Posts from June 2017
June 20th, 2017
Our book today is the latest edge-of-your-seat pot-boiler by Lincoln Child: Full Wolf Moon, whose tag-line is “On the trail of a killer who cannot possibly exist …” – in case you had any lingering doubts about whether or not it is, in fact, summer.
Full Wolf Moon – not to be confused with any of the books titled Wolf Moon or Moon of the Wolf, or Full Wolf Moon – is the latest adventure of Jeremy Logan, who’s a self-styled “enigmalogist,” a lone, er, wolf freelance investigator who looks into the strange and surreal, the stuff on the borders of science, the kinds of things that can’t possibly exist, and in the latest adventure, he’s in the wilds of the Adirondacks, near the tiny, secretive town of Pike Hollow, where two backpackers were recently torn to shreds by … something. Game wardens and local naturalists are conflicted about what that something could have been – a bear? More than one bear? What one of Child’s characters rather confusingly refers to as a “feral wolf”?
The chance – the faintest whiff – that it could be something else, something unknown to science, has drawn Logan to Pike Hollow like a pig to unsalted peanut butter (they love it! There’s just no accounting for taste …). And sure, he’s perfectly willing to talk with those game wardens, and with local wilderness expert Laura Feverbridge and her iconoclastic scientist father Chase (he performs unconventional experiments on animals, but move along, nothing to see here folks), but the thing that really gets Logan’s enigmalogist juices flowing is talking with the locals about the reclusive Blakeney clan, whose backwoods compound has been in their family – and, um, nobody else’s family, if you catch my drift – for well over a century.
Those locals are happy to tell Logan about the rumors that have clung to the Blakeneys that whole time – rumors of violence, madness, cannibalism, and … you’ve surely waited long enough … lycanthropy. And Child periodically breaks from Logan’s investigation to give us nighttime scenes of terror that certainly suggest lycanthropic activity, as when a local named Sam gets out of his car on a forlorn little road at night and immediately senses something in the nearby scrub … something not-natural. “There was a long moment when he stood, paralyzed with surprise and fear,” Child writes, adding helpfully: “He felt a warm gush as his bladder let go.” Then all hell breaks loose:
Suddenly, a hundred things seemed to happen at once. Sam abruptly found his feet again and dashed around the front of the car, literally diving inside as a loud crashing burst from the nearby bracken; at the last possible moment he reached back and pulled the door closed, punching the lock as he did so; his flashlight, falling to the floor of the passenger seat, rolled backward and he saw something outside the window that, temporarily, drove all rational thought from his mind. Neighing in terror and dismay, he cringed back, windmilling with his legs, while the thing outside beat on his car with unimaginable fury. And then the light seemed to grow in intensity; the roaring sound suddenly mingled with another; his car shook once again under the violent assault – and then Sam slumped over the center column of the Civic, fainting, as merciful oblivion overtook him.
Logan, we’re told, has been all over the world and seen all kinds of weird things in his self-made profession – “hidden tombs of Egyptian kings; the watery depths of Scottish lochs; the crumbling crypts of Romanian family tombs” and so on. But the closer he gets to learning the actual secrets of the Blakeneys, the more secrets he uncovers from other quarters, and the whole of it is written with a huge amount of expertly-done momentum, paper-thin characters, and the literary skills of a moderately ambitious eight-year-old. In other words, just the kind of thing plenty of people reach for, once the summer heat moves in …
June 17th, 2017
Our book today is Charles Wilson’s 1997 classic Extinct, in which an intrepid marine biologist finds himself enlisted in the most unlikely contest of all: with the megalodon, a gigantic species of prehistoric shark that could grow to 50 or 60 or even 80 feet but has been considered extinct for millions of years. In Wilson’s book, see, the megalodons have survived unglimpsed by humans for all those millions of years by hiding out in the abysmal depths of the Marianas Trench, where they’ve …
… you’re making that face, and I don’t blame you. Like me, you’re thinking: wait a minute – isn’t that the exact same plot as Steve Alten’s novel Meg, also published in 1997? Intrepid marine biologist? Check. Gigantic prehistoric killer shark? Check? Hiding in the Marianas Trench all this time? Check, check, and check. So what’s going on?
As far as I can tell, mere blind Darwinism is going on. The general reading public was presented in 1997 with two novels about gigantic prehistoric killer sharks, and it picked one of those two and turned it into a cult classic – and it forgot the other one. And that’s a shame, because Charles Wilson’s career shows him to be a reliable old hack of the first order, somebody who can cook up a sturdy plot, populate it with sturdy one-dimensional characters, and stir it like a fine, filling gumbo. And Extinct is not exception: it’s a terrific read, especially in summer, when all thoughts turn to mutilated, half-eaten ocean bathers.
It’s also, of course, an utterly absurd book – and for the same reason Meg is an utterly absurd book: because despite its trappings, it’s as deeply anti-scientific as your average young-Earth creationist church pamphlet. The Marianas Trench is less than 2000 miles long and less than 50 miles wide. It’s about 6 or 7 miles deep at its deepest point – and something that had evolutionarily adapted to life way down there would instantly and grotesquely die if it vacationed up at the ocean’s surface. The Trench is another world: lightless, crushing, confined, and lacking great shoals of prey animals. In other words, the Marianas Trench isn’t your Get Out of Jail card – it’s no more capable of supporting a bunch of breeding populations of 80-foot superpredators for millions of years than Loch Ness is. The scientific illiteracy takes the usual form: the monster somehow exists free of its own population. Your megalodon novels might have one meg or two or four, but they don’t have hundred of thousands of carnivorous super-predators, somehow living on algae in complete darkness for millions of years.
Still, it’s a totally nifty schlock hook: not just an enormous great white shark, but a super-enormous great white shark, something that could swallow its human victims whole, in one gulp. Turn one of those things loose on an unsuspecting coastal community, drag in your heroic marine biologist, contrive your plot so that everybody, and I mean positively everybody spends time waist-deep in the water, imbue the giant killer shark with the intelligence of a particularly evil chimpanzee (instead of a goldfish with a thyroid imbalance), and you’re off to the races.
In the case of Extinct, the heroic marine biologist is Alan Freeman, but he’s not the only one interested in the megalodon that inexplicably begins eating people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast; no, there’s also Admiral Vandiver, a crusty old salt who’s always harbored a crackpot secret theory that the megs somehow survived for millions of years in the deep trenches of the ocean without any human shipping ever suspecting a thing. But why, Vandiver wonders, would the megalodons have retreated to those deep trenches in the first place (“to make novels like Extinct possible” not being an option on the admiral’s table, keep in mind)? What are the possibilities?
Something chasing them from the shallower waters? It was unlikely that there was ever a creature that swam in the seas that was so fearsome that the megalodon had run in fright. Maybe not a creature at all, he thought. Perhaps in the world changing from glacial to tropical climates a hole unimaginable today had appeared in the ozone layer. Maybe somehow the megalodons were sensitive to that. The dim rays of the light spectrum could penetrate to around fifteen hundred feet in water – that might have driven them at least to those depths. Or perhaps a switching of global temperatures created something on the order of an all-encompassing, worldwide poisoning of the shallow waters in the same manner that weather triggered what would be termed a red tide today.
The admiral’s not conclusively sure how this monster is alive today, much less why it isn’t back in its home at the bottom of the sea but is instead willing – and, somehow, able – to lurk in the extremely shallow waters of the coastal marshes (seriously, this thing, which is the size of a city bus, spends the first half of the book hanging out close enough to shore so that it can snatch deer off the bank). And Alan Freeman doesn’t have any answers either. And while the two of them – at cross-purposes, naturally – continue searching for answers, the megalodon continues its demented killing spree – including that signature coup de grace that mere great white sharks can’t manage:
Leonard’s eyes widened in shock.
The bottle fell from his hand.
The shape made a sudden lunge forward. Stella was swallowed whole from the rear to the front. No sound. A last glimpse of her blond hair. The great mouth closed.
The creature, dark and glistening, lay unmoving as the waves crashed around it and against it, its black, round eyes staring directly at Leonard.
Too paralyzed to move, Leonard nearly passed out. With a superhuman effort, he took a step backward. Another step. His body trembling as if he were standing naked in a hundred-degree-below zero wind, he finally managed to turn – and ran.
“Aaaarrrgh” indeed. No idea why Stella went so quietly; after all, if she’s been swallowed whole then she hasn’t been bitten, right? As far as she’s concerned, she’s been suddenly scooped up into a foul-smelling sleeping bag – she wouldn’t instantly die from that (although the meg might; its mouth might be big enough to swallow a grown woman whole, but its esophagus certainly couldn’t handle anything that size unless it was chewed first), so why wouldn’t she raise a ruckus?
It’s one of many unanswered why-type questions in books like this. Why does this one megalodon come to hang out in Mississippi waters? Why does it concentrate so hard on snapping up grade school kids when it could feast on schools of hefty tuna in the open ocean? Why, once they know there’s a supernaturally big and clever shark in the water, does the book’s entire cast contrive reasons to be out on boats, down on dives, or otherwise splashing around?
Extinct is, even after all these years, quintessential summer reading, and in quintessential summer reading, we don’t ask such questions. Instead, we ask: does this hack novel keep me interested? And it does, dear reader, it most certainly does. Find a copy at your summer getaway’s used bookstore and read it happily on the beach. And then – why not? – toss it aside and plunge into the water for a nice refreshing swim out beyond the breakers.
June 16th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are examples of that peculiar sub-species of literary work that somehow always feels pointedly relevant, no matter the age or era: in this case, the great writings of celebrated New England crackpot, Henry David Thoreau – Walden and Civil Disobedience. This is a new edition, with a simple, arresting cover illustration by Jason Holley and a new Introduction by English professor Kristin Case, who nods in the direction of that weird eternal relevance right away. “The questions that drove Thoreau to Walden Pond in 1845 were the same questions that face young people, particularly recent college graduates, two hundred years after his birth,” she writes. “What should I do for work? How should I spend my life? And how far should I accept the answers arrived at by others?”
Thoreau’s decision to absent himself from decidedly manageable hustle and bustle of mid-19th century Concord and go live in a little shack on a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land gained him a small amount of notoriety in his own day and has been irretrievably enshrined in American cultural mythology ever since, mainly because it was one of those insignificant gestures that seem to signify eighty different things. Something similar is at work in the pages of Civil Disobedience, even though on the surface the two works look so different that Case is right when she points out that Thoreau scholars have often complained that the two works feel like they were written by two different authors. The feeling is deceptive; in reality, great thematic strands unite these two things and everything else Thoreau wrote. One of those strands is hooey, but Case, ever the true believer, has a different one in mind:
Imagination is among the keys to Thoreau’s enterprise and one of the themes that unites his writing on nature and his writing on politics. To answer, even to earnestly ask, the question of how to live is to engage in the work of imagination. It is to imagine something other than what already exists, something other than what we can see. Here we might think again of that sentence from Walden‘s conclusion: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.”
Not exactly a crystal clear sentence, that, but re-reading this lovely new Penguin edition reminded me of how good Thoreau can be when he’s not woolgathering or posturing. The key, as Case writes, often is that element of imagination, when Thoreau effectively blends his habitual melancholy with a whimsical element that sticks in the memory – like the daydreaming in which he indulges while out working the ground:
As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.
“Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more,” writes Thoreau scholar William Howarth in The American Scholar, painting a now-familiar nightmare scenario: “We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” One federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under attack. Thoreau is too: the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance – or reading him at all – are multiplying swiftly.”
If this is true – and I wouldn’t underestimate the 21st century on such a score, particularly after this last year – then this Penguin Classics re-issue couldn’t be more timely, as appalling a thing as “timely” always is for any classic to be.
June 12th, 2017
Our book today combines the best of both worlds in the animal kingdom: it’s Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson, his fourth and most winning children’s picture book yet, newly released by Harper.
The plucky little girl who narrates Shark Dog wastes no time in telling us that her bug-eyed red-bearded father is a world-famous explorer. In fact, she’s accompanying him to a fantastic land with beautiful butterflies and tortoises as big as cars when something strange happens: late at night, something leaps out of the ocean and thumps on deck. Our little narrator hardly has time to wonder what it might be before she’s face-slurped in a way that only one animal species on Earth has completely mastered.
But the mysterious visitor isn’t a dog – not quite. Rather, he’s a shark dog, an adorable and friendly little guy with four legs, a wet snout … and a fin sticking out of his back.
And the combination isn’t just skin deep. “Sometimes, when he did dog things, he was more like a shark,” we’re told (accompanied by the book’s most priceless visual, of a poor cat being stalked through tall grass), “and sometimes, when he did shark things, he was more like a dog” (he brings the famous explorer his slippers during a deep-sea dive).
But the shark dog is clear on one thing: he loves his adventures with his new family. Until, that is, he seems to start pining for his own kind. “Maybe it’s time we took him back,” suggests the famous explorer, so they do (on the plane ride, I was green with envy at the explorer’s in-flight reading material: National Sharkographic).
And anybody who’s ever an odd, ungainly little dog will smile at the book’s outcome.
June 6th, 2017
I opened the latest issue of Esquire with very pleasantly modest expectations. I was looking forward to a helping of the smart-but-mostly-vapid entertainments Esquire tends to serve up so well – glossy spreads of $15,000 wrist watches, listicles on the Top 5 Things Your Sternum-Length Beard Says About You (in reality, it’s only one thing: you’re an insecure douche-bucket), that sort of thing. In the past, I’ve sometimes found these things a bit annoying, but they were just what I needed this time around, and for most of the issue, they’re exactly what I got: the Sacred Manly Bond of hand-destroying illegal fireworks, the Country’s Best Steakhouses (which somehow seem to change every three issues), and the cover feature this time around, an engaging interview with 5-foot-tall 6-pack-a-day Game of Thrones starlet Kit Harington on how the success that’s made him a millionaire is a bit inconvenient. So far, so good.
Then I came to a surprise. In the back of the issue was a short piece by novelist Richard Ford – about the book reviews he’s received over the course of his career.
This kind of thing is something of a rarity. Most big-name authors don’t talk about the entire Penny Press industry that depends on their books – much less the entire section of the reading populace that depends on that industry. And there’s a good and self-evident reason why authors avoid those subjects, but self-evidence isn’t always safeguard enough: every once in a while, an author will break ranks (and the fourth wall) and talk about the Kakutani in the room.
It’s never a good idea. Talking about your critics, as a wise man observed almost a century ago, invariably devolves into complaining about your critics, and complaining about your critics is “the surest and fastest way to confirm that they were right about you all along.” So spoke the unsung genius of the Great White Way. Too bad word of it never reached the Great White Wordsmith.
Ford opens his piece, called “Perilous Business,” by telling the story of the first time he read a review of one of his books. The review was by Larry McMurtry, and it was politely negative, and Ford has stewed over it ever since. He tells us that he “can’t make himself” to go and look up just what it was McMurtry wrote – a totally unconvincing gesture of indifference, since it’s pretty obvious he has the thing memorized – but that it was withering, a harbinger of every bad review Ford would ever receive. “The only way I can take a bad review of my book is personally,” Ford writes, “as something bad that’s happened to me.” No thought given to the possibility that his book was something bad that had happened to its readers. I certainly remember the book in question; in his review, McMurtry was being generous.
It almost never fails with stoic, guy’s-guy writers: they’re full of terse, tough assessments of all and sundry whenever they’ve got an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face, but the instant they find themselves on the receiving end of such an assessment, they start blubbering like a slapped toddler. In the case of Ford – who’s written one good novel, one good memoir, and a massive sloughing mountain of third-rate junk – the self-pity is mixed with lots of invidious gossip. It’s not just that he’s a great writer who really shouldn’t be handled by pissy little book reviewers in the first place (except for the handful he singles out as “reliable” – reliable! I can’t think of a higher compliment … if it’s coming from an editor. But having a writer call me “reliable” as a reviewer? The skin crawls), no, it’s not just that he’s competent at his job – it’s that book reviewers are incompetent at theirs. He has it on insider authority, you see:
Recently, a highly placed official in a semi-prestigious reviewing organ remarked to me, in a taxi, that in her view all reviewing is completely subjective from the git-go and shouldn’t be worried about. Which was to say that while book reviews may make a big difference to a book’s success in finding readers, they’re mostly all just a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with.
“Book reviews,” he informs us (when he’s not hearing taxi cab confessions, that is), “are always written at the mercy of a reviewer’s williwaw state of mind.” Unlike serious novelists, book reviewers don’t actually sit down and think about what they’re doing. There’s certainly no craft involved. They’re under-educated. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. They’re badly distracted. They’re just so willawashy. That’s why, we’re told, “there’s neither a deep nor a wide recent tradition of high-quality reviewing in the U.S.” (“And there are blogs,” he tells us, adding – although by this point he scarcely needs to: “I don’t know much about them”) See? It’s not just a few reviewers who haven’t been “reliable” when it comes to praising Richard Ford books … it’s the whole gosh-darned field! All these dozens and dozens of book reviewers out there letting the side down, willawallowing in their own petty affairs while serious novelists are trying to create serious novels!
The essential problem with this whinge-fest and others like it is always the same: a willful misunderstanding of what book reviewing actually is. Ford isn’t the first novelist I’ve encountered who seems to think book reviewers are just another arm – a nice “reliable” arm – of their publisher’s publicity department, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Every pouty word in “Perilous Business” shows that Ford no better understands the world of book reviewing than he understands the world of novels written without posturing cliches. “To knock a book down in print,” he tells us, “is like coming upon a hitchhiker on the side of the road and rather than passing him by, deciding to run over him.”
Wrong. Completely wrong, of course. Passing a hitchhiker (“on the side of the road” reminds us that in every single piece of Ford fiction, we’re always, mechanically, informed that meals are cooked “in the kitchen” and sleeping is done “in the bedroom”) is easy; a hitchhiker makes no claims on any individual passing motorist; a hitchhiker has no advertising budget. Therefore, swerving to hit a hitchhiker is an act of motivationless malice. If a novel were a hitchhiker, the only thing printed on its front or back cover would be its price.
Novels aren’t hitchhikers on the side of the road. Novels not only want things from you – important things, like your money, your attention, and your acclaim – but they’re also willing to lie to get them. Picture a hitchhiker with a sign saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” You see that and pull over, but the hitchhiker turns out to be a flat-broke cat-lover who may or may not be fizzing with Hepatitis C. You’ll wish somebody had run over that hitchhiker long before you fell for that sign. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d been warned.
I can’t speak for the brainier practitioners of my profession, of course. Book reviewers like my Open Letters colleagues Rohan Maitzen and Sam Sacks are often dealing in deeper verities, pitching at least part of their discussion for states unborn and accents yet unknown (the fact that Ford would dismiss them as “a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with” makes the ol’ Southie blood boil). But for myself, I’m not the guardian to the gates of Parnassus – I’m the watchdog of my readers’ time and money. They’ve got a very limited amount of either to spend on fripperies like new novels, and when they’re browsing the New Releases tables of their local bookstore, they’re confronted with one sign after another saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” So I’m naturally less than effusive in my sympathies when an overpraised novelist starts talking about his paycheck:
Whenever I think about reviews of my books, I usually only think about the bad ones – the ones, again, that drive readers away, take bread out of my children’s mouths, devalue half a decade of honest effort, steal money out of my pocket, and cast a dark shadow over my future … I wonder if those bad-review writers would do it if they knew the chain reaction they’d set in motion. If they would, then they deserve what they get both here and beyond. I wouldn’t want to know too much about these people’s personal habits – how they treat their spouses and pets. I know, I’m way too sensitive.
Too sensitive, yes. Also a blockhead, and yet the implication that book reviewers are being mean is so common as to be almost williwall-to-wall. The idea that a negative review is taking bread out of the mouths of over-privileged children and otherwise dipping into their college funds is so wrong-headed and vain that it just had to be a novelist who first thought it up. It’s like blaming a restaurant’s crappy food on its bad reviews.
A book reviewer – at least, the unreliable kind – doesn’t care about the money in your pocket, or about the bread in your children’s mouths, or about how long it took you to create your latest boring slice of late-middle-age suburban angst. They care about whether or not your latest book is any good. They’ve read all your earlier books – no williwalk in the park, if you happen to be a slog of an author – and they know the claim your name and reputation (“Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies”) make on readers who are trying to decide whether or not to shell out $35 for your latest book. What those readers want in a book reviewer is an ally and advocate. Book reviewers who are thinking about how a novelist is going to make his next pool payment might be reliable, but they’re also bad at their job. And a novelist who complains about critical reviews – especially one who implies that the reviewers who don’t like his books are incompetent – well, that novelist is a bit of a putz.
So: a spike of adrenaline buried in the pages of what I’d hoped would be a nice diverting issue of Esquire. Our regularly-scheduled sushi-shop ratings will resume next issue – I’m devoutly hoping.