Posts from April 2017
April 19th, 2017
As I’ve mentioned here on Stevereads before, 2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, the online literary journal where I have the honor to be Managing Editor. It’s naturally been an occasion to look back at those ten years – the hundreds of pieces we’ve published, the thousands of books, the writers, the editors, the breakneck problems that crop up out of nowhere and require all-hands-on-deck responses … and the sense of accomplishment that comes from managing to keep creating such a thing for so long.
So long of course being relative. The standard industry metric – most recently repeated by JC in the TLS but universal in any case – has always been that ten years is the expected lifespan of the stereotypical “little literary journal,” and yet there are the glorious exceptions, the team-endeavors that manage to beat the odds and keep producing issues even after their first decade has been survived. And I’ve found that while I’ve been basking in that private glow of pride, I’ve been more aware than usual when other magazines, things I’ve read for years, have anniversaries.
Ten years has at times felt like a century at Open Letters, in both good ways and bad ways; there were many months where the deadline loomed and we were all fairly certain it spelled disaster, and yet invariably an issue would materialize. The idea of doing that kind of juggling act for twenty years, or thirty, is a pause-inducing thing, so I pricked up my ears when I noticed that the rock-solid little digest science fiction magazine Asimov’s is currently enjoying its fortieth anniversary.
I didn’t read it in its first year or two – I suspect I was otherwise occupied back in the late ’70s, although one can never be 100% sure – but I haven’t missed an issue of Asimov’s in decades, and during the stretches where I wasn’t a subscriber, I was perfectly willing to walk well out of my way to find the latest issue on what archeologists now refer to as “newsstands.” And no matter who was helming the magazine, no matter which decade was being obliquely reflected in its pages, what I got at the end of those newsstand treks was always the same: a terrific mix.
There’s editorial matter at the front (including a regular column by the great science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who shares with many SFF titans an almost adamantine solipsism that’s, alas, on full display in his column for this anniversary issue), and each issue is sprinkled (littered?) with truly execrable little poems, and of course the book reviews are ignominiously herded into the very back pages, abutting with box-ads for sea monkeys and the like. And then there’s the meat of every issue: short stories, longer pieces called “novelettes,” and one novella – all of which have always been written by a perfect balance of established industry names and relative newcomers.
Ten years at Open Letters has reminded me of what I’d learned during previous managing editor stints, and what the editors at Asimov’s must know like the grooves of their own faces by now: you put together the issue you can, not necessarily the issue you want, and you hope the whole time for those one or two items per issue that really sing – the kinds of things you can actually say, over drinks once the new issue is safely launched, that you were genuinely proud to publish them. At too-great intervals, there’ll be many such gems in one issue, but usually, they’re rare, and you pack them and pad them into their issues, girding them all around with well-meaning but less luminous matter, trying, like all good parents, not to show the favoritism you very much feel.
This 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s is a classic in just that way. There are 13 stories, and they range from gimmicky place-holders to more worthy and more turgid works to a couple of glorious gems, the kind of story that editors see as making the whole tawdry business worthwhile, at least until next issue.
This time around, one of those gems is actually featured on the cover: Suzanne Palmer’s Number Thirty-Nine Skink, about a sentient exploration vessel on an alien world, fulfilling its programming by replicating life-forms (including the titular lizard) with which to seed the world’s biosphere and maybe jump-start terraforming. But the vessel’s human crew are all dead, and the vessel is clearly experiencing a very programmed kind of grief, and the machine’s mission is very, very compromised, and Palmer writes it all so briskly and matter-of-factly that an entire world is sketched in just a few paragraphs (Asimov’s reigning short story kind, Robert Reed, does this better than anybody, but he’s not in this issue – although his story in the previous issue was the best thing the magazine has run so far in 2017) that it all feels as textured and satisfying as a novel.
Same thing goes for Alan Smale’s story “Kitty Hawk,” in which a very gentle alternate history is pursued with poetic intensity: Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur Wright, has made her way to the windy beach at Kitty Hawk in the wake of her brother Wilbur’s sudden death while testing the flying machine the brothers hoped would give mankind entrance to the sky. Katharine is grieving for Wilbur, and so, in his odd way, is Orville – but he’s determined to continue perfecting the Flyer, determined to push on to the breakthrough he and his brother dreamed about. When Katharine rolls up her sleeves to help him, the story flows smoothly out from that simple premise into something truly memorable, and all without a single alien or spaceship in sight.
In short, and maybe fittingly, the 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s features the same kinds of peaks and valleys, in roughly the same ratio as most of the issues that have come before it. And I’m pretty sure the editors over there would agree with me that this in itself is one hell of a victory.
April 12th, 2017
Our book today is Alexander Watson’s 2014 masterpiece, Ring of Steel, now out in a brick-sized and brick-red paperback from Basic Books. In these thousand pages, Watson departs from the standard outline of most First World War histories, including most of the glut of them that came out in 2014; instead of presenting readers with a panoramic view of the conflict, he concentrates on the two European powers that started the war, committed the most resources to its prosecution, suffered the most losses in the course of its four years, and ultimately lost it. Germany mobilized nearly 86% of its male population between 1914 and 1918 in some kind of military capacity, 14 million men and boys, and Germany’s partner in aggression, Austria-Hungary, very nearly matched these ghastly numbers. One-third of the war’s total number of casualties were German or Austrian, and the war ended up devouring its two key Central Powers, destroying Austria-Hungary and bankrupting – financially and morally – the formerly bellicose German Reich. Far more so than, for instance, France or Great Britain, the story of these two powers captures the strangeness, the horror, and the maddening futility of the First World War.
Re-reading this nice plump paperback reminded me of all the things I initially loved about Watson’s account, foremost of which is his skill at pulling back from his thorough command of the details in order to present wide-angle summaries that never fail to satisfy:
For Germans, and indeed for most central Europeans, the armistice was not quite the caesura that is remembered further west. There was no return to ‘peace’ as in France or Britain. ‘Normality’ had become a permanent casualty of the war. True, the mass slaughter of the Materialschlacht was over, but misery, deprivation and shortages continued until, and even beyond, the summer of 1919 when the blockade lifted. The violence was also not ended. Although smaller in scale, it had transferred into the homelands that men had fought to protect. The political and ethnic fault lines deepened by war were the new ‘fronts’ of the post-armistice period. Radical leftist revolutions and right-wing putsches would shake the weakened German state in the coming years. In the east, the Polish minority would rise up and fight for cession … The First World War had ended. Its legacy of suffering and violence proved far longer lasting.
Three years ago Ring of Steel stood out among the abundance of big First World War books, and it’s a pleasure to see it brought back before the reading public in its new rust-red paperback design.
April 4th, 2017
Our book today is The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D. C., a tall, jam-packed 1974 compendium, a “comprehensive historical guide” to all the public works of sculpture on display in the nation’s capital, by James Goode, who was at the time the curator of the Smithsonian Institute’s famous “Castle.” Every time I take the book down off the shelf and use it to go strolling around the streets and parks of the only Southern city I’ve ever loved and the only one I’ve ever called home, I pause at different pages and study different sculptures and group settings and think back to the boiling hot days and gorgeous nights when I saw them directly, in the company of friends.
Speaking about those sculptures to a group of tourists, one of those friends once waxed eloquently about how the capital was home to “great works of bronze and brass” – to which his imperious daughter quipped, “great works of bronze, certainly, and great asses.” She was thinking of the professional class of politicians who form the city’s indigenous population, and the association is understandable, since so many of that public artwork commemorates politicians, time-servers, and hacks of all kinds. Which is fairly predictable, given the nature of how public sculpture happens in DC in the first place:
There are four tedious steps necessary before a public sculpture may be erected in the Nation’s Capital today. If a group of citizens desires to erect a monument they must petition a member of Congress to sponsor a bill granting permission to build the memorial on federal property, generally in a park. If Congress approves, the organization then commissions a sculptor to design the work. This design must then be approved by the United States Fine Arts Commission. Next, the organization must raise the funds necessary for the execution of the sculptor’s design. The National Park Service is responsible for landscaping and maintaining the site after the sculpture has been erected.
Even so, flipping through Goode’s book, looking at one grainy black-and-white photo after another of fictional characters, animals, foreigners, backwoodsmen, orators, adventurers, presidents, Indian chiefs, and dozens of others, two things become obvious. First, a great many really moving and effective pieces of artwork are overshadowed by far more renowned works, like the Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, or the mighty Lincoln Memorial, which even the dispassionate Goode calls simply awe-inspiring. And second, ye gods, do outdoor sculptures get tagged with bird poop. It’s not just that they’re vulnerable to rust or erosion or other kinds of wear-and-tear: it’s that back in the 1970s, the aforementioned National Park Service had a honking big blind spot when it came to bird poop – or else a recession-strapped operating budget. Goode is actually well aware of the fact that he’s not exactly filming artwork in pristine condition:
The problems in the creation of these statues are more than matched by their decay under the constant attacks of rain, air pollution, and temperature fluctuation. Thus, polluted air containing harmful oxides produced by the burning of fossil fuels and motor vehicle exhausts eats away inscriptions and carved designs and can change a hard, sound, outdoor sculpture into a crumbling, flaking mass within forty years. Recent chemical research has made it possible to arrest the decay of outdoor sculpture. A chemical can be sprayed on stone sculpture to seal the pores of the surface and to preserve the original color, texture, and appearance of the surface. The high expense of this new treatment unfortunately prohibits its widespread use at this time.
It’s overwhelmingly noticeable on almost every page of the book. Turn to the great 1920 bronze statue by Ettore Ximenes of Dante, the one standing in Meridian Park – Dante’s not only covered in his doctoral robes … he’s also covered in bird poop. Look at those great heroes of the American Independence story, the Comte d’Estaing and the Comte de Grasse, from the Lafayette monument by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquière and Marius Jean Antonin Mercié in Lafayette Park – they’re glancing at each other, and you just know what they’re talking about: merde.
It doesn’t matter what the subject is – buffalos, bears, dinosaurs, Daniel Webster, even an anteater, they’re all coated in bird poop, to egregious, tourist-disappointing extents that probably wouldn’t happen today. This time around, thumbing my way through Goode’s book, I was reminded again of my time living in DC – but I was also reminded of all those you-are-there photos of the New York City subway in the 1970s, covered in filth and graffiti.
I’ll keep my eye out in publisher catalogs for 21st-century update to Goode.
April 3rd, 2017
Our books today form just the kind of sprightly, colorful, optimistic trio of reading experiences you very much want when your April commences with a blinding blizzard of sodden slop and howling winds: we have three new Regency romances of exactly the type to put a smile on my face regardless of what the weather is doing outside.
I Dared the Duke by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s)
The first our trio is Anna Bennett’s new “Wayward Wallflowers” novel, following up My Brown-Eyed Earl from 2016. The alleged wallflower this time around is Miss Elizabeth Lacey, the lady’s companion to the kindly old Dowager Duchess of Blackshire, and she’s perfectly content with her position until Alexander Savage, the young Duke of Blackshire, threatens to disrupt it with a seemingly outrageous demand: that his gregarious grandmother uproot herself – and her companion – and remove to the Blackshire country estate, far from the hustle and bustle of London that the old lady loves so much.
Elizabeth is outraged by the demand, and she’s also in a perfect position to thwart it, since the demand is technically a request, and she has a great deal of personal influence over the Dowager Duchess. The Duke quickly realizes that, as Bennett puts it, she has him by the bollocks … and he has no choice but to agree when she drives a hard bargain: her agreement – in exchange for three wishes. They seal the deal with a drink:
He guided her to the settee in front of the fireplace where they both sat, the blue silk of her gown almost touching his trousers. He thought for a moment, and then raised his glass. “To ostrich feathers, which are far more utilitarian than most people realize.”
Grinning, she raised her glass as well. “To leprechauns. Who are far more real than most people realize.”
He clinked his snifter against hers qand met her sultry gaze as the brandy slid down his throat. Damn, but those blue eyes of hers bewitched him.
She certainly wasn’t acting like a wallflower. And in that moment, as a saucy smile played about her pink lips, he knew without a doubt that he’d rue the day he’d foolishly labeled her and her sisters the Wilting Wallflowers. Yes, his offhand, jocular quip had saddled the Lacey sisters with the epithet they hadn’t been able to shake for three seasons – and it would come back to haunt him. Maybe it already had.
As with any story involving three wishes, the plot of I Dared the Duke playfully complicates as it moves along, and no reader of Anna Bennett will want it to end.
Last Night with the Duke by Amelia Grey (St. Martin’s)
This slim, breezy book is the first “Rakes of St. James” novel from Amelia Grey, following her “Heirs’ Club of Scoundrels” series that concluded last year with Wedding Night with the Earl, and in this opening installment, the rake involved is the Duke of Griffin, who has never before especially minded his reputation as one of the infamous Rakes of St. James. But now his sisters are preparing to debut in society, and he’s worried the low-key scandals of his reputation will start to smear their good names before they’ve even had a chance to establish them. He decides he needs to provide them with an unimpeachable chaperone for their coming-out season, which leads him to Miss Mamie Fortescu’s Employment Agency – and eventually to the entrancing presence of Esmeralda Swift, the manager of the establishment.
She’s certain she can find him a perfect chaperone, and she’s surprised when he wastes hardly a moment before announcing that he wants her. He’s very handsome and very sure of himself, but, as Grey skillfully unfolds throughout the novel, Esmeralda has ample personal reason to dislike the great lords and ladies of the land. So right there in the moment of his decision, their battle of wills begins:
She couldn’t deny that she found everything about him pleasing, from his powerful good looks to the tone of his mellow voice. It was maddening that she was attracted him [sic] – a peer. Considering her dislike for them. And yes, she could ward off any advance from him, but first she would have to want to. That would take reminding herself that it was because of a title gentleman that her mother’s life had changed so dramatically. Esmeralda had no desire to ever become a member of Polite Society again.
“You are the one I want watching over my sisters.”
What nerve he had to continue up this path, she thought. Even for an arrogant duke!
“I appreciate that you are a duke and – ”
“That I’m used to getting my way,” he interrupted, finishing her sentence for her.
“Yes.” Her voice was a mere whisper. “That’s exacty what I was going to say.”
“And it’s true.”
In classic Regency fashion, Griffin and Esmeralda will change each other’s hearts in ways that aren’t at all surprising – Grey is much more interested in telling a vivacious story than breaking new narrative ground – but that are nevertheless mighty satisfying when done this well.
Bedchamber Games by Tracy Anne Warren (Berkley)
Tracy Anne Warren follows up 2016’s Happily Bedded Bliss with another installment in her “Rakes of Cavendish Square” series, and in Bedchamber Games, the rake in question has a name to conjure with: Lord Byron! But as Lord Lawrence Byron is at pains to point out to anybody who asks (and everybody wants to), his family isn’t that family … although Lord Lawrence does fairly well for himself in the Lothario department, as evidenced by the reaction of our heroine, barrister’s daughter Rosamund Carrow, when she first lays eyes on him, after accidentally colliding with him on the steps of Lincoln’s Inn:
She drew in a quick breath, heart leaping, and not just from the collision. He was quite simply the handsomest man she had ever seen. One might even describe him as beautiful, with his thick golden brown hair, eyes that were a stunning blend of gold and green, a straight, elegant nose, strong chin and refined mouth, it was almost as if nature had formed it expressly for kissing – though why she would think such a thing when she had almost no experience in such mattters, she hadn’t the slightest idea.
She can’t actually express even a hint of her reaction, however, because at the moment she’s dressed like a man: Ross Carrow, the cousin of the recently-deceased Elias Carrow, here at court to help finish out his cousin’s open cases. This is Rosamund’s mission, and in Warren’s cleverly-fashioned mash-up of Witness for the Prosecution and The Merchant of Venice, that mission is of course complicated when the courtroom adversaries begin falling in love. But as usual with this author, there were also well-done quieter moments scattered throughout the book, including the first moment that Lord Lawrence brings up Rosamund’s father:
An odd combination of relief and pain arrowed through her, the abrupt reminder of her father hard to take. Her hands trembled as she fought a fierce wave of grief, for try as she might, she still had trouble accepting that he was gone. Even now it seemed impossible that she would never again hear the commanding persuasion of his voice or have the pleasure of debating history, politics, literature and the law with him.
Part of the enjoyment of Bedchamber Games comes from watching the oncoming inevitable happy ending gradually dispel all such somber moments, which made the book particularly enjoyable to read on a Spring afternoon that was doing its best to look and feel like winter. This was true of all three of these books, a perfect trio of brisk, cheerful Regencies to remind me that Spring is eventually on the way – once the ice thaws and the snow melts.
April 1st, 2017
Our book today is the latest whimsical masterpiece from the great childrens book writer and illustrator Jon Agee: Life on Mars.
The story begins with an intrepid young space explorer arriving on the planet Mars. He leaves his spaceship on a very definite mission, and it’s not just to find life on Mars. It’s also to salvage his own reputation back home on Earth:
Everybody thinks I’m crazy.
Nobody believes there’s life on Mars.
But I do. And I just know that I’m going to find it.
He’s come prepared: he not only has his trusty space suit, but he’s also brought along a box of chocolate cupcakes to present to the Martians he’s certain he’ll find. But the more walking around he does, the more frustrated he becomes: all he sees are rocks and barren wasteland! No Martians!
Thanks to Agee’s playful artwork, we share his frustration – because our space explorer always seems to be looking in just the wrong direction to spot the gigantic Martian who’s watching him in clear befuddlement! Even after our little explorer has temporarily misplaced his spaceship and climbed a hill to get a better vantage point to look for it, he fails to realize that the hill is in fact the ample backside of the Martian.
The mission is a failure, and the explorer is headed back home. But just near his spaceship he finds what he’s been looking for: life! A lone green plant is poking up from the hard Martian soil! The little boy proudly takes the plant onboard his ship, overjoyed that he’ll be able to tell the folks back on Earth that there really is life on Mars. The goofy-looking Martian watches his strange visitor leave without making a sound.
Agee is a master of creating these adorable parables of gentle confusion, and Life on Mars is his simplest and most effective to date. I loved it, and I think I know the perfect little recipient.