Posts from October 2017

October 11th, 2017

Passing the Torch in the Penny Press

bunch of magazines

This moment was bound to happen. It’s been approaching steadily for years, of course, and its tread has been especially audible in the last few months. But lots of other reading gets in the way, and the torrent of books never lessens, and it was easy to get distracted.

But then the moment comes: the first issue of the New York Review of Books with somebody other than Bob Silvers as Editor. The man in charge now is Ian Buruma, and his first full issue arrived in the mail as quietly and unassumingly as Buruma himself. I didn’t even think about it at first as I settled in with the issue; in the back nyrb17of my mind, I was just reflexively thinking about “waiting periods” and “transition times,” and then as I was turning pages it hit me: no, the transition is over. This is an issue of the NYRB with neither Barbara Epstein nor Bob Silvers.

The first thing I noticed was the thing that felt most disloyal: had I not known, I would never have known. That same NYRB indispensable magic was right there on every page. The great Anne Applebaum writing about regressive European politics; Jenny Uglow writing about 18th century history (in this case a new book about the thoroughly odious Hans Sloane); James Fenton, here writing about an art exhibit; Luc Sante writing a fantastic piece on the late John Ashbery. There were other names – Francine Prose, Tim Parks, John Gray, Darryl Pinckney (at one remove: a reprint of the fine introductory essay he provided for the new NYRB volume reprinting the collected criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick), Diane Johnson – and there will be more names, in upcoming months. Each piece on the Table of Contents had that same marvelous NYRB quality of being a little world unto itself.

There’s a distinct element of magic to a quality like that, and magic is the most perishable of the arts. I’ve been an editor for a long time, and a part of me was just always assuming that, depute the enormous talent-pool of the NYRB, despite the store of literary good will it’s amassed over the decades, such magic was an editorial creation. I’d been assuming that Bob Silvers was creating and sustaining it, that it was a vision more than a Standard Operating Procedure … and that, inevitably, it would die with him.

And yet here it was, in this new issue. Classics professor Hayden Pelliccia does a fantastic job reviewing two new translations of the Iliad. China specialist Andrew

Fionn Whitehead as a young British soldier in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk
Fionn Whitehead as a young British soldier in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk

Nathan reviews three new books on China’s complicated and growing role on the 21st century’s international stage. Larry Wolff reviews a new production of Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse writes a searing piece on women’s rights. And the generally reserved historian Max Hastings writes a review of Michael Korda’s new book Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory and Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk that bristles with sadness and anger over Brexit:

After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.

Even after I realized that I was reading the first Ian Buruma issue of the NYRB, I just kept reading, the slow, silent shock of it building but not intruding. I jumped around from article to article as my interest took me, and it wasn’t until I circled back to Benjamin Friedman’s review of a new book on the idea of universal basic income that I reached a little grace note I could no longer ignore. Friedman is a Harvard economics professor with a deep expertise on his subject, and I learned a lot from his review. Then I got to its final footnote:

This essay was suggested by my long-time friend Bob Silvers. I am sad that he is no longer here to give it the benefit of his wisdom and incisive editing. I miss him.

That’s when I stopped. That simple line, “I miss him,” stopped me completely. It made me identify the sadness that had been building as I read: it wasn’t that the NYRB had either radically improved or radically worsened with this issue, with “Bob Silvers,” a tireless caretaker who lived and breathed the magazine, now somehow reduced to a few words of fine print at the bottom of a couple of pages (seeing his name down there on the masthead next to Barbara Epstein’s, each one now with the two sets of dates, very nearly broke my heart). Instead, it was that the NYRB hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still varied, it’s still incredibly smart, it’s still a full meal of a reading experience.

It makes sense. After all, Ian Buruma treasured the old NYRB as much as anybody. No doubt his own imprint, his own kind of magic, will become evident as the issues go by, but for now, here’s the New York Review of Books, being its same old excellent and woolly and challenging and fascinating self. It turns out all that was possible without Bob Silvers ensconced behind a pile of galley copies in his office at one in the morning willing it all into existence. That should be a note of hope. In time it’ll certainly feel that way. But I finished this issue very nearly in tears.

October 7th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: Picnic at Hanging Rock!

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics serve as enjoyable reminders that more things in Heaven and Earth fall under the heading of “classic” than the usual lineup of Dickens and Austen. Penguin has always been good about this, and in the last twenty years or so they’ve improved even on their own track record, sometimes with questionable results (Wellington’s military dispatches? The Domesday Book?), and sometimes with cheering ones (never too soon for the complete back-catalogue of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance), but the latest example feels long overdue for the American Penguin catalogue: it’s Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.

This book surely holds the record for the sheer number of different editions accumulated before its canonical black-spine Penguin Classics debut. Since its first appearance, it’s been a hit with readers – a success that was only amplified by the 1975 Peter Weir movie adaptation (a still from which serves as this edition’s cover illustration). An entire generation of Australian readers grew up with this novel, which is set on a hot, bright summer day in the year 1900. Some young women from Appleyard College for Young Ladies are taken on a picnic, driving some distance to wild, secluded Hanging Rock. “Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool,” the text laconically tells us, “they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon.”

Three of the young ladies decide to hike up the rock. Readers have already been given ample hints by the author that this is probably not a good idea. Even while the picnic party is still on the way to its destination, the first view we get of Hanging Rock itself is wreathed in ominous language:

Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.

The three are never seen again, and that deceptively simple fact is the engine that drives the entire book: what exactly happened at Hanging Rock that day? Right from the start, readers wanted to know the answer, and they were not-so-subtly nudged in that direction by the Sphinx-like note Lindsay attached to the beginning of the book:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the character who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Needless to say, a note like that was bound to increase exactly the kind of curiositypenguin picnic it pretends to want to calm. Readers trekked out to Hanging Rock, and they pored through all available old newspapers in search of some hint of a genuine disappearance around which Lindsay might have built her story. It’s pretty clear from even a single reading of the book that this was exactly the reaction its author wanted to inspire, a slow-boil confusion of reality and fantasy exactly mirroring the strange events of that picnic day. The move gives the whole story a delicious element of folk-tale: Three Young Women Disappear – The End.

After a lifetime of doing other things, Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in her sixties, and she wrote it at a dash, finishing the manuscript in a matter of weeks. And she herself was endlessly quizzed by readers about possible real-life resolutions to her story, including questions put to her by perhaps her highest-profile reader, as we’re told in the brief Introduction written by novelist Maile Meloy:

The mystery of what happened goes unsolved in the novel, and Lindsay remained elusive about the possibility that it was a true story. When director Peter Weir asked her for the film rights to make his 1975 movie adaptation, he was warned not to ask if there had been a real disappearance, but he did anyway. Lady Lindsay – her husband, Daryl, had been knighted for services to the arts – said she hoped he wouldn’t ask again. So Weir asked instead if the question of what happened to the girls was open-ended. Could they have fallen down a hole or been abducted by aliens? She said yes, it could have been any of the above.

(Meloy includes the detail that Lindsay’s original manuscript actually included a final-chapter explanation, which the manuscript’s editor cut – perhaps on grounds of its excessive loopiness, although there’s also no denying that the book is much stronger without a solution regardless of what that solution is).

It was a bit sobering to encounter Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in a 2017 American-edition Penguin Classic, but that’s exactly what I did, and I loved both the book itself and the experience of for once being squarely in the recipient-zone for Penguin’s great mission of spreading the word. It was both exciting and oddly humbling to know I was reading for the first time a book that had already been read, re-read, and loved by thousands and thousands of people, a book that’s a canonical classic in a country I’ve never visited and will never see. It’s been the highlight of my recent Penguin-reading experience.

October 2nd, 2017

Alex Rider: Never Say Die!

never say dieOur book today is a sweet bit of sweaty, skate-boarding adolescent relief: Alex Rider: Never Say Die, which represents the long-awaited return of writer Anthony Horowitz to writing the adventures of his signature creation, “the world’s greatest teen spy,” Alex Rider – who, we’re told, is 14, 5 foot nine inches in height, brown-eyed, and British. Left unstipulated by nonetheless obvious: cool. Alex Rider is cool – he’s unflappable, low-key stylish, and far more capable in a tight spot than most punk shrimp 14-year-olds tend to be. Even at his tender age, he’d been recruited by MI6 and trained in all manner of action-hero skills, and in Horowitz’s hands he’d gone through one after another over-the-top adventures, beginning with 2000’s Stormbreaker and running all the way to 2013’s Russian Roulette, a prequel that was the last that Alex Rider’s millions of devoted fans saw of him.

Horowitz went on to other things, writing novels for the adult-readership market (including really very good The Magpie Murders), and the Alex Rider novels were at a classic Reichenbach Falls moment: our young hero, pushed past his limits, had been forced by dastardly operatives of the evil organization known as SCORPIA to watch the apparent murder of Jack Starbright, the woman who had all but raised him and been his mentor in All Things Super-Spy:

Alex was tied to a chair, unable to take his eyes off the television screen in front of him. Wires had been attached to different parts of his body: his neck, his fingers, his forehead, his naked chest. He could feel the chill of the air-conditioning against his skin. But there was something even colder in the room. It was his own terror. Razim and Julius Grief were about the murder the person he most loved, and they were forcing him to watch.

Alex survived, of course, but he was completely burned out on the spy business. He left the ranks, enfolded himself in anonymity, and became just your ordinary everyday student at Elmer E. Robinson High School in San Francisco, intent on being a normal teenager for the first time in his life. His host family, his friends, his teachers – none of them has any idea about his superhero past, and he preferred it that way.

It seemed like a neat ending, and at the time, I liked it: the dream of this young stormbreakerhero who’d fought such outrageous comic book villains all across the planet and in space, this super-cool but self-effacing operative escaping from hairy death-traps and succeeding where far more experienced agents had failed – it made a neat kind of sense that the thing he’d want most would be the very thing his fellow teenagers take for granted: their ordinary, everyday lives.

But as much as I might have agreed with the symmetry of the thing (and its potential for out-of-sequence additions to the series, as Russian Roulette was), I missed the series. And now Horowitz, praise be, has at last decided that he’s not quite done with the character, and so, thanks to the folks at Philomel Books, not only are all the original novels being re-issued with eye-catching new covers by the great Larry Rostant (one of the biggest mysteries of the original printing of this series, a mystery even sharp-as-a-tack Alex Rider couldn’t solve, was why the covers were so Gawd-awful boring), but a new novel, Never Say Die, actually continues the series – our young hero is called out of his very, very early retirement by pretty much the only thing that could do it: the possibility that Jack Starbright isn’t dead after all (if Alex were much of a reader of spy thrillers, he’d have been impatiently waiting for this plot twist rather than surprised by it).

At once, readers are plunged back into this frenetic world Horowitz has created, a world of cutting-edge science, snappy dialogue, sudden reversals of fortune – and, of course, all new super-villains, including one who quite literally just fell off the turnip truck:

The woman’s real name was Dragana Novak. She was forty-six years old, and until recently she had been a lieutenant colonel in the Serbian air force; a highflier in every sense of the word. Her career had ended following a drunken fight with another pilot. He had been twice her size, but even so, she had put him into the hospital. In fact he was still there. Inevitably, there had been a court-martial, and she had been looking forward to an uncertain future – perhaps a return to the turnip farm where she had been brought up. That was when she had received the telephone call. There was a unique job opportunity. It would pay two hundred thousand dollars a day for two days’ work. Was she interested?

Dragana is of course very interested, and soon an advanced new helicopter is stolen in broad daylight, the hordes of SCORPIA are on the rise, the clues about Jack Starbright get more and more pointed, and maybe, just a little, Alex Rider realizes that normal, everyday life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The result is worth cheering about: the return of one of action-fictions best good guys, now a ripe old fifteen.

October 1st, 2017

Mythology’s 75th Anniversary!

mythologyOur book today is the kind of lavish surprise that occasionally rewards the faithful: a big, heavy, ornate new 75th-anniversary edition from Black Dog & Leventhal of Edith Hamilton’s rock-solid, endurably reprinted classic Mythology. Subtitled “Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes,” the book retails all the most famous stories from Greek and Roman mythology (with a sprinkling of Norse myths as a cool dessert at the end of the book). Everything is here, from biographical sketches of the Olympian gods to renditions of the quest for the Golden Fleece, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, the Trojan War, and of course the Labors of Hercules, which Hamilton guides readers through with her customary pithy clarity:

Story after story is told of his adventures He fought the river-god Achelous because Achelous was in love with the girl Hercules now wanted to marry. Like everyone else by this time, Achelous had no desire to fight him and he tried to reason with him. But that never worked with Hercules. It only made him more angry. He said, “My hand is better than my tongue. Let me win fighting and you may win talking.” Achelous took the form of a bull and attacked him fiercely, but Hercules was used to subduing bulls.

She introduces every story with a concise appraisal of where it comes from, whichcyclops classical sources she’s using as the basis for her accounts. “This story is told only by Apuleius, a Latin writer of the second century A.D.,” she writes about the story of Cupid and Psyche, for example, “It is a prettily told tale, after the manner of Ovid. The writer is entertained by what he writes; he believes none of it.”

This lovely new anniversary edition features both half-tone spot-illustrations and full-page full-color pictures by Jim Tierney, and as delightful as many of this artwork is, the sight of it will flatly halt all long-mytharttime fans of Hamilton’s classic book – gone is the austere, glorious black-and-white illustrations of Steele Savage, illustrations that have fired the imaginations of generations of Hamilton’s readers. As for Hamilton herself, she sums up her own task: “After all, when one takes up a book like this, one does not ask how entertainingly the author has retold the stories, but how close he has brought the reader to the original.” As usual, she was being too strict; readers will indeed ask how entertainingly the author has retold these stories … and as this new hardcover reminds us, this author never fails, even after 75 years.