own. No refugees. No arrests. No quiet despair.
A quiet, clean room of one’s own with a water-basin on the table and a bribable policeman within earshot. These kinds of things can be precious after a month in the country.
June 2nd, 2015
Our book today is The Last Ship by William Brinkley, a 1988 exponent of the whole sub-genre of military techno-fiction Tom Clancy had created virtually from scratch four years earlier with The Hunt for Red October – but also an exponent of a much older sci-fi tradition: the post-apocalyptic survival-story, along the lines of Alas, Babylon and On the Beach.
Specifically, of course, post-nuclear apocalypse: the book tells the story of the US guided missile destroyer Nathan James, captained by a man named Thomas and crewed by 152 men and 26 women. Upon getting orders to fire missiles at a target in Soviet Russia, the ship does its part for the US war effort but gradually learns that the nuclear war that resulted was not only fierce but total: the entire world has been devastated. The ship has become a floating bastion of uncontaminated humanity.
Captain and crew naturally attempt to make contact with survivors, but it quickly becomes clear that although random groups of people might have survived the cataclysm, organized societies did not; and those random survivors, huddled along the world’s beaches in a vain attempt to escape radiation poisoning, are alive, they’re so horribly disfigured and demented by the nightmare they’ve gone through that they’re more like the dumb, disbelieving souls Ulysses encounters in the underworld:
Their faces – and this was almost the worst part of all, sending a chill of horror and of unspeakable desolation through us – even their faces seemed to carry expressions highly similar. Looks – I do not think one imagined this – of bewilderment and stupefaction, and for the same reason, the immense mystery and inexplicability of what had happened, was happening, to them.
The commander faces a mutiny by a large chunk of his crew (they want to go home to the United States, despite knowing how pointless and dangerous that would be), and he faces fuel shortages, and he even faces possible armed conflict when the Nathan James encounters a lone Russian submarine, and Brinkley writes it all with exactly the kind of fervid melodramatics that unwary book reviewers can be relied upon to call “beautiful prose.” And sure enough, the book was laden with such praise when it first appeared.
The prose here isn’t beautiful, and it also isn’t much like any of the other novels Brinkley wrote. This was his final book (he died in 1993), and it’s always seemed to me that the prose of it reflects some deep trauma on the author’s part, something that turned a competent wordsmith (with a heavy hint of the newsroom) into a verbose, almost disjointed ranter. Even an innocuous reflection by the commander seethes and bubbles like a lava field:
As far back as I can remember, on unnumbered waters of the world and in all manifestations of the sea’s unending repertory of moods, whether placid as some inland lake or stormy enough to roll one’s body back and forth, port and starboard, with the ship herself while one clutched hard the volume, I have read a half hour before bed, sitting up in my bunk, before marking my place and reaching up and snapping off the overhead light. I have often wondered how anyone who does not read, by which I mean daily, having some book going all the time, can make it through life. Indeed if I were required to make a sharp division in the very nature of people, I would be tempted to make it there: readers and nonreaders of books. (The second would be seamen and landsmen). It is astonishing how the presence or absence of this habit so consistently characterizes an individual in other respects; it is though it were a kind of barometer of temperament, of personality, even of character.
Passages like that – and the book is one long menu of them – are markedly odd for this author, who in all his previous works was careful and straightforward in his prose. Here, there’s almost no trace of that earlier author (he survives mainly in the book’s crisp dialogue); instead, we get passages like that, full of grammatical and syntactical errors, loaded with tautologies, almost Etonian in verbosity (at another point the commander refers to shipboard life as “that intact palatinate bounded so tightly by the forbidding walls of the great sea”). It’s always made me wonder what Brinkley was thinking while he was typing out this novel.
Still, it’s a hum-dinger of a story, and there’s an undeniable addictive quality in reading the adventures of the Nathan James as she seeks to understand her new world and her people try to forge a new future. The Last Ship is certainly a classic of this little niche-genre, and maybe its over-the-top prose is part of its author’s grand plan – one of those book-reviewers (from the Cleveland Plain Dealer) actually suggested as much, and even book-reviewers are right once in a while.
June 1st, 2015
Reading the cover story of the latest Harper’s, David Bromwich’s magisterial, damning assessment of the Obama presidency, certainly did no wonders for my lunch-time digestion. Just the first paragraph reads like a cold halibut across the face:
Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed – there must be millions of us – will feel that this president deserves the kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor mostly likely will also be worse.
I read Bromwich’s long piece with mounting admiration at his rhetorical ability and almost not one single scintilla of agreement at his conclusions, and the combination ended up being so depressing that I turned with great relief to the “Spring Books” issue of The Nation – and was very nearly depressed all over again. I opened the “Spring Books” issue and encountered … well, hardly a big lineup of books any normal readership would be likely to read this Spring – or any other Spring. There’s a review by Aaron Thier of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a William Deresiewicz review of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, a dual review of Moira Weigel of Keywords by Raymond Williams and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti … you see what I mean: not exactly anybody’s idea of ‘it’ books, although the pieces themselves, typically for The Nation, were first-rate.
But my spirits not only perked up but soared when I got to Corey Robinson’s long essay in the same issue! It’s even less a “Spring Books” piece than the others – it discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, and Becoming Eichmann by David Cesarini, for Pete’s sake – but what it lacks in edge-of-summer topicality it more than makes up for with edge-of-your-seat brilliance.
Robinson looks at the literary firestorm that was sparked into existence by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, including multiple excoriations by some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, and the discussion is invigorating throughout – in fact, I wanted the piece to keep going, and I knew I was in good hands right from the beginning of the piece:
Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fe. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?
The fact that the Penny Press regularly provides me with such gems is the reason I keep the whole anachronistic machinery of magazine subscriptions wheezing and clanking along. Bravo, Corey Robinson!