Posts from February 2016
February 28th, 2016
Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise impossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.
Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:
I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.
And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:
Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.
This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the penultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.
His short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:
Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.
This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.
And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!
February 27th, 2016
Our book today is Library: An Unquiet History, a hymn of praise from 2003 to public libraries. It’s written by Matthew Battles, who worked at the Houghton Library (and lived in scenic Jamaica Plain!) at the time, and its touchstone throughout is Harvard’s mighty Widener Library, whose wonders he very effectively evokes:
The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; its a world, complete and uncompletable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides. The people who shelve the books [at Harvard’s Widener Library] talk about the library’s breathing – at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at end of term, the library inhales, and the books fly back. So the library is a body, too, the pages of books pressed together like organs in the darkness.
(The changes in the general accessibility of the Widener in the last 13 years – it’s become a great stone fortress more dedicated to keeping readers out than inviting them in, and of course wandering in the stacks will now get you tasered or perhaps executed outright – are of course not a part of this book, although it can’t help but hover over the contents a bit)
Battles takes his readers on a canned but lively short history of libraries and the large gallery of cranks, prophets, and oddballs who’ve always tended to gravitate toward libraries. He has a great ear for anecdotes, and he’s very good at popularizing history (a skill that’s tricker than it looks). But my favorite thread running through the book is the tone of deep appreciation for the spirit of libraries and the books that fill them, which offer both happiness and escape, an open haven from the mindless bustle of the outside world. The public library is such a strange concept at its heart that I’m a sucker for books about that concept, and Library: An Unquiet History is one of my favorites from recent years.
Of course, this book being written when it was, Battles is naturally concerned toward the end of his account with the future of libraries in the advent of the digital era. This particular worry cropped up all over the Republic of Letters back in the early aughts, and Battles sounds the note of caution as well:
The library of the digital age is in a state of flux, which is indistinguishable from a state of crisis – not only for institutions but for the books they contain preserve, and propagate, a crisis for the culture of letters whose roots are firmly planted in the library. The universal library pretended to answer the question “What belongs in the library?” And yet in a world that seems to make ever more room for information, this question retains its ancient force.
In the years since this book first saw print, the question “What belongs in the library?” has, I’m happy to report, been answered in mostly wonderful ways. The public library as an institution is in remarkably healthy shape in 2016, a year by which some of the more gloomy prognosticators of the 1990s predicted it would have completely disappeared. Computers abound. Audio books are explosively popular. Overdrive and programs like it allow patrons to “check out” e-books, but those same patrons haven’t stopped checking out printed books. Most libraries have managed – in their gallumphing but well-intentioned way – to make the transition from repositories of books to community centers, and although this might make some die-hard researchers grumble, it’s an undeniably happy change.
As is made merrily clear in Matthew Battles’ book, the real answer to “What belongs in the library?” hasn’t changed for centuries: people. The challenge for libraries is how to keep that true, and while bastions like the Widener have failed at it, the public libraries that are the main subject of this book have adapted better than I myself would ever have guessed back in 2003.
February 24th, 2016
One of my newer magazine subscriptions is The Nature Conservancy, published by the deep-pocketed conservation group of the same name. The magazine is slightly oddly-sized, and it’s full of great nature photography, and the small handful of issues I’ve read regularly so far have impressed me with the breadth and sensitivity of their prose. The feature-length articles are as good as anything I find in my beloved National Geographic, although in the latest issue to reach me, even those feature-length articles were beat out by a bright little feature called “Writers by Nature.”
With text by Amanda Fiegl and wonderful color illustrations by Stan Fellows, the piece highlights some of the great writing that’s been inspired by lands protected and upkept by the Nature Conservancy, from the California mountains of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to the Adirondacks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Nebraska prairie of Willa Cather’s My Antonia to the ponds of Maine that are immortalized in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea:
Here were creatures so exquisitely fashioned that they seemed unreal, their beauty too fragile to exist in a world of crushing force. Yet every detail was functionally useful, every stalk and hydranth and petal-like tentacle fashioned for dealing with the realities of existence. I knew that they were merely waiting, in that moment of the tide’s ebbing, for the return of the sea.
Fiegl includes other writers, figures like Wallace Stegner, TC Boyle, and of course Annie Dillard and her Blue Ridge Mountains, and she adds a few poets as well. And that’s it – no great page-length, just a rest point in between the issue’s bigger articles. But I loved it, and I’m coming to expect such grace notes in every issue. It’s certainly nice when some corner of the Penny Press does nothing more controversial than simply convert me into a fan!
February 22nd, 2016
Our book today is Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron, the latest in her long-running series of murder mysteries in which Jane Austen takes time out from being a novelist to try her hand at being a crime-solving sleuth. The series started back in 1996 with Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor and has plugged along since then to this 13th volume, somewhat heavy-handedly mixing copious biographical details about Jane Austen’s life and times with fairly standard whodunit outlines familiar from dozens of historical murder mysteries. It’s hard to tell which element precisely makes these little books so much fun to read: Barron’s skill at conventional murder mysterying or the comfortable way she doles out details from Jane’s writing life:
I wrote directly to John Murray and desired him to wait upon me at Hans Place. He was so good as to appear the following morning, and the briefest of conversations secured our mutual satisfaction. I am to retain the copyright of Emma, publishing the work at my own expense; and Mr. Murray is to take ten percent of the profits, for his trouble in putting out the volumes. As I followed a similar course with all my dearest children but Pride and Prejudice – which copyright Egerton purchased outright for the sum of £110 – I am untroubled by fear of risk. Murray has agreed to publish a second edition of Mansfield Park, on similar terms.
In this latest book, Jane is invited by the Prince Regent’s obsequious chaplain to pay court at Carlton House, where he begins to natter on about some kind of privilege that’s in the process of being bestowed on our heroine, who grows a bit testy at all the roundabout verbiage and seeks to get to the point:
Bewildered, I stared at him, my ratafia suspended. “If you could perhaps speak more plainly, sir,” I said.
“Of course. To be sure.” He turned again, hands clasped behind his coat. “You are away that on occasion the Regent grants the favour of a Notice to various Luminaries of Art and Letters. It is to be your honour, Miss Austen, to receive that Notice.”
I felt heat in my cheeks. What was the absurd little man suggesting?
“It is His Royal Highness’s pleasure and happiness to command that your next published work be dedicated humbly, and gratefully, to Himself, as Regent of the noble land that gave you birth, Miss Austen – that inspired your Genius – that has so warmly embraced your interesting histories of Genteel Romance.”
The proposal shocks Jane, who bridles at the idea (“I, commanded to dedicate my cherished Emma to a man I abominated? Commanded, moreover, to regard His Royal arrogance as an occasion for gratitude? Absurd.”), but before the whole scheme can progress, the requisite murder intervenes: a soldier late from Waterloo is found bloodied and dying on the floor of the library at Carlton House and manages to gasp out to Jane the mention of a certain map before exiting stage left. The map in question might prove very valuable, it seems, and Jane’s brother Henry has recently had severe financial reversals, and, after all, there’s a killer on the loose … and so we have a murder plot.
The tension implicit in that plot is exactly the thing that ought to obliterate the whole series: while Jane is traipsing around among the Duke of Wellington’s high-society set, sifting clues and catching people unawares in conversation, both she and we are acutely aware that her time would be ever so much better spent writing – whether it be revisions to Emma or the beginning of some new work. In reality the parameters of a working writer’s life – daily workloads, mental dead-ends, plenty of subfusc contemplation – hardly left Jane Austen spare time for a bustling family life, much less crime-solving. It would be different if Barron – writers like her – picked an author like the JD Salinger in Shoeless Joe, characters in epic writing slumps, or retirement, or some combination of the two (can a series of Southern mysteries starring the late Harper Lee be far off?). It’s that element of the series (plus a certain amount of one-dimensionality in the character of Jane herself) that’s always nagged at me, but I suppose Jane and the Fourth Round of Revisions might not have quite the same mass appeal.
February 21st, 2016
Our book today is a brightly-colored celebration from 2008: Legion of Super-Heroes: 1050 Years of the Future, sub-titled: “Celebrating 50 Years of Everyone’s Favorite Super-Team of Tomorrow!” It reprints some of the best issues from the long run of the various incarnations of the Legion of Super-Heroes, DC Comics’ sprawling super-team of teenagers fighting interstellar dangers a thousand years in the future.
The core idea of the group debuted in Adventure Comics #247 back in 1958 when a teenage Clark Kent is confronted in Smallville by three mysterious teenagers who know that Clark Kent and Superboy are one and the same. They quickly reveal themselves as time-travelers from the distant future, members of the Legion of Super-Heroes – and they ask Superboy to come back to the future with them and join their club. The three future-teens – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – have a bit of fun pranking Superboy about whether or not he’s good enough for the Legion, but the end result is foregone: Superboy joins the team, and comics history is made. As legendary Legion writer Paul Levitz recalls in this volume, the success of the idea was a surprise to everybody:
When sci-fi writer Otto Binder and classic Superman artist Al Plastino collaborated on the first appearance of the Legion, they could not have imagined they were building the cornerstone on which fifty years of stories would be built. Fifty years before Adventure Comics #247, there were no recognizable comic books in America, Hugo Gernsback hadn’t launched modern science fiction in Amazing Stories, and H. G. Wells had just begun writing of the future. The possibility that this short story could attract enough attention to generate hundreds of sequels was impossibly small. Yet it happened.
It did indeed happen, and fans couldn’t get enough. This was the first superhero team of the modern era, the first such team since DC’s Justice Society of America had appeared nearly twenty years before, and the JSA had been cancelled a decade earlier, leaving a conspicuous void. And the Legion wasn’t just a super-team; two key innovations were at the heart of its appeal to its fans: all its members were teenagers, and aside from Superboy, all its members were brand-new characters, with powers, origins, and personalities that readers could discover together. In a way that had never been true before and has virtually never been true since, the Legion of Super-Heroes felt like it belonged to its readers.
Mark Waid, a later writer for the team, puts it succinctly in this volume:
The Legionnaires have been, at various points, my friends, my paycheck, my family, and probably most importantly, my greatest inspiration as a writer. I always feel like the luckiest boy on Earth when my world intersects with theirs.
1,050 Years of the Future reprints some fantastic Legion adventures, including that dorky, adorable first appearance, and “The Future is Forever” by Levitz and iconic Legion artist Keith Giffen, and the classic future-of-the-future story “The Adult Legion,” written by an obscenely young Jim Shooter and drawn by the great Superman artist Curt Swan. Waid himself writes (with Stuart Immonen artwork) a version of the team’s origin story, how Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad came together in the first place. An anthology like this one could have been five times as big and still only constitute a quick survey of all the great Legion storylines over the decades, although everything in here is perfectly chosen.
And the Legion is on my mind more than usual lately. Not just because DC Comics continues the years-long disgrace of having no Legion title currently in publication, but because the company has recently been making veiled hints at another huge continuity-resetting event coming up this Spring. In May, DC launches something called “Rebirth,” in which, it seems to me, they intend to roll back or undo some of the many unsuccessful features of their disastrous “New 52” relaunch of a few years ago. When I first heard about “Rebirth,” I was instantly hopeful that a lot of things would be restored: the Justice Society of America, a Superman who stands for optimism, a Wonder Woman who stands for hope (and never says things like “What ho, fellow heroes! ‘Tis a fine day for combat!”) … and most of all, the Legion of Super-Heroes.
But there’s no Legion title on the list of first issues that’ll be rolling out this summer. That list certainly isn’t complete, and a wise old industry-watcher has since reassured me that there are signs of hope for a Legion return. But I remain doubtful – this company has been botching one of its best legacies for quite some time now. I’ll certainly be reading “Rebirth” in any case – I’ll report back.
February 20th, 2016
Our book today is Alive in the Wild, a 1970 compilation of short pieces of nature-writing by two dozen different hands, all of it introduced by Victor Calahane, a popular and busy mid-century mammalogist and science writer who was also the author of an absolutely wonderful book called Mammals of North America, which we’ll certainly get to one of these days here at Stevereads.
Calahane spent years as the chief biologist of the National Park Service and was also assistant director of the New York State Museum for years and years – he was friends with most of the scientists and field experts who contribute pieces to Alive in the Wild, and the book as a whole very much has the feel of a collection of fireside wilderness tales rather than a set of scientific abstracts.
Of course, this approach has perils of its own, especially the tendency for some authors to sit back, brandish their glass of scotch, and slip into full Rider Haggard mode, as John Tenner does when writing about muskoxen:
It was snowing hard; the fine dry crystals whispered rapidly along the surface and drifted in sheets across the hills. Our sled squeaked over the snow as the dogs settled down to a steady pull. Attungala and I, although completely clad in caribou skins, were cold in the subzero weather as we continued our search for a herd of muskoxen that lived somewhere in the region. Suddenly the dogs quickened their pace and we know that something alive was ahead. Attungala stopped the team and anchored the sled firmly; then we climbed a steep slope to peer over the top. Through the occasional lifting of the snow screen, we saw a cluster of dark objects, motionless on top of the next rise. Creeping closer, we found that they were muskoxen. Snow encrusted their long hair as they stood with their backs into the wind, heads down, patiently waiting for the strong wind to drop.
I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing Attungala isn’t his accountant.
But even such lapses can be forgiven considering how smoothly and authoritatively most of these authors work extensive practical knowledge of their subject-animals into their chapters. Albert Erikson, for instance, writes a neatly evocative piece about the grizzly bear and manages to work in not only some advice for those hiker unlucky enough to need it and also just a bit of po-faced humor around the edges, for those of you fresh from watching the only good scene in “The Revenant” in the movie theaters (or reading the book):
Because bear attacks are experienced by so few persons, it is difficult to recommend procedures for defending oneself without a gun. With footage caught by ShootingAuthority.com trail cameras we now know there may be some solace in knowing that few bears press their attack to the death and fewer still eat any part of their victims. More commonly than not the bear breaks away suddenly, perhaps when it realizes that its adversary is a human, or it may desist when the person loses consciousness. Victims have reported that the bear re-attacked when they moved or moaned, and urge that the person who has been mauled “play dead” even after the bear relinquishes its hold.
And despite the fact that his book was written nearly half a century ago, it’s refreshing to notice how many of Calahane’s authors work in some mention of the conservation status of their animals. Even amidst the book’s many descriptions of gory hunting expeditions, there are plenty of urgings for readers to consider these animals a priceless heritage rather than merely the raw material of an exciting hunting weekend.
And the illustrations throughout are by Boston’s own Robert Candy, which certainly helps to keep the volume evergreen.
February 18th, 2016
Our book today is a gorgeous “coffee table book” from 1980 with the Vendome Press: Islands and Lagoons of Venice, with text by Peter Lauritzen and stunning photography by Fulvio Roiter. The book lavishly, lovingly celebrates the vast, strange world of the other Venice, the 200 square miles of lagoon, inlets, and islands sprawling around the city. In centuries long gone, those islands and tide-brakes were called the bulwarks of the fatherland, sacros muros patriae, speckled with dozens of delicate mini-ecosystems and niches tucked into clay flats near the shoreline called barene and sandy shoals called velme – mostly hidden places filled with all kinds of shy birds and strange locals.
The pictures and the narrative touch on these waters and the various jetties and islands dotted around them, places like Lio Piccolo, the Lido, Sant’ Erasmo, Torcello, Altino, Burano, San Michele, and Chioggia, and Lauritzen was right, back in the late 1970s, to cite the atavistic nature of such places:
The Lagoon preserves much that belongs to an earlier, prehistoric, almost legendary past. Stretches of barene survive to suggest the original appearance of Venice itself, while fishing communities like Burano and those farther south recall the Lagoon’s original inhabitants who rescued Saint Mark himself from shipwreck.
In fact, Lauritzen’s narration is consistently readable, which is hardly the normal state of affairs in books of this kind, especially when the photos are as powerful and intimate and beautiful as Roiter’s. Lautitzen insists throughout the book that the city and its lagoon eerily balance each other:
The Lagoon presents many varied contrasts with the city it embraces. Where Venice is often closed and secretive behind brick and crumbling plaster, the reaches of its surrounding water are open. Yet in its own way the Lagoon also remains mysterious and unapproachable, while Venice publicly glories in its theatrical qualities. The Lagoon is empty, the city crowded. The essence of both is light, but in the city it is the reflected and refracted light of highly polished, jewellike surfaces, mirrors, and mosaic, silk, gold leaf, satin, and marble. The Lagoon’s colors are as diffuse as its horizons; yet for the eye tired of stone and stucco, the islet-studded water seem filled with the vivid hues of growing things.
I’ve spent a great deal of time poking around the islands of the Lagoon, unhurriedly rambling with my beagles over every inch of lovely, eerie Lazzaretto Vecchio, Sant’Angeo della Polvere with its tangle of trees and ruins, and most of all Sant’ Erasmo, site of a good many of my most pleasant Venetian memories. The test I always use for books like Islands and Lagoons of Venice is simple: is it good enough to make me wistful? This wonderful book succeeds easily.
February 16th, 2016
Our book today is Never in Doubt, a collection of book book reviews from stalwart bull terrier Peter Prescott, who reviewed books for Newsweek for two decades and adored our ragged fish-wrap art form with a sharp wit, a punchy prose style, and, underneath some thick plates of armor, a true believer’s heart. He was a voracious reader, an indefatigable annotator, and a champion lugger of overstuffed satchels full of books, and he loved his job in exact proportion to how much he complained about it.
He had an enviable berth at Newsweek in the 1970s and ’80s, mainly because his editors there either cared enough about books or didn’t care enough about books – whichever the reason, they gave Prescott what all book reviewers desire but very few now get: a free hand when it came to tone and body-count. As a result, his praise is all the sweeter for how sharp his condemnations are – and oh! Those condemnations are choice! This first line of a review of some piece of crap or other by Richard Brautigan:
Imagine Zane Grey trying to spruce up Book I of The Faerie Queene to make it accessible to readers west of Wichita and you’ll have some idea of this fable’s disarming appeal.
Or this First line from a 1978 review of I Hardly Knew You by Edna O’Brien:
Garbage put out in winter will not smell as soon as garbage put out in summer, which is doubtless why Doubleday has put out Edna O’Brien’s new novel now.
Or this virtuoso opening about one of his favorite targets:
James Jones died last year at the age of fifty-five, leaving undecided the question of whether he was the worst novelist ever to write good novels or the best writer every to write such bad ones. Whistle, which he did not quite complete, won’t settle the issue, for if Jones’s bad novels are appalling, even stupefying performances, his good novels are pretty bad, too.
Prescott hated mere mummery, and he despised sham profundity, and he kept his reviewer’s scalpel sharp by reading the widest possible variety of the new releases of his day. He was a master at spotting fads and trends; if an author introduced an albino character, you could rely on Prescott to remember instantly the last albino character he encountered, and to deplore the fact that some poor author mistakenly thought he was being original. And more often than not, his deploring was deadpan funny: “Faster than a speeding Cuisinart, the reviewer’s memory slices through produce pushed into his tube over many years until from the resulting julienne a salient fact emerges. Peter DeVries has now written two novels narrated by furniture-movers – another first for American letters.”
Since he hated sham, he of course hated America’s foremost modern-era practitioner of it, the late Kurt Vonnegut and served him up in tasty slices whenever he got the chance:
Breakfast of Champions provides further evidence that as a thinker and literary stylist, Kurt Vonnegut is fully the equal of Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, even Richard Bach. These writers, gurus, and soothsayers apparently fill a need for some of us adolescents of all ages who clutch at any sentimental positivism: Gibran’s perfumed religiosity; McKuen’s mawkish romanticism; Bach’s can-do optimism dipped in mystical shellac; and Vonnegut’s smug pessimism with its coy implication that the reader is one of the author’s intimates, one of the happy few. The comfortable banalities advanced by these writers in place of ideas are totally incompatible, but that doesn’t bother the groupies. Anything will do for them as long as it tells us it’s okay not to think and as long as it’s presented in a lobotomized English that these writers feel is appropriate for their audience.
“From time to time,” he wrote, still about Vonnegut, “it’s nice to have a book you can hate – it clears the pipes – and I hate this book for its preciousness, its condescension to its characters, its self-indulgence, and its facile fatalism: all the lonely people, their fates sealed in epoxy.”
One of the added delights of Never in Doubt arises out of Prescott’s decision to give his readers more than simple reprints of his earlier work: throughout the book, he follows his old reviews with later thoughts about them and the issues they raise. For instance, we read his 1976 stinging dissection of Vance Bourjaily’s Now Playing at Canterbury (a review that made both Bourjaily and yours truly toweringly irritated at the time, although unlike Bourjaily, I eventually got over it), and then we get a typically wonderful Prescott defense of his earlier attack:
The question arises: is a reviewer ever justified in attempting to blow a bad book out of the water? I think the answer is yes, but the reviewer must choose his targets with the greatest of care. It’s not enough for a book to be bad; other elements must be present: smugness; pretentiousness; an overinflated reputation; clear evidence that the book’s badness is not the result of incompetence, but of deliberate design. Such books represent an assault on the republic of letters and should not be ignored. A reviewer confronting a routinely bad book simply criticizes it and leaves his reader to disagree if he will. But a reviewer confronting a genuinely meretricious piece of work assumes a greater obligation. The book is an offense and must be labeled as such: to shrug or say, “I didn’t like it,” is insufficient; the essence of its awfulness must be laid bare …
Prescott wasn’t always happy to assume that greater obligation when it came his way – he knew better than anybody the kind of tedious rows they could kick into motion. Contrary to his reputation, he loved to find praiseworthy things, and he loved to be surprised. But when he something “genuinely meretricious” crossed his desk, he went after it with all the precision mockery at his command. The Ink Chorus lost a very distinctive voice when he laid down his blood-soaked pen.
February 15th, 2016
Sometimes, the only fitting answer to a Polar Vortex plunge into sub-zero temperatures is a readerly plunge into the steamy world of romance novels. Curled up in bed, listening to the freezing sleet hit the window, I decided to indulge myself in a trio of sumptuous historical romances:
Heir to the Duke by Jane Ashford – This is the first in a new series called “The Duke’s Sons,” in which, I presume, the romantic vicissitudes of the eponymous sons will keep the books coming. This first book centers on Nathaniel Gresham, the heir to the Duke of Langford, but as the narrative makes clear very early on, we can expect a fairly long trail of follow-up titles:
The figure in the glass shook its head. All the sons of the Duke of Langford were tall, handsome, broad-shouldered men with auburn hair and blue eyes. Sebastian was the tallest. Robert the wittiest. Randolph was acknowledged as the handsomest, James the most adventurous, and Alan the smartest. But he was the eldest and the heir.
Heir to the Duke sticks pretty close to standard plot expectations: an arranged marriage, a repressed young woman who’s prettier and more confident than she suspects she is, a sudden, unexpected attraction threatened by a family secret, etc. But Jane Ashford saves it all in the most direct and elemental way possible: by making the chemistry between Nathaniel and his new bride, Lady Violet, irresistible.
The Earl’s Complete Surrender by Sophie Barnes – This is the second book in Sophie Barnes’s “Secrets of Thorncliff Manor” series, and that’s Thorncliff Manor you can spot in the background of the book’s really rather remarkable cover – in the foreground, a beautiful and doe-eyed young man is in the process of being disrobed and ravished by an intent redhead. It’s the exact tableau of a thousand romance novels, only with the roles swapped!
There’s no such swapping in the novel itself, which is in essence a straightforward house-caper: James, the Earl of Woodford, visits beautiful, rambling Thorncliff Manor in order to hunt surreptitiously there for a secret diary whose contents could rock the upper crust of the ton – and also unravel the mystery of his father’s death. Little does he suspect that he’ll encounter at Thorncliff the lovely and impulsive Chloe Heartly, who’s also seeking the same diary for her own reasons – and who notices immediately upon his arrival that the Earl is easy on the eyes:
Stepping aside, they watched as the carriage rolled past them, allowing a brief glimpse of the two men within. One was older and appeared to be extremely well groomed and stylish while the other … Chloe’s heart took flight, skipping along as she met his dark and brooding gaze. He was a young man in his prime, with unfashionably long hair falling across his brow and temple where it blended with the shadow darkening the edge of his jaw. Politely, he dipped his head in greeting as the carriage continued along the road, but his mouth was uninclined to hazard a smile and his eyes remained sober.
Naturally, sparks fly between the two, but the most remarkable thing about The Earl’s Complete Surrender is that it’s not exactly a sequel to its predecessor in the series, Lady Sarah’s Sinful Desires – rather more cleverly, the plots of the two books happen more or less simultaneously and overlap in whose intricacy and humor I didn’t fully catch until I re-read the first book after finishing the second. That kind of cleverness only enhances an already-nifty series.
Marriage Made in Rebellion by Sophia James – The latest US novel by indefatigable New Zealand romancer Sophia James, Marriage Made in Rebellion is the third in her “Penniless Lords” series, this one starring Lucien Howard, the Earl of Ross, who’s a soldier in England’s armies against Napoleon and is caught up in the carnage of the battle of Corunna in Spain in 1809. It’s in the aftermath of the battle that Alexandra Fernandez y Santo Domingo, daughter of a powerful guerrilla leader, finds Lucien. He’s wounded and pinned under his horse, but as with the other tousle-haired heroes in our roundup this time around, nothing can stop him from cutting a fabulous figure:
The wide planes of his cheeks were bruised and his lip was badly cut, but even with the marks of war drawn from one end of him to the other he was beautiful; too beautiful to just die here unheralded and forgotten.
Of course, all safe havens eventually come to an end! The clouds roll in, a persistent sleet begins to fall, and histories of the Hapsburg Empire appear on the front porch and require reading and annotating. And even the contours of the safe haven itself could stand some alteration, since I have to police myself in order to make sure I read more than just historical romances! There are plenty of randy ranchers, coltish cowboys, and boyish billionaires crowding the new romance shelves, after all – we’ll get to some of them next time!
February 13th, 2016
Our book today is one of those modern classics every reader should read: Annie Dillard’s great Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975. In these pages – part memoir, part natural history, part crackpot seat-of-the-pants philosophy – she muses on the natural world of her surroundings in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, an infernal region infested with biting blackflies and countless slithering poisonous vipers, but a region in which she nevertheless manages to find beauty and even poetry in almost every square inch.
In fact, sometimes quite literally in every square inch, as in the nifty moment when she takes a cup of duck-pond water (which looks “like seething broth”) and puts it under a microscope to see all the tiny creatures living in that universe. Like any sensible person, she finds these glimpses into that universe deeply, almost physically unsettling, but out of a sheer sense of wonder, she makes herself do it anyway:
Somewhere, I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it, I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I lift my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye.
This vertiginous hunger for perspective is one of the many things that makes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek such a perennially satisfying reading experience. Like Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall – “…if I could understand/What you are, root and all, and all in all,/I should know what God and man is” – Dillard’s little patch of the Blue Ridge yields an infinity of perspectives under her patient interrogation. No matter how many times I read this wonderful book (and I’ve read it and recommended it and handed it to people many, many times), I’m always impressed not only by Dillard’s rhetorical abilities but also by this willingness of hers to observe the entire universe unfolding around her, even when all she’s doing is sitting at the kitchen table:
A rosy, complex light fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days. From an explosion on a nearby star eight minutes ago, the light zips through space, particle-wave, strikes the planet, angles on the continent, and filters through a mesh of land dust: clay bits, sod bits, tiny wind-borne insects, bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, gravel dust, grits of carbon, and dried cells of grass, bark, and leaves. Reddened, the light inclines into this valley over green western mountains; it sifts between pine needles on norther slopes, and through all the mountain blackjack oak and haw, whose leaves are unclenching, one by one, and making an intricate, toothed and lobed haze. The light crosses the valley, threads through the screen on my open kitchen window, and gilds the painted wall. A plank of brightness bends from the wall and extends over the goldfish bowl on the table where I sit.
Chances are good that no matter where you live, there’s a used bookshop near you with a copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – if you’ve seen that copy (or the ones at the library) and wondered if you should read it, the answer is an emphatic yes.