Posts from September 2017
September 25th, 2017
Our book today is exactly as advertised: Treat!, a collection of incredible photos by Christian Vieler of dozens of dogs, each caught in the act moment of lunging for a thrown treat. It’s an inspired idea along the lines of Seth Casteel’s best-selling Underwater Dogs, and its inspiration rests on the same elements: not only spontaneity but vulnerability. Vieler’s Introduction does what introductions do by hysterically overselling the goods on display, but his heart’s in the right place:
After developing more than 500 snapshots, I now know these photos that some people think are ugly actually bring these dogs closer to our hearts. In that momentary shot we are able to experience our best friends as we seldom do in real life. We recognize their panic, joy, fear of loss, sheer desire, and the very pinnacle of enjoyment – something we only experience from other human beings. The dog reveals a human side while nevertheless remaining a dog.
This is mysterious, to say the least – anyone who’s ever spent any time around almost any kind of animal from a parakeet to a pig to a dog to a horse has experienced panic or joy or fear or loss or sheer desire or enjoyment in them at some point; it’s hardly a thing that’s only experienced in other people. And likewise to say the least, dog owners have encountered their dogs in these exact moments many, many times – who hasn’t tossed their dog a treat solely to watch their ecstatic attempt to snatch it out of the air?
But that doesn’t diminish the sheer, infectious wonder of these beautiful photos, which are made all the more glorious by the fact that they aren’t by any means all success stories – we get clean catches, near misses, and catastrophic failures, and all in such unguarded earnestness that Treat accidentally serves as antidote the squeaky-clean too-perfect dog books that fill the bookstores at this time of year. On page after page, these are the dogs we all know and love: dorky, needy, and of course constantly hungry.
September 19th, 2017
Our book today is certainly a visual treat: it’s the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens with deckle edges, French flaps, and an eye-catching wrap-around cover by Tom Haugomat, who faithfully signposts the novel’s most famous imagery: a boy in a graveyard, figures in a boat, sooty London, etc. This edition opens with an Introduction by English professor and Victorianist Tanya Agathocleous, who does her best and yet still sounds fairly exhausted:
At once haunting, moving, and hilarious, Great Expectations is a novel not easily forgotten. Along with its doomed romances and dramatic revelations, the novel is also memorable for its engagement with pressing social issues of the day, such as the transportation of convicts to Australia, the alienating nature of urban life, and the harshness and corruption of the justice system.
And is it any wonder? Not only has Great Expectations been reprinted 40,000 times in 40,000 editions since it first started appearing in serialized installments in 1860, but it was exhausting even before those editions, Dickens pumping away at full, shameless volume in order to boost the circulation of his magazine, All the Year Round. He had every reason to write purple prose at speed and without even the serious thought of reflection or revision; he knew exactly the kind of hyperventilating caricature-prose his readers would line up to buy, and in Great Expectations he delivers it in great slopping buckets.
A caustic old American critic half a century ago, having managed to reach early middle age without having read Great Expectations and then finally buckling down to it (for a paid piece on the book’s 100th anniversary, naturally), was for years fond of quipping, “I know novelists love to be Dickensian, but honestly.” But hard-core fans – this author has always had them and always will – will love ogling this new edition.
September 9th, 2017
Our book today is a romance novel revolving around the US football season and so by rights ought to feel like an autumn book. But Jaci Burton’s The Final Score, one of Burton’s “Play-by-Play” sports romances, features a Claudio Marinesco cover and enough hot-and-heavy bedroom action to make it a last-day-of-summer reading experience.
The basic template of the book’s plot will be familiar to anybody who’s read any of Burton’s dozens of earlier novels: a strong-willed man, usually a sports star of some kind, and a strong-willed woman, usually striking out on a new entrepreneurial chapter in her life, are powerfully drawn to each other and fight against it on purely rational grounds, knowing that they’re wrong for each other – until their attraction overcomes their reservations. At first The Final Score seems to be slotting itself directly into that pattern: Mia Cassidy has started a new career as the founder of a sports management company, and it’s brought her into contact once again with San Francisco Sabers star Nathan Riley. Mia and Nathan have been friends for a long time, and years ago in college they indulged in a bit of the aforementioned hot-and-heavy bedroom action. That aberration was never repeated; instead, Mia and Nathan became close, supportive friends.
But Burton is very good at digging into her romances and veering them off their expected tracks, and this starts happening right away in The Final Score. Romance novels in which the lead characters talk about not wanting to endanger their friendship by adding sex aren’t exactly rare in any publishing season, and they tend to share the same flaw: from the first page, you can practically hear the writer impatiently drumming her fingers, eager to shred that flimsy friendship facade and get to the pawing and mawing. Burton herself has been guilty of this in earlier novels, including earlier “Play-by-Play” books. But this time, she makes the friendship between Nathan and Mia so believable that the tried-and-true romance-reader’s instincts will be jolted a bit off balance: they’ll be rooting for the friendship and worried about the pawing and mawing.
A large part of the book’s magic derives from this happy inversion, and Burton makes it feel concrete by having Mia and Nathan believe in each other even more than they desire each other. In one scene, with no motivation other than purely being supportive, Nathan rushes to banish Mia’s doubts:
“Mia, I’ve never known anyone as loaded with self-confidence and drive as you. While other people our age were content with living off their parents or staying in school for as long as possible, you’ve been determined to forge a career for yourself. You came up with this amazing idea, and despite how daunting it was, you ran like hell with it. And not only did you run like hell with it, you spent a year putting it all together. So you didn’t rush into anything.”
Mia’s just as supportive in return, although her scenes tend allow more of Burton’s signature oddly snappy dialogue:
Nathan’s gaze was hot as he looked at her, from her face to her body and back again.
“It’s been three years since that night, Mia, and you know what? I’ve never forgotten a minute of it.”
“We were drunk that night.”
He undid the buttons of his shirt, then shrugged out of it. “Yeah, we were. I still remember all of it. How beautiful you were. You’re even more beautiful now.”
So was he. He’d always been lean and muscular, but he’d added some weight and more muscle. He was taller, more imposing. But she’d never felt threatened or powerless when she was with Nathan. He always made her feel safe and cared for.
She reached out and spanned her hands over his wide chest. “You’re beautiful, too.”
One corner of his mouth lifted. “You’re supposed to say I’m strong and muscular.”
“Yes, that, too. But there’s a beauty in the way you’re sculpted. You work so hard to achieve this strength. I admire it.”
When two main characters support and admire each other so fulsomely, you’d be within your rights to expect that the balance of the book would be fairly boring, but Burton hasn’t forgotten the deal implicit in that Marinesco cover: when Mia and Nathan finally decide to find out whether their rock-solid friendship can withstand the addition of bedroom romping, they throw themselves into the project with the skill and tenacity of the Army Corps of Engineers. But the best thing about The Final Score is that most readers will actually be very satisfied long before the lights go out.
September 2nd, 2017
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noticed on rare occasions in the past, are quietly awe-inspiring, and this certainly applies to a new addition to the line, The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, edited by Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, who also write the volume’s introductory essay. The Penguin Portables are always highlights of any reprint season, but this one is outstanding even by the series’ own standards: it collects dozens of writings from fifty-two black women whose life stories encompass the whole spectrum of ways they overcame the most formidable obstacles their era could erect. As Robbins and Gates point out in their Introduction (the Introduction comes across as decidedly drab, but then, alongside the rhetorical fire being thrown by the women in this anthology, almost any contemporary writing would come across as drab), all these writers had one central motivation – to make their own voices heard:
The fifty-two writers who appear in this anthology demonstrate a will to engage intellectually, in print, with the world, with other women generally, and with each other individually. These women writers looked at the world around them, before and after Emancipation, and resolved to speak out, to grapple with the political and social fact of their existence, and to begin to articulate the foundations of black feminist thought, wide ranging and far seeing.
The selections range from fiction to polemic to poetry to drama, and the authors range from illiterate slaves to wealthy freeborn sophisticates, from well-known names like Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth to obscure figures, some of whom are only just recently being brought to light after a century of living in footnotes. And the timing of the excerpts likewise varies, with writings from fugitive writers, Reconstruction writers, and writings from the heart of the American Civil War, as in the case of Charlotte Grimké, who published a ringing series of dispatches in 1864 in the Atlantic about her time teaching newly freed slaves on the Sea Islands of South Carolina:
Daily the long-oppressed people of these islands are demonstrating their capacity for improvement in learning and labor. What they have accomplished in one short year exceeds our utmost expectations. Still the sky is dark; but through the darkness we can discern a brighter future. We cannot but feel that the day of final and entire deliverance, so long and often so hopelessly prayed for, has at length begun to dawn upon this much-enduring race.
These women wrote their way into a new world; indeed, they largely wrote that new world into existence. Fannie Barrier Williams, the first black woman to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now the State University of New York at Brockport), wrote “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Woman of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation” in 1893 speaking directly to the need for such a world:
No organization of far-reaching influence for their special advancement, no conventions of women to take note of their progress, and no special literature reciting the incidents, the events, and all things interesting and instructive concerning them are to be found among the agencies directing their career. There has been no special interest in their peculiar condition as native-born American women. Their power to affect the social life of America, either for good or for ill, has excited not even a speculative interest.
The prose throughout this volume is powerfully evocative in ways that even some of the best Penguin reprint anthologies can seldom match – for obvious reasons: these women were pitting their rhetorical talents in many cases against the triple disenfranchisement gender, race, and iron shackles, and they all know it. As beloved school principal Edmonia Goodelle Highgate writes at one point: “I don’t believe in world-saving – but I do in self-making … Create something. Aspire to leave something immortal behind you.”
September 1st, 2017
Our book today has a front cover positively festooned with possible titles, and no referee standing close at hand to declare one the winner. There’s a banner at the top that says “Earth Before Us.” Then right in the center in big green letters there’s Dinosaur Empire! And down at the bottom there’s a label-looking circle saying “Journey through the Mesozoic Era.” All things being equal, I’m thinking most readers will plop for that very dramatic Dinosaur Empire! – that’s what I’ll do, just so it doesn’t sound like I’m talking about an entire mini-library of books (I repeat once again: my book-titling services are available to the publishing industry at any time of the day or night, free of charge).
Dinosaur Empire is a treat from the folks at Amulet Books. It’s written and drawn by the great Boston cartoonist Abby Howard, and Amulet’s classification of it as suitable for ages 8 to 12 years old is grimly hilarious – when I read the book and then circled back and read that age grouping, I seriously wanted to ask the people at Amulet when – or if – they’ve ever talked science with an American. Dinosaur Empire is written with tremendous energy and approachability, but my own estimate is that roughly 95% of its contents would come as a complete surprise to the first 50 fully-grown adults anybody from Amulet might encounter on the street. This is a dinosaur book you can confidently hand to anybody.
The story stars a little girl named Ronnie, who’s just received a big fat zero on a school quiz about dinosaurs. She has a chance to re-take the quiz, and she faces the prospect of a great deal of cramming. Then her eccentric neighbor Miss Lernin invites Ronnie to take a trip into her recycling bin – which turns out to be a portal to the past. Protected by “science magic,” the two take a grand tour of prehistoric life, starting 200 million years ago in the Late Triassic!
Patiently and without the smallest trace of condescension, Miss Lernin takes little Ronnie through hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth, explaining along the way all the key concepts of paleontology, ideas like convergent evolution and ecological niches, to a girl who really wants what any sensible person would want: to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Howard is an excellent guide to all the information Miss Lernin is imparting – there’s a tremendous amount of information packed into very little space in this book. Ronnie’s oddball teacher has a ready answer to every question:
“What’s an archosaur?”
“It’s the group name for basically all the creatures we just met, including dinosaurs! They all evolved from a common ancestor and they have traits in common, though they are pretty distinct from one another. There were a lot of niches left empty at the beginning of the Triassic, and when there’s an empty niche, animals evolve to fill it.”
And wonderfully, in the midst of all this learning, Howard doesn’t forget to stir in some humor. Miss Lernin is the kind of over-earnest nerd most nerds can only ever dream of becoming some day, and the book embraces the silly side of that as well as the serious side. When the incredible journey is over and Ronnie – won over to learning almost despite herself – wonders if they’ll ever have another such adventure, Miss Lernin assures her: “Never fear, when next you need to unravel the mysteries of the past, I’ll be here” … before remembering to add: “Except on Saturday afternoons, that’s when I have book club.”
Of course, younger readers of Dinosaur Empire will be rooting the whole time for Ronnie to finally meet her T. rex. And when she does, the results will be all but unthinkable to any true-blue dinosaur fan, regardless of how scientifically accurate those results may be. There’s one word that perfectly describes the monstrous killer dinosaur those young readers have been rooting for. And – shudder – that word rymes with ‘root.’