Posts from January 2017
January 16th, 2017
Our book today at first almost seems like a blasphemy: it’s The Travels of Mark Twain from 1961, and its seeming blasphemy comes from the fact that Charles Neider is its editor rather than its author. Rather than a work of history and analysis about Mark Twain’s extensive travels, as its title might indicate, it’s an anthology of highlights from Twain’s accounts of those travels – and since those writings are some of the best stuff he ever produced (and since, for instance, one of those books, Life on the Mississippi, always vied with the unreadable Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in Twain’s own mind as the best book he ever wrote), the shrill question immediately arises: what kind of barbarian would want to read an anthology of bits and pieces when he could read the whole, unabridged, glorious works themselves?
In one sense, there’s no good answer to that question. Twain was an omnivorously engaging writer, but he had a particular flair for travel-writing, and his many books and collections of it are endlessly enjoyable (and have no dud pages). An anthology of bits and pieces from those book will strike die-hard Twain fans as merely a sacrilegious butchering.
But there are a couple of good answers to the question nevertheless. The first is that die-hard Twain fans have to come from someplace, and for over a hundred years, especially when it comes to books that aren’t Huckleberry Finn, that place is usually an anthology of some kind. And the second is that this particular anthology is superb.
It’s superb thanks to Charles Neider, who was in his day was the best Mark Twain popularizer in the world. He had a complete command of the man’s sprawling life’s work, which put him in the perfect position to assemble selections of that work, selections designed to invite, designed to make die-hard Twain fans out of curious dabblers. Probably the most popular of the anthologies Neider crafted was his “Autobiography” of Twain, but this generous 1961 volume, with its thick pages and deckled edges, does excellent service for its readers, despite some ominously phlegmy moments in the Introduction, as when Neider writes about The Innocents Abroad, “Nor can one overlook the book’s technical skill – for example, the subtle shifts of tense from past to present to give sudden vividness to scene and description, or the wise, sly avoidance of much use of the first-person pronoun, suggesting that the author’s opinions and reactions are typical.” You can practically hear Twain drawling, “You figure I’m doin’ all that, Seymour?”
But the simple truth is that Twain wrote a great heaping pile of travel-writing, including Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator, and A Tramp Abroad … and an expertly-chosen anthology like this one can come as a godsend, especially to the bewildered newcomer to Twain, wondering where to start.
It’s more than that, also: Neider isn’t just making things easy. Thanks to his amazing knowledge of Twain’s writing, he’s able to zero in on one especially outstanding excerpt after another and fit them all smoothly into an over-arching narrative of his own construction. And some of the aspects of Twain’s relationship to his subject might come as a surprise even to those die-hard Twain fans. Neider is surely right to characterize the whole field of writing as something of a job for its author:
He was on the whole a conventional traveler who treasured his comforts and was content to go where others had gone before. One suspects that he went to California mainly because of its proximity to Nevada and that he liked San Francisco largely because he could pursue his trade there while enjoying a society which by the standards of his childhood and youth was extremely cosmopolitan. As far as I know he did not visit Monterey (the old Pacific capital), the missions, Sutter’s fort, or the village of Los Angeles. It is a pity; his impressions would be worth having. He made no effort to penetrate into Africa. He did not bother to record his week in Spain near the end of the Holy Land excursion. In later years, despite many visits to Europe, he did not go to Spain, Greece, Russia or any of the other places where travel was likely to be uncomfortable. He liked the well-padded trails: England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy.
And true to form, he finds the perfect quote from Twain himself, a cold-water quote if ever there was one:
An indefatigable traveller! That’s where I am misunderstood. Now I have mad thirty-four long journeys in my life, and thirty-two of them were made under the spur of absolute compulsion. I mean it – under nothing but sheer compulsion. There always was an imperative reason. I had to gather material for books or sketches. I had to stump around lecturing to make money, or I had to go abroad for the health or education of my family. For love of travel – never any of these thirty-two journeys. There is no man living who cares less about seeing new places and peoples than I. You are surprised – but it’s the gospel truth.
It’s hard to reconcile this kind of dour grousing with the absolutely infectious enthusiasm of the travel-writings themselves, which certainly don’t read like the expressions of somebody who isn’t interested in seeing new places and meeting new people. It’s no doubt one of the reasons why Neider chose to put such a quote right at the beginning of the anthology: so readers can hear the author’s own disclaimer … and then get swept away by the excerpts themselves. And Neider is so good at picking his bits and pieces that a book like this functions as much as a “greatest hits” album as an invitation to newcomers. Either way, it’s a mighty delightful thing to have on the Twain shelf.
January 12th, 2017
I couldn’t help but be charmed by the long essay by Joseph Epstein in last week’s Weekly Standard, despite its barrage of annoying ticks and quirks. The piece is called “Hitting Eighty,” and it’s the latest (and – sad thought – the last?) in what turns out to be a little series of pieces Epstein has written about his own aging. He’s a marvelously companionable writer most of the time, even when navigating a subject like this one, which is bound to make just about anybody sound like an egotistical prig.
Epstein has never needed much help in that department, mainly owing to his Mencken-style habit of industriously mining the nearest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and then trying, without any success ever, to pass it off as a feat of offhanded oh-can’t-everybody-do-it ease. Try to imagine what, for instance, a paragraph like this one would have looked like if you’d shaken its author awake at 4 in the morning to write it:
I’ll accept the “old” part. One of the dangers of being old – for the moment setting death aside – is that one tends to overvalue the past. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes: “Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present … [and] extol the days when they remember their youth to have been spent.” Santayana holds that the reason the old have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that is any good without their being in it. The temptation, when among contemporaries, is to lapse into what I call crank, in which everything in the past turns out to have been superior to anything in the present. Not true, of course, but oddly pleasant to indulge – even though one knows, as Noel Coward, who later in his life himself indulged in crank, had it, “There is no future in the past.”
But when he’s not quoting Santayana, Epstein is time and again insightful on the many little victories and many, many more little defeats of reaching what even the most generous of friends would have to call old age. He tells us that he’s been very lucky in the lottery of general health, and his body of work in the last decade attests to the fact that his literary powers aren’t yet suffering with time. He mentions that he can still pull his pants on while standing up, a great little detail that will seem utterly banal to anybody, say, under 30 but that will resonate just a bit with his dwindling target demographic. He also mentions one of the nice fringe benefits of visible old age: the freedom to compliment young people on their appearance without immediately being the subject of a police inquiry.
In fact, only one passage in the essay gave me pause:
As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen’s majestic four-volume History of Rome. “You don’t read any crappy books, do you?” he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now. I glimpse poems in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and in the few literary quarterlies to which I still subscribe; but none stick in the mind, and poor poetry itself has come to see little more than an intramural sport, restricted in interest largely to those people who continue to write the stuff.
Not only is this, as mentioned, wincingly self-serving (You don’t read any crappy books, do you? Well, do you?), but it’s also genuinely a little alarming. A life-long reader and book-reviewer who can write such a passage has made a great many more concessions to the Grim Reaper than he’s willing to admit, maybe even to himself. No longer worth the effort? When the whole literary life is comprised of just that effort? As I said: alarming.
Fortunately, elsewhere in the Penny Press I was able to find an old duffer firing away on all cylinders, although in this case it was a very old duffer, not quite firing away as echoing the cannon-shot of yesteryear. The mighty TLS reprinted a sparkling piece written by Anthony Burgess back in 1972 in which he writes delightfully about that same aspect of the literary life, the omnipresence of reviews, both the reading of them and the writing of them. For all that I might disagree with him on this and every other subject, I could read Burgess on reviewing until the cows come home:
But of ordinary reviews – those one finds in the Sundays or weeklies – it is hard to say anything good. Even when they praise, they cannot resist cleverness at the expense of the reviewed: they approve, but from a height: they imply that their own prescription for a good piece of writing seems to have been fulfilled: this patient is fit enough, but, of course, he will have to watch his health. When they dispraise, they neither damage the sale of the book – whose quality the reader must find out for himself anyway – nor help the writer to reform his fault. Usually the writer knows far better than the reviewer what his faults are, and if he could get rid of them he would.
Of course he can’t raise the subject without going over yet again the trouble he got into when he reviewed one of his own books under a pen-name, but I’d rather have such artful dodging any day of the week from a dead author than a pallid “I need read no more of them” from a living one.
January 11th, 2017
The week’s comics reflected a very, very old pattern of mine: buying for artists rather than writers. It would be wrong to say that for most of my comics-buying life I cared much more about a title’s artwork than about its writing; far closer to the truth to say I didn’t care about the writing at all – to the point where I’d routinely buy issues or even entire runs of books whose writing, the actual characters and plots, didn’t interest me in the slightest. If John Romita Jr. drew Iron Man, then I’d buy the latest Iron Man, even though the character bored me spitless. If Dave Gibbons drew Green Lantern, I’d buy the latest Green Lantern, even though the character was tedium incarnate. This even applied when my favorite artists were, shall we say, miscast in their latest art chores. When the mighty Gene Colan briefly drew Wonder Woman, I dutifully bought the issues, even though he made Wonder Woman look like Bella Abzug’s older sister. When the sublime artistry of Michael Golden was lavished on Micronauts, or the equally-sublime artistry of José Luis García-López lavished on Atari Force, I not only loyally bought the issues but also loyally write letters praising the artwork.
Friends over the decades pointed out that this could be construed as a standing insult to the very medium I professed to love. “What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the issues are written,” one such friend (who’s since gone on to write some mighty fine comics himself) would argue on fragrant evenings in Madison. “Which means you’re saying they CAN’T be well-written enough to get your money even if you don’t like the artist.”
I confess, at the time and for the longest time afterwards, the very idea of buying a comic for the writing alone – a comic whose artwork did nothing for me – was simply bewildering to me. After all, weren’t comic books an entirely visual medium?
I didn’t quite track the exact period when that predisposition changed, but here in the 21st century, it’s certainly different. The writing in superhero comics has been steadily improving since the 1990s, to the point where the baseline level of complexity and humor in 2017 is easily enough to keep me reading an ongoing title even if it’s drawn by Barry Kitson.
So I was given a little jolt of nostalgia this week when I realized that as random chance would have it, the latest issues I was buying were chosen entirely because of their artwork. For instance, there was the third issue of Marvel’s Occupy Avengers, written by David Walker and drawn by the great Carlos Pacheco. The series seems to be following the Avenger Hawkeye as he travels across America slowly and gradually accumulating a team of weak-ass third-string superheroes to fight local crimes. The writing is slangy and energetic, but Walker inexplicably makes Hawkeye not only a weakling (in this issue he takes a beating from Nighthawk that, as Pacheco draws it, should have left him blind and severely crippled) but a bad shot – but I’ve been buying the issues anyway, because I wouldn’t miss any work done by Pacheco.
Likewise the great Lee Weeks, who does the art for issue #7 of DC’s new Titans title, featuring grown-up “Rebirth”-continuity versions of the Teen Titans. There’s Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Speedy … but the usual messy post “New 52” continuity makes a hash of who knows who, who’s always known who, etc. Luckily, the issue’s writer, Dan Abnett, makes up a lot of this lost ground by crafting instantly likable versions of all these characters – although even that little toe-hold is pried loose in this issue by the appearance of the “Rebirth”-continuity Superman, who hails from the same pre-reboot universe as Kid Flash. The two of them have a muddled and halting talk about it in this issue, just matter-of-factly discussing the fact that they now live in an alternate reality in which none of their old friends and loved ones remember their old relationships. Superman’s best theory? “Something weird is definitely going on.” These characters, the ones readers have followed for decades, would ordinarily be banding together and stopping at nothing to return to their own home reality … but since DC wants the “Rebirth” continuity to further the “New 52” reboot rather than re-write it, our two survivors here simply accept the loss of their earlier lives. Which is pretty maddening.
I expected to be maddened by the third issue under consideration this time around, and it, too, I bought for its art: issue #14 of the “Rebirth” Wonder Woman, written by Greg Rucka and drawn magnificently by Nicola Scott. I hadn’t been reading this title prior to noticing this issue, so I was coming aboard deep inside an ongoing story chronicling the “Rebirth”-version of Wonder Woman’s first year in Man’s World. In this issue, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are fighting the evil war-god Ares, and maybe it’s Rucka’s vision of the early years of the character, but I absolutely loved the issue; the glowering, sword-wielding savage “New 52” version the Amazon princess is nowhere in evidence – this version has the glowing lariat but no sword at all, and her costume is brightly-colored, and her nature is full if caring optimism; it was like getting the best version of the character back again for a single issue … and drawn with delightful grace by Scott.
There were other issues on the stands this week, plenty of them, and given the merry-go-round of creators on most comics these days, the great artists featured in these issues will probably be gone next month. But for now, it was great to snap up some comics for my oldest reason.
January 9th, 2017
Our book today is The Inevitable Guest: A Survival Guide to Being Company & Having Company on Cape Cod, a spirited but ultimately hopeless 2000 book by Marcia Monbleau, writing from the hallowed precincts of Harwich Port. I took it down from its shelf in a perversely contrarian moment, since the book is about the complications of being and receiving guests to an old Cape Cod house … during the summer. Guests don’t “stop by” Cape Cod during the winter, especially to the glory of the region, the unweatherized saltbox – but as any owner of such a blessed plot can attest, guests are forever finding reasons to “stop by” during summer (even though, as Monbleau points out, the Cape is sufficiently out of the way so that nobody actually “stops by” – rather, they “make a beeline”). The perversity comes into the picture because Boston is currently bitterly cold and probably on the doorstep of a two-month block of glacial misery; the region is about as far away as it can get from the season of Monbleau’s guests – which makes re-reading the book curiously extra-enjoybable.
This is a sarcastic little treat of a book, full of salty Cape Cod humor. The ruling impression lurking behind all of the advice and warnings in these pages is, ironically enough, that the Cape can be cranky, unpredictable, er, inhospitable place. “Bring clothes for hot weather,” our host warns, for instance, “warm weather, cold weather and rain. (That’s one day.)” Guests should prepare in case of rain, of course, and one of the main preparations for it is simple – don’t bring kids: “Presumably they will be putting the dog in a kennel or leaving their cat with food on the floor and an open window. See if they can make either of those arrangements for the children.”
But there’s an exception:
However, guests with infants should be encouraged to bring them. Children who are not yet ambulatory are welcome in most places. They arrive in a tote bag, can be placed on the floor and are unable to move. As long as you don’t step on them they’re quite pleasant to have around, and you have proven yourself to be child-friendly.
Despite the fact that The Inevitable Guest is all about how magnetically house-guests are pulled to reluctant Cape houses, Monbleau is clear over and over about how magnetically repulsive most old Cape houses are when it comes to accommodating visitors. The roofs are low and slanted, the stairs are so steep and narrow that they used to be called “ladders,” the mystical phenomenon of mildew is omnipresent, the windows are closed and crowded with treasures (“fishies, antique cup plates, stained glass, crystal prisms – anything that looks pretty with sunlight shining through”), and the everyday furniture doesn’t seem to want to be used: “The procedure for opening any drawer on the Cape is as follows: take hold of the two pulls or knobs, begin a rocking, side-to-side, pulling-pushing motion and have someone standing behind you to break your fall when the thing finally lets go.”
In her friendly-but-prickly way, Monbleau tries to make it clear that the occasionally primitive amenities of the old Cape house are more than countered by the glories of the place – as grudging and partial as those glories can be:
On a good day, New England has the best weather in the world. That perfection is appreciated all the more because of oogy days in between. The Cape has pea soup fog, rain, black clouds and gale force winds; later the same day it has blue sky, silky ocean and perfumed air. What it does not have are tornadoes, flash floods, six-month droughts, sandstorms, earthquakes or 150 inches of snow in the winter.
Re-reading The Inevitable Guest of course brought back all kinds of warm Cape memories (of Harwich Port, among other places), both as a guest and as a host. But these days, the key word is that “warm.”
January 5th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics almost play tricks on your memory, you’re so certain you’ve seen them before in earlier editions. Surely, for instance, any sizable US Penguin Classics library going back a few decades will already have a big fat volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley?
And yet no! When I first clapped eyes on the big, beautiful new Penguin Classics Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, I automatically scanned my memory – and my shelves – for its predecessor, something along the lines of two fat volumes of Wordsworth poems that the publisher put out forty years ago, or the great John Barnard edition of the complete poetry of Keats that Penguin brought years ago. And the more I searched, the more amazed I became to think that there might not actually be such a predecessor, that this might actually be the first big, generous scholarly volume of Shelley that Penguin Classics has ever done in this country.
Better late than never, I guess, particularly because this new Penguin volume is absolutely wonderful, nearly 1000 pages of poems, prose, copious notes, and a feisty Introduction in which the “extraordinary output” that has “come to be recognized as one of the major literary contributions to the English Romantic Movement” is examined through a perspective I of course found especially entertaining: Shelley as Box Office Poison, the enfant terrible who managed to get plenty of reviews despite being an upstart unknown – but who also managed to get disproportionately nasty reviews from all and sundry when, as our editors put it, “a number of factors combined to deny him the audience that he persisted in seeking in the face of both widespread disregard and outright hostility.” Donovan and Duffy outline some of that outright hostility and shrewdly point out that such was the capacious spread of Shelley’s innovative genius that his carping critics often had to take aim at only one aspect or fragment of the strange, beautiful, unaccountable work that had crossed their desks:
Remarkably, for a writer whose works did not enjoy wide circulation, Shelley’s volumes of verse were regularly reviewed in contemporary literary periodicals. These notices encompass a more extreme range of opinion than that provoked by any major English poet of the Romantic period. The Shelley that emerges from them is not a single figure but several, usually portrayed in striking colours, not infrequently from the garish quarter of the palette. The most egregious instance of this kind is the vain, sour, querulous, ignorant and vicious individual who is sketched in a review of Laon and Cynthia/The Revolt of Islam in the April 1819 number of the Quarterly Review.
I lost myself for an entire evening in this Penguin Selected Poetry and Prose, which only has competition as a one-volume edition of this poet from the thick 2003 Oxford University Press volume Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works – and once again, as always when I read much of this author, I found myself wondering with a kind of nagging sadness what marvels he might have created if he’d lived to 60, or 50, or 40, or even 31. Even in his short life, he wrote well over 400 poems, a startlingly high percentage of which read like the finished products of a much older poet; the imagination quivers a bit at the thought of what might have been.
A nice big Penguin Classic like this one is all the consolation such thoughts will ever have, but as consolations go, it’s a mighty good one.
January 4th, 2017
A crackerjack week at the comics shop here in Boston, and while I was reading and really enjoying the three new issues I bought at the Android’s Dungeon, I couldn’t help but notice that these are characters I’ve been reading about for a long, long time! I got the latest issues of three iconic superheroes, and I encountered no scraggly beards, no amnesiac A-holes, no hooks for hands … instead, thanks to the recent “Rebirth” revamp at DC Comics, I encountered more or less classic versions of these characters, written for adults, paced to please on an issue-by-issue basis, and drawn with a cinematic level of detail that had me studying individual panels in order to catch all the details.
To put it mildly, none of this is true these days when I read Marvel titles, in which the current incarnations of both Thor and Iron Man are women, in which there are two different Captains America, one of whom is the Falcon and the other of whom has been, it seems, a murderous Hydra-agent traitor for his entire career, in which the new Hulk is a wisecracking Asian kid in complete control of his powers and the old Hulk is dead (killed in cold blood by Hawkeye, who we’re still supposed to consider a hero), in which Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Professor X are all dead, in which there are four separate Avengers teams, none of which know or work with any of the others and the members of which don’t know or like each other, in which there are roughly a dozen Spider-Men, and in which there’s no Fantastic Four … so, basically, a company that’s doing Doctor Strange right and only Doctor Strange right.
How refreshing, then, to turn to DC Comics’s “Rebirth” line for the week! These were the issues I read:
Aquaman #14: This is the third chapter in “The Deluge,” a big, fast-paced storyline in which a mysterious third party is manipulating events to drive the United States and Aquaman’s undersea kingdom of Atlantis to the brink of war, and it’s in this issue – written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Philippe Briones (with a stunning pastel cover by Joshua Middleton, depicting the classic, smiling, golden-haired, golden-armored version of the character that I fear will disappear as soon as Jason Momoa’s hulking, scowling, dreadlocked version shows up on movie screens in the Justice League movie) – that our hero finally gets the key clue he needs in order to figure out who the unseen manipulator is. The identity won’t really be a shock to any long-time readers of this character (Aquaman only has two super-villains to call his own), but the thing I did find shocking about this issue was the matter-of-fact way Abnett introduces the chapter’s threat, a group of “Aquamarine” soldiers who attack Aquaman in Atlantis – as a covert kill-team explicitly tasked by the US government with straight-up assassinating Aquaman, the head of a foreign power. And equally shocking is the way our hero simply accepts it: “The spec ops removal of the leader of a rogue nation is considered fair game.” It’s a pretty damn cynical sentiment, something straight out of Abnett’s books, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked how it underscores the fact that, super-villains aside, Aquaman deals with entirely different kinds of threats than his fellow members of the Justice League.
Superman #14: This is the first installment of a new story-arc called “Multiplicity,” written by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason (with fantastic artwork comprised of layouts by Ivan Reis and finishes by Joe Prado, with some really standout colors by Marcelo Maiolo), in which some unknown super-villain is traversing the many dimensions of the multi-verse, collecting each reality’s version of Superman. In this first issue, our Superman encounters the alternate-reality Russian Superman (from Mark Millar’s fan-favorite 2003 mini-series), beaten and battered, being hunted by the energy-wielding minions of this mystery villain (since the classic Superman only had one villain who specialized in collecting Kryptonians, I’m betting I can guess who this bad guy turns out to be). Without much time to think, the two are suddenly confronted by these minions (“We fight until there is no one left standing,” the Russian Superman says, and our Superman responds, “Sounds like a plan”). They pull out a win and are joined by interdimensional good guys calling themselves “Justice League Incarnate” (“I kind a had a feeling you were going to say something like that,” Superman deadpans), and the stage is set for the tracking down of the bad guy and the liberating of dozens of captive Supermen, and the whole issue is done with a no-fuss panache that I instantly liked. From this first issue, it looks like “Multiplicity” will be a Superman storyline that doesn’t very much feature the Man of Steel’s supporting cast, but over the last year I’ve learned to trust this particular creative team not to disappoint.
Batman #14: I’m coming to this particular story-arc after its hullaballoo is over; this issue, part one of a two-part coda called “Rooftops,” apparently comes immediately after an arc in which Catwoman has been found guilty of hundreds of murders (which Batman doesn’t believe she committed) and sentenced to life in prison without parole. As this issue begins, Batman is ready to deliver her to the police himself, but she asks him to wait until morning, to share one last night of freedom on the rooftops of Gotham with her: “They can have my life, without parole. But this night, right here … tonight. Look at it, Bat … It’s a diamond,. It shines.” The whole issue, written by Tom King with absolutely gorgeous artwork, inking, and coloring by Mitch Gerads, is the funny, bittersweet, and ultimately very moving tale of that night, perfectly capturing both the very different natures of these two characters and the pitched chemistry writers have created between them for, well, a long, long time. There’s no endless Bat-cast in this issue, no grittier-than-ever super-villains … just two iconic figures delivering involving drama while staying perfectly in character. DC’s “Rebirth” line is starting to lull me into expecting this kind of thing, as wary as I might be.