Our book today is a doozy, a true and unexpected delight: Barnes & Noble’s latest addition to their sterling, mouth-watering series of leatherbound classics is a Star Trek volume! Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the original TV show’s appearance (an anniversary Paramount Pictures has decided to honor by, astonishingly, shamefully, mostly ignoring it), B&N has brought out an utterly gorgeous black hardcover volume collecting 42 of the episode adaptations mid-century sci-fi hack James Blish wrote up for the earliest Star Trek volumes that fans ate up eagerly and made into the most unlikely bestsellers of that or any other season.
The volume itself is a lovely thing, with color cast photos as end papers and with a pretty outline of the USS Enterprise inlaid on the back cover. The texts were taken from the three-volume paperback omnibus editions Paramount put out back in 1991, each containing an Introduction by Norman Spinrad that gives a quick and heartfelt overview of rackety birth of the original series, when Gene Roddenberry fought the network in order to make his new science fiction show something more than just a spaceship-oriented Wagon Train. Spinrad does a sensitive job of tracing Roddenberry’s determination to create something special:
[Gene] Roddenberry could have stopped there and, having cracked the basic problems, probably gotten his science fiction series on the air. But it wouldn’t have been Star Trek, and it wouldn’t have become the phenomenon that created the present mass audience for science fiction both literary and cinematic. It would have been merely Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in Outer Space, a good format for a successful TV series maybe, but not something that would pass into the collective popular unconscious.
Blish created these short adventures not from the televised shows but, on some tight deadlines, from the original scripts. He’s a wooden, unimaginative writer who can nevertheless do a quick and confident job with the interpersonal scenes that are the hallmark of Star Trek (for a science fiction writer, his actual science fiction – both in these stories and in his other books – is very noticeably bad), but the main fascination of re-reading his Star Trek treatments comes from relishing the differences between what he had in front of him to work with and what had eventually made it to broadcast. Star Trek every week had a sound stage crammed with quick-witted and intensely creative people, staff and cast, who quite often changed things about each episode on the fly.
So, for example, Blish’s adaptation of Paul Schneider’s original script for the great 1966 episode “Balance of Terror” takes us to the tense moments on the Enterprise bridge when Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura is working her magic to get Captain Kirk an inside view of the Romulan warship currently facing off with the Enterprise outside the Romulan Neutral Zone. The moment in the episode is fast and fairly straightforward; Blish’s elaboration of it gives us some choice back-and-forth that will leave any fan of the original show not only imagining the original cast saying the lines but wishing they’d seen it:
The Bantu woman paid no attention to anything but her instruments. Both her large hands were resting delicately on dial knobs, following the voices in and out, back and forth, trying to keep them in aural focus. Beside her left elbow a tap deck ran, recording the gabble for whatever use it might be later for the Analysis team.
“This appears to be coming off their intercom system,” she said into the tape-recorder’s mike. “A weak signal with high impedance, pulse-modulated. Worth checking what kind of field would leak such a signal, what kind of filtration spectrum it shows – oh, damn – no, there it is again. Scotty, is that you breathing down my neck?”
“Sure is, dear. Need help?”
“Get the computer to work out this waver-pattern for me. My wrists are getting tired. If we can nail it down, I might get a picture.”
Scott’s fingers flew over the computer console. Very shortly, the volume level of the gabble stabilized, and Lieutenant Uhura leaned back in her seat with a sigh, wriggling her fingers in mid-air. She looked far from relaxed, however.
“Lieutenant,” Kirk said. “Do you think you can really get a picture out of that transmission?”
“Don’t know why not,” the Communications Officer said, leaning forward again. “A leak that size would be big enough to peg rocks through, given a little luck. They’ve got visible lights blocked, but they’ve left a lot of other windows open. Anyhow, let’s try …”
Like any fan of the original show might, I have my little quibbles with the editor’s selection of episodes (mainly, my gripe is that the under-appreciated episode “Requiem for Methuselah” isn’t here), but even so, this volume is a pure, outright gift to Star Trek diehards who aren’t seeing nearly the level of commemoration this year that they’d like. Seeing it makes me day-dream about a much bigger volume containing The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, The Prometheus Design, and Triangle, but alas, I suspect no book like that will ever appear.
Comics this week contained several bombshells and big events, but the one that drew my attention the most was the first issue of DC Comics’ new “Rebirth” summer event series, and it drew my attention not just because of the fan reactions popping up all over the nerdy end of the blogosphere but also because of teaser interviews and comments from DC’s own creative directors that gave me just a glimmer of hope that the company’s massive 2011 revamp of all of its iconic characters – a revamp I’ve written about quite a bit here on Stevereads and one I consider a near-complete failure both in terms of conception and execution – that the “New 52” revamp might at long last be coming to an end.
“Rebirth” #1 certainly taunted me with something along those lines. The front cover shows the by now familiar cast of “New 52” versions of the superhero characters I grew up loving – but the back cover shows the real versions of those characters, the version that have been missing for five years (the back cover also shows the classic Justice Society of America, which the “New 52” revamp eliminated completely). It was certainly enough to get me to buy the issue.
It’s a premise-setting issue, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by half a dozen artists, and it’s central gimmick has definitely served DC well in the past: Wally West, aka Kid Flash, lost in the extra-dimensional “speed force” that is the source of his super-speed, is able to sense things the other heroes of the DC universe can’t – including the fact that a mysterious, nearly all-powerful force has been manipulating them all for years, sundering their friendships, altering their worldviews to make everybody more ruthless and cynical.
It’s a daring move on Geoff Johns’s part, since it essentially makes the entire “New 52” continuity not only invalid but evil, the work of a super-villain. That’s a remarkable development, considering the fact that five years ago the company was entirely gung-ho about the revamp. But as Wally West narrates: “There’s going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief.”
But what gave me the most hope in this first issue wasn’t actually a part of the issue proper at all: it was a two-page spread of a house ad for the whole “Rebirth” saga and beyond, showing an even fuller cast of DC characters rushing toward the viewer … but they’re smiling. They’re brightly lit. The whole ad, magnificently drawn by Ivan Reis, just brims with optimism, of exactly the type that always made me love DC comics over Marvel – of exactly the type that’s been almost entirely missing from the “New 52.”
So needless to say, I’ll be following “Rebirth” with the veteran comics buyer’s carefully guarded expectations … but I’ll allow myself to hope.
I’ve come to expect jaw-dropping moments in paleo-conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, magazines that mistake blind cultural atavism for actual conservatism and end up actively praising a wide array of things any 1960 conservative would have considered appalling. But every so often, I stumble across a true whopper neatly folded into something as seemingly innocuous as a book review, and that happened this week.
I was reading the book reviews in the May 23rd issue when I came to one written by a reviewer with the Dickensian name of Barton Swaim. The piece was a review of The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge, a study of the theology and literary history of the central event in Christian religion. I raised an eyebrow when Swaim referred to Rutledge’s prose as “winsome” – I’d bet a whole bunch of bananas that Swaim would never use such a word to describe the prose of a man, but I’ve been reading this kind of magazine for a long time … their casual institutional racism and sexism doesn’t really slow me down much anymore. I had no idea the main show was coming up.
Swaim goes on to characterize the nature of modern academic Biblical exegesis in fairly accurate terms, recounting how that exegesis studies the history and provenance of documents and literary traditions and tends to do so in non-theological terms. That is, miracle stories about cured lepers and wrestling angels are to be studied as cultural artifacts rather than eyewitness accounts – and that eyewitness accounts purporting to see such things are, in the mildest reading, simply incorrect.
But then, astonishingly, Swaim indulges in a digression that makes it clear he’s tired of such scholarly pussy-footing:
On may approve or disapprove of that premise, and critical scholars themselves have found ways to treat texts as in some sense “sacred” without treating them as inerrant or even as divine revelation. But that has long been the de facto governing assumption behind critical exegesis of biblical texts. The trouble is that, from any point of view, it’s boring. The biblical writings purport to tell us what God is like and how man can know him. All critical scholars are ever going to tell us is who wrote (or didn’t write) which books and what sort of half-baked primitive ideas underlay their composition. That may be fine for desiccated scholarly monographs, but it will not sustain anyone’s faith or motivate anyone to works of mercy.
He makes it clear that he’s very grateful for the “growing number of liberal scholars” who are insisting on “interpreting biblical texts on those texts’ own terms” – meaning, on the terms of those texts being true and divinely-inspired dictations from a supernatural being. He’s happy for the growing number of scholars who are dispensing with the writing of “desiccated scholarly monographs” that merely chase down trivia about textual composition and literary influence and instead getting down to the real business of writing about just exactly how the demigod son of Yahweh took on mortal flesh and was crucified in accordance with ancient prophecy. Because come on – deep down, we all KNOW it really happened, right? Interpreting the these 2000-year-old Middle Eastern texts any other way would be boring, right?
Jaw-dropping, as I mentioned. Barton Swaim (and maybe the winsome Fleming Rutledge? The review doesn’t make it completely clear, and alas, I haven’t read the book) would really appreciate it if Biblical scholars would stop messing around writing “desiccated” studies that treat the Bible as just another ancient text – after all, the purpose of such scholarship isn’t to inquire into the past, it’s to sustain everybody’s religious faith.
It took me a while to realize I’d really read this kind of 15th-century stupid dogmatism in a 21st century publication, and then I was mainly just embarrassed for Fleming Rutledge. For myself, I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the ages when you could only write about the Bible by first fearfully professing your personal belief in the truth of all its fairy tales. Give me boring old responsible scholarship any day.
It would surely have dumbfounded the Steve from 10 years ago, but nevertheless: I’ve largely succeeded in weening myself from buying weekly comics. It’s not quite the impressive act of will that it might sound, mainly because my two age-old superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, have done their part recently by putting out such sloping piles of putrescent garbage that actually buying the issues every week would have required the act of will.
There’ve been glimmers of hope, of course – issues and runs on titles from both companies in recent years that were quite good. But these glimmers were never alluring enough to bring me entirely back to buying small piles of overpriced single-issue comics ever Wednesday at Comicopia here in Boston. The one thing that’s tended to be an exception over the years has been the big “event” miniseries both companies roll out once a year – not because the general work tends to be any better, but because they plots tend to be so much fun.
10 years ago, one of the most entertaining of those “event” miniseries was Marvel’s “Civil War,” in which a deadly explosion and the death of innocents during a superhero/supervillain fight in Connecticut prompts the US government to impose legal controls on the super-beings in their midst: register with the authorities, undergo training and indoctrination, draw a stipend – or face prosecution and imprisonment. It was a nice big idea, written by Mark Millar, and it was fun to watch it unfold, even though it had two major problems: first, there was no conceivable reason why all of the good guys – and, hell, plenty of the bad guys – would have objected to the plan, and second, no matter who joined which side and no matter how it all ended, there was no realistic way Marvel continuity would ever be able to go back to the way it had been before.
And yet, blithely, both those things happened. Sides formed, there were lots of nifty battles, Captain America was briefly inconvenienced by being assassinated, and eventually everybody ended up being friends – and free, unregistered agents – again. It was all utterly impossible – friends who turn against each other and imprison each other in gulags don’t forgive each other and go back to fighting agents of Hydra like nothing had happened. A civil war in the ranks of Marvel’s superheroes is a humdinger of an idea … but it’s the last Marvel story, not just one in a duck-row of stories.
And if it that story was implausible the first time, how much more implausible is it a second time? This summer, the Marvel Comics “event” miniseries is “Civil War II,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by David Marquez, in which battle lines are drawn again. This week Marvel came out with “Civil War II” #0, a kind of prequel issue tracing some of the tensions that presumably will lead to the outbreak of the Civil War next month. It’s written by Bendis and drawn exquisitely by Olivier Coipel (such a shame that he won’t be doing the mini-series himself), and it’s a busy issue – many little plot-snippets, from two college students being abruptly mutated to a second-string superhero named War Machine being groomed by the US President to enter high politics. There’s a wonderful bit with the She-Hulk, a gamma-irradiated cousin of the Hulk and also a lawyer, is in court defending a C-grade villain who’s on trial basically because his kind can’t be trusted. His subsequent death in prison is clearly a moving moment for She-Hulk, but we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out.
But the central plot-snippet involves long-time Marvel military character Carol Danvers, a vaguely super-powered Captain Marvel, who’s on the leading edge of response-teams tasked with handling sudden eruptions of super-violence. In her scene, she’s visited by Doc Samson, a kind of super-psychologist, who gently questions her about the massive responsibilities of her job.
She talks emphatically about how she feels like she’s “fighting the weather” in constantly fire-spotting trouble as soon as it happens. She gropingly wants something better:
Captain Marvel: “I just … with all that we know … with all that we have seen and experienced … I just wish there was that thing, that one thing, that would …”
Doc Samson: “Protect us from all comers?”
Captain Marvel: “ Yes.”
Doc Samson: “But maybe we’re it. Maybe that’s why we are … the way we are … and why we are who we are.”
Captain Marvel: “And what if one day we’re just not enough?”
Doc Samson: “So far, so good.”
It seems clear to me that this conversation will end up being crucial to “Civil War II,” although I’m not sure how. I’m also not sure how this will be much of a war; one of Marvel’s in-house ads shows a rough summary of the two sides, one led by Captain Marvel and the other by Iron Man, and even in the ad it’s glaringly obvious how lopsided those sides are. Captain Marvel has Captain America, Spider-Man, the Vision … and Iron Man’s has the Hulk, Man-Bun Hercules, and Thor.
That should be no contest. Maybe I’ll buy just the first issue.
Our book today is from an old friend of ours here at Stevereads, the great, garrulous naturalist William Beebe, the friendly world wanderer and author of, among many other books, Galapagos: World’s End. This book is a wonderful thing from 1925 called Jungle Days, a breezy, episodic account of various journeys the author took in Africa, and it’s enlivened on every page not only by Beebe’s companionable grace of expression but also by his infectious enthusiasm for the simple joys of life (a hard-won enthusiasm at times, since he often fought against pernicious black moods). At one point he writes, “The joy of climbing, of balance, of swaying limbs, of headlong leaps from self-earned lofty vistas, pass with boyhood for most of us,” and you just know he’s going to follow it up by telling us he hasn’t quite given up on those joys himself: “They are renewed for me sometimes when I mount the ratlines of a ship plunging through heavy seas, or in the first rush of a nose dive from high in air.”
His observations about the flora and fauna of the jungles he treks are so evergreen with wonder and enthusiasm that it’s easy to forget the book is almost a century old. In his chapter “The Jungle Sluggard,” for instance, we marvel right alongside him when he encounters true sloths:
Like a rainbow before breakfast, a sloth is a surprise, an unexpected fellow breather of the air of our planet. No one could prophesy a sloth. If you have an imaginative friend who has never seen a sloth and ask him to describe what he thinks it ought to be like, his uncontrolled phrases will fall far short of reality. If there were no sloths, Dunsany would hesitate to put such a creature in the forests of Mluna, Marco Polo would deny having seen one, and Munchausen would whistle as he listened to a friend’s description.
Beebe’s curiosity takes him everywhere, and it’s engaged by everything. In his travels through what was then called British Guiana, he stops to scrutinize plants, bugs, the local human inhabitants – anything that provokes his creative insights. The book’s narrative highlight is the chapter in which he patiently observes the successive waves of wild things that invade a massive tree that’s recently fallen; the process has happened countless times throughout the history of the jungle, but we as readers feel it entirely fresh because Beebe is there to see it.
And throughout the book, steadily but not pedantically, he keeps his readers aware of the larger picture of the natural world. It’s a common feature of all his books, never more simply or elegantly put than here:
Somewhere today a worm has given up its existence, a mouse has been slain, a spider snatched from the web, a jungle bird turn sleeping from its perch; else we should have no song of robin, no flash of reynard’s red, no humming flight of wasp, nor grace of crouching ocelot. In tropical jungles, in Northern home orchards, anywhere you will, unnumbered activities of bird and beast and insect require daily toll of life.
The wonderfully sturdy old green copy of Jungle Days that I found recently (my old copy, with the pretty dust jacket? Long, long gone, of course) carries the stamp of a country club in Brookline, Massachusetts that closed its doors many years ago. This copy belonged to the club’s library and was last checked out in 1951, when the book’s author was still alive. In situations like this (not uncommon, when you buy as many old used books as I do), I always write my name and the current year on the library slip, just to mess with the imagination of whoever gets the book next. But I’m going to try to hold onto this copy for a while.
Our book today is a pure beauty of critical prose: Nothing If Not Critical by the late, great Robert Hughes, which I recently found at the Brattle Bookshop in a 1990 UK trade paperback and burrowed into before I’d even made it all the way back home. The book reprints critical essays and reviews Hughes did for a The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Time magazine during the 1980s, and for every one of the over 80 subjects he deals with here that actually interest me, there are 10 that don’t – and yet, I’ve found the book uniformly spellbinding since I first read it.
The subjects here all deal with art: artists, art shows, art museums. And virtually all of it revolves around contemporary artists in whom I have no interest whatsoever, charlatan figures like Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Julian Schnabel, David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francis Bacon (“He is the sort of artist whose work generates admiration rather than fondness”). Hughes was on deadline for almost all of these pieces, and he didn’t always have a lot of time to take in any given exhibit – and his tastes in art were far more mandarin than mine could ever be – objectively, it should stand to reason that most of this book would bore me into a stupor. But Hughes is such a witty, bitingly insightful critic that even when he’s writing about artists I think he should simply dismiss out of hand, I read him eagerly, just for the supple joy of his prose – as when he pierces the mythology surrounding Auguste Rodin:
Perhaps we tend to see him as more isolated than he was. Rodin was never without gifted peers, and there were some formidable talents among his French contemporaries, particularly Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. No great artist appears, as it were, from the desert as a person without a past; that is a messianic fancy peculiar to the popular myths, but not the realities, of early modernism.
One of my main joys in reading Hughes is the ample sense in these pieces that he was willing to go anywhere, to examine anything with his fresh, fierce assessor’s squint. He’s every bit as much at home writing about the rarefied crapola of Willem de Kooning as he is writing about a despised populist like Norman Rockwell:
His paintings offer Arcadia. In Rockwell’s America, old people were not thrust like palsied, incontinent vegetables into nursing homes by their indifferent offspring; they stayed basking in respect on the porch, apple-cheeked and immortally spry. Kids did not snort angel dust and get one another pregnant; they stole apples and swam in forbidden water holes but said grace before meals. All soldiers were nice boys from next door; all politicians were benevolent or harmlessly bumbling (although Rockwell, faced with the distasteful chore of committing Spiro Agnew’s face to canvas for the cover of TV Guide, once allowed that the disgraced veep was not quite his type).
I snatched up this UK paperback without hesitation even though it’ll certainly blow apart on me in no time at all (my original hardcover is long, long gone, of course), and it gave me a mesmerized hour of pure reading joy.
Our book today is the latest from a long-time favorite here on Stevereads: it’s One Wild Bird at a Time by the great bird specialist and nature-writer Bernd Heinrich, a slim volume (filled, as always, with the author’s own illustrations) in which he meditates on one kind of bird per chapter in a warm and fast-paced mixture of observational writing and personal recollections. He writes about starlings, chickadees, blue jays, hawks, and grouse, he ruminates on crows and ravens (as befits the author of such great books as Ravens in Winter and The Mind of the Raven), and he entwines his love of owls with his love of both investigating animal behavior and writing about it:
As a high school freshman in English at the University of Maine, I was forced to write weekly essays. Thankfully I remember only one of these efforts. It was about a pair of barred owls that I observed at their nest in an old basswood tree in the forest near Pease Pond, about twenty kilometers from where I live now. I found the nest during spring break, and was so entranced by all the sounds its occupants made that I hid in the woods and listened to them for several evenings in a row. If I had met a band of just-landed aliens from another planet, I could not have been more excited than I was by these owls. I now had something to write about, and I could not not write.
As in all of Heinrich’s books, One Wild Bird at a Time is full of memorable stories and fascinating facts about its avian subjects, but the moments I found myself underlining most readily were the sometimes vinegary and always morally on-point asides that pepper the book, as when our author talks about how lucky he was to have known some crows while growing up and how he hopes some of his readers can do likewise today:
Unfortunately, it is illegal to take a live crow, although it is perfectly all right to take dead ones, after shooting them on sight for target practice. But what is legality, if it is legal to torture a goose or a duck by putting it in a cage where it can’t move, shoving a tube down its throat, and force-feeding it to make its liver fatty in order to make foie gras for people to spread on crackers?
It’s always disconcerting to think that Bernd Heinrich is approaching the end of his field-trekking days, although since he’s nearing 80 this must certainly be true. In an odd way, books like One Wild Bird at a Time counter such thoughts with a good dose of hope; there’s enough wisdom and storytelling energy in these pages to spill over into many a more armchair volume to follow, even after the hiking boots are retired to the back of the hall closet.
Our book today is what the good folks over at BookTube refer to as a “chunker”: it’s a 600-page brick of a thing called The Father, by the team of Anders Roslund and Stefan Thunberg writing under the name Anton Svensson. This is an English-language translation by Elizabeth Clark Wessel (it’s an eye-catching hardcover from Quercus), and it’ll introduce a lot of readers to a story that made the headlines in Sweden in the 1990s: a series of increasingly daring bank robberies carried out by a father and three of his well-trained and well-armed sons (nicknamed “the Military League” for their no-nonsense hardware). Stefan Thunberg was the brother who didn’t participate in the crimes, and here he teams up with Swedish journalist and crime writer Roslund to dramatize the events of the crime campaign from an insider’s perspective, concentrating as much on the family dynamic as the planning details of the crimes.
The authors work a kind of magic in the book that’s evident even in translation; the combination of reporting and novel-writing going on here shouldn’t work as well as it does. The Father (the book is Part 1 – Quercus will bring out The Sons next year) is incredibly gripping reading, every bit as good – in fact, often quite a bit better – than the faddish Swedish crime fiction that’s been dominating the fiction bestseller lists for over a decade. We get prickly insights into Ivan, the violent paterfamilias of this crime family, into his sons Leo, Vincent, and Felix, and, intriguingly, into the mind frame of the mother, Britt-Marie. And the tension hardly ever lets up – the writing team does a very effective job of constantly working the narrative’s tempo:
Linden was sitting in the driver’s seat when he saw Samuelson exit with the security bag. He pressed the button engaging the internal lock and was about to turn toward his colleague when he saw something else. Nothing clear, more like a fragment, something you try to piece together without quite understanding it. First, he saw through the windshield that the wheelchair he’d seen in the crowd earlier was lying overturned on the pavement above, empty. And then, in one of the wing mirrors, he saw a movement, as if someone was falling toward him from the wall embrasure, someone whose face was completely, almost inhumanly, black. And finally, Samuelson opened the side door. Run! And through himself inside For fuck’s sake run! And rolled across the floor of the van seeking cover.
And there are plenty of close-up action scenes scattered throughout the book to keep things on edge – it’s easy to understand why Hollywood would be interested:
Leo is about to turn toward the balcony, toward Papa and Felix, when everything changes again. He doesn’t see how, or why, but Papa suddenly starts shouting and pointing, as if trying to warn him.
Someone grabs him from behind. Leo squirms. Pulls. He needs to get free! And he’s almost out of his grasp …
When it falls out of his jacket pocket.
Papa’s Mora knife.
He’s not quick enough. He bends to the ground to pick it up, and it’s not there. Kekkonen is faster and waves it in front of him.
When a knife flashes in front of your face, it’s mostly the blade that’s visible.
Especially when it strikes.
“Cut him, for fuck’s sake!” shouts Hasse to Kekkonen, lying on the filthy asphalt with both hands on his nose as if trying to hold it in place.
When I first encountered The Father I groaned a bit on the inside, since I’m heartily sick of those aforementioned Swedish sludge-fests that so seem to captivate contemporary readers. But thanks to the skill and dramatic flair of the authors, I read it eagerly and I’ll gladly gulp down the second half when it reaches me.
Some Penguin Classics, as I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, feel like they’re a long time in the making, and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi more than most and in two different ways. Not only has this sprawling tenth century Persian epic waited a long time for an attractive, affordable paperback edition in English, but this particular text, a prose translation by Dick Davis that Viking brought out ten years ago, has waited a long time to become a Penguin Classic.
This Penguin Classic is an expanded edition of that Viking hardcover (which was mighty pretty in its own right), and it’s also a slightly larger size than the standard Penguin trade paperback. It’s got the black spine with the elegant white script title along it – a graceful new Penguin Classic of a book not enough Western readers know anything about. I remember vividly when it first arrived at the bookstore where I was working; I was stunned and immediately took a hardcover copy to the store’s two most veteran and wide-ranging readers – and neither of them had ever heard of it. Over the next few weeks, I tried hard to interest my most literary regular customers in the book, to no avail. When the unsold copies were returned to the publisher (nobody bought one – not even me, since the hardcover cost what was then a full day’s pay for me), I was the only one in the store who noticed or cared.
I don’t expect things are any better here in 2016, but at least I no longer have a ringside seat! I’m free to enjoy this Penguin edition in a peace and quiet broken only by the gentle, arhythmic snoring of a basset hound.
Of course, the Shahnameh is a big book in many more important ways than its thousand-page length. The action spans hundreds of years; the cast encompasses hundreds of characters; this is a national epic on the grandest scale, closer in tenor to The Tale of the Heike (also a beautiful Penguin Classic) than to Homer’s Iliad. The frequent action scenes read like the headiest possible combination of The Mahabharata and the Old Testament:
With his heart freed from this anxiety, Ardeshir paused at the fire-temple of Ram-Khorad; there he prayed earnestly for God to guide him, to give him victory in all his undertakings, and to allow the tree of greatness to flourish for him. Then he returned to his pavilion, where his officers and men awaited him. He distributed cash to his troops, invoking God as he did so. His army was now like a valiant leopard, and he advanced against Bahman, the son of Ardavan, to give battle.
As the two armies approached one another, each side formed ranks ready for battle, with lances and Indian swords grasped in their hands. Then they fell on one another like warring lions, and blood was spilled in rivers. So they fought until the sun turned pale, and the air was filled with dust, the ground with corpses.
As you can see, the translation is smooth and vivid, and I can attest that the reading of it over hundreds and hundreds of pages is almost uniformly gripping. It’s true that in this case I could have done without some of the more condescending comments in Davis’s Introduction:
My aim is translating the Shahnameh was not to produce a text for scholars, but to make it available to a wide non-specialist audience. I hesitate to say a popular audience: perhaps no medieval literary artifact, from any culture, can have a truly popular existence now. We prefer our medievalism to be derivative and ersatz; The Lord of the Rings rather the Beowulf, Camelot rather than Malory or Chretien de Troyes. Nevertheless there is still a world of readers, especially relatively young readers, who are not scholars, who might try Beowulf or Malory, and it was them I aimed to reach with my translation. I translated not for scholars, who after all have access to the original text, now in relatively good editions, but for that radically endangered species, the general reader.
… but despite the drippiness of that “derivative and ersatz,” Davis has most certainly produced a translation for the general reader. I’m hoping copies of this particular Penguin Classic end up in classrooms all over the country.
Our book today is The House on Ipswich Marsh, a lovely 2005 meditation by William Sargent on the “Pink House” at Ipswich on Boston’s North Shore (the title an obvious nod to Wyman Richardson’s great 1947 book The House on Nauset Marsh). Sargent received a grant to study ground-nesting birds that lived near the house, and he brought a camera and a journal to the task, keeping notes through all the seasons, starting with his rapturous first impressions of the house itself:
A carpet of the most brilliant red poppies nodded their heads by the front door; foxglove and hollyhocks swayed in the English-style cottage garden out back. Wisteria draped from the eves and sparrows darted in and out of pink Victorian birdhouses above the portal. A thousand rosebuds bobbed above a white picket fence that wrapped halfway around the front and corner of the house.
But as in all the best of these kinds of books, the ambit immediately widens from bird life to all life in and around Ipswich’s Great Marsh. Sargent is a very quiet writer, a careful observer with a deceptively simple writing style. Even when he encounters something unexpected and amazing while out on a photo-ramble, he mutes his enthusiasm with a bit of whimsy:
As I approach, the fawn becomes even stranger. It has a beautiful reddish brown coat and large soft ears. Yet its ears never twitch and its eyes never blink. Finally I’m sitting beside the fawn and can see her telltale row of white spots. I take several photos, then retreat out of sight to change my film. I return and she is still there. She hasn’t moved a muscle; she still holds her head to the side in a characteristic post. I move in closer to take a closeup and I can almost hear her say, “Damn, damn. What have I done now? Oh, what did mother say? Gotta keep still, gotta keep still.”
One main thread running through The House on Ipswich Marsh that differentiates it from its near-namesake is that while Wyman Richardson concentrated almost exclusively on the happy present, Sargent is continually noticing the past that’s all around him in remnants:
The remains of an old pier stand above the tidal marsh. During World War II this shipbuilding facility employed 600 men, who worked round the clock in shifts to build landing craft and wooden minesweepers in anticipation of D day. Now the former shipyard has reverted to a lonely marsh.
I’ve written many times before here at Stevereads of my love of salt marshes in all weathers, and that love is why I treasure The House on Ipswich Marsh and revisit it regularly, in lieu of the real thing.