Posts from May 2008

May 21st, 2008

In the Penny Press!

A slightly belated look at the Penny Press here at Stevereads, where we’ve been slightly distracted of late. For instance, we’re only just now getting to last week’s TLS, which had its usual bounty of great stuff and one ominous little note, in Morris Dickstein’s review of Richard Cook’s new Alfred Kazin biography. Dickstein’s piece (oh calm yourself, Beepy) is very good, but it opens with a few declarations that bear refuting:

Literary journalism is usually as perishable as the paper it’s printed on. In times past, the most commanding reviewers might see their work collected in books. Now the general audience for literary essays seems to have disappeared, along with many newspapers and magazines that once published them.
Well, yes and no, right? If Dickstein really believed what he wrote, he wouldn’t be writing literary essays for the TLS, now would he? And besides, his dire predictions fail to take into account the very medium in whose warm glow you’re right this moment bathing: the Internet is, of course, where the ‘general audience’ for literary essays has migrated, and that ‘paper it’s printed on’ reference already feels slightly old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Print had its long golden age, as did steam and whale-oil, and in another generation even the most obstinate holdouts to paper-and-ink reading will have been won over by some innovation or other that soothes their old-fashioned nerves (we here at Stevereads, for instance, got an absolutely frightening amount of use out of our old manual typewriter – indeed, it sits within easy view whenever we write, even to this day – but the homely little detail that won us over to computers was the backspace … the ability to magically undo any and all typing mistakes without the torturous necessity of white-out or retyping, like a gift from Heaven! After that, we kept pecking away on our mechanical typewriter for a while out of misplaced sentimentality, but after a while, we saw how pointless that was and stopped). Dickstein’s lament is not only premature but misplaced, as the meticulous, wonderfully written prose over at Open Letters (among many other such places, although it’s the best of them) shows ever month on the 1st.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t an abundance of good prose still in the print world! Take the latest issue of Esquire, for instance. Not only does it have a really good, really intense short story titled “Nightstand” by Daniel Woodrell, about a man who wakes to find a stranger standing at the foot of his bed, kills the stranger, and then watches his life change as a result, in disturbing ways the reader won’t see coming. It’s always a pleasure when Esquire’s fiction excels, and “Nightstand” is the best thing they’ve published so far this year.

Then there’s Mark Warren’s little insert (oh calm down, Beepy) “Cracking the Code,” part of a longer feature on racism in America. Warren very amusingly posits there’s a code for how public figures talk about racism, and of course he has one particular public figure in mind:

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when administering the code visually, because there’s a much higher probability that it’ll backfire, and you’ll be the one looking like a douchebag. Case in point: Earlier this year, the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton released a picture of Barack Obama, taken a couple of years ago when the senator was visiting Kenya. In the picture, Obama, who was gamely playing along by donning local garb, is wearing a turban and wrapped in a bedsheet over his khakis and polo shirt. Senator Clinton’s people just put the picture out there, for our consideration, and there it hung in the air, like a fart. They of course couldn’t say “Look, he really is a Muslim, and a foreigner, and lookee, he’s so black!” So they said nothing, until the Obama campaign responded, essentially, “What the hell?” Whereupon Clinton’s campaign manager attacked Senator Obama for being divisive. Awkward.

Trenchant stuff, especially considering the fact that as of this writing Candidate Clinton has just won a brace of Racist State Primaries and instead of being ashamed, instead of quietly shushing up the whole thing (like the way every Presidential candidate who gets the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan – and for a hundred years, somebody’s got that endorsement in every race), she’s trumpeted it as a sign the system still works, as a measure of the validity of her campaign.

It won’t matter in the end, obviously. Barring an assassin’s bullet (something Candidate Clinton is all but visibly relying on, which will end up being the least savory detail of her 2008 run), its pretty likely Senator Obama will be the Democrat who get their ass handed to them in the general election against the madman McCain. But it speaks in eloquent counterpoint to Obama’s now famous speech on race relations in this country.

Obama is also the focus of Charles Pierce’s ferocious, intelligent piece “The Cynic and Senator Obama,” which takes as its organizing motif the idea that there’s a segment of the smarter American voting public that still refuses to believe in Obama, to believe that he’s hitting a genuine nerve in a broad spectrum of people – that he is, in other words, answering a need of some kind (it’s worth noting that this isn’t exclusively a good thing, needs being weak, after all). Pierce strikes an unashamedly partisan note throughout:

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost. More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is – or, as a right, ought to be – about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country’s name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.
In the article, the Cynic fights hard to retain his cynicism and in the end remains unconvinced by Obama and any of his various messages, but the prose is bracing throughout.

(in an associated point, John Richardson turns in a piece titled “Is This Man a Monster?” about former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the author of the infamous ‘torture memos’ that will forever guarantee President George W. Bush a place, however dark, in history. Richardson’s title question, about an innocent-faced, career-minded creature who conceived the memorandum that are this country’s darkest moments embodied, can be answered with a simple ‘yes,’ but that doesn’t make his article any the less compelling)

And surely for readers everywhere, the highlight of this particular issue of Esquire was its one-page interview with legendary author Gore Vidal. Those of us who’ve loved Vidal’s work in the past have been universally troubled in the present, where our author has seemed to lose his way a bit. His latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, was touching but ultimately saddening, something akin to the world’s longest death notice.

There’s something of that tone in Mike Sager’s brief interview here, but it’s delivered with more fire and wit. And the quips flow like Chianti:

I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him. For a writer, memory is everything. But then you have to test it; how good is it, really? Whether it’s wrong or not, I’m beyond caring. It is what it is. As Norman Mailer would say, “It’s existential.” He went to his grave without knowing what that word meant.

But the troublingly mortuary note is still struck here as well, as in this little revelation:

There was more of a flow to my output of writing in the past, certainly. Having no contemporaries left means you cannot say, “Well, so-and-so will like this,” which you do when you’re younger. You realize there is no so-and-so anymore. You are your own so-and-so. There is a bleak side to it.

Well, yes, there is a bleak side to it, but fortunately this is a problem with an easy solution, and we here at Stevereads offer it to Mr. Vidal free of charge, in complete confidence as to its efficacy because we’ve repeatedly tested it ourselves: make young friends! Find new so-and-so’s! Not only is it invigorating, but it keeps you on your toes, stops you from thinking you have all the answers (stops you, essentially, from masturbating in public). The English Department of any handy university could provide you with such new blood, or, failing that, we’re sure the boys and girls over at Open Letters would be happy to volunteer! Merely click on the link and drop them a line!

Over in the Atlantic, there are two standout pieces this month, and neither one is by Christopher Hitchens (although he does write a lovely essay about Saki)! The first is called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” and it’s written by “Professor X” (as in anonymous, not as in mutant) – and reading the piece, you can see why its author would want to remain anonymous: the thing is a bracing wake-up call about the over-proliferation of college students in this country, and the drastic failures of the pre-college educational system – first by utterly failing to prepare them for higher learning, and second by simultaneously filling their heads with the desirability of that goal.

Professor X is the guy standing between that goal and reality, as he ruefully writes:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it – try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades. For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of the work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less college.

The fault here, of course, lies not in the laudable goal of sending everybody to college; it lies with the criminally substandard state into which Americans have allowed their grade schools and high schools to fall. We here at Stevereads know a dozen teachers at such levels, and all of them routinely spend their own money on supplies, offer up their own time for private tutoring, try their best to reach classes sometimes numbering in the 30s, and doing all of this with virtually no support from local communities and businesses, despite the fact that such support is certainly in their long-term best interests. The reason Professor X is dealing with so many barely literate, intellectually incurious students in college is because they were allowed to pass that way out of high school. His despair at being the guy who hands out the failing grades is a visible symptom of a much more widespread rot.

Of course, none of it might ultimately matter, if the second Atlantic article turns out to be true. Gregg Easterbrook turns in a curiously flat piece about the end of life on Earth, as a result of a catastrophic meteor-collision. His piece, “The Sky is Falling,” has some fascinating details lodged in a scattershot general approach (there’s a long digression on the feasibility of building a lunar base that any first-year editor should have yanked out of the piece), and the star of the show is 99942 Apophis, our darling girl:

Right now, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036. Apophis is also small by asteroid standards, perhaps 300 meters across, but it could hit with about 60,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb – enough to destroy an area the size of France.

That destruction would only be the beginning, as all you fans of Armageddon can attest: following it would be shockwaves, tsunamis, earthquakes, and choking dust clouds. As Easterbrook puts it:

…the combination of shock waves and extreme heating at the point of impact generates nitric and nitrous acids, producing rain as corrosive as battery acid.


As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads aren’t terribly big fans of the human race (even though some of our best friends are humans). Mankind has proven itself to be a savage and spreading cancer across the face of the planet, a species whose defining action seems to be destruction. Diseases do little to cull the murderous herd, and wars are equally small-fry. A monstrous asteroid striking the planet would, it’s true, wipe out all non-human life … but if it also wiped out humanity, well, that would be a bargain even so. So we’ll be watching closely in 2036, with fingers crossed.

And in the meantime, we’ll be blogging. So there’s karma still in the world!

February 24th, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Surprises aplenty in this week’s Penny Press, and almost all of them the good kind!

For instance, it’s always nice when a writer you like, while writing about something else entirely, makes an aside you enthusiastically agree with; Stephen Jay Gould used to do it with comforting regularity, and in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books Edmund White does the same thing. While writing about that prize-winning 19th century Boston nelly Howard Sturgis (writing specifically about his novel Belchamber, although Sturgis’ novel Tim is a genuinely touching evocation of what it is to have a schoolboy crush), he invokes Sturgis’ expat milieu and makes a winning digression:

Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time).

We here at Stevereads can’t help but cheer a little cheer: Sargent’s painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, is indeed one of the greatest paintings of all time. On many occasions, we here at Stevereads have lost ourselves staring at it, plumbing the depths of its mystery and beauty, and it’s gratifying to hear somebody else so casually give it the credit it deserves.

And that’s not a patch on the carpet of wonders to be found in the latest New Yorker, starting with Adrian Tomine’s sublime cover illustration ‘Shelf Life,’ showing the pitiless life-cycle of a book, from creation to publication to purchase to discard and oblivion.

But the cover’s not the only thing, not by a longshot! Ordinarily, your average issue of the New Yorker has only one or at most two things to recommend it, but this one is full of good and interesting things, starting with Hendrik Hertzberg’s short piece beginning the issue, writing about the imbecilities of the United States’ drug policies, specifically those involving marijuana:

Nearly a hundred million of us – forty percent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media elites – have smoked (and therefore possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession.

On this Hertzberg is entirely right: though we here at Stevereads are partial to a stiff shot of whiskey (preferably before the fire at our estate at Montauk, with Leni and Blondi sitting alertly at our feet), we agree whole-heartedly with our young friend Mister Allison and many, many others that marijuana use should of course be legalized in America – the drug is far less socially destructive than alcohol (as is every other drug known to man), and although it’s equally physically destructive as its close cousin tobacco (though its most fervid adherents will strenuously deny this – well, as strenuously as they do anything, the poor things – it’s nonetheless true: you take heavy, corrosive particulate matter into your lungs, and you try your hardest to keep it there as long as possible), it doesn’t have any of that drug’s devastating effects on people nearby. Oh, it’s every bit as tenaciously addictive (another assertion that would stir its addicts, if they could be stirred) as any of the other substances, but when the sun sets on the issue, it’s a minor stimulant, like coffee – it isn’t in any way near the same weight-class as either tobacco or alcohol in terms of being a danger to the public, and yet both those substances are perfectly legal (indeed, im-perfectly so: we personally know nine individuals under the legal buying age of 21 who regularly smoke and drink – and hence, who regularly buy beer and cigarettes from vendors who are legally forbidden to sell them to minors). It should be legal – the sheer silliness of it being otherwise is, we suppose, some sort of moral issue, as sad and weird as that sort of thing always strikes us. What else could it be, so long after the ‘60s? Unless there’s some truth to the paranoid rumors that the government actually wants to hopelessly target the peddlers and users of marijuana, as a sop to the much-touted ‘war on drugs’ that its enemies say can never be won. If so, and even if no, it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

But good as Hertzberg’s little squib is, it’s the least thing in the issue. Take for instance Larissa MacFarquhar’s long and very good profile/obituary of serial novelist Louis Auchincloss.

The piece is noteworthy not only because nobody’s bothered to do one in a few decades (and why would they, Auchincloss being the single most boring novelist in the history of the world?) but because MacFarquhar manages to unearth a couple of really good quotes, as when Auchincloss (with unintentional irony) ruminates about his time during the war: “I had all my life a curious sense of immunity, that nothing would happen to me. And nothing ever did.”

Or his response to Norman Mailer when Mailer said the two of them had nothing in common, a response that’s so witty and lively that it was actually made by Gore Vidal:

Nothing in common! We live in the same silly island, publish our wet dreams, and go to the same silly parties – and have for years! It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference between us. Of course, it is true I don’t marry quite so much.

And MacFarquhar does more than find great quotes; she makes some too, in writing so good it begs to be quoted:

A novelist of manners must balance satire with nostalgia. If he is too indulgent, his story will collapse into sentiment; if too contemptuous, it dries up and becomes sociology. Auchincloss is the least gushy of writers: in his fiction he has virtually no interest in romantic love (though he is fascinated by male friendship), and of the human race as a whole he has a very low opinion. He can’t abide writers like Whitman, who slosh about and ‘yearn,’ as he puts it. He is never maudlin about the nonsense of the past … and yet The Rector of Justin is his best novel, because it is one of the few times he permits his elegaic moralism to dominate a book. He loves his mad Puritans, and believes they are no more.

That’s better critical analysis than Auchincloss deserves, since MacFarquhar is right: The Rector of Justin is his best novel – and it was written during the Crimean War. That an author who’s written so dully and indifferently for so many decades should still be alive when so many better, sharper voices are silenced is a kind of sustained mockery on the world of letters. We can take some small consolation from the fact that Gore Vidal, thought leeched of most of his talent, is still alive as well.

Comfort also comes in the middle of the Auchincloss piece, in the form of an inserted poem, a lovely thing by J. D. McClatchy called “Chinese Poem”:

Whatever change you were considering,

Do not plant another tree in the garden.

One tree means four seasons of sadness:

What is going,

What is coming,

What will not come,

What cannot go.

Here in bed, through the south window

I can see the moon watching us both,

Someone’s hand around its clump of light.

Yours? I know you are sitting out there,

Looking at silver bloom against black.

That drop from your cup in the night sky’s

Lacquer you wipe away with your sleeve

As if its pleated thickets were the wide space

Between us, though you know as well as I do

This autumn is no different from the last.

We here at Stevereads have been accused of having a tin ear when it comes to poetry, but we find that charming. We think we like this J.D. McClatchy person.

And then there’s the issue’s shocker: not only did we like the short story (this virtually never happens), but we liked it even though it was written by … Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie! An author for whom we’ve had so far nothing but contempt! An author who has shown hardly a spark of genuine talent in his entire career! But his latest story, “The Shelter of the World,” represents something – an elevation of tone, a maturing of humor – we’ve never seen from him before. The story revolves around the Emperor Akbar the Great in the city of Sikri, and it’s threaded throughout with this wonderful new tone:

‘Your time has come,’ the Emperor assented [to a fallen foe]. ‘So tell us truthfully before you go, what sort of paradise do you expect to discover when you have passed through the veil?’ The Rana raised his mutilated face and looked the Emperor in the eye. ‘In Paradise, the words ‘worship’ and ‘argument’ mean the same thing,’ he declared. ‘The Almighty is not a tyrant. In the house of God, all voices are free to speak as they chose, and that is the form of their devotion.’ He was an irritating, holier-than-thou type of youth, that was beyond question, but in spite of his arrogance Akbar was moved. ‘We promise you that we will build that house of adoration here on earth,’ the Emperor said. Then, with a cry – Allah Akbar, ‘God is great,’ or, just possibly, ‘Akbar is God’ – he chopped off the pompous little twerp’s cheeky, didactic, and therefore suddenly unnecessary head.

The puckish humor and light touch on display here are worlds away from the crass and idiotically self-serving stuff with which he gained his fame as a writer. We here at Stevereads can’t help but hope it lasts. We’ve always wanted to like this author; it would be nice to finally be able to.

Speaking of authors we want to like (but aren’t always able to), the latest issue of the Atlantic features a piece by Christopher Hitchens that reminds us of why we liked him in the first place. It’s a review of the New York Review of Books’ recent re-issue of Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and it’s not blowsy or arrogant or sloppy or ignorant – instead, it bristles with learning and clear prose, not to mention great insights, as when he mentions the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion:

Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as a ‘forgery.’ A forgery is counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.

And there are trademark Hitchens flashes of humor, too, here happily presented without rant:

It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Again, here’s hoping this Christopher Hitchens sticks around – we’ve missed him.

But the issue’s main attraction is a consciously provocative article called “Marry Him” by Lori Gottlieb, which makes a heretical argument in favor of Settling, of marrying Mister (or Miss) Good Enough instead of waiting for Mister (or Miss) Right.

It’s a punchy little subject, amply served by Gottlieb’s lively prose style:

Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American.

Her article is forthright and funny but also serious, centering on the folly of expecting to meet a sex partner who’s also a personal equal. We here at Stevereads have done battle with this particular folly for long centuries, so we were grateful for every word of Gottlieb’s piece, whose only flaw is that it’s too much aimed at women, when we can assure you, men need the same advice in the same measure:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

To which we here at Stevereads would add a further note: Pay for sex, for Pete’s sake. Take it out of the equation of personal interaction entirely. That way, you’ll use one yardstick, one set of standards, in forming all your personal relationships. Sex will no longer be a factor, prompting you to lavish your personal time on a simpleton, or a monster – instead, since you’re satisfying your needs the old-fashioned American way, by paying, you’ll be able to shape your personal attachments with your brain and your heart, instead of your naughty bits. Just a thought.

And there you have it! An uncommonly fruitful foray into the Penny Press! Glad to have you all along for the ride, and don’t forget to tune in a little later, when Stevereads will take its second – and definitive – look at the Oscars!

January 28th, 2007

TLS! Opporunists, Favorites, and Scolds in Winter!

The nicest thing about each issue of the TLS (well, apart from the satisfyingly steep levels of erudition always on display) is the unpredictability of it all – you never know what each issue is going to throw at you, you only know it’ll almost certainly be worth your attention.

Take last week’s issue. It begins with a very entertaining roundup review by John North on a trio of books on environmental history. In the midst of this review, there comes this wonderful tidbit: apparently, once upon a time an Oxford don paleontologist named William Buckland had an idea:

“He imported a hyena, ‘Billy,’ from Africa, intending to dissect it for its stomach contents and skeleton, after it had done its work. The deed was too much. Billy continued to live a comfortable Oxford life for the next twenty-five years, known to guests as the family pet that chewed guinea pigs while they dined on other fare.”

See that? How can you beat a literary review that opens with a guinea pig-chomping half-domesticated Oxford hyena? The most the New York Times Book Review can muster is the occasional housecat.

Of course, one of the benefits of being the TLS is the patina of ‘final word’ that clings (usually justifiably, only occasionally not, as in their reviews of all three ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, where at least an argument could be made that film is not their primary area of expertise) to everything on which they pronounce word.

Take, for instance, Gore Vidal’s new memoir “Point to Point Navigation.” Like many of our young friends, we have a complicated relationship with Gore Vidal the author, and so we’ve made it our business to read every notice the book has received. But it wasn’t until James Murphy’s full-length review in this issue of the TLS that we felt we’d seen the book given its full critical due.

Expectedly, it’s a largely negative appraisal. We’ve read “Point to Point Navigation,” and so have others we’ve known, and the verdicts have all been lukewarm to negative. But we read Murphy’s review with avid interest.

In fact, we couldn’t help but crack a wry smile at Murphy’s characterization of Vidal’s socio-political views. Whether or not he’s accurate in his estimation, the phrasing reminds us, inevitably, of our angry young colleague the Reichmarshal:

“… homegrown isolationism – a world-view that is more complex than it has sometimes been painted, and is still potent political medicine in what are now called the ‘flyover states.’ It is an attitude marked by fear of central government and loathing for the elites which control it; suspicion, warring with indifference, about all things foreign and a tendency to believe that the devil walks abroad and belongs to the opposition.”

Personally, we don’t think Vidal actually still believes much if any of that, but it’s fun thinking about those who do. And in the meantime, Murphy makes a serious case:

“Whether it is Gore Vidal’s stature as a novelist that established him as a political pundit, or his panache as partisan scourge that won him the following he has as a writer, is something on which both admirers and critics are unlikely ever to agree. Whatever the case, it seems that his widespread fame (or infamy) today rests more on his career as controversialist than as man of letters however much he might argue they amount to the same thing.”

Of course, as our whip-smart young friends would tell us, Vidal wouldn’t equate those two things (except, perhaps, while drunk, which may end up being the point, although we’ll never really know). But it got us thinking about what Gore Vidal’s actual literary legacy will be.

We realized immediatetly that we’d always pinned our unthinking hopes for such on his literary productions. After all, this was the firebrand who’d written ‘The City and the Pillar.’ This was the sure-footed entertainer who wrote ‘Julian’ and ‘Creation’ … hell, for all its imperfections, ‘Burr’ was written by a profound political questioner. We here at Stevereads feel funny about the prospect of such works simply disappearing. ‘I, Claudius’ is certainly no more worthy of immortality than ‘Julian,’ for instance – the mind conjures with the possibilities, if the BBC had mounted an elaborate mini-series based on the latter rather than the former book, with the same stellar cast bringing an entirely different list of historical characters to life (only maybe John Hurt in the main role, rather than Derek Jacobi – just a thought).

Murphy is well-versed in his subject, which makes him impossible to dismiss out of hand (weird to think, however, that some of our regular readers actually know handily more about Vidal than this seasoned professional reviewer, but that’s the way it is … nothing but the best, here at Stevereads). He centers his sights, unfortunately, on Vidal’s later, loopier conspiracy-theoried rants and raves (unfortunately, but not unfairly – if you’re not sensible enough to retire from the arena of public writing after a certain age and level of coherence, your words are fair game … it might make Vidal’s fans squirm a bit, but until the man stops squirting out op-ed pieces, there it is), with predictable outcomes – especially since ‘Point to Point Navigation’ is in every sense of the word a late work. Murphy minces no words:

“Stuff does not just happen in Vidal’s world: with the focus and perserverance of the autodidact, he will show us how it all fits together, and get in a few swipes at opponants while trying.”

Vidal’s own writing sets up Murphy’s most damning summation:

“Rebutting innuendo, however, is a black hole of discourse; if you ask a rhetorical question, you’ll probably get a rhetorical answer. And conspiracy historiography will always have a part to play in populist democratic culture for, without it, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Eventually those searching intelligent design (sic, apparently) in human affairs tend to nudge each other farther out on a limb, and wind up rubbing shoulders with Rosicrucians, racists, and ‘Da Vinci Code’ cryptographers. Meanwhile, as Harold Macmillan famously pointed out, the rest of us are left to deal with events.”

Still, we here at Stevereads wonder if this isn’t a bit simplistic. For good or ill, and regardless of future opinionizing, at the very least Gore Vidal is the author of the essay collection ‘United States’ – an immortal work whether or not ‘Julian’ or ‘Burr’ or ‘Creation’ sink beneath the waves. That alone is cause to treat Vidal’s legacy – if not the man himself – slightly more respectfully. Luckily, in the end Murphy senses this and ends his review with an acknowledgement of the book’s most touching matter, the death of Vidal’s longtime companion Howard Austin and the effect it had on our author:

“Austin’s dignity and courage in the last days, and his friend’s heartbreak in witnessing them, turn these pages of the memoir into literature, reminding us of the respect we all owe to grief and those who endure it. Whatever the book as a whole may lack in purpose or direction, it finds in these pages a voice that speaks to the heart.”

We aren’t quite sure how Vidal would feel about this (it sounds a lot like a pat dismissal); the reflex is to wait a year for his next peppy, eloquent collection of essays and rebuttals. It’s a very melancholy thought, that we may never see another such book from Gore Vidal.

One more item of interest from our quick survey: Peter Holbrook’s review of Curtis Perry’s book “Literature and Favoritism in Early Modern England.” It’s a short and wholly positive review of a fascinating subject: royal favorites, their pros and cons.

Apparently, having read Perry’s book, Holbrook can find precious few pros regarding these men he refers to as ‘greasy careerists':

“The favourite is a monster, then, a deformation of monarchy. But he is also commonplace: every prince has one. Edward II’s Gaveston, Elizabeth’s Leicester and Essex, James I’s Somerset, and James I’s and Charles I’s Buckingham all sabotage normal princely rule. But what is normal about a system that keeps throwing up such monsters?”

He goes one step further:

“Royal favourites are inevitable – which may just indicate something wrong with royalty.”

We here at Stevereads are quite well-versed on the topic of royal favorites, and we have to disagree: there’d be something wrong with personal monarchy if the monarchs DIDN’T developed favorites. The favorite, for good or ill (only ill cases are listed above, but there were very many good ones), reminds the monarch of their humanity. Kings and queens almost always knew (and usually loved) their favorites long before they gained the throne – the favorite thereby becomes a living reminder of days that were often more perilous and always more carefree. Often, monarchs need that reminder, in order not to become monsters – or worse, weak.

So, let’s close things up for now with an impromptu Stevereads quiz! Anybody out there ‘up’ enough on their British history to name a royal favorite who WASN’T a ‘greasy’ monster? A monarch who unequivocally BENEFITTED from maintaining a favorite?

November 18th, 2006

penny press! the new york review o’ books!

A very full issue of the New York Review of Books this time around (thanks, no doubt, to our young friend Sam’s ever-increasing sway behind the scenes at that august establishment! Stand up and take a bow, Sam!), so let’s start sorting the wheat from the chaff, shall we?

(The sorting can begin by one of your clever little marmosets finding me a visual of the COVER of this issue, something 30 minutes of tooling around the Web on my own failed utterly to do)

As I predicted, Jason Epstein’s piece on Google’s plan to create an enormous, unlimited virtual library garnered some heated responses in the letters page.

Google plans to digitally scan vast innumerable piles of books, to be available at the touch of a button to anybody with access to the Internet. The ruckus arises over copyrighted material – Google says it will offer only ‘snippets’ of such, presumably with readers able to pay them to see the whole work. Naturally, this has authors and bookstores in an uproar.

Law professors in an uproar too, apparently. Peter Friedman, an associate professor of law at Case Western, writes:

“Jason Epstein writes in ‘Books @ Google,’ that Google’s creation of a searchable database of copyrighted texts without the permission of the copyright holders cannot constitute ‘fair use’ under US copyright law because the creation of such a database ‘violates the provision of copyright law that forbids copying more than a brief passage.’ There is no such provision.

Professor Friedman goes on from there, but that’s where we here at Stevereads stopped and said, ‘Yes there is. Dickwad.’

It’s a well-known mental affliction, contracted mostly by lawyers and law professors, that leads them to believe their profession consists of sacred books locked away from the soiling gaze of the knuckle-dragging public. Alas for them, despite the level best efforts of the present administration, all American laws are matters of public record. If you’ve passed the fifth grade, you can look them up and READ them.

So: yes there is such a provision. Dickwad.

Equally frustrating is a little assertion tossed off in an otherwise excellent piece by Peter Green. He’s reviewing three books on the archeology of Homeric Greece, and since he’s a towering authority in the field and one of the smartest classicists alive today, the review is absorbingly good.

Except for this:

“Though the famous love affair between Catullus and Clodia Metelli (‘Lesbia’) is better documented than many other episodes in Roman history, there are still distinguished Latinists determined to treat it as fiction.”

As Beepy would say, What the Eff?

This is probably as good a time as any to point out that Peter Green, despite having written a shelf-full of great histories and translations, is a bit of a nutjob. Not a nutjob, really, but … well, shall we say ‘stubborn in the holding of eccentric opinions’?

But even so, this one really puzzles. The history of ancient Rome prior to the death of Trajan is one of those subjects on which I can safely say I know as much as anybody in the world, and I’m telling you, boys and girls: there’s absolutely NO ‘documented’ love affair between Catullus and Clodia. There’s no surviving evidence they ever met. There’s no evidence Clodia and Lesbia are the same woman. It’s a pretty surmise alright, but ‘documented’? I have no idea what Green is thinking.

Unless he’s enough of a nutjob to consider passionate love-poems to be ‘documents.’ But that surely can’t be – nobody in the world could be that dense.

And finally, it was density of another kind that kept cropping up in Larry McMurtry’s review of Gore Vidal’s latest memoir, “Point to Point Navigation.”

On first glancing at the table of contents, I smiled: a wonderful match! Two excellent prose stylists, one patrician the other plebian, both outstanding historical novelists.

Then I read a bunch of other things in the issue and forgot about the symmetry. By the time I got to the review, I’d even sort of forgotten McMurtry was its writer. Instead, I just dug right in.

And almost immediately started snagging on the prose of the review itself. Some curious mental block prevented me from thinking of McMurtry every time this happened – instead, I was mentally cursing WHOEVER the editorial nobody was who could write like this:

“Gore Vidal has the looks of a prince, the connections of a prince, more wit than any prince I can presently recall, and a prose style that should be the envy of the dwindling few who realize that prose style matters, both for the glory of it and also because if one makes one’s living mainly by the making of prose sentences, as Gore Vidal has, it’s nicer if the sentences are strong, supple, and pleasing.”

Geez. I’d have handed that back to a freshmen in high school.

OK, I thought, once I’d reminded myself that it was, in fact, McMurtry writing the piece. Anybody can find themselves in a rhetorical box canyon now and then. But it keeps happening:

“After the death of Barbara Epstein saddened this journal, I wrote a tiny tribute, along with many others.
None of these offerings is more painful to read than the dozen harrowing pages Gore Vidal devotes to the passing of his long, long companion, Howard Austen.”

Again, geez. So McMurtry wrote a tiny tribute – and then wrote many other tiny tributes? So ‘Gore Vidal’ is a single nomenclature, never to be shortened to ‘Vidal’ (in the entire course of the piece, it never is … the effect is hilariously and ironically Eucharistic)? So Howard Austen was really, really long?

After enough of this, I found it impossible to concentrate on the review AS a review … at least, not a review of Vidal’s – sorry, Gore Vidal’s – new memoir (I’ll have to look elsewhere for that, or perhaps bite the bullet and read it myself). Only belatedly did I realize what I was reading in this review, and the realization came with a little twist of pain:

This review is, quite unintentionally, the best tribute yet paid to the editorial skill of Barbara Epstein.

October 14th, 2006

In the Penny Press! St. Gore and the Jews!

The latest issue of Vanity Fair is a perfect demonstration of why I don’t dismiss this title, despite its copious fashion-spreads and noxious perfume-samples. This issue abounds in content.

The single best piece in it, the one that glowingly deserves to be anthologized, is William Langewiesche (hello? heard of a pen-name, Bill Lang?)’s article on the Haditha massacre in November 2005. Some of you will remember the incident and its subsequent headlines: a land mine kills a 20-year-old Marine, and his fellow Marines proceed to kill 24 Iraqi men, women, and children in apparent retaliation.

Lang is a terrific writer, and in this piece he’s at the top of his form. He writes about the Marine company in the moments before the bomb blast:

Were they alert? Sure, why not, but another fact of life is that you cannot see much out of an armored Humvee, and even if you could, you have no chance of identifying the enemy until you first come under attack. You’ve got all these weapons, and you’ve been told you’re a mighty warrior, a Spartan, but what are you going to shoot – the dogs? You’re a Marine without a beach. So you sit zipped into a filthy Humvee, trusting the guys up on the guns to watch the rooftops and the traffic on the road, trusting your driver to keep his eyes on the ground ahead, holding your M16 muzzle-up between your knees, calming enduring the ride. The radio crackles. Your head bobs with the bumps. You don’t talk much. There’s not much to say. If you’re dumb you trust your luck. If you’re smart you’re fatalistic. Either way it usually works out fine.

Of course on this particular morning things did not work out fine, and Lang spends the rest of his great article thoroughly excavating why. His prose is fluid and disarmingly muscular in a way designed to circumvent dated topicality and live a long time:

The problem is what happened next, after a quick search revealed that the car [all of whose occupants were shot dead by the Marines] contained no weapons or explosives, or any other evidence that linked the men to the insurgency. The Iraqis perhaps should have been held for a while, or better yet, allowed to take their car and leave. Instead, all five of them were shot dead by the Marines. Later, the Marines reported that they killed them because they had started to run away. Even if true, by normal standards this raises the question of what threat these men could have posed when they were fleeing unarmed – or at least what threat could have justified shooting them down. But in Iraq the question was moot, and for reasons that give significance to the Haditha story beyond mere crime and punishment. The first and simplest reason is that, because of reluctance to second-guess soldiers in a fight, the rules of engagement allow for such liberal interpretations of threat that in practice they authorize the killing of even unarmed military-age men who are running away. The second reason derives from the first. it is that the killing of civilians has become so commonplace that the report of these particular ones barely roused notice as it moved up the chain of command in Iraq. War is fog, civilians die, and these fools should not have tried to escape.

Luckily, not everything in the issue is so grim as this. In a delightful piece, British historian Lady Antonia Fraser shares the diary she kept during the making of Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette,’ which was in part based on Fraser’s recent biography of the last queen of France. Reading the article, one wishes Evelyn Waugh were still alive: there’s a delicious novel to be written from this material: the hugely authoritative British historian’s encounter with the fizz and glimmer of Hollywood in the form of a bubblegum-popping like-whatever teen director and her equally-ditzy cast (Jason Schwartzman, with his list of questions in a notebook and his lament about all the eating he has to do in the movie – “I have to eat mounds of pheasants and things which they don’t make in tofu” – is particularly giggle-inducing). Judi Dench could play Fraser, and of course Kirsten Dunst would be Coppola’s stand-in.

Some of the author’s diary-entries made me groan, for different reasons. For instance, when she relates how Coppola asked her at one point, “Did they have something like cocaine then? What was snuff?” – and then mentions that many of these moronic outbursts happened via e-mail, I wanted to scream – not just at how stupid the questions were, but at the fact that I don’t have Fraser’s e-mail! Lady Antonia, if you’re reading this, drop me a line! Not all Americans are spoiled Hollywood royalty!

Another groaner was Fraser’s disparagement of a previous movie made from one of her books, “Mary Queen of Scots” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, which Fraser calls “remarkably dull.” She says:

“As the rival royal ladies, Elizabeth and Mary, Glenda Jackson trumpeted and Vanessa Redgrave emoted, and there was no historical reality – or any other. One felt complete indifference to the story.”

Not so! Not so, Lady Antonia! “Mary Queen of Scots” is a very good movie, and although I MIGHT agree that Redgrave’s performance is a trifle wandering, Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth is nothing less than a cinematic triumph, in every way as brilliant and joyful as Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Henry VIII in “A Man for All Seasons.”

Ultimately, Fraser ends up liking the movie:

“Certainly the thing I had worried about didn’t matter at all. i simply forgot about the varied accents, for example: such things matter only, I suspect, in a bad or boring film.”

Speaking of bad and boring films, this issue also includes an excerpt from Gore Vidal’s upcoming memoir Point to Point Navigation about his friendship with Italian director Federico Fellini.

The piece starts off evenly, but my instincts were trembling nonetheless. Over the years, unopposed by friends and unattacked in the public fora, Vidal has slowly devolved from a witty raconteur to a cranky, self-deluded, egotistical crackpot, and I found myself wondering how long it would take for that to crop up in this piece.

One paragraph, it turns out. The second paragraph begins thus:

Over the years we saw each other from time to time, usually when he wanted something.

This is the nature of Vidal’s degeneration: he’s become in his own mind (and, since he’s a writer, in print) the Lone Voice of Reason, crying out in the wilderness. In every anecdote nowadays, he’s the one who was right all along, the one who secretly got everything done, the power behind every throne. Stories about Georgetown parties he couldn’t get into have morphed over time into stories about Georgetown parties in whose pantries he was elbow-to-elbow with a hapless JFK, doling out advice.

In this excerpt, Fellini is a hysterical, incomprehensible gnome and Vidal himself is a combination of Jeeves and James Bond:

“He rang me one day. ‘We must meet immediately.’ He came to Largo Argentina, all smiles of a guileless, child-like nature. ‘Giorino, is problem.’

‘Casanova?’ I made a guess.

‘How you know?’ Eyes wide with alarm as if I were a master of dark arts. His inability to finance a film about Casanova had been for some time on the front pages of the Italian press. I gazed thoughtfully into an imaginary crystal ball. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘is Casanova. I need $1 million to begin. Paramount will give it on condition …’

‘That you shoot in direct sound from a script in English.’

He nearly made the sign to ward off the evil eye. ‘YOU know ALL this?’

There’s quite a bit of this, all equally nauseating (I don’t know which detail of the above exchange I like better: that the world-famous director would of course go to Vidal’s place instead of vice-versa, or the condescending, imperialist caricature of an Italian director who didn’t know what story had been ‘for some time on the front pages of the Italian press’) Even Vidal’s remaining fans (are there any, apart from the man himself?) will be hard-pressed to stomach a whole book of this self-serving tripe.

But far, far less palatable is Michael Wolff’s piece in this same issue. It’s called “Slurs and Arrows,” and its nominal subject is anti-Semitism – and how it’s in DECLINE.

Yes, you read that right. Take a moment to collect yourselves, and then we’ll move on.

Wolff touches on the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman, on Gunter Grass’ confession of his Nazi past, and of course on Mel Gibson’s Malibu meltdown. And from that starting-point he quickly goes to places that are so jaw-dropping you don’t know whether to laugh before or after you’re offended:

The point is that hate, or, rather, being hated, is good for business. one is defined by one’s enemies. Your enemies – as all fund-raiser know – are money in the bank.

We’ll never know (thankfully) the internal processes that make such an appalling sentence possible, but Wolff has more, much more, in store:

Anyway, it could mean, this love affair between the Jews and the political establishment, between the Jews and the right-wing political establishment, that, really, arguably, for the first time in history, we have entered a truly post-anti-Semitic age.

Surely, surely that sentence would rank high on two different lists: Things Surely Written by a Gentile, and Things Surely Written by an Anti-Semite.

So we’ll close out this edition of In the Penny Press on that totally surreal note, so glib and crazy that no amount of odium is too much for it: we’re finally done with anit-Semitism! Somebody email Israel and let them know that crackerjack military of theirs isn’t necessary anymore!

Geez. The things you read in magazines…