Our book today is Venice: Birth of a City, a marvelous illustrated 1987 gem by the great Piero Ventura, whose picture books just brim with life and idiosyncratic charm. He opens his account of the earliest history of Venice with the customary hymn of praise and some basic geographic outlining:
Venice is the strangest, most fascinating and perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. It is built on an archipelago of over 110 low islets in the Lagoon of Venice. The islets are protected from the open sea, the Adriatic, by the Lido, a sandbar over 6 miles long.
Ventura starts off the old familiar story with terrified refugees seeking some kind of haven, even if they had to built one from scratch on open water:
So why was this city ever built on swampy islands in the middle of a desolate lagoon? The first Venetians were fishermen, hunters and boatmen who were skilled enough at navigating the maze of muddy banks and shallows to make a living. The real history of the city began in the fifth century. Frightened coastal dwellers fleeing barbarian hordes who poured into Italy after the downfall of the Roan Empire settled on these offshore islands. These refugees had lived in fine Roman cities. Here on the islands they started a new life, for the most part undisturbed by the Lombard invaders on the mainland. They drew close together and on the Rivo Alto (Rialto), a central lagoon township, Venice grew up.
On page after bright, inviting page (including a wonderful four-page fold-out to climax the whole tale), Ventura shows Venice during the successive intervals of her growth, from shabby wooden hovels to slightly less-shabby buildings of wood and primitive stone, to something approaching the elaborately solid and crowded city we know today, and all along the way, he fills his pictures with delightful details: children chasing each other, dogs and cats darting along streets, women gathered around fountains, and, in my favorite single shot, the city of Venice blanketed under a fresh snowfall.
He also gives us the city’s people – the artisans and craftsmen who not only made Venice habitable but made her clothes and jewels and glassware prized from London to the Ottoman Empire (we likewise see inside the intrepid sailing vessels that brought both craftworks and businessmen to all the ports of the known world). It’s an amazing feat: in just twenty pages, he manages to give as clear and comprehensive an account of the history of Venice as most other books (some of which we’ll see in future chapters!) can only barely manage in 200 pages – or more.
The format of Venice: Birth of a City automatically suggests it as a kids book, but like all the best kids books, it’s not age-restrictive in any way. Instead, it recounts a wonder in merrily transparent terms.
It’s such a satisfying feeling, to buy the new issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, slide it into the front pocket of my battered leather satchel, and know with complete certainty that I have absolutely subway-proof reading ahead of me. Each issue of Asimov’s costs $5 – and yet for that price you get, every single month, not only industry updates, book reviews, and a column by the great Robert Silverberg, but also a first-rate science fiction anthology (usually around seven stories). And thanks to the editorial team at the magazine, these quality pickings happen month after month.
I’ve never read an issue of Asimov’s while in calm repose here at Hyde Cottage. I keep it in my bag and read it exclusively while out and about the city of Boston, traveling by bus and subway, or waiting in line at the bank or post office. It’s a peripatetic periodical for me, very much in keeping with the spirit of its namesake, who in his heyday was a champion reader-on-the-go and whole lived in the New York public transit system like a genius loci (during that heyday, the most popular photo of him showed him hailing a cab with the flat-footed imperiousness of somebody who grew up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn). The result of all this occasion-prompted use is predictable: by the time I’m ready to buy the new issue, my old issue is battered all to Hell and gone. They’re read with love and gratitude, these issues.
February’s issue had plenty of good stuff in it but two unmistakable highlights. The first was the cover story, “The Charge and the Storm” by An Owomoyela. It’s about a young human woman named Petra living as an administrator on a desolate world in a community composed of both humans and their insectile alien hosts, the Su. Some of the humans in the colony are restless at what they see as their second-class relationship to the Su, and Petra is a natural object of their attention, since although she’s smart and idealistic, she’s also deep in collaboration with the Su.
The story is packed with enough complexity and human drama to fill a novel (indeed, in 2015 I read plenty of sci-fi novels that weren’t nearly as rich as these 28 pages), and it’s paced with occasional quiet moments in which Petra pauses to think:
Here in Third Cluster, there were patterns inlaid in the floor, murals, windows: all the things the human population did to make the colony habitable. There were windows through which you could see the roiling clouds – or the battered landscape, when the clouds lifted enough that the ghostly shapes of rocks and craters could be seen. Sometimes, Petra could see vast shapes moving in the distance, not quite the way the clouds moved, and wonder if they were some echo of the vanished ecosystem the Su had clambered out of.
Sometimes, Petra wondered what the hell the Su had done to this planet.
But my favorite story in this issue is “Exceptional Forces” by Sean McMullen, a lean and superbly chiseled story about an eccentric Russian astronomer who’s at a conference in order to deliver a bombshell of a paper: his findings that Earth faces imminent invasion from the conquerors of the Andromeda galaxy. When he’s invited the hotel room of a beautiful woman, the scientist is certain she’s an assassin hired by the world’s shadowy puppet-masters to prevent him from giving a talk that might alarm the general populace out of its complacency.
At first, the woman denies his accusation. But she quickly sees he’s too smart to fool and so confesses that she is, in fact, an assassin. But something about him fascinates her despite herself, and they soon start forestalling the inevitable by swapping secrets with each other, tit for tat. He tells her about the upcoming intergalactic invasion, and she tells him she routinely has sex with her victims before killing them. As their tense banter continues, McMullen does a wonderful job of shading in the growing fascination each is feeling for the other, and he keeps the surprises coming:
“My husband is impotent. It was a botched operation for a misdiagnosed prostate condition. I still want a sex life, so I only screw people I’m about to kill.”
A highly intimate secret, the sort that would only be whispered to the dead or dying, so probably true.
“You started with the prostate specialist.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bulged.
Spontaneous reaction. So it was a real secret.
“How – I mean … Who told you that?” she demanded.
“You spoke the words botched and misdiagnosed with particular venom. I am good at picking up nuances.”
She stared at me intently. It was not a glare of hate, but the stare of a master chess player who realizes her opponent is more than a talented amateur.
Surprise, mixed with intense concentration. Splendid.
“Your turn,” she said.
The two stories happily indicate the breadth of an average issue of Asimov’s – the range from intricate and sumptuously-detailed serious concept-driven science fiction to pure pulp adrenaline. My February issue is in smudgy tatters. Time for the March issue!
Our book today is a heavy, sumptuous thing from the first year of the previous century, before world wars and world plagues and looming world destruction, before anybody had ever heard the words ‘nuclear warhead’ or ‘genocide’ or ‘global warming.’ It’s a seemingly innocent tour of the world by the celebrated artist Mortimer Menpes, World Pictures, with copious running commentary written up by his daughter Dorothy.
Menpes was an Australian-born student of Whistler, a very talented hack in etchings, oils, and watercolors, and World Pictures is lavishly illustrated throughout in color and black and white. In picture after picture, Menpes tries to capture not just the sites and light of the far-flung places he visits (England, France, Brittany, Holland, China, India, Japan … in fact, a glance at the Table of Contents reveals that the book’s outstanding snub is Germany) but also the faces of the people in all their moods. He had a predictably Edwardian soft spot for laughing children and quirky old people, and his descriptions of his various locations are tour-guide friendly:
How delightful it is to travel in Japan: to feast one’s eyes on the gorgeous sweet-stalls and the tea-houses, the theatre exteriors so characteristic of the country, the fairs and markets, the small children blowing soap bubbles through straight straws, the booths shaded with multi-coloured umbrellas, the brilliantly-coloured crimson lanterns, the quiet canals, and the curtained entrances to the shops; the demure children of the streets with their short-cropped heads and audacious faces, and their bamboo trumpets; the golden dragon screens, displayed for sale in the shops; the dye-works of Osaka, with the strips of blue fabric hanging up to dry; or the fair at Kioto, where behind the umbrella-shaped stalls you see the great stone lamps with which the Japanese cities are lighted.
Which isn’t to imply that he considered himself a tourist – just the opposite. All throughout World Pictures there’s a repeated note of defensiveness, of not being a three-night stopover visitor to the places he stays. “I lived six months in Venice, and I saw and painted the superb city of the Doges under every possible aspects,” he tells us, and when he gets to the Jewel in the Crown, he unconsciously uses the exact same phrasing:
I have seen India in every possible aspect, its churches and houses, its streets with native shops and workers in brass and metal, its sacred rivers with their house-boats and pilgrims; and my opinion is, that the aesthetic and artistic possibilities, in various forms, that are to be found in our great Indian Empire – that empire of which every Englishmen is so justly proud, and of which most Englishmen know so little – are not to be surpassed in any country on the face of the globe.
He was proud of his artistic abilities, and rightly so: the work on display in World Pictures is uniformly charming and intelligently rendered, always looking at the sunny side of distant lands (and near ones; the opening pages on England are some of the sweetest in the whole book), never hinting or even guessing at the forces broiling under the surface of so many of the places where he set up his easel. There’s an innocent wonder reflected in these pages, over and above the strength lent to such an element by our awareness of how much of the world Menpes draws would soon be changed beyond recognition. I have no idea of Menpes’ artwork is remembered by connoisseurs or bought by them or shown by them, but finding this grand old book (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course) made me want to find all the other books he illustrated in his career.
The Oxford University Press, centuries old and the biggest academic press in the world, founded its World’s Classics series in 1906 (having bought the imprimatur lock, stock, and barrel from the brilliant publisher Grant Richards in 1901). For over a hundred years, the line has produced reasonably-priced and expertly-edited canonical texts, proving that great and challenging books never go out of fashion and paving the path for later imitators like the Modern Library and Penguin Classics. New or old, it’s always a pleasure to celebrate Oxford World’s Classics here at Stevereads.
Although I’m surely the last person in the entire Republic of Letters to learn the news, I was nevertheless overjoyed to find out a few days ago that lionized “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes is writing a new British TV series adaptation of Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope. I wasn’t overjoyed because of “Downton Abbey,” which I usually found too campy and derivative to enjoy unselfconsciously for more than about ten minutes at a stretch. No, rather I was overjoyed because the show made Fellowes what passes for a star in TV-writing circles, and that star power virtually guarantees that this upcoming “Doctor Thorne” series will be a success.
And that’s joyful news because anything that brings the novels of Anthony Trollope to the wider attention of the reading public is to be cheered from the rooftops.
Doctor Thorne appeared in 1858; it was his seventh novel, the third of his “Barchester” series, and at the end of his life, Trollope thought it might well have been the most popular novel he ever wrote – an astonishing opinion coming from the author of The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and of course Barchester Towers.
The novel certainly was popular, and more than any of the books that preceded it, Doctor Thorne solidified Trollope’s place in the Victorian pantheon of popular authors. After Doctor Thorne, Trollope felt confident asking for higher and higher payments from publishers; reading its volumes, the circulating-library public knew at last that here was a writer it could embrace.
The story here, famously suggested to Trollope by his brother, concerns the title character, Doctor Thorne of Greshambury, a kind and virtuous man who comes across as so close to being a paragon that Trollope himself, in an early chapter, feels compelled to assure us he’s not perfect:
No man plumed himself on good blood more than Dr. Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree, and his hundred and thirty clearly proved descents from MacAdam; no man had a stronger theory as to the advantage held by men who have grandfathers over those who have none, or have none worth talking about. Let it not be thought that our doctor was a perfect character. No, indeed; most far from perfect. He had within him an inner, stubborn, self-admiring pride, which made him believe himself to be better and higher than those around him, and this from some unknown cause which he could hardly explain to himself.
Doctor Thorne has taken in his niece Mary, the illegitimate daughter of his brother Henry, after Henry was clubbed to death by a drunk and enraged man named Roger Scatcherd (Henry doesn’t suspect he’s enraged Scatcherd; when he sees the man coming, his final words are the hilariously blithe “Well, Roger, what’s in the wind?”). The murderer had been wronged by Henry Thorne, so his prison sentence was very short – after which he succeeded in making himself a very wealthy stonemason … and a hardened alcoholic.
Meanwhile, the young hero of the story, Frank Gresham, is old enough to marry. His impoverished family, spearheaded by his imperious mother, Lady Arabella, insist that he must marry an heiress in order to save the family finances, even though Frank is in love with penniless Mary and she with him. Mary, a wearisome salt-lick of vanilla virtue, refuses to let Frank ruin his family and besmirch his station by marrying her, and he briefly flirts with the idea of pitching woo to the rich commercial heiress Martha Dunstable.
Trollope invests Miss Dunstable with roughly five times the character and energy possessed by either Frank or Mary. She instantly sees right through Frank’s fumbling romantic overtures and upbraids him – warmly but firmly:
“Sell yourself for money! Why, I I were a man I would not sell one jot of liberty for mountains of gold. What! Tie myself in the heyday of my youth to a person I could never love, for a price! Perjure myself, destroy myself – and not only myself, but her also, in order that I might live idly! Oh, heavens! Mr. Gresham! Can it be tha the words of such a woman as your aunt have sunk so deeply in your heart; have blackened you so foully as to make you think of such vile folly as this? Have you forgotten your soul, your spirit, your man’s energy, the treasure of your heart? And you, so young! For shame, Mr. Gresham! For shame – for shame!”
Readers of Doctor Thorne know perfectly well that Trollope will bring Frank and Mary together in a way that isn’t penniless, and both Doctor Thorne and the reader know exactly what that way will be. It’s altogether remarkable how skillfully Trollope manages to maintain narrative tension despite having very early on simply told his readers what’s what and given them a strong wink about how things will turn out (indeed, the whole reason Trollope is able to make Lord Porlock such an exquisitely comic creation is because both he and we know Lord Porlock won’t be sticking around to get in the way of Mary’s happy destiny)(on the one in a million chance there are Stevereads readers who haven’t yet read the book, I’m trying here to not ruin any little plot-twists – which feels like a fairly ridiculous thing to worry about, 150 years after the fact, but still …).
I don’t see how Fellowes and the TV show’s directors can do likewise, to be honest. It seems to
me they’ll have to resort to just the kinds of Victorian-style melodrama – red herrings, climatic reveals, and the whole rest of the Dickens grab-bag – Trollope pointedly avoids in this novel. That’ll be disappointing if it happens, and likewise disappointing is the decision to cast the young and beautiful Alison Brie as Miss Dunstable, when the whole point of the character is that she’s older than Frank Gresham and not beautiful – and that she knows it and is far too grounded to feel insecure about it. Making her young and beautiful removes the mercenary absurdity of the task Frank Gresham’s relatives have set for him.
But a different bit of casting is absolutely perfect: the great Ian McShane as Frank Scatcherd! McShane will of course be immortal for his portrayal of Al Swearengen in HBO’s “Deadwood,” and in Frank Scatcherd he has a very similar role to sink his teeth into: another violent, wounded alcoholic commoner. It should be a pure treat to watch.
(And the casting of Harry Richardson as Frank Gresham is also cheering news, since he’s a very, um, promising young thespian …)
The best part, though, better than any casting? The chance that even a portion of “Downton Abbey”s vast and loyal viewership will migrate over to the world of Trollope’s Barsetshire. Once they’ve walked its pretty lanes and visited its stately homes and taken sides in its various social and ecclesiastical squabbles, I predict each and every one of them will decide to stay.
The latest issue of National Geographic is as packed with glorious goodies as all other issues of the magazine tend to be, and one of them brought back a lot of great memories: an article about the sprawling natural park region all around “the Tall One,” the moody and incredible mountain I knew as Mount McKinley. The article is written by Tom Clynes and features gorgeous photography by Aaron Huey, and as with most National Geographic feature articles, the message isn’t merely one of celebration. Out of some sense of providing a balanced picture, Clynes not only talks to tour guides and wilderness officials but also talks about the bitter scum-creatures who insist on viewing the Denali wilderness – and all the animals within it – as their personal property. There are pictures of these ranchers and trappers, along with their gruesome handiwork: dead wolves and decapitated moose.
But at least the bulk of the piece is celebration. Denali hosts hundreds and hundreds of awestruck tourists every season, but Clynes also visits its back country in the off-season, in the middle of winter, and he gets to those regions in pretty much the only way possible:
“Dogs connect people to history and to an experience most people will never have,” says kennel manager Jennifer Raffaeli. “In the winter they’re the most reliable and reasonably safe way to move around parts of the park. Unlike a snowmobile, they’re always ready to start up. They also have a survival instinct, which is something no machine can ever have.”
That afternoon the cold snap breaks, and we mush in a caravan of three dog teams to the ranger station at Wonder Lake. At 2 a.m we step outside our cabins to catch a dazzling show of the aurora borealis as the dogs sleep nearby.
“A lot of Denali is untouchable to most people, but with the dogs, traveling like this, you can touch it,” Raffaeli tells me as we stare in awe at the curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky. “The sense of peace you get here in the winter is so intense it’s almost beyond belief.”
This brought back a flood of memories of the times I’ve visited Denali myself, and those memories, encountered again while sitting in a cozy book-lined parlor listening to the contented snoring of two old dogs who couldn’t climb a flight of stairs, let alone mush over broken terrain, were of course both sweet and bittersweet. Long, long gone are the wonderful dogs I knew back then, from under whose warm weight I looked up at those “curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky.” Long, long gone are the adventures big and small we encountered far from the haunts of humans. It was wonderful to recall those experiences, and it was almost equally wonderful to see, from Clynes’ story and especially from Huey’s stunning photographs, that Denali is still entrancing people – and luring some of them deeper into its back country, to experience its humbling wonders.
And as an added bonus, the issue’s photos also included one that made me hoot with unexpected laughter – surely the most “what the hell?” shot of a grizzly bear anyone has ever managed to get, I love watching these while I drink my lumitea tea. It shows an enormous bear breaking the herbivore diet and eating a hapless ground squirrel:
Our book today is Real Tigers, Mick Herron’s return to Slough House, the forbidding location on the wrong side of the Thames from Regent’s Park, the sleek headquarters of M15. Slough House is where M15 sends its disgraced agents, the ones so tarnished as to be considered beyond rehabilitation. Thus sidelined into oblivion, these “slow horses” are supposed to be so crushed by mindless paperwork that they eventually retire themselves out of service altogether:
The rest hum with the repetitive churning of meaningless tasks; of work that’s been found for idle hands, and seemingly consists of the processing of reams of information, raw data barely distinguishable from a mess of scattered alphabets, seasoned with random numbers. As if the admin tasks of some recording demon had been upsourced and visited upon the occupants here; converted into mundane chores they are expected, endlessly, ceaselessly, to perform, failing which they will be cast into even remoter darkness – damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The only reason for the absence of a sign requiring entrants to abandon all hope is that, as every office worker knows, it’s not the hope that kills you.
It’s knowing it’s the hope that kills you that kills you.
The Slough House series – Real Tigers follows Slow Horses and Dead Lions – is a pure, addictive delight to read, very much in spite of all the problems you can spot even in that brief excerpt. Herron’s prose abounds in cliches, tautologies, and whatever the hell that final line is, that kind of Hollywood-style tag-line that sounds cool but is actually gibberish. Whatever you call that, Herron has a pronounced weakness for it. At one point a character mutters the cliché “water under the bridge,” and then we get another of those weird mean-nothing lines: “But he said this with the air of one who spent a lot of time on bridges, waiting for the bodies of his enemies to float past.” I love it, but I don’t get it.
In this latest Slough House story, recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish, the assistant to Slough House’s brutish boss Jackson Lamb, has disappeared. In short order, the “slow horses” receive a ransom demand for her release: they must infiltrate Regent’s Park and steal vital, heavily-guarded information for the kidnapers if they want to see Standish alive again.
In many ways, it’s the plot we’ve been waiting two books to read: our battered, self-destructive losers must prove their worth by taking on M15’s best and, in their offbeat way, winning. “Nobody left Slough House at the end of the day feeling like they’d contributed to the security of the nation,” we’re told at one point, but this might one case in which that ends up not being true – and you can tell Herron relishes the strangeness of that every bit as much as he intends us to.
It occurred to me that since the city of Venice is so dear to my heart (Venice, Italy, that is – sorry, all you handsome young weightlifters! Venice, California isn’t our setting today), I should formalize an ongoing feature about the endless stream of books generated by La Serenissima, and how better to start than with the city’s most famous son, Marco Polo?
I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, naturally) a battered old copy of Henry Hart’s Venetian Adventurer: The Life and Times of Marco Polo from way back in the 1940s. I snatched it up, paid my pittance, brought it back to Hyde Cottage, and there patiently restored its dust jacket so that it could withstand many more decades. And then I sank into Hart’s big book (starting with his inscription to its original owner) and immediately started loving it, not least because he’s not two paragraphs in before he’s offering some entirely justified praise of Sir Henry Yule’s massive 2-volume annotated 1921 The Book of Ser Marco Polo, which Hart calls “one of the finest pieces of English research scholarship ever produced.”
He then starts his own account with a rolling, enticing opening paragraph:
There set forth from the port of Venice in the year 1253 two brothers, bound for Constantinople on a trading venture. Probably neither of them dreamed that their voyage was to bring them fame, and that through them and the son of one of them European geographical knowledge was to be enriched as never before. That their adventures and those of the young Marco were to be immortalized in one of the most famous books in all literature could not have entered their minds, nor could they have known how far from home destiny was to guide them.
The two brothers were of course Maffeo and Nicolo Polo, daring and prosperous merchants from an era when, as Hart puts it, “Venice, Bride of the Adriatic, was at the zenith of her power.” And they brought along young Marco, who would go on to spend the better part of the next quarter-century in the Far East and in the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan, then come back, was imprisoned by the Genoese, dictated his famous book full of stories about China, was released, and went on to become a prosperous Venetian merchant himself. He died in 1324, but that book he dictated went on to live for centuries, go through thousands of editions, and recently become one of the gorgeous little hardcovers from Penguin Classics (a first-rate edition by Nigel Cliff).
Hart, author of a row of books on Chinese history and poetry, tells the story of the man behind that famous book, and he does it in such a grand, old-fashioned way that I was swept along on every page despite knowing that story backwards and forwards. Hart anchors his telling of that story on two things: the man and the book. The man, for him, is a quintessential Venetian, and the book – well, Hart is its biggest fan:
The Venetian character has been described as a combination of “cleverness, dissimulation, patience, perseverance, greed for gain, and tenacious energy.” It may be said that Marco possessed all of these to a high degree with the exception of dissimulation, which appears nowhere in his work.
As far as I can recall, Hart is the only writer I’ve ever encountered who believes there’s no dissimulation in The Travels of Marco Polo. But the sheer enthusiasm of his readings of that great book is so winning that I didn’t mind his belief in the honesty of its author. Hart follows his hero along all his travels, recounts his catalogues of birds and plants and peoples and customs encountered, and everywhere does his best to imagine what life was like for the intrepid explorer all those centuries ago:
We of the twentieth century cannot picture to ourselves the terrors and hardships of a journey over the thousands of miles of the central Asian plain, desert, and mountain ranges nearly seven centuries ago. Hunger, thirst, the crossing of snowclad mountain ranges and long stretches of scorching deserts, threats and attacks of banditti and savage tribes, discomforts of every kind – these were some of the physical deterrents from such an adventure. But even more terrible were the superstitions and fears of the unknown, the incredible sensitiveness to tales of strange inhuman monsters and evil spirits which peopled the plains and the mountains. Such travel then involved not only venturing into the regions of an unknown world but conquering deadly fear by means of sublime faith or stubborn courage or both.
Eventually, the famous story winds its way back to our starting point, back to Venice. The Travels of Marco Polo is an intensely Venetian book in its character and its systematic exclusions, in its subtle backdoor egotisms and its omnivorous curiosities, and in the incremental grandiosity of its design; a Roman or a Florentine of the 13th century might have written an account similar in scope or detail, but only a Venetian could have given the thing the key to its immortality: its tone.
And ultimately, the story Hart has to tell ends in Venice as well, at the deathbed of the man who came to be known as “Mr. Millions” (for his endless grab-bag of stories as much as for his personal wealth). Hart writes it rather well:
A priest entered and approached the bed. With gentle touch and low murmuring voice he administered the last rites of Holy Mother Church to the dying man, then silently, with a gesture of benediction, passed out through the door by which he had entered. Before midnight Messer Marco Polo the Venetian had fared forth on his last great journey, the longest and the most adventurous of them all, and he was not coming home again to Venice.
There’ve been many dozens of Marco Polo biographies written in the last sixty years, of course; on simple documentary grounds, Hart’s book has been as thoroughly superseded as his own exceeded the documentary reach of Sir Henry Yule’s big book. But documentary evidence can only take you so far – you also want your biographer to understand the heart of the subject, and that’s why Marco Polo: Venetian Adventurer is my favorite life of Marco Polo – and, by inevitable extension, a wonderful look at a now-vanished Venice.
I love a 16,000-word TLS rumination on the lesser novels of George Eliot as much as the next bookworm (the keening sound you just heard coming from Up North was a certain Open Letters Monthly colleague saying “WHAT lesser novels?”), but sometimes, when rummaging through the week’s Penny Press, I get my biggest smiles from reading deadline writers in tetchy moods. I know full well how it feels when outrage comes bubbling up between the floorboards of a piece of prose, and I know how enjoyable it can feel to stop fighting and let it happen. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and there’s an unapologetic part of me that loves seeing other writers do it.
I got that treat twice this week, for instance. In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz reviews The Revenant, the new and egregiously overpraised movie adaptation of the Michael Punke novel. The movie is directed by Alejandro Inarritu and stars a hilariously bad Leonardo DiCaprio spitting up phlegm onto his beard, and just from the title of Podhoretz’s review, “Ah, Wilderness!”, I knew I was in for some fun. And I wasn’t disappointed:
The Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have done nothing for months but talk about how difficult it was to film The Revenant. It was so difficult, you wouldn’t believe. They were out. In the cold. They had to haul equipment up mountains. DiCaprio had to pull a live fish out of a river and eat it – and it wasn’t even cut up by a sushi chef! Oy, the difficulty! It nearly broke them! Imagine the bravery these two men showed, getting paid only $20-30 million (DiCaprio) and probably something like $5 million (Inarritu) to put up with such suffering, such pain, such indignity! But they didn’t mind the sacrifice, because they were sacrificing for us, you see. To bring us art.
Even better was a resplendent takedown in the February/March issue of Bookforum. In a piece cleverly titled “The Flowers of Romance” (too cleverly? Will non-Francophile readers get the reference?), Heather Havrilesky very patiently and mercilessly tears apart the literary output of Nicholas Sparks, concentrating on his new book, lavishing plenty of scorn on his older books, and along the way pithily reminding her readers why the potting of such an easy target matters:
But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.
And elsewhere in the Penny Press, in an issue of Outside whose cover would be sheer genius if it weren’t absolutely plastered in text, there’s a picture of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady modeling for the Under Armour clothing line. The picture shows Brady in full sprint-workout, covered in sweat – but both the sprint and the sweat are fake. Somehow, in 2016, neither of these details surprise.
Our book today is a lurid little treat: Cheap Thrills, a short, pithy, and heavily illustrated history of the pulps by the irrepressible Ron Goulart and subtitled The Amazing! Thrilling! Astonishing! History of Pulp Fiction.
It was originally written back in 1972, as Goulart tartly observes: “At the time I was researching Cheap Thrills there was no Internet and computers were found only in sci-fi movies. I did much of my research by actually reading pulp magazines.” Goulart started his research early enough to catch the last dying embers of the pulp world, and he started collecting these fragile old things in the decades before that became a very, very expensive thing to do. And he was a premium Old School hack himself, the kind who tried never to write a free sentence, a late sentence, or a boring sentence – and largely succeeded. His novel Shaggy Planet is still cracklingly hilarious to read, and the cheesy Flash Gordon novels he wrote in the 1970s are still enormous fun.
And ‘fun’ is the key word in Cheap Thrills. Yes, this is a deceptively well-researched volume, one of the original groundbreaking studies of the whole pulp phenomenon, but it also bubbles along like the ‘then what happened’ adventure stories that were Goulart’s speciality (and of course the speciality of the pulps themselves). About the founder of this squirrelly little cult, for instance, he writes: “Nobody liked Frank A. Munsey. When he died, in 1925, his eulogists said things like, ‘Frank Munsey contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker’” – and then very wisely continues: “But eras and movements, like people, can’t pick their fathers and so a history of the pulp magazines has to begin with the ruthless and unlikable Munsey.”
He takes his readers through the whole of that colorful history, from Munsey’s primitive original attempts in Argosy and dozens of similar venues to all the other big figures from the pulps world – the artists, the writers, and most of all the idea-men, the scruffy, hustling entrepreneurs and con artists who kept trying to make a quick fortune off the young century’s magazine boom. And of course these figures included Hugo Gernsback, the man who actually invented the term “science fiction” and whose abysmal luck elicits Goulart’s sympathy – and his zingers:
Hugo Gernsback was at it again. But, like many other inventors, he never had much luck with his own inventions. The ’30s were filled with the sound of one Gernsback science fiction magazine after another falling over.
Goulart’s book is lavishly illustrated with great pulp covers from the brief decades of the craze, covers featuring the mind-boggling cast of characters those over-worked and over-liquored hack writers dreamt up. There’s the Spider, and Nick Carter, and Captain Future, and of course there are the giants of the genre: Tarzan, Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, the Shadow, and a teeming posse of cowboys.
But the real treat of Cheap Thrills is neither its delightful narration nor its addictive pictures – it’s the final portion of the book, in which Goulart has the stroke of genius to reprint the typewritten correspondences he had with various writers and editors from the pulp era. While in the process of answering as many of Goulart’s questions as they could, these men and women spin some priceless yarns about what it was like to create a legendary era. I return to Cheap Thrills all the time, but I confess: I re-read these grand old letters more often than I do the book’s text itself – and I smile at little confessions like the one Norman Daniels made to Goulart in 1969:
I wrote under so many names. I had to keep a file so I’d know who was who when I wrote the by-line. One issue with eight or ten stories was published under that many names – all of them mine.
Multiple by-lines! Ah, what a wonderful, vanished era!
Our book on this glorious day is Boston: Cradle of Liberty, a slim hardcover gem from 1965 written by Edward Weeks and illustrated by Fritz Busse. It’s the kind of keepsake tchotchke historic cities like Boston generate on a monthly basis (this March, it’ll be A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, for instance), but this one stands out from the crowd for a few reasons.
Foremost, of course, being Ed Weeks. He’s entirely forgotten now, but once upon a time, for a very long time, he was the heart and soul of the old Atlantic Monthly back when it was headquartered in Boston. Weeks was the magazine’s “Peripatetic Reviewer,” and he was its eminence gris, and he knew every writer of any worth in two generations, and it very often seemed, in leisurely browses of the Brattle Bookshop or even more leisurely lunches in the back room of Goodspeed’s, that he’d read everything ever written. He had an absolutely infectious way of talking about books – not like they were exclusive society events but rather like they were warm, convivial parties that had been going on a long time. He would open the forbidding brownstone door onto the cold street where you were standing, and as the light and warmth and laughter spilled out, he’d quietly, happily invite you in – that was the experience of learning about books and authors from this wise and wonderful man.
Something of that literary mindset fills even the pro-forma boilerplate that’s all little books like Boston: Cradle of Liberty ever require. Here in these pages are all the familiar old stories of the sacred cod and the confusing streets, the eccentric Bostonians with their odd mixture of warmth and prickles, and even the requisite boosterism no tourist-production can disavow – in this case, for example, compelling Weeks to digress a little about a grand new architectural marvel the city was then contemplating (in a detail of exquisite irony now lost on its readers, Weeks tells us the work is being done under the guidance of the “enlightened” Mayor John Collins), a glistening new hub called the Prudential Center:
Boston has long enjoyed two uptown plazas, Copley Plaza, and the smaller one the Christian Scientists have erected before their mother church. Now there is a third built by the initiative of the Prudential Life, with offices, a hotel, a vast auditorium, and on the 52nd floor of the Tower a restaurant reminiscent of the Top of the Mark from which one will see Boston old and new. The public and private cost of this entire development spread over a decade is one billion dollars.
But when Weeks leaves off regurgitating such press-release stuff (I doubt he knew any more clearly what he meant by “public and private cost’ than I do today, but oh, the true tales of the Pru’s financing I could tell you would make your each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine), he can be relied upon to wax on matters literary, as he does in the sharply delightful little ditty at the heart of this book, “A State of Mind Surrounded by Water”:
Writers in our time still gravitate to Boston, attracted by the intellectual stimulus of Harvard and the less nervous wave-length distinguishing Boston from Manhattan. Robert Frost gravitated here, first to Louisburg Square and then to Cambridge; so did the late Bernard De Voto, who did his big historical books in Cambridge. Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe came to Boston from Rhode Island and was for long our most amiable biographer. At the foot of Beacon Hill, at 44 Brimmer Street, the house built by his grandfather, lives the seafaring historian Rear Admiral (Ret.) Samuel Eliot Morison, whose books about Columbus and John Paul Jones and whose histories of Harvard and of the Navy in World War II put him in a class by himself. John Marquand came back to Boston and his boyhood home in Newburyport to write his best novels, and today his place is taken by Edwin O’Connor, whose Irish heritage and skill in characterization mark him as our most discerning novelist.
All the classic old-style book-grandee hallmarks are there, most especially the unfailing taste: none of Boston’s more facile and publicity-friendly pundits in 1958 would have mentioned Bernard De Voto, let alone that delightfully stuffy old Athenaeum fixture from a century ago, Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe, whose string of Boston books are now permanently, resoundingly out of print, alas. And leave it to Edward Weeks to praise Edwin O’Connor and Samuel Eliot Morison, two of the many fantastic authors he championed throughout his life.
The second reason Boston: Cradle of Liberty manages to survive my ever-increasing book-culls is, naturally enough, the artwork that fills it. The artist is Fritz Busse, one of the best hands at conveying the nervy and very new-feeling energy of mid-century cities in the grip of urban renewal and cultural diversification. This is extra-tricky in a place like Boston, where the new and the old have always jostled a bit awkwardly, and Busse manages it beautifully, capturing both the monumental Boston that will stand until the Atlantic washes it under and the frenetic Boston of the day-to-day – in this case, a largely now-vanished day-to-day that adds an element of nostalgia to Busse’s drawings that he himself didn’t intend.
As mentioned, these books come and go – and they never come back again. A veritable avalanche of them rumbled off Boston presses in order to cash in on the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, and the books just keep on coming. Most of them are ephemera, but this one – like some other little gems of this joyous day! – is a keeper.