Posts from September 2017
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.’
August 9th, 2017
Our book today is Ancient History by M. I. Finley, and in addition to its own merits, it also had for me in this re-reading the charm of serendipity. I spend my life these days reading books and book reviews, so the book-driven serendipity to which I’d like to think I’ve always been observant now surrounds me on all sides every day: a Vanity Fair column, while talking about an upcoming deluxe coffee table production number, will offhandedly mention some obscure book, and lo, that obscure book will spring into my path at some charity shop only a week later, or some friend or colleague will allude to a nettlesome author who’s recently made their life miserable even though said nettlesome author died centuries ago, and sure enough, mere days later a sample of that nettlesome author’s long-forgotten work will turn up at a Goodwill otherwise known for its coffee-stained copies of Trevanian (I make a mental note never to tell the colleague that I’m consorting with the enemy, but I admit, that often gives the reading an extra pinch of pleasure), or – by far the most common instance, predictably so – I’ll read the name of one author in the book of another, and by whatever mnemonic arithmetic is responsible for such things, the name will stick with me, nagging just off-stage, until I chance upon a book by that author at the Brattle Bookshop and feel almost obligated, I recently found some cover designs by Damonza that I am so excited to start using on my books.
My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of the Finley book came about in just such a way. I’d been reading Barbara McManus’s utterly winning new book from the Ohio State University Press, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, all about the trailblazing life and sharp mind (and tongue) of the great classical scholar Grace Harriet Macurdy, and since the book included some fairly juicy (by academic press standards) anecdotes about the rows she had with the Grand Old Men of her profession, Finley’s name came up.
He was for a good long time one of the grandest of Grand Old Men in the classics world, who got his BA from Syracuse University at the ripe old age of 15 and taught the Greek classics in England and America (with one rather notable brief Red Scare-induced interruption) for many decades. He was on the go-to name-index for half a dozen harried editors who might need somebody to expound on Callimachus without making an ass of himself, and that generated a fairly good amount of occasional deadline prose, some of which constitutes Ancient History.
Re-reading the book, which came out in 1986, I was reminded on every page how much I like Finley’s punchy, no-nonsense writing about the discipline to which he devoted his whole life. Pieces like “Documents” or “How it really was” feel every bit as fresh now as they did when I first read them a quarter-century ago, and the best piece in this collection, “The Ancient Historian and his Sources,” still strikes an invigorating tone of stern disbelief about a recurring problem-subject:
The insufficiency of primary literary sources is a continuing curse. If it looms largest in the study of the archaic, more or less preliterary, periods of Greek and Roman history, this is only because those are the periods for which archeological evidence is currently dominating the learned discussions. In fact, the lack of primary literary sources bedevils Greek history altogether after the death of Xenophon in the mid-fourth century BC, the whole world of the Hellenistic East, important periods of the history of the Roman Republic and the Principate, including most of the history of the Roman provinces. For example, for the long reign of Augustus the only primary sources, other than documents, are half a book of naive, superficial history by Velleius Paterculus, some letters and speeches of Cicero for the early years, Augustus’ own account of his stewardship, the Res gestae, a model of disingenuousness, and the Augustan poets.
It was a pleasure, in other words, to spend time in his written company again, regardless of what train of associations brought me to that point.
It’s of course a perfect example of the kind of casual sexist-preference that Macurdy so often railed against that Finley had more book contracts dangled in front of him, enjoyed greater renown in his own lifetime, and still has books that can be found on the Brattle’s sale-carts on an overcast summer morning. And his success was no accident of privilege; re-reading Ancient History was a wonderful reminder of just how good a writer and teacher he could be. And if I ever feel a little guilty at once again getting that pinch of pleasure by consorting with the enemy, I can remind myself with a smile: Moses Finley has never had a biography, much less one as smart and entertaining as The Drunken Duchess of Vassar.
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.
June 20th, 2017
Our book today is the latest edge-of-your-seat pot-boiler by Lincoln Child: Full Wolf Moon, whose tag-line is “On the trail of a killer who cannot possibly exist …” – in case you had any lingering doubts about whether or not it is, in fact, summer.
Full Wolf Moon – not to be confused with any of the books titled Wolf Moon or Moon of the Wolf, or Full Wolf Moon – is the latest adventure of Jeremy Logan, who’s a self-styled “enigmalogist,” a lone, er, wolf freelance investigator who looks into the strange and surreal, the stuff on the borders of science, the kinds of things that can’t possibly exist, and in the latest adventure, he’s in the wilds of the Adirondacks, near the tiny, secretive town of Pike Hollow, where two backpackers were recently torn to shreds by … something. Game wardens and local naturalists are conflicted about what that something could have been – a bear? More than one bear? What one of Child’s characters rather confusingly refers to as a “feral wolf”?
The chance – the faintest whiff – that it could be something else, something unknown to science, has drawn Logan to Pike Hollow like a pig to unsalted peanut butter (they love it! There’s just no accounting for taste …). And sure, he’s perfectly willing to talk with those game wardens, and with local wilderness expert Laura Feverbridge and her iconoclastic scientist father Chase (he performs unconventional experiments on animals, but move along, nothing to see here folks), but the thing that really gets Logan’s enigmalogist juices flowing is talking with the locals about the reclusive Blakeney clan, whose backwoods compound has been in their family – and, um, nobody else’s family, if you catch my drift – for well over a century.
Those locals are happy to tell Logan about the rumors that have clung to the Blakeneys that whole time – rumors of violence, madness, cannibalism, and … you’ve surely waited long enough … lycanthropy. And Child periodically breaks from Logan’s investigation to give us nighttime scenes of terror that certainly suggest lycanthropic activity, as when a local named Sam gets out of his car on a forlorn little road at night and immediately senses something in the nearby scrub … something not-natural. “There was a long moment when he stood, paralyzed with surprise and fear,” Child writes, adding helpfully: “He felt a warm gush as his bladder let go.” Then all hell breaks loose:
Suddenly, a hundred things seemed to happen at once. Sam abruptly found his feet again and dashed around the front of the car, literally diving inside as a loud crashing burst from the nearby bracken; at the last possible moment he reached back and pulled the door closed, punching the lock as he did so; his flashlight, falling to the floor of the passenger seat, rolled backward and he saw something outside the window that, temporarily, drove all rational thought from his mind. Neighing in terror and dismay, he cringed back, windmilling with his legs, while the thing outside beat on his car with unimaginable fury. And then the light seemed to grow in intensity; the roaring sound suddenly mingled with another; his car shook once again under the violent assault – and then Sam slumped over the center column of the Civic, fainting, as merciful oblivion overtook him.
Logan, we’re told, has been all over the world and seen all kinds of weird things in his self-made profession – “hidden tombs of Egyptian kings; the watery depths of Scottish lochs; the crumbling crypts of Romanian family tombs” and so on. But the closer he gets to learning the actual secrets of the Blakeneys, the more secrets he uncovers from other quarters, and the whole of it is written with a huge amount of expertly-done momentum, paper-thin characters, and the literary skills of a moderately ambitious eight-year-old. In other words, just the kind of thing plenty of people reach for, once the summer heat moves in …