Posts from July 2017
July 25th, 2017
I turned to the latest National Geographic, I freely admit, for some relief. My Facebook page and Twitter feed are full of misery and impending doom; the news feed on my iPad features daily – sometimes hourly – updates on the ways the President of the United States is disgracing the country; and the actual real world in my immediate vicinity is an unending cataclysm of dump trucks, jackhammers, back hoes, cement mixers, police sirens, and low-flying Air Force jets, a black, stiff-walled whirlwind of noise so constant that I no longer remember what peace and quiet on my own reading couch was like, so constant that I know the names of all the workers, so constant that for years, when friends visit from out of town, I tell them, “just turn right when you exit the train station and then walk up the street until you get to the biggest, loudest construction zone you’ve ever seen in your life.” “Oh no,” they commiserate. “You live near a construction zone?” “No,” I tell them. “I live in it – the construction zone is your destination.”
And in addition to all this, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently abandoned most of the magazine subscriptions that once brought me so much enjoyment, as one by one they referred to easily-verifiable conscious lies as “eccentric claims” or called the racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron in the Oval Office “unconventional” in the hopes of not alienating a stupid, aggressive monster known as “The Base.” One by one, each magazine that sold its integrity in order to appease The Base got dropped from my monthly reading, despite the fact that this has also deprived me of some of the most interesting books-coverage currently being published.
But not all periodicals fell away – a hardy few remained, either because they were almost entirely non-political or because, politics or no politics, I simply can’t do without them. And foremost in this latter category is National Geographic, which I’ve been reading and absorbing for a long, long time. So I turned to the latest issue both out of an old familiarity and also for some relief from the raging apocalypse that’s engulfing every inch of the rest of the world.
Alas, however, not all refuges are perfect. The latest issue of National Geographic was tremendous, yes – intelligent, thought-provoking, visually beautiful as always – but in accordance with the magazine’s century-old mandate, the issue looked with unblinking clarity on both the world’s wonders and its iniquities. National Geographic doesn’t care that one of their subscribers might want a whole lot less iniquity these days, and the magazine wouldn’t care if all their readers felt that way, nor should they care: the merciless, gorgeous balance of their world-portrait is the reason they’re the National Geographic in the first place.
So, in this issue, I read about the heart-racing valor of the 21st century’s space race, yes, and this was uplifting, yes – but running through the article was the thread of privatization, and expropriation, and since I’m old enough to think of solar system exploration (and particularly, Gawd help us, actual peopled landings), such a thread was somber. And I read an article about the prevalence of humans in “developing” countries open-air defecating, and it, too, had a somber thread – in earlier Geographic versions of such an article, there would have been a near-obligatory mention of how sanitation is making progress, even in the most primitive settings. Not so now: the article makes clear that al fresco crapping is on the rise in many places in the world, with all the host of microbial horrors that accompany it. And I read a short, heartwarming article about an African sanctuary for orphaned young elephants that naturally brought a smile to my face – until I encountered its own somber thread, which is that the flow of such orphans, created by the hunger for poaching elephants, certainly shows no sign of slowing.
Still, the issue nevertheless provided some of the sought-for relief. After all, there’s a boost to the simple fact that those elephant orphans are being lovingly cared for, right? And then there’s the highlight of the issue, a snappy (hee) article by Glenn Hodges about shortfin mako sharks – their physical beauty, their ceaseless vitality, and, as an unlooked-for bonus, their relatively healthy world-wide distribution. The piece also has stunning photography by Brian Skerry and a typically magnificent illustration by the great Fernando Baptista. Hodges even throws in Mark Twain’s still-funny quip about seasickness: “At first you are so sick you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t.”
So I limped out of the issue at least happy that some orphan elephants are being encouraged to cuddle and play, and that plenty of shortfin mako sharks are still swimming around in the ocean. It’s not much, admittedly, but in 2017 I’ll take it.
July 22nd, 2017
As I’ve mentioned – and as would surely come as no surprise in any case to any long-time Stevereads habitué – one of the periodicals to survive the Great Penny Press Purge of 2016 was the Times Literary Supplement, the mighty TLS. This would have been true in any case, the TLS being the world’s greatest serious literary review currently being published in English, and it was only rendered a little bit more true recently, when the editors finally twigged to a good thing and began publishing my Open Letters colleague Rohan Maitzen – a recent issue featured Rohan wafting on for an entire glorious page about none other than her specialty author, George Eliot, and it was like encountering Penelope Fitzgerald again in their pages, or Emma Tennant, or even a certain former TLS stalwart named Virginia: at once daunting and elevating, both clear and sublime – i.e. quintessential TLS material, a prime example of why the paper survived when so many other decades-old subscriptions succumbed to alternative facts and were elbowed into receivership.
The latest issue of the TLS was likewise full of quintessential validations. It was a Jane Austen issue, which at first might be cause for worry, since literary anniversary issues of any kind tend to bring out the worst in the authors who get signed up for them. But in this particular issue, only the insufferable opening essay by Ian Sansom fell prey to that tendency, with Sansom spooling out one bored-sounding platitude after another:
Northanger Abbey is thus either the very epitome of dullness – a parody performed ironically, when everyone knows a parody should really be deadly serious – or a profound lesson in how to read and an exquisite challenge to try and understand exactly what’s to be taken seriously and what’s not.
But the “symposium” assembled by the editors, consisting of two dozen or so writers describing briefly what Jane Austen means to them, was remarkably free of that kind of sleep-writing, finishing up with the great Adam Thirwell writing simply, “I think she is one of the greatest novelists and I have no idea how to talk about her.” And Bharat Tandon’s round-up review of five new Austen-related books was masterfully done.
And the best Austen-related thing in the issue was also the oldest: the “From the Archives” page unearthed Walter de la Mare reviewing some now-forgotten biography of the mighty Jane and very quickly going off-topic to write about her himself:
In her pages the seven deadly sins fade into one – ill taste. Her heroic virtues dazzle us as rarely as the winter stars. Her narrow range, indeed, is Miss Austen’s glory. We just open the door in her novels, and look straight into the drawing-room.
The rest of the issue was, as usual, full of interesting reviews and essays, but the block of Jane Austen articles in this special issue felt like a little extra gesture of reassurance. Yes, it seemed to say, we may from time to time notice your alarming American politics, but rest assured: our primary focus will always be on what matters in the Republic of Letters.
I think I’ll turn to the new National Geographic next – for equal assurances.
July 21st, 2017
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, I let the subscriptions lapse on most of the periodicals I’d been reading up to that point. This wasn’t an easy decision, since I’d been subscribing to and attentively reading those dozen-or-so magazines and newspapers for decades – no longer reading them left what felt like a distinct void in my lunch hour reading time. I missed the excellent book coverage that such magazines reliably provided, missed seeing the work of some friends and colleagues, favorite reviewers particularly of the latest nonfiction. But I decided that November to spare myself even the brief remedy of simply skipping all the political coverage in the front pages and going straight to the “back of the book” to get my review-reading – a brief remedy that would nevertheless have been painful, summarily discarding over half of every issue: I could practically hear the voice of Me Sainted Ma saying, “Y’er not made o’ money, y’know.”
And even given my firewall, some of those dozen-or-so remained unavoidable, sometimes justifiably so. Perhaps The New Republic would manage to get a nice long ruminative piece out of Sam Sacks; perhaps friends would tell me about a terrific author-profile in Harper’s; several times, I was alerted to “can’t miss” pieces in The New Yorker.
The New Yorker was, in fact, by far the toughest of those dozen-or-so to let go, although they were also in theory the most self-evident case of necessity. I knew they would find the Trump gang irresistible, and I don’t even much fault them – it’s their remit, after all, in addition to showcasing great writing, to reflect American society-at-large, and nobody does it better. I’ve been reading The New Yorker for a very, very long time. I had an entire file of clipped articles. New Yorker cartoons were my there’s-one-for-every-situation shorthand long before emojis came along. New Yorker covers have been the sentimental GPS of my adult life in all its moods and seasons. A new era of not-reading this particular magazine seemed unbelievable (some cases, of course, actually were unbelievable; budding autocracy or no budding autocracy, life is not possible without the TLS or National Geographic)(and an honorable exception can be allowed for Vanity Fair, whose editor has been warning the public about this public-auction Pinochet for thirty years). And yet, it had to be.
Issues still come to my attention; the break has not been clinical. I just recently read the July 24 issue, for instance, and it was full of reminders of why I stuck with the magazine for so long. There were some wonderful cartoons; there was an interesting short story; there was the always-dependable Anthony Lane doing his Kael-goes-slumming shtick with the new popcorn movie “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
And there was a “can’t miss” standout piece, the kind of New Yorker piece that always surprises you first because it’s in The New Yorker at all and then continues to surprise by the sheer gold it finds in an apparently prospectless topic. This time around it was Kelefa Sanneh’s long profile of the great country singer George Strait. Sanneh’s piece betrayed not one ounce of the knee-jerk condescension you might think would sell it to the typically-imagined New Yorker audience – instead, it was smart and passionate throughout, managing at every turn to make fascinating reading about a man who’s spent his entire career cautiously avoiding being fascinating:
A George Strait concert is a masterclass in the art of restraint. “He just stands there,” an executive once marvelled, “and people go fucking crazy.” Strait leans away from the high notes, sways gently with the up-tempo songs, and says just enough to remind fans that they are not, in fact, listening to his records; all night, he strums an acoustic guitar that no one can hear, maybe not even him.
But this issue also sported a picture-perfect example of why I don’t read and try not even to see magazines like this anymore (I subscribed to Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler and Birds & Blooms instead, and I happily went back to Science Fiction & Fantasy, Analog, and the mighty Asimov’s – my mailbox isn’t quite as crowded as it used to be, but at least its inhabitants get along with each other, and with me) … and it was literally a picture: the noxious front cover. It’s by Barry Blitt and it’s called “Grounded,” and it shows a stern Donald Trump kicking his son-in-law Jared Kushner down the stairs of the freshly-landed Air Force One while dragging his oldest son Donald Junior behind him by one tugged ear. It’s a revolting image, not because it’s poorly drawn or politically provocative but because it strives by implication to domesticate the horrifying. Here is a dour Papa Trump who wants to be concentrating on serious policy-making and international diplomacy but instead is forced to deal with the bumbling ineptitude of his little boys. Here is a picture asking us to laugh not at Papa Trump but right alongside him, as we sympathize – as indeed how could we not? – with a beleaguered parent who just wants to get things done.
Never mind that Jared Kushner is 36 years old and had a long career of fraud and failure in two different fields before he came to the White House and added deceit, misrepresentation, and treason to his résumé. And never mind that Donald Junior is 39 and lost whatever lingering shreds of childhood he might still have possessed when he lined up endangered African animals in his rifle scope, pulled the trigger, and laughed over the corpses. And never mind that Papa Trump is more bungling and juvenile than either of them even when they were actual children. And never mind that at every point in the 16 years of his presidency so far when he might have concentrated on getting things done, he has instead voluntarily turned all of his attention to petty fights, personal insults, and stretches of free-association babble. Blitt’s cover is, in other words, a whopping big lie, premised on half a dozen whopping big lies, and designed to sell a whopping big lie to anybody who looks at it. It’s designed to soften into comedy what is deadly serious.
And it’s of course also a reminder: this break has to be clean. If I can be blackened into a grim mood by the mere sight of a cover, it’s pretty clear I can’t indulge in dipping-in occasionally. And in the meantime, at least now I’ve got a fantastic roster of George Strait songs playing in my head.
July 12th, 2017
As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious anachronism, this whole idea of “summer reading.” At the back of it is a picture of a world in which hard-working people breathe a collective sigh of relief around Memorial Day, say a jovial good-bye to their office mates, pack the kids in the station wagon, and head to the beach or the lakeshore. There, they open up the slightly dilapidated old house, uncover the furniture, sweep out the raccoon droppings, force open the stubborn windows, and settle in for a richly-deserved three-month summer vacation, an idyllic time when they can finally pick up those books they’ve been longing to read. It was in roughly this context that “summer reading” first became something the wealthier Romans might do when they and their households left the stewpot that is summertime Rome; this was the context in which the Better Sort in London might have packed some obscenely long French novels and made their way to their country estates. And it might have applied once upon a time to some sizable portion of the modern Western population.
But it hasn’t applied in a long time. Americans in particular work longer hours and longer years than any group in the nation’s history other than its slaves, and they are never even for an instant truly untethered from their workplaces (as Elizabeth Anderson’s brilliant though demagogic new book Private Government documents in detail). I know half a dozen young professionals who were required to give their bosses their cellphone numbers upon getting hired at their firms – their co-workers chuckled and said, “Yeah, just get a cheap phone with a new number for personal stuff,” and they willingly did so. Their bosses monitor their Facebook posts, their Instagram feeds, and their every peep on Twitter, and they themselves have never even seriously considered objecting, much less refusing – because the money’s good and there are benefits.
I know plenty of people who take vacations nevertheless, but those vacations are cramped, nervous, largely joyless affairs – they’re usually only a week long, they’re usually ruinously expensive, and the omnipresent intrusion of their workplaces isn’t the only thing destroying the allegedly restorative privacy of their time in the time-share: they also destroy it willingly themselves, spending all their time with their eyes locked onto video games or dating apps or the aforementioned social media. One young acquaintance recently booked a week-long beachside vacation with a friend he hadn’t seen in months, spent the entire time ‘swiping’ on quick-sex apps, and upon his return actually sighed and said, “I don’t know, somehow I just don’t feel rested.”
Summers, in other words, have disappeared – so it’s always a bit of a smile-inducing mystery to me that summer reading hasn’t gone with it. And yet it obviously hasn’t: from Southern Living to Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times Book Review, periodicals of all shapes and styles absolutely rely on the old wheeze. Indeed, that wonderful periodical Open Letters Monthly has been putting out a Summer Reading feature for years! The new one is up in the July issue even as we speak, although it’s typically brainy affair this time around, with writers chiming in on that decidedly non-summer subject, politics. Greg Waldmann writes about Dubliners, for instance; Rohan Maitzen writes about Jane Eyre; Sam Sacks writes about Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men; I myself wrote about the political setting of Anthony Trollope’s novel Phineas Finn.
From such a bill of fare it can be fairly observed that OLM is observing only the emptiest shell of the idea of “summer reading.” There is nothing summery about either our guiding theme or our individual choices; the thing is miserable midwinter reading in all but name. So pass the carefree summers of yesteryear.
In our defense, I notice that we’re not the only ones. The latest issue of the redoubtable Weekly Standard, for instance, bills itself as “summer reading” – and sports a great Mark Summers cover illustration featuring George Bernard Shaw and a raise-your-hand-if-you-got-it allusion to one of his stage plays. The front section of the issue is taken up with the heated political reporting and opinionizing that I now avoid like the Black Death (I get quite enough of it even by accident on social media, thank you very much … enough, anyway, to know that having just experienced their first great President, millennials are now getting a ringside seat for their first Nixon-level evil President – may they profit from the experience as their forebears did). But a large chunk of this issue is devoted to that billed “summer reading,” with reviews of some fourteen books.
It’s great stuff, but it hardly constitutes hammock-and-martini reading material. Douglas Bradburn enthuses over Kevin Hayes’ silly book George Washington: A Life in Books; Lawrence Klepp reviews Peter Ackroyd’s new brief life of Alfred Hitchcock; Andrew Roberts does his usual fantastic job reviewing Christopher Bell’s new book about Winston Churchill and the disastrous Dardanelles campaign; Forrest Gump author Winston Groom reviews Kevin Kosar’s new history of moonshine; Geoffrey Norman turns in a terrific piece about Tom Callahan’s new life of Arnold Palmer; James Gardner writes a strangely ardent and forgiving response to the new book of paintings by former president George W. Bush; Jon Breen writes a dense and fantastic appreciation of Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles; and on and on along those juicy, brainy lines.
You finish the issue brimming with opinions, objections, and the peculiarly definite but low-grade mental buzzing that always results from reading snappy writing about books. I read the thing in one sitting at my hole-in-the-wall lunchtime restaurant and immediately wanted to a) re-read the books under review that I’d already read, b) find and devour the books under review that hadn’t yet come my way, and c) fire off half a dozen emails – to the magazine itself, yes, but also to some of the reviewers and maybe even a couple of the reviewed authors, alerting them to this or that, congratulating them on a good blurb, perhaps consoling them with a reminder that Reviewer X is probably a raving dipsomaniac with the literary taste of a garden vole.
The one thing I didn’t especially want to do when I finished this Summer Reading issue was to refresh my martini and perhaps take a strong down to the beach. Instead, I finished the issue, paid my bill, and got back to work.