Posts from December 2016

December 9th, 2016

Penguins on Parade: The Dance of Death!

penguin-colophon

Some Penguin Classics, especially in the last few years, are guaranteed to surprise even the penguin-dance-of-deathmost veteran Penguin- watcher. Sometimes this can be disappointingly puzzling – Wellington’s battlefield dispatches, anyone? – and at other times this broad-minded new sense of inclusiveness can be utterly delightful. An amazing example of this latter instance is a new volume from Penguin called The Dance of Death, a series of 51 engravings, 41 of which were printed in Basle in 1524-25.

The engravings were done by the great artist Hans Holbein, who came to Basle in 1515 and encountered a thriving artistic community growing up around the still-fledgling printing industry. University of Cambridge history professor Ulinka Rublack, in her brilliant, comprehensive commentary essay in this new Penguin volume, engagingly portrays this community: “Publishers lodged and entertained authors and other international visitors,” she writes. “Even though there existed clear hierarchies, these publishers, correctors, typesetters, muscular pressmen pulling off sheets and quick-witted artists together formed a new hub of cutting-edge intellectual life.”

This Penguin edition of the series of woodcuts that’s come to be known as The Dance of Death features full-page reprints of those woodcuts, one after the next, followed by Rublack’s 80-page commentary laying out the background, interpretation, and influence of Holbein’s work. It’s a different arrangement from the one obtaining with most Penguin Classics, mainly dictated by the fact that the central work being reprinted here is a picture-sequence rather the-abbotthan a text.

It’s an extremely effective change. It throws the spotlight of the volume squarely where it belongs: on the woodcuts themselves and the genius that Holbein brings to the subject of the terrifyingly impersonal universality of death: he comes for peasants and princes alike, and in panel after panel, his grasping skeletal hands are pulling at rich gowns, plucking at sack-cloth sleeves, yanking the hoods off monks, and holding up an hourglass whose sands are quickly ebbing. Death is counting out his own tray of coins over the loud protests of The Miser; he’s breaking the mainmast of the Seaman’s ship; he’s skewering a knight with his own lance; and he’s pulling the coverings off the four-poster bed of The Duchess. He plays a merry tune as he leads The the-dukeOld Woman and the Old Man peacefully to their graves, and he leads the pleading Child away from his poor mother. And he shows no respect for ecclesiastical privilege, which was very much a controversial image in that age of Reformation – an ideological balancing act on Holbein’s part, as Rublack points out:

Holbein thus walked a tightrope. He knew that everyone belonging to that very broad spectrum of reform Catholics and Protestants would form a natural audience for his Pictures of Death. The series’ format, intricacy and, presumably, its price were aimed at elites. Holbein therefore could exploit the conventions of satire against the pope, clergy and the rich in this genre, but needed to tread carefully so as not to offend Catholic sensibilities and to be denounced as Lutheran.

The era’s foremost advocate of Church reform, the man puzzlingly referred to by Rublack as the-peddler“the cult humanist” Erasmus, was a friend and frequent client of Holbein and showed great artistic insight when he wrote, “A great artist is always himself, whether he is modelling a colossal statue or a six-inch statuette … whether he is engraving bronze and ordinary stone or precious stones and gold.” When encountering this Dance of Death, it’ll take readers only a moment to come into complete agreement with the cult humanist: this might not be a work of prose, but it’s certainly a work of genius – and now, thanks to Penguin, it’s once again in bookstores everywhere.

December 7th, 2016

Comics! Nightwing Returns to Blüdhaven!

ntw_cv10_57d849bad80078-74413798A standout for DC Comics this week, part of the company’s ongoing “Rebirth” line of titles slightly revamping the continuity that was itself revamped six years ago in the company’s “New 52” revamp, is issue #10 of Nightwing, in which the fan-favorite character moves to the seedy city of Blüdhaven with which he was so firmly associated back in the 1990s (DC is also currently issuing omnibus collections of those great old issues, with scripts by Chuck Dixon and incredible artwork by Scott McDaniel). In the “Rebirth” continuity, Blüdhaven is still corrupt from its sewers to its rooftops, but this Nightwing has never lived there before – it’s a city without a superhero.

Nightwing has always been a puzzling superhero no matter where he hangs his domino mask. In his everyday civilian identity of Dick Grayson, he was introduced to comics readers by Bill Finger and Bob Kane back in 1940 as Robin the Boy Wonder, a cheerful, youthful sidekick to Batman. In that simpler comic book age, no questions were nightwing-10-4-600x922raised inside Batman’s fictional universe as to why a burly adult crime-fighter would want a young boy as a sidekick in the first place, and for forty years or so there was likewise no question of Robin actually getting any older.

But once Stan Lee introduced a modicum of realism into superhero comics, that started to change. Robin the Boy Wonder became Robin the Teen Wonder (who still wore a skimpy bikini-bottom and pixie boots and yet was somehow taken seriously by friend and foe alike), which in turn started to feel awkward. Then in 1984, in something of a first in the superhero world, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez had Dick Grayson shed his Robin booties and adopt a new superhero costume and code-name, Nightwing. No bright yellow cape this time – instead, the costume featured a popped collar and plunging V-neck … and although the character caught on with readers and has steadily grown in popularity for the past thirty years, the puzzlements remain.

After all, this is a character who’s derivative in every conceivable way. He’s an orphan who grew up to become a crime fighter, but Batman was that first. He’s now a costumed urban vigilante stalking criminals by graysontiednight, but Batman was that first and will always be that better (every adult comics fan in the world recognizes the name “Nightwing” … but every adult person in the world recognizes the name “Batman”). Even his superhero codename isn’t original – “Nightwing” was a folkloric hero of Superman’s homeworld Krypton.

Far from being obstacles, these things have instead inspired Nightwing writers over the decades to differentiate the character from the crowd of spandex-wearing acrobats in the most enjoyable way possible: not through external circumstances but through character traits. Nightwing gradually became not just a ntw_10-preview2jokester and light-hearted adventurer but also, again in something of a first at least where male superheroes are concerned, an unabashed sex symbol (it’s no coincidence that the cover of this latest issue gives us a nice unobstructed view of the character’s pert derrière).

Puzzling or not, the character has just about as fanatical a fan base as any superhero property in the DC roster (the only group more fanatical, fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes, currently has nothing whatsoever to cheer about at DC, but that’s a rant for another day), and one of the central tenets of DC’s “Rebirth” line has been to reward that kind of fan loyalty rather than ignore it, as so many of the “New 52” titles seemed to do. So not only do those fans get in Nightwing the version of the character they most love, but in Nightwing #10 they get their favorite character back where they want him most, in Blüdhaven.

This first issue of the new arc is written by Nightwing vet Tim Seeley and drawn by Marcus To, and it uses a very deliberately laid back pacing in order to ease readers into this locational change for the character – Dick Grayson is slowly, tentatively getting to know his new home, and something of that tentativeness is reflected in the largely static feel of the first half of the issue, where Dick interviews for a day job and nightwing3unpacks his belongings.

The issue’s climactic action sequence picks up the pace, of course (although absurdly – a combat-trained human acrobat cannot defeat a gorilla in hand-to-hand combat; a combat-trained human acrobat would last about two-and-one-half seconds against a gorilla), but Seeley goes easy on the tempo and the complications in this introductory chapter. The plot complications aren’t the point in this issue anyway, he seems to be saying: the point is that for Nightwing, the changes and upheavals of the “New 52” character revamp have now been effectively wiped clean – Dick Grayson is Nightwing again, and Nightwing is back in Blüdhaven again. In the roster of “Rebirth” gifts to reward loyal fans, this ranks right up near the top of the list.

Meanwhile, Legion fans will just have to keep waiting …

December 6th, 2016

A Winter-Time Regency Trio!

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Our books today are three quick bursts of color and gaiety to brighten up a December day as winter, delayed and tentative, at last begins to close its grip on the city of Boston. Temperatures in the 20s (F) are in the immediate forecast for the first time in ten months, the other morning featured a brief flirtation with snow, and worst of all, some New England meteorologists, unafraid of public opprobrium, have predicted a likelihood that this winter might see the return of that least-welcome of visitors from 2014, the Polar Vortex.

Fortunately, it’s always sunny springtime in the England of my beloved Regency Romances! And thanks to the kind folks at Avon, I’ve been able to bask in that springtime with a trio of frothy, wonderful novels:

viscount-vixenThe Viscount and the Vixen by Lorraine Heath – This is the story of handsome, forceful Viscount Locksley, who watched at first hand the ruinous toll that love took on his father, who was badly damaged emotionally by the loss of his wife. When his father contracts to marry a red-haired adventuress named Portia Gadstone, Locksley will do anything to spare his father another ordeal of married madness, so – in a plot-twist of the type Lorraine Heath does so well – he decides to take his father’s place in the contract! He enters the arrangement determined to resists its personal elements, but as his feelings for Portia grow, he begins to think differently about their future:

Damn it all to hell if he didn’t want that lifetime with her. He wanted her in his life until his hair turned silver and his sight faded. He wanted her when his body was stiff and bent. He’d married her expecting to want no more from her than the nights. More the fool was he because now he wanted every second of every day.

Heath throws the usual minor obstacles in the path of that happy lifetime together, but she’s got the happiness of her characters – and her readers – firmly in mind from Page 1.

While the Duke was Sleeping by Sophie Jordan – As cheering as Regency Romances while-duke-sleepingare, there’s something a little extra-cheering when the romance in question is the first in a series; the ground is fresh, and we can follow the unfolding of plots and subplots right from the start. That’s the case with this new book from genre veteran Sophie Jordan: it’s the first installment in The Rogue Files, and at its heart is the annoying tendency of love to surprise its victims. Although in this case the most obvious victim is the Duke of Autenberry, who’s run down by a racing carriage on the street and only saved from death by the quick actions of shop girl Poppy Fairchurch, who’s often daydreamed about the Duke and now finds herself at his bedside while he lays there comatose from his brush with death. Also at the bedside is the Duke’s broodingly sexy half-brother Struan Mackenzie, who strikes a dark note about the Duke’s chances of recovery, sparking his stepback2first disagreement with Poppy:

She sighed. “There’s no sense in being grim. That’s not helpful.”

“I’m being realistic.”

“You’re being harsh,” she countered with a sniff. She recalled his hard, unsmiling face vividly in her mind as well as the savagery of his fight with her brother. Yes, this man was as unrelenting as stone and she would do well to stay clear of him. Whenever she must be in close proximity with him, she would stay on guard.

But readers of Sophie Jordan’s bubbling, delightful novels – or readers of Regencies in general – will be able to guess how well that whole ‘stay on guard’ strategy will work out. The more she comes to know Struan, the more Poppy comes to see how silly her daydreams about the Duke always were – eventually coming to that perfect Sophie Jordan moment of saying, “The reality of you is better than any fantasy I’ve ever had.”

A Date at the Altar by Cathy Maxwell – This is the third volume in Cathy Maxwell’s date-at-altar“Marrying the Duke” series, following The Fairest of Them All and 2015’s utterly wonderful The Match of the Century, and in all three books, the centerpiece of the story is not only the titular duke but also the shattering of dukish illusions on the part of the story’s strong-willed heroine – in this case the smart, hardscrabble actress and playwright Sarah Pettijohn, who’s perfectly aware of the attractions of Gavin Whitridge, the Duke of Baynton:

By anyone’s account, the Duke of Baynton was a very handsome man. Dark-haired, blessed with sharp blue eyes and the sort of lean, square jaw that spoke of character, he would attract any woman’s attention. Furthermore, he exuded masculinity. It was in the air around him, enhanced by the spiciness of his shaving soap and just the being of his person.

… but has a problem with him that will be familiar to any Regency reader: “However, no one, simply no single person in the world could annoy her more than this fellow with his stepback1arms around her waist.”

Sarah isn’t a member of the nobility, and she’s in her early 30s – ancient by the standards of the marriage mart of the day. But this kind of starting-point antipathy is a playground to writer like Cathy Maxwell; she puts her two lovebirds through their paces before she brings them to the altar in the title, and there’s not a page of it all that isn’t enjoyable.

The three books together, read throughout the course of a black day soaked with sooty cold rain, deliver the bright, carefree magic that’s the main reason I keep coming back to Regencies. The characters in these stories have never heard of the Polar Vortex – talk about a halcyon era.

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December 5th, 2016

The Literary Life … and the Hell with It!

liter-lifeOur book today is a garrulous little delight from 1939, The Literary Life and the Hell with It, by Whit Burnett, the founder (along with his wonderful wife Martha Foley, the brains of the outfit) and long-time editor of Story magazine. Martha Foley had a fantastic ear for prose in English and a nearly-infallible instinct for picking authors “with a future” – which did as much as Burnett’s oddly lackadaisical industry to establish Story, against all odds, as one of the premiere venues for fiction in the 1930s and ’40s.

Not a terrific amount of all that storytelling talent managed to rub off on Whit Burnett, whose anecdotes throughout this book range from ‘patchily effective’ to ‘what was your point again?’ – but he was a lively eye witness to the whole breadth of the literary world of his day, and that always makes for interesting and often invaluable reading. A long list of writers and editors and publishers walk through these pages, and Burnett usually does a wonderful job of preserving some interesting details – and serving them up with a tart bit of humor. About the great Irish writer Liam O’Flaherty, for instance, he writes: “O’Flaherty is an Aran Islander, but he lives where he fancies,” and then adds: “He is a trim fellow, lean and handsome, blue-eyed, neatly pressed, impulsively outspoken and suddenly reticent with that in-and-out-of-the-shell quality which seems to affect certain Irishmen if they ever lived once in the city of Boston.”

The bustling old literary world of Burnett’s time are vividly realized in vignette after vignette. The ghost of dear old Lewis Gannett is revived from his glorious tenure as literary editor of the New York Herald Tribune, during which he seized what he knew perfectly well was a priceless opportunity and went on to review new book almost every day for years on end. And here, too, Burnett works in some wry commentary, mentioning that Gannett sometimes published quick little “Hot Type”-style quotes from “various literary persons” about what they like to read:

Mary Pickford, an author in her own right since her historic discovery of God, reads Shaw and Barrie, Mark Twain and Thomas Mann. She likes especially “The Magic Mountain.” he also likes practically everything by Louisa M. Alcott, “Little Women,” “Little Men,” … “and oodles of others.”

The Literary Life and the Hell with It was drawn together as ominous clouds were gathering over all of Europe, and something of that darkens the text from time to time. There’s a moment involving Ernest Hemingway, for instance, that opens with Burnett’s usual abundance of fine details:

Hemingway, who had been several months in Spain as a newspaper correspondent and working with the Dutch Joris Ivens on a documentary film of the Civil War, spoke in Carnegie Hall from typescript, his right foot nervously cocked and uncocked across his left ankle, standing, perspiring, before a microphone, his face to the excite thousand persons packed in the concert house, his back to a couple of hundred American writers who, alas, from where they were sitting, were unable to hear a word he said.

… and then moves on to the man’s words, which naturally strike a chord:

“Really good writers are always rewarded under almost every existing system of government that they can tolerate. There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is Fascism. For Fascism is a lie told by bullies. A writer who will not lie cannot live or work under Fascism.”

Reading The Literary Life and the Hell with It made me smile to think about the bookish world it conveys so well, a gone-but-not-forgotten heyday of hard work and no money and big personalities. Whit Burnett wasn’t one of those big personalities himself, but he had a Boswellian eye for telling little details about those who were. A similar book by his divine wife would have been a pearl of great price, but in between keeping Story afloat and helping to shape the careers of two generations’ worth of short story writers, she never quite found the time to write one.

December 2nd, 2016

Comics: “Power and Glory” in the JLA!

jla_cv10Back in 1989, inexplicably popular comic book artist Bryan Hitch was given control of DC Comics bestselling iconic “New 52” series Justice League of America and began a multi-part storyline called “Power and Glory,” in which Rao, the god of Superman’s lost homeworld Krypton, turns up alive and well on Earth one day and starts demanding that everybody worship him. The biddable sheeple of Planet Earth are only too happy to trade their free will for a few paltry miracle cures, but the Justice League – comprised here of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg – smells a rat. And an epic, multi-issue battle commences.

Now, at the end of 2016, after the entire continuity of DC Comics has undergone complete revamps and the original readers of “Power and Glory” have all grown old and passed on their comics longboxes to the next generation, the story finally comes to a conclusion in JLA #10.

Which is neither written nor drawn by Bryan Hitch. Which prompts me to ask yet again the same question I’ve been asking now for ten years: why does this unprofessional, totally unreliable charlatan continue to get prestige commissions from DC and Marvel? Why isn’t he doing semi-annual John Constantine 8-page backup features that nobody notices at all?

He hasn’t actually finished one of those high-profile assignments in a decade. When he signs on for some big event – Marvel’s Age of Ultron (or a run on its now shamefully defunct Fantastic Four), this Justice League run, or his previous Justice League run, etc. – it’s now common knowledge that he will a) miss deadlines, b) omit panel backgrounds, c) commit phoned-in or on-the-fly inept character redesigns, and finally d) walk off the job without completing it, leaving behind a mess that has to be sorted out by less expensive company talent. Hitch’s projects start with bombast, momentum along with an adolescent mixture of hyperventilation and sexism, and then fall flat on their faces with incredibly ad hoc and disappointing endings.

It would be one thing if this had happened once in a long career. Anybody can have a bit of jl33bad luck. But this isn’t an isolated feature in Hitch’s career – it’s the defining characteristic of his career. If you attach him to your high-profile new comics title, that’s exactly what you’ll get: an overheated beginning, a long string of delays, and an abandoned mess.

The wrapping-up of the abandoned mess is what readers get in issue #10, which is written by Tony Bedard and drawn by Tom Derenick. The only thing about the issue that’s still Bryan Hitch is the cover, and it serves as a perfect parting shot of all that’s ridiculous and reprehensible about this shoddy fraud. It’s a generic pose-shot of the League in combat, Superman firing off his heat vision, Batman leaping into the fray, Green Lantern blasting energy, Flash accelerating to full speed, Aquaman brandishing his trident … and, front and center of the cover, Wonder Woman firing some sort of double-handled Uzi.

Only no explanation is given – nor would ever be considered necessary by a misogynist of Hitch’s caliber – for why a super-powered Amazon warrior with an indestructible golden jla44lariat would need a gun. No explanation is given for why in an assembly where she’s arguable the most powerful person present (an assembly that includes Batman, who has no superpowers at all), she’s the only one who needs something she bought at Walmart. And no explanation is given for why on this particular cover Wonder Woman is a 20-something male cosplayer.

Hitch’s status as a high-demand fan favorite seems invulnerable, even though it’s the fans who get rooked every single time he attaches his name to a project. But at least “Power and Glory” is now over and done with. Bring on the next abortive fiasco.

December 1st, 2016

Advice to a Young Reviewer!

advice-to-young-reviewerOur book today is a slim little thing from 1927: Advice to a Young Reviewer, a quick mini-pamphlet dashed off at white heat by Edward Copleston, who was born in Devon in 1776, attended Oxford, and became Bishop of Llandaff and Dean of St. Paul’s in 1828. Copleston was apparently a feisty old codger of a churchman, prone to writing irate letters to the editor and never standing on the dignity of his office if there was a likely-looking tempest in some local teapot.

According to the wonderfully snarky preface to this little volume, the good bishop had plenty of energy to spare for these little issues because he was blithely uninterested in all the big issues of his day:

Edward Copleston was born in the year of the birth of modern America. It was in March of that year that the British troops evacuated Boston, which Washington had been besieging since the previous autumn; in July came the Declaration of American Independence. During the seventy years of Copleston’s life violent and radical changes took place practically all over Europe, and many in his own country, but he was singularly little affected by them.

In this case, the little issue that stuck in Copleston’s craw was a carping negative review in The British Critic of a slim volume of poetry by Richard Mant, Bishop of Down in Ireland. Aggrieved by this lengthy (and of course anonymous, the style of the day for book reviews) takedown of the work of a fellow cleric, Copleston wrote a sarcastic counter-blast purporting to give advice to anybody just starting out in the reviewing business. He advises such a beginning first and foremost to Write what will sell – reminding them that if they don’t first sell their reviews, their work can’t possibly have any influence.

But he also warns against influence itself, even anonymous influence. Better by far, he sneers, to follow popular taste than to lead it. Better to crib from an author’s own Preface rather than actually know what you’re writing about. “The task of pleasing is at all times easier than that of instructing,” he writes, and what better way to please than by mastering the time-honored antics then in use down the Old Bailey? Not the antics of judges, who at least attempt to be, well, judicial, summing things up dispassionately according to their merits; rather, Copleston’s crass, opportunistic young reviewers should copy the courtroom theatrics of the barristers:

Instead of vainly aspiring therefore to the gravity of a magistrate, I would advise him, when he sits down to write, to place himself in the imaginary situation of a cross-examining pleader. He may comment, in a vein of agreeable irony, upon the profession, the manner of life, the look, dress, or even the name of the witness he is examining: when he has raised a contemptuous opinion of him in the minds of the court, he may proceed to draw answers from him capable of a ludicrous turn, and he may carve and garble those to his own liking.

The Preface bids farewell to our author with just the same withering tone with which it introduced him (the thing is signed only “V. M. D.” and I think it might be worth the effort to find out who that was):

Acting his part (unremembered now) courageously and conscientiously on the small stage of University life, Copleston was remarkable neither for character nor for gifts, but as a type he is significant when the back-cloth of the times is unfolded behind him. All day long the noise of battle rolled, but Edward Copleston, D.D., in the centre of the Oxford Movement, hardly heard it. Certainly he did not strain his ears for tidings.

But although Copleston might have been happily unaware of the newspaper headlines happening all around him, I couldn’t help reflecting, after I read his little blast, that for all his cloistered life, he saw the reviewing world clearly enough. Some of the reviewing gimmicks he snickers at in his pages are very much in use today – reviewers still get called on the carpet for them in practically every letters column of the TLS, usually by the lucy-takes-adviceauthors of the books under review, angry that such shabby practices were used to sum up their labor of years. And although Copleston was clueless enough to be sarcastic when he instructed reviewers to write what will sell, his reasoning was impeccable, even more so nowadays, when freelance book reviewers are no longer anonymous: if you pitch only the most recondite arcana to commissioning editors, not only will they give you no work but they’ll also begin to associate you with recondite arcana.

And that isn’t even the sharpest irony in Advice to a Young Reviewer. In order to strut his stuff a bit, Copleston finishes up his screed by offering a tongue-in-cheek example of the kind of mealy-mouthed and corner-cutting review he’s been describing. By way of high fun, he himself writes a reviewer-speak review of L’Allegro by John Milton – and whoever the previous owner of this copy was (the book plate says “W. S. Tryon”) didn’t even bother to read the mock review: the pages are uncut. Sic transit, etc.

November 29th, 2016

Wilt-tripping in the Penny Press!

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Self-preservation these days requires not only skipping wholesale the front sections of all the political magazines to which I subscribe but also physically tearing them off their staples and discarding them, so that not even a stray glance falls on their appalling content. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now and face an unbroken future of continuing to do it, but naturally, such a precaution left me unprepared to encounter quite such an iceberg of irritation as I did when reading the back half of the most recent Nation.

nation-coverIn particular, a round-up review called “Criticism in the Twilight” by somebody named Nicholas Dames, writing about three books, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, and Against Everything by Mark Greif. The first two of those are collections of book reviews and the third, Against Everything, is a collection of n + 1 pointless windbagging on various random topics. But even so, the gambit Dames chose in order to kick off his review deals with the life – and death – of public literary criticism

If you think that sounds gruesome, you’re not wrong. His opening paragraph is every bit as bad as you might expect from somebody who’s going to waste your time laying out a case that once upon a time, great critics like Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael rose above the limitations of the sub-genre (“They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline,” etc.) and achieved a kind of lit-crit immortality the very root conditions of which have disappeared today:

What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institution can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public … Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.

To which, naturally, Dames appends “Or so it seems.” “Or so it seems” and its weasling ilk are the schoolhouse hall passes of the literary world, endorsed by the principal, proof against any infractions, and either envied by the fellow students who want one for themselves or hated by the fellow students who think the whole concept is a bullying scam. “Or so it seems” lets a writer spew any kind of stem-winding nonsense for the first 200 words of a thousand-word piece, without even much thinking about those words, let alone taking responsibility for them.

And sure enough, Dames then goes on to talk about things that seem like flat refutations of his opening spiel, most notably the profusion of cultural criticism that’s existed every since the Internet came of age. But it quickly becomes obvious that the thing he’s complaining about isn’t the lack of critics – it’s the lack of critics in Armonk, and the lack of readers taking the Metro North into the city from White Plains every morning on their way to the investment firm with the day’s Arts section folded under their arm. “Once,” he writes, “critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogeneous public opinion.”

Despite the obvious fact that he wasn’t quite engaged enough in struggling for legitimacy to refrain from sharing his insights, better-living(maybe he had an idle weekend), Nicholas Dames is himself an academic, a professor at Columbia no less, and after reading his little opening outcry, this is entirely believable. But even so, it takes an academic with a particular gift for Ivory-tower innocence to believe there was ever a time when cultural Titans like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael sat at their high desks dispensing wisdom to a listening, engaged (and we can guess a couple of the other things that might be meant by that “homogeneous”) readership. There wasn’t ever such a time. Nor was there ever a time – in American history, anyway – when book-critics were serenely pondering the canon instead of chasing after things like Avengers: Age of Ultron on tight deadline for peanuts in the ephemeral pages of the Penny Press. Dames is very precisely and very cannily confusing his terms in order to push his nonsensical, contradictory old-fogie points about “debased” criticism conducted in the twilight. It’s a bit silly to talk about the death-from-irrelevance of deadline criticism in 2016, while surrounded every day by examples of it and while reviewing two collections of it for the Books section of a national magazine with a circulation of 100,000.

Silly, but hey – The Nation pays. It wilts, but it pays.

November 23rd, 2016

Penguins on Parade: 120 Days of Sodom!

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Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, 120-daysno matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.

It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.

But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.

Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:

By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.

But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly desadescandalscraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:

A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.

Ooooooh!

November 21st, 2016

Two Books of Travel!

taste-for-travelOur books today – one old favorite and one I believe a new mention here at Stevereads – provide a warm-reminder reading experience that only gets warmer as the weather turns colder and the years go by: they’re both anthologies of travel-writing. The first, A Taste for Travel, was edited by John Julius Norwich in 1985, and the second, The Norton Book of Travel, was edited by Paul Fussell in 1987, and although they have basically the same goal – bringing the world of travel to your library – the routes they take to get there are different enough to be complimentary; in fact, not only is each of these volumes an indispensable addition to any travel-writing library, but the two of them make a tandem necessity.

John Julius Norwich organizes his book thematically, presenting excerpts from the writings of some of history’s greatest travelers grouped around certain hallmarks of all travel, headings like “Beginnings,” “Motivations,” “First Impressions,” “Architecture,” “Nature,” “Hardship,” the ever-popular “Health and Hygiene,” and “Homecomings.” After a bit of swanning about the fact that an anthology’s editor has a kind of duty to reflect his own personal favorites (why he felt the need to include this swanning, I’ll never know – Norwich has always done exactly what he wanted on assignments like this, and everybody who’s ever worked with him knows that – but maybe he was feeling self-conscious during the hour it took him to bash out his Introduction), Norwich then includes choice excerpts from a long roster of greats: Lawrence Durrell, Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Mark Twain, John Ruskin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, etc.

It’s a glorious assemblage, bringing readers right into the changing face of travel’s staples, the getting ready, the getting there, the getting about, and the getting home. The editorial approach here, relying as it does on what Norwich himself considers to fit each category, is necessarily fussy, but the tone of the Introduction will prepare you for that; it’s a fantastically mandarin mini-essay that manages to exalt the past in the most Norwichian manner possible: by pooh-poohing the present. Essentially, in His Lordship’s view, all modern travelers are doing it wrong:

There is no doubt about it: the easier it becomes to travel, the harder it is to be a traveller. Half a century ago, any young Englishman prepared to venture beyond the shores of Western Europe could lay claim to the title; patience, resourcefulness and robustness of digestion were the only qualities he needed. A year or two later he could return, the pride of his family, the envy of his friends; a trail-blazer, a hero. Alas, those days are over. Everybody goes everywhere – or nearly everywhere – buying their air tickets with their credit cards and being met by airport buses, secure in the knowledge that their hotel reservations have been confirmed, that the rent-a-car firm is expecting them, and that it will be perfectly safe to drink the Coca-Cola.

(His sense of proportion seems very faintly to pull at him; in full throat about the lost glories of roughing it, this most indefatigable and most pampered of world travelers is willing to grant “we are fully aware that these excitements were never without their disadvantages” – yes indeed, having enough telecommunications to prevent yourself from showing up at a full inn – or walking into a war zone – you know, “disadvantages” like that – can sometimes be to the good)

Fussell’s book likewise breaks the whole experience of traveling into broad norton-book-of-travelcategories like “Beginnings,” but he means it literally, not thematically: his book’s excerpts trace the history of travel, from Herodotus to the 18th century to the “heyday” that occurred, naturally, just before Fussell’s readers were old enough to pack a footlocker and hit the road. This bad timing half-lights the book with a thin glow of wistfulness, and in his own Introduction, Fussell addresses it directly:

But the irony of traveling can sometimes end in melancholy. Flaubert observes how sad it is to experience a foreign place that is wonderful and to know that you will never return to it. All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicitly in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time. The melancolies du voyage – Flaubert’s term – are as much a part of travel (but never, significantly, of tourism) as its more obvious delights.

The essay is every bit as delightful as Norwich’s, and just under the surface of their differences is the enormous similarity they share: both our editors, way back in the 1980s, were assuring their readers that traveling, the genuine item, doesn’t happen anymore, that it’s been replaced by credit cards and hotel reservations, that its great loss is signaled in its morphing into that dreaded word, tourism. Most tourists think they are traveling; both Fussell and Norwich would like to disabuse them of that idea.

It’s frustrating, in a small way, to encounter that prewar certainty so firmly embedded in both these wonderful books, but it’s their only frustration, and it has a charm of its own. I won’t have been the only reader to come to these books and think, “Tourism is a plague, you’re right about that – but travel, real travel, is still possible for the adventurous.”

bubstravelAnd as to Flaubert’s melancolies du voyage? Well, as usual, Flaubert was spot-on about the reality of such a thing, and Fussell is likewise right that it’s something tourists aren’t likely to feel – why should they, when their travel experience was bought and paid for in a packaged way that can be bought and paid for identically the following year? And as is the way with syrupy sentiment, the melancholy doesn’t end when the traveling does; instead, the erstwhile traveler, now halted by age or infirmity (or, as is more often the case, the age and infirmity of loved ones, our true home ports), feels an entirely new level of it when reading and re-reading books like these. And that makes them sweeter, in an odd way.

November 16th, 2016

A Pearl of Earls!

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Our books today are posies picked from the local Barnes & Noble, a colorful trio of Regency novels all occupying roughly the middle orbit in the solar system of the British peerage: all books about earls, that strangely accessible rank of nobility considerably above a viscount and just a bit below a marquess. Any time you walk to the New Releases bay of a big bookstore’s romance section, you’ll be guaranteed of finding Regencies at any level of the peerage you like, from lowly barons all the way to dukes and even princes of the blood – at any time, it’s possible to walk out of that section with three new goodies starring the rank of your choice. I did just that the other day, and then I followed it up with a few hours of gloriously self-indulgent reading:

earlThe Earl by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – The first of the three I read was this latest in Ashe’s “Devil’s Duke” series (following The Rogue), in which Regency England is tittering to the writings of anonymous pamphleteer Lady Justice, whose work is particularly infuriating to a coterie of aristocrats that includes Colin Gray, the tenth Earl of Egremoor, who’s determined to unmask Lady Justice. Even such a bare-bones summary of the set-up will give you a pretty clear idea of, well, every single thing that happens in the course of the novel. But Ashe is a very spirited writer just the same, and this book’s concentration on the location of Scotland is both rare in a romance that doesn’t feature a bare-chested Highlander and also surprisingly pleasing in the way it brings out a nearly poetical strand in Ashe’s ordinarily somewhat somber prose, as can be seen even in her Author’s Note on the subject:

Two hundred years ago upon the heels of the European Enlightenment, Edinburgh, Scotland, glittered with style, wealth, and sophistication to rival the glamour of London and Paris. But as the city gloried in rebirth, the Scottish countryside remained spectacularly unchanged. Dark woodlands climbed the mountainsides, gleaming lochs reflected skies that knew no coal smog, and endless emerald hills and valleys boasted plentiful sheep and the occasional turret of mighty fortresses built in earlier, belligerent eras. It was a landscape of sublime contrasts, of delicate wildflowers and towering crags, silent mists and violent storms, cozy cottages tucked into safe crevices and miles upon miles of untamed wilderness. To step off the main road in this land was to enter another world, a world in which anything could happen, even the transformation of enemies into lovers and the breaking open of two locked hearts …

Of course such a description doesn’t even have one sensible Scottish boot-heel grounded in the actual reality that obtained two hundred years ago in Scotland, either in Edinburgh, which has never, does not, and will never merit the word “glamour,” or in the blasted, verminous countryside. But then, we go to Regency romances for just such touches of earnest fantasy, yes?

My Brown-Eyed Earl by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s) – Certainly there’s fantasybrown-eyed-earl aplenty in the next and best book in our pearl-string of earls, this first in a new series of “Wayward Wallflowers” novels by Anna Bennett, in which the wallflower in question, Miss Margaret Lacey (very refreshingly referred to throughout as Meg), at the end of her meager funds, desperately needs a job. She signs up to be governess to the twin daughters of William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, and she’s even more nervous than usual, because she and the Earl share, you guessed it, a torrid past: they were once betrothed, until Meg swam off in her own direction. Now, when the two of them come back into each other’s lives, the proverbial sparks fly every time they talk with each other, even when, for instance, the Earl is in the middle of a reprimand:

Meg bit her tongue and nodded. The earl paced thoughtfully in front of the fireplace, rubbing the light stubble on his chin as he no doubt debated the best way to inform her that he was sacking her. It didn’t really matter whether he fired her or she quit, but she did wonder if there was a limit to how much humiliation a person could endure in one day. Surely, she was nearing the threshold by now.

“There will be no more incidents like the one that occurred today,” he said smoothly, as if it were just that easy to command it so.

“It was inexcusable,” Meg agreed. “I should never had let the girls wander off. My carelessness could have resulted in -”

“Miss Lacey,” the earl drawled, “a brief pause is not an invitation to speak.”

Meg bristled. “No? I rather thought that was how conversations worked, my lord.”

My Brown-Eyed Earl is very nearly as intensely predictable as The Earl, but it swaps out that book’s more stately and serious undertones for a gaiety that sparkles on every page and turns the plot’s own predictability into something that feels like an asset.

the-earl-i-adoreThe Earl I Adore by Erin Knightley (Signet) is our final book today, the second in this author’s “Prelude to a Kiss” novels (following The Baron Next Door), and it has none of the slightly wild background atmosphere of Ashe’s Scottish hinterlands and none of the unpredictable freshness of the give-and-take between Bennett’s fiery lovers. Instead, Knightley takes the aforementioned predictability of the first two novels and, in Fast and Furious parlance, floors it. This is the story of how sweet, optimistic Sophie must race to land a husband before the scandal of her sister’s recent elopement spreads an indelible stain onto her family’s respectability. She’s at Bath (of course), and she sets her sights on John Fairfax, the Earl of Evansleigh, as a promising target. Of course she’s not much better at predatory wooing than he is at being wooed, so what follows is a very comfortable combination of standard Regency maneuverings and modern-feeling rom-com fumblings, in which all of the characters are thoroughly grounded in their Regency concerns (in a way that, to take the most memorable example, Elizabeth Bennet never is):

Sophie paused, toying with the silky fringe of her shawl as she considered the question. Her entire first Season had been such an overwhelming experience, she’s simply wanted to soak it all in. The dancing, the fashion, the music – it was all so glorious. And then there were the less than glorious parts: being looked down upon for her family’s modest funds, feeling the sting of the ton’s sometimes viperous tongues, nearly falling down the stairs at her first ball. Choosing a husband in the whirlwind had seemed ludicrous.

And then she had met Lord Evansleigh.

The Earl I Adore is pure entertainment, which is lucky, since it’s only bubsearlsentertainment. It’s for Regency readers who want foregone conclusions and want them badly. Knightley serves those foregone conclusions up with a thoroughly practiced ease – and after the last two weeks, maybe there’s more to be said for simple, unsurprising escapism than any of us might once have thought.

These weren’t the only earls on offer at the bookstore during my latest outing, far from it – there were dukes and viscounts aplenty too, and barons and marquesses enough to fill up the Netherfield ballroom five times over. These three caught my eye this time around, but I’m sure I’ll be back for another dip into Burke’s Peerage in no time at all.