Posts from April 2017
April 19th, 2017
As I’ve mentioned here on Stevereads before, 2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, the online literary journal where I have the honor to be Managing Editor. It’s naturally been an occasion to look back at those ten years – the hundreds of pieces we’ve published, the thousands of books, the writers, the editors, the breakneck problems that crop up out of nowhere and require all-hands-on-deck responses … and the sense of accomplishment that comes from managing to keep creating such a thing for so long.
So long of course being relative. The standard industry metric – most recently repeated by JC in the TLS but universal in any case – has always been that ten years is the expected lifespan of the stereotypical “little literary journal,” and yet there are the glorious exceptions, the team-endeavors that manage to beat the odds and keep producing issues even after their first decade has been survived. And I’ve found that while I’ve been basking in that private glow of pride, I’ve been more aware than usual when other magazines, things I’ve read for years, have anniversaries.
Ten years has at times felt like a century at Open Letters, in both good ways and bad ways; there were many months where the deadline loomed and we were all fairly certain it spelled disaster, and yet invariably an issue would materialize. The idea of doing that kind of juggling act for twenty years, or thirty, is a pause-inducing thing, so I pricked up my ears when I noticed that the rock-solid little digest science fiction magazine Asimov’s is currently enjoying its fortieth anniversary.
I didn’t read it in its first year or two – I suspect I was otherwise occupied back in the late ’70s, although one can never be 100% sure – but I haven’t missed an issue of Asimov’s in decades, and during the stretches where I wasn’t a subscriber, I was perfectly willing to walk well out of my way to find the latest issue on what archeologists now refer to as “newsstands.” And no matter who was helming the magazine, no matter which decade was being obliquely reflected in its pages, what I got at the end of those newsstand treks was always the same: a terrific mix.
There’s editorial matter at the front (including a regular column by the great science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who shares with many SFF titans an almost adamantine solipsism that’s, alas, on full display in his column for this anniversary issue), and each issue is sprinkled (littered?) with truly execrable little poems, and of course the book reviews are ignominiously herded into the very back pages, abutting with box-ads for sea monkeys and the like. And then there’s the meat of every issue: short stories, longer pieces called “novelettes,” and one novella – all of which have always been written by a perfect balance of established industry names and relative newcomers.
Ten years at Open Letters has reminded me of what I’d learned during previous managing editor stints, and what the editors at Asimov’s must know like the grooves of their own faces by now: you put together the issue you can, not necessarily the issue you want, and you hope the whole time for those one or two items per issue that really sing – the kinds of things you can actually say, over drinks once the new issue is safely launched, that you were genuinely proud to publish them. At too-great intervals, there’ll be many such gems in one issue, but usually, they’re rare, and you pack them and pad them into their issues, girding them all around with well-meaning but less luminous matter, trying, like all good parents, not to show the favoritism you very much feel.
This 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s is a classic in just that way. There are 13 stories, and they range from gimmicky place-holders to more worthy and more turgid works to a couple of glorious gems, the kind of story that editors see as making the whole tawdry business worthwhile, at least until next issue.
This time around, one of those gems is actually featured on the cover: Suzanne Palmer’s Number Thirty-Nine Skink, about a sentient exploration vessel on an alien world, fulfilling its programming by replicating life-forms (including the titular lizard) with which to seed the world’s biosphere and maybe jump-start terraforming. But the vessel’s human crew are all dead, and the vessel is clearly experiencing a very programmed kind of grief, and the machine’s mission is very, very compromised, and Palmer writes it all so briskly and matter-of-factly that an entire world is sketched in just a few paragraphs (Asimov’s reigning short story kind, Robert Reed, does this better than anybody, but he’s not in this issue – although his story in the previous issue was the best thing the magazine has run so far in 2017) that it all feels as textured and satisfying as a novel.
Same thing goes for Alan Smale’s story “Kitty Hawk,” in which a very gentle alternate history is pursued with poetic intensity: Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur Wright, has made her way to the windy beach at Kitty Hawk in the wake of her brother Wilbur’s sudden death while testing the flying machine the brothers hoped would give mankind entrance to the sky. Katharine is grieving for Wilbur, and so, in his odd way, is Orville – but he’s determined to continue perfecting the Flyer, determined to push on to the breakthrough he and his brother dreamed about. When Katharine rolls up her sleeves to help him, the story flows smoothly out from that simple premise into something truly memorable, and all without a single alien or spaceship in sight.
In short, and maybe fittingly, the 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s features the same kinds of peaks and valleys, in roughly the same ratio as most of the issues that have come before it. And I’m pretty sure the editors over there would agree with me that this in itself is one hell of a victory.
April 12th, 2017
Our book today is Alexander Watson’s 2014 masterpiece, Ring of Steel, now out in a brick-sized and brick-red paperback from Basic Books. In these thousand pages, Watson departs from the standard outline of most First World War histories, including most of the glut of them that came out in 2014; instead of presenting readers with a panoramic view of the conflict, he concentrates on the two European powers that started the war, committed the most resources to its prosecution, suffered the most losses in the course of its four years, and ultimately lost it. Germany mobilized nearly 86% of its male population between 1914 and 1918 in some kind of military capacity, 14 million men and boys, and Germany’s partner in aggression, Austria-Hungary, very nearly matched these ghastly numbers. One-third of the war’s total number of casualties were German or Austrian, and the war ended up devouring its two key Central Powers, destroying Austria-Hungary and bankrupting – financially and morally – the formerly bellicose German Reich. Far more so than, for instance, France or Great Britain, the story of these two powers captures the strangeness, the horror, and the maddening futility of the First World War.
Re-reading this nice plump paperback reminded me of all the things I initially loved about Watson’s account, foremost of which is his skill at pulling back from his thorough command of the details in order to present wide-angle summaries that never fail to satisfy:
For Germans, and indeed for most central Europeans, the armistice was not quite the caesura that is remembered further west. There was no return to ‘peace’ as in France or Britain. ‘Normality’ had become a permanent casualty of the war. True, the mass slaughter of the Materialschlacht was over, but misery, deprivation and shortages continued until, and even beyond, the summer of 1919 when the blockade lifted. The violence was also not ended. Although smaller in scale, it had transferred into the homelands that men had fought to protect. The political and ethnic fault lines deepened by war were the new ‘fronts’ of the post-armistice period. Radical leftist revolutions and right-wing putsches would shake the weakened German state in the coming years. In the east, the Polish minority would rise up and fight for cession … The First World War had ended. Its legacy of suffering and violence proved far longer lasting.
Three years ago Ring of Steel stood out among the abundance of big First World War books, and it’s a pleasure to see it brought back before the reading public in its new rust-red paperback design.
April 4th, 2017
Our book today is The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D. C., a tall, jam-packed 1974 compendium, a “comprehensive historical guide” to all the public works of sculpture on display in the nation’s capital, by James Goode, who was at the time the curator of the Smithsonian Institute’s famous “Castle.” Every time I take the book down off the shelf and use it to go strolling around the streets and parks of the only Southern city I’ve ever loved and the only one I’ve ever called home, I pause at different pages and study different sculptures and group settings and think back to the boiling hot days and gorgeous nights when I saw them directly, in the company of friends.
Speaking about those sculptures to a group of tourists, one of those friends once waxed eloquently about how the capital was home to “great works of bronze and brass” – to which his imperious daughter quipped, “great works of bronze, certainly, and great asses.” She was thinking of the professional class of politicians who form the city’s indigenous population, and the association is understandable, since so many of that public artwork commemorates politicians, time-servers, and hacks of all kinds. Which is fairly predictable, given the nature of how public sculpture happens in DC in the first place:
There are four tedious steps necessary before a public sculpture may be erected in the Nation’s Capital today. If a group of citizens desires to erect a monument they must petition a member of Congress to sponsor a bill granting permission to build the memorial on federal property, generally in a park. If Congress approves, the organization then commissions a sculptor to design the work. This design must then be approved by the United States Fine Arts Commission. Next, the organization must raise the funds necessary for the execution of the sculptor’s design. The National Park Service is responsible for landscaping and maintaining the site after the sculpture has been erected.
Even so, flipping through Goode’s book, looking at one grainy black-and-white photo after another of fictional characters, animals, foreigners, backwoodsmen, orators, adventurers, presidents, Indian chiefs, and dozens of others, two things become obvious. First, a great many really moving and effective pieces of artwork are overshadowed by far more renowned works, like the Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, or the mighty Lincoln Memorial, which even the dispassionate Goode calls simply awe-inspiring. And second, ye gods, do outdoor sculptures get tagged with bird poop. It’s not just that they’re vulnerable to rust or erosion or other kinds of wear-and-tear: it’s that back in the 1970s, the aforementioned National Park Service had a honking big blind spot when it came to bird poop – or else a recession-strapped operating budget. Goode is actually well aware of the fact that he’s not exactly filming artwork in pristine condition:
The problems in the creation of these statues are more than matched by their decay under the constant attacks of rain, air pollution, and temperature fluctuation. Thus, polluted air containing harmful oxides produced by the burning of fossil fuels and motor vehicle exhausts eats away inscriptions and carved designs and can change a hard, sound, outdoor sculpture into a crumbling, flaking mass within forty years. Recent chemical research has made it possible to arrest the decay of outdoor sculpture. A chemical can be sprayed on stone sculpture to seal the pores of the surface and to preserve the original color, texture, and appearance of the surface. The high expense of this new treatment unfortunately prohibits its widespread use at this time.
It’s overwhelmingly noticeable on almost every page of the book. Turn to the great 1920 bronze statue by Ettore Ximenes of Dante, the one standing in Meridian Park – Dante’s not only covered in his doctoral robes … he’s also covered in bird poop. Look at those great heroes of the American Independence story, the Comte d’Estaing and the Comte de Grasse, from the Lafayette monument by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquière and Marius Jean Antonin Mercié in Lafayette Park – they’re glancing at each other, and you just know what they’re talking about: merde.
It doesn’t matter what the subject is – buffalos, bears, dinosaurs, Daniel Webster, even an anteater, they’re all coated in bird poop, to egregious, tourist-disappointing extents that probably wouldn’t happen today. This time around, thumbing my way through Goode’s book, I was reminded again of my time living in DC – but I was also reminded of all those you-are-there photos of the New York City subway in the 1970s, covered in filth and graffiti.
I’ll keep my eye out in publisher catalogs for 21st-century update to Goode.
April 3rd, 2017
Our books today form just the kind of sprightly, colorful, optimistic trio of reading experiences you very much want when your April commences with a blinding blizzard of sodden slop and howling winds: we have three new Regency romances of exactly the type to put a smile on my face regardless of what the weather is doing outside.
I Dared the Duke by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s)
The first our trio is Anna Bennett’s new “Wayward Wallflowers” novel, following up My Brown-Eyed Earl from 2016. The alleged wallflower this time around is Miss Elizabeth Lacey, the lady’s companion to the kindly old Dowager Duchess of Blackshire, and she’s perfectly content with her position until Alexander Savage, the young Duke of Blackshire, threatens to disrupt it with a seemingly outrageous demand: that his gregarious grandmother uproot herself – and her companion – and remove to the Blackshire country estate, far from the hustle and bustle of London that the old lady loves so much.
Elizabeth is outraged by the demand, and she’s also in a perfect position to thwart it, since the demand is technically a request, and she has a great deal of personal influence over the Dowager Duchess. The Duke quickly realizes that, as Bennett puts it, she has him by the bollocks … and he has no choice but to agree when she drives a hard bargain: her agreement – in exchange for three wishes. They seal the deal with a drink:
He guided her to the settee in front of the fireplace where they both sat, the blue silk of her gown almost touching his trousers. He thought for a moment, and then raised his glass. “To ostrich feathers, which are far more utilitarian than most people realize.”
Grinning, she raised her glass as well. “To leprechauns. Who are far more real than most people realize.”
He clinked his snifter against hers qand met her sultry gaze as the brandy slid down his throat. Damn, but those blue eyes of hers bewitched him.
She certainly wasn’t acting like a wallflower. And in that moment, as a saucy smile played about her pink lips, he knew without a doubt that he’d rue the day he’d foolishly labeled her and her sisters the Wilting Wallflowers. Yes, his offhand, jocular quip had saddled the Lacey sisters with the epithet they hadn’t been able to shake for three seasons – and it would come back to haunt him. Maybe it already had.
As with any story involving three wishes, the plot of I Dared the Duke playfully complicates as it moves along, and no reader of Anna Bennett will want it to end.
Last Night with the Duke by Amelia Grey (St. Martin’s)
This slim, breezy book is the first “Rakes of St. James” novel from Amelia Grey, following her “Heirs’ Club of Scoundrels” series that concluded last year with Wedding Night with the Earl, and in this opening installment, the rake involved is the Duke of Griffin, who has never before especially minded his reputation as one of the infamous Rakes of St. James. But now his sisters are preparing to debut in society, and he’s worried the low-key scandals of his reputation will start to smear their good names before they’ve even had a chance to establish them. He decides he needs to provide them with an unimpeachable chaperone for their coming-out season, which leads him to Miss Mamie Fortescu’s Employment Agency – and eventually to the entrancing presence of Esmeralda Swift, the manager of the establishment.
She’s certain she can find him a perfect chaperone, and she’s surprised when he wastes hardly a moment before announcing that he wants her. He’s very handsome and very sure of himself, but, as Grey skillfully unfolds throughout the novel, Esmeralda has ample personal reason to dislike the great lords and ladies of the land. So right there in the moment of his decision, their battle of wills begins:
She couldn’t deny that she found everything about him pleasing, from his powerful good looks to the tone of his mellow voice. It was maddening that she was attracted him [sic] – a peer. Considering her dislike for them. And yes, she could ward off any advance from him, but first she would have to want to. That would take reminding herself that it was because of a title gentleman that her mother’s life had changed so dramatically. Esmeralda had no desire to ever become a member of Polite Society again.
“You are the one I want watching over my sisters.”
What nerve he had to continue up this path, she thought. Even for an arrogant duke!
“I appreciate that you are a duke and – ”
“That I’m used to getting my way,” he interrupted, finishing her sentence for her.
“Yes.” Her voice was a mere whisper. “That’s exacty what I was going to say.”
“And it’s true.”
In classic Regency fashion, Griffin and Esmeralda will change each other’s hearts in ways that aren’t at all surprising – Grey is much more interested in telling a vivacious story than breaking new narrative ground – but that are nevertheless mighty satisfying when done this well.
Bedchamber Games by Tracy Anne Warren (Berkley)
Tracy Anne Warren follows up 2016’s Happily Bedded Bliss with another installment in her “Rakes of Cavendish Square” series, and in Bedchamber Games, the rake in question has a name to conjure with: Lord Byron! But as Lord Lawrence Byron is at pains to point out to anybody who asks (and everybody wants to), his family isn’t that family … although Lord Lawrence does fairly well for himself in the Lothario department, as evidenced by the reaction of our heroine, barrister’s daughter Rosamund Carrow, when she first lays eyes on him, after accidentally colliding with him on the steps of Lincoln’s Inn:
She drew in a quick breath, heart leaping, and not just from the collision. He was quite simply the handsomest man she had ever seen. One might even describe him as beautiful, with his thick golden brown hair, eyes that were a stunning blend of gold and green, a straight, elegant nose, strong chin and refined mouth, it was almost as if nature had formed it expressly for kissing – though why she would think such a thing when she had almost no experience in such mattters, she hadn’t the slightest idea.
She can’t actually express even a hint of her reaction, however, because at the moment she’s dressed like a man: Ross Carrow, the cousin of the recently-deceased Elias Carrow, here at court to help finish out his cousin’s open cases. This is Rosamund’s mission, and in Warren’s cleverly-fashioned mash-up of Witness for the Prosecution and The Merchant of Venice, that mission is of course complicated when the courtroom adversaries begin falling in love. But as usual with this author, there were also well-done quieter moments scattered throughout the book, including the first moment that Lord Lawrence brings up Rosamund’s father:
An odd combination of relief and pain arrowed through her, the abrupt reminder of her father hard to take. Her hands trembled as she fought a fierce wave of grief, for try as she might, she still had trouble accepting that he was gone. Even now it seemed impossible that she would never again hear the commanding persuasion of his voice or have the pleasure of debating history, politics, literature and the law with him.
Part of the enjoyment of Bedchamber Games comes from watching the oncoming inevitable happy ending gradually dispel all such somber moments, which made the book particularly enjoyable to read on a Spring afternoon that was doing its best to look and feel like winter. This was true of all three of these books, a perfect trio of brisk, cheerful Regencies to remind me that Spring is eventually on the way – once the ice thaws and the snow melts.
April 1st, 2017
Our book today is the latest whimsical masterpiece from the great childrens book writer and illustrator Jon Agee: Life on Mars.
The story begins with an intrepid young space explorer arriving on the planet Mars. He leaves his spaceship on a very definite mission, and it’s not just to find life on Mars. It’s also to salvage his own reputation back home on Earth:
Everybody thinks I’m crazy.
Nobody believes there’s life on Mars.
But I do. And I just know that I’m going to find it.
He’s come prepared: he not only has his trusty space suit, but he’s also brought along a box of chocolate cupcakes to present to the Martians he’s certain he’ll find. But the more walking around he does, the more frustrated he becomes: all he sees are rocks and barren wasteland! No Martians!
Thanks to Agee’s playful artwork, we share his frustration – because our space explorer always seems to be looking in just the wrong direction to spot the gigantic Martian who’s watching him in clear befuddlement! Even after our little explorer has temporarily misplaced his spaceship and climbed a hill to get a better vantage point to look for it, he fails to realize that the hill is in fact the ample backside of the Martian.
The mission is a failure, and the explorer is headed back home. But just near his spaceship he finds what he’s been looking for: life! A lone green plant is poking up from the hard Martian soil! The little boy proudly takes the plant onboard his ship, overjoyed that he’ll be able to tell the folks back on Earth that there really is life on Mars. The goofy-looking Martian watches his strange visitor leave without making a sound.
Agee is a master of creating these adorable parables of gentle confusion, and Life on Mars is his simplest and most effective to date. I loved it, and I think I know the perfect little recipient.
March 27th, 2017
The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived on my doorstep last week, and it quickly became the saddest issue of the NYRB I’ve ever read – because this was the first issue I read after the death of the journal’s legendary editor, Bob Silvers. He’d been there from the beginning, and he was there for this issue too … but it had already crossed the shadow-line: I read it knowing that after he’d talked about all these pieces with his editors and writers, after (sometimes long after) he’d decided which ideas were worth shaping into publication, and I finished the issue not thinking “he must be proud of an issue that good” but rather “he’ll never see this issue, nor any other.” The New York Review of Books will go on – but the Silvers era, the only era it’s ever known, is now over.
The writers and editors of the NYRB will, I trust, do the very thing Silvers would have railed against and devote the bulk of an entire issue to remembering and honoring him. But in the meantime, reading this issue, I couldn’t help but think of it in a sudden terminal sense, looking back at half a century.
The Silvers era defined the journal with its shopping-around ethos of eclectically trying to match the perfect reviewer with the perfect book. Over the years, Silvers assembled one of the greatest stables of perfect reviewers in the history of literary journalism, and half the fun of every new issue was the anticipation of how these big guns would be deployed – and which puny little pop-guns would get a chance to fire off not because they knew anything about anything but rather because Silvers liked them enough to keep going back to them.
This issue is, of course, a perfect illustration. Its roster of writers contains some mighty talents – Christopher Benfrey, Geoffrey O’Brien, Fintan O’Toole, Vivian Gornick, Michael Tomasky – and some decidedly less-than-mighty talents, like the omnipresent Nathaniel Rich, here offering some deftly-worded platitudes about Paul Auster’s deftly-worded platitudinous novel 4 3 2 1:
One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.
The NYRB this time around got the worst novelist currently working in English, Cathleen Schine, to review the worst English-language novel of the season, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and this, too, was a magical pairing in its own dark, ominous way, with Schine barking up the wrong tree right from her first paragraph. “Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny,” she writes. “It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.”
Not a word of that is true – Batuman’s novel is wretchedly boring and narcissistic – but there’s an NYRB-specific horror of fascination in reading Schine lurch and fumble her way all around it. And on half a dozen levels, that horror of fascination always hovered over every Bob Silvers issue of the NYRB, that feeling of not quite knowing when the sharp elbows would be thrown, of never quite guessing when the tacit nod of permission had been given for a hatchet-job, or worse, a principled, convincing take-down.
A heated disagreement has been unfolding in the letters page, for instance, between Edward Jay Epstein and Charlie Savage about the reliability of Epstein’s book How America Lost Its Secrets (long-time NYRB readers will each have their own favorite such protracted exchange) is a good example of the kind of scholarly infighting Silvers seemed to encourage as part of a healthy intellectual exchange, and the excitement of the spectacle arose from the fact that the participants were always evenly matched. The intellectual evisceration Michael Ignatieff performs in this issue on Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, for instance, was riveting to me not only because I liked Mishra’s book but also because I like Ignatieff’s attacks:
Mishra doesn’t bother with such distinctions, it seems, because he sympathizes with the anger of the jihadists and believes it has some justification. At one point, for example, he says of the ISIS terrorists that they have “aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.” Never, so far as I know, has a free and freedom-loving intellectual handed a gang of killers such a lofty worldview. Mishra would not justify terrorist acts – he would recoil at the very idea – yet in seeing its perpetrators as holy warriors against “modernity” he justifies their arguments.
Right from its beginning, The New York Review of Books was meant to provide just this sense of the sheer high-stakes excitement of reading, and this latest issue conveys that excitement as well as every issue before it. And the NYRB’s offices are still crammed with some of the smartest, most passionate people in the business of literary journalism, so that quality of every issue likely won’t disappear now that its architect has died. But it will certainly change – how could it not? – and although I wouldn’t miss those changes for all the mud in Egypt, it’s a new era with a mighty sad beginning.
March 22nd, 2017
Both DC and Marvel Comics have always had their flagship Big Guy in a Red Cape – with DC it’s of course been Superman, the strongest and most powerful of all the DC superheroes, and with Marvel it’s been the thunder god Thor, the Asgardian warrior-god sojourning on Earth and adventuring with Earth’s superheroes. And in this week’s latest comics offerings, both these Big Guys in Red Capes undergo remarkably similar adventures – but with disappointingly different outcomes.
In Action Comics #976, the “Superman Reborn” storyline comes to a high-flying if very nearly incomprehensible conclusion, written by Dan Jurgens and drawn with real energy by Doug Mahnke. The story seems to have been conceived in order to address some of the roughly 1 million problems created by DC’s “New 52” company-wide reboot from years ago, a reboot that took the traditional iteration of Superman – a fairly square, intensely human superbeing who fights for what’s right and is in love with Lois Lane – and transformed him into a shallow, omnipotent jerkwad with a pipped uniform, popped collars, and no romantic interest in any puny weakling human woman (instead, he falls in lust with Wonder Woman because she has an impressive dead-lift). This substitute Superman was, of course, intensely unsatisfying as a dramatic character, and as fan clamoring over the years grew louder on that point, DC finally decided to wipe out that new Superman and restore the old one, complete with his beloved wife Lois Lane and – in a new and wonderful twist – they have a young son named Jon.
In this latest issue’s whirlwind conclusion, those two Supermen merge somehow, for some unknown reason, and Mahnke illustrates the outcome with a two-page spread that’s clearly meant to establish at single visual stroke the new, smoothed-over past and present of this Man of Steel, and Jurgens provides the appropriate narration:
“This changes everything. A new, existence-wide, single reality, rebuilt from two. A timeline and history both familiar … and new. With lives realigned. Consistent with the memories and experiences of all. Everything solidified. Locked in … so it all fits.”
There’s a very similar narrative arc coming to its conclusion over in Marvel’s five-issue mini-series The Unworthy Thor, which likewise deals with the fallout of an ill-conceived earlier comics “event” storyline. In that earlier event, the mighty Thor lost ownership of his mystic hammer … which then came into the possession of a human woman who assumed both the powers and – bewilderingly, irritatingly – the very name of Thor, leaving our original character saddled with the lackluster name “Odinson.” It was all completely ridiculous, a puling sop tossed to some addled idea of “inclusivity” – and at a stroke it both created a watered-down ersatz echo of Thor and set adrift the original Thor, who we find in The Unworthy Thor striving to come to terms with crippling self-doubt and regain possession of a mystic hammer.
When he finally comes to grip that hammer, writer Jason Aaron and artist Olivier Coipel present a wonderfully uplifting moment, the moment when Thor regains his nobility and seems poised to regain his mantle. “I am Thor,” he says, overlaid on a two-page spread showing the character’s history in Marvel Comics. “I am the mighty Thor. The god of thunder.”
But he doesn’t take up the hammer. He stays the hammerless Odinson. So although I was pleased by the ending of “Superman Reborn” because it at least partially restored my favorite DC superhero to his natural state (not quite all the way, but at least partially), I got no such satisfaction when it came to my favorite Marvel superhero. So next month I’ll have the adventures of something very much like “my” Superman … but no Thor in sight, alas.
March 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics have to walk a very fine line in order to exist at all. Not all of them manage it, of course: there’s been no Penguin Classic of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, nor will there ever be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Penguin Classic reprint of My Life and Loves, or a nice annotated edition of Roger Casement’s diaries, or any of the many electrifying books by Robert Ingersoll. There’s politics as well as cowardice at work here, or rather there’s the cowardice of politics: reprint volumes keep one eye fixed steadily on institutional sales.
It’s hard therefore to guess the fate of something like Brian Copenhaver’s big, brilliant new Penguin volume The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, since it treads for its entire 650-page length the finest of troublesome fine lines: religion. After all, if you’re compiling an anthology of excerpts about magic from the course of Western literature, you’ll scarcely be able to avoid tripping over living religious faith at almost every turn. Copenhaver’s eloquent Introduction is hardly off the starting-block before it’s beginning to parse its way around the question:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
Given the drift of this sort of thing, it’s inevitable that Max Weber will come up, and he does smartly:
Magic is ritual where religion is ethical, according to Weber. Magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Magic goes to particulars, religion generalizes. Magic is emotional, religion rational. Deeply learned, writing in patience and finesse, Weber knows that these facile dichotomies cannot stand. By his lights, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were magicians. If those heroes of the Abrahamic faiths were all magicians, how can magic be distinct from religion on axes like ethics v. ritual, reason v. emotion, and so on? No such distinctions can hold, as Weber concedes again and again. But then – on the trail of ‘typical pure magicians’ and something ‘essentially magical’ – he applies the distinctions again, seduced by ‘always’ and ‘all’, words meant to distinguish all magic always from religion – or the reverse – in order to isolate an essence.
The anthology itself, this tremendously entertaining book Copenhaver has created, bolts away from such torturous equivocation the instant it can. In these sections – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, the philosophers and commenters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a delightful array of names parades before the reader: Strabo, Pausanius, Philostratus, Iamblichus, Lactantius, Origen, and of course the mighty St. Augustine, Marsilio Ficino in abundance, reliable old John Dee, and that gold mine of arresting quotation, The Hammer of Witches … Copenhaver presents this great crowd in mostly new and vigorous translations (the book is, among all its other virtues, a monument of erudition), and he provides along the way unfailingly helpful notes to everything.
The sum of the whole actually manages to rise above the ideological contortions that start the whole thing off, contortions made necessary by that most dangerous of all fine lines: the inability to call all religion magic. Jesus casting out demons Copenhaver somewhat bravely includes, but Jesus rising from the dead will never appear in books like this one, because millions of people still believe in that magic, and it’s possible that Penguin Classics would like to sell some copies to those millions. Even so, it’s unlikely that copies of The Book of Magic will be stacked for sale in the Bible bookstores that dot vast swaths of the American heartland – which is a shame on two or three different levels.
March 13th, 2017
Our books today are a trio of delights from the good folks at Avon Books, and they come at just the right moment: despite the calendar showing a mid-March date, and despite Springlike temperatures only a few days ago, a monstrous blizzard is grinding its way toward Boston at this moment, threatening to bury budding plants, snarl traffic, and crush every spirit that had dared to hope for a change of season. Since these days I’m taking a pair of elderly dogs outside every hour all night every night, this year I definitely count myself among that number, and now, according to the latest prediction models (and according to the gossip amongst my sparrows out on the lilac bushes), we’re going to be slogging through a foot of snow on those potty-breaks.
It’s inordinately depressing, and it made me all the more grateful for these little bursts of color on my nightstand:
My Fair Duchess by Megan Frampton is just such a summery thing, starting right on the cover with a heroine being ravished in a bright yellow dress redolent of picnics among daisies (anyone attempting a picnic on Boston Common during this monster storm would instantly die). The heroine in question is, one presumes, the book’s main character, Genevieve, Duchess of Blakesley, who’s in an awkward position when the novel opens since she’s only just recently become the Duchess of Blakesley and hasn’t the first idea what to do or how to do it. Although she would balk at the concept, what she needs is shaping in her new status – hence the Shavian echo of the book’s title. Genevieve has a sharp mind and a winningly irreverent sense of humor but no idea what’s expected of her as a newly-minted duchess; in other words, as a delightful twist in Frampton’s long-running “Dukes Behaving Badly” series (which included 2015’s Put Up Your Duke), what we have here, at least at first, is a duchess behaving badly.
Enter Archibald Salisbury, a disinherited viscount’s son and war hero with a penchant for organization – and a longing for Genevieve that’s as deep as it is unspoken. He takes on the task of teaching her the rules of her new lot in life, and he goes about it with a steadfast concentration:
He needed to focus on the work. Not the work of getting to know her, either. The work of doing the job he had sent himself here to do, the one that would mean she was presentable to her world, a world he had only barely ever belonged in, and didn’t belong in at all now. And now that he thought more about it, it wasn’t just that she needed help in knowing how to behave; she also needed help in knowing what to do. From what she’d said, her father hadn’t known what to do, and so the duchy was suffering. It was important that she knew, and that he help her.
As in all the “Dukes” books, the main pleasure of My Fair Duchess is the light and knowing touch Frampton has when it comes to dramatizing the simple process of two people coming to care for each other in ways they didn’t expect – which may seem like a somewhat prosaic skill, until you try duplicating it. And the book’s added bonus – very funnily-rendered selections from the correspondence between the duchess and her steadfast Pygmalion – is like getting an extra hour of warm sunlight at that Boston Common picnic.
At first glance, the tranquility of a summer picnic seems alien to the hectic goings-on in The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (whose 2013 novel When the Marquess Met His Match was so delightful), although that very tranquility is the daily dream of the book’s hero:
Henry Cavanaugh longed for a well-ordered life. As the Duke of Torquil, he had many responsibilities, and they would have been easier to managed with a private life that was well-ordered and predictable. Unfortunately for Henry, he had two unmarried sisters, an impecunious younger brother, and a hopelessly indolent brother-in-law. He also had a pair of nephews who adoring driving nannies away and a mother with artistic inclinations. A well-ordered life never seemed quite within hi grasp. Henry mourned this fact on a daily basis.
In The Truth About Love and Dukes, the duke’s tranquility is shattered by one other thing too: the scandalous (and scandalously popular) anonymous London newspaper column “Dear Lady Truelove,” in which the dirty laundry of the rich and powerful is hung out and examined for the titillation of the paying Penny Press crowd. When an installment of the column provokes the duke’s own mother to a rash course of action, he decides to exact his revenge by finding the anonymous author of “Dear Lady Truelove” and doing a little exposing of his own. And although there are no clear leads to the author’s identity, Torquil suspects that Irene Deverill, the column’s publisher, might also be its author.
There follows a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse of the type this author does so well: the more our hero and heroine spar with each other, the more they come to fascinate each other. Torquil uses his vast reserves to squelch Irene’s whole operation, and yet even when the contest appears at its most lopsided, he can still say to her, “You have more power than I care to contemplate, Miss Deverill” – and mean it. And another of this author’s strengths, the gut-punchingly happy ending (talk about a lack of tranquility), doesn’t desert her here: the last twenty pages of The Truth About Love and Dukes will have you smiling as though you’d just stepped outside to the first afternoon of Spring.
It’s a full-blown beautiful English summe day on the cover and step-back of Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James, and the story she tells this time around is a typically summery affair, regardless of when the book is appearing in bookstores. It’s the story of Eugenia Snowe, the proprietress of Snowe’s Registry Office for Select Governesses, the wonder of the Ton for the quality and discretion of the governesses it supplies to the wealthy and powerful of London. Training these young women is a round-the-clock job, as is dealing with the logistics of placing them; all manner of complications can arise, as Eugenia’s assistant makes clear in one of book’s countless peppy exchanges:
“You have the Duchess of Villiers, and I squeezed in Lady Cogley after that.”
“Is there a problem in Her Grace’s nursery? I thought Sally Bennifer was very happy there.”
“Sally has accepted a proposal from the vicar. He must have behaved in a most unvicarish fashion, because she needs to marry spit-spot. Ergo, the duchess needs a replacement.”
“Is ‘unvicarishly’ a word?”
“I suppose not,” Susan said. “But the man took his post only a few months ago, so he must have jumped on Sally like a cat on raw liver.”
One person who’s got the nerve to find fault with one of Eugenia’s girls is Theodore Edward Braxton Reeve, known to his friends as Ward. He’s the son of the Earl of Gryffyn, and he’s committed the incredible act of firing a Snowe governess. He’s come to Eugenia’s agency in search of a new one, and the predictable chemistry strikes up between them, despite the fact that initially Ward is insufferably high-handed in his dealings with non-aristocratic folk like Eugenia, who reflects, “It was unfortunate that the conjunction of a penis and privilege had such an unfortunate effect on boys …”
The admitted failure of that line to land – the two key words would be funnier if they were transposed, and there’s that thudding repetition – is very unlike Eloisa James, and it’s the kind of thing that shows up with dismaying frequency throughout Seven Minutes in Heaven, which often feels a bit dashed-off. But even dashed-off Eloisa James is still a pure summery delight – especially when weighed against the backdrop of an oncoming snow-monsoon.
March 7th, 2017
Our book today is a towering classic of ecological literature: The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the book she wrote in 1947 in protest to a whole slate of proposed (and encroaching) drainage and construction projects designed to “improve” the vast waterlands of the Everglades. Douglas was a pint-sized force of nature, an utterly uncompromising advocate of the Everglades, a carping Cato in a big straw hat, and her book, complete with its famous opening line (“There are no other Everglades in the world”), sparked an entire conservation movement in much the same way Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring did, only on a much broader stage.
So immense was the impact of The Everglades: River of Grass as an ecological wake-up call, in fact, that its many wonders as a book have always been in danger of being overshadowed. I was reminded of those many wonders just recently, when I found a copy of the book’s revised 1988 edition at the Brattle and gave it a careful re-reading. That clarion-call opening line, for example, was known and quoted throughout the conservation movement of a generation ago, but it’s followed by a lovely bit of general description:
They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.
That kind of soaring prose fills the book and, I like to think, would have guaranteed it a place on the shelf of great works of natural history even if an ecological movement hadn’t grown up around it. The book – with black-and-white illustrations by Martin Fink – is passionate but also lovely, uncompromising but also full of wonder.
This 1988 revised edition ends with “Forty More Years of Crisis,” a doomsaying new chapter Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote with Miami Herald writer Randy Lee Loftis, in which readers leaving the book are left with no doubt that the work of saving the Everglades was accomplished – or ever would be. Loftis ticks off all the ongoing catastrophes, including the surest bellwether of all:
Nowhere has the continuing crisis of the Everglades become more apparent than in the disappearance of entire populations of animals. The Everglades mink, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the Miami blackheaded snake are pushed to lines of last defense. The snail kite, an agile hunter that seeks so specialized a prey – the apple snale, no bigger than a quarter – has stabilized after many years of decline, yet the stabilization comes at a low number, perhaps 700 birds scattered around the emergent marshes and open sloughs where they feed.
Even a generation ago, there were cynical critics who wondered if The Everglades: River of Grass might actually out-last the embattled ecosystem it champions. I certainly hope not (though I’ve never had an experience in the Everglades that wasn’t thoroughly miserable in every way), but re-reading this great book certainly reminded me of all the reasons it’s stayed in print for so long.