Posts from November 2015
November 26th, 2015
The earliest fans of Star Trek encountered for the first time in 1966 something they’d before then only inferred: the past of their beloved starship Enterprise.
They’d always known the Enterprise must have a past. They knew that Captain James T. Kirk had been the youngest person ever to command a starship, but there’d never been any hint that he was the first captain of the Enterprise – the ship had obviously been in service much longer than Kirk’s individual career. So the truth must be mind-blowing: an Enterprise with a different crew of heroes.
Or not entirely different. In 1966, the Star Trek episode The Menagerie aired, and fans were given a glimpse of a previous cruise of the Enterprise – this time captained by Christopher Pike, with an elderly ship’s surgeon named Dr. Boyce, a striking and enigmatic female officer named simply Number One, and a science officer named … Mr. Spock.
In this glimpse of an earlier Enterprise, he’s not quite the same Mr. Spock. His famous upswept eyebrows are bushy instead of pencil-thin, and he behaved more abruptly, often shouting. It was a startling revelation: our Mr. Spock had been an officer on the Enterprise long before Captain Kirk took command – he’d been part of an entirely different crew, with different chemistry and different adventures. In fact, in The Menagerie we see the ‘present-day’ Mr. Spock defying both Captain Kirk and Starfleet in order to help his former commander.
It was a two-part episode of exceptional quality, and its most amazing aspect of it was that flashback-glimpse of the earlier Enterprise. Those glimpses were bits and pieces of an earlier, unused pilot episode for version of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry hadn’t been able to sell to the studio, and those glimpses set Star Trek fans wondering – in their signature way – what kinds of stories happened on that earlier ship, with that earlier crew. Not so much Captain Pike, who certainly seemed bland compared to Captain Kirk – but definitely the mysterious Number One, and also, naturally, this earlier, cruder version of Mr. Spock.
The latest “Original Series” Star Trek novel, Child of Two Worlds by reliable hack Greg Cox, takes its readers back to those years, that earlier cruise of the Enterprise, and as its title indicates, a large part of its plot centers on the personal conflict inside Mr. Spock, his human half and his Vulcan half always irreconcilable. The novel opens with a lovely little scene from Spock’s childhood, with his human mother presenting him with a cake on his birthday, much to his confusion.
The novel then jumps forward eighteen years to find Spock a member of Captain Pike’s bridge crew during an emergency: deadly Rigelian fever has broken out onboard the Enterprise, and the only possible cure within range requires a rare mineral called ryetalyn, which can be found on the nearby world of Cypria III. As the Enterprise is en route, they encounter a Cyprian vessel under attack by a Klingon warship. A Cyprian trader named Soleste had kidnapped a Klingon woman named Merata, and the Klingons want her back – but it turns out Merata is actually a Cyprian, Soleste’s sister Elzura, who was herself taken by the Klingons in a raid years earlier and raised as Klingon. She believes herself a Klingon, and she rages at finding herself essentially a prisoner on board the Enterprise.
Captain Pike assigns Mr. Spock the task of talking to Merata, trying to tease out from her more details about her life. Spock at first protests that he’s not a suitable candidate for such a job, but Pike apparently knows something of Spock’s own divided heritage and guesses that might help him form a connection with Merata. The dialogue scenes between the two of them are by far the best part of Cox’s novel, which otherwise shares too much in common with many of the most recent Star Trek novels we’ve looked at: flat characters, a cringing reluctance to create any dialogue or plot twist that might so much as wrinkle accepted canon, and a tendency to write characters at a fourth grade level. Take just one moment among countless examples: during a shipboard emergency halfway through the book, Pike calls down to the Transporter Room to talk to his Transporter Chief Pitcairn and is informed by his subordinate that he’s succumbed to the Rigelian fever. This what we’re told about Pike’s response: “”No worries, Mister Yamata,’ Pike said, even as he regretted hearing that one of his senior officers had been taken out of commission by the implacable fever.” Yeesh.
The book, in other words, is fairly pedestrian. The twin plots – the kidnapped young woman and the badly-needed ryetalyn – are woven together cleverly enough in the story’s climax, and there is, of course, a neatly-done parallel late scene involving a birthday cake, but mostly this is just the normal standard post-Next Generation anodyne Trek stuff.
There are a couple of interesting nuggets here and there. For instance, in this novel we’re just matter-of-factly informed that Number One is an Ilyrian, a detail that was somehow new to me (and one that seems a bit odd, since a quick recourse to Star Trek Memory Alpha shows that Ilyrians had pronounced cranial ridges, which Number One certainly didn’t have in The Menagerie), and Cox also surprised me by making reference to Sybok, Mr. Spock’s half-brother:
The forbidden topic felt strange upon Spock’s tongue and triggered memories he had done his best to bury. As a boy, Spock had idolized his half-brother’s fierce intellect, but after Sybok renounced logic to explore the forbidden realm of unchecked emotion, Sybok had been more than simply banished from Vulcan. It was as though he had ceased to exist. He had vanished from Spock’s life, never to be spoken of again.
Sybok was the main guest-character in the William Shatner-directed Star Trek V, and even most Star Trek fans tend to look askance at that movie, regarding everything in it as … well, not exactly canonical, since at no point in the previous thirty years had the Spock character ever mentioned having a brother, until Shatner and his writers dreamed up the idea for the movei. Never to be spoken of again indeed.
It was of course something of a foregone conclusion that Cox couldn’t really do much to resolve or even directly the very subject of his book’s title, since we know that Mr. Spock would go right on fighting with his dual nature all through the original run of the series. But I couldn’t help feeling, while reading Child of Two Worlds, that some of Star Trek’s more inventive writers might even so have found a way to make this novel feel more immediate.
And the great, epic Captain Pike & Crew Star Trek novel still very much hasn’t been written …
November 22nd, 2015
Our books today are the literary essays of that great 19th-century American belletrist James Russell Lowell, here in a lovely uniform green edition of four volumes put out in 1890 by Houghton, Mifflin in conjunction with The Riverside Press of Lowell’s home of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I found these volumes, predictably enough, at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, lined up on the $1 outdoor bargain carts, and my guess would be that they never actually travelled any great distance in their lifetime before ending up there. My guess would be that their original owner got them from a bookshop somewhere on Tremont Street, maybe put them on a shelf where they remained untouched for decades (these volume I bought are essentially new), then maybe went to a descendent’s library and sat similarly untouched, and then got sold to the Brattle and turned up on the cheapest bargain carts, a mere ten feet from the Dumpster where the balky books end up if they sit on the bargain carts too long.
I was happy to find these green books, of course (my copy of one volume of Lowell is quite old and just a bit falling apart), although in that first moment I was also a bit sad as well, since in a perfect bookish-work, the writings of James Russell Lowell wouldn’t end up teetering on the edge of bargain oblivion. In his own day, Lowell was a famous poet, a public crusader for his favorite causes, an arbiter of literary taste, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a diplomat and sought-after lecturer, and most of all a much-read and much-discussed essayist; whenever I see dusty old works by 19th century intellectuals going a-begging at places like the Brattle, I feel a little pang for reading opportunities wasted (which is one of the reasons why I’ve written at such length about so many of them over the years). Re-reading these volumes has brought me evenings and evenings of joy, and I’d hate to think I’m hogging all that joy to myself.
The contents of these volumes are drawn from books Lowell brought out during his working life, from masterful collections like Among My Books, My Study Windows, and Fireside Travels. They span the whole breadth of one remarkable bookworm’s lifetime of omnivorous reading, and there’s something here to answer virtually any roving curiosity. For instance, one of the days I re-read one of these volumes I’d earlier re-read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, about the mania of the Salem Witch Trials, and I came across Lowell’s great piece on witchcraft, in which at one point he muses on the urge everybody feels to give in to the same kind of abandon the girls in Salem felt:
Who has never felt an almost irresistible temptation, and seemingly not self-originated, to let himself go? To let his mind gallop and kick and curvet and roll like a horse turned loose? In short, as we Yankees say, “to speak out in meeting?” Who never had it suggested to him by the fiend to break in at a funeral with a real character of the deceased, instead of that Mrs. Grundyfied view of him which the clergyman is so painfully elaborating in his prayer? Remove the pendulum of conventional routine, and the mental machinery runs on with a whir that gives a delightful excitement to the sluggish temperaments, and is, perhaps, the natural relief of the highly nervous organizations.
And of course the highlights of these collections reliably happen when Lowell is writing about the handful of authors he dearly, personally loves. On the very shortest of short lists of those authors was Dante, and the Dante essay here is superbly conversational and immediate:
Whatever subsidiary interpretations the poem is capable of, its great and primary value is as the autobiography of a human soul, of yours and mine, it may be, as well as Dante’s. In that lie its profound meaning and its permanent force. That an exile, a proud man forced to be dependent, should have found some consolation in brooding over the justice of God, weighed in such different scales from those of man, in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonderful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding the wrath of God sweeter than his mercy. But it is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own life he should have built this three-arched bridge, still firm against the wash and wear of ages …
And reading these books during the warmest November in recorded Boston history, I couldn’t help but detect the light lilt of irony in Lowell’s wonderful essay “A Good Word for Winter”:
I think the old fellow has hitherto had scant justice done him in the main. We make him the symbol of old age and death, and we think we have settled the matter. As if old age were never kindly as well as frosty; as if it had no reverend graces of its own as good in their way as the noisy impertinence of childhood, the elbowing self-conceit of youth, or the pompous mediocrity of middle life! As if there were anything discreditable in death, or nobody had ever longed for it!
James Russel Lowell is well and truly out of print – no annotated Penguin Classic of The Biglow Papers, no two-volume Library of America set (containing these very same literary essays) commemorating a man who did so much to lend legitimacy to the American rhetorical stance on the world stage (I don’t at the moment remember how many volumes Kurt Vonnegut has). You can find him on the mighty Project Gutenberg, for convenient reading everywhere you go, but if you want to curl up with Lowell on the printed page, you’ve got to haunt a place like the Brattle Bookshop and hope to find a set like this one. It seems like shabby treatment to me, but I’m probably not impartial at this point.
November 21st, 2015
For a solid fourth week of visits to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston, I’ve had first issues in my bag when I left. As I’ve mentioned here at Stevereads before, I remember when the appearance of a first issue was a big deal, fairly rare – finding one on the spinner rack of Trow’s Stationary was a rare and vaguely unsettling experience, a jostling of the universe’s settled order, and the troubling possibility, like a pregnancy, of introducing something dreadful into the world.
Of course, those were the days before the ridiculous speculator-boom hit the world of comics and turned every basement-dwelling, Doritos-scarfing, mouth-breathing virgin into a wheeler-dealer bagging every pristine new purchase in plastic, dreaming of reaping enormous profits when that copy of The Adventures of Razorback #1 squintuples in value. Nowadays, that mindset has taken firm root in the comics world, and as a result, comics companies – no fools them – have become quite liberal in their production of first issues.
Gone entirely is the even vague presumption that these first issues represent the optimistic beginnings of enterprises of great merit. Gone is even the pretense of hope for actual success. Nobody at Marvel, for example, expects to see a 100th-issue anniversary celebration of Karnak; it’s unlikely that the folks at DC see much potential for longevity in Bizarro. No, the most the various creators are probably hoping for in their new first issues is a long-enough run to fill up a couple of the graphic novels where the companies make their money anyway.
It can lead to some depressing reading experiences, but I’ve been mostly lucky this month, and this week continued the streak. I bought, for instance, the first issue of Black Knight, in which writer Frank Tieri and artist Luca Pizzari find Dane Whitman, Marvel Comics’ Black Knight – a former member of the Avengers (including playing a major role in great Bob Harras/Steve Epting run on that title) – now the warlord of a weird planet in an alternate dimension, cut off from Earth but still visited regularly by the ghost of one of his illustrious Black Knight ancestors, who’s concerned that Dane Whitman is succumbing to the dark bloodlust embodied in his magic ebony sword.
It’s an interesting take on the character, and the issue ends with a nifty cliffhanger that will probably have me buying the second issue as well.
The week’s other first issue doesn’t quite count, since it only kicks off a mini-series, not an allegedly ongoing title (although since, as I mentioned, most new ongoing titles are such half-hearted affairs they fade into the woodwork fairly quickly anyway, there isn’t much of a difference between the two anymore): It’s DC’s Batman Europa #1, with script by Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello and artwork by Jim Lee, and it has a storyline that must have seemed like pure gold during some boozy pitch meeting: Batman finds himself infected with a mysterious, deadly virus, and the clues about it lead him to Berlin, where he finds the Joker menacing a young hacker who’s connected to the virus in some way. And in the course of the ensuing fisticuffs, it turns out that the Joker is likewise infected – and the two arch-enemies have to work together to hunt down a cure before they both die! Comic book gold, yes?
It doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny, of course. Not only is Joker’s involvement haphazardly mechanical (some guy finds him, tells him he’s been infected, and points him toward Berlin – Joker kills the guy without learning anything more from him than the presence somewhere in Berlin of the aforementioned young hacker – but no such guy makes a similar announcement to Batman; if he hadn’t used the super-sophisticated equipment of the Batcave, he’s simply have withered and died and been none the wiser), but the actual script offers not one single believable reason why Batman would need to team up with a mass murderer in order to find the creator of the virus – the Joker brings nothing to the hunt. It’s a story that doesn’t manage to limp two paces outside that pitch meeting.
And yeesh, Cassali and Azzarello don’t exactly shine in the writing department this time around. Berlin itself is introduced with a chunk of dead prose, for instance:
For the dead, the defining city of the 20th century. War-tumbled into seclusion, then rolled into rage. But that pulse is now just an echo … through the Brandenburg Gate. The blood, though it’s still here … even at Checkpoint Charlie, now just a footnote of the past. That’s what Berlin has become – a bad dream that it wants to wake up from. Here, the Weimar Republic was burnt to the ground … and fifty years later, the Reichstag was built anew in glass and steel.
But the past … it may fade, but it doesn’t go away. The hill of the Berlin Planetarium is constructed from World War Two debris and rubble. When people gaze at the stars, their feet are firmly on a ground they can’t deny.
And to add to these annoyances, there’s also the fact that this particular first issue, at $5, is roughly four pages long. The back half of the issue is entirely taken up with full-page in-house ads.
The only thing compensating all these drawbacks was something that actually took me a few pages to realize: this isn’t the “New 52” revamped Batman with the weird piping on his costume – it’s the normal Batman, and he’s dealing with a Joker clearly out of the established continuity of DC’s current lineup, a “classic” Joker dressed in green and purple. The story would need to get a whole lot better for me to return for another issue, but even so: it sure was nice to see DC trot out these iconic versions of their characters, even if it’s only for a mini-series.
November 19th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics remain every bit as impenetrable no matter how often you come back to them – especially if they were more or less designed to be impenetrable. I know of no better example of this than the ancient Chinese classic called the I Ching or Book of Change; I’ve now grappled three times with this text, in two very different translations by two obviously intelligent people, and I remain every bit as befuddled as if I’d been trying the whole time to read the back of an upholstered chair, or the grain of a park bench.
The wonderful folks at Penguin have now transformed John Minford’s gigantic annotated translation of the I Ching into the prettiest Deluxe Classic they’ve ever produced, a copy to own and use and treasure. But for me at least, it’ll still ever be a copy to understand: happy to get this Deluxe Classic, I dropped everything and delved into it one more time, and I bounced off the whole experience like pebbles off a tin pan. Achillomancy – the art of yarrow divination – is very likely to remain a mystery to me, alas, even though this paperback Minford edition is solicitous enough to list the basic steps right there on the back cover:
Step One: Focus calmly on the question you want to present to the I Ching
Step Two: Toss three coins six times, once for each of the six lines of a Hexagram.
Step Three: For each toss, add the value of the heads and tails (heads = 3, tails = 2)
Step Four: The resulting combination of values for the six tosses will lead you straight to one of the I Ching‘s sixty-four Hexagrams
Step Five: Approach the Hexagram with total sincerity, and embrace the wisdom of the I Ching‘s response.
Minford’s translation presents all those ancient Hexagrams and many of their variations and a huge amount of the commentary that’s accrued on them over the centuries (it was the absence of most of this commentary that allowed the recent English-language translation by David Hinton to be a fraction of the length of this book). In picking and choosing commentary, Minford leans heavily on “generous extracts” from the eighteenth-century Taoist Liu Yiming, the Mater Awakened to the Primordial (Wuyuanzi) (try fitting that on a business card), but neither the Master Awakened nor any of his celestial brethren can shed much light on a system intended to be murky.
Take one Hexagram out of the many presented here. You take your coins – or your yarrow stalks – and you hurl them about. They eventually give you a combination that takes you to a corresponding Hexagram, and it tells you this:
Dragon in a field.
To see a big man.
And a fraction of the commentary elaborates:
The Horn Stars (in the Dragon cluster) became visible above the horizon in early March. “From the perspective of one looking forward toward the horizon, it would indeed appear as if the Dragon were lurking in the distant fields.” Or, according to Marshall’s reading, Dragon-like storm clouds are seen to gather over the fields at the time of the Rituals for Spring Rain. “Big man,” daren, and “little man,” xiaoren, occur throughout the I Ching. “Profits to see a big man,” is a recurring formula, like “Profits to cross a big stream.” As with the Dragon, we have no way of telling if the “big man” is singular or plural. In Classical Chinese no such distinction was made. Throughout this Hexagram, and throughout the I Ching, we cannot tell whether we are talking of one Dragon, one field, one man, or several of each. It could just as easily be several Dragons sighted in several fields …
In other words, the commentary is carefully, helpfully pointing out that the Hexagram – which you arrived at by totally random means – could signify virtually anything. Contrary to Minford’s very enthusiastic glossing, you do not consult the I Ching; it contains no ancient wisdom. Instead, its disconnected gibberish codifies random chaos, and its net is so wide and so open that anything you find in it can be shaped to fit decisions you’ve already made or seek to make. It is the strangest of all the “sacred” texts of the world, quite possibly the strangest book in the world, in that it is neither text nor book nor sacred – it’s the ultimate expression of the pernicious human need to surrender control of life to outside forces.
When faced with any big decision, me sainted Ma always used to say, “Make a list of the pros and cons.” If you’d told her you were going to throw vegetables on the floor instead, she’d have said, “The place’ll be crawlin’ with mice.” So maybe ancient wisdom’s not for me.
November 17th, 2015
This late in the year, for good or ill, the year’s publishing success stories are fairly well known – both “success” in terms of sales and “success” in terms of critical worth (and the rare, happy instances where the two coincide). So a negative review of one of these success stories jumps off the page, and recently in the Penny Press I noticed a distinct whiff of the iconoclastic.
It started small: in The New Republic, Kate Bolnick reviews Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, her history of the infamous Salem Witch Trials and at one point veers slightly away from the peals of universal praise the book has prompted:
Indeed, Schiff is so convincing about the personal motivations driving these powerful men, I was surprised to see her take up the longstanding feminist assertion that by making themselves “heard” the bewitched girls exhibited an unprecedented agency – America’s first feminist uprising. From where I sit, it seems more likely that an internalized misogyny compelled the young women to send their elders to their deaths, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffrage movement, when, as Schiff argues, “a different scourged encouraged [women] to raise their voices.”
It’s a minor thing – one quick paragraph in a review that’s otherwise entirely full of praise – but it stuck out; as far as I know, those have been the only words of even slight dissatisfaction that any reviewer in any major venue has directed at Schiff’s book. Over in the latest New York Review of Books, for instance, John Demos gives the book its customary wall-to-wall praise.
Ah, but elsewhere in that same New York Review of Books I found even more idol-tipping going on. The idol in the first instance being more the author than the book: Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Economist, reviews Heretic, the new book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has for years been one of the darlings of the more self-congratulatory echelons of the Republic of Letters, a Muslim woman who renounced her faith and risked her life by speaking and writing against the barbarities of her former ideological world.
Given such a biography, it was a bit startling to read Rodenbeck treat Heretic, refreshingly, like any other book – that it, roughly when he thinks it’s straying:
There are several problems with her approach. These include such troubling aspects as her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large.
But in purely literary terms, no chorus of praise has been more vocal and uniform than the critical reaction to Hanya Yanagihara’s massive novel A Little Life – which only served to heighten my interest when I realized that elsewhere in this NYRB, Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the best book-critics working today, wrote a piece on the book that was, to put it mildly, disenchanted. I started the piece eagerly – and was almost immediately frustrated, then irritated, then enraged.
Mendelsohn takes the novel to task for being a simple concatenation of the miseries of its main characters:
We know, alas, that the victims of abuse often end up unhappily imprisoned in cycles of (self-) abuse. But to keep showing this unhappy dynamic at work is not the same thing as creating a meaningful narrative about it. Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel and more like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.
Likewise he has plenty of negative things to say about the book’s actual prose:
The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical … and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects … You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out – and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.
(The ellipses were two singled-out lines from the book, each demonstrating the mentioned flaw; Mendelsohn knows perfectly well that such a trick – pulling a handful of lines out of a massive text – will work on any large novel ever written … why, I could show you sentences from The Golden Bowl that would make each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine … but he pulls it anyway with utter serenity)
And what of the dozens of Mendelsohn’s fellow reviewers (not to mention the book’s thousands of readers) who obviously didn’t consider sentence-level lapses worth mentioning in the face of the sheer power of the narrative? That mention of “critics and prize juries” should have set you to worrying, but Mendelsohn doesn’t leave things to chance: he addresses two of those fellow reviewers directly, Jon Michaud in The New Yorker and Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic, attacking the praise they lavished on the book. His strong implication is that he could have gone right down the line of such reviewers if he’d had the space and time.
Long before I got to this point in the piece, I’d realized that this isn’t book criticism – it’s simple bitchiness, of a bitterly disingenuous type. There is no chance – absolutely zero chance – that Mendelsohn would have written a review anything like this before Yanagihara’s novel reaped all its praise; this isn’t an assessment of the book, it’s a tetchy little gripe about bandwagon-jumping. And as if that weren’t bad enough, our one lone voice of critical sanity in a vast wasteland takes things one step further: he starts speculating on why the novel has been such a hit – after some incredibly condescending throat-clearing, that is:
It may be that the literary columns of the better general interest magazines are the wrong place to be looking for explanations of why this maudlin work has struck a nerve among readers and critics both. Recently, a colleague of mine at Bard College … drew my attention to an article from Psychology Today about a phenomenon that has been bemusing us and other professors we know: what the article refers to as “declining student resilience.”
And what are the details, you may ask, of this article that’s been bemusing Mendelsohn and his fellow academics? They revolve around coddled undergraduates who’ve begun checking themselves in to student counseling services to deal with the trauma of spotting a mouse in the dorm room or having a mean roommate. And while such examples may have sparked some tittering in the faculty lounge, Mendelsohn is quick to expound on the deeper problems they represent:
As comical as those particular instances may be, they remind you that many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general. In a culture where victimhood has become a claim of status, how could Yanagihara’s book – with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence – not provide a kind of comfort?
A quick Google-check of the thirty-something book reviewers who praised A Little Life in the major literary journals and “better general interest magazines” puts their average age at roughly forty-five. They’re not coddled, clueless adolescents afraid of mice. But it doesn’t matter to Mendelsohn, lost as he is in a fog of patronization: if you liked A Little Life, you’re not just wrong – you’re psychologically spongy, an addled student taking craven comfort from all the wrong things while Daniel Mendelsohn and his fellow adults look on, bemused. Right underneath its priggish, swanning outrage it’s actually a whopping insult to virtually all his equals in the world of professional book-reviewing. Equals who weren’t just wrong to like A Little Life despite its flaws but who are childishly ignorant if they liked it.
When I finished the piece, I was right away curious what those book-reviewing equals might make of it. John Powers of NPR, Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal, Jenny Davidson for Bookforum, and the list goes on – does it bother them, that Mendelsohn is saying their careful, well-articulated estimations of A Little Life are not only wrong but merit them a sidebar article in Psychology Today? Probably they all take it with admirable equanimity. For myself? Well, I too review books for a living, and I too was blown away by A Little Life – and this particular idol-bashing royally ticked me off.
November 16th, 2015
Our book today is a sturdy, inviting thing from 1910, the “Library Edition” that combines two books by William Dean Howells, My Literary Passions and Criticism and Fiction. The books were published years apart, and this lovely compendium was a thoughtful gift to me recently from the old lady who reviews the same novel every week for the Silver Spring Scold. She’s an avid reader of Stevereads, where my high regard for William Dean Howells has been no secret over the years.
I smiled at the gift and thumbed through it once its donor had fallen asleep at 7:30 pm, her tiny tummy filled with two whole bites of plain white bread. But I didn’t think I’d actually sink in and read the book anytime soon; after all, I’ve read My Literary Passions and Criticism and Fiction many times apiece, and it’s not like I’ve got any shortage of other things to read. It’s the thought that counts in the giving, not the immediacy of the gift, I thought.
But then I watched the news from Paris unfold on Twitter all evening, and even in the breaks I forced myself to take, all the new books on my shelf felt suddenly uninviting, almost inimical. I suddenly wanted the particular kind of refuge older, familiar books provide. And this lovely William Dean Howells book was right there when I needed it.
Howells was a fresh-faced boy from the barbaric wilds of small-town Ohio when he came to Boston in 1860, and by the time he returned to Massachusetts in 1865 he’d been a long-time friend and correspondent of all the area’s foremost writers and editors. He became an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and transformed himself virtually overnight from a rangy hustler to a pouchy Grand Old Man of Letters, churning out an utterly endless amount of literary pronouncements.
He quickly became a master of a very comfortable prose style, smart and avuncular, although he was always ready to tilt against comfortable opinion when his phlegmatic passions were taken against some sacred cow. And in the late Victorian era when some of these essays first appeared, cows didn’t get much more sacred than Sir Walter Scott, whose flaws Howells irreverently attacks:
He often wrote a style cumbrous and diffuse; that he was tediously analytical where the modern novelist is dramatic, and evolved his characters by means of long-winded explanation and commentary; that, except in the case of his lower-class personages, he made them talk as seldom man and never woman talked; that he was tiresomely descriptive; that on the simplest occasions he went about half a mile to express a thought that could be uttered in ten paces across lots; and that he trusted his readers’ intuitions so little that he was apt to rub in his appeals to them.
But this time around the portions I noticed most came from the back part of this volume, Criticism and Fiction – probably understandable, since the last time I read this little work by Howells I myself wasn’t at the moment a book critic, so now they spoke more directly to me. After all that news from Paris, I didn’t think anything could move me to smile so soon, but I smiled a little at Howells’ mandarin condescension toward the daily-deadline hackery he once needed in order to pay his bills back in the Buckeye State:
He [the critic] seems not to mind misstating the position of any one he supposed himself to disagree with, and then attacking him for what he never said, or even implied; he thinks this is droll, and appears not to suspect that it is immoral. He is not tolerant; he thinks it is a virtue to be intolerant; it is hard for him to understand that the same thing may be admirable at one time and deplorable at another; and that it is really his business to classify and analyze the fruits of the human mind very much as the naturalist classifies the objects of his study, rather than to praise or blame them; that there is a measure of the same absurdity in his trampling on a poem, a novel, or an essay that does not please him as in a botanist’s grinding a plant underfoot because he does not find it pretty. He does not conceive that it is his business rather to identify the species and then explain how and where the specimen is imperfect and irregular. If he could once acquire this simple idea of his duty he would be much more agreeable company than he now is, and a more useful member of society …
A useful member of society! Not an esteemed member, mind you – nothing approaching the celestial stature of an editor – but at least useful! And after all his harrumphing, Howells comes around to theorizing that it doesn’t matter what carping critics do anyway, since they seem to have no effect on the larger currents of literature:
Criticism has condemned whatever was, from time to time, fresh and vital in literature; it has always fought the new good thing in behalf of the old good thing; it has invariably fostered and encouraged the time, the trite, the negative. Yet upon the whole it is the native, the novel, the positive that has survived in literature. Whereas, if bad criticism were the most mischievous thing in the world, in the full implication of the words, it must have been the time, the trite, the negative, that survived.
In other words, Howells never quite aged out of his enormous capacity for being a ninny. But oh, I needed the company of this ninny when I found it! It got me back on my reading feet.
November 13th, 2015
Once again, I’m trying your patience by taking the long way around the barn to get to the actual feature I intend to call “The Art of the Mass Market”! That feature will celebrate just what it says on the tin: the art of mass market paperback reprints of books originally released in hardcover. And yet, even before I could get once on-target I went off-target with a digression into the covers of sci-fi and fantasy covers I’ve loved for decades (and even then only scratched the surface of the hundreds and hundreds of such covers that snagged my attention over during the long years when science fiction and fantasy were my go-to genres). And here I am going off-target again!
This time the digression is for a sub-genre I love passionately: the Regency romance. Technically, this might be taken to mean any historical romance set during the years 1811 to 1820, when England’s King George III was deemed too mentally unstable to stay on the throne and so his eldest son, the ninny who would upon his father’s death become King George IV, was installed as Prince Regent. Among certain elements of England’s wealthiest and most powerful families, there was about the Regency appointment (with one of their own bon vivants suddenly running society) something of a holiday feeling, a sense that in the absence of the stern parent, social functions might be a bit more gay, a bit more lavish, a bit more carefree.
This wasn’t true for 99% of the population of Great Britain, of course, but you’d never be able to tell that from the positive glut of Regency-set fiction that’s been produced in the last two centuries, and it was never the only reason for the sub-genre’s popularity in any case; no, a huge chunk of that popularity derives from the single most famous Regency romance of them all, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Countless readers have entered the world of Austen’s perfect little novel and felt the exact same reaction as I myself felt and as hundreds of thousands of other readers, from Prime Ministers to Major League baseball players, have felt: the strong desire to stay in that world forever. The strong desire to return to that world for new stories.
Austen herself only wrote so many stories, of course, and only one of them had the precise sparkle of the ur-Regency, that perfect balance of winking humor and pleasing self-discovery. But, reasoned many of the readers whose original desire to write stories came from a desire to write that story, what if something very much like it were available? Something that likewise featured headstrong heroines and haughty heroes and unexpected changes of heart? In short, what if Jane Austen fans wrote Regency novels of their own? Not so much pastiches (although Lordee knows, there are plenty of them as well) as variations on a theme.
And so a cottage industry was spawned. And for decades, the template of these new Regency romances was as tight as one of the corsets so popular among the era’s finer set, the so-called ton: at least one of the star-crossed lovers must be fabulously wealthy (although even the other must not be so gauche as to be actually poor), the path of their true love must be strewn with obstacles they themselves erect (although angry stand-ins for Lady Catherine de Bourgh are of course permitted), they must come to like each other before they come to love each other, and the story must end with a wedding. And the uniformity of the plot-structure was very much reflected in the uniformity of the cover art (thought I’d forgotten about that, didn’t you?), especially for the flagship line put out in the glory days by Signet.
Ah, the sheer promise of enjoyment evoked by those three magic words, “Signet Regency Romance”! I definitely wasn’t alone in feeling that magic – indeed, for years Signet positively banked on it, slapping a guarantee right on the covers of its Regencies, assuring the reader that every box they expect to be ticked would in fact be ticked, that there would be no wretched narrative experimentation conducted on the premises, that there would be only token violence, no serious social issues (no more pressing, for instance, than Dorothea’s fretting about the stage of tenant cottages in Middlemarch, a novel you must not under any circumstances refer to as any kind, species, or type of Regency, lest Eliotites gather en masse and politely egg your house), and – it need hardly be specified – no sex.
And for years, those happy readers got just exactly what they expected, and it was wonderful! Truly appreciating a Signet Regency Romance is a skill, no less carefully-honed and attentive to details than the skill of sonnet-reading. The author’s command of Regency-era slang, the author’s skill at delineating characters, above all the author’s ear for replicating the kind of silvery dialogue that is the best part of Pride and Prejudice – these and other factors can fail or succeed on a mere hairsbreadth of satisfaction, which would cause me to gaze with scorn at those reading-snobs who commented “they’re all the same.”
Although, looking back at the covers of those old Signet Regency Romances, I can certainly concede that they all looked the same. The covers were sunlit little sketches (only later in the procession, around the turn to 2000, do we see covers that are more or less straight-up photographs of models in period costumes) depicting a well-dressed couple having some kind of moment, whether it be tender or inquisitive or even slightly troubled. The settings were almost always pointedly nondescript: a country house library, a wooded pavilion, occasionally a ballroom. Both the men and the women on these covers are well-dressed and physically attractive (although the men get progressively younger as the years bring us closer to the present – they start off downright fatherly and end up nearly epicene), and both are usually visibly happy. In these delightfully stately earlier covers, there’s usually no hint of the dilemma that can reliably be encountered in the book’s first chapter. The weather is always sunny unless inclement weather plays a key role in the plot, and there’s very seldom a third party in the frame, unless perhaps a picturesque menial (the rare Regency set in Venice, for instance, might have gondolier).
There was such comfort in those gently pastel covers! It perfectly betokened the comfort that lay in store for any well-disposed reader in the books themselves. In the best possible way, these Signet Regency Romances (and their cousins at Zebra and elsewhere) were full of inconsequential things (just like that Austen original, but don’t say that out loud, or the Janeites will start borrowing toilet paper from the Eliotites and tp your house all over again), full of flighty chatter and the latest fashions from London and pretty country houses. They were a uniform slim length, and their plots followed a strictly-patterned quadrille, and their authors made sure to omit the very thing that allowed Pride and Prejudice to soar so effortlessly above its peers, that all-seeing social salt of the narrating mind frame. The only social commentary that’s ever done in these classic Regency romances is done half-heartedly and ham-handedly by their heroines in the brief interval before they marry into the landed gentry. These books are Pride and Prejudice with the scorpion sting removed from the tail.
And their enormous charms would have been significantly lessened, for me, if their covers hadn’t cast such a calm, attractive spell! Hence their appearance in this most round-about of regular features! But trust me: sooner or later, I’ll get around to talking about the point of this regular feature – In fact, I may have only one more digression left before we get there. Stay tuned!
November 11th, 2015
Today’s selection of new comics – reached at my beloved Comicopia through a miserable pining chilly mist – was typically broad and had plenty of interesting-looking new titles, including quite a few ever-optimistic first issues. In one of those, The All-New, All-Different Avengers (as with so much in the new, trendy, app-y Marvel Comics line, that title contains an in-joke you have to be sixty years old to get), the eventual roster of the Earth’s Mightiest Super-Team is apparently going to include three teenagers, but the first issue had a pretty Alex Ross cover.
The day’s new issues also included the next issue of Marvel’s “Secret Wars” mini-series, the title that’s so good I always end up forgiving it for the brainless havoc it’s causing to a company and characters I’ve liked for decades. And there was the final issue of the “Secret Wars” spin-off mini-series Squadron Sinister, which featured fantastic artwork by Carlos Pacheco and a nifty little visual homage to an iconic DC Comics scene (this one from only thirty years ago … sigh …).
But the real standout for me this week will be fairly obvious to long-time readers of Stevereads: it was the first issue of a new DC mini-series called Superman: American Alien, written by Max Landis, who’ll be joined by a different artist every month.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the Superman mythos is the way it continually attracts re-envisionings like this. I think back to Superman: Birthright or Superman: Secret Identity or other mini-series that have brought me so much joy over the years by re-imagining the story of the Man of Steel according to each individual creator’s lights. Even when I don’t particularly like the re-imagining in question, I always, always like the passion.
And I loved this first issue, which focuses on the struggles young Clark Kent goes through in Smallville as his superpowers begin to manifest themselves. The boy is tormented by his desire to simply be normal, and his young parents are by turns terrified and exhilarated (“My baby can fly” Ma Kent says at one point, looking up in wonder), and it’s all done beautifully, both in Landis’ heartfelt script and the goofy, cartoonish artwork of Nick Dragotta. I came to the end of the issue with a bit smile on my face, eager to follow the next six installments.
The smile vanished the instant I saw the back-page author interview and made the connection with who this “Max Landis” is – son of schlock horror director Joe Landis, and more importantly, independently and in his own right a monstrously egotistical, narcissistic, condescending asshole. By the time I was done choking down the interview (in which he insults his interviewer no fewer than six times) and looking at his smug asshole face, I was glad I’d only seen the feature after I read and loved the issue – If I’d made the Max Landis connection prior to visiting Comicopia, I’m pretty sure I would have skipped the issue. So I guess I’ll chalk it up to a good reminder: you shouldn’t hate the creation just because you hate the creator.
Unless the creator is Ezra Pound, of course.
November 11th, 2015
Our book today is a great gaudy thing from a great gaudy decade, The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo from 1978, with an Introduction by the late great science fiction editor Lester Del Rey, a third-rate hack of an author but an absolute impresario when it came to finding, editing, and packaging sci-fi and fantasy books from one of the genre’s golden ages. I loved most of the execrable books in his Del Rey lineup when I found them on the spinner-rack of Trow’s Stationary.
And when it came to packaging, the Peru-born artist Boris Vallejo played a big part. His paperback covers were utterly distinctive, and that was of course their purpose, as Del Rey knows perfectly well and makes clear:
Except perhaps in the case of a few best-sellers, it is the cover art which must sell a mass-market work of fiction. That is what the reader sees first. Unless the cover painting attracts the right attention, the book will remain untouched on the stands, to be returned unsold to the publisher.
As modern-day practitioners of the art will attest, it’s no easy thing to craft one of these covers. Certainly Lester Del Rey himself, having commissioned more than his fair share of them over the years, knew the challenges involved:
The requirements for such a successful painting are many and difficult. The final reproduction is small – about four by seven inches in most cases. This means that every detail of the work must be visible at first glance, even when greatly reduced. And the books appear on the stands in rows and tiers that tend to bury any single volume in an overall blur. Somehow, the cover must stand out strongly in the multitude.
There are all sorts of ways such a cover can stand out, and the SFF genre lends itself naturally to most of those ways. The genre is stereotypes that look great in full color; helpfully, Del Rey lists them on the back jacket of this book: “magnificent women – heroic men – beasts and monsters – lands of glory and mystery – worlds of the distant past and the incredible future!”
Mostly, Vallejo – a passable draughtsman with some sense of scale, zero sense of motion, but a good grasp of comic-book anatomy – gets the first three right and just stops there. He’s comfortable giving his fans heroic men, magnificent women, and beasts and monsters, and some of those covers were instantly iconic. Look at the cover he did for a reprint of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sole Roman historical novel, I am a Barbarian, for instance: man versus tiger, and the winner gets the requisite cringing woman! Or the wonderfully exploitive covers he did for “John Norman”’s wretched misogyny-fest “Gor” novels, where the “magnificent women” are usually not only cringing but in chains (even back when these books first started coming out, I thought, “So your idea for a fantasy series is a world where women are objectified and enslaved? This was your great leap of imagination?”) – these images are not only very simple, they’re also very squarely aimed at a target demographic. Likewise the cover for a “handbook” of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels: John Carter might look all bare-chested and heroic, but we only get a demure rear-end view of Dejah Thoris.
And yet, you could never quite tell with Vallejo. Despite what the preponderance of selections in The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo might suggest, quite often this artist seemed to be aiming the appeal of his work at, shall we say, a very different demographic altogether. This book Del Rey assembled a lifetime ago is only a couple-dozen pages long, so it can hardly include all the work Vallejo had done even up to 1978 (there have been many collections since); it leaves out his great series of Tarzan covers, for instance, like the … curious one he did for Tarzan’s Quest. And then there’s Barba the Slaver, a … curious cover he did for “Dael Forest”’s “Tales of the Empire” series, and there are plenty of other … curious examples.
It kept a reader on his toes, I guess. And looking at all these covers also served to remind me of all those gloriously squandered summer evenings I spent actually reading the books that came adorned with the fantastic art of Boris Vallejo. I’d never re-read those books today, I think, but if I find a more comprehensive Vallejo collection one of these days (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course), I won’t hesitate to snap it up.
November 8th, 2015
Ah, yes: windows open, ceiling fan going, bare feet propped up on the nearest basset hound – all the typical hallmarks of November in New England! And how better to pass a hot, languid November weekend than with a nice fat biography, to take your mind off the sultry weather?
Certainly I myself don’t know any better way. I have a long-standing love affair with big fat biographies; they really allow their authors to lay out the full fruits of their research, and the resulting account of a person’s life can benefit enormously from the slow accumulation of small details – whereas a conspicuously short biography always raises suspicions in my mind that the author is using that concision as an exclusionary tactic, a way of shaping one particular interpretation. There can be exceptions, of course: I’ve read plenty of short biographies that were excellent. But in a nice big thousand-pager, the constant overlay of endless facts stretched out over endless chapters can set up almost a parallel narrative to anything the biographer is trying to impose on the mass of assembled data. Even when you read as fast as I do, you end up living with the subject in a book of that kind of length, and I like living with a book every bit as much as crawly-slow readers do.
Long, hot weekends like the ones that characterize November (and every other month) in Boston therefore always pull my mind toward the surplus of enormous fat biographies on my shelves here at Hyde Cottage. These were some of my main temptations this time around:
John Marshall: Definer of a Nation by Jean Edward Smith – This book, from 1996, clocks in at only 700 pages, but what it lacks in that extra ooomph it makes up in sheer convivial readability. I’d read two biographies of Marshall before this one, and they’d predictably concentrated on the man’s writings, legal cases, and decisions, all of which were monumentally important in shaping the United States. So I was at first surprised by Smith’s decision to write so much about the man as well, giving us the first detailed and well-rounded portrait of Marshall’s personality that anybody had ever thought to create. I discovered that three-dimensional Marshall in this great book, and I also discovered Jean Edward Smith, whose big biographies I’ve eagerly consumed ever since.
The Life of Captain James Hook by J. C. Beaglehole – This 1974 biography of the greatest seafarer since Ulysses is slightly longer than the John Marshall book, at 760 pages, and it’s equally definitive. Cook’s life and career is a great sprawling thing full of large personalities and very small technical details, full of benchmarks now largely forgotten by readers of popular biography. Beaglehole writes a very scholarly line of prose, but it somehow manages likewise to be a surging epic of sea life and exploration, of strange new worlds and squalor and valor. Beaglehole also has a very sly understated humor the sparkles at the oddest moments. Like Marshall, Cook can seem very much larger than life when you look at his accomplishments in outline – this book counters that handily, presenting readers with a passionate, prickly man.
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times by Robert Dallek – It almost feels like a kind of heresy to read a Johnson biography not written by Robert Caro, and certainly Caro’s Master of the Senate is a perfect example of the kind of enormous fat biography I love to read on a long November summer’s afternoon. But this 1998 biography of LBJ (another 760-pager, the concluding volume of a multi-part work on the man) has enormous merits on its own, largely owing to Dallek’s wry, reserved tone throughout. He allows Johnson a great deal of space to speak in his own voice, and he’s done a lot of old-fashioned legwork with the people who knew LBJ, and this volume wonderfully pulls all that together in an intensely readable brick of a thing. I never like Johnson any more after re-reading it, but I like Dallek just a bit more each time.
John Ruskin by Tim Hilton – Of course, some enormous fat biographies would test the patience of Job – some of them seem more like taunts than invitations. A famous stereotype of this would be those not-infrequent Victorian behemoths that needed several hundred pages simply to bombast their way to the day their putative subject was born, but the breed most certainly exists still in our present day (Reiner Stach, for instance, writing a 600-page volume on the boyhood of Kafka), and at a whopping 900 pages, this omnibus volume combining Hilton’s two already-hefty biographies of that great Victorian sourpuss John Ruskin certainly qualifies. Ruskin is one of those subjects even enthusiastic readers tend to regard with a studious kind of alarm; he’s the attack-cleaning project you’ve never yet got around to, the long end-of-term exam for which you can never adequately prepare. He wrote no single accessible masterpiece; he deeply influenced two entire generations but was nearly-complete gibberish to himself, and in 2015 even otherwise literate people, if asked to pair something, anything with Ruskin’s name, they would draw a blank. So the idea of spending 900 pages with such a figure is probably enough to warn most readers away, but I’m actually a fan of the man’s writing, and after reading this book, I’m a fan of Hilton’s writing as well: he’s fiercely opinionated and memorably eloquent (the paperback I own is covered with critical praise and deserves every word of it), and if he doesn’t quite land a case for why we should all know Ruskin better than we do, well, I’m not sure anybody could do that.
The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blakc by G. E. Bentley – Yale University Press spared no expense in producing this heavy 500-page volume when it came out back in 2001: it’s not only beautifully designed but lavishly illustrated (with Blake’s own work, naturally). This was the first big biography of Blake I’d ever read that concentrated more on his career as a professional illustrator and engraver than on his fame as a poet. Bentley likes pursuing some daffy line about how Blake the religious fanatic was really a kind of alien being making his way through the streets and relationships and meeting houses of his day-to-day life. But thankfully, Bentley’s book is extensively concerned with the real world, and after a few hundred pages, his Blake begins to emerge as a far more complex and interesting (though still barking mad) character than any version of the man I’ve read in biographies before or since.
Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta Sereny – And if Bentley’s Blake book surpasses all other biographies of the man, how much more true is that of the last of our tremendous fat biographies, Gitta Sereny’s magnificent 750-page 1995 masterpiece about Hitler’s architect? Sereny had all the tools and resources at her disposal to write either a conventional biography of this complex “good Nazi” or, after her many face-to-face interviews with the man, to write some kind of muted defense of Speer’s highly questionable integrity. Instead, she chose to delve deeper into the twisted psychology of Nazism – and of Speer in particular – than all but a handful of writers had ever even attempted with this kind of subtlety. Every time I re-read this book, I’m struck anew by the incredibly nuanced way Sereny navigates her topic. Her Albert Speer is fascinating and sometimes charming without ever for a moment ceasing to be an oily, narcissistic monster in a good suit. Conveying that kind of multiplicity is very often beyond the abilities of biographers, but Sereny makes it look easy.
Of course there many other such excellent fat biographies that I use to beguile the long, hot afternoons of autumn in New England. Local lore and mythology hints that in ages past the autumns in Boston could actually turn cold enough so that people shut their windows and did something called “bundling up” when they went outside. That same folklore maintains that those cold days could likewise spark a desire to pull down some big book and lose yourself in it, although that seems hard to believe. But for these endless summer days, the expedient works just fine.